It was New Year’s Day and the fog of the previous week had finally lifted, so as we drove up to the start of the hike we were going on in the Sibillini mountains, it was a joy to see once more their soaring, snow-capped peaks set against a gleaming, turquoise sky.
“You concentrate on the driving, Antonio. I’ll tell them the story,” said his wife, Lori.
We had just left the main road that ran along the broad valley floor and were now snaking up into the hills in Antonio’s powerful SUV, clinging onto the grab handles as we swung round each hairpin bend. In order to make sure he kept his huge hands on the wheel and his mind on the increasingly narrow roads, Lori continued his story. In poche parole*, to coin Antonio’s favourite expression, he had gone on his own for a day-long hike to a remote glacial lake in the heart of the Sibillini. Despite being an experienced walker, though, he had ended up being helicoptered down by a mountain rescue team – all because the soles had fallen off not one but both of his trusty old walking boots. He didn’t have any mobile signal either and had had to rely on the weak signal of a couple of passing hikers to raise help, so poor Lori had known nothing about Antonio’s predicament until he finally returned home many hours later than anticipated, by which time she was convinced he was lying dead at the bottom of a ravine. Mr Blue-Shirt and I exchanged worried glances.
Since Antonio was our guide for the day, Mr Blue-Shirt and I were slightly concerned what we had let ourselves in for as we ascended between ever steeper limestone crags and ever sheerer drops into the narrow valley below, and the tarmac road dwindled to a gravel track. Finally, we bounced to a halt in a small parking area where the valley narrowed even further to just a great cleft in the cliff-face, along the bottom of which roared and frothed the ice-blue River Tenna and above which just a narrow strip of brilliant blue sky was now visible. In the chill of the deep shadow cast by the hulking crags we pulled on coats, hats and gloves, while Antonio’s booming laughter echoed off the rockface as he made sure we had all noticed his brand-new walking boots and their rugged, firmly attached soles. Once we were all fully kitted out, he pointed up to where a small cross on the top of a distant church tower just peeked out above the crest of the cliff on the other side of the valley. “Andiamo lassù,” he said with a grin – “We’re going up there” – and strode off down the track.
To get ‘up there’, however, we had to pass through the ‘L’Orrida Gola dell’Infernaccio’. Although the name, which roughly translates as ‘The Dreadful Gorge of Hell’, evokes the Sibillini’s centuries-old reputation for mysticism, witchcraft and necromancy, it actually refers to the menacing and dramatic landscape. And as Lori, Mr Blue-Shirt and I fell into step behind Antonio, I could see little reason to argue with the distinctly off-putting name. Within a few minutes, the valley was completely shut off from the brilliant sunshine and a biting wind blew down through the mouth of the gorge while icy water rained down on us from the numerous tiny waterfalls and channels worn into the overhanging rockface. And in order to enter the gorge itself we had to pick our way across a shallow section of the fast-flowing river before it plunged over the cliff edge into the valley below; a section which nonetheless turned out to be just a couple of centimetres too deep for the height of our boots.
Still, scrambling up the rocky track on the other side soon got the blood flowing back into our soggy feet. Then after for a few hundred heart-pumping metres the track joined the long-established man-made path running parallel to the river which tumbled and gurgled over moss-clad rocks as it worked its way between the towering limestone buttresses draped with ferns and creepers. The higher we climbed, though, the wider the gorge became, and the looming crags gradually gave way to a deep, beech-filled valley whose floor was still carpeted with a thick, swishy layer of autumn leaves.
After an hour or so Antonio eventually led us away from the river bank onto the path which zig-zagged up the steep hillside to the church. With every turn, the roar of the river grew fainter, the air grew warmer and after some time hats and gloves were stuffed back into pockets and backpacks. A few turns further and the biting wind softened to a gentle breeze, dappled sunlight started to filter through the naked trees, turning the moss on their trunks to a vivid, emerald green, and winter seemed to turn to spring.
The summit finally came into view and after a couple more lung-busting minutes the path suddenly spat us out at the edge of a meadow into which brilliant sunshine spilled from a dazzling sky. Unzipping our jackets and pulling water bottles from our backpacks, we took in our new surroundings as our breathing eased. The snow-crested peak of Il Pizzo reared up to our left, while the gently rolling foothills of the Sibillini spread out below us from where the land on the far side of the meadow dropped straight back down to where we had started our walk – and from where Antonio had pointed out the tiny church of St Leonard that now stood on our right.
As we stretched our tired legs and slaked our thirst, Antonio told us its story. It had been constructed on the ruins of a Benedictine monastery dating from the 15th century by just one man. Over the course of more than forty years, Padre Pietro, a Capuchin friar born in the village where Antonio and Lori live, single-handedly built the modest place of worship as an act of piety and devotion, apparently transporting all the necessary materials and equipment through the gorge and up the mountain on the back of an ancient motorbike. We couldn’t take a closer look at this pretty little church, though. Tragically, just a year after the death of “God’s Builder” in 2015, Padre Pietro’s life’s work was badly damaged in the earthquakes that struck the region in 2016 and is now fenced off, its pale stone walls, gothic arches and neat, square bell tower all held up by a mass of scaffolding and bracing struts.
Having briefly pondering whether, despite the scale of his remarkable achievement, Padre Pietro might have expressed his faith in more practical ways, we re-filled our water bottles from the spring opposite the church, pulled our coats back on and set off back down the hill. By now, the sun had dropped behind the rocky bulk of Monte Zampa, casting even the upper slopes of the valley in deep shade and quickly draining it of its earlier warmth. We soon pulled our hats and gloves back on, glad that the knee-jarring return trip would at least be much quicker than the outward one.
Just over an hour later, we picked our way back over the river – Mr Blue-Shirt this time gallantly giving me a piggy back – before making the final ascent back up the track to Antonio’s car and heading off for a late hearty lunch. While we were still changing back into dry socks and shoes, his booming laughter echoed round the valley once more as I showed him the damp boot I had just pulled off – its mud-caked sole flapping loosely and clinging on just at the toe.
* ‘In poche parole’ = ‘in a few words’, or ‘in brief’