Mood medicine

“Experiencing awe increases well-being” and “can help a person transcend themselves,” according to Psychology Today. And in that odd period between Christmas and New Year when Mr Blue-Shirt and I had yet to emerge from our turkey-and-telly-induced inertia and were feeling rather like a pair of half-deflated party balloons, we definitely felt in need of a bit of awe – all the more so since we had also spent days shrouded in persistent, joy-sapping fog. So on the one morning during the week that we woke to crystalline skies and dazzling sunshine, the choice was obvious. We would head up to Forca Canapine, the pass that lies in the heart of the Sibillini Mountains on the border between Le Marche and Umbria, for the ten-kilometre hike up to the summit of Monte Cavallo and back.  This walk, which is one of our favourites, was guaranteed both to help us work off a few of those pigs in blankets and give us a good dose of awe.

Even the drive up to the start of the walk gets the awe-meter rising. A short stretch inland along the dual carriageway swiftly carries us towards the jagged outline of the distant peaks, and as soon as we turn off and head due south, we leave the broad, fertile Val di Chienti and begin the steady climb in the mountains. Rows of dormant vines and neatly-ploughed fields that in summer are ablaze with sunflowers soon give way to emerald green pasture and swathes of oak forest, a few yellowed leaves still clinging to the trees’ winter-grey branches. Visso, at 600m above sea level, is the last settlement of any size that we pass through and although it is still known as ‘the pearl of the Sibillini’, it now evokes a different, more frightening type of awe, for this village of barely 1200 souls that nestles among steep, forest-clad hills was all-but destroyed in the powerful earthquakes that struck the area in 2016. Having navigated the makeshift one-way system around the village centre that remains entirely cordoned off, the climb continues, the road now zig-zagging up through forests of lofty conifers, their long curving branches fat with shiny green needles. Then as the conifers give way to just tussocky grass, stunted gorse bushes and thistles, our awe levels rise again as the Sibillini’s mightiest peaks finally come into view and, as usual, we let out an involuntary ‘Wow!’

We have reached Forca di Gualdo and before us lies what resembles an immense, prehistoric amphitheatre. The steep flanks of a huge ring of barren limestone peaks plunge down to the spectacular Piano Grande, the former glacial lake that is now a vast, table-flat marshy plain criss-crossed with ditches and dotted with white upland cattle. We follow the road which traverses the slopes above the plain’s western side to our regular coffee-and-loo stop in Castelluccio. This tiny, earthquake-ravaged settlement (at 1452m, it is the highest in the Sibillini) is perched above the plain on a rocky promontory and ekes a living from tourism – it bristles with walkers, bikers, pony-trekkers and paragliders for much of the year – and from the cultivation of what are, according to many, the best lentils in the world. These are grown in the fertile soils of the plain, which in summer is transformed into a magic carpet of vivid blues and purples liberally sprinkled with red poppies and yellow rape. Today, though, the entire landscape, scoured by wind and rain and snow, is a drab mix of washed-out greens, greys and browns, as currently it is only the summits of the Sibillini’s two highest peaks, Monte Vettore (2476m) and Cima del Redentore (2448m), that bear a meagre covering of snow.

From Castelluccio, we drop down onto the plain, where the road briefly becomes an arrow-straight ribbon of tarmac, before finally zig-zagging up to Forca Canapine and the start point of our walk. Even as we pull on our coats, hats and boots and shoulder our small backpacks, our awe-meter climbs again: admiring the grandeur of the stupendous landscape through the windows of a warm car engages only one sense, but being physically present in that grandeur, feeling the sun on your face, hearing the wind rushing across the plain, and tasting the toothpaste-freshness of the cold, clear air magnifies the experience several times over.

We stride out up the gravel track that meanders along a broad valley, its twists and turns at times sheltering us from the stiff breeze, at times exposing us to its chilly breath, but constantly revealing glorious new vistas. A dark, pine-filled ravine one way, a glimpse of the distant coastal lowlands the other, then rearing up before us, a precipitous ridge covered in tough grass the colour of grubby straw on which a handful of cattle graze – and all of it beneath the unseasonably benign gaze of the ever-present Monte Vettore. After about forty-five minutes, the valley opens out and on one side drops away to a broad shallow basin. We have arrived at the magical Pantani di Accumoli, a cluster of shallow, gin-clear glacial ponds that glitter like jewels in the midday sun. In summer, cattle and horses come down to drink from the cool waters, and the slightly incongruous croaking of hundreds of frogs floats on the warm breeze. Now, though, the only sound is the swish of our feet through the coarse grass as we descend to the water’s edge. But we keep our voices low and our movements gentle as even today there are a couple of horses drinking from the furthest pond and we don’t want to startle them. Our awe levels edge a little higher.

Having paused for a few minutes to watch the horses – a mare and her spring foal, we surmise – we weave between the ponds and head up the steep hill on the far side of the basin for the second half of our walk. Slightly surprisingly in view of the altitude, this takes us through a dense, windless wood populated with tall, naked beech trees, whose mossy roots look for all the world like dinosaur feet. The hush is disturbed only by the rustle of dry leaves beneath our feet and the occasional crack as one of us steps on a fallen branch. We are soon unzipping jackets and peeling off hats and gloves thanks to the long, steady ascent in the protective lee of the hillside. However, we hurriedly reverse the process as we are buffeted by the icy gusts swirling around the peaks the moment we eventually emerge from the shelter of the woods. We are now just a few hundred metres short of our destination. Onwards and upwards we plod, pushed and pulled this way and that by the blustery wind and squinting against the brilliant sunshine.

Finally we are there: 1650m up, on the summit of Monte Cavallo, beneath an infinite dome of radiant blue and with magnificent 360-degree views across the entire Sibillini range – and feeling almost literally on top of the world. As a dose of awe goes…

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