Rugged Italy - Autumn in le Marche
Few tourists know that Italy is the most biodiverse country in Europe. Breathtaking scenery, rustic charm, and local Autumnal fare were the order of the day as we enjoyed an out-of-season jaunt in the Apennines.
Moving inland from the wild beaches of the Riviera del Conero national park on Le Marche’s Adriatic coast, you pass through alternating fields of sunflowers and olive groves. In the distance, four imposing peaks of the 40 km long limestone massif that forms the spine of the Sibillini National Park begin to dominate the horizon. Straddling the Central Italian Apennines between Umbria and Le Marche, this national park stands out among Italy’s natural wonders for its rugged beauty.
One particularly beautiful approach to the park is a mountain pass between Amandola and the village of Montemonaco–where you can enjoy natural beauty with a side of fine local food and wine as you wind your way up into the mountains.
Sibillini National Park can be enjoyed year-round. Around the village of Castelluccio di Norcia between late May and early June, a springtime event of unmatched splendor unfolds as fields of flowering lentils stretching to the horizon burst into a riotous display of color. The flowering season is capped with a festival celebrated on the last Sunday in June in the charming village that becomes an island in a sea of color. This bucolic watercolor world gives way to natural beauty as you climb into the mountains, where secluded glades and meadows bloom with spring wildflowers.
Between the trekking season in summer and the start of the winter sports season, October and November offer a particularly gorgeous spectacle for photographers as the mountains are ablaze with the vibrant yellows and reds of Autumn foliage. Autumn is also perfect for visiting the many sanctuaries and churches perched on hilltops and hidden in the woods or the remote villages where the air is thick with the smell of cozy wood fires and roasted chestnuts.
The area’s biodiversity is thanks to the alternation between woods and pastures. The thickly wooded slopes of the foothills give way to sparse mountainous vegetation towards the heights of the park’s four main peaks–the Vettora, Priora, Bove and Sibilla mountains. This highland biome is rich in flowering plant species endemic to the Apennines, like Artemisia Petrosa and the rare Apennine Edelweiss. The mountains are also home to stable populations of roe deer, wolves, wild cats and birds of prey, including golden eagles, peregrine falcons, goshawks, and sparrow hawks. Traces and extremely rare sightings of the critically endangered Marsican brown bear have been noted sporadically over the last twenty years. These are believed to be individuals that wander north from parks further south in the Apennines, where more stable populations are present.
For food lovers, autumn in the Sibillini range offers a rich harvest of chestnuts, mushrooms, truffles, honey, and the famous Sibillini Pink Apple. Visiting a fruiting apple orchard and sampling this local heirloom variety is a seasonal highlight for Autumn visitors to the Sibillini mountains. Ciauscolo salame is another delicious speciality of the region. It differs from the classic versions of the cured sausage in that it is spreadable; rather than slicing it, you eat it like a paté. Smoked meats produced in the region are cured in smokehouses powered by wood harvested in the forests of the Sibillini, giving them a distinct aroma that can only be found here. Pecorino is the most common cheese in the Sibillini Mountains Park, and the local variety is well worth a try. Cow’s milk cheeses are less common, but some farms produce cheeses from cows that spend spring and summer grazing in the pastures of the valleys at the foot of Mount Sibilla, returning in the Autumn to spend the winter in cow sheds. As Autumn is the hunting season, you can also sample hearty wild boar dishes. But don’t worry; the hunt is carefully managed and necessary to keep these prolific mammals from overbreeding, disturbing the area’s delicate ecosystem, and destroying crops.
The food culture of the Sibillini Mountains has been strongly influenced by its history of playing host to hermit monks. The tradition of producing fragrant, floral mountain honey and beeswax candles to illuminate churches continues today. Another legacy of the monastic tradition in the area are the local liqueurs and distilled spirits flavored with the many medicinal herbs that grow in the park’s forests, meadows, and mountain slopes. After enjoying a harvest board of local cured meats, cheeses and honey and a stew of wild boar with polenta next to a roaring fire, why not try a desert flavored with Mistrà, a distillate of green anise, apples, and wild fennel widely used to prepare sweets and biscuits and cap your meal with a herbal digestive from the Varnelli distillery in Muccia founded in 1868.
There are a million ways to enjoy Italy as a visitor in every season. Traipsing around its historic cities in the middle of summer when their cobbled streets turn them into deadly heat traps and droves of tourists make sightseeing an unpleasant ordeal is probably the least appealing option of all, and yet that is what the vast majority of visitors to Italy choose to do. Why not break the mold and try a Segmento pick for an Autumn getaway?
Cover image: Castelluccio di Norcia. Photo Lorenzo Sgalippa
All images by Lorenzo Sgalippa Ph.