Sunday, May 18, 2008

Hiking in the Gole di Sagittario

Mountain-top village of Castrovalva — click to zoom in

Castrovalva to Anversa degli Abruzzi (AQ) - Despite that whole spectacle with the snakes, it was still a go for hiking anywhere in Abruzzo's mountain parks. Bears, snakes or wolves couldn't stop us. Our studio rental was located in the near-deserted hamlet of Castrovalva (fans of dutch artist Escher may be familiar with his depiction of the village). The village's proximity to Gole di Sagittario, a WWF-designated gorge and natural preserve, afforded us a well-trodden loop trail which led down the mountain to a natural oasis created by the Sagittario river below, and to the neighboring burg of Anversa degli Abruzzi before circling back. The river hosts an environment which nourishes a microclimate of flora and fauna that will appeal to nature lovers and photographers -- it seemed quite like a miniature Eden in the middle of all that sheer rock cliffs and rugged mountain tops.

Yellow star marks define our path.
We are such map fanatics that I've taken the liberty of scanning this one to give an idea of what can be done in 3 - 3½ hours if you're in Castrovalva or Anversa. It seems a lot of people think that you can't get down to the bottom of the gorge without driving off the cliff, but it is reachable either by foot or vehicle.

I'd like to quickly mention that this area of Abruzzo certainly has a long history with the Roman deity named Angitia (italian Angizia), the goddess of the snakes. As if that should be enough to explain the snake procession in Cocullo, it naturally made her an expert in the preparation of medicinal and magical potions by association - how else are you supposed to treat a snake bite? Shrubs and plants in the oasis were mainly unknown to these eyes, so here are a few photos for ambitious herbal medicine healers and hopeful snake goddesses like myself. Mouseover for details.

Belladonna Stregonia siciliana Polmonaria dell'appennino

1. Belladonna (translates to beautiful woman, yet deceivingly toxic)
2. Sideritis or ironwort (stregonia siciliana in italian) - used to treat the common cold
3. Pulmonaria (polmonaria dell'appennino in italian) - apennine relative to lungwort

Related link: Castrovalva informative detailed post by MotH

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hiking Monte Cucco

Dropping out of chronological order here . . .

View from the heights of Monte Cucco
This is the awesome hike that preceded that fantastic asparagus chowfest in the previous post. If I were to suggest an all-day hike within the environs of Gubbio, this one is it. Heh heh, because it's the only one that we did of course. Every time I gaze at this photo, it's like “I should grow me some wings!” At such altitude, there is nothing cooler than being able to look down upon a bird of prey from above. Too bad my binocular tracking skills suck, as sighting them at closer range would've been icing on the cake.

Visualizzazione ingrandita della mappa

Monte Cucco stands to the east of Gubbio, right up next to the border which separates Umbria and Marche. A popular retreat in summer, it was blissfully devoid of souls when we arrived at the starting point. The hike begins on Sentiero nr.1 in Val di Ranco at the large parking area to the left of Albergo Tobia. Walk past the children's play area and head on into the forest of ancient beech trees -- up until the halfway point at Pian delle Macinare, the going is fairly level with minor challenges in ascent/descent. Along the way you'll eventually come to Passo del Lupo - yep, that's Wolf's Pass - complete with an ideal panoramic viewing spot. From this point on, nr.1 leads to Pian delle Macinare and the rifugio which goes by the same name. Again, not a blessed soul, and lunch was none other than what else? Simple prosciutto sandwiches and those lupini beans that I could not ever get enough of on this trip.

After Pian delle Macinare you can either turn around the same way you came or continue on to the kick-ass part. And I mean that almost literally! Following the road out of P. Macinare, Sentiero nr.2 will be on the left. Keep an eye out for the telltale red/white marking. It leads immediately into the forest at an unforgivingly rapid ascent that will have you gasping for breath. We're talking a little over 600 feet (187 meters) within 30-40 minutes. Note below how the blue dots cut directly across the thin brown lines in the area named Val Rachena. Out of the woods, a fork in the path points to two ways to return to Val di Ranco. Turning left, we walk on level ground which gradually yields to a gentle ascent.

Black (1) and blue (2) dotted lines trace our path.

The general rule is that what goes up, must come down, and here is where hiking poles and a good sense of balance come in handy. The path (if you could call it that), zigzags downward on the exposed rocky face of the mountain. Dried clumps of grass crop up between the stones. The narrowness of the trail had me leaning toward the mountain's slant, acutely aware that one small misstep would send me tumbling down below on my butt. At a certain point, we had to toss down our hiking poles and scramble through this hole in the rock. On the other side, a constructed grid-type steel platform juts out over the ledge, offering an ideal (if not scary) viewing point over the lofty spaces all around and below.

From here on, the rest is easy. The trail ends at a large grassy area which is a takeoff point for hang gliders. Walking along the paved road, the turnoff to Val di Ranco eventually comes into view. Total hike time: 5½ hours (lunch break at Pian delle Macinare included)

Detailed itinerary (italian) at Parco del Monte Cucco website.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Gubbio: Dining Amongst Wolves

After all the attention heaped onto those lupini, the wolf that ate them, and the subsequent post-link to the Wolf of Gubbio, where else would you expect one to dine in the city of Gubbio? Why, none other than at the Taverna del Lupo of course [Frommer's review], and anyplace else that had the marketing wisdom to add Lupo (wolf) to the name of their eating establishment. Out of the four restaurants that we visited - two with Lupo and two without - these three are worth mentioning. All are located in the center of Gubbio.

***Taverna del Lupo is everything that Frommer's says it to be despite my attempts at photos (there is just something so wrong about whipping out the lens in an elegant setting). I am mentally revisiting the evening's experience as if it were only yesterday. You won't find lupini prominently mentioned on the menu, but you will find tartufi — truffles — unabashedly used in many of the plates listed. In each of the truffle-enhanced dishes presented us I will admit without embarrassment that it took great effort to suppress ourselves from behaving like voracious wolves fools! Really, truffles are the sort of thing that induces sweet slumber -- especially when you fall asleep with your whole mouth and palate lingering with the pervasive earthy flavor. Sogni d'oro as they say in Italy (sweet dreams). So what if I refused to brush my teeth before bedtime that night.

Left: Sfogliatina del Lupo con tartufo   Right: Frittatina gentile con lamelle di tartufo

Via Ansidei 21, lunch and dinner, reservations suggested, major credit cards, closed Monday

**½ Enoteca/Wine Bar “La Madia di Giuseppe” was discovered by chance when I picked up the glossy ad flyer at our hotel's front desk. This is a great “chill” place to unwind and discuss everything from the state of affairs to how Maddie will take to her new doxie brother (we are picking him up this Saturday!). Something about the casual ease of this wine bar urged us to pay a visit twice...both times within the same evening. They serve light lunches, soups and salads along with selected wines by the glass and cheese/salumi plates. We started off with a leisurely aperitivo then returned, later that night, for more wine and nibbles.

From bottom left and clockwise: Pecorino cheese - young, aged, truffle, saffron, walnuts

Via Mastro Giorgio n.6, credit cards accepted

**Ristorante San Francesco e il Lupo is the answer to truffle lovers who may not have deep enough pockets to dine at Taverna del Lupo every single night. And what better place than this restaurant/pizzeria with an apropos name! That's how badly I wanted to get my fill of truffles, even if the pizzas at this place are not baked in a wood-burning oven. The MotH, automatic pizza gourmand by right-of-birth, deemed the “Tartufo” worthy of its creation. This translates to a return visit -- not something he easily concedes to given the thousands of pizzerie that dot this country.

Behold! The Tartufo!

Via Cairoli 24, credit cards accepted

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Gubbio in the month of April

Another couple on the road traveling in classic style.

Take two winter-weary adults and a feisty westie and what do you have? Aside from three compatible road companions, you've got a setting where the urgent yen for dining and hiking prompts the travelin' trio on a sightseeing tour of Italy's central and southern regions. Since April 25th and May 1st were holidays in close proximity, we turned them into one extended week to visit Umbria, Abruzzo and Molise. With the weather being ideal spring conditions (wonderfully sunny, with just a slight nip to the air), all that was required were light pieces of clothing enabling us to layer like an onion. Packed to the gills with hiking gear, a plug-in refrigerated cooler for the goodies, and our Slow Food guidebook, we set off for the place where St. Francis befriended the big bad wolf.

Focusing on the highlights for each region, I'll be covering a slew of topics within the next two weeks. Umbria is truly gorgeous. Abruzzo is dramatically stunning from a hiker's point of view. And Molise - well, destined to be a mere day trip, we stocked up on unique regional products and marvelous cheese that never fail to betray me whenever the MotH comes home from work. “I know what you've been eating!” he declares. “I smell truffles on your breath!” Here's just a teaser of what's to come:

That nasty wolf had exquisite taste . . .
The post on lupini may have stirred up memories for many, but it was the legendary Taverna del Lupo that fueled even more interest upon reading Frommer's review of this restaurant in Gubbio. We're talking truffles - on just about everything.

Walking the path of the "Ceri". . .
Weighing nearly 900 lbs each, the ceri are tall wooden ‘candles’. With a saint's statue affixed to the top, three ceri are hefted and carried on a race to the top of the mountain. Tracing the path of this annual event, Maddie becomes the unsuspecting video star of a group of japanese tourists.

A sagra of wild asparagus . . .
At this time of year, asparagi selvatici grows profusely among the verdant green hillsides of Umbria. We saw bushes and bushes of them, but nary a slender stalk in sight. Quickly harvested by the locals, the wild asparagus plays protaganist in a week-long sagra not far from Perugia.

Flying higher than the falcons . . .
It wasn't enough to simply eat at the wolf's tavern - we had to hike up to the Wolf's Pass as well. A 4-hour hike turned into a 5½ hour trek as we heaved our way to the top, ultimately granting us a bird's-eye view of predatory wings soaring through vast spaces below.

A saint slithering with snakes . . .
The girl at the T.I. office estimated that there were around 25,000 visitors to this cult-like event. That many onlookers from all corners of the globe in a tiny town of just over 300 inhabitants? Despite the huge crowds, it was preferable than being in the middle of say... an equal amount of snakes?

Hiking in an abruzzese natural reserve . . .
In my mind I can still smell the heady scent of dry scrub and brush that somehow survive the harsh conditions of Abruzzo's rocky mountain outcrops. Dainty blossoms everywhere, and being a fledgling gardener myself, it was nirvana to stop and smell the flowers.

The best little pastry shop in Guardiagrele . . .
Is a MUST if you are anywhere in the province of Chieti (Abruzzo). I tried to duplicate the famous "sise delle monache" some months ago, but ended up doubting my results. I'm glad for that, because getting my hands on the real thing was worth the wait!