In this five-part series taken from Lonely Planet Magazine (Aug 2010 issue) we show you just where to step off the tourist trail and start exploring the real Italy – from the hills harbouring the country’s finest wines to a coastline to rival the Amalfi.
'On a clear day you can see Croatia from here,' says affable Maurizio Fusari, zoologist and trekking guide in the Monti Sibillini, gesturing out at the views that stretch off into the Adriatic. Split between Umbria and Le Marche, this mountain range mixes mountaintop pastures, weathered crags, royal-blue lakes and sharp ridges. The predominant sounds are birdsong, the swirl of the breeze, and the odd barking dog. Yet the wild hills are appealingly approachable. 'It's possible to reach even the tallest without Alpine equipment. These are mountains for everyone.'
Walks range from gentle afternoon strolls through mountain valleys to night-time hikes to watch the sunrise, or a nine-day trek on the Grande Anello trail (75 miles). En route, look out for wildlife. Maurizio reels off a list: 'Wild boar, roe deer, wolves, golden eagles, peregrine falcons. Oh, and one bear. He has come here from Abruzzo. It seems he's looking for a mate. He has killed a few calves and destroys the beehives. He likes the honey.'
Where the park straddles the border with Umbria, Monti Sibillini's landscape turns otherworldly. Castelluccio, the Apennines' highest town, appears like a whimsical mirage above the pancake-flat Piano Grande (Great Plain), loomed over by the bulk of Monte Vettore (2,476m). Flowers dapple the valley in June: wild mustard, poppies and cornflowers.
But this is countryside imbued with mystery. Sanctuaries and churches are scattered in remote valleys. Locals pick wild herbs to make medicines and scent their cooking. Monte Sibilla (a mountain) was once home, according to legend, to a witch or 'sybil', giving rise to the name Sibillini. Menacing place names abound, such as Gole dell'Infernaccio (mouth of hell) and Passo Cattivo (bad pass). The area is famous throughout Italy for its legends, and even the park symbol depicts the mountains with eyes.