Though the Vallee des Merveilles is in France, you can reach it by following a trail that starts in Taggia, on the northwest coast of Italy, and follows the Valle Argentina gently along the creek to the village of Triora. The trail starts at sea level and peaks out at 2,200 meters, passing through many different climates along the way, from mediterranean to alpine. The 1,600-meter pass of Collardente takes you into France. From there, descend to the fine old church of Notre Dame des Fontaines, and travel onward to La Brigue, S. Dalmas and up to Mercantour Park. There’s a refuge at the entrance to the park and another at the top. This route is suitable for mountain bikers as well.
Trek the Alta Via
The Alta Via follows the ridges of the Appennines, running parallel to the sea for 300 km from Ventimiglia, on the French border, to Spezia. The trail’s elevation ranges from 500 to 2,000 meters and passes through different landscapes, including chestnut and beech forests, fir forests, meadows, and barren rocks. The view is superb all along the trail; on a clear day you can see the white-capped Alps on one side, and the sea and Corsica on the other. The itinerary can easily be divided into stages; after a day’s walk, you will reach a route down to the coast. The whole tour of the Alta Via will take a month and it can be done any time of year.
Follow the King’s Road in Gran Paradiso Park
There are many ways to explore Gran Paradiso Park in the northwestern Alps, but why not treat yourself like royalty and following the King’s Road? Grand Paradiso, once the king’s game preserve, is now a sanctuary for wildlife including ibex, deer, marmots, and eagles. As one would expect of a king’s preserve, the park is an area of great beauty, with high peaks, larch forests, and rare alpine flora.
King Vittorio Emanuele built the road from Ceresole to the Sella refuge so that he could reach his hunting huts in a carriage. The trail can be followed on foot, mountain bike, or horseback (skis will do in the winter), and there are refuges with food and shelter along the way. The trail is easy, though steep, and can be covered in a week.
Spaghetti Western in Maremma
Maremma lies on the Tuscany coast in central Italy, between the low and sandy coast and the hills covered with pine woods. Longhorn cattle and horses are left grazing free here, watched by local cowboys called butteri. On the first Sunday in August the butteri gather and brand the cattle, showing off their skills as horsemen. Several ranches in the area offer lodging and horseback rides, including overnight trips. The area is home to deer and wild hogs, and the swamps and salt ponds are full of migratory birds. Old stone watchtowers, originally built to protect the land from Moorish pirates, stand at the top of the hills. You can visit the nearby protected area of Monti dell’Uccellina on foot or on horseback. The long, sandy beaches here are perfect for swimming and windsurfing. Maremma is beautiful in any season, at its best in spring and autumn, and can be hot in summer.
Caving in Maiella
The Maiella plateau, standing in the middle of the Apennines, is one of the wildest areas of Italy. The plateau is cut by deep valleys, with water flowing underground forming caves ripe for exploring. The biggest of these caves is Cavallone. Its mouth is high on a rock wall, accessible only by climbing the 200 steps carved in the rock. The cave is two kilometers long with halls, lakes, and narrow passages to explore. At 1,450 meters, Maiella is best visited in the summer. The area can also be explored on horseback. The nearby village of Pennapiedimonte was built on a bare rock pinnacle with stairways wending through it instead of roads. Pennapiedimonte also affords a stunning view of the sea.
Birdwatching in the Po Delta
On the northeast coast, where Italy’s longest river, the Po, flows into the sea, the landscape is completely flat. The horizontal lines between the sea and sky are seldom broken by human structures. Leaving the Via Romea, the ancient road connecting Venice and Ravenna, you enter a network of channels and salted lagoons. You can walk or ride a bike along the embankments, watching for rare stilt birds and the gatherings of migratory waterfowl. Moving south, visit the Mesola Woods, a thick forest of oaks where the dukes of Este used to hunt deer and wild hogs. Even further south is the fish ponds of Comacchio, where eels are raised according to age-old tradition. The Delta del Po is best visited in spring and fall. If you come in the summer don’t be conservative about applying mosquito repellent.
Meditate in the Foreste del Casentino
Sandwiched between Emilia and Tuscany lies Italy’s green heart. Casentino Forest is a haven for peace and meditation. The area is covered with big white firs that are sacred to the monks and hermits who have lived here since the Middle Ages. The monks have preserved the forest, forbidding anyone from cutting down trees and this large territory is now a national park, home to deer, wild hogs, and some wolves. Many trails, all quite easy and level, cross the forest and can be traveled on foot, mountain bike, or horseback, or on skis in winter. The waterfall Aquacheta and the monastery of Camaldoli are worth a visit. On the south end of the park is Verna, the bare mountain that was chosen by St. Francis as the site on which to build a monastery. The monastery has accommodations for travelers.
Follow the Via Romea
In the Middle Ages, the Via Romea was heavily used by pilgrims en route to Rome. The section from Siena to Viterbo on the Roman road Cassia is wonderful to travel on foot or bike. It’s mostly paved now but gets only a little local traffic. The old road is visible in places besides the new one, with signs to show it. The hills around Siena are wonderful shades of brown mixed with cornfields and pastures. The old villages on either side are worth a visit. The road will take you to Bolsena Lake and the town of Viterbo. A little further is the archaeological area of Sutri, with imposing Etruscan and Roman ruins. Small hotels and farms along the way provide accommodations.
Ski the Alta Badia
In the upper Badia Valley lies a skiers’ paradise: The scenic villages of La Villa, San Cassiano, and Corvara are linked by a vast network of trails and chairlifts that could take days to cover thoroughly. There are trails for every level of skier; one of the best is an intermediate trail, the Lagazuoi. The exhilarating descent will take you from a breathtaking vista at 2,800 meters to the Scotoni refuge, where you can break for snacks or continue on to a steep section along a canyon, followed by a smooth two kilometers to the Armentarola Hotel in San Cassiano. From there you can catch a bus back up to the top if you’ve still got the energy.
Explore Pollino National Park
In between the Tirrenian and Ionian seas in southern Italy lies a mountain ridge full of natural and cultural anomalies. This is the home of the last surviving pino loricato trees, which grow up to 30 meters tall. The villages around here are inhabited by Albanians who crossed the sea five centuries ago escaping from the Turks. They still speak their language and wear traditional costumes. The spectacular gorges of the Raganello River, 32 kilometers long and 700 meters deep are ripe for exploring. Prehistoric graffiti and the walls of an ancient town are visble in the Romito. The climate here is fresh even in summer, while it’s very hot on the coast. In winter snowfalls cover the area.