The Guardian Travel – Hidden Gems
Jane Dunford on her ultimate hideaway in the Sibillini mountains, plus our top undiscovered mountain destinations
According to Italian legend, the body of Pontius Pilate was dragged by wild oxen from Rome and dumped in a lake high in the Sibillini mountains in Le Marche, known today as the Lago di Pilato.
Necromancers and magicians hung out here in the Middle Ages hoping to convene with the devil (stones inscribed with occult symbols have been found on its shores), and locals say it’s a playground for witches. But on a sunny August morning, as we set off to hike to the lake from the village of Foce, there are no sorcerers in sight – just a smattering of other walkers, equipped with nothing more foreboding than maps and packed lunches. After a gentle start across pastures and woodland we’re soon climbing through dense forests on steep paths, emerging from the shade into sweeping, sunlit alpine scenery, before finally reaching the rather small, inoffensive lake.
Part of Italy’s central Apennine mountain range, the Sibillini are not only stunningly beautiful, they’re steeped in ancient myth too. Over the next few days we trek through the picturesque Gola dell’Infernaccio, (the Gorge of Hell), where butterflies flit and rivers bubble, and to the Cave of the Sibyl, where the mythical prophetess who gave the mountain range its name is said to have hidden after fleeing the underworld.
The area, which became a national park in 1993, covers 70,000 acres, with more than 20 peaks over 2,000m. Carved from limestone by glaciers, rugged slopes are softened by flower-filled plateaux, and the park is home to diverse wildlife, from wildcats to porcupine. While down on the Adriatic holidaymakers fight for space on the beach during peak season, the mountains remain blissfully uncrowded – and cooler.
Flying into Ancona, we pick up a car and follow the coastal road south, then turn inland towards Macerata, happily leaving the baking beaches behind. Roads wind through woods and hilltop towns as pretty as any in Tuscany, as the distant snow-capped mountains grow closer. Within a couple of hours we’re being welcomed to La Cittadella dei Sibillini, our base outside Montemonaco, by owner Silvio Antognozzi. There are 18 en-suite rooms in this charming, ramshackle 15th-century farmhouse, and the views are phenomenal. You could sit in the garden and gaze at the wooded mountainside all day (the pool is one of the best situated I’ve seen), and we stare at the stars in a cloudless sky into the early hours.
Every evening the peace is broken for dinner – a set, five-course affair of traditional cuisine. Local specialities such as pecorino cheese, truffles and garlic-roast pork are washed down with carafes of regional wine. Montemonaco itself is a walled medieval village of 800 inhabitants, 1,000m above sea level, settled by Benedictine monks around the 10th century. There’s a cobbled square with panoramic terrace, a smattering of restaurants, two churches, a bakery and a couple of shops. Each day we stock up on cheese, prosciutto and bread and head out to explore.
There are lots of such villages to wander around nearby: Montefortino, its streets built in semi-circles around a medieval centre, is worth a stop, and the town of Ascoli Piceno to the south, with its white marble central square and delicious stuffed, breaded olives, is a perfect place for the evening passeggiata and aperitivo.
On our last day we head north to Lake Fiastra. No legends of drowned Roman rulers, just a vast shimmering expanse of water surrounded by mountains, with pockets of people sun-bathing on its shores, an idyllically placed campsite and a couple of bars. “Who needs the beach?” I think as we scramble down the banks and dive into the fresh water.