Gran Sasso Mountains of Abruzzo
Mediterranean seas, Dolomite rocks, Scandinavian snow. Italy’s Gran Sasso mountains are almost an exaggeration in their size, their contrast of colours, their testimony to the cold, stark magnificence of Mother Nature.
This giant mountain range in Abruzzo, in the heart of Italy, extends south-west over the province of Aquila and north-east over Teramo.
Within just 20 kilometres stand some 20 peaks, each reaching more than a mile into the sky, buffeted by the winds and for half of the year turned immaculate white by violent snowstorms.
Protected by the Gran Sasso and Laga Mountains National Park, this is a rare wilderness and biodiversity, a unique stage for spectacular displays of nature such as the swoop of a hawk and the footprints of the wolf.
A wilderness, however, that throws up scenes of arresting beauty especially during its sunny days, more frequent than one might think.
Il Corno Grande, at 2,912m the highest of the Apennine peaks; Il Corno Piccolo; and the Corvo and Prena mountains, at the heart of the “Little Tibet” of the Campo Imperatore.
At first glance the Gran Sasso appears as a wall of pure white that more than matches anything the Alps may offer.
At times it appears a gloriously inaccessible and inhospitable wilderness, in particular when visited by up to 80cm of snowfall in a night accompanied by temperatures as low as -12C. The conditions frequently leave the area’s few hotels covered, almost fairytale-like, in needles of ice.
However, from time immemorial there has been no shortage of intrepid adventurers bewitched by the challenge of mastering the Gran Sasso. The first ascent of Il Corno Grande is believed to have been made by a military engineer, Francesco De Marchi, in 1573.
But mountaineering as we know it today took off in the Gran Sasso in 1880. And the 1920s saw the arrival of the mountain guides, the Aquilotti of Pietracamela, the hamlet that lies at the foot of Il Corno Piccolo and Prati di Tivo.
Even today, when submerged by snow, Pietracamela seems preserved in space and time, but it is an area of no little cultural heritage.
A characteristic it shares with all the other villages and hamlets that lie at a safe distance under the mountain, a testimony to the millennia of pastoral subsistence that remains embedded in the fabric of this part of Abruzzo.
On the north-western side of the Gran Sasso, facing Teramo, lies Gran Sasso Island, dubbed “village of the idioms” because of the ancient stone architraves of the doors and windows that carry Roman quotes.
On the other side of the Gran Sasso, towards Aquila, there is Santo Stefano di Sessanio, recently transformed into a charming hamlet.
And then the hamlet of Rocca Calascio with its eighth century fortress, as well as Castel del Monte, boasting an intricate maze of streets and dizzyingly steep alleys.
Gran Sasso is also synonymous with winter sports. In a sense the father of winter sports here was Aldo Bonacossa, who in 1932 skied down Il Corno Grande – a feat few of today’s skiing daredevils would dare contemplating.
The sport in the Gran Sasso really took off in the 1920s and 1930s with the building of the first cable-car line from Fonte Cerreto to Campo Imperatore. The latter, a vast plateau at 2,000m is especially suited to skiing as the slopes are particularly accentuated.
One spectacular plain, some 11 miles by 2½ miles, is guaranteed to live long in the memory, an expanse of stunning and blinding pure whiteness. The view is majestic: Il Corno Grande and then, in the distance, the massif of Sirente-Velino and the Majella.
Campo Imperatore is imbued with history. There is the meteorological observation station and the famous hotel where Mussolini was imprisoned and from which an audacious attempt was made to spring him and ferry him to safety in Germany.
Today is it above all an area that pushes the Alps as the perfect skiing location, boasting more than 12 miles of slopes. The best are the almost Alpine-like off-pistes such as Valle Fredda and Tre Valloni.
There are also fantastic opportunities for cross-country skiing and a skiing event is held in Castel del Monte on the last Sunday of every February.
Close to Campo Imperatore are a number of ski lodges that have stood for generations. The oldest is Il Garibaldi, dating from the 1880s, while the highest is Il Franchetti, built in the 1950s at a height of 2,433 metres.
The latter is best reached from Prati di Tivo, the main ski station of the Gran Sasso. It is located on its north-west side, on the slopes of Il Corno Piccola and above Pietracamela. Along with the nearby Prato Selva it forms an ideal spot for skiing away from the crowds.
However, in a mountain range famed for its rugged and brutal magnificence, concessions to modernity are few, albeit sufficient. And thankfully, the steps taken to welcome tourists are in keeping with the area’s rich traditions, limiting themselves to a moderate development of B&Bs, modest hotels, agritourism establishments and various small outlets selling local produce. This, after all, is unspoilt Abruzzo.