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A ridge too far: getting lost in the Italian Apennines

Most people these days speed across the Apennines between Florence and Bologna through road or rail tunnels without really noticing. But if, as I did, you travel more slowly along that ridge on foot, you’ll get some impression of how these modest peaks had once been seen as “the dreadfull … Appennines“.

A “dreadfull ridge of the Appennines”? The “Leap of Death”
Photo credit: Nick Havely

Earlier travellers were faced with various dangers, such as accidents on the steep rocky tracks. A seventeenth-century guidebook urged its readers to beware of fatally losing their balance on the way over a high pass through being overcome by “the staggering whimsies”. A British tourist in the eighteenth century boasted about rescuing two ladies whose mule-litter had been overturned on a steep slope, where they would surely “have been dashed to pieces”.

Another threat was from one’s fellow men: extortion and poor accommodation were common complaints. Back in the Middle Ages local barons ruthlessly fleeced the merchants and pilgrims who came this way, and in the nineteenth century tales were told of innkeepers who robbed and murdered their customers, or even served them up as dishes on the menu.

Going astray with Dante and Captain Brooke

Different dangers were faced by, for example, Dante, Victorian travellers, Allied escapees in World War II, and even myself; and we can now follow in the tracks of some of those wanderers. At one point during his climb up Mount Purgatory Dante is plunged into a thick fog which he compares to running into mist on the Apennines and “seeing no more than does a mole through its eyelids”. And at the very start of the Divine Comedy‘s allegorical journey, Dante’s traveller goes astray in a wooded and mountainous terrain that may recall the poet’s own crossings of the Apennines, and he finds himself confronting dangerous beasts.

Dante’s pilgrim in the dark wood and on the mountainside
Image by Baccio Baldini, Biblioteca Riccardiana via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Later travellers would describe adverse weather and winds that could blow the unwary off their feet as they toiled over the high passes. One of those high passes—on the way over the Apennines from Florence—was the scene of an unintended detour by a British traveller early in the Victorian period.Captain Francis Brooke was a scholarly gentleman of leisure whose itineraries are described in his voluminous travel journals. In May 1844 Brooke was exploring the Casentino, a mountainous region to the north-east of Florence, and on the 12th of May, he set out to explore the Apennine ridge above the source of the Arno. He and his Italian guide climbed up to the river’s source, then upwards again to the summit of Monte Falterona on the ridge itself.

The start of Captain Brooke’s detour: Monte Falterona
Photo Credit: Nick Havely

He had told his guide that he wanted to visit a famous waterfall referred to in the Inferno. But Brooke had given his companion the wrong location, one that was some way north of the cascade mentioned by Dante. In addition they were now at a height of some 1600 metres, and crossing over to the north side of the ridge they “lost [their] way in the snow and fog, the former of which was in some parts four or five feet in depth”. They thus roamed around the flanks of the mountain, eventually reaching a “small hamlet”. From here, a woman who knew the way guided them over more peaks and along valleys to reach a village with two “pretty cascades” but not the ones mentioned in the Inferno. So, after a night spent in a squalid (but not actually life-threatening) inn, Brooke headed south again to the true Dantean waterfall, then crossed the Muraglione Pass over to San Godenzo, where his carriage was waiting to take him back to Florence.

Modern diversions: in Newby’s footsteps

One of the villages that Brooke came down to out of the fog on Falterona was where I set out in August 2001, on the last day of that year’s stretch of walking the ridge. My mistake that afternoon was missing the turning that would have led down to the Muraglione pass and continuing instead along a spur of the ridge.

After a large white mountain dog guarding its flock had warned me off, I headed down through the woods, following a precipitous dry streambed and emerging at a remote farm where an elderly nonna tending her chickens directed me down to the valley. I was now some eight kilometres of winding road on the wrong side of Muraglione, and the only way of reaching my hotel at San Godenzo that evening was to hitch a lift – which did eventually appear in the form of a couple of kindly honeymooners from Munich. It was worth waiting for the Bavarians.

I would go astray on several other occasions. Once I was trying in the dark to reach a high refuge and my torch bulb gave out as I looked across towards its distant lights. Again I had to struggle down a pathless slope, this time reaching a field that resounded with the harmonious howling of wolves. On another evening journey I stumbled off the ridge into a deep gully overgrown with huge bramble bushes: a similar predicament to Eric Newby’s when he tried to cross such a gully while reconnoitring an escape route to the coast during World War 2. As Newby later wrote in Love and War in the Apennines: “If I broke a leg here, no one would find my bones for years and years, perhaps never …”.

After getting lost yet again: the author following a hailstorm on Monte Nuda – “the Bare Mountain” – a peak I never meant to climb
Photo Credit: Nick Havely

Getting lost in these mountains can prompt such fears. But it can also yield moments of getting to know them better: Captain Brooke’s intermittent views of the “beautiful valley of the Casentino”; Eric Newby finding refuge with an eccentric old craftsman and storyteller after escaping the dark bramble wood; my own encounter with the voices of the wolves echoing in a moonlit Apennine pasture. As Rebecca Solnit argues in her Field-guide to the subject: “Never to get lost is not to live”.

Featured image by Nick Havely.

Recent Comments

  1. Gary Trotman

    Imagine getting lost for real!!

    The total length of the Apennines is about 870 miles (1,400 kilometers); their width ranges from 25 to 125 miles (40 to 200 kilometers). In the northwest the Apennines form the background of the Italian Riviera.

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