Rupert Parker goes off the beaten track in Italy and reports on eight days of an ideal mix of hiking and eating.
In my experience, walking and hiking involve sweaty dormitories, smelly socks and basic rations so I was intrigued to hear about a company called Hedonistic Hiking who offer gourmet food, wine and walking. You get to stay in decent hotels, hike in some challenging terrain and, best of all, get to eat your fill of local delicacies after a hard day’s walk. Your choice is limited to Australia, Slovenia and Italy at the moment, so I decide to give it a whirl in Abruzzo, about three hour’s drive West of Rome.
I meet Jackie Parsons, who founded the company with her husband Mick in 2007, at Rome’s Fiumicino airport along with Annabel Purling, who’s the tour manager. Our group is twelve, mainly Australians, some who are on repeat trips and one intrepid lady, making her tenth. Together we’re bundled into two minibuses and I get my first taste of what it’s all about when we stop for lunch in Tivoli, an hour from Rome.
Good quality ingredients and excellent wine put me in an excellent mood for a tour of the famous gardens before we’re whisked onward to Abruzzo and the village of Santo Stefano di Sessiano. I’ve been here before so know that Daniele Kihlgren, disturbed by the fact that most people had left, decided to turn it into an extraordinary hotel, the Sextantio Albergo Diffuso. Traditional houses have been converted into upmarket rooms, although retaining original rustic features, and they’re scattered throughout the village. There’s a central reception area, the restaurant’s in another building and the place is magical.
For our first walk, we’re dropped a few miles above the village and Jackie, our leader, leads the way on unmarked paths. This becomes something of a feature over the next few days, the advantage being that we encounter no people and blaze trails where there are none. It’s a stunning day and we climb steadily in a landscape which resembles the high plains of Tibet, snow-capped mountains hidden in the clouds.
Annabel is there to meet us at the half way point with a table heaving with luscious salads, tasty cheeses and local meats. Forget about a ham sandwich, this is serious fuel for hiking and there’s also a glass of wine or two for those inclined. A special treat is the daily story, read by Jacky from the memoirs of a British soldier who escaped from the Nazis in WW2 and sought solace in the region.
Next day we walk directly from the village to the ruins of Rocca Calascio, a huge fortress slowly demolished by earthquakes over the centuries. Next to it is a massive circular church, one of many serving shepherds who took their sheep to pastures south in the autumn, on classic transhumance trails.
When we return to Santo Stefano, it’s boots off and aprons on, for a cooking lesson. Each of us gets to knead our own focaccia, then make the local chitarra pasta. We’re introduced to a piece of kitchen equipment unique to the region, basically thin wire strings stretched across a frame hence the name chitarra, or guitar in English. After we’ve mixed flour with eggs to make a dough, we then roll it out and press it through the wires to create elegant ribbons.
Fortunately we don’t have to do the cooking and we’re served the dishes we’ve created. The focaccia is slightly too rustic for my taste and we do end up eating the leftovers for lunch the next day. The fresh chitarra pasta, served with Chef Simone Iezzi’s lamb ragout is delicious. As are the meat balls that we’ve mixed from equal portions of minced lamb, pork and veal, wet bread, pecorino cheese and egg. Dessert is an Abruzzo version of waffles, made from a mixture of flour, sugar, olive oil and eggs, surprisingly light and delicate.
In the morning our two minibuses take us for a visit to the small city of Sulmona where we sample the local speciality, Confetti, sugar coated almonds. Then it’s back on the bus for the start of our hike to the village of Pescocostanzo and Archi San Rocco hotel, our home for the next two nights. Temperatures are above 35C so it’s a relief to be undertaking the steep climb under the cover of trees. Lunch again doesn’t disappoint and is fast becoming the highlight of the day. Annabel choses the freshest of ingredients from the market and we get to taste a far wider range of produce than you would find in any restaurant.
Every day the hiking seems to get tougher but, cleverly, they add an option to get ferried to the hotel after lunch, if your aching limbs can’t take it. We now head south to village of Barrea where there’s stunning lake view, before walking to Opi, another picture postcard village. Lunch today is in a small trattoria where we get to sample the local lentils, something that weighs me down for the climb to Pescasséroli at 1160m. Far better is the ravioli, stuffed with cheese, topped with black truffle shavings, and the roast rabbit that we eat in the evening.
Another feature of Hedonistic Hiking’s schedule is that there’s always a rest day and we get to laze around the Villino Quintiliani hotel before a visit to local shepherd Giuseppe. He shows us how he makes his cheese and then we get to taste it, surrounded by his goats and another selection of Annabel’s delicious salads.
Of course we’re gearing up to what is advertised as the toughest walking day, but actually the best. There’s a bit of cheating when we take the chair lift up the mountain but then there’s a stunning ridge walk with glorious views of the surrounding countryside. It’s a long way until we drop down for lunch, but it’s worth it to be rewarded with some of the best sausages and meat kebabs I’ve ever tasted. From here, it’s all downhill, but at the end of the day I certainly feel like I’ve earned a delicious dinner with the roast local lamb.
In fact, by the end of the week we’ve walked almost 100 km, through rugged and spectacular scenery. I’ve been impressed by the tenacity of my fellow hikers, all of them with a surprising level of fitness, and Jackie’s quiet handling of those she feels can’t make the extra distance has been done with sympathetic consideration. Organisation has been excellent and we’ve never been lost despite hiking mainly off the beaten track. Best of all, the introduction to copious consumption of the food and wine of Abruzzo has ensured that mealtimes have been a joy. Unfortunately any idea that I might lose weight on the trip was just a day dream. I probably end up slightly heavier, although fitter to fight another day, but with the memories of the pleasant tastes of the food and wine of Abruzzo.