Italy’s wild side! Exploring the rugged hills of Abruzzo

Stop, I can’t climb any higher,’ I explained. ‘But I can’t leave you here on your own,’ our guide replied, ‘there are bears and wolves in this area.’

He assured me the view would be worthwhile, so I clambered up the last steps to Rocca Calascio, the highest fortress in Italy. And boy, was he right: from the top of its battlements, 1,500m above sea level, we could admire the peaks and valleys of the Gran Sasso National Park below us. The Name Of The Rose, a medieval mystery starring Sean Connery, was filmed within this castle.

I was in Abruzzo, one of Italy’s last unspoiled regions. Halfway down the Italian peninsula, it is sandwiched between the Apennine mountains and the Adriatic Sea. Most Britons I asked before my trip didn’t know where it was.

Throughout the centuries, Abruzzo has suffered several earthquakes. No wonder it has lost out to Tuscany and Umbria in the popularity stakes. Mass tourism seems to have passed it by.

For those who love to hike, cycle and ski, it’s a marvel, with three national parks and 38 nature reserves. 

Those bears and wolves have to live somewhere. They are joined by chamois, golden eagles and lynx, while in the hills you will spot rare orchids and edelweiss.

Next we headed to the beautiful Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a medieval town once ruled by the Medicis, and undiscovered by tourists. I counted more Abruzzese sheepdogs and sleepy cats than visitors. We stayed at the albergo diffuso Sextantio – a hotel with rooms scattered all over town.