Italy's peak attraction

The Italian mountains provide serious hiking opportunities for beginners and pros alike, with picturesque scenery to boot

Travelling any distance across Italy illustrates why it took the people who live there until the middle of the 19th century to unify it. Italy may appear on the map to be a coherent land mass - the "boot" of the mainland permanently having a kick at the "ball" of Sicily - but its northern highlands push hard into Central Europe, its arid southern plains lean towards North Africa, and there are countless variations in between.

Travelling any distance across Italy illustrates why it took the people who live there until the middle of the 19th century to unify it. Italy may appear on the map to be a coherent land mass - the "boot" of the mainland permanently having a kick at the "ball" of Sicily - but its northern highlands push hard into Central Europe, its arid southern plains lean towards North Africa, and there are countless variations in between.

Even a region as apparently tame and manicured as Tuscany changes dramatically in character between the coast and the mountains. The area of rolling hills, clusters of cypress trees and fields of sunflowers may have been colonised by the British and Germans on a permanent summer lease, but there is infinitely more to the province than "Chiantishire". In an era when most populated parts of Europe seem to belong to the same traffic jam, the north-west corner of Tuscany remains refreshingly unexplored.

The best way to get to grips with unfamiliar territory is to walk it. To experience every hillock and furrow; to feel the wind and sun on your face; to expend physical effort to get from A to B and work up a hunger, thirst and healthy fatigue; to exchange pleasantries - however fleeting - with everyone you pass. And all the more rewarding if the backdrop to your exertions is a mountain range of ravishing beauty.

The Apuane Alps, which rise steeply from the coastal plain to a height of nearly 2,000 metres, are notable for their colour - or rather, their lack of it. The bedrock of some of the mountains is luna marble, of which the purest variety is as white as ivory. Quarried near Carrara, 80km west of Florence, this is the marble famously used by Michelangelo for many of his sculptures, and in the construction of numerous important buildings in Florence, Rome and beyond. The detritus thrown onto the mountain-sides by centuries of pounding, cutting and hauling appear to have given the slopes a permanent layer of glistening snow, punctuated by blocks of ice. Only at close quarters is this exposed as an optical illusion: technically, these slopes are industrial waste disposal tips.

In a country which takes hiking seriously, numerous routes have been designed that are near enough to the marble mountains to highlight their loveliness, but keep far enough away to prevent a continual wrestling match between the hiker and his conscience: while man has no right to disfigure the environment, are his sins forgivable if they're committed in the quest for beauty and art? Mmm. Best to leave that thought for another time - and keep on walking.

Throughout the 20th century, the landscape was remodelled more creatively with the extensive planting of trees. Wherever you wander in the Apuanes you are surrounded by forests of beech, oak and chestnut - with pines at the higher altitudes. Two or three generations ago most of the indigenous trees had been cut down by locals who needed the wood.

Perhaps the most rewarding of the marble mountains is the formidable Pizzo d'Uccello, or "Bird's Peak", at the north-west tip of the range. It's less than 1,800 metres high, but its north face - with a sheer drop from the summit of 700 metres - is so fearsome that it wasn't officially conquered until 1940. The mountain shares something in common with Scotland's Ben Nevis: on a fine day, one of its three sides is scaleable even by non-climbers wearing a sloppy old pair of trainers.

Further north, in the jagged Dolomites, the higher paths along the rock faces get so narrow in places that it's essential to wear a harness to clip yourself on to the fixed cable provided, but taking the easy way up Pizzo d'Uccello requires no special equipment. The most spectacular approach, past winding gorges cut by fast-flowing rivers, takes you through a glorious beech forest. The trek is best made in spring when the wild flowers are in bloom, although this reduces your accommodation options because the majority of the mountain huts don't open until the summer.

These huts, called rifugi, are an essential part of the Italian walking experience. They also played a role in the Second World War, providing shelter for refugees, escapees and members of the Italian resistance as they sought to avoid the advancing Nazis. Among these was renowned British travel writer Eric Newby, who escaped from captivity and managed to remain undetected in the mountains for an entire winter. Well, almost undetected. On one occasion he ran into a German officer, but escaped capture because the German was enjoying a day off and deemed it too troublesome to arrest him. So they went their separate ways.

These days, the huts are maintained and staffed by the Italian Alpine Club. The best of them provide a hearty three-course dinner, bunk bed, hot water and a simple breakfast for about £25 a night. Some of the biggest can accommodate 40 guests or more, and if you haven't booked in advance and there's no room at the inn, the manager is obliged to allow you to sleep on the floor. Even in the smallest rifugi you can usually rely on a plentiful supply of good wine - at extra cost - to help ease the aches and pains.

A cheaper alternative is to use a bivacco, which is unstaffed but provides basic facilities. In return for an advance payment at the start of your trek, you are given the key to the door.

Back on the southern approach to Bird's Peak, which you can reach via a complex network of numbered and colour-marked paths coming from many different walking areas, the route zig-zags along the final 300m from the saddle to the summit and finally rewards you with a view that is breathtaking even by Alpine standards - as long as the weather is behaving itself. (Sudden lightning strikes are a notorious hazard, even on the clearest days.)

Europe's greatest mountain range, its peaks snow-capped all year round, broods magnificently on the northern horizon. To the west, you can make out part of the coastal strip between Genoa and Viareggio, with the shimmering Ligurian Sea beyond. In the eastern foreground, seemingly close enough to touch, is the highest of the Apuane Alps, Mount Pisanino, soaring to just under 2,000m. The scarred marble escarpments and the rumble of heavy machinery are by now distant memories. Your conscience is stilled; your senses aflame. And, having conquered - well, ascended - such a peak, you might even find yourself swapping snapshots and stories at the summit with a proper mountaineer or two.

THE APENNINE WAY?

It takes the average walker upwards of three weeks to complete the Grande Excursione across the Apennine Mountains, the sharply-defined spine running through Italy from the Maritime Alps to the Ionian Sea.

The GEA, as it is widely known, traverses the most spectacular section of the mountains and rolling hills, extending for about 280 miles from Liguria in the far north-west almost to the Umbrian border. Completed 20 years ago, it is now established as northern Italy's premier long-distance walk. For the most part, the signage and maintenance is excellent, and there are ample mountain huts ( rifugi), hostels and other places to put up for the night.

The main attraction of the GEA is its diversity. The route begins in sub-Alpine territory - a sparsely populated landscape of coniferous forests and Sound of Music meadowland, skirting a series of jagged peaks to the north that soar to 2,000m. Even in the dry summer, the hiker's progress is slowed to about ten miles a day, when they might encounter as many deer and wild boar as humans.

But the steadfast are rewarded. Gradually, the steep escarpments and deep valleys level out, the character of the countryside changes as the plains of Tuscany appear to the south, and the climate becomes more Mediterranean. The route passes the beautiful rural enclave of Garfagnana, with its resplendent woods of chestnut, beech and oak, dotted with fortified villages and medieval castles. And even though the south-east section is far more densely populated, the GEA does not pass through a single town.

Maps and accommodation details are available from the Italian Alpine Club (CAI) (00 39 02 205 7231, www.cai.it)

ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES

AIR

Speculation abounds regarding the future of Italian national airline Alitalia, which is in a precarious financial position. One reason for its problems is the extraordinary growth in cheap flights between Britain and Italy. Many new routes have started this summer - notably to Sicily. Air Malta (0845 607 3710, www.airmalta.com) is flying to Catania from London Gatwick, with three flights a week. So, too, is British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com). BA also has flights to Bari in the south-eastern region of Puglia.

Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) serves Brindisi (also in Puglia) from London Stansted and Rome Ciampino from Glasgow Prestwick, as well as 13 other destinations.

Direct routes from regional UK airports to more popular destinations have also opened up. Thomsonfly (0870 190 0737, www.thomsonfly.com) now flies from Coventry to Rome Ciampino, Pisa and Venice Marco Polo. EasyJet (0871 750 0100, www.easyjet.com) runs from Nottingham East Midlands to Rome Ciampino.

Forced to respond to the new routes on budget airlines, Alitalia (0870 544 8259, www.alitalia.co.uk) plans to fly twice daily from Manchester to Milan Malpensa from 1 July.

Bologna's Guglielmo Marconi Airport remains closed until 2 July. Until then, flights are being redirected to Bologna's Forli and coastal Rimini airports. For up-to-date information, call 00 39 051 647 9615 or go to www.bologna-airport.it. When the airport re-opens, there should be plenty of bargains: BA has been selling midweek flights for as little as £64 return.

RAIL

Trenitalia ( www.trenitalia.com), Italy's national rail network, is offering a new pass for non-Italian residents in a variety of formats, available for first- or standard-class travel. The passes available are Trenitalia Pass for adults and children up to the age of 12 (children receive a 50 per cent discount), Pass Youth (only available for standard class travel) for youths aged 12-26, and Pass Saver for groups of up to five people. The passes are valid for four to ten days of unlimited travel within a two-month period, and can be purchased at larger railway stations and from Rail Pass Direct (0870 120 1606, www.railpassdirect.co.uk). Reservations must be made in advance for Eurostar Italia, international and overnight trains, for which there is a supplement. The Trenitalia pass also gains holders discounts in selected hotels and on selected ferry routes. The cost for a four-day first-class adult pass is £179 and £144 for a four-day standard-class adult pass, going up to £288 for a ten-day first-class pass and £233 for standard class.

Visitors using the rail network should remember to validate their tickets with a date stamp prior to travel. This is easily executed by using the (usually) yellow machines located along platforms at railway stations. The same applies for buses and the underground - the machines are located in bus and underground foyers. Failure to do so can result in heavy fines.

SEA

Italy is well connected by boats and ferries; almost 100 routes serve its numerous ports and islands and, if you have the time, it can provide a relaxing and scenic means of getting around the country. For a comprehensive list of all the existing routes and a guide to fares, contact the Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254, www.enit.it).

New for this summer are routes to Sicily and the Aeolian Islands, with shipping line Alimare connecting the port of Reggio Calabria (just half a mile from the airport) to Taormina and Messina in Sicily and each of the five Aeolian Islands. The routes are covered by hydrofoil, with the journey time from Calabria to Messina at just 55 minutes. Daily services are scheduled to all five Aeolian Islands, and there are regular daily services to Sicily, but it is advisable to check timetables prior to departure. For further information call the reservations line on 00 39 09 0981 4948 or go to www.alimare.it.

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