Retired in Rome Blog: Blowing off Final Four for hike in Italian countryside a no brainer

Atop Monte Torrecane, 90 minutes east of Rome. OK, it's only 5,200 feet but the view isn't bad.
Atop Monte Torrecane, 90 minutes east of Rome. OK, it’s only 5,200 feet but the view isn’t bad.
Fabio at our lunch break.
Fabio at our lunch break.
The isolation of the Appennini Centrale.
The isolation of the Appennini Centrale.
Me and the lakes of Lazio beyond.
Me and the lakes of Lazio beyond.

APPENNINI CENTRALE MOUNTAINS, Italy — Rome has already changed me. Saturday night I had a choice between going to my old sAPPENNINI CENTRALports bar at midnight and watching the Final Four or getting some sleep and waking at 5 a.m. for an 8 1/2-mile hike.

Guess what won.

It was well worth it. Who needs televised hoops when you can join three Roman friends on a spectacular jaunt through the Lazio foothills? Italy actually has a good international reputation for hiking. In the north, the Dolomites speak for themselves and the Alto Adige region on the Austrian border is lousy with great hiking trails. Abruzzo, the region east of Rome’s Lazio, has two national parks that attract so many hikers they have to cut off the numbers.

Rome dominates Lazio like a famous big brother overshadows his ambitious but less accomplished younger sibling. But the countryside outside of Rome is covered with rolling hills, green valleys and glistening lakes. The Appennini Mountain Range, which cuts down nearly the entire spine of Italy, comes through Lazio and its central section is one of the top attractions in Central Italy.

I met Raffaella and Pieraugusto at Battistini, the last stop on the A subway line in western Rome. We picked up Fabio farther east in the neighborhood of Tiburtina and we drove 90 minutes east until we pulled off the gravel road onto a grass embankment. A few hundred meters away were the crumbling remains of a Medieval church. Seemingly miles away was the black, triangular point of Monte Torrecane, the goal of our journey but only one stopping point.

This part of Lazio could be turned into a golf course by just digging 18 small holes and building a stand selling Polyester shirts. The grass is that nice. It made for a pleasant launch point before we headed through a thick forest of trees. The trail was just a rumor. Italy uses Europe’s symbol of painting red horizontal markings on trees to show the way. In France, where they’ve been using the same trails since the Middle Ages, the markings are as clear as freeway signs. In Lazio, they’re so haphazard they look like they were drawn by kids marking their territory. Luckily, Fabio brought a GPS and led us straight up the mountain.

Once above the tree line, we climbed nearly straight up a couple hundred feet to the peak of Monte Torrecane, elevation 5,200 feet. That’s a mere speed bump in Colorado but the views made it look like I was in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. To our right were peaks still covered in snow. To our left were lakes dotting the countryside like splashes of silver. We could’ve been on a fourteener and wouldn’t have known the difference except we were only short of breath by the steepness, not the altitude.

After a lunch of focaccio sandwiches, clementines and fruit bars, we descended and made a long, long loop around the lakes. It’s remarkable to hike in underrated hiking areas. We were right along the Abruzzo border, not far from some of the best hiking in Europe with spring warmth creeping up, yet we didn’t see one single other hiker in 7 ½ hours. If we had no GPS, no one would find our bodies for days. But the elements wouldn’t have been the death of us. The weather could not have been better for hiking. It was in the mid-50s with the sun breaking through the cloud layer just when you started to get chilled. It’s as if we had our own mind-controlled temperature gauge..

I had no earthly idea where the car was as we traversed the mountain separating us from the road. We passed through a pretty col between two foothills before ascending another thick forest that produced another gorgeous view of Lazio from above.

Afterward, we drove back to Rome and stopped in the tiny speck of a village called Borgorose. Not to say this was off the beaten path, but Trattoria del Popolese not only didn’t have English menus, it didn’t have menus. The smiling elderly woman owner simply told us what she was serving that day. We all had her fettuccine with meat sauce that was made with homemade noodles and fresh garden tomatoes. That, covered in a generous chunks of parmesan, and a liter of local Abruzzo Montepulciano wine, was 10 euros.

It’s Monday afternoon here in Rome and I just read Saturday’s Final Four scores.