The ‘Wolf’s Lair’ ride – Monti Appennini Centrale – Italia

[artwork / photo credit – Montanus]

This time two weeks ago it was my 53rd birthday and I vividly recall the pain and the pleasure of struggling with my loaded bike up a rocky track in the dark trying to get to Refugio La Vecchia.

La Vecchia – Fairy Tale hut tucked away in the mountains

Three years has passed since my last foreign bike-packing trip – back in September 2019, after that last trip my ride buddy – Mark Wildsmith and I had set eyes on this bike-packing film called the ‘Wolf’s Lair’ [link]. It was 10 minutes of jaw-dropping wonderness, beautifully and imaginatively filmed by the Italian duo behind ‘Montanus’, it inspired us and we wanted to experience these wild landscapes that we had not associated with Italy. Then in early 2020 the world changed and along with it came travel restrictions and everything else, so during these difficult, restricted times I adapted and started to explore and re-explore the beautiful areas that we have here in the United Kingdom – and although we may take it for granted we are lucky to have such a varied and beautiful little country. Eventually however the curiosity to travel further afield was beckoning and the lure to experience different cultures, landscapes, weather, food and all that, prompted us to make the decision to go to Appennini Centrale and ‘do’ the Wolfs Lair – and we loved it all!

The Route of the ‘Pimped’ Wolf’s Lair

We chose to go in Autumn, mainly as it was cooler and we knew that the autumn colours would be in full splendour.

Chapel on Monte Tranquilo

After the chaos of summertime travel through the airports, things had quietened by early October and we had a pain free flight to Fiumicino – the main airport for Roma, which lies by the coast.

Fiumicino and the Canal that links the River Tiber to the Sea

This is where our cycling adventure would begin, we had a B&B for the first and last night near to the airport and in the town of Fiumicino, which made a nice and interesting place to start and finish, we did not realise it, but it is famed for its fresh fish and its numerous fish restaurant’s (the B&B also let us store our bike-boxes, which was kind of them helpful, as bike logistics can be a pain!). Here we found that the Italians like to eat and food in Italy is generally of a very high quality and more often than not cooked using local produce.

Our plan to get to the central mountains, was to cycle the 40km into Roma, then do some swift city sight-seeing – Vatican City, Spanish Steps, Colosseum and a few other ‘pop-up’ places along the way.

As it happened there was pretty good cycle route all the way into the city centre, most of it avoiding the roads and this was a really pleasant surprise as we were both dreading the Italian traffic and their driving skills. The cycle route enters the city in the most innocuous way using the flood channel of the River Tiber which is set well down from the rest of the city, the river itself was a surprisingly fast flowing and at times a violent white water river and not what you would usually associate within a city centre and certainly not one to fall into either! It was along the river that I recalled the mini’s of the film the Italian Job using this as their escape route!

Mark was navigating (on the nav, as we say!)  and the route from the river took us quickly to the Vatican City, even at the relatively early hour (10:30) it was a chaos of tourists and while it was good to see this important landmark, we were pleased to soon leave it – we now had to head across the city to the Termini Station, here we would get a regional train to Avezzano in the mountains. From our brief experience trains in Italy seem to work well for bikes, the regional ones have a large area for up to 6 bikes and the trains are all electric and pretty comfortable and a lot cheaper than the UK. It would take us around 2 hours to do the 120km journey, through many tunnels and viaducts rising up to around 700m.

The town of Avezzano is on the edge of an unusual plain, which was covered with water and was Italia’s biggest lake, drained in the 1700’s and now a fertile industrial scale growing area, from above the landscape looks like a patch-work quilt made up of thousands of rectangular fields, we would later cycle through this landscape, but for now we had to go the other way and climb into the mountains. By this time it was mid-afternoon and we had what seemed a straightforward and do-able 50km and 1400m cycle along a mix of road and tracks. It soon got hard work with loose and rounded gravel and we soon realised we were not properly ride fit as we had been in the past, partly due to us both having done a lack of the ‘long stuff’ and in Marks case recovering from his Covid of the previous month, still it was a joy to be in the mountains – freedom and seven days of adventure ahead!

La Vecchia by night

The night time soon arrived, the temperature dropped and we still had around 10km to go, we had climbed up to 1600m by now and were above the warmth of the trees and forests and the double track had turned into a vague rough path. We had both hoped on this trip to do some riding at night, as it in itself is an exciting experience, but we had not planned on doing it on night one – at this point sticking to the vague footpath was a challenge and whilst it would make for a great descent, it was a tough ride and push up. Despite the hardship our excitement levels were high, as we had a small stampede of Red Deer pass ahead of us and we instantly thought that Wolves would be in close pursuit, but not so – phew!

The mountain top eventually levelled and we started to drop over the far side, by now the night view was far reaching and the sight of many distant little mountain villages cloaked in their orange street lights, all under a blanket of stars was quite something. However, by this stage we were both pretty exhausted and hungry, we longed for the cosiness of the Refugio, thank fully after a scramble through some rocks and trees we could see it emerge and it looked to be unoccupied, which was good as it was tiny. This Refugio was not on the Wolf’s Lair route, this was a ‘POI’, that I had found on the map and I can’t recall if it was through Google or the wonderful navigation tool of Komoot, either way we knew that it was ‘gem’ and it was like a little fairy tale grotto all built into some rocks and hidden on the mountain side, 1900m up – a place well worth visiting!  Anyway it was my birthday and it was time for a beer… which we had lugged up and worked up a thirst. Despite wanting the beer, the hard toil had made me feel a little nauseous and it took an hour before I felt ready to drink it, which meant it could chill down nicely – I can still taste that one, so hard earned! Inside the hut the old stove was soon lit and we had food being cooked up. It may not have been a wild party, but it was a pretty special place to spend my birthday and a great location to start our travels.

…and the view from it the morning after – stunning and in no rush to leave!
Birthday Boy – not a bad place to start the first day of 53 – feeling as excited as a child! [Photo credit Mark Wildsmith]

So to the Wolf’s Lair route itself, in its normal form it is around 400km and 9000m vertical, however I had found a few other POIs, that we extended the route for, this was through playing with Komoot, a ride planning an navigation tool – from my initial experiences of it, I would recommend it, our extended route took the distance up to 550km/12000m, which meant a rough average of 80-90km per day. Not a massive amount, given previous rides, but enough for us not to feel time pressured, which had happened in the past. The route is in the very rural and mountainous region contained within the Abruzzo province and links up four national parks; La Aquila and Avezzano are the main centres, however there are numerous small towns and villages enroute, this generally made it pretty easy getting supplies, but it is worth bearing in mind that most shops are closed on Sundays, however there are also numerous bars and cafes to get food and drink from.

The actual landscape, was quite unusual – Limestone Karst, as such we saw very few streams, rivers or lakes and quite often were riding in these ‘sink-hole’ type features. It was really hard to get the lay of the land, and it made it even more interesting.

For the main Wolf’s Lair journey I will let the pictures tell most of the story and add some brief words when needed…

Day 1 – After descending from the Refugio we pass through a 1.4km tunnel to nowhere in particular, only one car passed us by.
This was on the other side of the long tunnel – a portal into another dimension.
Old farm tracks – some dust and some stone.
Empty roads – just the odd farmer and the odd Fiat.
Typical scenes on Day 1 – the Beech Forests surrounding the plains, good cover for the predators!
Soon in the Gran Sasso NP, after passing through the not-so exciting bits around L’Aquila.
Day 2 – The historic old village of Santo Stefano do Sessanio.
Opportunity for tent drying (a lot of condensation) and a picnic breakfast. [Photo credit Mark Wildsmith]
Rocca Calascio – Ruined, historic and beautiful.
The same castle from a different angle – it was hard to leave this place!
A closer view of the Corno Grande, the highest mountain in Central Italy at 2912m, it was here that we briefly met two other Italian ‘old boys’ on E-Bikes and they kindly named all the peaks for us and I’m sure that they had climbed them all!
Obtaining Drinking Water was never difficult, even if it was shared with the ‘locals’. [Photo credit Mark Wildsmith]
The unusual ‘dry river’.
Down the Canyon (this was an off-piste deviation and we had no idea where we would exit it). [Photo credit Mark Wildsmith]
Even more unexpected, after exiting the dry river we came across a DIY-BBQ ‘Ristoro Giuliani’ – having missed the last village, we were a couple of hours overdue for lunch – lamb kebab, toast cheese and a big beer did the trick. [Photo credit Mark Wildsmith]
Another of those ‘infinity roads’. [Photo credit Mark Wildsmith]
After the ‘Piano’ (Plain) we plunged deep into the forest, we spent most of the end of day 2 descending through these.
End of Day 2 – a long shift (07:00 to 19:00) and we decide to strike for the comfort of a B&B while in a small town – the scene above is typical of many of these towns and villages. This was a pretty overwhelming day, quite hard to take in all the amazing places that we had ridden through.
Day 3 – The first surprise – a concrete viaduct built in the sixties – an impressive feat of engineering, now used for bungee at the weekends.
More forest…
Forest Camp – these worked well as they stayed warm and dry and also an abundant supply of fire wood. The fire pit was covered the morning after – leavenotrace!

Day 4 – A Slideshow to walk through, after leaving the forest camp we descend on drovers roads, taking in an old ‘ish’ ski-station and a characterful restaurant and its friendly dog and amazing croissants (a word about the Italian croissants, they are bigger and crispier than their French cousins and usually have a filling of custard, or chocolate – great with a double expresso!). We head into the Abruzzo NP, its also a Sunday and like North Yorkshire it is full of motorbikes ripping up the tarmac. After the previous couple of tough days we plan a slightly shorter one and decide to head up Monte Tranquilo.

Day 5 – For some reason, maybe it being a Monday..? we both felt a bit disengaged and struggled to get going – even despite two expressos and two filled croissants each (which only cost 8E total!). We quietly chugged along and soon left the Abruzzo NP, it felt like we had passed through it all too quickly and the next section, despite being pretty good cycling, did not seem so great. However we did pass some strange ‘ghost villages’ and interesting landmarks, there was also some threatening weather, so far in the trip it had all be dry and sunny. We had a few spots of rain late PM and we could tell as we moved between valley systems that some heavy rain had passed through. We had earlier stocked up at a supermarket and were now keen to camp. Its worth mentioning and it happens all the time when bike-packing – you always seem to see the perfect camp spots at the wrong time of day. It was going dark quickly, the mist was down and it was dripping wet everywhere. To make things worse our route took us through a small steep sided canyon, quite vegetated and totally unappealing to camp within, persevering, we eventually climbed out of it and reached a Fontaine and a picnic area, rather luckily we found a cosy and dry camp spot under some beech trees also with a fire pit (the ‘trail gods’ helping us again!) – it felt good to finish this day and a beer was needed. I think the ride fatigue had caught up with us and taken the edge off things and a good sleep would sort things hopefully…

Day 6 – This was to be our last day in the mountains proper, it sort of felt sad to be leaving them, however as usual on this ride more surprises were in store… First up was another ghost village of Pagliare di Tione, this was an eerie place as the early morning mists swirled, we had not had breakfast so we brewed up here – dozens of old houses, all empty and some in better states than others, some locked and some unlocked. It felt like we were being watched and there was a presence of something (cows..?) The coffee and bread and cheese perked us up and it would be another 20kms or so and we would be at our start point / finish point of Rocca di Mezzo. However before we got there we had to negotiate the sticky mud that we had heard of… Our bikes had stayed quite clean up till this point – hopefully we would find a tap and wash area in the next village (and as it happened we did – it was good to de-gunge things).

I have not mentioned the other redeeming feature of this ride and this was… there were no gates, well not quite true, we had five or six rickety wire-gates to pass through, that was all in 550km of riding. The landscapes had very few fences and walls, it added to the rural feel. Why in the UK is our agriculture, estates and forestry so obsessed with fencing everything up..?

Celano Castle.

The last night of our ride would see us reach the town of Celano, very much dominated by its huge castle. This is a must see and along with all the other historic sites that we saw along the way, it added to the extra special feel of this trip. Everyday along this ride there was a surprise of some sort, usually it would be seeing the landscape dramatically change, or the sighting of a wild animal or bird, while we did not see a Golden Eagle or a Brown Bear we did glimpse a small pack of Grey Wolves and we could hear their cry’s and barking. I hope that the wildlife and its apex predators continue to grow and roam afar; the national parks and protected areas are doing all they can to protect these species, however where the wild animals meet the areas with more humans, or areas not protected they are at threat. A fine balance exists…

As a cyclist it is not the wild animals that usually pose a threat to us, more the farmers dogs and on past rides we have had some scary close calls, in Abruzzo most of the dogs seemed pretty chilled, we only had a couple of dog chase incidents and thankfully we got away in time…

The plain, once the bed of Italy’s greatest lake (and another infinity road).

The last day of the ride in the mountains and we get to cross the great plateau, to go from Celano to Avezzano (train here to Fiumicino, via Roma), this flat route mainly consisted of minor dusty straight-line roads and 90deg corners, fun at first, but soon starting to look all the same and very boring after doing 25km of it, also the totally disrespectful truck drivers who just blasted past and chocking us in dust. Another recollection from along here – I know the meat industry is pretty grim, but here the industrial veg farming was not so hot either – looking dirty and scruffy! On that note Mark managed quite well getting veggie options, some places better than others, I also made a conscious effort to take the veggie option, but sometimes this was lost in translation, or I was just craving something meaty! However the fish was very good and it was a nice treat to have the fresh fish on offer back down in Fiumicino.  

 

As a wrap-up — I thank Italy and its lovely people for providing such a great adventure, I thank Montanus and Bikepacking.com for the superb route and information, I thank Mark for being awesome company…

– and I thank my wife and my family (and my little dog) for letting me go – these adventures help keep me alive and reset all those critical checks and balances.

Wolf’s Lair – done the full circle and back in Rocca di Mezza [photo credit – Mark Wildsmith].

…I did not mention the bikes… both our trusty steads performed so well. We both had punctures that self sealed and that was it really, maybe a few new creaks..! For me I was riding a larger framed Fatster, and while a little less agile maybe, it was super comfy and well suited to all the surfaces. While on bikes, I would definitely recommend an Mtb for this ride, while a Gravel Bike will do it, having fun on the descents and not having to worry about smashing your rims, out-weighed the potential extra gain in speed that a Gravel Bike may have on the smoother surfaces.

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