Now, sometimes these expeditions result in Bryan The Thrill Seeker wanting to take the narrowest path presented unto him, normally leading us into people’s driveways or onto dead-end streets, making us reverse and maneuver out of the tight spots with lethal-looking dogs barking wildly or small crowds of townspeople gathering to gape at the stupidity of the tourons. Thus I always approach Bryan’s suggestions for an exploration like this with a bit of trepidation and must decide what threshold of embarrassment I’m willing to endure that particular day.
But with such vibrant skies and eye-squinting sunshine, how could I resist the urge to explore. My penchant for crumbly hill towns and love of natural beauty normally win out anyway. The ancient via Salaria ribbons through a narrow rock-faced canyon following the Tronto River and is the scene of many rock slides, judging from the residue on the roads and the headlines we’ve read in the papers. This section of road reminded us of the Rio Grande Gorge on the drive to Taos, hillsides rising sharply from the road, river down below. And that was just the beginning of the feeling of déjà vu that would rest on us for the day.
Arquata del Tronto is the jumping-off point into the mountains and sits right on the edge of two national parks, the Sibillini, our destination, but also Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga, a very long name for the largest park in Italy, most of which sits squarely in the neighboring region of Abruzzo. We decided to go toward the dramatic summit of Monte Vettore in the Sibillini, the peak we saw standing so majestically during our morning stroll. As we zigzagged up the switch-back road into the pines-which had perfect little mounds of snow on the branches to make them the quintessential winter forest scene- we thought we could have been driving the Crest Road to Sandia Peak or the road through Santa Fe’s Hyde Park area. Craggy mountains and pines so familiar to us from home, we said.
As we continued to ascend the slushy road with new snowfall and climbed toward the tree-line elevation, the feeling struck us strongly again and we thought of the higher reaches of Wheeler Peak outside Taos. When we stopped to behold the breathtaking views we could have been atop any crest in the southern Rockies. Except for the ancient stone villages tucked into crags and jumbled down hillsides. These brought us back to the pinch-me-I’m-dreaming feeling we often have when we stop to dwell on the fact that we are actually living in Italy. When the road sliced through a medieval borgo of stone blocks and narrowed in the center of town to a barely-big-enough passage through the buildings, we remembered solidly that we were in Italy after all.
The wind kicked up and was biting cold, blowing a steady cloud of snow off the peaks above us. The crisp air meant crystalline skies, though, and the vista before us stretched for at least sixty miles so we were able to gaze into four regions – our own region of Marche of course; Umbria; Lazio; and Abruzzo. (Yet another reminder of life in New Mexico as our everyday view stretched the sixty miles to Santa Fe; New Mexico is also one of the Four Corner states.) The majestic heights of the Gran Sasso seemed much closer than they actually are, and through a pass we could glimpse clearly the undulating hills giving way into Lazio. Unbelievably clear views that truly took our breath away.
No wonder we feel so comfortable here. Winding our way back down the mountain we reflected on how funny it is that this landscape is so reminiscent, yet so different, somehow more rugged-seeming, more timeless. Somehow the mountains seem older. Odd feelings that are wisps in the mind, elusive and difficult to explain. We are in a completely different place, so foreign from our home in New Mexico but holding similarities. I guess that’s why it’s called déjà vu.
Monte Vettore with Arquata del Tronto and its protective rocca in the foreground.
copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider