BBC – Voyage – The Sentiero dei Parchi: a new hiking trail that unites Italy

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Recently, Elia Origoni stood at the southeastern tip of Sardinia, watching the azure sky darken until it merges with the sea, and contemplating the most intimidating stage of her ambitious journey. In two days he would set off on a 405 km paddle across the Tyrrhenian Sea in the hopes of becoming the first to cross Sardinia, Sicily and all of Italy using only his feet, a boat and his prodigious stamina.

Its remarkable course of over 7,000 km helps highlight a newly announced trail that will stretch across the entire Italian peninsula.

“It’s a combination of fantasy and very hard work,” said Origoni, a mountain guide from northern Italy. He plans to cover 30-40 km each day, walking and camping in Sardinia, rowing and hiking through Sicily, and then rowing again in mainland Italy, where he will walk to Muggia, a small town in the extreme northeast. region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Origoni’s remarkable self-propelled journey of over 7,000 km helps highlight a newly announced trail that will stretch across the entire Italian peninsula and connect Italy’s 25 national parks.

“I do this without using Google Maps or a GPS, because we lose the value of being able to move around without a phone in our hands. With a physical map, you have a much wider view of where you are; you discover your surroundings and how they connect, ”Origoni told me, admitting that the Sardinia-Sicily paddling gave him a break.“ The next four days will be the longest of my life, because I’ve never done this before . In the mountains, I move with confidence; in the boat, it’s a new challenge. “

Origoni, who makes the arduous journey with only a 7kg backpack, is at the end of a growing movement among young Italians. By taking an eco-friendly approach to tourism that emphasizes connections to local cultures, the nation that gave birth to the global Slow Food movement is increasingly championing slow, sustainable travel – and celebrating the beauty of its vast, largely unexplored wilderness.

The Sentiero dei Parchi will cross 20 regions, cross six Unesco sites and extend for nearly 8,000 km

After Italy became the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic and imposed some of Europe’s toughest lockdown measures last spring, the Italian National Tourism Research Institute reported that more than 27 million Italians had chosen hikes for their summer vacation last year, with almost half of Italians wanting an immersive nature vacation. The study, titled Covid Changes Holidays for Italians, concluded: “Fear of the virus … allowed Italians to discover and try a new way to go on vacation.” Italian financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore called the trend a “paradigm shift caused by the need for social distance, the desire to visit small and uncrowded places, and the need for air and movement.”

In response, last May, as restless Italians emerged from one of the world’s longest national lockdowns, Italy’s Environment Ministry and legendary 158-year-old Italian Alpine Club announced an ambitious plan to 35 million euros over 13 years to extend the existing Sentiero Italia in Italy. (the Great Italian Route) of about 1000 km to form a new path connecting each of the 25 national parks of Italy, including those of the islands of Sardinia and Sicily. When completed in 2033, the new route, known as the Sentiero dei Parchi (Parks Trail) will cross each of the country’s 20 regions, pass through six Unesco World Heritage sites and span nearly 8,000 km – twice the length of the United States. ‘Appalachian Trail and approximately 10 times the distance of the entire Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port-Galice route on the Camino de Santiago.

This investment shows “how much we care about our invaluable heritage of biodiversity and its valuation in terms of sustainable tourism, especially in this period of post-Covid recovery where we all feel the need to be more outside “, said Italian Environment Minister Sergio Costa when announcing the initiative.

Designed by a group of environmental journalists, the Great Italian Route was completed in the 1990s but has been neglected in recent decades. Now hikers, environmentalists and tourism officials are championing its new offshoot as a way to celebrate Italy’s rural soul and expand many travelers’ notions that the Italian landscape is limited to the rolling Tuscan countryside. that they see on postcards or screensavers.

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In fact, the Parks Trail encompasses a real highlight of dramatic Italian vistas – albeit less well known. Hikers can explore the ancient cork forests of Sardinia; travel to the Apennines, the mountainous backbone of Italy, and look for bears and foxes in Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park; search for hidden hermitages surrounded by beech forests in Tuscany and Emilia Romagna; and meet ibex in the snow-capped peaks that dominate the crystal-clear lakes of Evian in the Gran Paradiso Alpine National Park.

“Until now, there has never been a national authority or study on the maintenance and planning of the Italian network of hiking trails,” said Alpine Club vice-president Antonio Montani. “The work has always been done by volunteers who look after their own land for free or with occasional funds without general vision. With this change, we hope that mountains, hiking trails and slow tourism can gain enough importance and dignity to be relevant at the government level. “

As Italy is set to lose a devastating € 36.7million due to coronavirus-related tourism restrictions in 2020 and travelers are potentially reluctant to retreat to Italy’s many cities, museums and trattorias once international travel resumes , officials hope that the new Chemin des parcs will offer visitors a new, more user-friendly way of discovering the bel paese.

Officials hope the Parks Trail will provide a new, more user-friendly way to experience bel paese

“The impact of Covid on the tourism industry… has been significant,” said Maria Elena Rossi, Director of Marketing and Promotion at the Italian National Tourist Board. “[Italy] can benefit in the future from more diverse and innovative routes related to outdoor activities, both slow and adventurous. The Italian Parks Trail connects communities, biodiversity and the natural environment. “

Sara Furlanetto, photojournalist, echoes this point. “Italy cannot only be known for its cultural cities or its beautiful sea. It is much, much more. Most Italians do not know that Italy is 70% made up of mountains and hills. We wanted to change the narrative and put the face of the mountains aside. to the front, ”she said of the trekking organization she founded, Va ‘Sentiero.

Before Covid, Furlanetto and his friends posted their hiking trips on the Great Italian Route on their website and invited other outdoor enthusiasts to join them for all or part of the route. Since 2016, Va ‘Sentiero has grown from a group of three intrepid friends to a forum for over 2,000 fellow hikers.

“Today more than ever, thinking of the post-pandemic scenario, people want to reconnect with [nature]”Said Furlanetto.” The Italian highway is also a symbol of environmental protection, so it should be promoted with a slow approach. Currently, the trail passes through 16 of Italy’s 25 national parks. I think that the idea of ​​widening the path in order to reach all the parks is of great value and… can represent an important impetus for the promotion of Italian natural spaces. “

More than ever, people want to reconnect with [nature]

Supporting local communities and encouraging multi-day treks is essential to the success of the trail, said Montani. For now, much of the existing Italian highway requires hikers to camp. But as part of the new € 35 million investment, Montani is working to develop a network of small hostels and guesthouses at certain stops in national parks, as well as trails to accommodate wheelchair travelers. .

“We have a multitude of small artistic sites, like the sanctuary of Oropa in the Alps, with frescoes from the 1500s,” Montani said. “Normally you think you have to go to Florence or Rome to see them, but if you love nature and love art, these trails give you the option of both. Every 20 km you get a different view, different types of cuisine, different cultural traditions. “

This sense of discovery and wonder also inspires Francesco Paolo Lanzino, the mastermind of Woodvivors, a group of seven who recently began a six-month journey on mules from the island of Pantelleria in the far south. from Sicily to Turin.

“We choose to follow the Sentiero Italia because it is really a path connecting every part of Italy, passing some of the ancient and historic paths used since the times of the Romans, Greeks and even before,” he said. -he declares. “The Sentiero dei Parchi will open up new opportunities not only to explore these ancient routes, but also to connect small villages along the way. The new paths show that we are not alone, but united by the rural roots of our historical links. . “

Along the way, Lanzino and his team will shoot a documentary and TV episodes on local culture, highlighting the often overlooked regional farmers and artisanal wine and cheese producers so essential to Italian culture.

“We seek to capture the traditions that have always been passed down orally from parents to children, and looking at what remains,” Lanzino said. “I am convinced that from this past, which seems so far away but still lives on in rural Italy, people can learn to build a more sustainable future.”

A timeless tradition, so long attractive to tourists in Italy, is the warm hospitality of the country. While it has cooled out of necessity in cities plagued by Covid, Origoni says pre-pandemic social spontaneity is part of what makes his self-propelled journey so appealing. As he wrapped up a day of hiking and was looking for a place to pitch his tent in the Sardinian countryside last month, a man saw him and invited him to dinner.

“I went to his little country house and had dinner with him and his family. We had pasta, two glasses of wine and became friends. It was lovely,” Origoni said. “In Milan we are on orange alert, but in some small rural areas you can start socializing again in a way that seems normal. Being greeted by people is a good thing.”

Slow motion is a BBC travel series that celebrates slow, self-propelled journeys and invites readers to get out and reconnect with the world in a safe and sustainable way.

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