The dark green fungal circles marking the grassy hillside are where the goat-footed witches come to dance at midnight. Or so my guide tells me. She doesn’t believe it either, but her grandparents and their forebears did. To our left climbs the strange, craggy mountain where a clairvoyant sibyl delivered prophecies from a cave in ancient times. It’s a story that gave these beautiful and eerily atmospheric mountains their name – the Sibillini. A characterful offshoot of the Apennines, they rise in central Italy and spill from Le Marche into Umbria.
Mountainous areas have always been places of legend and superstition. Life can be hard in such a landscape, so people escape through stories, which subsequent generations enthusiastically embroider. But this kind of terrain also naturally inclines the mind to the fantastical and magical. If the world can cast up the towering miracle of a mountain in front of you, then other wonders are surely possible. Witches, soothsayers, devils, goblins. How could there not be such things in such an otherworldly landscape? Nonetheless, the Sibillini Mountains seem to have inspired far more than their fair share of exotic stories.
The psychic sibyl did her stuff back in pre-Roman times, setting a precedent for tales of feminine magic which later centuries elaborated. Local people talked of ‘le fate’, benign enchantresses who would seduce local men and spirit them away forever (ah, just another parable on the power of love, then). Countless female-centred cults held sway in these mountains at one time or another, and one modern academic points out that, viewed from the air, seven ancient churches scattered across Sibillini mountaintops exactly replicate the arrangement of the stars in the constellation Venus. Hmmm...
Feminine focus aside, supernatural names abound in this once deeply religious and superstitious area. Hell’s this and that. The Devil’s other. Thanks to holy relics in nearby Loreto, major pilgrimage walking routes cross the Sibillini, and for centuries these routes brought through a steady stream of believers, ready to fuel stories of magic, evil, prophecy and transformation. And how could they not when confronted with some of the unsettling oddities round here? Take the mountaintop lake whose unique crustaceans occasionally turn the water bright red. Pilgrims christened it Pilate’s Lake, believing the ancient tyrant was buried here and the red was the blood leeching from his eternally guilty hands. Incidentally, a white rock plucked from the lake’s centre is scrawled with a strange script as yet undeciphered by linguists. Yet more mystery! You can inspect the rock and its inscription yourself in the Sibyl Museum in Montemonaco.
Irrespective of its magic lakes and cryptic rocks, there’s no denying that the Sibillini landscape especially inches the mind toward the fearfully supernatural. The Sibillini are generally not the rounded, dreamy domes of the Apennines. They are craggy, idiosyncratic and dramatic – throwing sudden improbable points and serrations against the sky, or fiendishly cupping snow in crescent-shaped walls of rock. They suggest trickery and surprise. To the medieval mind they would even have suggested evil. Back then all mountains, gorges, waterfalls and sudden plunges in the landscape were thought to confirm the existence of the devil, of wrong and sinfulness at work in the world. An ideal, fully Godly globe, you see, would be smooth, flat and easily navigable. Only in recent centuries have we learnt to see mountains as things of beauty.
These days mountains are awesome not awful. And the enchantments of the Sibillini are nothing but benign. Here lie unforgettable vistas lit by Italian sun, mesmerizing displays of wildflowers, wonderful walking routes, beautiful little towns and villages. Declared a National Park in 1993, unfolding across more than 70,000 hectares, the Sibillini Mountains make a charming playground – especially for walkers and cyclists. The big daddy of its walking routes is the mighty Grande Anello, or ‘big ring’ – a whopping 120 kilometres of mountain strolling taking about a week to complete in full. You can play pilgrim and stay in dormitory-like ‘refuges’ along the way, or rest your weary legs in any number of charming village agriturismi.
But many shorter routes snake off from the Grande Anello too, making superb one-day adventures. Take for example the Gole dell’Infernaccio (‘Hell’s Gorge’, as these metaphysical-minded parts would inevitably have it). Here you can hike beside an astonishingly clear and fast-flowing mountain stream that has over countless millennia carved a deep crevice into surrounding hillsides. The walk winds through dramatic rock-clefts and psychedelically dappled woods – the patches of sunlight whiter than any you’ve ever seen, vividly spotlighting the dark vegetation below. Eventually the walk opens out to reveal huge views of haughty crags and snow-streaked mountaintops brooding above green slopes thick with wildflowers.
Did someone say wildflowers? Come to the Sibillini National Park in late spring and early summer, and you’ll find the wildflowers at their hysterical peak. Ascend to the Piani di Ragnolo plateau near Fiastra and you can blissfully stroll through fields of shaggy asphodels, esoteric orchids, bright arnicas and poignant forget-me-nots – all to a backing track of crickets, skylarks and cuckoos. Far below, the pleasing landscape of Le Marche lies like a rumpled blanket, each hilltop graced with a tiny town. The blue Adriatic lines the horizon, and on a clear day you can see all the way to Croatia. Or head to the stupefying Pian Grande flower meadow near Norcia, one of the great sights of central Italy. Here, on a pancake-flat plain ringed by mountains, the teeming wildflowers resemble bright paint-slicks across the land – infinite orchids, narcissi and buttercups. And hiding in their midst, wild tulips, snakehead fritillaries and other rare exotica. Photographers, a rather less rare species, wander through it in a dazed delirium.
The enchantments of the Sibillini area aren’t, however, solely elemental. It’s not just the majesty of landscape that gives this place its magic. Tiny, out-of-the-way towns and villages are likely to hold improbable riches of curious sorts. Take the handsome little town of Montefortino, for example, snug and tidy with its warm brown stone and steep towerhouses. Tucked away in this unassuming spot is one of the most fabulous small collections of Italian Renaissance art – assembled in a palazzo by an 18th-century schizophrenic named Fortunato Duranti.
The gorgeous saints and madonnas filling the dozen elegant rooms are bursting with character, as indeed is Duranti himself, whose self-portrait hangs in the collection. Making no secret of his mental illness, he depicts himself wild-haired and surprised by life. Rather postmodernly, he has also painted an imaginary corner of his portrait’s canvas folded back to reveal the wooden frame underneath – acknowledging his own strange imperfection, his awareness of alternative realities.
Even more improbable is what awaits the unassuming passer-through in the remote, miniscule village of Isola San Biagio, where some fiendish alchemy goes on. One of Italy’s best restaurants has apparently fallen from the sky to land here in the middle of nowhere. ‘Il Tiglio’ has now found its way into every foodie guide going (Michelin, Bibendum, et al). After a day spent striding across mystic mountainsides, there’s nothing like sitting down to meal in which antipasti might include a madcap sandwich of salami on a ‘bun’ of asparagus paste resting on a bed of onion foam and topped with a frizz of dried cereal strands. Or a tricolour tower of vegetable foam, steak tartare and fluffy Le Marche mozzarella skewered by a nutty bread crozier. Fish with strawberries, multi-coloured salts with exotic pedigrees... In the Sibillini Mountains, it seems that wonders never cease.
For more info on the Sibillini Mountains National Park,