You know youre free of the burden of bureaucracy when, in the tourist information centre of Norcia, you are informed that free camping is permitted anywhere within the national park. Thats 70,000 ha to choose from. No charge, no catch, no passports dangling from the side of the tent its enough to make you light-headed. And during the summer, when the weather holds out at this clean-aired altitude, there arent many more pleasurable places to spend a weekend, camping or not.
Norcia is a tiny, walled city in a valley on the edge of the beautiful and untamed Monte Sibillini national park. It stands as an obvious gateway to the park and a fine place to find your feet. Inside the 14th-century walls the atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming, a balanced mix of local colour and low-key tourism. The towns fame immediately imposes its presence as wafts of the exquisite prosciutto and tartufo lure you in to the omnipresent norcinerie. A few minutes walk past the spacious square equipped with the obligatory jaw-dropping Umbrian church and you reach the far walls. So its best to head back and enjoy an evening drink near the square to soak up the vibe and admire the views. Beyond the walls, mountains fill the horizon, and its easy to forget that youre in the relatively confined space of central Italy.
Head towards those mountains (you really need access to a car at this point) and, after climbing over 1,000 m, you sink into the splendour of the Piano Grande. In fact it is best to stop where the road peaks before descending; here the vast, empty plain, circled by steep, rounded mountains, stretches kilometres before you. It was once a vast glacier-formed lake, and now, at nearly 1,300 m, it is one of the highest and wildest plains in Europe. It is a truly unforgettable sight, and at the far end the village of Castelluccio crowns the hillside. If you go in early summer you will witness a kaleidoscopic sea of wild flowers on the flat a photographers dream.
Castelluccio, home of lentils, ricotta and pecorino cheeses and the odd shepherd, is a suitably windswept place. You can stay at Il Guerrin Meschino (impossible to miss), an agriturismo which costs a mere 37 for an en suite room with breakfast, lunch and dinner included. You will happily gorge on the aforementioned specialities while keeping an eye on the snow-capped peak of Monte Vettore above and the sheep and hang-gliders below. The village is a base for a hang-gliding school (another is in Norcia), and its an ideal place to learn to fly.
The park is also ideal for trekking and mountain biking, and paths are in abundance, although its best to buy a detailed map. There are also plenty of rifugi on the hillsides which are equipped for walkers to spend the night, and you can even try glacier skiing on Monte Vettore (2,476 m), the highest mountain in the park. A few hardcores practice this, but you might prefer to walk to the summit, about a three or four hour climb from the road. It is definitely worth the effort, and the fresh wind can only be a tonic after those sweaty Roman bus rides. Or see it as a passeggiata with bite.
Monte Vettore borders the Marche, and the change of region represents a change in scenery; dense alpine forests blanket the mountains as far as the eye can see, and timeless villages dot the lower valleys. Make an exploratory drive and circle your way back to Norcia to complete a breathtakingly diverse trip; thats if youve got a car and a high resistance to car sickness. Otherwise buses go to Norcia from Rome twice a day (or more regularly from Spoleto) and from there you can negotiate a lift to the Piano Grande, or even walk it.
In and around Norcia there are enough hotels if you dont want to camp, but check out the agriturismo Il Casale nel Parco a kilometre up the road for great food, local wine and hospitality. The lamb was the best Ive tasted in Italy, and Ive even changed my mind about (lambs) liver after a 15-year boycott. However, the real bonus is the optimally placed swimming pool overlooking the valley where you could lounge all day. And you wont forget the two dogs; theyll entertain you for hours.
Last, but definitely not least, is the S. Eutizio Abbey near Preci, which was apparently visited by St Benedict and is strangely evocative of scenes from Lord of the Rings. It was founded by two hermits, Eutizio and Spec, in the fifth century, and is the epitome of tranquillity; enough to seduce you into throwing in the towel and following the founders example. From the road the abbey is hidden among the trees on the edge of a valley, the silence disturbed only by the gentle flow of the river and the sound of crickets, and it feels untouched by the passing centuries. In the courtyard the small spartan chapel blends perfectly with the atmosphere of the place and you can visit the grottos where the hermits first lived. If you are inclined, there is a footpath running 13 km through the forest to Norcia, while a conveniently placed bar next to the abbey provides refreshment.
For further information, the tourist information centre off the main square in Norcia is open most of the time and the staff are willing to help. You sense a real pride in the locals around here, and rightly so, especially as so much is unspoiled. So if youre interested in visiting a gem of rural Italy, or just want to get away, this isolated corner of Umbria should really fit the bill.
Il Guerrin Meschino, Castelluccio, tel. 0743821125.
Il Casale nel Parco, Norcia, tel. 0743816481.