In July 2022 Mama Cat traveled to Italy to embark on her first international multi-day hike. She documents her experience below.
This was a much anticipated hike. I had been planning it for some time, and was thrilled to finally get to experience a multi-day hike in a foreign country. I could not find any prescribed routes for this area, apart from one blog which had no information about routes, distances or ascent – just that a fox may steal your food if you don’t zip it up in your tent (the food, not the fox). I relied on instagram and Maps.me (the app) to plan the hike, cross referencing with Google maps to make sure a lake was actually a lake and not a puddle on top of a 3000m mountain. After mapping out a route that seemed manageable I invited a friend from Zurich, Carmen, who agreed to join me. The hike was incredibly challenging, from an ascent descent perspective, coupled with a few long days and taking unsafe paths and having to turn back, but I enjoyed every minute and would highly recommend this hike to anyone traveling Europe side. Like the Cederberg or the Drakensberg you are able to create your own routes, make the hike as long or short as you would like, and either wild camp or plan your hike around the hamlets so you have bed and breakfasts to stay in.
Map: I used the app, Maps.me to choose the route for this hike. The app is not reliable when it comes to paths you can safely navigate, and the ascent & descent for the day (sometimes it told us we only had 600m but each day ended up being around 2000m). I was unable to find any suggested routes or much info about the Maira Valley beforehand. There are tourism offices you can visit in the area, one in the Maira Valley in a village called Acceglio. The info center here will give you a map, but it’s more for day hikes and tourism than it is useful for hiking, but we kept a copy with us nonetheless. Most of the signs on the pathway had GTA written on them - The Grande Traversate delle Alpi. You can check out their website here.
Time of Year: Beginning of July 2022.
Management & Bookings: You do not need to make a booking or get a permit if you are wild camping. We passed one Refugio called Refugio della Gardetta where you could spend the night and get a meal. And then we passed two private huts, not sure how one would access these. We wild camped. It is ok to wild camp, but recommended you don’t set up your tent before 8pm and you have it down by 8am. We didn’t quite stick to this but there was never anyone around us when we were camping.
Getting there: I was very lucky to have a friend with a camper van. You are able to get to the area using a combination of trains and buses. Initially we were going to rely on a shuttle to take us to the start, and fetch us at the end but we managed to hitch two rides to the start (only because the taxi I thought I had booked was not in fact book - classic lost in translation situation) and then we hiked the rest!
Accommodation: We stayed in our camper van in the Camping Park Valley Maira. We were able to pay 6 Euro per night for parking when we weren’t there and it was about 12 Euro per night per person when we spent a night on either end of the hike in our van. (Their website prices are from 2018. They are at least double now.
Parking: We paid for parking at the campsite we stayed in, see above.
Facilities: As we wild camped on the hike, there were no facilities.
Gear: We chose routes that needed no technical gear – a lot of the peak summits require gear and/or a guide. I would highly recommend hiking poles for the gravel sections. I never hike with poles as I find them annoying, but I am so glad that Carmen was willing to lend me one of hers when I needed it. Other than this, we took what you would usually take on a wild camping hike in South Africa.
Cost: There are no fees to hike or wild camp in this area. Free!
Length: 5 days, due to the remote location of the hike, I would highly recommend being in the valley the night before you start, and leaving the day after you finish. If you are strapped for time you could drive from Milan on the day you start as we only did about 12km. On the last day we arrived back at the camp at about 5pm, so you will have plenty of daylight if you also need to leave early.
Distance: We chose a route that ended up being around 90km and 10,000m of ascent descent.
Weather: We were blessed with exceptional weather. Exceptional meaning the ⅘ days of thunder showers did not materialise and we just had sunshine. That being said, it was hot, at least 30degrees everyday. We had a little bit of wind a day of cool breezes, but no serious weather. It is light until about 10pm and gets light again at about 5am. You can burn after 7pm, so make sure you post stream bath moisturiser is more suncream!
Water: We were told that it would be best to only fill up in the Hamlets and villages, but our plan was to avoid all places filled with humans (most hamlets only have about 10-20 cottages and half are abandoned). I drank the water from the streams even though the info center told me not to. I was fine, didn’t get sick or have a runny tummy. We did have to come down to a hamlet to get water on one of the days. We were conscious and always filled up when the opportunity arose. Two nights we camped with no water but soaked our food at the last water spot and we managed comfortably.
Difficulty: This was the most challenging hike I have done to date (the other would be the Amathole, I have yet to tackle the Drankensberg but I feel very ready now!). There was a lot of ascent and a lot of descent. As most of the paths were not created for hiking, but rather by travelers, army’s and shepherds, they mostly go straight up or straight down. There are a lot of hairpin bends but you seldom get a little uphill to relieve one group of muscles on your downhill and vice versa. I would recommend taking trekking poles (thankfully my hiking buddy had a set and lent me one for the scary bits). We also hiked on some hairy paths, either a lot of gravel and not a lot of path, or some very rock sections, or paths that became confused with cattle tracks.
- Cold: It was surprisingly not cold, even when we camped at 2500m. On two nights I used my down puffer, and one one night I used my gloves. I didn’t take thermals. I do however have a very good down sleeping bag, so I was nice and toasty at night (it did get cold in the early hours of the morning, but only while you were sleeping, so get a good sleeping bag!)
- Sun: The sun is up from 5am-10pm. You will get sunburnt if you don’t apply suncream until you go to bed and wear a hat all day.
- Bugs: lots of bugs, a few spiders. No issues. I had mozzie repellent but never had to use it, I am not sure they like to be above 2000m!
- Animals: Lots of cows, you will hear their bells and smell them from afar. If you are lucky you will see the goats on the ridges of the mountains over 2500m. There are SO many marmots. They are a cute cross between a dassie and a bunny rabbit. You will hear them squeaking - they sound like birds. Careful not to fall into their burrows which are in abundance on the slopes. My hiking buddy saw 3 snakes, two not longer than 12/15cm, and one that was about 2.5cm in diameter.
Day One: 13-15km | Camping Park Valley Maira, via Lago Nero to Rocca La Meja (the slopes beneath, not the summit).
As is the nature of hikes, things don’t always go as planned. The taxi I thought I had booked, was actually fully booked and didn’t arrive to fetch us. My hiking buddy, Carmen, thought this would be a great opportunity to add an extra 10km to our hike. So with a skip in her step, and slightly less of a skip in mine, we set off up the valley, taking a left towards Preit. We walked the first km or two and were then lucky to find two people who gave us rides to certain points up the mountain, we then hiked the last 2km or so. Excited to be off the road and onto a single track were greeted by the forest and a few clouds as we headed for Lago Nero. As we only started the hike at 11am, we arrived at the lake just in time for lunch. We had a swim and enjoyed the sun before we set off for our camping spot around the mountain. We were expecting thunder showers, but only had one drop of rain and then clear or cloudy skies, but were spared getting soaked. As we headed around Rocca La Meja, we experienced the first narrow gravel paths that you experience in the Alps. Old glaciers (there are no longer any in the area), snow and ice pull the rock away from the mountain creating gravel, depending on the size of the stones determines how easy the path is to navigate. It’s quite scary so definitely get your trekking poles out so you feel safer. As we came off the gravel we headed up through cows grazing on the slopes of the mountain. The herds of cows graze in the Alps from about mid June to mid October, I was constantly surprised at where you would find cows, they are almost as brave as goats when it comes to navigating the mountains.
We chose a camping spot under the magnificent Rocca La Meja, on a stream and set up our first camp of the trail. I was in bed before the sun set, reading my book and enjoying being out in the mountains. While we had a light and headtorch, we never used the light and used the headtorch once or twice!
On the menu:
Breakfast: A pizza slice from a local bakery
Lunch: Bread with hummus, red sauerkraut (bought in Berlin) and tomatoes.
Dinner: Yellow Curry Noodles with Veg. Buckwheat noodles, dehydrated mixed vegetables, yellow curry paste and coconut milk.
Day Two: 25km | Rocca La Meja to Lago d’Apsoi
This was by far the most challenging day. For a few reasons; firstly, skip-in-her-step Carmen thought it wise to add on a few extra km so we didn’t have to backtrack 1km to get onto the path toward the lake, then she decided it would be a good idea to summit a hill, for fun, then we tried to ascend a path to Lago Visaisa which was the original plan, but there was no clear path and a very steep gravel ascent that we decided not take so we had to backtrack and try another route, which was very steep and led to another lake which was like telly-tubby land and had no flat space for a tent - and there was no drinking water in this valley. But, as ever, despite the challenges it was lovely. Our day started with a lot of jeep track, which was only fun when a group of French Rally cars came chugging past, these were old Fiat500’s raised, or similar small vehicles really not made for off-road, the drivers were thrilled to be cruising up the hills of the Alps. We then got on the single track and passed the only Refugio we would see on the hike. This is where we saw the most people, electric mountain bikers, hikers, people there for a beer with a view. We cruised past and headed down the valley towards Grange Calandra. There were quite a few World War 2 bunkers built by Mussolini on the way down as this valley borders France. The first bunker on the right was accessible and extensive. Very creepy but we went in and had a look around, we however did not go down the staircase which led to who knows where. There was one tree which provided some shade for lunch, albeit at a 50degree angle - We had a break at the stream below, iced our feet in the cold water and then started our ascent. The initial route we took was extremely beautiful, we were in a small valley surrounded by tall mountains, and gorgeous spring flowers. A couple km in, Carmen squealed in delight as she spotted an Edelweiss. This is the Swiss (Carmen is Swiss) national flower and it only grows in the Alps and is very rare to find. Despite all of the adventuring Carmen does, she has only seen it once before. Excited by this rare find, we carried on up the mountain, following the white and red painted route markers from rock to rock as there was no path. As we got closer to where we would have to summit, we could not see a path, just a lot of gravel, not even a cattle or goat track. We decided that it would be best to turn around and try another path we saw a couple coming down, which would lead us to a lake closer to the French border. So back down the mountain, and then back up again. We took a path in the wrong direction, but it luckily led us to the last water we would have access to for the day. Back on the right path, we headed up the incredibly steep mountain, aiming for 2740m. The path turned to gravel and we had to stay one hairpin bend away from each other to give each other space for the rocks that invariably tumbled down. It was nerve wracking but we looked up to see a goat (the main thing I wanted to see on this hike was the goats with the curly horns) standing next to the summit sign post. This, and a random daisy – not sure what it was doing up at 2500m – gave me the energy to push to the top! We were thrilled we made it, but then looked down at the path we would have to descend, I was tempted to back the way we came, but it was so steep and treacherous so I sucked it up and forged on. Carmen lent me one of her trekking poles which helped me slide down the mountain as I had a little cry (I have a fear of heights!). We were then on what seemed to be the moon, large grey rocks and a path that looped aimlessly down towards the lake. Around 8:30pm we arrived at our campsite, which had a hut in front of it which was open, but private. We cooked dinner and got into bed, exhausted, but proud of the long and gruelling day we conquered.
On the menu:
Breakfast: Pear & Chocolate oats with cocoa macadamia Nut Butter.
Lunch: Bread, beetroot hummus and tomatoes. And a bit of leftover yellow curry noodles.
Dinner: Jolof Rice.
Day Three: 18-20 km | 1900m | Lago d’Apsoi towards Monte Bellino Ridge
Despite our best efforts to reduce the amount of elevation we would do for the rest of the hike, we ended up on another day of close to 2000m ascent and descent. We started early, our only early morning, as we needed water for our breakfast. We headed down into the valley to the river where we found a tap and a small lake and had a long relaxed breakfast. Our route back up the mountains went along the river in a forest and then we popped out in the gorgeous Chiappera hamlet, where we may or may not have had a cheeky ice cream. Some of the hamlets have one bar, with some ice creams and cookies, and if you are lucky a croissant or a sandwich. From here we headed out of the hamlet and up the mountain. It was a gorgeous ascent, more flowers (which, similar to the microbiomes of Table Mountain, change from valley to valley), more cows more marmots. We stopped at a beautiful river for lunch, found a spot under the trees and had yet another luxurious long lunch. Carmen was adamant that we do an extra 500m of ascent on this day to cut our morning's ascent from 800m to 300m, so we powered on. The only risk was that as it got steeper we would not find a flat camping spot. When we reached our desired elevation (2500m) we dropped our bags and walked around the slopes until we found the one and only camping spot next to a giant boulder. The marmots were not happy as many of the burrows were located around this rock and they squeaked away, but it was the only spot remotely flat enough to set up a tent. We had a beautiful evening watching the sun set over the cascading mountains. Carmen, who forgot her binoculars in the van, still had a keen eye for animals and spotted a herd of goats on the 2800m ridge, and not the small goats, the big ones with the curly horns! We watched the play and tussled with each other as we ate our dinner, an incredible sighting. And we slept well knowing we just had to get through 300m of elevation before our 800m descent the following morning.
On the menu:
Breakfast: Mango and Turmeric Oats with Oat Milk and a Cinnamon & Macadamia Nut Butter.
Lunch: Wraps with Sun-dried tomato pesto, dehydrated veg and quinoa.
Dinner: Central African Peanut Stew
Day Four: 18 km | 2000m | Monte Bellino Ridge to Caserma Vallo Alpino
What a beautiful place to wake up in. The sun had yet to reach our camping spot, so we popped on our puffers and made breakfast with the water we carried from the river close to us the previous evening. We ate our breakfast watching a trail runner descent the 800m neck down to the valley we explored the day before. After packing up our camp we began the 300m ascent. At the top we spotted a small cave entrance possibly built by Napoleon's army. We enjoyed the view from the 2800m ridge, ate a bunch of snacks, and started to notice day hikers ascending the different peaks around us (it was a Saturday so there were bound to be a few more people on the mountains). The descent was long but in a completely new environment, lots of rivers and waterfalls and plenty of old shepards cottages that had me dreaming about fixing one up and turning it into an overnight hut. We came across the first cattle herdsmen, a nonno and his grandson herding the cattle down the mountain and across a river. This section of the hike had the most flowers, the bees and grasshoppers were out in the thousands enjoying their morning of snacking on pollen. We followed the rivers down the valley until we found a good spot to have lunch. The clouds grew thick and threatened to rain on us, but luckily the sun burned through and we maintained our good weather streak. Filling up with water we began our ascent to our camp. This took us through the forest, first a forest of a single variety of pine tree, and then one that was more diverse in its species of tree. A relief to be out of the sun and in the shade, especially on our ascent. Again, we were climbing higher and higher, hoping to find a camp spot. This time we were unlucky, the only patch of flat ground was covered in stinging nettles, after both getting stung we backtracked to the path and accepted another 250m of ascent to a small ruins site that could be a good spot. And boy was it a good spot! This would be our first camp where we were on top of a mountain (only 2080m this time) where we could watch the sun set and rise over the mountains around us. We had gorgeous views of a number of 3-4000m peaks and spent the evening figuring out which one was which. While there was a parking spot nearby with two camper vans, we loved this spot and still felt safe. A magnificent last night on the trail.
On the menu:
Breakfast: Apple & Cinnamon Oats with a honey and almond nut butter
Lunch: Wraps with Puttanesca, hummus and fresh tomatoes.
Dinner: Moroccan Tagine with the last wrap to share J
Day Five: 18km | Caserma Vallo Alpino to Fremo Cuncuna and back to camp.
As we had no water, we had a quick breakfast and began walking towards the hamlet of Elva which was en route to our final view point of the hike before he headed back to camp. We followed the jeep track which spat us out on a path through a series of farms and then down to the hamlet. We had a coffee and a slice of cake while we charged our phones as we needed them for wayfinding. We headed out through the hamlet and onto a jeep track up towards the lookout point. As the track turned into a single track Carmen spotted the snake that was 2.5-3cm in diameter and got a fright, I missed it thankfully, although it would have been nice to see an Italian snake J. We reached Fremo Cuncuna, which is a popular spot for taking rad photos (kind of like pancake or WHATEVER that rock is called up Kasteelspoort). We got to see a map and look at the mountains we had climbed over the last 5 days, a great moment to reflect on the trek and all the elevation we had gained and lost. After lunch in the field we made our way down the mountain into the valley. It was a 1000m descent with a lot of hairpin bends. We were hoping to hitch a ride but decided to take the trail shortcuts that cut through the tarred road and just finish the hike on foot. At one point the trail turned from a clear path, to a less clear path and became quite dodgy. I decided that the route (in my imagination) was designed for a race between shepards from different hamlets in the area in the 80’s. The goal was to see which shepard was able to scale a tricky section of the mountain in the shortest space of time. There were old red route markers painted onto the trees but had become faded as the trees grew older. It was hairy and scary and Carmen lent me her trekking pole again, but we eventually made it back to the road, and then to the camper van. We both went straight to the river for a splash and eased into the evening.
On the menu:
Breakfast: Chia & Nectarine Oats with Cinnamon & Macadamia Nut Butter
Lunch: Dehydrated Veggies and Rice and
Dinner: Ratatouille with pasta and fresh tomatoes.
If I had known how intense the hike was going to be, or that there would be scary gravel sections, I probably would not have done it. Sometimes it's best to not know everything about the adventure you are embarking on as you will push yourself out of your comfort zone and push your limits. That being said we were still careful, made sure we had phone battery and turned around when the path was no longer a path (despite what the map app said) and went slowly and patiently on the ascents and descents. I would definitely return to this area, it's absolutely mind-blowing, beautiful and there are so many more routes to explore and mountains to summit.
As always, if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to reach out!