As we arrive back in the familiar Apuane Alps, I feel a sensation of coming home. Our last day of walking is hot and sunny. The still waters of the lake reflect the rocky slopes that we have to ‘climb’ to get on the last footpath and to our final destination. We deliberately chose to make the last day a shorter distance, so we can savour it like the final tasty mouthful of a delicious meal. We sling on our backpacks, tie our walking boots for the last time, take one final glance at the badly crumpled map and head off into the beech woods to the north west of Lake Santo.
Our destination today is the Ospitale di San Pellegrino in Alpe which has long been a place of salvation for pilgrims and travellers on these paths. We find our stride on the first climb up to the source of the lake and head for Passo della Boccaia which is in Emila. We take footpath number 529 and cross the green and grassy Campo di Annibale to the Fontanone spring. After walking a while across a level area we meet a Romanian shepherd. We stop for a chat and offer him and his Maremmani sheep dogs some bread and cheese. Then we head up to Colle Bruiata which sits on top of a hill.
After having walked for so many kilometres, climbed so many mountain paths and sweated so much, it is pure joy to turn the corner and see the familiar gleaming marble of the Apuan Alps in front of us. The rest of the journey doesn’t seem to count as we are already on the way home now. We follow the ridge with the alps to our left and walk around Cima dell’Omo, a path which rises and falls continuously on the Romecchio, Saltello, Albano and Spicchio mountains. The panorama is majestic – an ocean of Apennines spread out below us.
The ridge continues north-west and is covered with pastures and woodland. There’s a fresh wind and we can see our final destination, San Pellegrino in Alpe, in the distance. This small village was inhabited in Medieval times and was one of the most important crossing points from the north to the centre of Italy. It went on to become a place of pilgrimage to celebrate the legendary son of a king who renounced his throne in order to travel to Jerusalem. On his way back from the Holy Land, he was crossing the Apennines and was so struck by the natural and spiritual beauty of the place that he stopped in a cave and became a hermit. He was found after his death, his body guarded by wild animals. There is an fifteenth century urn in the town’s chapel today which contains the reliquaries of Pellegrino and Bianco who are recognised as the founders of the town and who were made saints by the will of the local population alone.
After a long descent, we leave the 00 footpath, which leads to Porta al Passo delle Radici, and follow a beautiful mule track to the town known as the ‘balcony of the alps’. For the first time, we don’t have to worry about where to put up our tent – tonight we’ll be sleeping at home. Nonetheless, as we watch the sunset that evening and look towards the mountain ridge to the north-west, we feel the desire to set off again as strong as if it were the first day all over again.