Piceno is indeed a treasure trove of nature, traditions and legends for, together with its historic and architectural riches, it contains some authentic natural wonders: the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini and the Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso-Monti della Laga.
The Monti Sibillini – the Sibylline Mountains – are a chain of limestone mountains that rise up in central Italy, reaching a height of 2476 metres at Monte Vettore.
In actual fact, about twenty peaks rise to over two thousand metres.
These are mountains of myth, legend and tradition, the most famous of which is that of the Sibyl.
The presence of the illustrious prophetess, the Apennine Sibyl, dates back to ancient times, but it was in the Middle Ages that it became rooted in the popular imagination and prompted many travellers to head to the area.
Literary works that helped create the legend of the Sibyl include Andrea da Barberino’s Guerrin Meschino and Antoine de la Sale’s The Paradise of Queen Sibyl.
The Parco Nazionale Monti Sibillini, which covers an area of over 70,000 hectares, was set up in 1993 to protect the rare flora and fauna of this very special territory and its economic and cultural traditions.
The animals here, which include wolves, the golden eagle, and a variety of fairy shrimp known as the Chirocephalus marchesonii, and the plants, which include the Apennine edelweiss, are just one aspect of the vast heritage of the territory, which boasts such spectacular sights as the karstic Piani di Castelluccio and the Lago di Pilato.
The hand of man can be seen in the churches, abbeys, and medieval villages, which stand out like jewels on the crown of the mountains, creating an enchanted and unforgettable landscape.
Special mention should be made of Lago di Pilato – “Pilate’s Lake” – a fine place for excursions which, at 1940 metres, is the only glacial lake in the Apennines.
In the “eyeglasses” lake, so-called because of its characteristic shape during dry spells, lives a type of fairy shrimp, the Chirocephalus marchesonii, a minuscule crustacean that has its perfect habitat in these cold waters.
The name of the lake comes from a legend which has it that the body of Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea at the time of Christ, was dragged into it by a pair of buffaloes.
The unique characteristics of the Sibillini make the mountains ideal for mountaineering, various levels of ski touring, cross-country skiing, horse riding, and mountain biking.
But the most popular activity is trekking, with a vast network of paths.
One of the finest is the Grande Anello dei Sibillini, the “great ring” that winds its way for about 120 km around the entire mountain chain.
It leads through a vast variety of habitats and touches on much of the historical and cultural heritage of the park.
It is clearly marked and is divided into nine stages, at each of which there are accommodation and restaurant facilities, with special focus on the promotion of traditional farm produce.
The nine stages, which present no particular difficulties for walkers and which join up villages that are small but always interesting in terms of history, architecture and traditions, range in altitude from 560 to 1795 metres.
Set up in 1991, the Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga covers an area of 150,000 hectares, and is one of the largest in Italy.
The variety of the landscape and the natural wealth of its massifs and slopes make it an authentic European monument to biodiversity.
And its countless historical and architectural treasures truly make it a year-round park, with attractions for visitors in every season.
The area contains a number of mountain groups – the chain of Gran Sasso d’Italia, the massif of the Laga, and the Monti Gemelli – and the Corno Grande, at 2912 metres the highest peak in the Apennines, as well as the Calderone, the only glacier in the Apennines and the southernmost in Europe.
The part of the Park in the province of Ascoli Piceno is that of Monti della Laga and the northern slopes of Monti Gemelli.
In particular, the Laga area has been home to man since prehistoric times, and it is a treasure trove of hidden wonders, both natural and architectural, as well as historical.
The Park, with its huge range of plant species (more than 2000 of the 6-7000 in all Italy) offers a mosaic of landscapes from lower altitudes up to the highest peaks, favoured by the abundance of water from the Monti della Laga.
In these mountains, most of which are covered with woods with large numbers of rare species, silver firs, and birch trees, there are countless streams and waterfalls, some of them truly spectacular.
The animals include the characteristic Abruzzo chamois in the Gran Sasso group, and the Apennine wolf in Laga.
The golden eagle soars over the entire Park, and as far as the external group of Gemelli.
The artistic heritage in the Piceno part of the Park is mainly to be found in the Acquasanta and Arquata areas, which are dotted with churches, castles, buildings and villages where time seems to stand still.
Significant evidence of medieval hermitages and pastoral activities can be seen in the Monti Gemelli, which marks the northern limit of dry-stone tholos constructions.
The wealth of nature and evidence of the hand of man in the various areas make the Parco Gran Sasso-Monti della Laga a paradise for mountain activities.
The Gran Sasso is mainly a place for mountaineering, while the Monti della Laga are ideal for ski touring, mountain skiing, hiking and mountain biking.
The Laga offers great opportunities for hikers, including historic trails, such as the route probably taken by the Carthaginian general Hannibal after his victory at Lake Trasimeno when he crossed the mountains in order to reach the Adriatic.
Hikers can also go along fantastic paths that lead deep into nature itself, wandering over huge slabs of sandstone to the sound of crashing water.