The Maremma sheep dogs–mere yards away from our tent– had been barking since 4am. A couple of hours later, my 16 year-old daughter and I crept out of our tent in the darkness, seeking warmth in the agriturismo farmhouse where the majority of our group was sleeping inside. Nunzio, the jovial bearded man responsible for organizing and offering this 3 day Transhumanza adventure from his La Porta farm in the tiny village of Anversa degli Abruzzi, was already up and sitting by a wood-burning stove, cup of coffee in hand, conversing with Francesca, a man from Malta. My daughter and I snuggled into the warmth, exchanging greetings. With a wry smile, Nunzio inquired about our sleep. Through the interpretation of the Maltese man, we learned Nunzio’s snoring is legendary. He also explained what all the ruckus was about in the middle of the night–apparently a pack of wolves tried to attack the sheep but the sheep dogs chased them away. The dogs also found a wild goat prowling about and killed it, ate it, and were chewing on the skull outside our tent early this morning. Ewww…so that’s what that was. The sound of the dogs crunching on the goat’s teeth was especially grating.
Nunzio’s eyes expressed a genuine concern over our lack of sleep. Apparently there had been a stack of blankets in the back of his car. I waved it off, wanting to learn more about the sheep and the Transumanza from the organizer himself. He explained that each flock of sheep has its own set of dogs, and each dog has a specific role and place among the flock. A couple of Border Collies stay close to the shepherd, while the other Italian sheep dogs know their place around the sheep, whether close or at a distance, scouting out possible enemies from wolves to bears. The sheep will stay in the high meadows until November, with the shepherd, and return to the farm together on another Transumanza before the first snowfall.
After a breakfast of ricotta cheese and pan del orso (bear cake), we packed up the tents and loaded Nunzio’s car with bags. He showed his strength and fun-loving nature by picking up some of the women, and even a sheep. We would see him again late this afternoon when we reached the high pastures (where we would leave the sheep till Autumn), and share celebratory bread soup that marked the end of a successful Transumanza.
One of the shepherds cracks a leather whip to get the attention of the sheep. As the other shepherd whistles commands, the dogs leap into their respective positions and the sheep begin to move forward. Time to head out!
Rain is predicted today. Temps are cool, but at least we can no longer see our breath.
We fall in line behind the sheep. And away we go!
I don’t know how many sheep there were…seemed like a hundred. From a photography standpoint, it was a little tricky to shoot them. Most of the time I was behind them. Not the most flattering angle. And when I stepped aside to let them pass, and crouched down to get on their eye level, the dogs often intimidated me with their piercing eyes and menacing looks to move out of the way, now! But if they started barking at me, it was all over. I practically surrendered my camera.
About an hour into our meandering walkabout, we came to a watering trough for the animals. The shepherd took a smoke break while the sheep grazed in the meadows.
Apparently one of the Maremma dogs thought it looked more like a bathtub…
Our path brought us into an area that reminded me of New Zealand–rolling hills, velvety textures, wind-blown shrubs and lots of sheep. Other flocks had their own guard dogs who barked at us as we passed in the distance.
The shepherd who’s responsible for the horses and donkeys asked my daughter if she wanted to ride up the mountainside. He held onto the reins and they veered off in the opposite direction of where the Sicilian guide was leading the group of 24 trekkers up another mountain.
Following my daughter on the horse, I was soon trailing far behind, as my legs were no match for the effortless energy of the mare. The path was of our choosing…simply a scramble up grassy slopes, across rocky sections littered with scratchy weeds and prickly thistles. Soon my daughter would disappear over the crest. I wondered if I had made a mistake not following the Sicilian guide and the rest of the group going up the other mountain.
I found out later from my daughter that the shepherd chose this route to help keep the sheep from straying. He let go of the reins to cut some mushrooms, and noticed some of the sheep straying. He got out his whip and began cracking it on the ground behind the sheep. Each time he struck the ground, the horse flinched with increasing fear. By the 3rd cracking of the whip, the horse began to neigh and bolt away and the shepherd had to run to catch the reins. He grabbed control of the horse and walked toward the edge of a scary cliff, and led my daughter down the steep slope slowly. My daughter, who had never been on a horse before this Transumanza, was a little freaked out to be so vertical on the horse. She recounted how she laid her head on the horse and clutched the saddle to stay on. Horse flies swarmed around her ankles, like hornets or bees had done to me on day 1, stinging me three times and now Jordan. The biting was so relentless that she begged to get off once they safely crested the steepest slope. By now I had caught up to her.
We climbed higher and higher up the gentle slopes of Mount Genzana in the Appennines Mountains of central Abruzzo. Heavy clouds cast shadowy patterns on the hills and valleys, signaling the approaching storm.
The scenery was magnificent! We both fell in love with the landscape. But before we could linger over the views the rain began to fall. Harder. And harder. Our thin little windbreakers were no protection from the rain, and in minutes we were soaked. And then it began to hail. Ping, ping, ping. Ice began hitting the backs of our shoulders, our bent heads, our swinging arms. Owww! Hey, that hurts! We were unfortunately in the open. The shepherds and guide looked frantically for a place where we could hide, and led us eventually to a thin patch of trees. The hail continued to pelt our heads as we stood there huddled together trying to block the rain, ice and wind. My cameras were safe in a plastic bag inside my camera bag (those little plastic garbage bags don’t take up any room but sure come in handy).
Standing next to us was a baby donkey and his father. They looked miserable. Ice was accumulating on their backs, sticking in their manes. Yes, I wanted that picture but didn’t dare take my camera out during that heavy downpour. The rain lasted 40 minutes. When the hail finally stopped, our group headed out in the rain. Who knew when it would stop? We needed to carry on… people had flights to catch later today. With heads bent, we used our hiking sticks to brace against falls in the slippery grass as we walked across the open mountain top.
Twenty minutes after it stopped hailing, there was still hail on the ground.
We helped herd the sheep toward their final destination. It wasn’t far now!
The rain was picking up again. We marched our way across the valley, our assorted ponchos as colorful as gumdrops in Easter basket grass.
Shivering with cold, soaked through our windbreakers, hungry and tired, we felt a wave of joy when we spotted the shepherd’s hut ahead with smoke curling out of the chimney.
It had been three hours since we left the agriturismo late this morning, and we were starving for lunch. Nunzio was a welcome sight, waiting for us inside with a large tub of hot bread soup. We quickly shed our wet layers, and warmed our hands by the crowded stove as we devoured bowls of stew. There were cheese and salami sandwiches too, and fried zucchini flowers filled with ricotta cheese. Nothing ever tasted so good.
The ritual of eating bread soup at the end of the Transumanza, if I understand it correctly, is a tradition to celebrate the journey’s end. The stew is made with all the leftover foods such as lamb meat, pasta, vegetables that we ate during the 3 day journey. It was good. And certainly piqued the interest of some wet, hungry sheep dogs…
When Nunzio noticed that my clothes were soaked through, he gave me his jacket to wear the rest of the day. We still had about an hour and a half hike before we caught the bus back to the farm.
We said goodbye to one of the shepherds who will remain with the flock of sheep here in the high Chiarano pastures overlooking Roccarasco valley all summer into Fall. The shepherd will herd them into protective pens each night to thwart against predators and look after the well-being. It must be lonely to be away from your family so many months at a time.
When we arrived back at La Porta farm, we returned to our guestrooms to shower (ahhhh, perfect!) and pack up. Some people scurried off quickly, needing to drive 2 hours to Rome to catch flights back to Malta or Sicily. Others lingered a bit, talking, exchanging emails or stocking up on the fabulous ricotta in their cheese shop. We hugged our goodbyes before Nunzio’s wife Manuella drove my daughter and I to the tiny village of Santo Stefano for our last Italian adventure.
This Transumanza trip was a definite highlight for both my daughter and me during our 3 weeks in Italy. Epic landscapes, animal encounters, medieval stone village ruins, interesting mix of people, family style dining, language barriers, weather, and physical challenges…talk about an authentic, real experience! It felt exciting to be part of a group on this journey into the unknown, as we crossed unmapped pastures and didn’t know what to expect beyond the next mountain. Every day revealed not only stunning new landscapes, but also discoveries about ourselves as we reacted to situations confronted in the daily life of a traditional shepherd.
Wanna go? La Porta offers the Transumanza package 3 different dates each summer. The all-inclusive cost for the 3 night adventure is 230 Euro per person. Transportation is more limited in Abruzzo, as this region is off the beaten path. Rome is a 2 hour drive away. You could drive or hire a private driver. Or catch a bus to a large town like Scanno, then catch a local bus from Scanno to the nearby village of Anversa degli Abruzzi, and take a 10 minute walk to reach the farm.