The four of us – husband Ben; Charlie; daughter Phoebe, nine; and I – were sitting on the bonnet of our ageing VW Passat tearing into slightly salted focaccia somewhere just outside Pescasseroli in central Italy. I looked across at Phoebe and raised my eyebrows.
‘Sound good?’ I asked. She smiled but, looking up across the pine-smothered mountains that I’d told her we would be hiking up, she looked apprehensive. To be fair, we’d put the kids through their paces a bit this summer, presenting them with some challenges as well as once-in-a-lifetime experiences. So far, we’d done three weeks of our two monthlong journey around Italy and had already packed in more holiday experiences than most people manage in a decade. Husband Ben is a novelist and travel-book writer and we were on a mission to see as much of this beautiful country as possible in the time generously allotted to us by the kids’ headteacher, in order for Ben to research his next book.
So far we’d picked our way along miles of baking hot, olive-strewn clifftop paths in the Cinque Terre, munching freshly-caught Ligurian anchovies to keep our energy up, re-enacted The Italian Job on the roof of the Lingotto building in Turin and swooned in Verona’s arena as Violetta’s heart broke in La Traviata.
In the Dolomites, we’d slept 4,000 feet up, above the clouds, in a cuckoo-clock of a mountain refuge; in Milan we’d stared entranced at The Last Supper for 15 straight minutes before pretending to be Renaissance royalty in Castle Sforzesco; and in Umbria we’d fallen in love with two truffle-hunting cocker spaniels as we raced through the woods outside Norcia seeking tartufo nero.
When we arrived
Now we had arrived in Italy’s third largest national park at 155 square miles, Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo. The trusty Passat had nosed its way around dozens of winding roads lined with mountain pines and beech trees as I read out from our Rough Guide what the kids should look out for. ‘Watch out for the Italian wolves and wild boar!’ I called to the back as Charlie howled with pleasure and Phoebe politely enquired whether the bears we were hoping to encounter on our expedition the next day were partial to eating humans. ‘Only the females, and that’s only if you run off with their cubs,’ Ben replied as Phoebe began looking for her wildlife book, rustling through the virtually knee-high mound of old biscuits, discarded colouringin books and lidless-felt tips that had accumulated in her footwell
We joined an international band of hiking-booted bear seekers in a Landriver with a softly spoken Italian guide, and I nervously noted no one else was bringing along a six-year-old. To be honest, I hadn’t really researched this trip much and when we arrived at the foot of a steep ascent through pine woods up to Callano Valley (from where 360-degree views heighten your bear-spotting chances), I was a wee bit nervous about Charlie.
The Cinque Terre walk had been beautiful but a little arduous for him and now here we were again, about to start a long trek to 6,000 feet above sea level. It was 2pm when we started walking and the intensity of the late-summer afternoon sun was mercifully diluted by the branches of the black pines through which it streaked. Phoebe, giant white sunhat flopping as she crackled across the forest floor, had her nose half in her wildlife book, declaring every so often: ‘That’s a White-throated Dipper!’ or ‘Do you think that’s a Red-billed Chough?’.
Soon, she and Ben had forged ahead, keen to spot more wildlife while I encouraged Charlie, his little legs determinedly ploughing on but his spirit weakening a little as the climb got steeper. By 4.30pm, we had made it to the top, just in time to see a golden eagle swoop overhead. We walked along the high plateau dotted with a rainbow of violets, peonies and forget-me-nots to a tiny mountain refuge just big enough to contain a small table and a stove. There must have been about 20 of us in all, but we fell silent as we took in the views around us.
Ecotur, based in Pescasseroli, offers half-day bear-watching excursions for £41 per adult, £33 per child, including dinner. Take a backpack large enough to hold water and food, binoculars, a camera, a flashlight, windbreaker and warm sweaters, hats and gloves.
Wildlife books at the ready, with bears, wolves, otter, wild cats and deer you won’t be short of animals to tick off your list. The best way to get to grips with the area is with a guided tour- they’ll show you all the best spots to catch a glimpse those elusive bears.
Situated in the Heart of the National Park Lake Barrea is a stunning centre point for your trip, with the picturesque town set on it’s edge it’s a great place to stop for lunch or even set-up your camp for the week.
Where to stay
Don’t let it’s size fool you, Hotell II Bucaneve may be small but it boasts stunning views across the mountains. Just outside the centre of town in Pescasseroli it’s friendly staff welcome holiday makers all year round.
Price: From £56 per adult, £45 for children aged 3-10,£28 for children aged 1-2.
How to get there: easyJet flies from Bristol and London Gatwick to Rome Fiumicino, from around £70 return.
From Rome, take the bus (summer only) from Piazza Tiburtina for the three-hour journey to Pescasseroli or hire a car to drive the 100 miles to your final destination.