Grande Escursione Appenninica (GEA) - a Review

For me, feeling good about something is often to do with the gap between what I was expecting and what happened.  The experience is better when your expectations are exceeded but worse when they are not.   Although it's just a few days since I got back from a 12 day, 200 kilometre walk along Italy's Grande Escursione Appenninica (GEA), I have to say disappointment with the walk is the dominant emotion.
12 days along the Grande Escursione Appenninica

What I was looking for in the GEA was something distinctly "Italian".  Walking south-east to north-west through Umbria and Tuscany I was hoping for lovely countryside, ancient towns and villages and fantastic food.  What I actually got was a long walk through a deciduous forest, looking fabulous in its early autumn colours but a forest none-the-less.  Happy to be called dumb but somehow endless trees weren't the thing that I was expecting in Italy.

Wonderful trees
There were other reasons for doing the GEA in addition to the prospect of an Italian idyll. By going  further south I wanted to see if the summer walking season could be extended into October.  I had a fantastic autumn walk in Spain last year and I wanted to see if it was possible to do the same in Italy.
Early morning walking near Chuisa la Verna
I don't want to sound too negative.  I did see some wonderful places, eat lots of great food and in particular was helped along the way by some incredibly kind Italians.  The weather, though misty at times, was great for walking suggesting that Italy is a good place to visit in October.  It's just that it didn't quite match my "Italian" expectations.
Autumn colours near Campigna 
I based my schedule on Trekking in the Apennines: The Grande Escursione Appenninica (International Walking).  No complaints about the Guide and hopefully the newly published version is more up-to-date on accommodation than the version I used.  It did warn that accommodation is not always open in October a warning that I should have taken more seriously because sadly a lot of it was.  Gillian must also be a speedy walker because it's hard work keeping to her timings.  I had hoped to manage the lack of accommodation by combining her stages but by and large that proved too difficult and we just had to leave the trail.  I was also walking with my cousin who hadn't spent most of the summer going up and down mountains in the Alps and for some reason didn't want to walk non-stop for 10 hours every day.

From the Passo Dello Strofinatoio F
In 12 days we managed to complete 75 per cent of the walk. The walk towards Abetone on the last two days (both of which took us above the tree line), took us through some excellent scenery and was by all accounts some of the best on the whole of the GEA.  Had we known my schedule was too ambitious we would have started further along the trail, and as a consequence got past Abetone where there is more high level walking.

Apart from Gillian's Guide, information on the route is hard to come by (perhaps a warning in itself).  There is no dedicated web-site, very little information from other people who have walked the route and critically, given the fact that I don't like shelling out loads of money on maps, no GPS information.  I was forced into Stanfords in Covent Garden (wonderful shop actually) but assembling a comprehensive set proved difficult.  In the end I took four maps from two different publishers and still had a nasty gap half way along the route.
Excellent waymarking on the GEA

Despite warnings from friends who had walked in Italy, route waymarking was excellent and it was generally easy to stay on track.  It seemed to me to be a least as good as France and we soon got into the habit of retracing our steps whenever we hadn't seen a waymark for a couple of 100 metres or so.  The signs were pretty good too and you didn't have be a speed walker to keep up with their timings.
Wonderful accommodation at Pracchia

Although accommodation was hard to come by it was very good.  On a walk like this character takes precedence over luxury and we stayed in some very interesting places.  The food was excellent and if I gone to Italy just for the funghi I would have come back very satisfied.  I ate funghi, usually with fresh pasta, every night.  The accommodation was also good value, perhaps a little bit more expensive than Spain but very similar.  Most nights we stayed in small road-side hotels but on three occasions (each time when we had to leave the trail) we stayed in "agriturismo" accommodation - all completely different and nothing to do with agriculture.

Ancient pavement on the GEA
The walking was not difficult and generally was along ancient routes used when a lot more people lived in the countryside. The routes were graded for mules or people carrying loads with gentle climbs and descents. There was little road walking (apart from the times we had to leave the route for accommodation) and not too much walking on modern forest roads built to extract timber.
Sharing the GEA with funghi hunters

Apart from the funghi the best thing about the trip was the Italians and their willingness to help.  Help came in all forms, but particularly lifts to and from the trail; advice on the where to find accommodation and help in booking it; advice on the food and encouragement to eat things we would not otherwise ever try (tripe!); and free and endless weird alcoholic concoctions.
Fraternising with the locals

I definitely got some of the Italian Idyll I was looking for, but suspect there might be easier ways of getting it than on the GEA.  The more long-distance walking I do the more I refine what it is I'm looking for.  For me the GEA landscape occupies a tricky middle ground that neither has the drama of the Alps or the interest of an upland landscape which at least in the recent past has been occupied and cultivated.

If you're interested in finding out about how it felt at the time than please go to my diary blog entries at the following links.

GEA Day 0 Sansepolcro
GEA Day 1 Passo di Viamaggio
Day 2 GEA Chuisi la Verna
Day 3 GEA Badia Pratagalia
Day 4 GEA Campigna
Day 5 GEA San Benedetto in Alpe
Day 6 GEA Colla di Casaglia
Day 7 GEA Passo del Giogo
Day 8 GEA Montepiano 
Day 9 GEA Migliana
Day 10 GEA Pracchia
Day 11 GEA Cutigliano
Day 12 GEA Abetone

17 comments:

  1. Enjoyed reading your summary and looking at your photos of the GEA although we too came away from the Apennines with a feeling of disappointment after walking part of the route a couple of years ago,. We set off from the Hotel Melini in Pracchia to walk the eastern half of the route to Montelungo only to abort our walk after 4 days because of the atrocious weather. We stopped at the Refuge at Lago Scaffaiolo, Abetone and Lago Santo Modense and suffered from rain, wind, mist and thunderstorms. On the fourth day we set off for San Pelligrino in heavy rain with thunder and lightening overhead but eventually decided to cut our losses and found transport out. We then spent a pleasant week walking through the hills above the eastern side of Lake Como.

    We subsequently discovered that appalling weather is par for the course in the Apennines but that wasn't much consolation.

    We didn't manage to continue the E4 from the Tyrol to Budapest this year because of family problems but will hopefully finish that segment next year. Also thinking about the Spanish GR48 as a spring warmup.


    Regards

    David and Carole

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi David and Carole

    Nice to hear from you again.

    Best of luck with the with the E4 next year although you'll find a lot of trees in Hungary. I'm thinking about doing a bit of the E4 in Bulgaria next year, the Pirin Traverse just south of Sofia. Looks excellent.

    John

    ReplyDelete
  3. John
    Enjoyed reading all your blogs from the GEA. Thought some of you pictures were superb. Sorry that the route didn't quite come up to your expectations. I hope that in time the days will eventually stand out as good experiences - I'm sure they were. I think that the problem was with the season and difficulty with accommodation. We luckily had no such problem and memorable nights were spent in the high refuges which you were denied. Also the weather was on the whole kind to us [See David and Carole's comments] but that is always a lottery in the mountains.
    I've just returned from 8days on the GR7 in Catalonia, going on from El Boixar where you used the E4. Keeping to the mountains was spectacular even though we didn't have the best of weather. Looking forward to the last stage into Andorra. Have a look at my blog for my trip.
    Anyhow where are you off to next?
    regards John

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi John

      Busy planning at the moment. Definitely going back to Spain and it looks like the GR66 which runs north/south parallel with the GR7 but further inland. The plan is to go there in April. Will be putting a blog together with my plans before Christmas.

      Best wishes

      John

      Delete
  4. ... I was forced into Stanfords in Covent Garden (wonderful shop actually) but assembling a comprehensive set proved difficult...
    Meant to say that I always find that The Map Shop in Upton -upon - Severn provides a wonderful prompt mail order service. themapshop@btinternet.com 01684 593146
    Maybe you know them, whenever I phone they know exactly which maps I need. They got all the GEA maps for me. Highly recommended. I know you rely more on GPS.
    John

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi John

      Thanks for the tip - will try them out on the Bulgaria trip, a real test!

      John

      Delete
  5. Hi John,

    Can confirm the Map Shop recommendation. They have most of their maps listed on their web site ( www.themapshop.co.uk ) and amongst other things in Bulgaria they list a 50,000 map of the Pirin National Park.

    Had never really thought of walking in Bulgaria - imagine communication would be challenging - but will maybe have a look at the Cicerone guide which they have listed.

    Good luck

    David and Carole

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope The Map Shop link will be OK. Ask to speak to John Baker if need be.
      Use 0800 085 40 80 to contact them.

      Delete
  6. This is very interesting John. I've just come across your blog when planning a GEA trip for this April - just sections 1 to 11, so I may have some more questions, but did you fly to Rome, and if so how did you then reach the start, just as a matter of interest?
    Martin B

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Martin, thanks for the comment. I flew to Pisa, train to Florence, another train and a bus. Sorry but I can't remember where I got the second train to but it was mainline out of Florence. I bought my ticket at Pisa airport and then got stung on the train because I didn't get it stamped before I got on.

      Delete
    2. Hi John,

      I found your blog when I search the GEA info, I like your photo and summary. Hope you dont mind I ask you questions. I am Chinese and planning to go alone in this year but dont know Italian, is it easy to communicate with the local people by English?

      Thanks!
      Ivy

      Delete
    3. Hi Ivy

      Glad you enjoyed the blog.

      You can definitely get by speaking English rather than Italian. I don't speak Italian. Not everyone however speaks English.

      Hope that helps.

      Best of luck on the trip

      John

      Delete
  7. http://www.terraditoscana.com/default.aspx?lpg=copyright&obj=bracci

    Here you can find all the infos to directly contact the designer of the GEA trek, Gianfranco Bracci. He's very helpful and willing to share his advice.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi John!
    What navigation tools, hard copyies or electornic edtitions of maps did you use? I can`t find any special maps for my iphone? Is it enough to use OpenStreet Maps?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Italian maps are difficult and I had to make do with paper maps from a series of different publishers. You can download the trail from openstreet maps an follow that and the signs are good as well.

      http://www.openstreetmap.org/relation/358901

      Have a great trip.

      John

      Delete
    2. Thanks! And also could you recommed the best fuel for GEA. I hope it`s not an issue to find gas cylinders in Rome but maybe also it`s possible to find liquid alchohol for my stove? Is it possible to use wood stoves on the whole route?

      Delete
    3. Hi Andrew, not really an expert on this but have a look at. www.tuttosport.it

      Delete