Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Dalene & Pete Heck
The original plan was to work for a few hours in the morning and then leave for an afternoon of exploring, but an email from a new reader inspired a quicker exit.
“Google this place: Piano Grande,” I called out to Pete.
Turns out that our planned afternoon excursion would be in that general direction, but we suddenly needed to add a few more hours. And it wasn’t just the allure of the images we found online that spurred us into quick action, but also the pseudo-challenge that our reader issued alongside her generous email of local advice. “Your photos are extraordinary – I’d love to see what you do at the Piano Grande. I hope you make it there…”
Say no more. Pete’s camera bag was packed in record time and perhaps for the only time in our history as a couple, it was his turn to wait impatiently for me at the door.
It started as one of those days with all the promise of the extraordinary, but carrying threats of the unpleasant. Rain clouds tucked around mountainous peaks, threatening to merge into an angry blanket of grey. At our first pit stop, I noticed that one of the tires on our sketchy rental vehicle was actually a spare, imploring the need for extra care as we continued. We stopped for a roadside porchetta sandwich at the base of the Apennine mountains and worried about our next task of driving up them. We decided it was worth putting our luck to the test.
As we neared the Piano Grande the asphalt narrowed and became increasingly pockmarked. We wound around one peak to the next, a few drops hit our windshield along the way, but the weather endured as we had hoped. The clouds remained solely to serve as fluffy accents to the photos Pete couldn’t wait to take.
Around one final bend and over the crest of 4,000 feet, we finally stopped and exited the vehicle. The scenery and silence both hit us at once. To our left, paragliders began their sprint off a gentle ledge, taking full advantage of the wind that whipped past. To our right, the majestic great plain with faint roads running across and herds of sheep spotting the sectioned land. We had missed the prime season where a carpet of blooming flowers stretches across the basin, but the muted palate before us was my favourite natural combination: shades of wheat and green, rich and earthy brown, all merged with the speckled cornflower blue of the sky.
We are lovers of mountains. This stark plateau fenced by smooth peaks immediately called out as nirvana.
Across the plain: the tiny village of Castelluccio perched on a hill. Beyond the open area at the bottom of the hill for parking and souvenir-shelling, the town was nearly desolate. We climbed up and through the tiny streets not accessible by car. We passed two residents only: one hanging out laundry, another sitting on the stoop of his shop, hand-picking through a batch of Umbria’s famous lentils, Lenticchie di Castellucio, to find only the very best seeds to fill his shelves.
We skirted the edge of town to capture views of the Piano Grande below – we basically covered every single street there was.
We wished for more time. We spoke of nights indulging in the pure silence and days of roaming the plain at all hours – hoping to catch it in morning fog and then the golden hour as the sun descends. There would be nothing more to do in the town then that, but we knew we would not be left wanting.
Many thanks to Michelle from Il Bel Centro for all of the generous advice during our visit. Be sure to visit her site for heaps of stories and information about her stay in Umbria (or just wait for the book that she is soon to publish.) 🙂