There is a path in Italy that touches all twenty Italian regions, including islands, through the two great mountain ranges of the country, and is over 7600 kilometers long. It’s called Sentiero Italia and it’s one of the longest hiking trails in the world. It was conceived in 1983 and built in the 1990s, but after a few years of inaugurations, demonstrations and exploits by those who traveled through it in its entirety, they got a little lost, not only in a figurative sense. In fact, an untraveled, unmaintained, unmaintained high mountain path is easily and quickly “reabsorbed” by the vegetation, interrupted by landslides, or cancelled.
In recent years, however, the Sentiero Italia has returned to being popular, cared for and traveled thanks to a redevelopment project by the Italian Alpine Club (CAI) and thanks to the almost contemporary project of a group of girls and boys, all under thirty years, called Va’ Sentiero. The Va’ Sentiero expedition lasted more than two years, from 2019 to 2021, along the entire route, which has now become an in-depth digital guide, a mini-series, a book and a photographic exhibition open until 10 April at the Milan Triennale.
The Sentiero Italia was born from an idea of a group of journalists and writers in 1983, but it only took concrete shape when in 1990 Riccardo Carnovalini, photographer and passionate walker, presented the project to the CAI. The idea was to connect existing large hiking trails, such as the Great Crossing of the Alps in Piedmont, theHigh Route of the Ligurian Mountains in Liguria and the Great Apennine Excursion in Tuscany, then expanding the route to cover the entire Alpine arc and cross all the regions following the Apennines and the other minor mountain ranges of the country. Compared to other “paths”, such as the Via Francigena or the famous Camino de Santiago in Spain, it has the particularity of taking place almost entirely at high altitude, along the Alte Vie. It therefore affects mountain centers and communities that were already dealing with depopulation at the time.
In 1995 the project definitively took shape with the CamminaItalia initiative, a relay expedition that started from Sardinia, continued on to Sicily and then went up the whole country along the Apennine ridge and then on to the Alps, up to Trieste. The first edition ended in 8 months and in 1999 it was repeated by the Alpini, but then the path was also abandoned due to high management costs. At that time the fashion of the so-called “slow tourism” was in its infancy, and trekking and walking were not yet as popular as they have become in recent years.
Yuri Basilicò, one of the founders of Va’ Sentiero, discovered the Sentiero Italia in 2016: «Some Swedish hikers I met in Corsica told me about it. I didn’t know anything about it, but when I saw what it was I made up my mind to wake up that sleeping giant.’ He involved some friends, including the photographer Sara Furlanetto, and for two years they worked on a project which – they say – was always described as «beautiful, but too ambitious» when it was presented to potential sponsors or sponsors.
The idea was of an expedition that would cover the entire route of the Sentiero Italia, which in reality at the time was all to recover for long stretches, from Trieste to Sardinia: over 7000 kilometers to be covered in two blocks of seven months each. They wanted to walk the route, gathering information for technical, but also cultural and historical documentation, involving as many people as possible. Furlanetto explains: «We wanted to share our journey on social networks, but also in an analogical way, inviting people to go part of the way with us. Like when Forrest Gump in the film starts running and a crowd forms behind him». The problem of initial funding was solved with an online fundraiser, which gave excellent results and also convinced private and public sponsors to contribute. The founders left their jobs and left.
The group, first made up of five and then eight people, left Trieste in May 2019: the first problems were the late snowfalls, the ticks and the need to change route due to the obstacles encountered along the way, but for the first seven months everything went pretty much according to plan. They walked about 20 kilometers a day, then in the evening they took out their computers and everyone dedicated themselves to their own tasks: videos, photos, social networks, mapping, texts, planning the next stages. They slept everywhere, every night in a different place: in tents, stables, shelters, gymnasiums, bivouacs, the houses of their hosts. They ate a lot, got to know the local products, met the small communities on the road, gathered a large number of travellers: when they arrive at the last stage of the first part, at the foot of the Sibillini Mountains, between Marche and Umbria, the group had arrived two hundred people.
But then came the pandemic and the lockdowns: in 2020, in the few months in which it was still possible, Va’ Sentiero reached the extreme south of Puglia, but in 2021 it had to delay its departure, change the order of the regions, update projects, often forego the company of other hikers. However, on 25 September 2021 it came to an end, near Messina (Sardinia had been done before). In all, they had walked 7,887 kilometres, with an overall positive difference in height of around 445,000 metres, touching all the regions and 16 national parks. The overall stages randomly turned out to be 365, like the days of a year.
The video that accompanies the photographic exhibition now in Milan (Va’ Sentiero would also like to take it to other cities), also recounts the moment of the end of the enterprise and the beginning immediately after of another job: that of documentation. Today on the project website there is an in-depth digital guide, in Italian and English, which for each of the 365 stages presents a map, the altimetry, the downloadable GPX track, a legend with difficulty, beauty, accessibility of the starting point by car and public transport, practicability on foot, by bike or on horseback, places of interest. For each stretch there is a story of what to see, what to eat, even where to sleep, in the structures used or known along the way, ranging from bivouacs to hostels and refuges. The guide reflects the dual nature of the journey that the Va’ Sentiero project wants to communicate: not only a physical route, but also a tool for getting to know different and isolated realities, where the effects of climate change, land exploitation and falling birth rates are more visible .
The guide and site in Basilicò and Furlanetto’s projects should have become a starting point for future professional projects, which are already taking shape in part. In the meantime, the Va’ Sentiero group continues to make local explorations and recounted the journey on Sentiero Italia also in a mini-series per LaEffe and in a book,
Meanwhile, the Sentiero Italia is once again fully passable, mapped and also reported by the CAI, which in 2018 launched an operation to completely recover it using its entire network of local sections (over 500) of subsections (300) and volunteers. The staff of the Italian Alpine Club explains that they have divided the route into 519 stages and have entrusted each of them to the closest section: there is an internal database in which a contact person is indicated for each section, in charge of verifying the practicability of the path and reporting any critical issues at least twice a year: once before winter, once after winter. If a stage is not feasible, an alternative route is suggested. Since 2022, the CAI has launched a tender that allows the volunteers involved in this work to be reimbursed for their expenses: the funds available are 300,000 euros, in general, the costs for restoring the Sentiero Italia can be estimated at 500,000 euros a year . They also include vertical signs (signs and indications), which the CAI provides and which are not present along the entire route: instead, there are horizontal signs everywhere, i.e. the signs in white and red paint along the path.
Also on the Sentiero Italia website the map indicates the route, altitude and difficulty, includes downloadable GPX maps, indicates practicability and any critical issues. A mapping (for now incomplete) of the cycling route (that is passable by mountain bike) and of the water sources is underway. For each section of the route, which is part of a larger project of a cadastre of Italian paths (under development with the Ministry of Tourism), possible solutions for overnight stays are also indicated: the structures that want to be included are asked for a contribution of 50 euros. It is the only private contribution to the project, for the rest supported by the CAI, a public body that has over 320,000 members, with the support of the Ministry of Tourism, which in 2022 has allocated around one million euros to Sentiero Italia.