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ABRUZZO Region of central Italy. Land of history, nature, food and crafts. Halfway between the sea and the mountains, Abruzzo boasts one of the most famous Natural Parks in Italy - the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise (PNALM). An unspoiled paradise where man and nature have lived together harmoniously for centuries, and all just a few hours away from the chaos of the capital of Italy. A territory of 496 km2 covered almost entirely by ancient forests and evocative landscapes. Ancient villages and rugged mountains form the backdrop of this enchanting region that seems frozen in time, giving the strong feeling of being worlds away from the frenzy of modern life. As one of the oldest parks in the Apennines mountain range, the Abruzzo plays an important role in the conservation of species such as the Apennine Wolf, the Abruzzen Chamois and, with only fifty individuals left in the wild, the Marsican Bear. Red and roe deer, foxes, wild boar and golden eagles make up one part of the park's characteristic fauna, but an even greater diversity of species can be found to inhabit the waters, the skies and the land. My love for wild animals and the urge to immerse myself in this often harsh but beautiful and extremely alluring world has created in me a desire to try to live and breathe nature in its entirety, and to uncover its most extraordinary secrets. So, with my backpack at the ready, I took a series of excursions to the Abruzzo National Park to discover these places and, above all, myself.

It was November 2015 when I asked my friends Simone and Nicolò to accompany me on a trip to explore the PNALM range. With Simone’s keenness for mountains and skill as an avid hiker, skier and rock climber, and with Nicolò's love of wildlife and strong field experience, I could not have chosen better travel companions. My photography experience at the time was that of an amateur photographer with limited technical knowledge who was primarily passionate about hiking in the mountains. For a few years I had been practicing photography with an emphasis on animals and landscapes. At the same time I already had an in-depth knowledge of the mountains of my home region, the Marche. So I soaked up everything I could about Italian wildlife from reading books, giving me an intellectual understanding of my subject, and fuelling my passion for wolves and for the life of the forest. Until then I had never been able to set eyes on a wild animal, except on the few chance encounters that were more often than not down to luck than skill. At my suggestion of a weekend in the great outdoors, my friends enthusiastically accepted, and I immediately booked myself on the first available flight back home from London to the Marche, in the province of Ancona. I still remember my excitement in planning that trip. I had recently moved from London to work in Bristol but before my new job was to start, I had decided to grant myself one short holiday in my country. A few days at home with family and friends, and then we were on the road heading to the Park. On an unusually beautiful autumn day, the few hours of travelling were spent in laughter and high spirits, and soon we arrived at the parking area where our chosen route began. After packing our backpacks, we started our walk. The first stretch would take us on a gradual incline through a beautiful lush beech forest. The 20kg of backpack on our shoulders - holding camouflage gear, heavy clothing, water, food and photographic equipment - was a constant strain and so we made frequent rest stops. It was whilst we were walking in silence that we suddenly heard very loud sounds coming from within the woods. We knelt down low to try and see what it was whilst also not making ourselves seen. A group of deer crossed the path ahead of us. All were hinds, except for one young stag which followed them. Crouched down just a few metres away, we could enjoy their noisy progression. It reminded me of sitting at a city crossroads, having to give way to oncoming traffic. Letting the deer pass unchallenged was the law here. Guided by the thundering roar of a mountain stream, we headed on towards a large valley where there is a natural lake. We set up our hides among the undergrowth and watched the deer grazing just below us. A little before dusk fell, we lay in the long grass and ate our supper. Only after some time had elapsed did we realise that we were lying on cow and deer dung, which by now had hardened. This gave us the laugh we needed for our trek back to the car and for our return to the hotel. The following morning, after a lie-in and a generous breakfast, we decided to make a trip that would take us up into the rocky peaks. Passing through a patch of woodland, we saw many deer which walked off in single file when they saw us.

After a gradual 3 hour ascent, we found ourselves engulfed in clouds. From that point, the walk became harder. We ventured towards the crags. Scaling their walls demanded a lot of concentration. Amazingly I was able to climb the first few meters without too much difficulty and reached my friends who, owing to their added experience, had already scaled the higher sections with ease. We continued our way along several ridges, the weight of our backpacks and our shared exhaustion rising now with the struggle of our journey. At one point, just before scaling a section that required some careful negotiation, I felt the coordination of my movements weakening and my vision becoming blurry, and I knew then that I had to stop. I took a moment to breathe and drink my water, which at that moment was of vital necessity. Simone was waiting for us some metres ahead and was probably unaware I had stopped. Nicolò had stopped with me during that short break. After some initial struggle with getting up and going, I eventually managed to get my pace back to overcome the high ridges and find myself on the peak, celebrating with a “High Five” and feeling reinvigorated by the magnificent view. Up above we chanced upon a family of chamois. We enjoyed many beautiful family moments, watching their tender behaviour and taking photos at close range without causing them to flee. I was enchanted and impressed by their seamless agility in leaping from one rock to the next, something that is denied to us humans in these conditions and altitudes. Being able to move with such lightness and dexterity of step protects the chamois when they often need a quick and effective escape route from danger. That close encounter with chamois was the first I had had at such close proximity. I hold that memory in my heart as intensely as if I were still there watching them as they wander undisturbed through their wild home.

We had reached the summit, but we then had to make a descent to rejoin a path we had previously passed, so we saved up all our last ounces of energy for our day’s end goal: an old hut up in the higher altitudes. After some minutes we reached the old building, where a small group of hikers were gathered round. We chatted with the hikers, sharing a few pleasant moments of reflection with them. As they were getting ready to set off, they offered us some food and water, truly a rare act of kindness. At dusk we were now all alone. The shadowy mountains were in contrast with the colours of the sky and the defined areas of falling light. There was a boulder in front of the hut which I decided to clamber up with Nicolò, in hope of getting a sunset photograph from a higher view-point. However, in doing so I lost sight of him.

In a short time I had managed to climb about 80 metres and had already set up my tripod to take a few shots when Simone, back down at the hut, called my attention to a point not much farther from where he was. I couldn’t focus on it because I was too far away, but I realised almost straightaway that it was a fox. I confirmed this by looking through my camera at full zoom. I grabbed my tripod and gear, flung them on my shoulder and ran back to the hut as quickly as I could, so great was my urge to grab a few shots of this animal with the last rays of sunset lighting the scene. I raced down a steep stony descent and knelt down on the ground, waiting for the animal to return. After a few minutes the fox, an incredibly beautiful individual, emerged out from a bush just below us. With evident curiosity and self-confidence, he foraged a few feet from us for scraps of food left by tourists. I was then able to capture a special moment: the fox turned his attention to me, transfixed in an unusual pose. I took as many photos as I could, taking advantage of the last light of the sunset. When darkness finally fell, during that magical moment when everything has a violet hue, the endearing creature came closer and closer, so much so that its inquisitive nose came just a few centimetres from me, rooted to the ground. With one last quick flash he grabbed something, probably a morsel of food left by some tourist that day, and took it away. We enjoyed that moment with such a wonderful companion. It seemed that luck had paid off for each of us.

It was a pleasant night and we rested better than ever. The following day our journey ended with smiles on all our faces. Exhaustion, intense emotions, encounters and bouts of vertigo had made a deep impression on my heart, convincing me to repeat this adventure, knowing that many other surprises were awaiting me in the breathtaking natural wonder that is the Abruzzo. This first excursion, in short, was just the beginning.

@ Mattia Cialoni

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