I’m crunching through twigs, copper-coloured leaves and sharp spring snow when my guide, Andrea De Angelis, tells me to shush. “Be less like the monkey, more like the wolf,” he says.
I’m in the Apennines, or “Italy’s backbone,” a mountainous region characterized by wild deciduous forests that have overtaken abandoned farmland, sweeping valleys and villages that peek off mountaintops like bird beaks.
The area is, admittedly, not on your average Italian itinerary; visitors tend to flock to candy-coloured fishing villages in the Cinque Terre or Roman architecture in the cities. But I’m in the Apennines on a mission: to spot one of Europe’s last remaining bear species and the only one in Italy, the Marsican bear.
Standing more than six feet tall with shaggy brown fur, the Marsican bear might not be extraordinary for Canadians when compared to our grizzlies and polar bears. But in Europe — an ancient crossing ground for empires, wars and the deforestation necessary to power them — seeing huge mammals in the wilderness is, well, wild, and I wanted to see one with my own eyes.
I set my home base in the town of Pescasseroli, a hub for visitors to Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo with cobblestone streets and shops selling wine, cured meats and cheeses — Italy’s national pastimes. My guide, De Angelis, who lives nearby, instructs me to wake up before dawn to visit a valley where bears might be hunting.
When we arrive at the lookout with our binoculars, the weather is atrocious; spring rains drench me to the core and my teeth won’t stop rattling. But after about an hour, I see something move out of the corner of my eye. Actually, three things move: bouncy red deer with bushy white tails juking through the valley.
No, it wasn’t a Marsican bear, and deer aren’t anything for a Canadian to write home about, but the day leaves me thinking more about what’s above the valley than below. The lookout is on the edge of a mountain town that has a gorgeous church, charming European balconies — and no people.
This is a ghost town, De Angelis explains. I’d heard about the exodus of Italians from rural towns, some of which offer villas for a euro to draw new residents, but it’s chilling to witness the emptiness.
Later that day, I visited another town, Pettorano sul Gizio, and it makes me consider buying one of those euro villas. Its tattered beige and yellow homes overlook cobblestone streets far too small for cars to drive on — I clench my teeth as one whizzes by within an inch of the wall.
In the town square, I gaze at an epic view of the Apennines and a 19th-century train line lovably nicknamed Italy’s Trans-Siberian Railway. I’m told MC Escher used to witness the same view as he created his trippy graphic art of him.
But as I walk through Pettorano sul Gizio, that chilling feeling strikes again. In the 1920s, there were 5,000 people in the village and its nearby surroundings, many of them farmers. Today, the town has 1,400 residents, with just 300 in the historical center, and only two grocery stores to buy food.
As coincidence would have it, many of Pettorano sul Gizio’s former residents actually moved to Canada — to work at the Stelco factory in Hamilton, Ont. “We joke that the mayor of Hamilton is more the mayor of Pettorano because there are more people there,” says Eugenio Vitto Massei, a local who gives me a tour of his idyllic family home.
After living in Naples, Massei moved back here four years ago to preserve the family estate and do his part to keep the town alive. “The most difficult part is how to make a new future for this place, in a way that’s sustainable,” he tells me.
A couple of years later, Massei attended a meeting about a plan to save the town and bring in more tourists. Surprisingly, that plan involved saving the Marsican bear—the animal I came to see.
The meeting was held by Mario Cipollone, an activist from nearby Pescara who grew up loving Marsican bears. In 2018, he became the team leader at Rewilding Apennines, an NGO devoted to saving the Marsican bear through “rewilding” — a way of restoring an area’s biodiversity as it was before humans came along. “I would feel very sorry and ashamed if I survived in the times when bears went extinct and we didn’t do enough,” says Cipollone.
First theorized in the 1990s and picking up steam with 10 similar projects across Europe, rewilding strategy involves three central principles, Cipollone explains: cores, corridors and carnivores. In the Apennines, that means working with national parks (cores), developing a way for wildlife to travel safely between them (corridors), and preserving animals at the top of the food chain (carnivores).
As the theory goes, by protecting the bears you’re also helping other wildlife in the food chain, as well as the plant life humans and animals need to thrive. “When you protect the bear, you protect the whole habitat,” Cipollone says.
For towns like Pettorano sul Gizio, rewilding also has the potential to bring in ecotourists and make the area a more appealing place to live. But first, supporters have to shift villagers’ mindset that bears are dangerous pests. In 2014, that mindset bared its ugly head when a male bear was killed after damaging a chicken coop in the suburbs of Pettorano sul Gizio.
But there hasn’t been a bear incident since, and Rewilding Apennines believes it has something to do with that. In the past few years, the NGO has held educational meetings like the one Massei attended, added bear-safe garbage bins, installed electric fences and cleared 108,000 meters of barbed wire in the area.
Speaking in Italian, Antonio Carrara, Pettorano sul Gizio’s mayor and Rewilding Apennines chairman, says rewilding will make the community a better place to live and attract a different kind of visitor. “My dream is to have conscious travelers [with] that sense of awareness of establishing and keeping a relationship with both nature and human communities,” he explains.
To help make that happen, Rewilding Apennines has partnered with British tour company Exodus Travels, which is offering six-day trips similar to the one I’m on, with itineraries involving hiking, eating fresh pasta and trying to spot a Marsican bear. All profits from these trips go to Rewilding Apennines.
The question is, will travelers want to come if it’s not so easy to find a Marsican bear? Which brings me back to the twigs and sharp spring snow.
I climb and climb for hours, until I reach a mountain refuge run by Wildlife Adventures, Exodus’ local tour partner, at the very top. Sadly, still no bears, but my disappointment is dampened by guide Valeria Roselli’s family cavatelli recipe, sheep cheese and local organic wine.
As I walk down the mountain, I wonder if it really matters that I didn’t see a Marsican bear. I was inspired to come because I was excited by the idea of an Italian safari — one where I get to see beautiful wildlife and where my tourist dollars support conservation.
But Rewilding Apennines wants to steer clear of the safari narrative. Instead, Cipollone wants travelers to experience the region in all its natural wildness, and then take what they learn home with them. “We need new people to become rewilding ambassadors, rewilding practitioners,” he says.
So I didn’t get my photo of one of the last remaining bears in Europe, but I did end up with a shift in perspective about how humans fit into conservation, and perhaps that’s even more valuable.
Writer Joel Balsam traveled as a guest of Exodus Travels, which did not review or approve this article.