In October 2016, then-33-year-old Italian Yuri Basilicò was hiking across the island of Corsica, France, solo, when he got lost in the fog. Basilicò heard a donkey braying in the distance and followed the sounds with the hope of finding the path. Instead, he met three Sweedish hikers, who were also lost. As they waited for the weather to improve, they shared a meal, and before parting, one of the Swedes asked Basilicò, “Do you know Sentiero Italia?” Basilicò had never heard of it.
Sentiero Italia (Trail Italy) once crossed the Alps, ran through the peninsula on top of the Apennines, and jumped over to Sicily and Sardinia: 4,350 miles, crossing six Unesco Heritage sites, and 15 national parks. Basilcò became so obsessed with this forgotten trail, traces of which could be found only on some obsolete blogs, that he convinced two of his friends, Giacomo Riccobono and Costanza Brini, to walk it all.
“It was going to be an unusual continuous expedition on one of the world’s longest trails,” Basilicò said.
Sentiero Italia was created in the 1980s by Riccardo Carnovalini, founder of the Sentiero Italia Association, from which the trail got its name, and Club Alpino Italiano, which provided thousands of volunteers for the construction. Carnovalini’s idea was to create a long-distance trail that crossed the Italian peninsula—something like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. He wanted to show that Italy wasn’t only about the pope and food, but it was also a stunning country with a strong mountain culture.
“Its length didn’t matter because it crossed a variety of extraordinary places,” said Carnovalini. “Italy has the magic of a continuous landscape change, something not common in other parts of the world.” In 1995, during Cammina Italia, a national event organized by Club Alpino Italiano, Carnovalini walked the trail’s whole length, with thousands of people joining in at different sections. However, soon after the trip, interest died down and the route was abandoned—until last year.
Basilicò and his friends founded a nonprofit organization, Va’ Sentiero, to help pay for logistics, and after two years of preparation, on May 1, 2019, the crew quit their respective jobs and set off to walk the entire length of that trail. Riccobono, the communication expert in charge of Va’ Sentiero’s logistics, said that the expedition’s goal is to leave a digital footprint of Trail Italy so that it might be accessible to others. With high-quality videos, a buzzing Instagram page, GPS coordinates, and weekly updates, the team is completing what Carnovalini had envisioned 40 years ago.The expedition was initially planned to take place over 14 consecutive months, but harsh winter conditions and COVID-19 forced it to spread out over three years, allowing the team to go home during the coldest months. They’re expected to finish the very last mile in September 2021.
Like in the U.S., many Italians fled to the mountains to find relief from the pandemic, and some joined the expedition, tagging along for a few days or more. As the crew walked, more people joined. Thanks to social media, the group grew each week. On certain days, there would be up to 100 people walking along with the Va’ Sentiero team.
They published detailed information about the stops, the schedule, and the difficulty of each section on the website, inviting followers to join the hike. People can sign up on the website, come with local meet-ups, or randomly join the group and start walking with them. One worker at an alpine refuge who hosted the team decided to join the walk and stayed for 2.5 months. So far, about 1,500 people have walked along with the group.
Basilicò, who thinks of himself as an introvert, was initially nervous about the idea of people he didn’t know joining the walk. Not to mention the logistical difficulties of leading and managing such large groups. But as the first days went by, he soon realized that the trail was acting as a filter and attracting mostly hikers who loved the mountains as much as he did, and knew how to take care of themselves.
“Lots of friendships and loves were born,” Basilicò said. He described the people who joined as the greatest gift of the expedition.
In August 2019, Roberto Cirilli, a 33-year-old market analyst, decided to spend his summer holidays with the group crossing the Alps. “Walking together was an inestimable treat, and was lots of fun,” said Cirilli, describing the dinners with locals watered with abundant homemade wine. “We restored contact with those who live in remote places. We entered tiptoeing, even if we wore boots.”
Costanza Brini, a 27-year-old teacher who walked the trail initially for one week and then rejoined for two more, agrees with Cirilli and warned: “This is not an organized vacation.” Autonomy is still the rule, and every participant can decide if they want to spend the night in one of the gyms, refuges, or hotels—often freely provided by locals—or on their own. And it’s not an easy trail: unexpected high winds in the Apennines, sudden weather changes, an abundance of ticks in the eastern Alps. The Va’ Sentiero team initially suffered from inexperience and warned of the psychological challenges of being on the go for several months.
Basilicò doesn't see Va’ Sentiero as a super serious expedition, but rather as a means to symbolically unite Italy and bring some economic benefits to remote towns and villages: places like Codera, a hamlet nestled in the Alps at the border with Switzerland, reachable only by a two-hour hike. In 1933, Codera was home to more than 500 people and today only has a handful of locals.
Va’ Sentiero is already bringing some results: followers walk Trail Italy and visit people like Antonio and Stefania, a young couple who decided to open an off-the-beaten-path farm, Agriturismo il Riccio, at Laghi di Monticchio.
“They’re an example of a business that could benefit from a revival of the trail through slow, sustainable tourism,” said Riccobono.
In 2019, Centro Alpino Italiano began the renovation of Trail Italy. While the section of the trail that ran through the Alps is marked clearly, the route is hardly signed in southern Italy. However, the hope is that soon enough, the entire path will be marked and connected.
“This trail lets us look at an unknown part of Italy that conserves an identity that disappeared in the rest of the country,” said Basilicò.
As the pandemic restricts travel, this journey through breathtaking Italian landscapes forces those who join to rethink how to approach trips and challenges them to move at a slower pace. It’s relatively easy and straightforward to join the hikers of Va’ Sentiero: keep an eye on the website that just released the walking schedule for 2021. The expedition resumed in April 2021 and will cross the tip of Italy, explore Sicily, and end in Sardinia in September. Baslicò expects that hundreds more will join for the last stretch of the trail, and hopes that thousands more will walk by tapping into the digital footprint they’re leaving behind.