Inside the chestnut forest, the aromas are teasing me. Each step I take releases another scent – thyme, marjoram, mint, all growing wild underfoot across these limestone slopes of southern Italy. The hiking day has barely started and already I'm ravenous.
On this walk, these aromas are appetisers. I'm hiking for a week in the region of Basilicata, but it's a week framed around local food and wine. Hiking is the means, and eating is the ends. There will be grand picnic lunches on passes and mountain slopes, and nightly feasts in local restaurants. All we need do is walk.
Basilicata is far from the usual pathways of Italian hiking. Stretching across the instep of the Italian foot, it's traditionally been one of the country's most impoverished regions, leaving behind abandoned villages and troglodyte settlements. Italian author Carlo Levi once suggested that civilisation stopped north of Basilicata and that "no one has come to this land except as an enemy, a conqueror, or a visitor devoid of understanding".
"You're going to see a very different Basilicata to Carlo Levi," says Hedonistic Hiking guide Mick Parsons as we don our packs on the first morning.
What we're here to find is Basilicata's unheralded natural beauty and its natural flavours. It's a region of deep, dark ravines and high mountains, with Italy's largest national park spilling across its southern edge. It seems incongruous that it will take until the fifth day for us to see another hiker.
"The only people we're likely to see are people collecting mushrooms and chestnuts," Mick says on this first morning. "When we tell them we're out hiking for fun they'll think we're absolutely nuts."
We've started our journey in the limestone mountains behind Maratea, the only town along Basilicata's 30-kilometre stretch of Tyrrhenian coast. From the village of Trecchina we'll climb a pilgrims' path to the hilltop Madonna del Socorso chapel, and then down to the door of our monastery-turned-hotel in Maratea.
For two hours we climb, rising out from the trees to the jagged limestone tips of the mountains. The hillsides tinkle with cowbells, chiming tunes that sound borrowed from Switzerland, and crocuses grow so profusely across the path it's like walking through a saffron farm.
Beneath the butter-yellow chapel, a table already awaits us, with lunch featuring the likes of freshly made mushroom and olive soup, balls of buffalo mozzarella, dried buffalo meat and the lubricant of wine – the Basilicata speciality of aglianico, an ancient grape variety brought to the region by the Greeks.
Across the top of the range, pinnacles of limestone stand like gravestones as old shepherd trails lead us on towards the coast. Finally we round a bend to be greeted by the sight of the dramatic Calabrian coast arcing away to the south, and the world's second-largest Christ the Redeemer statue (after Rio de Janeiro's) poised above Maratea, its arms wide as if about to dive into the Mediterranean Sea.
After two days of walking through these limestone mountains, we head inland to Pollino National Park. Covering 1700 square kilometres across Basilicata and Calabria, it's Italy's largest national park, with some truly noteworthy natural features.
We start on foot beside the Lao River as it carves through a gorge so deep it wouldn't look out of place in the Himalayas. Crowning a hill inside the gorge is the village of Papasidero, which is like a snapshot in southern Italian time. Shopkeepers linger in doorways, and a morning produce market fills the main street as it probably has for centuries. A dog and calls of "buon giorno" escort us out of town. The dog, named Beethoven, will still be with us 10 kilometres and hours later when our walking day ends.
"He follows us every time," Mick says. "When we leave, he'll trot off back home."
Out of Papasidero the trail crosses the river, climbing steeply out beside a chapel clipped into the cliffs. Soon we're contouring across the slopes of balding mountains, high above one of southern Italy's premier white-water rafting rivers.
The gorge is wrinkled with damp gullies, so that one moment we're walking through bare grasslands, and the next inside rampant rainforest. "You could be in the Lake District here," says English walker Mark as we pass through one gully. It's a romantic notion betrayed only by the abandoned homes and villages that speckle the slopes.
Basilicata's historical poverty was acute – as recently as the 1950s an Italian prime minister described a town here as "the shame of Italy". In the remote parts where we walk, villages have crumbled to ruins, their entire populations having upped and left in search of better lives. Olive trees and overgrown orchards remain like traces of abandoned hope.
It was this poverty that also created the distinct cucina povera (poor kitchen) regional cuisine we're eating rather than the more typical Italian pastas and pizzas. Instead we dine on intensely flavoured steaks from the padolica cattle that roam the slopes. There's salted cod, and a patate arraganate with flash-fried local cruschi peppers that's among the best potato dishes I've eaten.
Pollino National Park's centrepiece is a massif with five peaks that climb beyond 2000 metres above sea level – the highest peak, Serra Dolcedorme, is taller than Mt Kosciuszko.
The massif will be the high point, literally and figuratively, of our week of hiking, with two days spent walking across its slopes and near to its tips. It's a walking journey that begins at the high mountain hut of Rifugio Fasanelli, where the forested slopes are covered in brilliant swatches of autumn colour: red, orange, yellow, purple.
Metres from the hut, we enter the forest, and it's like stepping into a storybook. The ground is deep in autumn leaves and luminous mosses, and the straight white trunks of the beech trees rise up to 30 metres overhead. Entangled in mist, the forest is silent except for the whisper of our boots sinking into the cushion of leaves.
Our path this day will veer off the mountains, dipping into the valley near the hilltop town of Rotonda before climbing back to the refuge through an equally beautiful section of beech forest. It's our fourth day of walking, and still we're yet to see another hiker on a trail.
"I've never seen anybody on this track," Mick says. And yet you could sell every step as a postcard. The exposed roots of the beech trees are so thick with moss they resemble green toes, and for a time we walk on the fringe of a stand of beech forest currently being assessed by Unesco for World Heritage listing. It's probably the most beautiful day of forest walking I've ever experienced.
For all that, the beech trees aren't even the most astounding floral piece of the Pollino. The next day we'll climb towards the top of the massif, funnelling into the Piano de Pollino, a grassy plain that sits like a sinkhole between the massif's five high peaks. Around the edge of the plain and beyond are stands of loricato pines – gnarled, long-living alpine trees that grow only here and in small numbers on the Balkan Peninsula.
This hike to the heights begins at a pass named Colle dell'Imposi, almost 1600 metres above sea level. We set out again through beech forest tinted with autumn, but this hike is more about connecting the dots that are the massif's alpine plains. It's the day we'll finally see other hikers, most of whom are heading for the summit of Monte Pollino, which today means a march into cloud.
As has become customary, however, we're taking the path less travelled, skirting Monte Pollino and rising up into the bowl of the Piano de Pollino. Cows dot the lower sections of this grassy plain, while wild horses roam at the foot of the peaks.
Running like a seam across the top of the plain is a stand of loricato pines. Slow growing, these grand trees can live up to 1000 years – a life battling against the wind, snow and ice that leaves them gnarled and pruned. Beneath the trees I step over the bones of an animal killed by wolves.
As the cloud continues to sink and rain starts to fall, we lunch in the shelter of a beech copse – even these mighty trees, so tall just a few hundred metres down the slopes, are stunted here by the alpine conditions. A boulder becomes a dining table, logs become chairs, and dinner dress is hooded rain jackets, but there's soon a spread of food and wine worthy of the warmest trattoria.
FIVE MORE BASILICATA ATTRACTIONS
One of Europe's most fascinating towns, with hundreds of cave homes covering the cliffs of a gorge.
This museum, at the foot of the Pollino massif, has almost-complete skeletons of a prehistoric elephant and hippo discovered at the town edge.
CHRIST THE REDEEMER
With his arms spread in blessing, the 21-metre-high Christ the Redeemer statue above Maratea, is the second largest in the world.
A well-preserved sixth-century-BC Greek temple near the Ionian coast at Metaponto.
High within the Lucanian Dolomites is the stunningly precarious town of Castelmezzano – visit and wonder if the homes are ever going to fall into the gorge below.
Qatar Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Naples, connecting through Doha and Barcelona. See qatarairways.com
Hedonistic Hiking operates a nine-day Southern Italy hiking tour through Basilicata, with days walks around Maratea, Pollino National Park and Matera. All meals are included and accommodation includes the likes of a former monastery in Maratea, and a cave hotel in Matera. Daily walking distances range between eight and 16 kilometres. See hedonistichiking.com.au
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Hedonistic Hiking.