Once upon a time when wolves and bears roamed the Abruzzo mountains in the heart of Italy, the herds were protected by ‘Lupari’ or wolf hunters. Pasetta is a direct descendant of these hardened mountain men. The camping owner, poet, protector of wolves and unofficial ambassador of the Abruzzo takes me into his beloved mountains.
Text & photography Frits Meyst
I have been driving for hours now over twisting roads through the Abruzzo National Park. The landscape is dotted with small villages that seem to flow into one another. Situated east of Rome, the 44,000 hectare park, in the central eastern ranges of the Apennine mountains, is specifically known for its spectacular trails, wildlife. So needless to say we are excited when we discover a small hilltop medieval village called Barrea, overlooking a lake of the same name. The location seems ideal as a base for day hikes, but what makes it even better is Camping La Genziana, only 300 metres from the village.
As we enter the reception and stake a claim on a piece of land to set up camp, I meet a small bearded man with a huge grin on his face. “Ah, my new guests, you are smiling. That makes me smile. Welcome to La Genziana in this unique Barrean amphitheatre of endless beauty which was not sculpted but painted by God.” At first I am a bit taken aback not knowing what to make of such an introduction. The man writes down our details and starts talking while we admire the reception area. From the news clippings on the wall I find out that his name is Pasetta and he must be famous because the walls are literally covered with memorabilia and photographs of Pasetta with the pope, kings and queens and assorted mountaineers.
Meet ‘The Grizzly Man’ of the Abruzzo
Known to the locals as ‘Pasetta’, and born as Tommaso D’Amico, Pasetta is quite the legend himself, like his father and grandfather before him. Not only in Barrea, but throughout the surrounding villages and across the mountain tops of Parco Nationale d’Abruzzo. Even the bears, wolves and other wildlife, that roam these mountains, know him. Pasetta is a direct descendant of the last ‘luparo’, or wolfman, in the region.
As we are settling in, we meet our neighbours “This has been incredible!” says Marko, a Dutch hiker. “We went out yesterday and again early this morning with Pasetta, up high to some incredible places.” His girlfriend adds: “He’s unbelievable! Yesterday he was decked out in the traditional goat skins luparo outfit, complete with a boot with a hole in the sole hanging from his shoulder. Oh yeah, and he’s really fast! I’m exhausted, but it was brilliant.”
The next morning it is our turn to hike in the footsteps of Pasetta towards Monte Rotondo. His every step is planted with certainty and awareness. It is as though we have ventured into another world. We stop periodically to fully appreciate our surroundings; the views over Barrea Lake, fields of wild flowers, ancient forests and a special treat, Pasetta’s favourite perch, high above where he touches the sky and feels at peace.
Resting in the upper pastures after a heavy climb, Pasetta tells his story: “Years ago there were many lupari in the mountains of Abruzzo. Sheep were plentiful, in the hundreds of thousands. But so were the wolves. In order to protect their herds the farmers would camouflage themselves in goat skins and the smell of fresh meat, than hide in the trees to attract the wolves. The hunters would crouch close by ready to fire with no shame. Those were the days of my father and grandfather. But now after 100 years of ‘luparo’ history, I must protect the wolves. They are my friends. I wear the traditional goat skins and call the wolves through a hole in the bottom of my boot, the way it has always been done. They do not always come especially if others are with me. But I wait and I am patient. I have the world at my fingertips and the most beautiful sights surround me. Now enough of me. We go in search of some green gold. I have special plans for later.”
The bear and the green gold
Having no idea what green gold is, we simply follow. We are clueless, until suddenly Pasetta breaks into laughter and smiles from ear to ear. “Here is our green gold!” In front of our eyes is an enormous patch of wild spinach which Pasetta scoops up into his hands. “Collect some more my friends, I will be right back.” Within minutes Pasetta returns with mushrooms larger than his fist. “We will eat very well tonight, a Barrean specialty from the mountains. You are my guests.” smiles Pasetta. As we begin our descend back to the camping we are treated with yet another story about Pasetta’s search for green gold.
in June 1993, I was with my friend in search of this wild spinach, or chenopodio. My friend went wandering to take photos while I started to pick the spinach. After about twenty minutes I heard a rustle. Thinking it was my friend I turned, but to my surprise I was face to face with a brown bear. I didn’t know what to do; stand, lay down, not move or to flee whistling and screaming. Our eyes met for what seemed an eternity. Then I slowly began to walk backwards for about 15 meters while the bear continued to stare. I stopped. He stared. Then he left. When I told my friend of the encounter all he could think about was that one perfect photo, missed!”
‘La Grande Festa’
Back at the camping, we knew we should be tired. We had been out for hours and had climbed 800 meters over several kilometres. But the day had been so full, so rich and inspiring we still have loads of energy. Nonetheless, we opt for a cold beer and some much deserved relaxation in the warm summer sunshine. Pasetta has something in mind for later so we best be ready.
“Wake up. It is time for a gift from the mountains and we must prepare.” In minutes tables and chairs are set, the wine is opened and the feast begins. Carmela, Pasetta’s wife, has been busy in the kitchen preparing all of the wild delicacies we have brought down from the mountain. “We will feast on ‘green gold’ pasta with home cured pancetta and parmiggiano, delicious!” But first a toast. Pasetta raises his glass to us. “We have two brains, one here (pointing to his stomach) and one in the mouth. In America they fill it up, pay and go. You are not guests there. Here in Barrea we taste, drink wine, smile, laugh, drink more wine and enjoy. To Barrea!” The wine continues to flow, the food, laughter and smiles endless.
“I am at peace here”, says Pasetta, “with all that I love close by; the mountains, flowers and children, my greatest joys. I hope to stay in this place the rest of my life. So, my new friends, you will come again to visit, to eat, drink and dance, and I will show you even more of my secret places up in my mountains!”