Destination Little Tibet Umbria and Abruzzo on a Road Bike

In Abruzzo, Cycling, Italy, Nature, Umbria
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On previous visits to Abruzzo, I’d watched road cyclists on the switchbacks of the Gran Sasso massif with some envy. I had also toyed with the idea of making the whole trip unmotorised, taking in the Valnerina and Sibilini mountain range on the way. This trip was a compromise between carrying the bike by car, which always seems perverse, and the slow, ponderous exercise of hauling camping equipment in full touring mode. I packed some essentials in bike bags and opted for ‘credit card’ travel based in pre-booked overnight accommodation. With the persistent heavy rain that has characterised this spring showing no signs of abating, camping wasn’t an attractive prospect anyhow.

I planned the trip in three legs. Day one covered around 100 miles to Cascia, in Umbria’s southeastern corner, with moderate climbing for the final third of the journey. Then, after a rest day, around 70 miles of more strenuous mountain ascents to Assergi, Abruzzo, via a short section through Lazio. Finally — the bucket list finale of the trip — an iconic climb from Assergi to the Campo Imperatore (‘Emperor’s Field’), crossing the altopiano, or high Alpine meadow, known as Italy’s ‘Little Tibet’ and ending in the village of Calascio, perched on the edge of the Gran Sasso range at 1,200m above sea level.

When I started out I didn’t know that one week following my visit, the Giro d’Italia would pass through Calascio and climb to finish on the Campo Imperatore, albeit at a considerably greater pace and without pausing to take photos.


Cascia was the home of a nun named Rita (1381-1457), who was canonised in 1900 and has since become to the town what St. Frank is to the more famous Assisi. The basilica shrine dedicated to her (shown above reflected in puddles above so as to exclude the hordes of tourists that throng it) is a somewhat brash affair, recently repaired following damage from the latest of several disastrous earthquakes. I preferred the subtler and less popular churches I’ve pictured.

A small selection of the spring flowers encountered in mountain pastures surrounding the town.


On the western border of Abruzzo with Lazio, the Lago di Campotosto is a gateway to the Gran Sasso National Park, with the massif rising in the background.

Like so many of Abruzzo’s Medieval villages, Assergi is largely deserted (locals estimated around 40-80 permanent residents). There is little economic activity outside tourism and sheep farming, and most villages suffered heavy damage from the 2009 earthquake.

Gran Sasso d’Italia — Campo Imperatore

In defiance of the grim weather forecast, the morning of the climb from Assergi to the Campo Imperatore dawned clear and bright. Although clouds quickly formed over the peaks, two short showers later that afternoon were all that materialised of the predicted downpours.

‘Little Tibet’ is around 27km long, an average of 8km wide, and around 1,500-1,900m above sea level. It is dominated by dolomite and limestone mountains, of which the Corno Grande (2,912m) is the highest in the Apennines and on the Italian peninsula. The main western road across the plateau has just been repaved to host the Giro d’Italia, as is often the case when the race routes over rough mountain passes.

Climbing up over the lip that forms the southeastern boundary of the plateau, through the Capo la Serra pass, and across the boulder fields below Monte Bolza (1,927m).

The road descends to Castel del Monte (1,346m) and then on to Calascio.


One of a group of Medieval villages once controlled by the de’ Medici family. Calascio has Norman origins and coexisted below its sister village, Rocca di Calascio, site of Europe’s highest fortress, until the latter was partially destroyed by an earthquake and abandoned.

The road continues adjacent to the Campo Imperatore to the village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio (second image above), then descends to Barisciano and the main L’Aquila-Pescara highway. Cyclists can cross this and proceed along a quiet rural route, with short, pretty descent to the valley bottom. Here, at San Demetrio ne’ Vestini station, there are train services to Sulmona and L’Aquila (purchase tickets in advance online or at the shopping complex outside the village).

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