Driving through northern Italy is a tease. On the outskirts of every town, we see faint foot paths skipping away from the main paved bicycle paths, lost for a half a kilometer in the tall grass and then, suddenly, winking down at us from among the trees halfway up a mountain. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of beautiful trails winding around Northern Italy’s lakes and mountains and very few of them end up in our English guidebooks.
But guidebooks and Google searches are no match for the first hand knowledge of someone who’s been living among these lakes and mountains since childhood. Last week, on a hunch, I asked a new friend if she knew of any good day hikes, close to Milan and doable with young kids. She texted me back a few hours later. Her mountain-climbing Italian husband had a suggestion: Monte Barro. So Monday morning, a national holiday in Italy, I baked a loaf of bread, packed water bottles and plastic dinosaurs in a bag and we hustled everyone out to the car for a battle with big-city holiday traffic on our way out of town.
Monte Barro is no secret. You won’t find it in the Lonely Planet* or with a “day hikes near Milan” Google search (believe me, I know) but among Italians–at least the ones we met that day–it seems to share the same sort of notoriety that “Old Rag” has among people from the Washington D.C. metro area. Halfway up the mountain, there are multiple small museums, a bird-watching center, a picnic area, a popular restaurant and elderly men in fluorescent vests who wave flags and direct traffic on the busiest days. Parking is plentiful–so long as you have the nerves to parallel park backwards, up a 45 degree grade, along a switchback with no guardrail while dozens of cavalier once-a-week Milanese drivers hurl their rental cars down the road, braking only when death seems otherwise imminent.
It’s similar too in that, while nearly anyone of any age can summit safely, it’s a healthy challenge if you aren’t used to heights. Most of the trails simply require putting one foot carefully in front of the other but higher up it is possible to get stuck or seriously injured. On the day we hiked, we watched a rescue helicopter blaze over the ridge, drop a guy down on a line, hover and then fly away with two men dangling from a rope below.
So Monte Barro with two little kids? One of whom who routinely stands on the edge of couches, chairs and tables and then laughs maniacally as we race across the room to rescue her?
Doable. If not summit-able. Lovable. Easily one of our favorite days in Italy thus far.
We didn’t get all the way to the tippy-top of the mountain. It’s been five years since we’ve been on a real mountain** and we were a little hungry for a “two kids later, we’ve still got it” experience, but we are also realists. When we started walking with Shiloh strapped to my back and Will riding on Chris’ shoulders we figured we’d go as far as we felt comfortable or until Will’s knees wrapped so tightly around Chris’ neck as to completely cut off airflow.
The main trail up to the summit goes straight up a grassy field to a narrow ridge with one trail leading up to a bald scrambling summit on the left and the other to a more knobby false summit on the right. Straight ahead the ground gives way to a steep drop-off, all the better for framing the panoramic views of the “pre-Alps” across the valley. If you are in shape and moving without two kids on your backs– and you don’t stop to take in the views–I’d guess you could get from the parking lot to the summit in under 30 minutes.
But by the time we reached the ridge, Shiloh was throwing her weight around my back with force and I’m just not ballsy enough to take on rock scrambles with a flailing baby on my back–though I’m sure it is totally doable. Shiloh’s a daring little 15-month-old and she wanted to get down and walk for herself. Maybe next time. Chris snapped a photo of us just below the top of the false summit and then we carefully headed back down the mountain to see if we could find some old Roman ruins I’d heard about on one of the trails.
Our sweet cautious little Will surprised us up on the ridge. The path was narrow and slippery with loose rocks and gravel, but Will crawled off Chris’ shoulders, asked for some fruit snacks and then told us he could walk down on his own.
And he did. He tip-toed carefully down the ridge holding tight to Chris hand. As soon as we reached the wide grassy hill below the peak, he ran, face-planted and slid. He brushed the brown dirt off his pants, laughed and started running again.
We turned right from the summit trail to follow a trail towards an outcropping we’d seen on the way up. The path was narrow but strewn with fresh hay and relatively flat. Will trotted along in front of me, completely oblivious to the steep drop-off on his left.
We reached the outcropping in just a few minutes where found ourselves standing in the footprint of a 1500 year old Roman watch tower. Below us Lake Como and several other famous lakes sparkled into the distance.
The low walls of the ancient watch tower turned out to be both picturesque and practical; and while I’ve since read that picnics aren’t technically allowed within the ruins, I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time. By sheer dumb luck we had found the only level surface on the mountain, penned in on three sides by ancient walls just high enough to keep Shiloh from scaling them but not so high as to block the magnificent view.
Chris sliced bread and cheese with his pocket knife for us while Shiloh and Will squealed and giggled and ran back and forth from one end of the small enclosure to the other. By the time Shiloh started getting serious about her getaway plan, we’d all eaten and rested. After one more family selfie (felfie?) we packed up, took one more look out over the horizon, and started making our way slowly back down the mountain and back to Milan.
Find more information about Monte Barro here.
*you might find Monte Barro in a special “hiking Italy” Lonely Planet but it’s not in the big Italy book.
*China had mountains but there were no trails–only mile-long cement staircases dotted with tea houses and restaurants and packed with families in high heels and vendors selling cold cucumbers. Bare-chested sweaty men with skinny rib cages hauled enormous bamboo baskets filled with bricks up and down those mountains all day long. They were hauling materials for the construction of more stairs and more tea-houses further up, I suppose.