Exploration, by definition, means to progress, to discover, to look for new possibilities. It drives us forward. It unites and connects us. We may explore in different ways and places, but we are all explorers. Whether one mile, or a thousand, there are places to uncover and people to learn from. But this year, outdoor exploration was paused. We had to stay home. We had to dig deep and explore inside ourselves. As a result the companies, organisations, communities and individuals that enable exploration faced an unprecedented and existential challenge.
Rather than just hitting the play button again. We’re hitting reset. We want to do more. We want to listen, learn and grow. We want to help where and when we can, because we believe we can only move forward together.
So earlier this year we committed €1 million through our Explore Fund to support those companies, organisations, communities and individuals that make exploration possible. One of those organisations is Rifugi di Lombardia, a team of volunteers that shares information, supports and promotes mountain huts and activities in Italy’s Lombardy region. To find out more about it and its story, we sat down with Elena Marinoni, volunteer Communication Manager at Rifugi di Lombardia.
Rifugi di Lombardia
Unless you’re Italian, you probably hadn’t heard much about Lombardy as a region prior to 2020. This year however, almost everyone in the world can now identify it on a map. And sadly this isn’t because of its breathtaking mountain scenery, rich cultural history and localised cuisine. No, it’s because it was the epicentre of Italy’s Covid-19 outbreak.
Italy was the first country in Europe to be majorly affected by coronavirus and the first (outside Asia) to go into lockdown. The north of the country, Lombardy and its neighbours, was plunged into limbo. All tourism stopped. The mountains were, effectively, closed.
“Lombardy was one of the hardest hit regions in Italy,” says Elena. “And there’s no doubt the situation with Covid-19 will have lasting impacts on tourism.”
For Rifugi di Lombardia this is catastrophic. The non-profit organisation is there to support and promote mountain tourism through its vast network of mountain huts, all of which closed on 8th March, ahead of the full lockdown imposed by the Italian government.
Slowly but surely most of Lombardy’s huts have reopened. But not without cost. Aside from the loss of vital business during lockdown, felt acutely by the region’s shepherds and hut wardens, all the huts now have to follow strict safety protocols to protect visitors and hut employees.
And these comprehensive safety measures are costly. For starters, fewer people can visit and stay in the huts. Secondly, cleaning is now far more rigorous and frequent. Masks, hand gels and a variety of other protection measures, though necessary, are expensive. And local mountain communities have lost out, too; fewer tourists means fewer sales of local produce.
Getting Back On Track
With a little help from us, Rifugi di Lombardia is funding programmes to get mountain huts and shepherds back on their feet. The Shepherd and Hut programme puts mountain huts in touch with local farms to serve their produce. It supports the community and also introduces visitors to classic dishes and produce of the region – think local cheeses, yoghurts and jams.
“Mountain huts are part of our region’s heritage. Through their tourism, they support the local communities, society and environment. They also provide an authentic mix of fun, adventure and culture that enables people to fully immerse themselves in the natural surroundings.”
And those natural surroundings are spectacular, though fly a little under the radar particularly of international tourists. Rifugi di Lombardia is helping combat this through its promotion of the region via its website and social media.
A Region of Hidden Gems
40% of Lombardy's territory is made up of the Alps and Prealps, a rising, imposing fortress of mountains strewn with rivers and lakes. From Madesimo to Foppolo, Bormio to Livigno, Santa Caterina Valfurva to Ponte di Legno, there are about 13,000 mountain trails, of which almost 7,000 are way-marked. There are long-distance hiking paths such as the Rome Trail, Orobie Trail and the Cadorna Line, family-friendly nature trails, walls – particularly those around Lecco where some of Italy’s best-known climbers and mountaineers cut their teeth – to climb, and hundreds of kilometres of ski slopes come wintertime.
“Lombardy is full of hidden gems. It has nature, art, mountains, lakes and historical villages. Alongside the more popular destinations there are fascinating, secret, wild places just waiting to be discovered. There are countless trails to suit all tastes. Experiencing the Lombardy mountains means discovering enchanting places, interconnected by trails that unfold like multi-coloured threads in a colourful canvas.”
The majority of Lombardy’s 140 huts operate in both summer and winter. They offer shelter, a place to sleep, eat and meet others. They are both the starting and ending point for millions of journeys and they open doors that would otherwise remain closed to less experienced mountain explorers. Families with young children, older people, those new to outdoor activities, would all struggle to take their first steps into the higher reaches of the Italian alps without the support and hospitality of strategically placed mountain huts.
Nature is something everyone should have access to. Rifugi di Lombardia is enabling that access and allowing all of us to be explorers.
The story of Rifugi di Lombardia is one of many. Through the extra Covid-19 funding of the Explore Fund we’ve been able to help more than 20 different organisations and groups that make exploration possible. Check back soon to discover their stories.