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The Regions of the Apennines

Updated on April 6, 2014

The Apennines are a mountain system that forms the backbone of the Italian peninsula. It extends in a wide curve from the Maritime Alps in the northwest to the toe of the Italian boot and the Strait of Messina in the southwest. The system, called Appennino or Appennini in Italian, is about 840 miles (1,352 km) long and between 25 and 85 miles (40–137 km) wide. It continues in the mountains of Sicily. Although the Apennines are a prolongation of the Alps, the difference between the two systems is striking. The Apennines lack the variety of landscape and picturesque grandeur of the Alps, and their peaks often present a rounded profile.

The Apennines constitute the watershed of the Italian peninsula. Rivers flowing from the western slopes into the Tyrrhenian Sea—except those running into the Gulf of Genoa in the north and descending from the Calabrian chain in the south—are fairly long and carry some water the year round. From the eastern slopes rise tributaries of the Po in the north and streams flowing into the Adriatic and Ionian seas.


The name "Apennines," probably derived from the Celtic word pen, meaning "mountain top," was originally limited to the northern section. The historian Polybius (205?–125 B.C.) and the geographer Strabo (63 B.C.–?24 A.D.) applied it to the whole chain.

The Apennine system, a contemporary of the Alps and the Himalayas, is a young geological formation. It has generally a folded structure, although much fragmentation has occurred in parts of the central section and in the south. There is a great variety of rock formations. While the mountains in the north consist mostly of weak sandstones and clays, the main peaks of the central Apennines are rugged limestone. In the south the mountains are limestone, sand, and clay until their formations change drastically in the Calabrian Apennines, the oldest part of the system, where crystalline schists, gneiss, and granite prevail. The reliefs of Latium and Campania are volcanic rock formations.


Divisions of the Apennines are arbitrary because there are no pronounced geological or geographical characteristics to distinguish one section from the other. However, the division into northern, central, and southern Apennines has been widely accepted since the 19th century. While the northern and most of the central Apennines consist of longitudinal chains separated by valleys and depressions and are cut by relatively few passes, the southern and some central Apennines are formed by mountain blocks and high plateaus interrupted by valleys, basins, and gorges with easier transverse routes.


Northern Apennines

The northern ranges extend from Cadibona Pass, separating the Apennines from the Alps, to Bocca Serriola, near the sources of the Metauro River. They are divided into the Ligurian and Tuscan-Emilian Apennines.

The Ligurian group, of moderate height, skirts the Gulf of Genoa and drops into the sea, forming a highly indented coast, the Italian Riviera, which is noted for its mild climate and resorts. Flowers, grapes, olives, and figs are grown. The Giovi Pass connects Genoa with Milan.

The Tuscan-Emilian Apennines swing eastward toward the Adriatic and are higher than the Ligurian chains; Monte Cimone reaches 7,096 feet. Wheat is grown in the northern foothills, and grapes, olives, and maize flourish on the Tyrrhenian side. Several tributaries of the Po— the Reno and Metauro flowing into the Adriatic, and the Serchio, Arno, and Tiber descending into the Tyrrhenian—have their headwaters here. The most important are the Abetone, Cisa, Porretta, and Futa passes. The Apuanian Alps, with their dazzling white, jagged peaks, rise steeply near the Tyrrhenian coast; their famous marble quarries near Massa and Carrara are centuries old.


Central Apennines

The central ranges, extending from Bocca Serriola to the Sangro River, are divided into the Umbrian-Marches (sometimes called Roman) Apennines and the Abruzzi Apennines.

The Umbrian-Marches Apennines are drained by the Tiber River and its tributaries, and by short streams flowing into the Adriatic. Monte Vettore (8,130 feet) is the highest peak. The ancient Via Flaminia, which crosses near the Scheggia Pass, is still an important travel route.

The Abruzzi Apennines are the highest and most rugged of the system. The loftiest peak is Monte Corno (9,560 feet), in the imposing Gran Sasso d'Italia massif; next in height is Monte Amaro (9,170 feet), in the Maiella group. Here the mountains present a more alpine character; there is a small glacier, the only one in the system, near the Gran Sasso. Long winters and heavy snowfall favor ski resorts.

To the west of the central Apennines proper are various hills known as Antiapennines. In Tuscany they include ranges of hills covered with vineyards and olive groves; the Colline Metallifere, where some iron and copper is mined; and Monte Amiata, which yields tin and mercury. There are also thermal springs, soffioni (hot jets), and other volcanic phenomena, which are exploited for producing borax and thermoelectric power. In Latium there is a volcanic area of low mountains, hills, and crater lakes.


Southern Apennines

South of the Sangro River the system swings back to the Tyrrhenian Sea and is divided into the Neapolitan, Lucanian, and Calabrian Apennines.

The highest summit of the Neapolitan Apennines is Monte Miletto (6,660 feet), in the Matese group. The Volturno and Sele rivers, which have their sources on these slopes, water the plains of Campania. Volcanic phenomena are evident around Naples in Mount Vesuvius, the Phlegraean Fields, and Lake Averno, which occupies the crater of a volcano.

The Lucanian Apennines rise from the surrounding hill country and reach their highest point in Monte Pollino (7,450 feet). The rivers that rise on these slopes flow erratically into the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas.

In the narrow Calabrian Peninsula the mountains have a different geologic structure. In the north the Sila, an erosion plateau rising to 6,600 feet in Botte Donato, has rounded summits and wide valleys. From there the rivers and torrents plunge into the sea through impressive gorges and cause seasonal floods and erosion.


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