Walking & Exploring In Italy’s Majella National ParkPosted on: 23 February 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves
Laura Whinney explores the glorious landscapes of Italy's Majella National Park.
I’ve enjoyed walking through some glorious landscapes in Tuscany, Umbria and Liguria and I thought I knew Italy reasonably well. But the Majella? I’d never heard of it!
The Majella (pronounced My-ella) National Park is in Italy’s increasingly fashionable region of Abruzzo lying less than 50 miles due east of Rome. Abruzzo itself is a wonderful area, with wild and mountainous landscapes, picturesque hill-top villages and some beautiful medieval towns.
Around 30% of Abruzzo is protected parkland: more than any other region in Europe. Of Abruzzo’s three National Parks, the Majella is the youngest, having been established in 1995.
A vast dome of limestone, the Majella massif peaks at Monte Amaro, which at 2,793m is the second highest summit in the entire Apennine chain. Locally the mountain is known as the Montagna Madre – Mother Mountain and some say it’s the slumbering body of Maia, goddess of spring and fertility.
The Majella is set apart from other segments of the Apennine chain – and well known by specialists as a result – because of its broad crest of almost desert-like high altitude plateau, combined with the deep, wild valleys that cut into the heart of the mountain.
Some unique man-made features of the Park are its medieval rock hermitages. In the 11th century, these mountains became famous as a haven for monks fleeing the corruption of Rome to live as hermits or in isolated communities deep in the valleys.
Today secluded sanctuaries and cave churches can still be found, built into the cliff-sides. Some are simple dwellings roughly hewn out of the rock, while others have been restored and are now protected as national monuments.
The most famous of the Majella’s hermits was Pietro Angelerio, who was born around 1215. During his lifetime he travelled extensively in Europe, but always returned to his beloved Majella where he felt most at peace and closest to God.
He founded a series of rock hermitages in the mountains of the Majella, each one more isolated than the last as he strove for perfect solitude, and became known as Pietro da Morrone after the mountain of the same name.
In 1294, when Pietro was already an old man, a period of political instability in Rome led to a prolonged stalemate by the Cardinals responsible for electing a new pope, and they fell back on Pietro da Morrone.
Pietro’s life of retreat and abstinence left him ill-prepared for his role as Pope Celestine V and the intrigues surrounding the papacy. He remained in the post for just five months before abdicating – the only Pope ever to have done so.
Today, the most exciting inhabitant of the Park is the native brown bear. Numbers are estimated at just ten animals and sightings are extremely rare, even by the park wardens. Wolves are present in greater numbers, but again rarely seen.
The Apennine chamois has been reintroduced relatively recently and frequents the highest, rocky areas of the massif, while deer and wild boar are abundant. Otters can be found in the Orfento and Orta rivers – a breeding programme in the town of Caramanico Terme is helping to boost numbers.
In woods after rain you might see the remarkable black and gold colouring of a salamander while golden eagles soar above the park, as do buzzards and numerous smaller raptors. The high plateaus above 2,000 metres are the only known nesting site in Italy of the Eurasian Dotterel and in the villages, as evening falls, you may hear the odd single-note call of a Scops Owl.
Over 1,800 hundred species of plant have been documented in the park, a third of the entire native Italian range.
At the lowest levels there is classic Mediterranean woodland and open maquis, while higher up the beech woods dominate, and above them the low growing Mountain Pine gives way finally to the open grass, limestone and shale on which alpines thrive, including gentians and the Apennine Edelwiess. A wide range of orchids flourish throughout the park.
Sheep rearing has been shaping the landscape in the Majella since the Iron Age. In Roman times a network of drove roads was developed, known as tratturi, along which sheep were driven from low-lying winter pastures to the mountain meadows in summer.
These routes remained in use until the beginning of the 20th century, when the traditional agricultural patterns of existence began to erode and the mountain communities of the Majella started to decline.
Now a certain amount of prosperity is returning to the region, based mostly on the slow growth of sustainable tourism and the recognition of the value and beauty of the wonderful landscapes and traditional villages.
However, for those living in the isolated villages of the Majella year round, life is still far from easy. Winters can be harsh and lives are dominated by the need to stay warm; from mid-summer onwards, the tranquillity is punctuated by the rhythmic thud of chopping wood, gathered from communal managed beech-forests high in the mountains.
After heavy snows, villages are often cut off for days, and it is quite usual to miss a month or more of school or work each year due to winter weather. Families cling on, determined to bring up their children in the villages where they themselves grew up, but children pay the price with long commutes to schools on the valley floor.
Low impact sustainable tourism is beginning to reach these communities, bringing income and opportunities for local enterprises and a reason for the younger generation to remain in the mountains without needing to seek work in the cities.
The Majella offers some superb walking in very varied terrain. You can embark on challenging full day summit bids, potter for an hour to a glorious picnic spot, or anything in between.
There are two dramatic gorges: the Orfento and the Orta. The Orta is smaller, but has dome impressive rock formations, while the mighty Orfento cuts deep into the Majella massif and has stunning walks both along its rim and deep inside, following the crystal clear river.
A little higher there are upland meadows thick in wildflowers and fragrant with thyme and curry-plant, where orchids are often spotted. There are tiny farming communities and conical stone shepherds’ shelters known as tholos. There are the rock hermitages of Pietro da Morrone: the charming hermitage of San Bartolomeo, the hidden and isolated rock-church of San Giovanni and the impressive Santo Spirito which is now a national monument and a place of pilgrimage.
There are peaceful beech woods, high alpine pastures grazed by sheep and wild horses, patches of year round snow, the grassy summit of Monte Morrone (2,061m) and the barren heights of Monte Amaro itself.
The walking in this region is rewarding any time between May and October. In the spring, the flowers are magnificent and snow lingers picturesquely on the mountain peaks.
Summer can be hot, but the air is usually refreshing above 1,500m and there are plenty of shady walks to choose from and cool mountain streams to paddle in. October offers crystal clear days and beautiful autumn colours.
Local walking maps do exist but can be very out of date, and marked routes may be impassable due to ancient avalanche or forest-fire damage or a generation of undergrowth, and there is little or no way-marking in the region. To avoid the pitfalls of going it alone, see below for details of a tour operator organising independent walking holidays in the region.
There are plenty of things to do in the area. The local town of Caramanico Terme has shops, an outdoor swimming pool and a luxurious 4-star spa hotel where you can treat yourself to a massage.
There are mountain bikes for hire, and the Park Visitors Centre arranges informative tours of their otter-breeding centre. The Botanical Gardens offer an understanding into the wide range of local mountain flora, and there is calm-water canoeing to be found on the crystal-clear Tirino River.
A magnificent drive up the Orta Valley and beyond leads down off the southern flanks of the Majella massif to the beautiful medieval town of Sulmona, with its 11th century cathedral crypt, 14th century buildings and dozens of sugared almond shops.
The mountain cuisine of the Majella is delicious and there are a number of excellent restaurants. Regional dishes include mouth-watering game: boar and venison antipasti and pasta dishes. A local speciality is the arrosticini (tiny cubes of tender lamb on skewers) and there is a colourful medley of fresh vegetables, beans and pulses.
Bread is made from local grain and cheeses are made from local flocks of sheep. The red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine is robust and highly drinkable, the water from the village fountains is collected religiously by town-dwellers as the sweetest water around, and there is a variety of fiery liqueurs to be found as well as the gentler fragolino, a sweet liqueur made from tiny wild strawberries.
There is a regular flight with Ryanair from Stansted to Pescara which brings you to within an hour’s drive of the Majella National Park. Alternatively there are several flights a day to Rome Ciampino from various UK airports with Easyjet or Ryanair, and the 2 ½ hour drive takes you through the spectacular Apennine Mountains.
By Laura Whinney
Walking specialist tour operator Upland Escapes offer flexible walking holidays in the Majella, based in a traditional rural village or in the charming local town, in comfortable en-suite B&B rooms or a self-catering cottage apartment.
A wide range of meticulously researched and described self-guided walks are available, from half hour strolls to full day hikes and everything in between. This choice combined with single-centre accommodation allows every guest to walk just as much or as little as they like, and to tailor their holiday and choice of walks to match their own interests and fitness levels.
Holidays also include a hire-car (carbon-offset) to allow guests to explore independently, and reach the very best walks and rural restaurants in the area.
Have you been to the Majella National Park? Have you been walking in Italy? Do you have any tips or recommendations to pass on?
If so, let us know by leaving a comment in the box below or share your thoughts with other readers in the 50connect forums.
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