A Drive Through Abruzzo’s Majella National Park

National Park
National Park

The Italian region of Abruzzo has a higher percentage of protected landscape within its boundaries than any other area of Europe. There are no fewer than three National Parks – the Abruzzo National Park, the Gran Sasso, and the Majella.

You can explore each can by car, and a few days ago, it seemed a good idea to take advantage of one of October’s truly glorious days and take a long drive to enjoy the Majella’s magnificent scenery.

There’s only one road running north-south through the Majella, from Scafa down to Pescocostanzo via Caramanico Terme, Passo San Leonardo, and Pacentro.

It’s a route studded with gems.

Just north of Caramanico is a short and well-signposted detour to the 12th-century church of San Tommaso, named after St Thomas a’ Becket.

Above the main door is a beautiful frieze depicting Christ and the Twelve Apostles. Twelve rather grumpy-looking Apostles, it has to be said. Astonishing proof that the basics of caricature – albeit respectful – were apparent 800 years ago.

Contrast these with a handful of sumptuous and much more traditional medieval wall-paintings inside the church.

Who says Tuscany has all Italy’s art treasures?

Head further south. The spa town of Caramanico Terme, where you can bathe in the waters, is an excellent place to stop for lunch.

Plenty of choices. We followed signs leading out of town to the Locanda del Barone. An act of faith, as there’s no way of knowing how far away it is, or whether it’ll be open when you arrive.

A 15-minute drive later, we were rewarded with a delightful setting; perhaps the best antipasti we’ve yet eaten in Abruzzo; a hugely generous bowl of home-made chitarra pasta in a creamy tomato sauce studded with little nuggets of sausage; a right house Montepulciano d’Abruzzo served refreshingly chilled; and a bill under €¬40. Very much recommended.

After lunch, a gentle amble south, passing through Sant’Eufemia a Majella, with the road gently climbing up to Passo San Leonardo at 1285m/4216ft.

It’s a road that fools you, winding through alpine meadows against a spectacularly mountainous backdrop, and giving you no real indication of altitude until your ears start popping.

There’s a bar/cafe at Passo San Leonardo should you feel you need to reward your ascent.

It’s then literally downhill until Pacentro, unspoiled and walkable, and famed for the iconic ‘twin towers’ of Cantelmo Castle, begun in the 9th century.

Between Caramanico and Pacentro – about 20 miles (32km) – we met four cars. Nice to have the place pretty much to yourself and dawdle along at your own pace.

After Pacentro, you can make a detour west to Sulmona, or carry on down through the Majella to Pescocostanzo. A popular village of ours with a couple of excellent restaurants and the rather smart American Bar, which has an incredible selection of single malt whiskeys.

Once the snows set in, the road from Scafa to Pescocostanzo is efficiently and regularly snow-plowed. But in winter, it’s mandatory (and sensible anyway) to carry a set of snow chains. Just in case…

We’ve yet to do the drive in winter. It should be equally spectacular and scenic.

But a drive on a matchless October afternoon will be a tough act to follow.

About the Author

David is English, (hence the funny spelling of many words in this blog), but now lives in the central Italian region of Abruzzo, where he co-owns http://www.villasfor2.com holiday rental business.

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