Abruzzo – Magnificent Mountain Slopes With a Scent of Sea

National Park
National Park

There are regular flights by Ryanair from Stansted to Pescara in Italy (we recommend you sit on the right-hand side of the plane for the best mountain views), which brings you to within an hour’s drive of the magnificent Majella National Park. Collect your hire car, turn inland, and head for the hills.

After a smooth 20 minutes on one of Italy’s least crowded and most civilized stretches of motorway, you begin to climb steadily, passing villages and vineyards, until you round a corner to be greeted by the striking view of Caramanico Terme, sprawling at the foot of the mountain.

From here wind steeply up for ten more minutes, along the rim of the Orfento Gorge, through the wild upland pasture, dotted with pines and scented broom, to Decontra. At 810m altitude, this little mountain village is in a superb position, with stunning south-facing views over the gorge to Monte Amaro (2793m), Monte Morrone (2061m), and the lush Orta valley in between.

The Majella is one of Italy’s newest National Parks, established in 1995. A vast dome of limestone, the massif peaks at Monte Amaro, the second-highest summit in the Apennine chain. Locally the mountain is known as the Montagna Madre – Mother Mountain; some say it is the slumbering body of Maia, goddess of spring and fertility. The Majella is set apart from other segments of the Apennine chain. Specialists know it well 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 human-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 the 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.

Fauna

The most exciting inhabitant of the Park is the native brown bear. Numbers are just six animals, and sightings are scarce, even by the park wardens. Wolves are present in more significant amounts, 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. You can find otters in the Orfento and Orta rivers – the breeding program at the center in Caramanico is helping to boost numbers. In woods after rain, you might see the remarkable black and gold coloring of a salamander. Golden eagles soar above the Park, as do buzzards and numerous smaller raptors.

Flora

Over 1800 hundred species of plant have been documented in the park, 1/3 of the native Italian range. At the lowest levels, you will walk in classic Mediterranean woodland and open maquis.

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 Edelweiss. A wide range of orchids flourishes throughout the park.

Walking

Decontra is ideal for walking, with many routes setting out from the village itself. You can embark on challenging full-day summit bids, a potter for an hour to a glorious picnic spot, or anything in between. Choose between high mountains, upland meadows, or deep gorges. Here are three sample walks to whet your appetite.

Valle Giumentina and Hermitage of San Bartolomeo

It’s a half-day circular walk that starts and ends at the door of your room in Decontra. Follow a broad gravel track on la level ground out of the village and past meadows and cultivated fields. Cross the plateau of the Valle Giumentina, once a lake, and keep an eye out in the cultivated fields for fossils and flints from stone-age tools. The track rises gently at the far side of the plateau, where a grassy path leads to a curious collection of conical stone shelters. These were built by shepherds over the last two hundred years, using the stone cleared from the fields around.

The Majella is traditionally an area of transhumance: shepherds from low-lying Puglia further south drove their flocks to mountain pastures here in the summer months. These conical shelters are similar to the distinctive “Trulli” for which Puglia is famous. Another gravel track, with spectacular views across the plateau to the Majella massif, leads to the lip of a deep gorge. Far below is the trickle of the Santo Spirito stream, and on the far side, disguised amongst the cliff walls of the canyon is the hermitage of San Bartolomeo.

A steep footpath leads down to where smooth flat rocks beside the stream provide a perfect picnic spot. Steps carved out of the cliff lead up to the hermitage above, built in the 13th Century by the man destined to be Pope Celestine V. An ancient fresco survives over the door, and inside the effigy of the saint keeps watch over a trickle of miraculous water – guaranteed to cure any ailment, even blisters!

After retracing your steps to the lip of the gorge, a grassy mule-path leads back through the wild pastureland towards the village.

The Orfento Gorge

Many walks are exploring this extraordinary gorge. This option is a half-day excursion starting and ending in Decontra, though both longer and shorter variations are possible. Follow the road out of the village and take a well cobbled mule-path dropping left on a traverse through cypresses and broom; there are beautiful views across the gorge and down to the town of Caramanico Terme. Walk for a few meters along the road at the bottom of this track then descend steeply on a well-maintained footpath.

For a short walk, you could park a car here and take this footpath to explore the gorge below, returning the same way. The gorge bottom is a magical world of lush greenery, cool shade, and the crystal clear Orfento river. The footpath crosses and re-crosses the river on wooden footbridges beneath tall cliffs.

Upstream the way forks and you take a slightly higher path which climbs above the river and provides magnificent views of the gorge, its cliffs, and of Decontra perched on the rim. Eventually, a rocky footpath leads away from the river, climbing steeply around grassy bluffs. Just before arriving back at Decontra, a wild meadow promontory juts out over the gorge to a magnificent viewpoint. As a short walk from the village, this is a perfect place to relax at sunset.

Le Murelle

A spectacular drive brings you high onto the shoulder of the massif (2100m). The car park is known as the ‘Blockhaus’ because of the ruin on the ridge above. It was built in the late 19th Century as a base from which to combat the brigand bands that hid in these mountains – later; the Germans made use of it in the Second World War. The walk begins by undulating along a ridge, past the carved rocks known as the ‘Brigands’ Table,’ before a climbing traverse – which in two places has a short cable handrail – rounds a spur into the dramatic cirque of Le Murelle. The path skirts beneath cliffs, above tremendous views into the deep western valleys, and often as late as July cuts across lingering snowfields. It is a steep climb out of one side of the vast natural theatre, onto the Cima (summit) delle Murelle. Then pick your way along the cox-comb of rocks on the lip of the cirque, a narrow spur climbing onto a weird desert landscape and the day’s highest altitudes. At 2600 meters, the summit plateaus of the Majella are a strangely smooth table-land of flat stones, dotted here and there.

About the Author

Abruzzo Passion is Active Holiday Provider in Abruzzo, Italy

Where to stay in Campobasso

Hotels and B&Bs in Campobasso: search and reserve here.