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Waking Holidays in Abruzzo – Italy

January 25, 2010

There are regular flights by Ryanair from Stansted ( as well as worldwide) 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 an easy 20 minutes on one of Italy’s least crowded and most civilised 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 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 Appenine 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 – 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 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.

The most exciting inhabitant of the Park is the native brown bear. Numbers are estimated at just six 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 – the breeding programme at the centre in Caramanico is helping to boost numbers. In woods after rain you might see the remarkable black and gold colouring of a salamander. Golden eagles soar above the park, as do buzzards and numerous smaller raptors.

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 Edelwiess. A wide range of orchids flourish throughout the park.

Decontra is ideally situated for walking, with many routes setting out from the village itself. You can embark on challenging full day summit bids, 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
This is a half day circular walk which starts and ends at the door of your room in Decontra. Follow a broad gravel track on 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 ploughed 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 gorge 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 pasture land towards the village.

The Orfento Gorge
There are many walks 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 wonderful views across the gorge and down to the town of Caramanico Terme. At the bottom of this track, walk for a few metres along the road before descending 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, 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 huge views into the deep western valleys, and often as late as July cuts across lingering snow fields. It is a steep climb out of one side of the huge 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 metres, the summit plateaus of the Majella are a strangely smooth table-land of flat stones, dotted here and there with colourful cushions of Alpine flowers. After crossing a corner of this unique environment the descent begins, down to the approach ridge and back to the Blockhaus. This is a challenging full day walk, with some navigational difficulties, and so is best done with an escort.

Where to stay
In Decontra there are two newly-renovated places to stay – a traditional village cottage  with two charming bedrooms, bathroom and private sitting room and with wonderful views. There is also a lovingly restored family-run old Farmhouse with large rooms and en-suite bathrooms.

The village has only been connected to the outside world since the 1970s; until then it had no electricity, and no road. Now the 80 or so inhabitants still work the land and vegetable gardens, graze their flocks and gather their winter fuel from the high mountain woodlands.

The village is served by mobile suppliers selling fruit and vegetables, bread, meat and cheese, and there is an excellent restaurant and bar “Il Cervo”. Italians come from afar to dine here at weekends. We highly recommend trying the ravioli al cervo (with venison sauce), and the arrosticini (tiny cubes of local lamb on skewers).

When to go
The walking in this region is rewarding any time between May and October. In the spring, the upland meadows are thick with flowers, including many varieties of orchid, and snow lingers picturesquely on the mountain peaks. Summer can be hot, but the air is usually refreshing above 1500m 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.

Other attractions
There are plenty of non-walking activities 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. 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! And to finish your holiday on a high note, on your return journey to Pescara you could stop off at the fascinating National Archaeological Museum in Chieti.

Abruzzo Passion Walking
Specialist walking tour operator Abruzzo Passion will enable you to really get the best out of a holiday in the Majella National Park.

Abruzzo Passion Manager lives in the village and will be on hand to introduce you to the village, offer advice and support, provide a delicious and lavish daily packed-lunch and lead three full-day escorted walks per week to some challenging and less accessible areas, including Le Murelle, featured above. The great flexibility of an Walking Holiday with Abruzzo Passion is that you can travel on any day of the week, stay as long as you want (minimum 3 nights) and walk as much or as little as you wish each day.

For more details on this holiday and others offered, please visit Abruzzo Passion Walking Holidays.

Flights and driving times
Stansted to Pescara on Ryanair, three flights a week. Drive time to Decontra = 1 hour
· UK to Rome Ciampino on Ryanair or Easyjet, several flights daily. Drive time to Decontra = 2 ½ hours

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