A trip to the Apennines highlights why this region is such a year-round lure for the citizens of nearby Rome – and visitors from further afield
Buttocks – and wriggling Italian ones at that – are all Pope Celestine V would have seen when he followed a fellow cleric into the remote hermitage of San Bartolomeo, in the mountains of Abruzzo.
Unlike Italy’s incumbent Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the only way the 13th-century society heavyweight could avoid corruption charges was to hightail it as a hermit. And what a magical spot he hid in – the high Apennines.
A wriggling derrière and a caterpillar shuffle are essential when exploring the myriad eremos (hermitages) in the region. The locals boast that this area has more holy places per square kilometre than anywhere in the world except Tibet. Remote and difficult to access, more than 40 chapels, grottoes and hermitages are gouged precipitously into the limestone cliffs that punctuate the beech forests of Majella National Park.
“Only those who do not sin can enter,” said Massimo Sbricolli, a butcher from Rome and an avid walker, after we had squeezed – prostrate – out of another hideaway. I looked at him from beyond the fiery broom and fat rosehips with a face dripping with scepticism. “Er, legend has it,” he blurted.
Massimo was playing that millennia-old trick: warning overseas visitors and those who holiday from Italy’s north to be suspicious of the capital’s bordering province. The Romans try to paint a picture of wily shepherds, howling wolves and bears that wander into town.
Yet somehow they forget to tell you that at the first sign of spring they head west, up into Majella to revel in its paintbox of wildflowers. In summer they return to cool off in its verdant ravines; they kick up golden leaf fall in autumn; and in winter, glide over the powdery landscape on skis.
In Majella the natural world is as untamed as tradition is untainted. Food-loving Italians come here to salivate over menus of hearty mountain fare: rich peasant soups, lamb, wild boar sausages, the country’s best lentils and some heady red wines – although the vintage is more to do with the quality of the air.
Since ancient times this region has been the Romans' best-kept secret – theirs to savour and not to share. The only real sin you are likely to commit in Majella is gorging yourself on the scenery of Europe’s largest protected wildernesses.
Majella’s appeal is still relatively unknown – it’s not as old as nearby Abruzzo National Park (founded in 1922), or as high as Gran Sasso, which has the tallest peak in peninsular Italy and is where Pope John Paul II used to go skiing. But three years ago Majella signed up to the PAN Parks initiative. Inspired by the scheme, Italian conservationists have renewed their commitment to regenerating the wilderness and promoting high-quality tourism.
Imposing, lofty and with commanding views over the crowded coast, the Apennines take on steroidal proportions here. With more than 30 icy peaks exceeding 2,000m, they are the most southerly alpine region in Europe. Pliny the Elder called Majella ‘Father of all Mountains’, yet for the people of Abruzzo the peaks conjure up the fairer sex.
“Majella is rich in animals and plants, soft and gentle, but fertile,” expressed Massimo in a way that only Italians can. “It means Mother Mountain, yet her mood is changeable, like the weather here.”
Indeed, the clouds have a knack of billowing up from the gorges as if someone in Adriatic-side Pescara has switched on an industrial fogging machine. Just then, as if on cue, a dancing wind draped wool-thick vapour curtains across the landscape.
All we could see in front of us were stone cairns – or omino as locals call them, which affectionately means ‘small man’ – and the scraped wooden tops of the dwarf mountain pine, a telltale sign deer had been here, sharpening their antlers.
But as quickly as the curtains were drawn, they opened again to reveal an azure Mediterranean sky, wild meadows full of orchids and a clapped-out car on the track. “It’s a Fiat Fungi,” Massimo’s partner Isabella joked. All we had to do now was spot the mushroom pickers. They quickly appeared over the horizon, trawling the grass with their wooden sticks.
Inspired by their fungal foraging we tried to have a go. You have to search for the darker grass fairy rings beyond the beech woods, he indicated. But our attempts only delivered a handful of flavour-bursting alpine strawberries. Luckily that night we did get to dine on a mouth-watering meal of spelt polenta and black truffles – fungi collected from these very hills.
Over the ages geography has been kind to Mother Mountain. Its high elliptical brow and fissured karst face have kept humans out and wildlife in. Within two hours of sipping an espresso by Rome’s Trevi fountain or sunning yourself on the beaches of the Adriatic, you can be hiking along shepherds’ trails imprinted with the hooves and scat of Abruzzi chamois, red and roe deer, Apennine wolf and Marsican bear.
“The high plateau is very difficult to reach,” explained Pino Marcantonio, a technician at park HQ at Campo di Giove. “This is why it’s well preserved. It’s also a crossroads for nature in the Med – much of which is endemic.” There are over 2,000 species of plants in Majella. That’s 36% of Italy’s flora, 22% of Europe’s – and a whopping 11% is found nowhere else on earth.
It’s difficult to see all of Majella’s stunning plants, but a visit to the botanical gardens at Lama dei Peligni meant I had a fighting chance. The gardens have an impressive collection of 500 species laid out in the different environments found in the park, from high alpine to scrubby garigue.
It enabled me to really understand the diversity of the region, as well as admire the rare Majellan aquilegia, a plant only recently discovered. Above the gardens there was a vast site for chamois, whose cliff-gripping antics I observed via remote video camera.
Now that the PAN Parks logo guards the boundaries to the core area of Majella, chamois numbers are mushrooming. Wolf packs are thriving, too, preying on wild boar and deer which, in turn, have benefited from the sprouting beech woods.
Despite the growing numbers, the chances of actually seeing one of Majella’s 65 wolves in the wild are slim. I had the privilege of watching one – a graceful creature, staring back at me – but it was in an enclosure. Three abandoned wolves now live on the edge of the park, where scientists are working to better understand their behaviour.
“There is a good probability they will increase in number. The environment here is in good shape,” said Luca Apinogatti, who works at the park’s education centre, Il Grande Faggio, and briefs visitors at the wolf enclosure.
The growing health of the land is also not lost on 82-year-old Paulino Sanelli, a sprightly shepherd and poet who has seen the forests rejuvenate as the grazing declines. He has seen globalisation replace Italian shepherds with Albanians, and then Romanians, as costs soared and higher wages drew people to the cities. Now his fields are overgrown and the domed pajare (dry-stone shelters) with their beehive structures are crumbling with neglect.
“It is lucky that there is tourism, otherwise the area would be dead,” explained Paulino. It is hard not to be humbled by his bright-eyed knowledge of Majella, especially when he points out some graffiti on the high pasture – his name and the date, 1 September 1950, etched in stone.
Paulino’s village of Decontra is down a dead-end road, ten minutes’ drive beyond the spa town of Caramanico Terme. The village – perched 810m above sea level – has only been connected to the outside world since the 1970s. Until then it had no electricity – and no road.
Now it is chock-full of red poppies and retired herdsman; here men stare more than they work. The local banter revolves around the dilapidated chapel and when one of Italy’s last female shepherds, and residents, will lay down her crook – there are believed to be only four remaining.
Paulino and his family run Agriturismo Pietrantica, a big limestone house that’s been converted into a guesthouse. You can step out with his son Camillo to explore the shepherd trails, walk unguided in the dramatic gorges of the Orfento and the Orta, rock climb in the Santo Spirito ravine or help prepare food Abruzzo-style with his wife Marisa.
Marisa Sanelli cooks like the Italian mothers in movies: with flamboyance and affection. By the volume of food on the hob, it seemed Marisa was keeping Abruzzo’s gastronomic traditions alive all by herself. Many visitors spend time in the kitchen with Marisa, stealing her magic and improving their knowledge. “Majella is like a big onion, it has many layers. There is a lot to do here,” she told me.
“Pietrantica means old stone, it tells us about the old culture here,” she explained, as she poured another glass of centerbe – a digestive liquor that gets its kick from the local herbs. Certified by PAN Parks, the Sanelli’s brand of tourism is as sustainable as it gets. They even grow a local grain, used to bake their bread. The grain is fast disappearing elsewhere; their efforts are another step to preserving Majella’s biodiversity.
With Agriturismo Pietrantica, revenues also stay within the local community. They buy fresh milk from the aging shepherdess and vegetables from the retired ones. It has allowed them to make a living and stay in their ancestral village while many have fled to the cities. Apart from the couple’s young children they are the youngest in Decontra – even though they are in their 40s.
“The animals, they speak the same language. It is not true of humans, though,” said Paulino that night. He was talking about the group of Italians and a lone Englishman around the dining table.
But I couldn’t help thinking that, as a poet, he had a deeper meaning in mind: the language of conservation, of Europe’s wild areas and of humankind getting the balance right. He probably saw it some time ago, most likely at that moment when he etched one, nine, five, zero in a rock, high on Mother Mountain.