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Abruzzo cycling: crossing the Maiella

Passo San Leonardo 58 miles / 5,200 feet / 4.5 hours

Pacentro, Abruzzo
The start of the climb to Passo San Leonardo

Abruzzo cycling, even in the Maiella, doesn't always have to be as tough as the Blockhaus climb and on this route for example there are no steep gradients anywhere, as the profile at the end demonstrates.

This ride is a loop around the Morrone mountains in the north-western third of the Maiella massif, with the direction of travel being anti-clockwise in order to get the boring part out of the way first and save the scenic 20 mile downhill for the finish.

The Passo San Leonardo is the only road that actually crosses the Maiella and is made possible by a small gap in the mountains which allows the road to crest at only 4,200 feet of elevation. I say ‘only 4,200 feet’ because in the first Maiella cycling article you’ll notice that the top of the climb at Blockhaus is way up there at 6,800 feet so quite a difference and also the reason why the Blockhaus road is a dead end.

Roccacasale, Abruzzo
Very soon after Popoli you pass Roccacasale with it's 1,000 year old Castello de Sanctis, which added the Rocca to Casale

Scafa - Torre de’ Passeri - Popoli - Pacentro - San Leonardo Pass - Sant’Eufemia a Maiella - Caramanico Terme - San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore - Scafa

Abruzzo Maiella map showing Scafa to Pacentro
Showing the loop around the Morrone mountains with Scafa at the top center of the map and Pacentro bottom center

Starting in Scafa at the same place as for the Blockhaus climb, the first hour is something of a nondescript rolling ride to Popoli along the main road (the red No.5 road above). It’s a reasonably busy road that skirts around the north-western perimeter of the Maiella but it's wide enough to feel safe and it’s used by plenty of cyclists. It doesn’t seem particularly hilly but it’s definitely not flat because at the end of the first hour you will have already registered the first 1,000 feet of climbing.

Abbey of the Holy Spirit at Monte Morrone
Abbey of the Holy Spirit at Monte Morrone

Once through Popoli it’s another 8 miles on a slightly less busy road (red No.17) to Bagnaturo where you turn left towards the mountains and get onto much smaller and quieter roads. The rest of the loop from this point all the way back to Scafa is largely free of traffic and has sensational views that will have you stopping every few minutes to take photographs.

Eremo di Sant’Onofrio al Morrone, Abruzzo
Eremo di Sant’Onofrio al Morrone

Turning right through Badia to head in a south-eastern direction you’ll come across the Abbey of the Holy Spirit at Monte Morrone. It was rebuilt in the 18th century after an earthquake destroyed the original 13th century monastery, which for centuries had functioned as the main abbey of the Celestine order. Deconsecrated in the 19th century it was subsequently used by the Germans in WW2 as a prison and execution center for Italian partigiani accused of helping the allied forces. After the war it was fully restored and is now a museum.

Pacentro, Abruzzo
After passing through Pacentro there's nothing more than 4%-5% gradients for the remaining 9 miles to Passo San Leonardo

In the mountains high above the Abbey you can see the Eremo di Sant’Onofrio al Morrone. The future Pope and later saint Celestine V lived here as a simple hermit friar in the 13th century and there is a steep hiking path you can take up to the building which sits at 2,000 feet overlooking the Sulmona basin.

Pacentro and the Peligna valley
Looking back down on Pacentro and the Peligna valley from a little way up the climb

Passing through the small villages of Santa Lucia and Marane you quickly arrive at the left turn onto the Pacentro road and this road, No 487, is going to take you through Pacentro, up the mountain, over the pass, down the other side and all the way back to Scafa. It's a fabulous and very scenic cycling road that you won't want to rush.

The profile of the climb from when you first turn onto the 487 to the top of the pass is shown below. It's a strange climb because the road has been built with lots of hairpin bends to keep the gradients more gentle then seems necessary and in doing so they have made it by far the easiest climb in the Maiella.

Just before the intersection where the Campo di Giove road joins the 487 there is a water fountain (above left photo) and then the gradient becomes almost negligible for the remaining 2 miles to the top of Passo San Leonardo.

Approaching Passo San Leonardo
The last mile before Passo San Leonardo

The scenery also changes here as you enter landscape that resembles more of an alpine valley and on the right hand side the biggest Maiella mountain appears, Monte Amaro at 9,160 feet. Once over Passo San Leonardo, the long 20 mile descent back to Scafa begins so you can sit back and enjoy the views.

Passo San Leonardo road sign in Abruzzo

Before reaching the first town on Sant'Eufemia a Maiella there's a turning off to the left to a village called Roccacaramanico which has been undergoing a substantial reconstruction over the past few years and I made a separate visit there using a hiking trail. It's best done in late afternoon when the sun favors Monte Amaro and the neighboring mountains with the most attractive light of the day.

The Morrone mountains, Abruzzo
The south-eastern side of the Morrone mountains on the descent to Sant'Eufemia a Maiella

On the descent the south-eastern side of the Morrone mountains provide the most interesting views for me, a much softer landscape with less barren rock faces than on the route from Popoli to Pacentro and as you are now facing north the Gran Sasso range comes into view in the far distance.

It's a wide road with a good surface and only a couple of short well-lit tunnels to go through as you reach the next town, Caramanico Terme, which has plenty of coffee bars and restaurants. After Caramanico Terme the road is flat or gently downhill until San Valentino, followed by a short quick descent back to the starting point in Scafa.

At least for me, Abruzzo cycling doesn't get much better than this route across the Maiella.


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