Elena has visited Abruzzo almost every year for over four decades and walked many Maiella massif paths with her late father, starting when she was just a teenager. My first visit to Abruzzo was only 8 years ago but I too have now made many trips here and at the end of every visit I regret leaving, especially the mountains, so this time I decided to spend an entire month in the Maiella National Park.
The Abruzzo mountain ranges can be a little confusing because there are so many of them and, though distinct and separate, they are quite close to one other. In fact, apart from a narrow strip of land along the coastline, most of the entire region of Abruzzo can be accurately described as mountainous.
The two main national parks, the Maiella and the Gran Sasso, contain the highest and most well-known peaks and in the latter the Corno Grande at 9,554 feet is the highest point in the Apennines.
The Gran Sasso also contains the famous Campo Imperatore but the Maiella massif, only 30 miles south, is without question the most interesting and diverse mountain range in Abruzzo in every respect and nor does it lack for height, with 7 different peaks of over 8,500 feet contained within its borders.
On the north-western side of the Maiella National Park the Morrone mountains form another impenetrable limestone massif that appears as a solid rock wall when viewed from either side. It forms a barrier about 7 miles long and its slopes are steep and unforgiving.
The entire Maiella National Park stretches 24 miles from San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore in the north to Pescocostanzo in the south and about 18 miles at its widest point from Popoli in the west to Pennapiedimonte in the east.
There is only one through road that bisects the entire park from north to south; it goes through Caramanico Terme and over Passo San Leonardo before descending to either Pacentro or to Pescocostanzo via Campo di Giove. There are three other roads in the north-east quadrant that all join at or near Passo Lanciano before ending ending abruptly at Rifugio Bruno Pomilio in la Maielletta.
I also spent part of my month exploring the area west of the Maiella massif that is part of the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise. This is the territory of the endangered Marsican bear and though the mountains and topography here may not be as visually dramatic, many of the towns are just as interesting, if not more so, as those in and around the Maiella.
For those of us who like to spend as much time in the open air as possible there can’t be many destinations that match the natural beauty of the Maiella and also have the same ease of access to a protected environment offering such wonderful opportunities for outside recreation, especially hiking and biking.
Being so far south compared to the Alps, the climate here is also quite benign at the lower elevations with 7 to 8 months of warm daytime temperatures, pleasantly cool nights and mostly clear skies. In the few months of winter however you can expect plenty of snow above 2,000 feet and a few years ago the nearby town of Capracotta just across the border in Molise set a new one day Italian snowfall record with over 8 feet in only 18 hours.
But you won’t see many photographs of snow-capped mountains in my articles because my love for the Abruzzo mountains extends only to the summer and autumn months. I’ll leave the winter stories to others. Strangely, the coldest month of January is also the month in which most of the earthquakes have occurred over the last 700 years so perhaps another reason to avoid mid-winter in these mountains.
Shortly after writing the previous paragraph in early December, we decided to make a quick trip to Abruzzo for Christmas and so in fact I do now have a photo of the Maiella massif with snow on it, taken from the lovely town of Città Sant'Angelo. But despite the snow at the higher elevations the late December temperatures in Abruzzo this year reached an amazing 22 degrees celsius.
The name Maiella was born out of Greek mythology, taken from Maia, one of the daughters of Atlas who was the mother of Hermes (Mercury to the Romans). Through the centuries it has remained a place of mystery, spirituality and local legends which today are evidenced by the many small monasteries (eremi) carved out of the rock face hundreds of years ago in previously inaccessible canyons and relics of the past like the Tavola dei Briganti where up at 7,000 feet local outlaws carved into the stone their musings on life and their despair at the newly created Kingdom of Italy.
The Maiella massif has a complicated geography containing dozens of peaks over 6,000 feet interspersed with deep valleys and canyons. There are forests of beech trees and high mountain pastures that change suddenly into rugged barren rocks and even with the incredibly detailed large scale maps (1:25,000) issued by the Park (photos below) it took me a long time to get to grips with all the connectivity issues both on the trails and also on the roads around the edges of the Maiella.
The main lesson learned is that every itinerary within the park takes longer than you think, whether walking, cycling or driving so plan accordingly.
Part of the Orfento valley (above left) just east of Caramanico Terme showing details of the various trails. Above right is the section of the map showing the road and trails up to Rifugio Pomilio.
The formidable obstacle that the Maiella massif represents was not lost on Kesselring 80 years ago when he chose this mountain range as the eastern flank of the German Gustav Line and the havoc and destruction wrought during that period became yet another reason for the depopulation of much of inland Abruzzo. Earthquakes, the dwindling sheep farming and the post war emigration to the industrial cities of northern Italy as well as to Canada and Australia all contributed to Abruzzo’s long slow decline.
At least for the Maiella, tourism is the solution that seems to have arrested the decay and after many battles with developers, especially the skiing industry, the Maiella finally achieved lasting protection when it was designated as a national park in 1991.
Tourism can often be a double edged sword in Italy with many places like Venice, Florence, Lago di Garda, Lago di Como and elsewhere now suffering massive overcrowding in summer. I’m not a person with a high tolerance for crowds so I prefer to visit areas where the local population still outnumbers visitors.
However the Maiella and Abruzzo generally could use a few more tourists because there are plenty of villages that have not really recovered and where there was little sign of life as I cycled through them; some of them in fact look as if they may never recover.
In recent decades population levels have either declined further or at best remained static just about everywhere in the Abruzzo mountains. However as more tourists begin to realize how crowded and expensive much of Tuscany has become, the natural advantages of Abruzzo should work to its advantage and this applies just as much to Italians as foreigners because I know several middle aged Tuscans who have taken foreign holidays but amazingly have never set foot in Abruzzo.
Unfortunately the demographic crisis gripping the whole of Italy which is forecast to result in a 10% reduction in Italy's population, ie 6 million people, over the next 20 years will inevitably provide an additional headwind for many of Abruzzo's mountain villages.
There is also a general misconception that Abruzzo is remote, perhaps because it certainly feels that way when you’re in the mountains, but in fact Rome is little more than 100 miles to the west and the autostrada passes right by the northern and western sides of the Maiella so it’s only a 90 minute drive on a good day according to the locals.
And from where I was staying, in San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore (perhaps the longest name of any town in Italy), traveling in the opposite direction on the same autostrada I was at the seaside in 30 minutes so the northern part of the Maiella massif in particular is very well connected.
I have no idea whether the local people of the Maiella enjoy the same longevity as the natives of places like Acciaroli on the Cilento coast, Limone sul Garda or Sardinia but they certainly benefit from clean air, pure mountain water and healthy local ingredients which include superb wine and olive oil as well as the best bread I’ve had anywhere in Italy. The traditional Mediterranean diet has not given way to ready meals and fast food yet in this part of Italy.
If this is article is beginning to read like a paid promotional piece for the Abruzzo Tourist Board - if only that were true! - there is one thing in particular that always disappoints me about Abruzzo generally and that is the ugliness of many of the houses and apartments.
As soon as you leave southern le Marche and cross over the river Tronto into Abruzzo, whether to Colonnella, Controguerra or Ancarano you also leave behind the beautiful brick buildings made with the distinctive Marche yellowish mattone .
Once you're outside the centro storico of just about every town in Abruzzo most of the dwellings seem to be made of concrete and were built quickly and cheaply in unattractive box-like shapes and then usually left unpainted with grey cement exteriors.
It was a real shame to bring so much man-made ugliness next to all this natural beauty and it is immediately noticeable to those who love how the traditional Tuscan and Umbrian stone farmhouses with their tiled roofs enhance the landscapes of those regions.