Dry Stone Hut Path CP4 'Anello di Valle Giumentina' including the spur to Eremo di San Bartolomeo
Before taking even one step in the Maiella National Park you would be foolish not to buy the official Carta Escursionistica Hiking Map scale 1:25,000. They are double sided detailed maps and there are two of them, Foglio Nord (north sheet) and Foglio Sud (south sheet). I consider them essential for walks in the Maiella and the section of the north map showing the CP4 trail is at the bottom of this article.
They are packed full of detailed information on over 100 trails, including degree of difficulty and trail length in terms of both distance and time. Once you're out on the trails the signs are generally very accurate and well maintained but you absolutely need the map with you and a compass can also be useful.
As this is Part 1 of a series of articles describing various walks in the Maiella we've started with one of the easiest. There are 8 Dry Stone Hut Paths in the northern half of the Maiella and CP4 is the only one designated T for Turistico, the rest being classified as the more strenuous E for Escursionisti.
Many other Maiella walks have the higher difficulty rating of EE (Escursionisti Esperti) and there are even a few designated EEA which means that Alpine climbing equipment is required. Elena and I are best described as recreational hikers so we prefer not to go above E whenever possible.
(CP is shorthand for the Italian term for dry stone hut paths, ie Sentieri delle Capanne in Pietra a Secco)
Various trails converge along this route but the signage is good
For the most part CP4 is a relatively flat trail without rocks or other obstacles so you can move along at a good speed but if your goal is to visit the Eremo di San Bartolomeo then approaching from Decontra as we describe here will involve a 30 minute steep descent down the side of the canyon and then of course the ascent back up. I personally would rate this section as slightly more difficult than T but it doesn't require any technical ability, just fitness and a little agility.
It's worth noting here that if your goal is simply to visit the Eremo and not enjoy the walk to get there, you can simply drive up the mountain a couple of miles past Roccamorice and take the right turn signposted to both the Eremo di San Bartolomeo and the Eremo Santo Spirito.
This turning is where CP3 meets CP4 and it's less than a mile from there, mostly along the road, to reach San Bartolomeo; the slope down to the Eremo from this direction is much less steep and consequently used by more people. But driving everywhere in your car is not really what the Maiella experience is all about.
CP4 Anello di Valle Giumentina: about 7 kms from Decontra to Eremo di San Bartolomeo and back to Decontra on the circular route
Our starting point, Decontra, is the sort of place that at first sight you can imagine spending all summer there. It's not particularly remote today, being a short distance off the main road and not even particularly high at 2,700 feet above sea level, which this far south in Italy doesn't make it much colder in winter than somewhere much farther north at sea level like Parma, but it is so much more pleasant in summer.
Decontra has spectacular views of the mountains but isn't really amongst them. Despite being right in the middle of the Maiella National Park its setting is better described as pastoral rather than rugged as our photos hopefully portray. It's situated on a plateau of grassland and trees with a deep gorge immediately to its south, the Orfento valley, and a slightly less deep gorge to the north carved out by the Santo Spirito river.
It looks down on Caramanico Terme and is a real hiker's paradise with trails of all levels in every direction and these are trails with real meaning and history that provided refuge for a future Pope 800 years ago as well as escaping Allied prisoners of war 80 years ago.
There are several other walks in the Maiella that converge around Decontra very close to the car park so even though everything is well marked you have to pay attention and this also applies later on because CP4 initially follows the same trail as the two main Maiella multi-stage paths S (the Spiritual Trail) and P (the Park Path) but then deviates from them both. It is always described on the signs or stones as CP with Anello di Valle Giumentina added if there's room.
The dry stone huts are part of the landscape and cultural heritage of the Maiella and were painstakingly built over the centuries by farmers and shepherds to be used seasonally as animal shelters and storage for tools. This continued until the middle of the 20th century and there are still in existence today almost 700 dry stone huts and walls that have been preserved in various states of repair, with paths created around them so visitors can better appreciate the history of the Maiella.
We followed the path in an anti-clockwise direction and it's a quick 2.25 kms to the edge of the canyon where the descent starts. It's not a difficult descent and the steps down are well-trodden but it pays to be careful. On a weekday in late August there were only a few other people around so you should be able to fully appreciate this historically important religious building without queuing or crowds.
We just missed the annual August 25th pilgrimage from Roccamorice to the Eremo to celebrate the festival of San Bartolomeo during which the villagers arrive on foot and take turns to carry the wooden statue of the Saint back to the parish church in Roccamorice where it remains for a few weeks before being returned to the Eremo.
The future Pope Celestine V spent at least two years living as a monk and hermit in this primitive rock face dwelling after leaving another hermitage above Sulmona (Eremo di Sant'Onofrio al Morrone) because it wasn't remote enough for him. He founded the Order of the Celestines and was elected Pope in old age in 1294. After only 5 months he was the first and only Pope to resign voluntarily until Pope Benedict XVI eleven years ago and it didn't end well for him.
Assuming that you need to return to your car in Decontra you can either retrace your steps exactly, making for a short 5 kms round trip, or you can choose to complete the CP4 anello continuing on in an anti-clockwise direction, making it a 7 kms round trip, following the signs back to Decontra.
Being in the middle of the Maiella, Decontra is right where the page turns on the map