Here are five great reasons why the Majella National Park in Abruzzo should be on your travel radar for your next holidays in Italy.
Did you know that Abruzzo is the Italian region with the highest concentration of protected natural areas, and its Majella National Park is recognised as a gem of biodiversity? For this reason alone, it should be on your radar, but once you know about all the cool things you can find there, I’m sure Majella will end up straight into your Italy bucket list!
The people of Abruzzo consider the Majella their “mother mountain”; they believe its name derives from Maia, the mother of Mercury, who was widely venerated in the area back in ancient times. According to the legend, the massif is Maia’s final resting place, where she collapsed after searching endemic medicinal herbs in the snow to save her son Mercury.
This Majella National Park is a land of shepherds and hermits but also an extraordinary treasure trove of history and culture. It’s also one of those hidden gems of Italy that impress with its simplicity and authenticity, and it’s incredible how each experience reveals countless stories about tradition, history, and cuisine.
Curious to know more? Then take a look at these five great reasons why you should consider the Majella National Park for your next trip to Italy.
Wild nature and spectacular mountain scenery… with a sea view!
The Majella National Park is everything a nature lover could dream of: 740 km² of protected wilderness, over sixty peaks, one-third of the entire Italian flora, and no crowds! Half of its mountains exceed 2,000 meters and the Adriatic Sea is never too far away, a combination that has produced a great variety of microclimates and ecosystems. Such richness won the Majella the recent inclusion into the UNESCO Geopark Network.
The park’s landscape is a patchwork of incredible sights: verdant valleys with splashes of yellow brooms, woodlands, canyons, badlands, and tratturi – the ancient cattle tracks once used to lead flocks of sheep to Puglia during the winter. A great experience in this part of Abruzzo is the trekking in the Gorges of Fara San Martino, which are considered among the most beautiful in the Apennine chain. You walk through a natural gate in the rock opening onto a beautiful valley with the ruins of the ancient Benedictine Abbey of St. Martin, which were brought back to light in 2009. From here, the trail continues to the top of Mount Amaro, the highest peak of the Majella (2793 m.).
It’s not uncommon to spot a chamois jumping on the rocks, just one of the several wild animals that inhabit the park. You could join a local tour to see the Marsican brown bear or visit the sanctuary for injured wolves in Pretoro accompanied by the super knowledgeable Fabrizio Chiavaroli.
During the 13th century, the Majella became a popular destination for monastic living thanks to the figure of Pietro da Morrone (later Pope Celestine V), who chose these mountains for his journey of faith. An excellent choice indeed, as Majella certainly offers a wide range of remote shelters for anyone desiring to pursue an ascetic life. About forty hermitages survive today, all set in scenic and secluded spots amidst some of the most breathtaking landscapes you can find in Italy. Most can be reached only on foot and are best explored through the Spirit Path, a beautiful hiking trail in the footsteps of Celestine (73 km).
Santo Spirito a Majella, near Roccamorice, is one of such mystic places. This Hermitage was built into the side of a mountain before the year 1000 and is a place of profound beauty and peace (Sorrentino even chose it to shoot some scenes of The New Pope). Look for the Holy Stair dug into the rock: if you can climb it on your knees, you’ll receive a plenary indulgence. But for a truly unique experience, there’s no place like the Hermitage of San Giovanni all’Orfento: it is only accessible by traversing a narrow opening with your belly to the ground!
Besides unspoiled nature and breathtaking scenery, there are also enchanting towns to explore on the Majella mountains, some of which are listed in the network of Italy’s most beautiful villages. Each is the guardian of precious traditions and ancient crafts, such as wrought iron, bobbin lace, and woodcarving.
One of the biggest centres in the Majella National Park is Sulmona, the town of confetti and the starting point of the legendary Italian Trans-Siberian Railway. A major center of craftsmanship is Guardiagrele, the “stone town” that D’Annunzio mentioned in his novel The Triumph of Death. The historic centre brims with artistic jewels (its Church of Santa Maria Maggiore is an absolute stunner) and pretty craft shops. Some are built in the town walls, like the workshop of Filippo Scioli, the local master of wrought iron.
If you’re after unique local folklore, then Pretoro is the place for you. Apart from being super pretty, the village hosts a solemn ceremony involving live snakes and a sacred representation called “Lu Lope” as part of the celebrations for the feast of San Domenico on the first Sunday of May. Also, don’t miss Pennapiedimonte, nicknamed the little Matera of Abruzzo because of its splendid constructions carved out of the rock. The upper part of the village is home to the Balzolo, an excellent viewpoint offering a staggering panorama of green mountains up to the coast of Trabocchi.
When traveling around the Majella National Park, you’ll get the chance to sleep at some fantastic places with a story to tell. One is Dimore Montane, a beautiful glamping site immersed in a forest near Roccamorice. It’s managed by four friends who quit their jobs and joined forces to turn an abandoned structure into sustainable lodging. You can sleep among the sounds of nature in one of their cozy tents or adorable wooden cabins; they also offer camping grounds and more traditional rooms.
The Majella is dotted with many lovely bed & breakfasts where you can experience all the charm and authenticity of village life. For example, at Casa Milà in Pretoro, you will enjoy the wonderful hospitality of Patrizia topped with truly amazing views over the Adriatic Coast. And if you like hostel life, check out Il Grande Faggio, always in Pretoro, which also serves as an environmental education center.
Finally, how about sleeping in a house made of local raw earth? There are about 800 earth constructions in Abruzzo, which are precious testimonies of peasant life and show how the close relationship with the land has shaped the local culture. One of the main centres to see such constructions is the village of Casalincontrada, where architect Gianfranco Conti turned an old earth house into a splendid bed & breakfast, Borgocapo. He also hosts workshops on this unique natural construction technique.
Dining on the Majella mountains opens doors to the genuine flavours of the region’s peasant culture. You’ll find many tasty recipes prepared using just a few simple ingredients that grow spontaneously on the mountains, like the orapi (wild spinach), Orsino garlic, and Solina (an ancient grain). The result is a range of delicious dishes that reveal a lot about the history of this territory. On top of this, Majella and Abruzzo, more in general, produce excellent olive oil and top-quality wines like Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and the rosé-coloured Cerasuolo (my favourite!).
Some of the best traditional food to try in Majella include: pallotte cac’e ove (cheese and egg balls simmered in tomato sauce); arrosticini (mutton skewers grilled over hot coals); sagne e ceci (a soup made with short flat pasta and chickpeas); maccheroni alla chitarra (pasta made with a guitar-shaped tool that cuts the dough into square-shaped spaghetti, usually served with a tomato or meat sauce). And if you have a sweet tooth, do try the sise delle monache, the sponge cakes with custard cream produced only in Guardiagrele – so good!
Have you ever been to Majella? Let me know in the comments below and do get in touch if you’d like to know more!
Ciao for now,