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At sunrise on the summit of Mount Amaro, the only sound is the wind. The craggy mountains and gorges of the Majella National Park are spread out at your feet, and the waters of the Adriatic Sea glitter in the far distance. Standing in the heart of this spectacular mountain wilderness, you can easily forget you are just a couple of hours drive from Rome.
The Majella, in the region of Abruzzo, is one of Italy’s newest national parks. Founded in 1995, it stretches more than 740sqkm and feels unexpectedly isolated and remote considering its proximity to popular destinations such as Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria. A couple of days spent hiking through its trails and forests or over the rugged mountain tops, is a refreshing escape from the many tourist-packed areas of the country. During low season, in the early spring, you can walk for hours without meeting any other people.
Mount Amaro, which rises 2,793m above sea level is the park’s highest peak and the second highest in the Apennine mountain range, which runs along the length of the Italian peninsula. Climb to the top via the stunning Valle di Femmina Morta, (Dead Woman Valley) a wide, generous plateau more than 2,500m high. To experience dawn on the summit of Mount Amaro, you can spend the night in the Mario Pelino bivouac hut, a circular red metal structure easily found at the top of the mountain. It offers basic shelter and a handful of bunk beds but no blankets, heating or water. The unmanned Rifugio Manzini hut, a couple of hundred metres down the mountainside and built out of the rough and beautiful local stone, is slightly more sheltered but conditions are almost as spartan.
From time to time, as you hike across the Majella’s mountains, you may see the rare Abbruzi chamois bounding over the rocky crags. Hunted almost to extinction at the beginning of the 20th Century, the species of goat-antelope was reintroduced to the Majella in the 1990s and now successfully breeds there.
The park teems with wildlife. At lower elevations, the leafy beech woods trees are home to deer, packs of Apennine wolves and a handful of brown bears. Catching sight of a wolf or a bear requires luck and patience, as they are nocturnal, elusive animals, but you may come across their tracks in the snow or the mud.
The park is dotted with ancient monastic cells, chapels and prehistoric caves. In the Middle Ages the area was a magnet for hermits, who came there to devote themselves to penance and prayer. One local hermit, Pietro del Morrone, was even elected as the head of the Catholic Church in 1294. But he was so miserable as Pope Celestine V that he abdicated after five months, returned to the Majella region and was later arrested by his successor, Boniface VIII (presumably to get rid of him) and died in prison less than a year later.
Today you can hike some or all of the 66k of trails known as the “Spirit Path”, which pass monasteries and cells associated with Celestine V and other holy men. The park’s visitor and information centres provide maps and advice.
Some hermitages such as the Eremo di S Spirito near the village of Roccamorice are intact chapels with frescos and carvings, others, like the Eremo di S Giovanni, are found in rough grottoes cut into the rock of the Majella’s canyons. To reach the San Giovanni hermitage, which is on a clearly marked trail in the Orfento valley, you have to climb along a rocky walkway with a sheer drop into the valley below and then crawl into the cave. It is perhaps not recommended for the inexperienced or anyone who suffers from vertigo.
Despite its wildness, the park is not without its creature comforts. It contains several small villages such as Decontra, which offer bed and breakfast and restaurants. Some villages are also crowned with towers and ruined castles. The village of Caramanico Terme has thermal baths, a great way to relax after a long hike in central Italy’s mountain retreat.