Trails and Hermitages: Majella National Park (Abruzzo)

This post explores 4 hiking trails inside the Maiella (Majella) National Park and 4 spectacular hermitages on the Trail of the Spirit.

Majella (Maiella) National Park

Legend has it that the Majella National Park is named after Maia (Maja), the most beautiful of the Seven Sisters (Greek Mythology) who fled Phrygia (Antolla) with her son Hermes after he had been badly injured in the battle of Flegra. As prophesied by an Oracle, Maia set out to find a miracle herb that would save her son but she climbed the massif in winter, no herbs were found and she was not able to save him. Maia subsequently died of a broken heart and was buried by the shepherds next to her son. From that day the massif became the Maiella, which takes the form of a woman bent over in grief gazing at the sea. The highest peak is Monte Amaro which is said to have been named after her pain.

Inhabited since the Palaeolithic era, the Majella National Park is home to over 60 peaks, half of them over 2000 m (6000 ft) which create a unique and variable climate supporting a wide variety of flora and fauna. 

The history is one of fortified inhabited areas such as Salle, Musellaro, Roccamorice and Manoppello.  There are also monastic areas such as Clemente a Casauria, San Liberatore a Majella, San Salvatore a Majella, San Tommaso a Paterno, Santo Spirito a Majella.  There are a number of hermitages dug out of rock of the mountain such as Sant’Onofrio in Serramonacesca, San Giovanni in the Orfente Valley, Sant’Onofrio on the Morrone Mountain, Santo Spirito and San Bartolomeo in Legio near Roccamorice.  The hermits were eventually replaced by bandits and brigands. The area today is comprised of small hilltop villages surrounded by a biodiverse flora and fauna, with over 500 kilometers and 120 hiking trails.

On April 21, 2021, Maiella National Park was declared a Unesco Global Geopark under the name of Majella Geopark, a UNESCO-designated area containing one or more sites of particular geological importance. Within hiking distance of San Bartolomeo (but an easy drive from Roccamorice), is the stunning Valle Giumentina, an open-air archeological site. First archeological awareness was in 1880’s, and the most recent dig occurred between 2017-2021 by a French-Italian team of archaeologists,  geologists  and  palaeontologists. A new dig is planned for 2025. To date, nine layers of human occupation have been found dating back to the Middle Pleistocene (Chibanian ) age, roughly 770,000 to 129,000 years ago. 

Valle Giumentina, archeological site

Hiking Trails

There are four main thematic trails in the Majella National Park:

The Sentiero del Parco (National Park of Majella), The Park path (approximately 83 km) is one of the great treks in the Park which requires at least 4 days of walking passing all the main peaks of the Majella. The departure is from Popoli, right next to the Giardino springs.

The Sentiero delle Capanne in Pietra (an antique path of the shepherds) or the “Path of the Stone Huts” covers the municipal areas of Serramonacesca, Lettomanoppello, Roccamorice, Abbateggio and Caramanico Terme, and was designed to allow you to visit most of the main dry stone agro-pastoral complexes on the northern side of the Majella .

Sentiero Della Liberta (story of WW2 – paths that were used).  The Path of Liberty walk, marked with the acronym CSL and/or L, extends for a total of 27 km and can be covered in 3 days. It ideally begins at the Pacentro – Cansano crossroads, but if you take the variant of the first stage from the Sulmona cemetery, the total length becomes 41 km. This itinerary retraces the paths and mule tracks through which, during the Second World War, after the armistice of 8 September 1943, the Anglo-American, South African and New Zealand prisoners of war who escaped from the Nazi prison camp of Fonte d’Amore reached the territories controlled by the allies, regaining “Freedom”.

These historical photos of the prison camp were sent to us without attribution: please let us know who should be credited.

Sentiero dello Spirito (religious paths to the hermitage) or The Path of the Spirit (approximately 73 km) is one of the great treks in the Park and requires at least 4 days of walking while passing through all the main hermit places of worship in the Majella. Of the four hermitages described below, three can only be accessed on foot, San Bartolomeo, San Giorgio, and San Giovanni while the fourth, San Spirito can be accessed by car.  Other hermitages in the Maiella National Park include: Hermitage of Sant’Onofrio al Morrone, Abbey of San Martino in Valle,  Hermitage of Our Lady of the Altar,  Hermitage of San Domenico Abate, Hermitage of Sant’Onofrio of Serramonacesca, Hermitage of San Venanzio.

Santo Spirito a Majella Hermitage: 10 km from Roccamorice, Santo Spirito is linked to Pope Celestine V who chose the place to lead an ascetic life. While Pietro da Morrone (Pope Celestine V) found the place abandoned in 1246 and proceeded to make the place his own, it was Pope Victor III in 1086 who carried out the construction of what was then the first hermitage.  After Pietro da Morrone left to go to Rome, the Abbot Pietro Santucci da Manfredonia began the rebirth of the hermitage in 1586, thereby creating a more complex architectural apparatus.  Santo Spirito is open May to October and guides are available.

San Bartolomeo in Legio: 4 km from Roccamorice is San Bartolomeo, you can get there by following a footpath about 45 minutes from the parking area. The last 150 m of this path is breathtaking, snaking along the rocky face of the escarpment.  The first settlements date back to the sixth century when a group from the Sicilian Anchorites sect took refuge on the Majella Mountains, forced by the Arab invasions. 

The coming of Pietro Morrone renewed the visits to this small church carved into the mountain rock.  There are traces of damaged 13th century frescoes and a small resurgence of water, which can run dry, depending on time of year.  Inside the church is a small statue of St. Bartholemew who carries a knife in the right hand (symbol of his martyrdom).

Grange of San Giorgio: 2 km from Roccamorice is the Grangia di San Giorgio, a monastic settlement of Cistercian origin which also included farm buildings, a church and convent.  It was aggregated with Santo Spirito in 1274,  thus becoming an extremely important part of the entire economic unit. As the seat of control, San Giorgio was much closer to the urban core and less isolated than the heights of the mountains and it was equally important in sustaining the Santo Spirito inhabitants with agricultural products.

The Hermitage of San Giovanni all’Orfento was also one of the retreats chosen by Pietro da Morrone, the hermit who became famous in the 13th century as Celestine V, the Pope of the Great Refusal. Pietro stayed here for several years (he seems to have lived there for nearly nine years, from 1284 to 1293) alongside two disciples. The hermitage is carved out of stone, and the only way to access the interior is by literally crawling under a rocky outcrop on your stomach. After seeing the interior you can take great photos by hiking down where you have a wide angle view of the rock the hermitage was built into. The surrounding panorama is a spectacle and the trail is one of the prettiest of the park trails.

To reach San Giovanni there are several paths that lead you there, including the one from Decontra.