The Majella Mountains have drawn hermits, pilgrims and travellers for centuries. Today, the challenging Spiritual Trail can take you on a multi-day hike in their footsteps.
The Majella Mountains retain an aura of phenomenal beauty, space and peace, capable of making your heart swell and soar over and over again. The Majella is a fantastically complex clustering of over 60 peaks—the highest, Monte Amaro, at 2793 metres above sea level— and 75 lower lying hills. Its whale-like shape is not easily understood from afar, as her peaks remain largely hidden and her aspect constantly changes with the light and the seasons.
The stories about Majella’s hermits, pilgrims and shepherds who charted their wanderings by the constellations of the stars fueled our curiosity. My husband and I packed enough kit for four days and took off in their footsteps, along the Spiritual Trail (Sentiero dello Spirito).
The trail is a collection of ancient pathways that cross the Majella and Morrone massifs for around 85 kilometres, linking the key Celestine hermitages where monks lived alone or with a few followers in the Middle Ages. It follows the route taken by Pietro Da Morrone, a hermit, who became Pope Celestino V in 1294.
A hermit, who became a pope
Pietro Angelerio, born into a poor peasant family, became a Benedictine monk at 17. Drawn to asceticism, he retreated to the Morrone Mountain in the territory of modern Abruzzo, earning the name Pietro da Morrone and gaining a following among monks. Within a few years, he formed a small order, a branch of the Benedictines, later named the Celestines. For many years, Pietro da Morrone moved from one isolated mountain location in the Majella to another, living in caverns and following strict ascetic practices, devoted to penance and prayer.
In 1294, the cardinals’ assembly — after two long years of not being able to fill the highest position in the Vatican — finally decided to elect the hermit Pietro da Morrone as a pope. Initially, he refused the papacy but, at the end, gave in to pressure from King Charles II of Naples and some cardinals and was crowned Pope Celestine V. It did not take too long for everyone, including Celestine V himself, to realise that he was not capable of doing the job well. After only five months, citing his old age and desire to go back to the pure ascetic life of a hermit, he resigned. However, cardinals, weary of the free-spirited Pietro da Morrone, did not allow him to return to his hermitage. He was imprisoned and died ten months later. Dante Alighieri, in his Inferno, places Celestine V at the entrance of Hell for his abdication and refers to the pope as, “him who made, through cowardice, the great refusal.”
In 1313, when political tides changed once again, Celestine V was canonised.
The Spiritual Trail connects several hermitages in the Majella massif where Pietro da Morrone spent most of his life. We chose to take the east-to-west route, beginning our journey from the small village of Serramonacesca (translated as “the land of the monks”) on the northeastern slopes of the Majella and arriving at the historical town of Sulmona on the midwestern side.
The trail starts and finishes at an elevation of around 400 metres above sea level, but throughout its 85 kilometre length, we scaled three major peaks, the highest at just over 2000 metres above sea level, and steeply descended into the gorges of two spectacular valleys. We followed the tumbling waters of mountain rivers, wandered along bears’ tracks and walked amongst wild horses on the high plains. Throughout our journey, we listened to wolves howling, took in breathtaking views and barely saw another soul.
It was the wildness of the Majella, sleeping amongst elusive wild animals, that made this journey so memorable.
As we pitched our tent on the first night, miles from civilisation in the remoteness of the forest, we were so excited at the thought of seeing some nocturnal activity that we left the tent open, so we could watch without disturbing. As darkness fell, we settled down to sleep amongst the damp earthy smells, and the nighttime sounds of the forest: the rustles, the owls, the soft footsteps, the leaves, the breeze.
A few hours later, we were woken by a most haunting sound, and then there was another, and another, until the whole forest became alive and echoed with the mesmerising banshee-like howling of wolves. How many there were? Difficult to say. We counted at least four different notes. We had never realised how loud the howling of a pack of wolves in close proximity could be. Quietly, quietly we closed the door of the tent and zipped it up. Just in case…
Read the detailed description of the Spiritual Trail in the May issue of ABRUZZISSIMO Magazine. Click here to subscribe.
By Jacqui Matthews-Price. Jacqui runs Kokopelli Camping, a small nature camping site in Serramonacesca.