Friday, 23 March 2012

Serramonacesca: The Hermitage & Festa of San 'Onofrio

San ’Onofrio

The Eremo of Sant Onofrio, Serramonacesca

The hermitage of Sant ‘Onofrio is reached from Serramonacesca, following the road to the Abbey and turning to the right, following the signs.  The route takes you alongside the ruins of Castel Menardo and then continues on and up until you finally reach the sanctuary of Sant ‘Onofrio.

The hermitage includes a church, which emerges from, and merges with, the striking natural cavities of the limestone massif that towers above it.  There are several rooms, part in brick and part dug out of the rock.  

Inside the Eremo

Probably constructed around the XII century, unlike the other Eremo of the Majella, Onofrio is not connected to the figure of Peter Celestine, but rather to the presence of the Abbey of San Liberatore.  The Eremo probably provided a retreat for the monks and a place for them to administer the vast mountain properties of the estate in relative solitude.
Sant ‘Onofrio himself, according to legend, was the son of the King of Persia who paid his penance by living in solitude locked up in the cave for 40 years, fully alone.  He was found later by San Pannunzio covered only by hair and beard, which is depicted by the icon you will see at the alter in the church.
Sant 'Onofrio

Behind the alter, there are two openings which lead to the cradle of San Onophrious.  This may have been a primitive sleeping place for the hermits, but it is also believed to hold healing powers.  If one lies in here in contact with the rock, the devout believe they will be cured of certain bone ailments.
Such is the importance of Sant ‘Onofrio to the town, that he is honoured in every year in Serramonacesca in the annual festa of Sant ‘Onofrio and Sant’ Antonio.  
The Festa of San Onofrio & San Antonio

The Fires of San Onofrio
On 11th June, on the eve of the festivities, the “Fires of Sant’ Onofrio” are ignited near the Eremo in the shape of a cross so large it can be seen across the land.  The next morning, the morning of the 12th, the priest leads the pilgrimage to the Eremo for religious service, returning in procession to the town with the statue of Sant’ Onofrio.
The procession down the mountain into the town of Serramonacesca

In the afternoon of the 12th, the festivities of Sant’ Onofrio are joined by another celebration - the “Blessing of the Bread” in honour of Sant’ Antonio, the subject of a popular miracle.  According to the legend, a woman who had lost her child prayed to Sant’ Antonio to return her child to life.  
In humble gratefulness, she promised to give bread of equal grain to the weight of the child.  In recognition of the pain and faith of the woman, the miracle was formed and the tradition of the children of the town parading with baskets of bread began.

The procession of the children, Serramonacesca

...and the feasting of the festa begins!

Serramonacesca: The Abbey of San Liberatore a Majella

The Abbazia di San Liberatore a Maiella

The San Liberatore was once one of southern Italy’s most famous Abbeys, and there are many legends and tales surrounding its conception.  It is said that in 781AD Charlemagne celebrated his army’s victory over the Longobards by building a church, dedicated to Christ the Liberator, on the spot where so many had fallen.  
The Abbazia de San Liberatore a Maiella, Serramonacesca

Another legend puts the origins of the Abbey even earlier to the mid 500’s, following a generous donation from two rich and most illustrious senators, Equitius and Terullus.  The donation was given personally to St Benedict when their sons were committed to his care in the Monastery of Subiaco, aged only 12 years old, so that they might be formed to perfect virtue from childhood.
It is in 884, however, that the first sure document appears giving evidence of the existence of the Abbey, by being listed as part of the possessions of Montecassino.  Just over a century later, the Abbey had become a vast, flourishing reality thanks to many donations and privileges.

Disastrously, and shortly afterwards, the monastic buildings and the church were destroyed and turned to rubble by a ruinous earthquake.  It took the period of the Renaissance, and the provost of San Liberatore, Teobaldo, to start the rebuilding works in 1007.  A large group of workers were gathered from Montecassino, the complex was rebuilt, the belfry erected and the church extended with the addition of countless alters and precious furnishings.  A complete Benedictine monastery in Abruzzo was created.

At the height of its history, the San Liberatore was Abruzzo’s most important monastic centre of art, culture and civilisation.  It was a citadel with its own workshops, plants, potteries, brickworks, oil presses, ovens and mills - one of the first water mills in Europe.  Such was the importance of the Abbey at this time, giving not only work and security to the religious community, but also to all those living in the neighbourhood.  

There were guest quarters and a hospital installed, a lecture theatre and a library.  Add to that the portico and prior’s residence, the huge rectangular windows, the alters, wooden choirs, mosaic floors and sacred paintings and you have an idea of the splendour of the Abbey at this time.  There were also residential wings, a granary, refectory, kitchens and even an ice cellar.
The interior of the Abbey with its beautiful mosaic floors and frescoes on the walls

Sadly, with the suppression of religious orders in 1806, the monks were forced to leave the Abbey and decline was inevitable.  Over the years, aided by landslides, earthquakes and neglect, by the mid-1800’s the Abbey’s dereliction was complete.  The roof was dismantled and sold, part of the high alter was taken to nearby Buccianico, the bells went to Chieti and later disappeared.  The Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Serramonacesca, however, recovered many of the furnishings and monumental parts, including the mosaic floor, the alters and the portal.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that restoration and recovery finally began.  A splendid effort it has been, and what a glorious Abbey it is, but what we have now is merely a fraction of its former glory.

Tombe Rupestri - The Rock Tombes
From the Abbey, at the bottom of the path that leads to the Alento ravines, there are niches and grottoes within the wall of the rock that were probably the graves and hermit cells for the first monks who came to the area from the IIIX-IX centuries.  
There is evidence of a small chapel, a niche for housing a holy image and a small tank for collecting water and acting as a pond.  Furthermore, in a small, inner cavity, there are shadowy fresco traces.  
The Rupestri Tombes, San Liberatore a Maiella, Serramonacesca

Although information on the tombs is scant, all the evidence suggest they were indeed places of worship, perhaps dedicated to water divinities, before being reutilised by the early monks.

Serramonacesca: Stones, Clay & Earth Houses

The Calanchi
The calanchi are the curious environmental phenomena of ravines etched into the clay that give the unique landscape to the area surrounding Serramonacesca.  
The calanchi between Serra and Chieti on the hill,
with the sea in the distance

Translated as "The Badlands", at first sight the calanchi seem completely barren and devoid of all life, but this is not the case.  They have been formed through the actions of man leaving them exposed to the ravages of the intense summer sunshine and the rain, but they are very much alive to some pretty tough mediterranean plants.  The extensive aridity of the calanchi, and fast soil erosion, has ensured an impressive root apparatus of plants with the unshakeable ability to grasp the ravines in a manner sturdy enough to withstand the harshest of weathers.  

Here you will find couch grass, cardoons, liquorice, cocksfoot and wormwood.  In the less eroded structures you will find broom, hawthorn, blackthorn, with coltsfoot, common brighteyes, flax, ox-tongue, salsify and hoary cress giving an unexpected colour to the springtime.  
Late summer and autumn are not left out either, with the likes of goldilocks aster, bergamot mint, sweet scabious and saltbush sweetening the air and brightening up the arid clay.

The Importance of Stones
All around the mountain territory of Serramonacesca, you will find evidence of the work of country folk who succeeded in exploiting arid plots of land surrounded by limestone.  Initially piling the stones into a disorderly heap as a means to clearing the land, these soon gave way to a calculated form of stacking, bringing to life a typology of spontaneous architecture: the keel-shaped tholos huts, and a network of dry-stone walls.

The tholos provided shelter for the shepherd and countryman, and the dry-stone walls enclosed the land and protected crops.  Both, however, were far more than simply just that.  They were also ingenious strategic water reserves.  The ability of limestone to absorb considerable amounts of water during the rains, and the slow evaporation of the inner layers during the dry periods, meant that the piles of stones gradually released humidity back to the surrounding land.  
Earth Houses

Another, but more recent, example of the people of Serramonacesca exploiting their natural resources are the earth houses which, for many years, were typical of rural settlements.  Providing home for the peasants of the 19th century, they were built of a mixture of hay and earth, often with an outside staircase.  

Interestingly, many are still in use today and, because of their historical and anthropological value, which has been lost elsewhere, they have been made the subject of a restoration project for the region.

Serramonacesca - cascades, pools & gullies

The Alento river & its water courses

Looking down on Serra in the valley

One of the many tributaries tumbling to meet the Alento

Serramonacesca nestles in the Alento Valley at the North-Eastern end of the Majella National Park, Abruzzo.  This small town of around 500 residents may sit at a relatively modest 280 metres above sea level, but its territory stretches all the way up and up through beech and oak woods towards Passo Lanciano at 1200m.  

Indeed it is the mountains, woods and the Alento river, with its numerous flows and falls, that define this beautiful area.  All around rich vegetation flourishes and thrives, nourished by the courses of water that flow down from the peaks of the Mother Majella, not at all what many would expect of Southern Italy.

It is at Serramonacesca's Abbey of San Liberatore, however, where that the water’s flow is at its most stunning.  The river cascades through a series of falls, crystal clear, icy cold plunge pools and deep gullies that just get more and more striking the deeper you go.  

The rewards of exploring the Alento valley
Gorges have been cut through the limestone banks and several tributaries have been gathered and joined together to form the most spectacular water courses.  The banks themselves are a tumbling green hue of willow, poplar, moss, lichen and hanging vines, giving the dappled aura of an ancient tropical rain forest.  
A welcome retreat from the heat of the Italian summer 
The water itself has been significant to the people of Serramonacesca where, in the past, it has driven many watermills, one of which still remains today (albeit in ruin), and even a small power station that supplied energy for the town.  

Its purity ensures a variety of fish life, including brown trout, eel and barbel, and at the larger of the two bridges on the road between Serramonacesca and Garifoli, there is apparently a small, sulphurous spring that the locals use for treating skin ailments.  

Further up through the woods, near the hermitage of San' Onofrio there is also the Acquasanta spring, most popular for its purity lightness.

Source:  "Serramonacesca, The History, Art & Culture of a Maiella Town"  Text and research of Maria Concetta Nicolai

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Italy On A Budget & A Bike

Indie Travel Challenge Week 10

While Europe’s infrastructure is typically a boon for travelers, much of the region has become more challenging for indie travelers these days. The euro currency makes everything way more expensive than it once was, and Europe’s popularity means it can be difficult to get away from big crowds. 

What have you done in your own visits to Europe to make it more budget-friendly or to get away from the crowds? If you were going to spend several weeks – or several months – in Europe, where would you go (and why)? 

Go to Italy, out of season and travel by bike without plan or agenda!

We arrived in Rome in October: two girls, two bikes, four panniers, a cooking stove and a tent.  We collected our bikes from oversized luggage, and lugged them in their bags that were bigger than us, one with wheels that didn't work and one with no wheels at all, all the way down to the train station.  First stop, Salerno.  The only part of our trip that was  booked and planned.   First tip: always have the first night booked.  Essential.  Don't underestimate how tired and disorientated you're going to be when you first arrive in a strange place.  As much as I will jealously guard the freedom and impulse of independent, "go where you feel, stay as long as you like" travel, it is rather nice and comforting to have a bed waiting on your first night.

And so there we were, sitting on the pavement outside Salerno train station, weary travellers, reassembling our bikes.  Or at least trying to.  Girls don't do things like that.  We'd attracted quite an audience of concerned old men determined to help.  Unable to persuade them that we did actually know exactly what we were doing and that we didn't, really, mind getting dirty at all, we let them do it.  It was far easier, and of course, more polite, to just sit back and enjoy the spectacle of these chaps debating and arguing amongst themselves.  Second tip: accept the culture, giving in gracefully to offers of help even if you don't need it - you'll make some great friends and your trip will be all the more richer because of it.  Eventually, after much back slapping, laughter and shaking of hands, we were on our way, struggling through the chaotic streets of Salerno, weighed down carrying our empty but unweilding bike bags and useless street map.

We pushed our bikes all the way to the B&B which, heart sinkingly, was at the highest point of the city at the top of the steepest of steep hills.  We showered and cleaned up, took advice from the very nice owner on the best place to eat, and went and devoured the biggest, best and cheapest pizza ever in a great, tucked away, little restaurant overflowing with Italian families of all generations. Babies, teens, grandparents, the lot.  Third tip: take advice on where to eat, eat local, avoid anywhere with translated menus, and don't be put off by scruffy exteriors.  Fourth tip: Italians eat late, and the further south you go, the later they eat.  So, if its the authentic (ie noisy & chaotic) experience of an Italian meal you're after, you won't find it before 10pm!

After a good night's sleep and a good breakfast, we filled our pockets with the croissants and fruit we were unable to eat (Fifth tip), persuaded the owner to let us leave our bike bags with him, attached our panniers and we were on our way, pedalling at last.  

We had no idea where our next stop would be.  All we knew was that we wanted to head south and follow the coast.  We would rather have escaped into the mountains that were tantalisingly close, but earlier research had thrown up very few campsites in inland rural Italia (something we're trying to change with Kokopelli). We could have wild camped, I guess, but I do, actually, really rather like a shower. 

So  we followed the coast but what a surprising treat we had.  The coastline was absolutely stunning. And it was all but deserted. Miles and miles of gloriously empty beaches and roads.  Early October, and the weather was still warm enough to swim.  Sixth tip: October is the best time EVER to discover Central/South Italy - glorious weather, great prices, no tourists.

And so we spent our days.  Cycling all day, stopping, exploring, swimming in the sea, lazing on harbour rocks just watching the boats and the crystal clear sea.

Just one problem.  All the campsites were closed. That's what happens in Italy.  It said so in my campsite guide, but I didn't believe it.  We will, surely, find somewhere.  But no.  All closed, locked, secured, empty.  Tumbleweed blowing where tents and campers once were.  

Most hotels were closed too.  And restaurants.  Everywhere, clearly bustling and thriving in the months of July and August, was like a ghost town now.  All closed up.  Seventh tip: outside the main tourist areas of Italy, everywhere closes up at the end of August, but don't be put off!  Some real gems are to be found if you search a little deeper and think outside the box.

Initially a little concerned (underestimate), we soon realised that in most towns there would be one hotel with a caretaker.  Not exactly open, but not exactly closed either.  In most cases, the caretakers were posted in the biggest, poshest hotels and were more than happy for the company and to let us stay for a few euros, and in most cases they even let us choose our room!   The best in the house, dontcha know.

Such big hotels are usually avoided like the plague, but this was fun!  We were camping in these splendid places!  We had the best rooms in the house, with big beds, balconies and sea views.  And what did we do?  We cooked our supper either on the balcony or the beach, or took advice and found some great little restaurants with superb food and amazing prices.  

With full tummies, we'd  drag our sleeping bags outside and sleep on the balcony under the stars for a bit, before crawling back inside and finishing our sleep in these beautiful beds.  And what a joy it was to make breakfast on a deserted beach just as the sun was coming up, and then start the day with a swim.

So my advice for getting the best out of European travel on a budget?  Early October in Italy is a great month, travel south for the weather, and take a camping stove!

  • Have your first night booked in advance
  • Choose a B&B in an obscure part of the city
  • Take local advice on where to eat, or pick the restaurant that's heaving with locals, avoiding anywhere with translated menus 
  • Don't be put off by small, scruffy bars and cafes in Italy, the food will be superb.  Just follow the locals, they know where the food is best and the value good
  • If you can't eat all your breakfast, take some with you for snacks or lunch
  • Campsites really do close at the end of the summer!
  • The Italians love bikes, you will always find friends if you're on a bike
  • You can hop on and off local trains with your bike, but you may be required to have it in a bike bag for the long distance, high speed ones
  • If hotels appear closed, don't be afraid to go round the back and knock on the door 

Kokopelli Abruzzo:  in the Majella foothills of rural Italia, superb tents only camping with some great self-catering options. Beaches, mountains, wilderness. Hiking, biking, climbing, chillin