Wednesday, 8 October 2014

THE SPIRITUAL TRAIL: a journey through time and wilderness


Serramonacesca - Sulmona
85km from 400m to 2000m asl

Clicca qui per leggere in Italiano:  Sentiero dello Spirito

A growing curiosity into the ley line of the St Michael/Apollo axis that crosses Abruzzo as it travels between Ireland and Greece, sparked more than a passing interest in the lives and paths of the Celestine monks of the thirteenth century.  Call it what you will: a ley line, the “path of light”, or simply the trail of pilgrims and shepherds as they chart their wanderings by the constellations of the stars, the connections between the hermits of the Maiella and the “path of light” were enough to fuel that curiosity, pack enough kit for four days and take off in their footsteps along the Spiritual Trail over the mountains of the Majella National Park.

The Majella

An intensely spiritual place, the Majella (pronounced, and often spelled, Maiella) is within the south-central Italian region of Abruzzo.  Abruzzo, isolated for centuries because of its formidable natural defences, is the heartland of the Apennines mountains and the most completely mountainous region of Italy.  

The Majella has been called, in equal measure, the “Sacred Mountain” and the “Mother Majella”, names that conjure up pictures of a quiet magic yet hides its reputation as a hostile wilderness with fierce winters and unforgiving terrain.  

According to legend, the Majella was formed when Maya, the Goddess of the Earth, came to its peaks seeking a special herb to heal her sick son, but she failed to reach the top before he died.  Dying in deep sorrow, her heart broken for her loss, Maya reappeared in the unique form of the rounded Majella, the sleeping beauty of Abruzzo, that rises up quickly from lowland to mountain top.

To call the Mother Maiella a mountain oversimplifies it.  The Majella is a fantastically complex clustering of 61 peaks of over 2000m, 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.  

Variously and simultaneously considered imposing, unpredictable and uninhabitable, the Majella ultimately retains an aura of phenomenal beauty, space and peace, capable of making your heart swell and soar over and over again.  But is it simply her beauty, high peaks, spectacular gorges and fascinating labyrinth of limestone caves that has drawn hermits, pilgrims and travellers for centuries?  Or is there something else, something more?  A magnetic force, an energy, a ley line, that pulled them all in?  

The Spiritual Trail

The Spiritual Trail crosses the wilderness of the Majella and the Majella Morrone for 85km from the small village of Serramonacesca (“the land of the monks”) on the north-eastern slopes, to the historical town of Sulmona on the mid-western side.  

It is an ancient trail linking the key Celestine hermitages (eremi) of the Majella, some are still nothing more than simple caves with a bed and altar chipped out of the stone, others like the eremo Santo Spirito have, from around the XII century, become elaborate structures built into the rock of the deep gorges.  

The trail starts and finishes at an elevation of around 400m asl, but throughout it’s 85km length you will scale three major peaks, the highest at just over 2000m asl, and steeply descend into the gorges of two spectacular valleys.  

You will follow the tumbling waters of mountain rivers, wander amongst wolves and bears of the forests and walk amongst wild horses on the high plains.  Throughout your journey the views are breathtaking and you will barely see another soul.  

Your accommodation will be a combination of wild camping in your own tent, sleeping in a rifugio (below) and, should you wish it, a bit of luxury in a B&B as you overnight in the spa town of Caraminico. 


We chose to go from east to west, starting from Serramonacesca and finishing in Sulmona, for the simple reason that it was far easier for us to get back to Serramonacesca from Sulmona, rather than the other way round.  

How to get to Serramonacesca:  Ryan Air ( has regular flights to Pescara which is only 30km from Serramonacesca.  Buses and trains run from Pescara to Chieti Scalo:  Arpa ( for buses, Trenitalia ( for trains.  

Arpa buses run twice daily from Chieti Scalo to Serramonacesca, timetables can be viewed online from Arpa as above.  

If its easier for you to fly into Rome, buses between Rome Tiburtina and Chieti Scalo run throughout the day, take only 2.5 hours and cost around 15€.  Again, see Arpa for timetables.

If you stay at our campsite, Kokopelli Camping in Serramonacesca (see below), we will do transfers from Pescara (35€) or Chieti Scalo (25€).  For our guests, we are also happy to go through the route with you and give you advice plus (for a small fee) telephone/emergency support along the way.

Where to stay in Serramonacesca:  

Our campsite, Kokopelli Camping, just off the Spiritual Trail, has excellent facilities for camping as well as having for hire "glamping" style bell tents and €1 per night ordinary tents.  We can also help our guests out with equipment should it be needed.  If you don't want to camp, we also have rooms available, plus a town house in the historic centre of the village (all info on our website: 

Day 1, Serramonacesca to Roccamorice

20km, 400 - 950m asl (1097m ascent, 682m descent)

Monasteries, hermitages & caves:  Abbazia di San Liberatore, Eremo di San Onofrio (opposite), Grotta San Angelo
Terrain:  Beech woods, open plains & gorges
Water points:  Fonte San Onofrio, Fosso San Angelo
Where to stay:  B&B Santo Spirito Roccamorice ( is immediately on the Spiritual Trail just above the Eremo San Bartolomeo.  Alternatively, extend your day an extra 5km and wild camp in the woods beyond the eremo.

Day 2, Roccamorice to Rifugio di Marco
20km, 820 - 1700m asl (1370m ascent, 610m descent)

Monasteries, hermitages & caves:  eremi San Bartolomeo (above), Santo Spirito and San Giovanni
Terrain:  Beech woods, rivers & gorges
Water points:  Fonte at Santo Spirito, fosso Santo Spirito, Fonte Centiate (signed en route to rifugio di Marco
Where to stay:  Rifugio di Marco

Day 3, Rifugio di Marco to Caramanico Terme
12km, 1700 - 600m asl (210m ascent, 1273m descent)

Monasteries, hermitages & caves:  eremo San Onofrio, Orfento valley
Terrain:  Woods, rivers and gorges
Water points:  Orfento river

Where to stay:  Caramanico Terme (opposite) is a reasonable sized town with accommodation ranging from a luxury thermal spa to camping and hostels.  

The following can be recommended:  camping & hostel type accommodation at Casa del Lupo (, which is also a key visitor centre to the Park, B&B Antico Borgo in the historic centre (

Day 4, Caramanico Terme to Eremo San Pietro
18km, 450 - 2000m asl (1700m ascent, 670m descent)

Ascending Monte Morrone

Monasteries, hermitages & caves:  eremo San Pietro
Terrain:  woods, open plains, mountain summit, gorges
Water points: village of San Vittorino, fonte della casetta in the woods just before eremo San Pietro
Where to stay:  wild camp in the woods close to the water source of fonte della casetta just before reaching San Pietro

Day 5, Eremo San Pietro to Badia Morronese, Sulmona
15km, 1400 - 400m asl (370m ascent, 1340m descent)

Monasteries, hermitages & caves:  eremi San Pietro (above) and San Onofrio, Badia Morronese
Terrain:  woods and tracks
Water points:  Sulmona

Travel from Sulmona back to Serramonacesca:  trains between Sulmona and Chieti run regularly throughout the day for around 5€ per person.  The train station is a 7km walk from the Badia Morronese, a point worth remembering before you have your second celebratory beer at the little bar next to the monastery!



The official map of the Park:

Online version:

Purchased from any of the visitor centres:

If you book accommodation with us, for the cost of the postage we can send one to you.

How long to take

Although we completed the trail in 4 days and 3 nights, to fully appreciate the scenery, the villages you pass and, of course, the eremi themselves, we do recommend taking longer.  Indeed, other people (fit, experienced hikers) who have completed the trail have said that 4 days is too tough given the wild nature of the terrain.

The eremi are fascinating structures.  Some, such as Santo Spirito (opposite), are quite elaborate and warrant at least an hour or two wandering the labyrinth of corridors, cells and rooms.  

Others, such as San Giovanni (opposite), are tricky to get to as they are hidden within steep, rocky gorges with narrow approaches requiring sure-footedness and a head for heights.  Five days and four nights would be ideal.

When to do it

Winters on the Majella can be harsh and much of the route will be snow bound between November and March.  Although much of the route is in the dappled shade of the woods, a lot is on open plains.  August, when temperatures can easily reach 30 - 40 degrees celsius, will be far too hot to make the route comfortable.  You will also need more water, which will mean carrying extra weight in already heavy packs as the water points are, at times, far apart.  Early spring, March and April, is a beautiful time with the hills finally shaking off the weight of winter and everything is bursting into glorious life.  However, it can be wet at this time.  

The optimum time, therefore, for taking the trail is either May, June, early July, September and October.  We chose the last week of September and this was just perfect.

B&Bs, wild camping & rifugio (mountain huts) in the Majella

So long as you’re sensitive as to where you stay, and leave without a trace in the morning, you can pitch up along the route.  Be aware, however, that you will be sharing your space with the wildlife of the Majella, which does include wolves and bears, so keep your food and rubbish away.  With so many nocturnal animals, nights can be noisy!  

Wild camping on the Morrone, next to the rifugio Laccio Rosso

There are a number of rifugio along the way where you are more than welcome to stay.  Most have fireplaces and a table and chairs.  Some have a store of wood, but generally you will have to collect your own.  Some have basic bunks for sleeping, but be prepared to bed down on the floor (or pitch your tent outside).  Any mattresses are best avoided or you may find your sleeping bag becomes host to a number of itchy visitors who will be reluctant to leave!

If you’d rather break your journey with the luxury of a hotel or B&B, you will pass close to the small village of Roccamorice and go throughout the spa town of Caramanico Terme. 


There are a number of drinking fountains (fonte) along the route utilising mountain springs, these are perfectly safe to drink.  Indeed some, such as the waters at San Onofrio in Serramonacesca, are said to have health giving benefits.  These are often marked on the map as “fonte”, or with a sign post directing the way.  

The Orfento Valley, Caramanico

The waters from the tumbling streams that you will cross are clean and fresh.  We are happy to drink directly from these, and have done so many times, but, to be safe, you may want to add a purifying tablet.

As you will be collecting and carrying your water, it is recommended that you take two x 2-3 litre water bladders.  You will need water for cooking as well as drinking.  The route involves long climbs in places, so don’t underestimate the amount you will need to drink.


The Hermits and the Celestine Monks

My journeys of ley line research along the St Michael/Apollo axis have taken me not only to the hermits, but to dragons, myths & legends, Knights Templars, pagans and archangels.  Knights Templars and pagan worship I have found in the Majella, myths and legends a plenty.  As critical as the Archangel St Michael is to the theory of ley lines, I shall park him for now.  

Statue of the Archangel St Michael in the Grotta San Angelo, that can be found
on the Spiritual Trail as it passes Lettomanoppello

The hermits, on the other hand, being better documented, particularly Peter of the Morrone who, for the simple reason that he was to become Pope Celestine V and the founding father of the religious order of the Celestine monks, I could follow, both literally across the Spiritual Trail of the Majella and through the written history of his life.  

To fully understand the phenomenon of the hermits, we start our journey in the 4th or 5th century with San Onofrio (or Onophrius), of which three of the Majella hermitages are dedicated.  Onophrius lived at the time when Christianity was emerging as the dominant faith of the Roman Empire, a period when many Christians were inspired to live a life of solitude in prayer and penance for the love of God.  

Onophrius lived his hermit life for 70 years, dwelling in the harsh environment of the desert of Upper Egypt dressed in nothing but his long hair and a loin cloth of leaves, the figure that you see in the eremo in Serramonacesca (opposite). 

Word of the way of life of Onuphrius spread across the Middle East, Eastern and Western Europe, where many churches and monasteries have been built in his honour.  The long list where he is depicted, amongst many others, include Poland, Russia, Jerusalem, Germany, Turkey and, of course, Italy and the Majella.  His feast day is marked on June 12, the date of his death, which is celebrated every year in the Majella village of Serramonacesca where we begin our travels.

From the life of San Onofrio, we jump about 700 years to the 13th Century and the life of the hermit, Pietro (or Peter) of the Morrone.  Born in 1215 to a poor and humble family in Sant’Angelo Limosano in neighbouring Molise, Pietro became a Benedictine monk in his late adolescence, but left the monastery in his early 20s to pursue life as a hermit in a cave on Mont Morrone of the Majella.  He led a pious life, fasting every day apart from Sunday, wearing a haircloth shirt roughened with knots and a chain of iron around his emaciated frame.  His entire day, and much of his night, was dedicated to prayer and labour.  

Pietro’s life of solitude was not to last.  As news of his saintly piety spread, others tried to follow him and imitate his rule of life.  Pietro withdrew to a deeper, wilder and more inaccessible cave of the Majella (Eremo di San Giovanni), but a community of fellow hermits still developed on the Majella that grew incessantly.  By the time of his death in 1296 he had established the religious order of the Celestine monks, with 600 Celestini and 36 monasteries.

The late 1200s was a battlefield of religious and political controversy with France, England, the Spanish Aragon and the reigning Popes in bitter conflict.  It was into this turmoil that Pietro, in the latter years of his life, was thrown.  In 1292 the reigning Pope Nicholas IV died and the feuds amongst infighting cardinals and their clans meant that more than two years passed with the conclave being unable to agree on the succeeding Pope.  

After a two year impasse, the unrest between the rival factions became more serious and the legitimate election of a new Pope became more urgent.  It was amongst this chaos that the powerful Cardinal Orsini reported that God had told him to elevate a pious hermit to the papacy, or face divine chastisement.  This proposition was seized upon by the exhausted conclave and the election was made unanimous.  Who better to control and manipulate, thought the Cardinals, but “an aged, simple and almost illiterate Benedictine hermit?”

Eremo San Pietro, Majella Morrone
Pietro, now aged 79, reluctantly left his beloved Majella and, with tears in his eyes, accepted the decision and became Pope Celestine V, reasoning that it was the will of God.  He was crowned not in Rome but in his familiar church of Santa Maria Collemaggio in Aquila within Abruzzo, a church that he had had constructed many years before when inspired by a dream that the Virgin Mary had asked him to build a church on that spot. 

He was, however, a weak and ineffectual Pope within a power-laden ecclesiastical system and made many serious mistakes in the five short months of his papacy.  Eventually he expressed a wish to resign and, possibly manipulated by the wily canon lawyer Cardinal Caetani (who was later to succeed Celestine V as the next Pope, Boniface VIII), effected his resignation, donned his hermit’s garb and retraced his steps back to the solitude of the depths of the Majella.  The legitamacy of his resignation was challenged and Boniface issued orders that he be “detained”.  Celestine escaped capture within the Majella for several months before attempting to flee to Greece with the help of his friends and compatriots.  He was finally captured at the foot of Mount Gargano in Puglia, southern Italy and delivered into the hands of Boniface VIII who confined the old man to a dank and dark cell in the castle of Fumone near Anagni.  Celestine died here, in his 81st year.  

In 1313 San Pietro was canonised and his remains were transferred to the church of Santa Maria Collemaggio in Aquilla, where they remain to this day despite the Basilica (as it is now) being severely damaged by the earthquake of 2009.  San Pietro’s remains miraculously survived.

Understood in the context of all that has gone before, The Spiritual Trail becomes far more than simply another multi-day hike, albeit amongst spectacular scenery.  It is a journey through time and history that you cannot fail to feel deeply, becoming completely absorbed and in awe.

Wild camping on the Majella Morrone