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Sacred sites and heavenly food on Abruzzo’s holy trail

 

Award winning travel writer Emma Thomson hikes through stunning mountain scenery with Sacred Walks on the 66km-long “Spirit Trail”.

 

Nearly a thousand years are at my fingertips. A fat candle flickers in the shadows of the cave, illuminating my hand as I trace small crosses scratched into the walls by long-dead pilgrims. The solemn recorded chanting of monks echoes and smoky skeins of frankincense snake towards the rocky roof above the altar. San Bartolomeo Hermitage dates from the 11th century and clings like a swallow’s nest 30m up a sheer cliff face. It’s only those with a hard heart who aren’t awestruck.

 

The hermitage is one of a series dotted along Abruzzo’s 66km-long Sentiero dello Spirito (Spirit Trail). Two hours east of Rome, this little-known Italian region is Europe’s greenest, thanks to three national parks that cover a third of its area. The Spirit Trail winds through the eastern Majella National Park and is home to brown bears, wolves, and wild boars. It’s also the site of what some believe is the highest concentration of holy places per square kilometre outside Tibet. We’ve come to walk and camp along parts of this ancient route, but we need to take on fuel first. The little town of Scanno, at the base of a valley and comprising a twisted knot of medieval houses coiled round a hillside, makes the ideal pitstop.

 

Nothing here is touristy, from the line-hung laundry and traditional black dresses worn by the none (grandmothers), to the artisanal biscotti. “They’re on special offer, buy a hundred and you get one free,” jokes the black-bearded baker Ilario Rosati as we enter his slip of a shop. He carves off a few slices of the chocolate flavour and bundles them into a bag, wiping his hands across his biscuit-stained apron.

Lunch at a family-run trattoria is hand cut ravioli stuffed with local pecorino sheep’s cheese and saffron – the world’s best grows in Abruzzo – washed down with a cheeky glass or two of Montepulciano, the regional red wine.

We slept it off in the afternoon drive to Abbazia di San Liberatore a Majella, one of Italy’s most revered medieval abbeys near the hamlet of Serramonacesca, where the trail starts. There to meet us with the horses carrying our camping gear is Frank Montefusco, a man so devoted to his Haflinger breed of mountain ponies that he has their purebred stamp tattooed on his neck. He whispers sweet nothings into their ears as he straps on the bags. They nuzzle his broad chest. He hands me the reins of Macao, a ten-year old with a frizzy bleach-blond mane. I tug gently on the leather and call out: “Andiamo!” (Let’s go!). Andiamo is a good word to sum up Abruzzo, a land married to movement. Not only did the jostling of plates give rise to the Apennine mountain range that forms its backbone, but its people have been coming and going since the Middle Ages, when pilgrims passed through following the Camino de Santiago trail (Way of St James), up until the 1880’s and the First World War, when the interrupted trade of wool and subsequent starvation forced thousands to emigrate to North America, Scotland, Belgium and Australia.

Now we are on the move too, our line of four steeds setting the pace. We wind up through narrow forest trails smelling of thyme and mint. Every so often Macao lurches for grass and lovingly smears his green spittle on my shirt. His steady breath warms my hand and his velvet muzzle and whiskers tickle my fingers.

Then we reach a hermitage dedicated to Sant’Onofrio. Believed to be the son of the king of Persia, he renounced the cruelties of court and lived in a cave for 40 years with just a loincloth and his long grey hair to keep him warm. He would be right at home in this atmospheric church carved into the rock. Bats flit between crevices and the walls are patchworked with algae. An image of Onofrio in all his hairy glory stands by the altar. Behind is a primitive sleeping place chiselled into the limestone. “Its said pilgrims who lie in it are cured of ailments,” says our guide Andrew.

The sun is setting quickly, so we finish walking to the top of the hill and erect our tents overlooking the lights of Pescara. Frank rustles up a campfire, and his wife, Claudia cooks a pot of polenta. Lashings of red wine are doled into camping mugs, which we sip staring at the stars. After eating, we move on to warming measures of Claudia’s homemade limoncello, before falling asleep to the occasional whinny from the horses (tethered to a tree).

Morning comes quick and bright. We load the horses and set off across flaxen meadows dimpled with purple cornflowers, thistles and tholos (circular stone huts from the 1800’s). Vast vistas are splayed beneath our feet and, rounding the crest, we come across a shepherd herding the flock. His pack of snow-white Maremma sheepdogs growl protectively whenever I come too close. He has been up here all summer. “It’s the only place left in Italy where the old techniques are still,” says Lorenzo, our assistant guide.

Lorenzo leads us past silvery limestone cliffs layered like stacked pancakes, and fields of russet-coloured ferns. Eventually we reach Santo Spirito, the largest hermitage of them all. The ancient church is famous thanks to the Gladiator – style story of Pietro da Marrone, a humble hermit who rose to become pope in 1294.

As he has done all along the trail, Andrew sneaks ahead of us to light the candles and frankincense, to help to recapture the sacred soul of the place. Afterwards, we leave Frank, Claudia and the horses and drive as high as the winding mountain roads will take us, to Rifugio della Rocca – Europes highest medieval castle and now an esteemed hotel/restaurant run by Lorenzo’s brother – inside Gran Sasso National Park. Their “back garden” is the Campo Imperatore, a swathe of grassland 2,000m above sea level. Horned cows graze here, their neck bells providing the soundtrack.

Lamb is roasting in little food shacks, setting tummies rumbling. “Lets go to a little restaurant I used to run”, says Lorenzo. Rifugio San Francesco is a two-room wooden hut in the middle of the steppe serving Abruzzese specialities. Out come bowls of lentil soup, bruschetta, plates of pasta, and something I don’t recognise. “What’s this?” I ask. “It’s fermented pecorino – they use maggots,” Lorenzo enthuses as I pop in a morsel. I wince in anticipation, but it tastes just like blue cheese. Our three hour feast is crowned with a glass of ratafia, a fortified cherry wine.

This seems entirely appropriate, not only to celebrate the end of our mini pilgrimage along the magnificent Sentiero dello Spirito, but to toast a region that has managed to ward off the advances of modern Italy and guard her many legends, wildlife and wild beauty.

 

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