Italy’s wilderness: walking in the Majella national park

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The Majella national park is about halfway down Italy’s Adriatic coast then inland a smidge
As we walked down the drive of the Pietrantica agriturismo in the tiny clifftop village of Decontra, we were treated to one of the world’s great sights: a beaming Italian mamma in a floral pinny, whose sole mission in life was to take us under her wing and feed us up, wrote Dixe Wills after travelling Majella national park in Italy. The heartfelt hospitality and heart-meltingly delicious food cooked by Marisa for my friend and I over the following three days were a wonderful bonus. What we had actually come for was the wilderness.

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As we walked down the drive of the Pietrantica agriturismo in the tiny clifftop village of Decontra, we were treated to one of the world’s great sights: a beaming Italian mamma in a floral pinny, whose sole mission in life was to take us under her wing and feed us up, wrote Dixe Wills after travelling Majella national park in Italy.

The heartfelt hospitality and heart-meltingly delicious food cooked by Marisa for my friend and I over the following three days were a wonderful bonus. What we had actually come for was the wilderness.

Yep, in Italy – not a place especially renowned for its untamed wilds. However, the Majella national park– about halfway down Italy’s Adriatic coast then inland a smidge – is one of 13 PAN Parksestablished across Europe by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (formerly the WWF) in 1998 to protect areas of wilderness in countries that do not have an established network of national parks.

The Majella Park comprises nearly 160 square kilometres of pristine mountains and gasp-inducing canyons to enjoy. And judging from our experience, anyone coming here pretty much has it to themselves.

Our mission was to seek out the Majella’s fantastic wild flowers. To get us started, a young woman named Paola – who the previous day had picked us up from the railway station deep in the valley below – led us on to the plateau behind the village.

In five minutes we were walking across a green and bumpy landscape offering 360-degree views that admitted just one solitary house. The flowers alongside this footpath (we were only 800m high) were types we were familiar with – dog rose, vetch, valerian – although we learned later we’d missed some ballerina orchids.

“And there’s a hermitage,” said Paola, pointing triumphantly at some tiny rooms carved out of the cliffs in a gorge. Here, in the mid-13th century, lived Pietro da Morrone, a hermit who went on to become Pope Celestine V and, like his recent successor, abdicate, in his case after just 161 days. He’s a bit of a local hero.

Back at the farmhouse, we threw ourselves into what became a highly convivial meal. Our only mistake was to help ourselves to generous seconds of the delicious lentil, spelt pasta and vegetable stew in the belief that it was the main course. It was the first of five.

We left the table full of food grown on this organic farm by Marisa and her husband Camillo, and flavoured with herbs Marisa had foraged (“Biologists from Rome came last week,” she told us, “and said the Majella has 4,000 species of herbs”), and washed down by wine made from their own grapes.

The following morning, still feeling full, we set off under a blazing sun, with Monte Amaro, at 2,793m the second-highest peak in the Apennines, peering down on us.

Marisa had given us a map and instructions written in her brilliant but idiosyncratic English, and a picnic lunch. Plunging into the Orfento valley we saw so many different orchids that we started to become blase. In cool woods a friendly zephyr bathed us in air as fresh as the stream flowing below us.

After lunched at another cliff-side hermitage we crossed waterfalls and narrow ravines. On our way home we surprised a hare, a deer and a snake; saw where wild boar had truckled up the earth and, just to show that the undulating nine-hour walk hadn’t beaten us, ran up the final stretch of the gorge, felt our hearts beating wildly and were happy. We also knew another Marisa dinner awaited us.

But, astonishingly, we apparently still hadn’t seen the best the Majella could offer. The peaks form the highest section of the Abruzzo Mountains and our ears popped as Paola ferried us up to even greater heights the next day.

“Everyone around here says Monte Cavallo is the walk to do,” she declared.

We were joined by silver-haired Pino, who was to guide us over Monte Cavallo to a refuge. Around us we could see mountains, more mountains, even whole ranges. Pino reeled off their names as if they were a poem: Cima Pomilio, Sirente, Velino, Rotondo, Morrone, and Gran Sasso.

When we looked down, we were rewarded by the sight of blue gentians, yellow and purple wild pansies and crocuses, their tiny flowers out of all proportion to the epic scale of the surrounding landscape.

As we climbed higher, we encountered more exotic alpine flora – yellow and purple elder-flowered orchids, silver-leaved flowers with blood-red petals set upon by bumble bees, and minuscule silence.

We ascended at last to a dazzle fest of snow, unfeasibly holding out against the intense June sun. Our path to the refuge lay across it. However, this is the domain of sure-footed wolves and gravity-defying Apennine chamois – without crampons one false step would see gauche humans like us shooting rather thrillingly down the sheer slopes of the mountain towards certain doom.

Since none of us declared keenness for certain doom, we consoled ourselves with lunch and stories told by Pino of the anti-Garibaldi bandits who used to lurk in these parts.

Later that afternoon we dropped down to Pretoro, a little town clinging heroically to a hillside above the Foro valley on the eastern edge of Majella. At an 18th-century B&B called Casa Milà, we stayed in a room with a view that made the room in A Room with a View appear not to have much of a view at all. We flung the window wide and gazed all the way across a patchwork plain peppered with hill-top villages.

Casa Mila has a bijou restaurant in an old hand-carved cellar beneath the guesthouse. The meal Patrizia, the owner-cum-chef, served us extended to seven courses. Or it could have been eight – I lost count somewhere. Each one seemed to outdo the one before and we quickly ran out of superlatives.

We couldn’t say, however, that we hadn’t been warned. The day before, when we’d told Marisa we were coming here, she had smiled: “Oh yes, Patrizia – now she’s a really good cook.”

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