Maiella National Park with a Slow Cyclist Guide

Maiella National Park is a place to connect to nature and glimpse at ancient history. The Slow Cyclist guide Pierluigi tells us why he never tires of this region’s beauty and loves introducing guests to Italy’s wild Abruzzo

‘There’s a deep, strong bond between people and nature here,’ says Pierluigi Astrologo of the region of central Italy where he was born. ‘You see it in so many ways. Like the tratturi, for example, these trails we walk along, which cross the hills for hundreds of kilometres. They’re actually ancient paths cut through the landscape by centuries of transumanza.’

Transumanza sounds grand and spiritual; a kind of mass pilgrimage, perhaps, but this ancient practice was rooted in the extraordinary geography of this relatively unknown region, just a couple of hours east of Rome. The Abruzzo encompasses Apennine peaks around 3,000 metres high in the Gran Sasso and parallel ranges of hills which drop abruptly, via a series of lush green valleys, to the Adriatic Sea. Wildlife abounds here, thanks to three national parks, one of them set up specifically to protect the critically endangered Marsican brown bear. Throughout the region, you can spot chamois, roe deer and stunning birds of prey, even golden eagles.

‘We have a surprising range of habitats, from Mediterranean scrub to tundra,’ Pierluigi explained, ‘and that’s due to our unique geology, these fault lines running through the region. We even have plants and flowers common with the Balkan areas.’ Tectonic collisions have given rise to Alpine style peaks like Corno Grande in the north becoming neighbours to dome-shaped summits like Maiella in the south, which is almost flat on top. ‘It was actually covered by sea water 150 million years ago,’ Pierluigi tells me. ‘In fact it rose out of the sea only seven million years ago, and it preserves the characteristics of the sea bottom.’ As you descend from its summit, he says, you take a deep dive from shallow water to deep, and you’ll see different fossilised creatures at every level, including ancient fossilised coral reefs.

While traces of ancient history may be glimpsed in the rocks, many medieval castles – the highest concentration in the country – pepper its hilltops. ‘You’ll see towers, or defensive walls, some of them well preserved, and many built around 1,000 years ago. The Castle of Rocca Calascio is particularly beautiful, he adds. It sounds like this was a hotly contested region in Italy’s history.

The village of Roccacaramanico in Maiella National Park, Abruzzo
A flock of sheep graze near a lake in the Abruzzo mountain region in Italy, seen by Slow Cyclists.

‘Strong and kind,’ was how the great Italian writer Primo Levi described the people of Abruzzo. ‘Italic populations were living in central and southern Italy before the Romans came and conquered in the 4th century BC,’ Pierluigi says. ‘The Italics were a fierce people, who refused to become Roman citizens. They were defeated eventually, but they managed to win a few battles.’ Indeed one of the most important Roman archaeological sites is the hilltop town of Peltuinum, of which an amphitheatre and a monumental sanctuary still remain. And here he mentions transumanza again. ‘Peltuinum was a strategic town in controlling the transumanza, explains Pierluigi, since sheep and shepherds were always enormously important to the region. Winters here are harsh; not just low temperatures, but heavy snowfall, with winds coming straight from Siberia. So shepherds with the largest number of sheep would migrate south for the winter months, driving their sheep down ancient trails over hundreds of kilometres to find grazing pastures in warmer climes, and returning to Abruzzo in the spring.’ On the second day of the Slow Cyclist Abruzzo trip, Pierluigi takes guests to Campo Imperatore, a vast Alpine meadow, often referred to as ‘little Tibet’. This high plateau, encircled by mountains, could host five million sheep, which gives some sense of the scale of transumanza.

‘Sheep have always been important to the region, of course, and our traditional food is strongly related to shepherding.’ Pierluigi explains how the traditional local cheese is a blend of goats and sheep’s milk whose mixture changes over the season: ‘More sheep’s milk in spring, since the sheep make more milk until June, and then from midsummer on there’s more goat’s milk in the cheese, and it becomes a proper Pecorino.’

Other traditional dishes to try here include Black Pig cold cuts, ‘the missing link between the common pig and the wild boar.’ The meat has a slightly stronger flavour than pig but not as strong as boar. Then there are Arrosticini, narrow cubes of lamb threaded onto wooden skewers, and cooked over charcoal, on a special narrow metal grill. This region has its own traditional spaghetti, naturally: Pasta alla chitarra, so named because it is made on a wooden frame resembling a guitar with thin metal wires over which egg pasta is pressed to form distinctive spaghetti which is square in cross section. And delicious ‘meatless meatballs’, or pallotte cacio e uova, bread soaked in milk, eggs, and Pecorino cheese.

Pierluigi is exactly the kind of guide you want on a long hike: passionate about his region, and knowledgeable about every aspect, his conversation roaming freely over history, geology, wildlife and food. Pierluigi was born in the tiny village of Caramanico Terme, one of I Borghi più Belli d’Italia (Italy’s most beautiful villages). I asked him which is his favourite spot in this magnificent region. ‘The Maiella is famous for these beautiful rural hermitages, like Santo Spiritu,’ he says. ‘It’s really one of the most beautiful places I know. When you hike up, you see this incredible monastery from the middle ages, literally bedded into the rock so that it’s camouflaged in nature. There it is again: that deep connection between people and the natural world around them. Standing here, you really feel it.’

If you’d like to explore the magical valleys and hidden hermitages of Maiella National Park, come cycling with us on our Untamed Abruzzo journey. Find out more or enquire now

Views of Maiella National Park in Italy's Abruzzo region, visited on a Slow Cyclist journey

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