Where to Find Abruzzo’s Holy Mother – The Maiella National Park

As a means of introduction, it’s always best, to begin with, a story, even for a national park like the Maiella, whose name dips back to when legends explained bounty and shape.

This one begins with the eldest and most beautiful of the Seven Sisters, Maia, who fled Phrygia (Antolla) with her son Hermes (the giant) after he had been badly injured in the battle of Flegra.

An oracle had predicted that Hermes could be saved by a miracle herb that was endemic to the Corno Grande, so they set off on a simple raft, sadly there were shipwrecked and they washed up at the town of Orton (Ortona).  From here,  Maia slowly climbed the Corno Grande, carrying her son in her arms where they sought refuge in a cave.

Snow carpeted the land and her search for the herb was fruitless, Hermes died, and Maia buried him, and to mark his demise, the eastern summit of the Corno Grande weathered to display a gigantic human face in eternal sleep.

Tortured by her son’s death Maia roamed the countryside, her tears became the mountain dew. Finally, grief overcame her and the day came quickly when shepherds found her body.  They buried her on the mountain to face her son’s grave and marked it with a plethora of aromatic herbs and colourful wildflowers.  

From that day on the massif became known as the Maiella, which takes the form of a woman bent over in grief, gazing at the sea.  Her lament can still be seen and heard from the waterfalls and as the wind rushes through the woods and valleys.  It’s believed the highest peak, Monte Amaro is so named to reflect a Mother’s pain.

To the  Greeks and Romans, Maia embodied the concept of growth, she was the giver of life and linked to the flow of water.  In the Catholic Church, Saint Gerardo Maiella became the saint of pregnancy and midwives, and today on Earth Day 2021 the Majella National Park that is named after  Abruzzo’s Mother Massif celebrates its new status as Abruzzo’s first UNESCO geopark!   With this new mantal, that recognises the park’s geological, natural and cultural heritage,  the park will build awareness and understanding of the key issues facing society, using our earth’s resources sustainably, mitigating the effects of climate change and reducing natural disasters-related risks.

The Park’s Reach

The park stretches across the provinces of Pescara, Chieti and L’Aquila, and includes the Rotella, Porrara and Pizzi mountains and the Majella and Morrone Massifs.  The limestone here was deposited here some 100 million years ago from the bottom of a rich tropical sea whose fossils you can still find whilst walking in the mountains.  The massifs round, almost lumpy mountain shapes were eroded by glaciers during the melt of the last Ice Age.  Due to its unusual setting, its close proximity to the sea and the high relief of its 30+ peaks, the park is characterised by a wide variety of microclimates, ecosystems and ecological niches which together have created a rare and diverse heritage. 

Map Majella ParkThe Majella GeoPark22% of European Flora 

There are some 2,286 different types of flora and fauna that grow within the park,15 of those endemicThis makes up one-third of the entire Italian flora, 22% of European flora.   If you’re very lucky you may spot otters, the rare endangered Marsican bear, wolves, lynx, Apennine Chamois, red or roe deer or a golden eagle as you look up and out at the peaksTo conserve this rich biodiversity, the park administration established and maintains two botanical gardens, a seed bank, and a herbarium for preserving and studying the flora of the Park.

Man & Massifs

The park’s first recorded settlement of prehistoric men dates back to the Early Paleolithic Age (about 600,000 years ago).  Archaeologists have uncovered stone tools found in the park’s  Valle Giumentina which is recognised as one of the oldest human settlements of Western Europe.

In the medieval period the park’s weathered limestone caves, which sit high amongst its beech forests, were highly sought after by hermits as places of solitude and asceticism including Pope Celestine. The subsequent number of  ‘holy places’, hermitages, chapels and grottoes are said to be only second in number to Tibet per square kilometre.  Caves were later used by its farmers for milling and hiding by the brigands, together with the agro-pastoral practices associated with the transumanza and mining of the area they link the geology, man and the Majella National Park.

Today the park’s 74,000 hectares are home to 39 municipalities and 6 mountain communities.

How Will The Climate Emergency Affect the Maiella National Park?

Mountain areas like those contained in the Maiella National Park are considered to be one of the most threatened in Europe.  Predictions of climate change indicate that this genetic, floristic, and community diversity could be significantly affected in the future (Jump and Penuelas 2005; Thuiller et al. 2005; Di Musciano et al. 2020). Increasing aridity is the major driver of species loss (Pauli et al. 2012). This trend is likely to continue during the coming decades, insofar as climate models predict increasing temperatures, decreasing annual precipitation, and an expansion of the dry season in southern Europe (Benito et al. 2011). Due to the high degree of endemism and endangered species in the park, its mountains have a high risk of biodiversity loss. The survival of these endemic and threatened species requires different and complementary conservation approaches and techniques (Raven 2004).

Tales from The Maiella’s Shepherd Storyteller

Let’s finish with the shepherd storyteller, Paolino Sanelli who until November 2020 had lived for almost a century, 900 masl, in the small but stunning village of Decontra, some may have eaten at his family’s Agriturismo Pietrantica

Although it was a hard life, he believed the surrounding peaks protected and helped to preserve the well being of his family through the seasons, but within his lifetime he saw the migration and abandonment of the mountain villages within the Majella National Park, particularly after the 2nd World War, a time which he had seen Nazis hunting for allied soldiers hiding in the area’s caves.  Thankfully, he saw a small number of people return, encouraged by tourism,  particularly hikers and those who listened to the call of the wild. You can read his tales in the English language version of his book, ‘My Dreams Have All Been on The Majella’.

The Maiella

“The Maiella has taught us so many things, to pasture the flocks, the cows, the horses and donkeys.  It has taught us to listen to the sounds of nature which give us so much pleasure.  The Maiella has taught us to visit hermitages, it has given us so much wood, and will go on giving, enough for eternity.  The Maiella has taught us to protect the flowers, the edelweiss, the birds and the swallows which are jewels.”

The Dream of Paolino

We were three companions, two men and a woman and we loved each other more than if we were brothers and sisters.  I am called Paolino, the other Pasquolino and the woman Carmela.  We used to talk much about nature and the environment. Nature gives us many beautiful things, we used to say if nature were respected by everyone in the way we respect her it would be a happy world.  Nature is beautiful and we don’t take into account the things she gives us.  We dreamt of many things, beautiful and ugly and told each other of them.

I dreamt that I found myself in a little village far away.  Suddenly, a great storm arose which was very frightening. Carmela had dreamt that she found herself in a far off place; suddenly a squadron of aeroplanes arrived and released a rain of bombs.  I dreamt again,  I found myself in a wonderful field of sunflowers, so we removed all the seeds and immediately made a press, which a donkey could turn, and we made lots of tarallucci – cakes – which could feed all those children in poverty.

Pasqualino told us that he had had a very long dream in which he found himself in the cave of San Benedetto, safe from everything, and he heard a voice telling him that it was the cave of our forefathers.

Then I Paolino, dreamt of a blue sky, the stars were out,  shining, and then I saw a little flower far away and I called Pasqualino.  We went to gather this little flower, we walked until we reached this little flower and we stretch out on the ground and sleep comes upon us.  At our awakening, the little flower changes into a child and we embrace him very happily.  We go back to the cave of San Benedetto and we stay there, lifelong.

Further Reading

Don’t forget to find more photos and information on The Maiella National Park from our private Life In Abruzzo Facebook Group, these two are by Pete Austin!
Sam Dunham
Author: Sam Dunham

Sam is a very lucky midlife 'mamma' to A who is 12 and juggles her work as a self-employed freelance SEO food and travel copywriter and EFL teacher. She is the founder of the Life In Abruzzo Cultural Association, co-founder of Let's Blog Abruzzo. she is the founder of the 'English in the Woods' initiative, teaching English outdoors in a forest style school.

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