I’m a travel mystery author, setting my books in off-the-beaten-path locales throughout Europe. When writing Abruzzo Intrigue, which takes place in Italy’s ‘green heart’, Abruzzo, I followed one of the treks of my protagonist, Hardy Durkin.
A stone’s throw from the Macchie di Coco restaurant in Roccamorice, Abruzzo, Italy, I embarked on a hike that was one of the highpoints of my stay in Abruzzo. It was mid-October and the restaurant was closed, so I began my trek in isolation on a trail shepherds have used for centuries that winds through the Majella National Park, part of Europe’s ‘green heart.’ The track meandered through now-deserted pastureland, since the flocks had moved to warmer climes for the winter, through a field of giant ferns, and then passed through a land of sparse trees and shrubs that is the Abruzzo wilderness. Various sizes of scat on the footpath reminded me that the area is home to deer, brown bear, wild cats, and the Apennine wolf, and I breathed a little faster when I heard rustling in the undergrowth along the trail. There is no cell phone coverage in this outback. An occasional painted signpost or ancient metal cross directed my path; the route is well-marked.
My quest was Eremo San Bartolomeo di Legio, a remote hermitage built into the mountainside overlooking the Valle dello Spirito Santo (Valley of the Holy Spirit). Saint Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus known to us as Nathanael. He was credited with bringing Christianity into Armenia and consequently martyred there, reputedly by being flayed alive and crucified upside down. Another speculation is that he was also beheaded. He is often depicted with a large knife, holding his own skin.
I took a path off to the left and began a gradual descent on a single dirt track that follows the mountain’s contour. To my right the mountain fell steeply to the valley below. No guard rails here. The absolute quiet and peace flooded my thoughts. Pilgrims and saints have traversed this same narrow pathway for centuries, seeking solitude and spiritual enlightenment.
The trail ended in stone steps carved into the mountainside and descended to an arched hole cut into the rock, an entrance to a rock ledge overhung by a sweeping natural rock ceiling that looks like a great wave. Views from the terrace plunged to the small river gurgling in the valley below. A thoughtful Canadian woman had donated a bench which affords a place to park and rest on the balcony.
The hermitage was built before the 11th century and restored around 1250. Its most famous resident was Pope Celestine V (Pietro da Morrone), in 1274. Pietro didn’t last long as Pope. He abdicated as a protest to the corruption of the papacy and church. He died in prison for his trouble, under what are termed ‘mysterious circumstances’.
A small chapel at the far end of the terrace houses a very simple altar, a wooden statue of Saint Bartholomew, and several chairs if you want to sit and meditate. A small stone basin dug into the chapel’s floor fills with water from a stream that trickles through. The water is said to be holy and capable of healing. Saint Bartholomew was, after all, one who healed convulsions, headaches, and mental problems.
Another stone staircase, just before the chapel, leads down to the valley below. This is the Scala Santa (Holy Staircase), cut into the mountain. Serious pilgrims visiting the hermitage from the valley ascended on their knees, praying.
Life in this place is in a different time. It is NO TIME: a suspension of frivolity and all the wants that distract one from introspection, self-discovery, and a relationship with The Creator. My thoughts were stilled, my attention motionless. My steps homeward became a meditation to hold fast to the tranquility my hungry inner man had drunk, like a sponge absorbs water, and I vowed to return here to drink again.
Take the A24/E80 toward L’Aquila, then the A25/E80 toward Chieti/Sulmona. Sulmona is a great base from which to explore the area.