From San Donato in Val di Comino to the Marsicani Mountains
Forca d’Acero’s mountain pass (1538 metres a.s.l.) is Lazio’s only entrance for motorised vehicles into the Abruzzo sector of the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise (PNALM) along the watershed that separates the Tyrrhenian Sea from the Adriatic Sea.
For many years I’ve driven this beautiful, winding road from the town of Sora, stopping on the way to admire the foliage along trails that vanish into the beech woods, yet my eyes were often magnetically drawn to the then nameless mountains that rise south of the road.
I decided on a cold, windy but beautifully clear autumn day to wander off on an ambitious exploration. I drove to the small mediaeval town of San Donato Val di Comino, one of the many small settlements that dot this rural and mostly untouched corner of Ciociaria, the Valley of Comino (named after the Samnite town of Cominium), to follow the old Marsican road. This ancient road, which dates certainly to pre-Roman times, was later used by Benedictine Monks, highwaymen, mules and Bourbon troops, to connect Ciociaria with Molise, and is named after the Marsica region of Abruzzo. On a side note, I recently discovered that the toponym “Forca” derives from the gruesome practice among the local “briganti” of hanging their victims from the maple (Acero) trees by the mountain pass.
My plan that day was to explore the wilderness area in an extensive loop in the footsteps of ancient travellers and along the ridges that mark the border between present-day Lazio and Abruzzo.
As I left San Donato behind me, I followed the marked trail that wound up among olive trees and deciduous woodland, leaving behind the town’s outermost houses and I entered a lush, dark wood. My first stop on the trail were the Royal Mines in San Donato, which are reached via a short but steep marked trail at the foot of Monte Calvario. At 1000 metres of altitude, the San Ferdinando tunnel provides the most accessible and interesting testimony of the former Kingdom of Two Sicilies’ mining activities. The project began towards the end of the Kingdom’s long history in 1853 when King Ferdinand II sent his trusted geologist Gaetano Tenore to prospect the area, then part of the large department known as “Terra di Lavoro” (literally “Land of Work”), along with a team of engineers, military officials and miners. Two sites were chosen, including San Donato’s Monte Calvario, and the mine was in use for a few years before the fall of the Kingdom in 1860, mostly to extract iron from the local limonite, an iron ore which has been exploited for thousands of years. Information panels by the entrance described the working conditions and lives of the miners (including women who helped carry the raw materials), claiming that they were more fortunate than their European counterparts in terms of working hours and pay. The iron ore was then taken to the ironworks in nearby Atina to be processed.
As I entered the mine (headlamp required!) I noticed how wide and high the tunnels were and occasionally I came across a lesser horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus hipposideros), the main dwellers of this subterranean world, hanging from the ceiling above. I tried not to disturb their sleep and advanced deeper into the underground, pausing and thinking of the darkness in which the miners worked, lit only by frail candles, and the hazards of this dangerous job; one casualty was recorded on the panel, his name was Costanzo Acchione, and he was mortally wounded by the explosion of a mine in 1855. The air was stale but was warmer than outside, where a cold wind blew through the trees.
I descended to the main trail again as it slowly climbed through deciduous woodland and pine tree plantations until at about an altitude of 1200 metres I came across an intersection: I took the marked trail on the right towards Valle Inguagnera until I came across an unmarked trail just past 1400 metres of altitude: this is the trail I sought!
My GPS identified it as the Colle Nero - Forca d’Acero trail and other than a few cairns it was merely a faint path through grass tussocks and limestone that wound around the mountain, past abandoned “stazzi” or sheepfolds. The gales were strong and freezing as I reached 1700 metres and I decided to rest in a small hollow. As I sat, all of a sudden, my eyes caught something: a silhouette on the cliff fifty metres above me: a chamois (Rubicapra pyrenaica ornata)! As still as a statue, this beautiful creature, the symbol of Val Comino and the National Park, observed me, vigilant and aware. We were frozen in time: two creatures eyeing each other, measuring each other with mixed awe and curiosity. This unexpected sight sent shivers down my spine as I was reminded of my place as a guest, a temporary traveller wandering in someone else’s home, among those beings that dwell under the snow and among the sharp limestone crags.
I climbed up the ridge, partly hidden by the great boulders above me, and slowly came closer to the animal. It did not appear to be alarmed though it scuttled away and falling rocks echoed where the land was given a respite by the strong winds.
I continued to climb up the rocky crags - Apennine limestone can be a real challenge for one’s legs and shoes - and emerged over a beautiful Karstic basin at 1800m also known as the Fondillo di San Donato where a few cattle grazed, untroubled by the gales which violently blew over the ridge. I wish I could have enjoyed the view more, as my eyes lingered on the distant shadows of the Pontine islands and the island of Ischia and the clear sight of the Valley of Comino below me, but the gales were cold and they did succeed in pushing me over, forcing me to walk with an uncertain footing - I had never experienced such powerful winds in these regions before! I was somewhat concerned throughout the remainder of the trail since it mostly consisted of high-altitude exposed ridges but I marched on and climbed to the top of Colle Nero (1991 metres), Monte San Marcello (1977m) and descended the steep ridge to the pass between the latter and the highest point, Cima Nella (2007m - another 2000s peak to add to my collection!).
As I descended, I spotted over twenty chamois in the upper reaches of the wild Valle Lattara below me. They could not see me, nor could they hear my footsteps and I descended quietly to the ridge where I laid, face down and peered over the sharp rocks: it was a beautiful sight and a reminder of how much untouched wilderness surrounds us still! After five minutes I was betrayed and a high-pitched whistle through one of the adult’s noses alerted the others; I moved away, content with my observation.
I then started climbing up the Cima Nella and my eyes scanned the beech trees in the valley below (Fondillo di Settefrati) whose upper leaves were slowly turning to warmer hues. In the distance Monte Meta (2241 metres) - a mountain I climbed years ago on a 35k loop in the Mainarde range - was crowned with the faintest layer of fresh snow and as I turned around the ridge before the mountain peak, before me I came across a much larger group of chamois with several juveniles - they were alert but not alarmed and allowed me to observe them from a distance of 20 metres. I counted approximately 35 individuals and was left speechless; I had never seen so many individuals in the National Park in a single day in a single spot. On a side note, if you are a keen wildlife observer, I suggest exploring these mountains in November and early December, as it’s the rutting season for these fascinating animals that only barely avoided extinction thanks to the efforts of the National Park of Abruzzo (nowadays there are over 2000 chamois in the Central Appennines thanks to the initiative 2000x2000x2000: 2000 chamois above 2000 metres in the 2000s). If you are fortunate enough you will have the opportunity to observe the drama of violent head-to-head combat between male individuals who vie for reproductive rights during this season.
As I descended Cima Nella, I spotted one of my favourite ranges in the National Park just ahead of me: the Serra delle Gravare, which can be reached on foot from Val Fondillo. Now I could admire all the familiar places that I knew: Monte Marsicano, the towns of Opi and Pescasseroli, the Camosciara and many other landmarks of the National Park.
I spotted two more hikers on Monte San Nicola but other than that, I wandered in solitude all day long. The climb to Monte San Nicola (1900 metres) was short and steep and then it followed the ridge to Monte Panico (1884 metres) marking the boundary between Abruzzo and Lazio. Just past the snow branches was one of the many boundary stones that marked the boundaries of the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples, but this one was bare and not as beautifully carved as those that are present on the Ernici mountains or above Poggio Bustone in Sabina.
It was a beautiful walk above the beech forests that were slowly heralding the arrival of autumn on their doorstep and then the trails, imperceptible at times, dropped towards Forca d’Acero, through dense beech forests. I intersected two more marked trails until I reached the Duca d’Aosta mountain shelter near the tarred road (the shelter has been closed for years) and traced my trail back to San Donato, which I reached at dusk.
San Donato is well worth visiting: the town, which is listed among the Borghi più belli d’Italia (Italy’s most beautiful towns) dates certainly from the Middle Ages when a village emerged around an ancient church dedicated to San Donato (the bishop and patron of Arezzo who is said to heal epilepsy according to local folklore). Over centuries, as a result of its strategic position, the settlement was governed by numerous local families who were responsible for the construction of the town’s most significant landmark: the mediaeval tower of the D’Aquino family, aligned according to the cardinal directions, which crowns the acropolis of the old town (the castrum Sancti Donati). San Donato is a town of churches and archways (known locally as spuort) among which I would recommend visiting the Santuario di San Donato (cited for the first in A.D. 778 as a possession of the powerful Abbey of San Vincenzo al Volturno, in present-day Molise), the baroque Duomo (that preserves the relics of the Christian martyr Santa Costanza) and the main gate of the old mediaeval town, Porta Orologio, which would have served the town well in its defence against the briganti (hint: spot the three crosses that are carved in the stone that are said to serve as a reminder of the hanging of three bandits). Overall, with its mediaeval alleys, staircases and small squares, San Donato is a beautiful, small town to explore and an attentive eye will note the wonderful stone doorways which reveal one of the town’s most renowned traditions: stone masonry. Many portals are adorned with a mascaron, which is believed to keep the ghost of the monacello away. An additional element of interest is the so-called “stone of shame”, upon which those who owed money were supposed to sit for a certain amount of time. At times, the town will feel very quiet as it has suffered a steady decline in population (there are fewer than 2000 resident nowadays) and the consequences of a destructive earthquake in 1984 and this may be one of the reasons that sightings of Marsican bears have increased in recent times (https://www.kodami.it/a-san-donato-val-di-comino-lorso-marsicano-fa-il-bagno-nella-fontana/)
Above the town is a place called La Roccia dei Tedeschi (1214 metres a.s.l.) which was occupied by the retreating German army during World War II within reach of the defensive Gustav Line and can be reached on a 2-hour marked loop from San Donato. This anti-aircraft station was partly built by local craftsmen supervised by the German Mountain Hunter’s Unit and assisted the German retreat from Montecassino in 1944. Another memorial hails back to the dramatic days of World War II when 28 foreigners of Jewish origin were interned in San Donato and 16 of whom were later sent to Auschwitz.