Our first weekend in Sulmona we took the bus to a neighboring town, Pratola Peligna. A quick drive, perhaps 18 minutes. Per usual, we soaked in all the details we could. I pointed to the side of Il Morrone, the imposing mountain we live next to. “Is that… a building… all alone in the middle of the mountainside?” I asked Riley. We peered harder. Il Morrone, where not blanketed in trees, is dark gray flecked with a terra cotta coloring. Geologically, rock becomes grayer and darker as it ages, so just by looking we can tell these are incredibly old mountains. I assume the lighter colors are from parts of the mountainside breaking off.
It can be hard to tell from a distance what is mountain and what is building. The shape we saw was perfectly rectangular. And had a row of windows. This was no mirage! “We have to go there!” Riley cried out. I nodded emphatically.
Later in the week, I asked my Italian teacher Paula if she knew what the building was on the side of the mountain on the road towards Pratola. We looked it up, and turns out it’s an Eremo, a hermitage, where the future Pope Celestino V first heard that he would be ascending to the Papacy. (I also learned for whom the mountain is named. I wonder what people called it before 1290 c.e.).
Two weeks later, we packed our bananas and highly spiced tuna fish into my backpack, and caught the bus to Bagnaturo. It dropped us off directly on the road which leads up into the national park, Il Parco Nazionale Majella.
Apparently this is a very popular place not only to visit, but to lunch during the work week. A paved road runs up into the park, and a sizeable parking lot is fringed with a couple picnic tables, two men eat lunch, a man resting with hiking poles, and a vacant playground. At this point an actual trail switch-backed steeply up the mountain, towards the eremo. The eremo, which I learned from a sign is closed on weekdays starting in September. But going inside wasn’t the main reason for going anyhow. Seeing a building on a mountain and walking to it was our main driver, and there was nothing to stop us from doing that!
The path is far more formal than a typical hiking trail. It was covered in coarsely ground stones and parts of it were actual steps. In a few places the steps were carved directly into the mountain stone, but mostly they were added on top of the mountain path. The ubiquitous Italian trail marker, a rectangle with a red stripe and white stripe and then another red stripe, was painted regularly along the route.
Although the main building’s iron gate was locked, a set of steps invited us downward towards “the grotto.” This small building always remains open, and we walked under the slanted roof through the small door. Our eyes adjusted to see a large cave reaching backwards. It turns out the building is just two walls built around the grotto to provide a roof and also expand the naturally spacious grotto where people have prayed and contemplated for many hundreds of years, probably more. Other items in the grotto: a metal cross with photos and rosaries hung from it. A simple wall carving of Jesus’ head and torso, a white marble sign etched with “Sit gratia something something”. Light enters either through the door or the adjacent wall where a window glows with stained glass depicting the cross in blue, yellow, and red. A palpably peaceful place.
Since the eremo was closed, there was nobody but the two of us. Riley walked back into the light to explore more of the mountain, particularly enthralled with precipices. I stayed. From the time I learned the building was a hermitage, I felt pulled to meditate there. In the grotto I sat still on the single bench, all alone, in the cool dampness.