Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact:Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry Aug 2011


Pietrastornina & other Hill Towns in the
        Partenio National Park & the Pannarano WWF Oasis

     
The Partenio is an Italian national park in the part of the Apennine chain called the Avella Mounts; that is, the hills north-west and above the town of Avellino, about 50 km inland from Naples. The park is about 15,000 hectares (c. 58 sq. miles) in area, entirely within the national region of Campania. There are 22 separate towns in the Partenio park, separated one from the next by not more than a mile or two; 15 of them are in the Campanian province of Avellino; others are in the provinces of Benevento, Caserta and Naples. This wooded and scenic area has been a national park since 2002. The area of the hills given over to the park is the dark green patch on the map (right).

The park runs through the Avella Mounts, fanning out above Avellino and extending north and up through the hills and then down again almost to the Caudine Valley, which follows a line drawn roughly between Benevento and Caserta; on the east the park extends to the valley of the Sabato river, which runs through Benevento. These hills are historically an area where the territories of the Irpini and the Caudini came together, two of the important Samnite peoples (ferocious Italic enemies of the Romans). The best-known tourist site in the park—indeed, one of the best-known in all of Italy—is the church and monastery of Montevergine above Avellino.


The small hill towns (many have but 2,000-3,000 inhabitants) boast of characteristic geology, wildlife, foodstuffs, festivals and local lore, from the small mountain lake of Campomaggiore at 1330 meters above Mercogliano to the chestnuts of Summonte (in an area that yields one-third of the entire Italian national production!); from the freakish geology of the Rocky Spire of Pietrastornina to the Ciuccio di Fuoco ("Fire Donkey") folk festival in Rotondi. (That festival is on December 26. I was able to learn that they don't actually set fire to the animal(!) and that the term Fire Donkey was never in the running as an alternative title for Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. Alas, it is apparently just a grand fireworks display!) There are ethnic music festivals, food fairs and religious processions; they all have something to offer. Many of them are on the Sentiero Italia (Italy Trail), the national trekking paths of the Italian Alpine Club; a number of hiking trails lead up from the towns (generally set at about 600 meters, give or take a bit) to the peaks at 1200+ meters and the sites of abundant fresh water sources with intriguing names such as The Valley of Cold Water, Water of the Nuns, and Water of the Veins.



Arriving from Naples, the first turn into the park is the Avellino-West exit from the A-16 autostrada; then you first rise toward the Montevergine monastery but turn onto the province road SS 374 and pass through Ospedaletto d'Alpinolo, Summonte, Sant'Angelo a Scala, and Pietrastornina; then you are on the north slopes of the Partenio and you go through other towns on the way down to the Caudine Valley. National Park-hood has had some beneficial effects on the towns in the park: the roads are well maintained, as are the hiking trails; and churches and historical monuments have been spruced up and annotated with road-side information. Some of the towns—Summonte, for examples—are sparkling little gems, and at least a recent semi-permanent population is increasing as buyers move into tastefully built new homes. The Partenio National Park Administration is located in Summonte and the town is also the site of a Civic Museum dedicated to medieval weaponry; it is housed in the restored castle complex of Summonte, a site that goes back to the 11th century (photo, above, right).

the Pannarano WWF Oasis "Montagna di Sopra" -added May 2016

The province road (SS 374) mentioned above that passes through the towns of Ospedaletto d'Alpinolo, Summonte, Sant'Angelo a Scala, and Pietrastornina runs along the lower part of the slope of the Avella Mounts; then, beyond the town of Pietrastornina (more below this box), you come to the town of Pannarano, the most reliable point of access to the Oasis. There is a marked ("WWF") road from Pannarano up and back to the west for 8 km to a location called Acqua delle Vene and the entrance to the World Wildlife Foundation Oasis of Montagna di Sopra (lit. the Mountain Up at the Top). It is within the boundaries of the Partenio National Park in the province of Benevento (as described on this page). The Oasis is 312 hectares (770 acres) in area and is spread over a range of altitude from 800 to 1600 meters (2400-4800 feet) and is typical of the WWF Oases in Italy in that it attempts to present flora, fauna, and things of geological and general natural interest through a series of well-planned instructional aids, hiking trails, guided tours, etc. The landscape is generally Mediterranean and specifically Apennine. There are, in this case, some important underground limestone structures such as the Mattiuccio grotto. Wildlife even includes the Apennine wolf! There are eight hiking trails ranging from easy to difficult. It is a paradise for bird watchers and the Oasis even organizes hill-climbing foot races (during which they let the wolves loose just to encourage stragglers!) (Don't be foolish. Watch the birds.) There is a Visitors' Center with parking near the entrance to the Oasis.



Literature on the area frequently comments that these small towns have their origins in the Longobard (also Lombard) occupation of Italy. The Longobards were the northern people that invaded and, in 568, ended Justinan's brief reunification of the empire (see The Lombard Kingdom of Italy). In northern and central Italy, the Longobards lasted until Charlemagne's founding of the Holy Roman Empire in 800; in the south, however, the Longobards held on quite forcefully (see the Duchy of Salerno) for a few more centuries, until the coming of the Normans and the founding of the Kingdom of Sicily (later, Kingdom of Naples).


One of the most interesting bits of history and, indeed, geology, centers on the above-mentioned town of Pietrastornina. It is dominated by the Guglia Rocciosa ("rocky spire"—photo, right) a "calcareous olistolith", that is, a limestone chunk broken off from a larger mass. The spire rises slightly more than 70 meters above the historically inhabited town. This rocky outcropping appears as a solid body split on the north side by a deep fracture producing another two smaller rocky spires lower down. The main body (which the inhabitants of Pietrastornina call "the castle") has a volume of about 500,000 cubic meters. The geological origin of the rocky spire of Pietrastornina goes back to tectonic movements beginning in the middle Pliocene when rising of the Appenine chain caused erratic slides of large rocky masses.

The main height and the two secondary outcroppings were ideal for a military installation from which to watch goings-on in the Caudine Valley and gave the Rocky Spire the ability to guard the Montevergine monastery, the Benevento convent and, eventually, the town of Benevento, itself. The beginning of that military chapter in the history of the "castle" begins in 774 after the founding of the Santa Sofia convent in Benevento when both the rock/fort and the settlement that grew up around the base of the fortification were given to the Benevento convent by Longobard prince, Arechis II.

The fortifications on the spire, itself, of which only very few ruins remain today, actually consisted of various structures of various sizes and shapes placed at different levels around the entire spire. Every nook and cranny of the rocky structure was used for something. One side presents a stairway, a very steep, but accessible, route to the top; for centuries, it was the path that communicated directly with the inhabited settlement below. At the top of the spire were an octagonal watch and signal tower. Farther down were spaces to garrison troops.

With the coming of the Kingdom of Sicily, things did not change a lot for "the castle". Frederick II in 1239 reorganized the castles and fortresses in his domain and left the job of the Rocky Spire pretty much what it had been under the Longobards, but he did insert the Castle into a chain of other defensive forts that he built in the area. Taken together, the chain served to watch over the Caudine Valley (also well-known in Roman military history).*(note)

From the "national" defensive strategies of Frederick II, there is now an abrupt step backwards —that is, if you view nation states as a step forward in human history! (I think I do, but sometimes I'm not so sure) —with the coming of the Angevins and the return of smaller Longobard-type holdings, now called fiefdoms. Feudalism is in; the Rocky Spire fortress disappears from further documentation, becoming part of the large Della Leonessa fief that extended all the way from the town of Montesárchio, and south across the Caudine Valley through the hills of the Partenio to Summonte and the property of the Monte Vergine monastery.

The rock "castle" languished for centuries. In 1837 the remaining fortifications were removed since they were potential hazards to the growing settlement below. In 2004 the Rocky Spire of Pietrastornina was expropriated by the Italian state and is now overseen by the Campania Regional Superintendency of Culture. Visitors may see the site by appointment. Be prepared to climb a lot of steps.




(*note) The photo (right) shows the view looking down from the northern slopes of the Partenio near Pietrastornina across the Caudine Valley dominated by Mt. Taburno (elev. 1400 meters/4200 feet). The town in the distance in the lower-right quadrant just up the slopes of Taburno is Montesárchio (known as Caudium in ancient times, after the Caudine/Samnite people). Somewhere along the section of the Caudine Valley shown in the photo is the presumed site of the famous incident in Roman military history known as the Battle of the Caudine Forks. The distance visible in the photo from left border to right border is about 25 km. The town of Benevento is about 10 km out of sight off the right border; Caserta is about 15 km off the left border.

The Stony Spire of Pietrastornina had a good view of the slopes of at least part of the Caudine Valley as the valley unfolds across to the east toward Benevento. Even on a clear day, however, you cannot see all the way to Benevento, much less see forever, but you had a pretty good idea if any large bodies of warriors were coming across the valley to get you. Maybe that's as much as you could hope for in the Middle Ages! Incidentally, Mt. Taburno looks down on one of the historic north-south invasion routes. It is the route followed by many armies in ancient times and much later, from Robert of Hauteville (known as Robert Guiscard) in 1080 when he sent his Norman army north to Rome to depose a pope, and even 900 years later when the Allied armies in WWII (on their way to depose a "Führer") moved from Naples to Caserta and then into the infamous Liri Valley (which Allied troops called "Death Valley") that led to the German fortifications at Monte Cassino in late 1943 and early 1944.      ^back to text


   to history portal

Copyright © 2002 to 2017