Start & Finish: Castel Marrone / Sat Nav: 1) Parking: 41.121014, 14.34663 2) Ruined house at start of walk 41.121313, 14.344210 / Total distance: 8.6km / Ascent: 200m / Typical Duration: 2 hours / Category: Moderate / Mountain bike: Yes
This is a beautiful walk in the hills just South of Castel Morrone. You’ll be surrounded by a bucolic landscape dotted with farms and orchards, hear the tinkling of sheep bells as a shepherd moves his flock and if you’re lucky, glimpse birds of prey soaring on the thermals. These peaceful hills also hold two huge geological secrets – the Grande Comola and Piccola Comola – enormous caverns in the karst rock. The walk takes you around both and also offers up gorgeous views of the Castello Marrone and the surrounding hills in the Tifantini chain and beyond.
There is something magical about Castel Marrone. It’s only 10km north of Caserta but feels a different world. You drive in through a narrow hill pass and suddenly the sprawling suburbs are no more. You’re in glorious countryside; a place rich with history and legend. As you arrive in the village you’ll see Monte Castello (429m) or Monte Madonna della Misericordia (Mount Madonna of Mercy) which dominates the skyline. On top of the hill there are medieval castle ruins next to a sanctury with a 17C statue dedicated to the Madonna. The site has incredible 360 degree views and has been an important defensive outpost since second century BC. Many battles have been fought on its slopes including the Etruscans and Sammites trying to defend Capua from the Romans, fights between principalities in the Middle Ages, important Bourbon battles before the unification of Italy and the Germans and allied forces in WWII. The other important hill, to the East of the village, is called Monte Gagliola. When you are out walking and the rocky white track gets steep, turn around and instead of looking right to see the castello, look left and you’ll see a long undulating hill. On it you’ll see the remains of megalithic walls which stretched 5km around the city of Plistia; the very first settlement in the region. They farmed the fertile lower slopes near the Volturno river and retreated to live safely on the hill. Agriculture is still the main activity in Castel Morrone today and is at the heart of local tradition. There is none so important as the Gara del Solco Dritto, an ancient ploughing race held on the 7-8th September each year. Dedicated to the Madonna, farmers vie to plough the straightest and best furrow from the bottom to the top of a hill. There is great drinking, feasting and merriment and when the winning farrow is announced it is lit with flames for the whole countryside to see.
Directions by car
Once you reach Castel Marrone head for the restaurant Il Frantoio Ducale http://www.frantoioducale.com/home.html (housed in the fantastic 17C Palazzo Ducale). On the way, you’ll go through the historic piazza and past the church – a good place for a coffee before you start. Drive on out of the square until you reach Il Frantoio on the right, go a few meters further and take the next left (rather unhelpfully there’s a sign on the wall saying ‘Nature Walk’, after you turn!).
The road is narrow and goes down hill, bending right and then left before flattening in the bottom of the valley and crossing a little bridge. Pause here. Straight ahead you will see the road you are on rising to the right plus a big wide road opening to the left. Go left and park a little way up the big wide road. Sat Nav for parking: 41.121014, 14.346635. Walk back the way you just came take the track as if you had gone right instead of left to park. You will pass another left and a scrappy farm on your right. After about 200m you’ll see a big ruined house with arches on the right of the track. This is the start of the walk. Sat Nav: 41.121313, 14.344210.
Take the track directly opposite the ruined house (don’t carry straight on). You’ll see a rusty old sign that once said nature walk. Continue up here for about 500m. On the right you will pass olives, vines, a veg patch and a wide open grass area. After this you are looking for a left turn up a big grassy field with a hedge beside you on your right. Go directly towards the big hill ahead. To the right you’ll start to see the back wall of the Grande Comola which is white rock. Follow the track up the field and around as it bends right. As there are high cliffs ahead, this may be a good moment to hold on to kids and put dogs on a lead.
After a short distance you’ll come to a sort of faint cross road. The main track bends down and right, there is a smaller track to your left and straight ahead there is a tiny, overgrown brambly track which is difficult to see. Take this! After a couple of meters you’ll pop out onto a rocky outcrop above the Grande Comola. A huge white cliff soars up and down below you and there is a big cave at the bottom – an extraordinary glimpse into the bowels of the earth. It is also a haven for wildlife including birds of prey and foxes. You might be able to see a very technical path down for experienced walkers (with some scrambling) but I would not recommend it. I tried the first section and a third of the way down turned back as it was pretty hair-raising!
Return through the brambles and retrace your steps exactly back the way you came, down the field to the main track you started on. Turn left. Continue along here for about 300m and look for a field on your right with a little tin shack and picnic bench. It even has a swinging wooden sign. Follow the path down into the field so this is on your right. You will now see another similar shack on your left up against the hedge, also with a picnic bench. Walk between these so you are parallel to the track you were just on but below it in the field. Pass between the shacks and head towards a gap in the next hedge. Walk through the gap and follow the path across a field heading towards a big tree on your left and an olive grove on your right. After the tree the path reaches a metal fence and turns right past the olives on your right. Follow this until you reach the main track and go left.
Continue a short way slightly down hill to a T-junction. Go left. The track starts to go up hill and get more rocky. After a while you will come out of the trees and onto open hill where you can start to enjoy the views. The land will flatten out around and you will reach a fork in the main track. Swing left and stay on the wide track with white rocks heading straight up the hill. There are many other tracks but ignore them. You will know you are going the right way as you will see a stone shepherds hut with blocked up windows down to your right as you go up the path.
Continue up here and it will take you around the left side of the hill. The rocky surface gets better and becomes more of a grassy track. You’ll have woods below you and the hill rising to your right. Keep going and as you come around the side of the hill you’ll reach a three way fork – left goes down into woody track, right goes up and into a brambly track towards the hill. Go straight on through a woody dip, up and then around a big bend to the right almost back on yourself. You are nearing the Piccola Comola so again, keep kids close and dogs on a lead.
Just as you come out of this bend look for a tiny left that’s barely visible through high bracken. It heads towards the middle of what looks like a valley. This is the Comola. In the centre of the valley you will notice a grove of tall trees. This is where the Comola opens so stay well behind them. It is only 30m wide across the opening but 100m deep with vertical cliffs – like an inverted wine bottle. It’s hard to see as the undergrowth is so high so stay well back behind the trees. Having said this it’s absolutely fine to walk on the path and it is also a really special place to stop if you can. I spent a few minutes in complete silence watching a hawk hovering, diving and catching prey as the winter sun turned the bracken a burnished gold.*
Once you are on this little track, look up left where you will see abandoned house on the crest of the next hill. Head towards this as best you can and go in a loop right around the back of the house to pick up a clear track which takes you back above the Comola. You will be in an open dip between two hills with the Comola on your right (all you see is lots of bracken). At this point it’s easy to head up to the top of either hill where you’ll have excellent 360 degree views. After this head back to the dip between them, pick up the track above the bracken and follow the trail around to the right until you reach a deeply grooved earthy track. This flattens out and then forks – ignore the left as it is very brambly and stay right. In a few meters you will be back on the wooded track and the big bend you started on.
Retrace your steps off the hill, past the shepherds hut and right down the rocky track. Take the right at the bottom of the hill (the T-junction). Follow this ancient track, often with high earthy sides, all the way back to the ruined house where you began. Once at the car you can drive straight up that road out the edge of Castel Morrone and back to the Strada Statale 87 that you came in on. (Technically you can come in that way but it’s much more interesting to drive through the old town, see the church and piazza and the Palazzo Ducale etc!).
*If you don’t want to risk the track around the front of the comola, don’t take the little left after the big bend, continue along the main track, up an earthy deeply grooved section and follow it around to the left. This takes you around the back of the Comola across the open dip between two hills and out towards the ruined house. Simply loop around the house and retrace your steps on the same path and back off the hill. It’s easy to detour and head up to the top of either hill here for stunning 360 degree views.
Mountain bike route
You can follow the walk route by mountain bike. There are some difficult technical hill sections, however. Up on the hills behind the Small Comola there are some fun ridges to play on. The main track links to others which take you out on many of the surrounding hills.
When to go
Best Oct-May. Avoid the hot summer months.
There are no cafes or toilets (until you drive back to Castel Morrone) take all you need.
Monte San Leucio – Tower
Monte San Leucio – Base