Start and finish: Monastery of Sant’Anna in Aquis Vivis (293 m) / Map: 41.145027, 13.880116 / Distance: 1.5 km / Ascent: 117 m / Typical duration: allow 2-3 hours for first visit / Category: Moderate
This is a very special walk in the hills near Mondragone on the Domitian coast. There are spectacular 360 degree views that give you a new perspective on the landscape of Campania, an atmospheric monastery and a beautiful secret garden. You will find yourself immersed in nature and enjoy complete peace and seclusion. It’s a perfect walk if you need to ‘get away from it all’ – you will go home feeling rejuvenated…
The walk is located on Mont Crestegallo (410 m); one of a line of hills that run North to South behind Mondragone. They are parallel to the the sea and the main road – you see the ridge undulating beside you, peppered with Cypress trees, as you drive through town. At the Southern end is Mont Petrino with the ruined 12C fort of Rocca Montis Dragonis on top and the fertile plain of Campania-Felix spread out before it. To the North, the hills descend to the Sessa plain wtih the Monti Aurunci mountains in the distance. To the East are the slopes of Monte Massico and to the West, a strip of farmland, Mondragone and the sea.
The stony calciferous hills are covered with a mix of small trees (Oak, Hornbeam, flowering Ash) and rough pampas style grasses. In Spring, the hill is covered with a profusion of delicate wild flowers, including orchids. The animal life is also abundant – I’ve seen hares, all sorts of insects and butterflies and sparrow hawks circling on the thermals above. Ancient tracks, homesteads and places of worship dot the landscape. The most notable of these is the beautiful ruined Monastery of Sant’Anna in Aquis Vivis – and it is here that the walk begins.
Directions by car
Take the SS7qtr Naples-Roma coast road (Via Domiziana) until you reach Mondragone. From the South, go straight through the town and out the other side. Go past Lido Kammel on your left and carry on until you reach an intersection (cross-roads) with traffic lights (not always working) where you will see a sign for Hotel Sinuessa. Go right here onto Via Appia Antica. From Formia and the North – you will reach this intersection before you get to Mondragone – look for the Hotel Sinuessa sign and turn left onto Via Appia Antica.
Once you are on Via Appia Antica, you will see a new white church immediately on your right. Continue straight on and look for a clinic (Padre Pio) with a large Red Cross sign on the right. Take the left turn opposite this sign on to Via Maria SS Belvedere. Drive straight up here, past orchards and greenhouses, to the bottom of the hill. See a T-junction with a little white church in front of you (Sant Maria Incaldana). Turn right onto a dirt track. The track immediately opens into a wider dirt parking area.
You have two choices here – park and walk up the road OR carry on and park at the top of the hill. The road winds steeply up the hill for 1.5km with several sharp switchbacks. It is narrow and while there are barriers along most of the outside edge, they are not all the way. At one point, quite near the top, you go round a left-hand bend and in front of you the road appears to fall away to the left side with a rudimentary repair). It looks alarming but it really is fine – you can go around the subsidence on the right. If you prefer, park at the bottom (unfortunately you can’t decide half-way as there is nowhere to turn). Starting at the bottom will add a steep 1.5km hill climb to your walk but it’s road walking and there are good views. I always drive but it’s up to you.
Once you reach the top, you will see the Monastery of Sant’Anna in front of you, with a fence around it. Park on the left in a small dirt layby where the road ends, just by the entrance gate.
Start by exploring the monastery and it’s gardens. The gates are usually locked but you can walk around them onto the main track. The building dates back to the early 1300s when Queen Agnes of Naples gifted the land to a monk named Benedict. On it, he and his companions from the Sacred Specus Subiaco built a church to honour St. Ann. It was a perfect spot – a lush yet sheltered vantage point with it’s own natural spring. You can explore the beautiful and haunting monastery, then go beyond to find the remains of the gardens, ponds and water trough. There is also a lovely dovecote from more recent times. Sadly the site is not pristine (in a National Trust kind of way) but it’s interesting and very tranquil nonetheless.
To start the walk, return to the entrance gate and go immediately right – into the little parking area and out the back of it onto a steep, rutted grassy track as if you are walking back to Sant’Anna, a little higher up the hill and parallel to the fence. After a few meters you will see the path more clearly and it will turn to the left and is quite rocky. The path continues uphill around the side of Mont Crestegallo with various switchbacks. There are magnificent views north across the Sessa plain to Fornia, Gaeta, the Monti Aurunci mountains and around to Roccamonfina. On a clear day, when you look the other way you’ll see back to Lago Patria and beyond to Miseno jutting out, Prochida, Ischia and all the way up the bay to Ponza. The back slopes of Monte Massico will be right in front of you as you go up the path. The path is steeper to start then starts to flatten out. In places it’s wide and open and in just one place it’s a little overgrown.
This next bit is a little hard to describe. Keep walking and looking up to your left to the top of the hill until you see a dip in the ground with group of cypress trees. This is the Secret Garden. There is a point just before the path ends where you will see the secret garden up to your left, Mont Petrino looking dark right ahead of you and down to your right you’ll have a lovely view of the Sant’Anna monastery and out to sea. You just need to pick your own path up, keeping the crest of the hill close to your left and the cypress trees up ahead. The ground is steep and rocky with low scrub but not difficult to walk through. As you walk up nearer the Secret garden, directly below the cypress trees, you’ll see a grassy slope where a stream comes out of the hill and cattle sometimes graze. It sounds hard but it really isn’t!
Once you reach the top you will see the remains of a garden with a lawn surrounded by cypress trees. It’s a lovely place for a picnic. Up behind the garden, there are a couple of rocky outcrops with wonderful views. It’s a very serene, atmospheric place. If you can, go with time to relax and contemplate for a while. Nearly every person I bring here feels a sense of release – I can’t tell you why, just that it is very special.
The walk from the monastery to the garden is only about 30 mins but it always takes much longer as the views are so compelling! I’d allow 2-3 hours for your first visit. If you walk from the bottom (near Sant Maria Incaldana chapel) it will obviously take longer.
When to go
It’s a great walk year round as Mont Crestegallo is in sun most of the day. Of course, like everywhere, it really comes alive in Spring with a host of flora and fauna to discover. I’d avoid it in high-summer (heat/flies) or on a very windy day. Watching sunset over the ocean is magnificent.
The walk is ideal for children with a wealth of natural and historical features to explore. Take care among the ruins though – you can get up rickety steps to the roof but it’s not very safe! Ours (age 2 & 5) loved spotting frogs in the pond and listening to their mating calls. Children age 6 and above should be able to walk from Sant’Anna to the Secret Garden and back. Younger kids can potter ok until the main path ends and the ground gets steeper and rougher. You may need to carry them the last short section to the Secret Garden (5-10 mins).
It’s a lovely walk for dogs (although there are cows grazing the hills from time to time). There is an old barbed wire fence along the very crest of the hill near the Secret Garden – it shouldn’t be a problem but keep it in mind.
None – take everything you need. Sant’Anna and the Secret garden both have lovely spots for a picnic.
Rocca Montis Dragonis, Monte Petrino
History of Rocca Montis Dragonis fort, Monte Petrino: http://www2.unibas.it/ssa/index.php/en/mondragone
Ruins of Sinuessa, Thermal springs and the Via Appia Antica – see my Rocca Montis Dragonis walk
Museum of Mondragone http://museo.mondragone.net/
Organic Olive Oil Farm (visit by appointment) http://www.olioderuosi.it
Foof, the museum of the dog in Mondragone http://www.foof.it/home.asp
Buffalo farm (visits by appointment) http://www.pontere.it/