Santuario di Montevergine
Very close to Avellino, this sanctuary with an annexed monastery (tel. 0825-72924; www.santuariodimontevergine.it) is famous for its art and for the splendid view that takes in the entire valley down to Mount Vesuvius and the Gulf of Naples. On a sunny day, the panorama is impressive enough to justify your whole trip to Campania; in really bad weather, we wouldn't even attempt the drive up.
The summit of Montevergine rises to a height of 1,493m (4,898 ft); almost at the top at 1,270m or 4,167 ft.) lies the sanctuary, a popular pilgrimage destination attracting over a million people every year, especially between May and September.
Founded by Guglielmo da Vercelli in 1119, for his order of the Verginiani -- June 25 is Saint Patron Day celebrating San Guglielmo -- the sanctuary has a hostel, the monastery, a museum and gallery, and two churches. The smaller, original church was probably consecrated in 1124; the huge new basilica, finished in 1961, is nestled into the older one at a right angle, over the original church's left nave.
In the presbytery of the New Church, rich in marble decorations, you can admire the so-called Throne of the Madonna, the great 13th-century painting of the Madonna di Montevergine. On each side of the new presbytery, small doors lead to the Old Church. Built in the 12th century, the Old Church was completely redecorated in the 17th century but still shows its Gothic structure. In the presbytery, you will see the splendid 17th-century main altar, a masterpiece of intarsia in marble and precious stones. In the apse is a beautiful carved choir from the 16th century. At the end of the right nave is the Gothic Cappella del Sacramento, holding a magnificent 13th-century baldaquin in mosaic, and the ornate 15th-century marble cyborium. The church is rich in funerary monuments with amazing stone inlay work, such as the grandiose Monument to Caterina Filangeri from the 15th century, located at the end of the right nave to the left, before the Cappella del Sacramento. The Gothic portal of the original church is also very beautiful, and warmer than the rather austere modern style of the new construction.
We also recommend a visit to the museum, which houses a small but interesting collection, including a beautiful sedia abbaziale (abbey's throne) dating from the 13th century. Male visitors also have access to the monastery itself, including the portions that date back to the 17th century. On nice days, we recommend the short 1.5km (.9-mile) hike to the mountain summit.
To reach the monastery from Avellino (21km/13 miles away), take SS 7 bis and then switch to SS 374 following signs for MERCOGLIANO; here you take the winding mountain road to MONTEVERGINE. Continuing up the road past the monastery, you'll reach, after 1.5km (.9 mile), the trail head to the mountaintop. The short walk takes only about 15 minutes, and from the summit, you can enjoy an even better panorama than from the sanctuary.
En Route to Mirabella Eclano
Heading northeast from Avellino on the SS 7 (Via Appia), or the A16 autostrada, you will eventually reach Benevento, passing many historic villages and towns along the way. Down the hill from Avellino, about 3.5km (2 miles) to the east, is Atripalda, where, beyond the belt of modern construction, you can visit the Collegiata di Sant'Ippolisto. This church is particularly famous for its crypt, which was part of the Specus Martyrum, the catacombs that hold the graves of Saint Ippolisto and the other martyrs of Abellinum, killed by the notoriously cruel emperor Domitian. It is decorated with a beautiful fresco of a Christ Pantocrator from the 14th century. Nearby are the ruins of Abellinum itself, much damaged by the liberal use of the stones as building material throughout the centuries. Valleverde-Zi Pasqualina, Via Pianodardine 112, off SS 7 (tel. 0825- 626115; www.ziapasqualina.it; reservations recommended; closed Sun and holidays), in the outskirts of Atripalda is a homey, welcoming trattoria-cum- enoteca that serves hearty portions of excellent local fare. The antipasto della casa is a medley of cheese, cured meats, and other local specialties; the homemade fusilli and ravioli are superb; and the pollo alla cacciatora (chicken stew) is a flavorful marvel. We also recommend a stop at Mastroberardino, Via Manfredi 80, 83042 Atripalda (tel. 0825-614111; www.mastroberardino.com), a historic vineyard -- it's 130 years old -- that turns out some of the best traditional wines in the region. The Taurasi is superb, and the vineyard also manages and produces the Villa dei Misteri wine in Pompei. The frescoed cellars, where the wines are aged, are also a gallery for fine Italian paintings. Call ahead for reservations for tours or tastings. (Visit their website for a list of news and scheduled events.)
A short distance east of Atripalda, following directions for Sorbo Serpico, you'll find another great vineyard, Feudi di San Gregorio, Localitá Cerza Grossa (tel. 0825-986611; www.marenna.it), and its excellent restaurant Marennà (tel. 0825-986666; WedSat 12:30-3pm and 7:30-10:30pm, Sun 12:30-3pm, closed first week in Sept; reservations required), offering creative cuisine inspired by the local tradition and, of course, a great choice of wines.
Prata di Principato Ultra is a village about 11km (6 1/2 miles) north of Avellino. The draw here is a visit to the Basilica dell'Annunziata (tel. 0825-961019). The historic church was built by the Longobards over paleochristian catacombs and a 6th-century basilica. From the modern little church, you will access an elliptical apse, carved of tufa stone, probably dating from the 7th century, decorated with a fresco of Madonna and Saints dating to the 8th century. At the end of a courtyard to the left of the church is the entrance to the grotto, a Christian catacomb from the 3rd and 4th centuries that is decorated with frescoes, altars, and sarcophagi.
About 10km (6 miles) farther north, switch to the SS 90 toward Passo di Mirabella, a scenic road on the mountain slopes leading to an important archaeological area; the most important findings are conserved in the Museo Irpino in Avellino. A short distance before Passo di Mirabella, are the ruins of Aeclanum (tel. 0825-449175), a Sannite/Roman town that was an important stop along the Via Appia. Destroyed in 662 during the wars against the Longobards, the town was rebuilt -- and named Quintodecimo -- but was destroyed again in the 11th century during the war between the Byzantines and Saracens. In the archaeological area, you can still see many remains of the Roman town, including segments of the walls, the theater, and the market square, as well as ruins of houses and shops. About 3.5km (2 miles) to the southwest, following signs for TAURASI, you'll come to the Eneolithical Necropolis of Madonna delle Grazie, with its tombs excavated in the tufa stone and dating back to 2000 B.C.
The lively little town of Mirabella Eclano is the heir of Aeclanum, and memories of the past decorate its streets, as marble carvings and inscriptions from Roman and medieval times were built into the walls of the houses. Santa Maria Maggiore, in the main square of the old town, features the 12th-century Crucifix, a Romanesque masterpiece by a Campanian artist. A good spot for a meal or an overnight in Mirabella is Radici Resort, Localitá Piano Pantano (tel. 0825-431293; fax 0825-431964; www.radiciresort.com), in the vineyard property of the Mastroberardino family. This is where they make their excellent Taurasi and Fiano di Avellino Radici, D.O.C.G., or Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, similar to the D.O.C stamp of approval but the rules on D.O.C.G. eligibility are even more stringent. The property includes six spacious guest rooms, a 9-hole golf course, a swimming pool, and the wonderful upscale Morabianca restaurant.
Montemarano & Sant'angelo dei Lombardi
South along the original route of the Roman Via Appia lies the heart of Irpinia. Traveling here is a feast for the senses: You'll find art, history, and the region's best cuisine. The medieval town of Montemarano is dominated by its well-preserved castle, and the Chiesa dell'Assunta is graced by a nicely carved 16th-century portal. Inside the church is a delicately carved 15th-century folding chair, decorated with images of the Sacra Famiglia by Andrea Vaccaro; the seat was used by the bishop until recent times. This ancient little town is also famous for its Carnival celebrations: Festivities start on January 17 -- the feast of Sant'Antonio Abate -- and continue until Mardi Gras. For days, groups of dancers and musicians guided by a Pulcinella tour the little town asking for offerings, and as the Carnival ripens, more events take place, including ritual tarantella dances. Rarely seen these days, this famously frenzied dance is still performed according to tradition and not as a tourist show. Among the lighter-weight events are farcical performances and the traditional parade of the Pulcinella, where all the town's characters participate. Contact the tourist office in Avellino for a schedule of events. There are a number of great restaurants in town. At Gastronomo, Via Nazionale 39 (tel. 0827-67009; Mon-Tues and Thurs-Sat noon-3pm and 7:30-11pm; Sun noon-3pm), simplicity, a welcoming atmosphere, and excellent food and wine combine to make this place a local favorite. The pizza is very good, but we also like the antipasto della casa, a sampler of local cheese and cured meats. The homemade ravioli is delicious, and the lamb stew is superb.
Farther east is the delightful medieval town of Sant'Angelo dei Lombardi, overlooking the surrounding valley from the top of its hill. Founded by the Longobards, the town is rich in historic monuments, most of which can still be enjoyed despite the severe damage caused by the 1980 earthquake. These include the scenic Norman Castle and the 11th-century cathedral, housing several funerary monuments such as the beautiful 17th-century Sepolcro Cecere found at the beginning of the right nave. About 6.5km (4 miles) out of town to the southwest, in Contrada San Guglielmo, is the Abbazia di San Guglielmo al Goleto (tel. 0827-24432; www.goleto.it; call for visits), justly considered one of the most scenic attractions of southern Italy. Founded around 1133 by the same San Guglielmo who founded Montevergine, this is the monastery where the saint died in 1142. Originally a double monastery (for men and women), it was very influential until the end of the 14th century. The women's section was suppressed in 1505, while the men's half was annexed to the Monastery of Montevergine, and finally closed in 1807. The body of Saint Guglielmo was then moved to Montevergine, and the monastery was completely abandoned. The religious order, though, decided to save it from ruin, and -- thanks to much restoration -- it became the seat of a small religious community in 1989. The monastery is huge and surrounded by powerful walls that can be seen from a considerable distance. Originating as a double monastery, it is organized around two cloisters, while the two churches were built one over the other. The facade of both, the top one Gothic (from the 13th c.), and the bottom one Romanesque (from the 12th c.), can be viewed from the left-hand cloister. Also in this cloister are the ruins of the 18th-century church. Stone steps lead to the top church, a wonderful artistic masterpiece with harmonious proportions and elegant decoration. Around the second cloister is the abbey itself, with the massive defensive tower built in the 12th century with stones from a Roman mausoleum. The abbey is open daily (8am-1pm and 6- 8pm). You can eat nearby in the memorable Ristorante Il Porcellino, Via Campoluongo (tel. 0827-23694), where the local homemade cuisine is based on pastas and a variety of grilled meats. In winter, there are wonderful soups. It's closed on Mondays.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.