It’s decision time: continuing along the original route will take you to the top of Mount Gelbison from where, at a glance, you should be able to see part of the Via crossed in the past few days again. Instead, leaving the trail in Massascusa will allow you to penetrate into the heart of this territory, where more than travelers you will feel like explorers, protagonists of an experience you will find hard to forget.
After the summit of Mount Cervati, that of Mount Gelbison is the second highest point on the Via Silente: 1705 meters above sea level. The climb up the mountain begins about ten kilometers from the start, at the village of Novi Velia, with its isolated Norman tower. Reaching a traffic circle at the entrance to the village, continue to the right following Via Monte Gelbison to a signpost indicating the ancient pilgrims’ path. From here the ascent continues inexorably: at every bend one hopes to see the mound of votive stones indicating the entrance to the shrine, but the road seems never-ending. Because of the great difference in altitude, the vegetation changes quickly: between 600 and 800 meters, stands of the genus Quercus dominate; in sunnier areas, Downy Oak prevails, but we also find large specimens of Oak, English Oak and Turkey Oak. Neapolitan alder prevails in the wettest area of the trail, the one bordering the Torna stream. Climbing further, large chestnut trees begin to show up, soon giving way to firs of different species. The Neapolitan alder reappears immediately before the plateau of Fiumefreddo where, from the spring of the same name, water always gushes out clear and fresh. We recommend that you refuel because you are still too far from the top. Behind the spring, the landscape is characterized by dense fir forest, but it will be the encounter with the majestic beech trees that will suggest that the summit is near. At last, after a short, curve-free stretch, you will reach the “Rofrano cross,” which is the meeting point between the two paths that go up the mountain from the two different sides. In the clearing, the pile of stones topped with a cross (the “pity mounds”), a centuries-old sign of pilgrims’ devotion.
If you have come this far without dragging your bicycle, it is time to get out of the saddle. In fact, the shrine is still a few meters away, and the last stretch coincides with the ancient path paved with local stone.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Holy Mountain in Novi Velia stands on the site of an ancient sacred place, perhaps an Italic temple. Certainly it was already known in the 9th century: in fact Gelbison derives from Gebel-el-son, Arabic for Mount of the Idol, and the name should be attributed to Muslim pirates stationed in Agropoli. The Christian shrine may have been the work of Italo-Greek Basilian monks. The first document attesting to the existence of the shrine, however, dates only to 1131, and mentions the rupis Sanctae Maria in the fief of Rofrano (the other side of the mountain from Novi Velia). On the highest point of the mountain is the large steel-beam cross on which it is also possible to climb. The structure is illuminated in summer and is visible from tens of kilometers away. The area of the sanctuary proper consists of numerous exposed stone buildings, and the church is located on a large square. Inside the church, behind the altar, is a wooden statue of the Virgin seated with the Child. Linked to this statue is the legend of the foundation of the shrine, which followed its discovery in a cave by some Novi shepherds. The square, on the other hand, constitutes a beautiful belvedere with splendid views sweeping across Cilento to the distant Lattari and Picentini mountains to the north, and the Pollino and the Calabrian coast to the south. Just beyond the parapet of the lookout is a rock pinnacle: the locals call it “la ciampa re cavallo.” Make a wish by trying to flip a coin on its bowl top…….might come true right now, while you are standing at 1705 meters, on the Via Silente!