Abruzzo had never been high on my radar until a good friend, Michelle, had a holiday romance and moved there to live, carving out a new life for herself with her husband Antonio and her son Thomas. I visited on a number of occasions, reveling in the mountains and the isolation and the antiquity. Michelle died last year, far too young, and my memories now have a bittersweet quality. Here, in Michelle’s memory, is an article about Abruzzo that was first published in Wanderlust magazine.
Abruzzo is a hard place to categorise. North or south? Backward or progressive? It’s a subject of heated debate is some town squares. Isolated and neglected, Abruzzo was, not so long ago, a region cut off from mainstream Italy by both its looming mountains and forbidding folklore. The haunt of brigands and hermits, wolves and bears, it was a place that people left in search of opportunity, for there was none to be had here. Abruzzo was, no doubt about it, part of the depressed south, and people were its biggest export.
But now people are returning – from Milan and Turin, Canada and Venezuela – returning to the rugged land of their birth. And they’re building. Boy, are they building. There’s scarcely a village in the Peligna Valley without its collection of half-finished houses. When the money runs out, building simply stops until funds become available again. To judge from the houses going up between the villages of Raiano and Corfinio, most reach the first floor before that happens.
My hosts – an old friend, Michelle, and her husband, Antonio – were getting in on the act, with a villa going up in Corfinio. They too had reached the first floor, and were currently discussing the colour of the roof tiles, and wondering if they’d overdone it with the arches. We visited one evening, on the way back from seeing Antonio’s parents in Vittorito. Wandering through the rooms, still open to the air, we took in the views of the Roman monument in the front, a weathered and mysterious block of stone, and the olive groves in the back. The mountains dominated the scene, as they do everywhere in Abruzzo. Forget the rolling hills of Umbria and Tuscany, they are pale and wimpish things in comparison with the craggy peaks of Abruzzo.
Gran Sasso, Italy’s highest mountain south of the Alps and the place where Mussolini was held prisoner in 1943, is in Abruzzo. On a clear day I could see it from Antonio’s mother’s window. The dashing, and frankly vulgar, soldier-poet Gabriele D’Annunzio (an Abruzzo native, born in the seaside town of Pescara) once said he could see the shape of a beautiful girl sleeping in the outline of Gran Sasso. Well, he would.
History and Festivals
On the face of it, Corfinio, Michelle and Antonio’s future home, is a typical Abruzzo village, with its network of narrow cobble-stoned streets and pale beige buildings. But there is more to Corfinio than immediately meets the eye. In the days when it was known as Corfinium, this sleepy village was the capital of the Italic League which gave the Roman Republic no end of trouble. Briefly renamed Italia during the struggle against Rome, it is startling to realise that this tiny place gave the entire peninsula its name.
In the summer, Abruzzo is a region of festivals, and they’re hard to miss. Feast days are announced by a riot of fireworks and a thunder of cannon, loud enough to rattle the windows. On 15 August, when the entire country shuts up shop for the Ferragosto holiday, we had dinner with Antonio’s family. His parents, Bruna and Sabbatino, laid on a spread fit for a queen, including Sabbatino’s home-made wine, a tangy delight. Afterwards, no one was in any hurry to move. I doubted whether I could, in any case. On feast days in Italy, it is entirely possible to overdose on carbohydrates.
No sooner had we recovered from Ferragosto than there was a wine festival in Vittorito. The main square was filled with tables and benches and sizzling braziers, and the wine was flowing. The square was full of people; even Bruna and Sabbatino were there. Although I suspect Sabbatino came mainly to confirm his suspicion that his wine was better. When the music got too loud and the wine too rough, we took a walk out into the darkness of the countryside and looked for shooting stars. There were so many stars overhead, looking at them was dizzying.
The next morning, trying to throw off the effects of all that wine, Michelle and I headed into Sulmona to check out the market which takes over the Piazza Garibaldi twice a week. The road from Raiano passes the Morrone mountain range, home to the hermitage of Pietro del Morrone, and a ruin, alternately described as a Roman temple or Ovid’s Palace. Three levels have so far been excavated; the place must have been huge. As for Ovid, the Roman poet was born in Sulmona, and his ghost is said to haunt the woods and rocks of the Morrone. He offended the Emperor Augustus in some mysterious way, and ended his days in exile, but he never forgot his home. His words – ‘Sulmo mihi patria est’ meaning ‘Sulmona is my country’ – adorn the town’s coat of arms.
Pietro del Morrone, one of the many hermits for which Abruzzo is famous, was also one of the few popes to be crowned outside Rome, becoming Pope Celestine V in L’Aquila in 1294. A trusting and pious man, he was no match for the devious papal politics of his day, alas, and abdicated some months later. The hermitage can be visited, but be warned, its opening hours are erratic, to say the least.
In Sulmona, penned in by the medieval aqueduct, the market stalls fan out from the central fountain, selling everything from bags and dresses to hats and good luck charms. They’re ringed by local farmers who come in to sell their produce, setting out their fruit and vegetables on antiquated scales. It’s a colourful place, and the stall-holders are kept busy.
Sulmona is an intimate kind of town, a town built on a human scale. The buildings are old, the cobbles well worn. We strolled along the Corso Ovidio, past the statue of the poet himself, and bought ice-cream, a welcome treat in the heat of August. Michelle was right: Sulmona has the best ice-cream in Abruzzo.
Back to Nature
Heading away from the towns and on to the mountain roads, it becomes clear that much of Abruzzo still lives as it always has. There is now a motorway from Rome, linking the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic coasts, but up here there is a strong feeling that little has changed. Tiny villages, where only those with a good head for heights could live, look down from their rocky perches; old women wear traditional dress; and the shaggiest sheep in creation, a knitter’s dream, munch their way from meadow to meadow.
Abruzzo was once part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and the royal hunting reserve in the southern mountains was the region’s chief attraction for the nobility of the day. Sir William Hamilton, perhaps best known as the husband of Nelson’s mistress Emma, was one such noble, spending a blood-soaked three weeks here with the hunting party of the King of Naples. Today, the reserve forms the core of the Abruzzo National Park, the jewel in Italy’s ecological crown. The tourist literature calls Abruzzo the ‘green heart of Italy’, and it’s not wrong.
The road from Sulmona to the National Park winds its way up through the mountains, through forests of fir and pine, passing such picturesque towns as Scanno and Anversa degli Abruzzi, where the balconies groan under the weight of rampant flowers.
It was a holiday weekend and Pescasseroli, the Park’s main town, was full of hikers and climbers, or those just seeking the mountain air away from the smog of Rome, if the license plates were anything to go by. The small museum was crowded. There are some fine stuffed examples of the Park’s animals on display here, enabling a visitor to get a close-up view without becoming lunch. Here you can see the Apennine fox, the bane of many a shepherd’s life; the obligatory bear (the one on the first floor looks like he’s been at the sherry); and the pointy-eared lynx.
The lynx is one of the Park’s success stories. Long thought to be extinct, it was spotted once again in 1993. The lynx in the animal sanctuary nearby was oblivious to the fascination he inspired, however. Like any self-respecting cat, he was fast asleep.
The Marsican bear over in the pool, one of a sub-species unique to Abruzzo, was wide awake and it was clear he relished an audience. Submerging himself in the water, he emerged with much shaking of his thick fur, before making himself comfortable in the far corner, his two front paws hanging nonchalantly over the sides. This occasioned much laughter, a round of applause and a cry of “Esibizionista!” (Show off.)
Unlike the bear in the pool, Abruzzo is only now learning how to show off. Cut off by its mountains, simultaneously proud and resentful of its isolation, it has always been labelled a backwater. A land of bears and wolves and bogey-men, long held in thrall by feudal lords, Abruzzo is today uncertain as to whether it belongs to the north or the south. Perhaps it most properly belongs to itself.