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Abruzzo in the heart of Italy, breathing culture and antiquity and tradition at every celebrated monument or little forsaken corner, a region of astounding landscapes and solitary beauty, spanning at a glance from snowy mountains to the deep blue sea. An ancient beauteous land, Abruzzo branched out to the huge world through all its courageous, desperate, proud, enterprising sons and daughters who uprooted from their beloved ancestral soil with hearts full of sorrow, but looking adamantly into the future with hope and strength, to make a better life for themselves and their children.L'Aquila: Little-Known Capital of Abruzzo
This beautiful city has a captivating mountain setting and many stunning monuments, but it's rarely on the list of foreigners' must-sees. Its establishment as a city is recent, by Italian standards, for it was only in the 13th century that Frederick II of Hohenstaufen called on the inhabitants of 99 nearby castles to consolidate and be his strategic allies in this crossroads between the Middle East and Northern Europe. As you walk through the streets of L'Aquila, you'll see all sorts of reminders of this event, most illustrious of them the stunning fountain of 99 spouts in Piazza di Porta Rivera.
L'Aquila is too large and its major monuments are too widespread to encompass them all in one walk. See as much of the old town as you can, popping in whenever you spot an open doorway: you may easily discover a hidden Renaissance courtyard. Here are the major attractions you won't want to miss:
Santa Maria di Collemaggio. With its magnificent pink-and-white stone façade, its 14th-century frescoes, its Holy Door (the only one in Christendom outside of Rome), and its majestic pure Gothic interior, it would be a masterpiece of Abruzzo-style romanesque even without the unique story of its creation.
Santa Maria di Collemaggio owes its life to Pietro Angeleri [1215-1296], a pious monk who was a hermit for 3 years on Mount Maiella. In 1294, after he wrote a letter of protest to the college of cardinals in Rome, he was unexpectedly elected pope, taking the name of Celestine V. 100,000 people, including Dante Alighieri, attended his incoronation in L'Aquila.
The new pope issued a general pardon to everyone who made the pilgrimage to his beautiful parish church to repent. Then, just as unexpectedly, after a mere three months, he became the only Pontiff ever to renounce his throne. He begged to return to his hermitage but his successor, Boniface VIII, locked him up in Fumone Castle, where he died two years later. Only in death did he return to this beautiful church, where his tomb is visible in the austere nave (stripped of its ornate Baroque trappings as recently as 1972), and his life is illustrated in a series of canvases painted by a 17th-century Flemish disciple. L'Aquila celebrates Pietro Celestino's general pardon every August 28 and 29, with two beautiful processions that are memorable for their pomp and circumstance and exquisite period costumes.
14th-century Santa Maria Paganica is located in the charming medieval square of the same name. This is the center of the walled old town, featuring narrow alleys and romantic little squares. Santa Maria del Soccorso has a sweet, simple façade and an inviting Renaissance cloister. People who enjoy "deciphering" iconography should visit the church of San Silvestro (pictured at right) to study its renowned Madonna and Angels fresco by Francesco da Montereale, pupil of Il Perugino.
L'Aquila's other crowning glory is its perfectly preserved castle, one of Italy's outstanding 16th-century fortresses. Designed by the architect who built the imposing Sant'Elmo castle in Naples, it was erected by the Spanish to punish the citizens for having attempted to revolt. Climb to the top and you'll see that soldiers would have been better able to perform surveillance of the aquilani than of any eventual foreign attackers. Today it houses the National Museum of Abruzzo, whose collection boasts some excellent pieces.
15th-century San Bernardino (where the saint is buried) is a fine example of Renaissance harmony, with a three-tiered 16th-century façade and a carved, gilded Baroque ceiling. Don't miss the lovely tomb of the local noblewoman Maria Pereira Camponeschi and the enameled altar by Andrea della Robbia.
Explore the steep streets around Via Sassa, and do try to get a glimpse of the 15th-century fresco in the Beata Antonia church (ring the bell at #29a).
When you're ready to explore the area around L'Aquila, take bus #6 from Piazza Battaglione to the highest point on the Italian peninsula, Gran Sasso. Buy an extraurbano ticket at the kiosk in the piazza, then settle back for the spectacular 12-mile trip. An hour later you'll be in Fonte Cerreto, where you can follow some moderately difficult, marked trails for a hike, or take the cable car (every half hour from 8:30am to 5:30pm) up to Campo Imperatore, a vast high plain that is a sea of flowers in springtime, a burnt-out moonscape in summer and a romantic snowfield offering downhill and cross-country ski runs in winter. At the top you'll find a huge hotel that's as stark as the view is exuberant. Be sure to have a look at the enormous "socially uplifting" frescoes of workers in the ugly Fascist-era hotel, site of a daring rescue that whisked Mussolini off to the ill-fated Republic of Salò in 1942.
From L'Aquila, take route 17 a few miles east to Bazzano to see the evocative 12th-century church of Santa Giusta, built on the site where the saint was supposedly martyred. There are beautiful classical fragments inside. Continuing south along the same road, past fields which yield the highest amount of saffron in Europe, you'll reach the provincial road to Bominaco. The abbey that once was here is in ruins now, but two splendidly preserved churches are well worth a visit: the undecorated Santa Maria Assunta and the unforgettable San Pellegrino. Founded by Charlemagne, the latter contains an important cycle of 13th-century frescoes.
Castles and Fortified Villages:A Day Trip from L'Aquila
If you have time for only one fortress in Abruzzo, make it the fairy tale castle of L'Aquila. But if a visit to this outstanding bastion merely whets your appetite, rent a car for a day and whisk off to visit others: there are at least two dozen stunning beauties within 35 miles of the city.
Abruzzo has practically as many castles as sheep, mainly due to its strategic location between the Tyrrhennian and Adriatic seas. The ancient Romans built myriad roads here, and after their empire fell, the network of highways and byways served as excellent inroads for foreign invaders, whose ranks included French Angevins, Lombards, Hungarians, Saracens, Normans, German Hohenstaufens and Spanish Aragonese.
Traveling south from L'Aquila on SS5bis, you'll soon come to Ocre, perched atop an outcropping where a Roman acropolis had been. Inside the walls you'll find the ruins of an entire village, including a 14th-century church. As you gaze out at the spectacular view across the valley to the mountains, you'll have little trouble understanding how safe generations of villagers must have felt here.
Continuing on SS5bis, you'll soon have an entirely different experience in Celano, the perfect example of a Renaissance "castle," which looks more like a gracious country manor than a fortress. There has been a castle on this spot since before the Romans, but the present beautifully preserved complex was built as a residence for local nobility rather than as a safe haven for local peasants. Indeed, the picturesque turrets were probably added by Antonio Piccolomini, who received the surrounding county from Alfonso of Aragon in the 15th century.
Traveling east on SS5, you'll want to stop in the charming town of Castel di Ieri, where an ageold watchtower stands silent and unadorned amongst the homes. Its origins and history are as vague as its name, which means "yesterday's castle." Just a mile or so farther is another fortified medieval village, Castelvecchio Subequo. Stand at the base of the fortress and let your eye wander upwards along its walls: you'll be able to identify three separate eras of construction, beginning with a crude pre-Roman stage. Built onto the watchtower is a much later dwelling with lovely windows.
A two-mile detour on the provincial road to Gagliano Aterno is well worth it, to see the beautiful noble residence that dominates the town with its airy loggias, fairy-tale moat and drawbridge. Begun in 1328, it has belonged to several of the most illustrious papal families in Italian Renaissance history.
Returning to Castelvecchio, drive north on SS261, passing the ruined fortress at Beffi on your way to see the picture-perfect watchtower of Tione d'Abruzzi. Just below the restored crenelated battlements is a Renaissance clock. The tower is now a municipal building; if it's open, you may be able to climb to the top.
A few miles up the road is Fontecchio, another castle-town whose tower has one of the oldest clocks in Italy. The provincial road to Caporciano takes you to SS17. Drive north a few miles to San Pio delle Camere (mentioned above), then on to one of the most interesting castles in Italy.
Rocca Calascio is unique, first because it was built at a much higher altitude than most bastions, and second due to its shape, consisting of a square 14th-century tower surrounded by a more recent wall linking four cylindrical towers. At its feet are the ruins of a strategically planned medieval village, and beyond that is a dizzying view of the valley and the snow-capped peaks of Gran Sasso. A few miles away is the town of Castelvecchio Calvisio, whose inhabitants were so safety-conscious that they even covered their streets, which now resemble tunnels.
There are plenty more castles worth seeing in the immediate environs of L'Aquila. Pizzoli is a well- preserved Renaissance home with four curious external turrets. Castel del Monte is an entire medieval town that grew up around the existing watchtower. Santo Stefano, another fortress-town that once belonged to the Medicis, has a crenelated tower you can climb for a breathtaking view. And as you drive along you'll see the ruins of many more castles adorning hilltops, with names like Barisciano, Sant'Eusanio Forconese, Fossa and Prata. For more information about schedules for visiting the inside of castles, stop in at L'Aquila's Azienda Autonoma Soggiorno e Turismo (Via XX Settembre 8).
When Emilio Zecca invited my friends Piero and Grazia Nucci for a weekend at his mother's home in Abruzzo, Piero asked some of us to come along too. Never one to stumble over a small detail like where we all would sleep, Piero insisted that having six unexpected guests wouldn't upset Emilio in the least.
It was almost November and really cold. We drove straight across the boot to a little town slightly beyond Sulmona, arriving on Emilio's doorstep freezing and very hungry. When the poor man saw us, he was a bit rattled. After all, our group added to his family made us fifteen! But with true Italian graciousness, he quickly recovered and welcomed us with open arms.
It was a sleepy little town; at the time, no one even locked their doors. There were only two social activities. The first was the passeggiata, where you link arms with friends and stroll to the main square, looking and being looked at. The second was mangiare, where you link appetites with friends and eat as much as you can.
The biggest meal I can remember sitting down to in my lifetime was in the trattoria Emilio took us to. I didn't know it at the time but years later, I read that the Abruzzese were famous for the panarda, a huge feast that was served on special occasions. That was certainly a panarda we had that day.
The owner didn't blink an eye when he saw fifteen hungry wolves troop in. In moments, he had six tables strung together and was shouting to the kitchen to bring out the antipasti.
Let me tell you, it was simply the absolute best down-to-earth food in the world. Peppers, eggplant, zucchine, roasted scamorza cheese, grilled mushrooms, crispy peasant bread, wine and more wine. When they brought soup, I was already full. But next came pasta, three different kinds! Not wanting to seem rude, I tasted each, especially the Abruzzese specialty, maccheroni alla chitarra. After that, I really was finished. It was at this point that the owner came over and asked, "E cosa si mangia oggi?"
Right about here, Piero and Emilio lost their heads and gave the owner carte blanche. How blanche? Indecently, outrageously blanche. He brought us every meat and game dish in the book, two different kinds of lamb, a highly spiced, garlicky porchetta, racks of ribs, grilled chicken, rabbit, quail and let's not forget the delicious 'ndocca 'ndocca, a true specialty of the region, a kind of boiled, stewed pork mix of various parts of pig--the snout, tail, ears, etc. I know it sounds kind of horrible but, trust me, it was to die for.
During four hours of constant onslaught, I threw down my napkin many times, vowing never to eat again, only to pick it up again as yet another wonderful dish was passed around.When we got back to the house, a huge thunderstorm came up and blew out all the electricity.
We went out to buy candles and discovered that the whole town was dark. Thunder boomed all around us, lightning cracked and, in spite of all the weight I had put on at lunch, the icy wind actually blew me across a road!
Emilio got a fire going in the fireplace because the heaters were out too. In two minutes, backed-up smoke forced us from the house and out into the storm, choking and shivering. Eventually the fire was extinguished and we sat bundled up in blankets until the lights--and the heat--came on a couple of hours later. When at last the storm subsided, places were found for everyone to bed down and we all drifted off to sleep.
Two or Three Days Around Maiella National Park
Abruzzo's second national park lies at the foot of dome-like Mount Maiella. To reach it, take the A24 from Rome, exit onto the A25, get off at the Bussi exit, go to Popoli and then take provincial road 17 to Pescocostanzo. Less organized and more "natural" than nearby Abruzzo National Park, it contains no less than forty hermitages and primitive chapels. Its fields and valleys are blanketed with myriad wild flowers and pungent herbs; in its forests you might even see a wild boar. At the very least, you are likely to find the furrows they scoop as they forage for food.
From Cansano, SS487 provides a beautiful drive to Sulmona, where Ovid was born in 43 BC. This is a picturesque medieval town, whose lovely main square is made all the more dramatic by the towering backdrop of the forested Maiella Mountains, and a 13th-century aqueduct that still supplies water to a 13th-century fountain. You'll also want to visit the 13th-century church of San Francesco delle Scarpe and the fascinating 14th-century Annunziata. A harmonious blend of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque elements, the latter is an abbey built by the town's wealthy to take care of its poor, from cradle to grave.
From Sulmona, take the provincial road to Bugnara, then SS479 to Anversa, where you'll fork off onto the provincial road to Coccullo. Stop for a look at the medieval tower and the church of San Domenico, which has some lovely paintings and a fine altar. Then take the A25 autostrada past Pescina's romantic 14th-century castle and on to Celano. This town has no less than seven medieval churches, along with its own well-preserved 14th-century castle, but its most spectacular attraction is the Gole di Celano, a 2000-foot-deep gorge. Take this walk before the end of September, when rains may make it impassable.
Now travel north on SS5bis towards Ovindoli, but before you get there, take a 6-mile detour on the provincial road to Alba Fucens (pictured at left). These well-preserved ruins of a 1st-century Roman colony include baths, a villa, theatre, basilica, and a huge amphitheatre, as well as a milestone marking the ancient Via Tiburtina. You'll also see some interesting walls built by the pre-Roman inhabitants of this area.
Returning to SS5bis, continue north to Ovindoli, a charming village that makes a great starting point for hikes and rides into Velino-Sirente Regional Park, a haven for royal eagles, Marsican bears and Appennine wolves.
Castelli to Chieti
Once you've had your fill of nature hikes, this two-day trip presents some of the more traditional Italian offerings: exquisite hill towns, interesting museums, art-filled churches and palazzi. To begin, take A24 east from L'Aquila to Colledara, then head south on the local road to Castelli. This is a classic hill town with fabulous views of the valley.
Back on A24, go east one exit, then take SS150 towards Roseto degli Abruzzi (or, to save the toll, continue on the state road from Colledara to Sant'Agostino, where you'll pick up SS150). After about ten miles, turn off onto the local road to Atri. Its ninth-century cathedral is built on the ruins of a Roman bath (look for the dolphin mosaic), and the fine frescoes by Andrea De Lito are considered the most important Renaissance works in Abruzzo. In the main square, Roman mosaics take shelter under thick glass panels set into the pavement. Pause in the Belvedere Garden for a spectacular view across the valley, all the way to the sea, which is where Pescara is. You'll reach it by continuing along the road you took to Atri, then turning south, past groves of ancient olives, along coastal route SS16.
Having been bombarded over and over again, Pescara isn't Italy's most picturesque town. It boasts no famous art museums, no illustrious churches, no breathtaking vistas across valleys, not even a glorious beach. Still, if you're in the area, we can think of at least two reasons to spend a few hours there.
First, Pescara is a very pleasant example of the quintessential provincial capital. Roam for an hour or two through its bustling streets lined with modern apartment buildings, affordable boutiques and well-stocked food stores, sit for a while with the locals at an outdoor cafe, stroll along the seaside Lungomare Matteotti at sunset and you will have a real sense of what it's like to live in a prosperous Italian backwater. Then, when the sun has set, enjoy reason number two: some of the best seafood cuisine in the entire country, available at almost any trattoria, no matter how unimposing. You'll find plenty of hotels in which to spend the night (see below).
The next morning, take SS5 to Chieti and visit the National Archeological Museum to see its excellent display of artifacts from the Romans and the ancient Abruzzo inhabitants who predated them. Also visit the 2nd-century Roman theatre in Via Zecca and the small Roman temple behind the main post office building.
From Chieti, take SS5 west about twelve miles to Torre de' Passeri, then follow the signs to nearby S. Clemente Abbey. Widely considered the most glorious example of Abruzzo-style romanesque architecture, this pink-and-white complex has delicate travertine columns, carvings and decorations that resemble the finest lace.
Monasteries and Convents in Abruzzo
Because it is hilly and remote, Abruzzo has always been favored by monks, hermits and saints, who built their sanctuaries in the most spectacular spots they could find. Many are still beautifully preserved, and some offer hospitality to guests.
When he wasn't off converting thousands and spurring on soldiers all over Europe, St. John of Capestrano lived in the Convent of San Giuliano, which overlooks the city of L'Aquila. Today it is home to only seven friars, who run a small natural history museum, a library with hundreds of ancient manuscripts, volumes and illuminated works, and the Baroque church, with its vast 18th-century fresco of the Three Kings. There's also a lovely 15th-century cloister.
It's not an easy drive to Fossa, but the Convent of Sant'Angelo d'Ocre is worth the effort. Founded by Benedictine monks in 1242, it has a lovely romanesque cloister and an interesting refectory, both bearing frescoes by local artists. Set on a silent, panoramic hillside, it makes a perfect place for a short retreat.
Near Chieti, the abbey of San Giovanni in Venere is perched like a hillside balcony overlooking the sea. This very ancient Benedictine retreat has a richly decorated façade and a lovely cloister with slender sculpted marble columns. The medieval church, with three soaring naves separated by graceful arches, was frescoed in the 12th century by a local artist.
In the same area, both the Santuario del Volto Santo and the Convento dell'Osservanza offer hospitality to guests. Neither is an artistic treasure of the level of San Giovanni in Venere, but the Convento dell'Osservanza has a beautiful setting in a thick hillside forest.
In Teramo province, the Convento di Santa Maria in Colleromano is also in an idyllic spot, on a slope overlooking the beautiful hill town of Penne. In the early 1300s, this was an important Benedictine abbey, and you can visit its Gothic church, which harbors several lovely 15th-century frescoes and paintings and a Baroque altar. There's also a medieval cloister and an excellent library.