Welcome to the scandalously overlooked region of Abruzzo.
Wednesday 03 January 2024
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Nestled in the heart of central Italy, on the borders of Lazio to the West and the Adriatic to the East, sits one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, Abruzzo. Just an hour from Rome, this Italian region’s spectacular landscape presents a unique blend of seaside vistas, mountains, valleys and alpine meadows, offering a wealth of tastes, experiences and opportunities to travellers and explorers of all types.
This landscape, partnered with Abruzzo’s beautiful people and towns, has over the years induced many notable naturalists and artists to pause and draw inspiration, including the photographer Henri Cartier Bresson, the artist Edward Lear and the graphic artist M.C. Escher. The region provided an Italian base for the Scandinavian Impressionists, and its landscape has served as a backdrop to numerous famous films, including The Name of the Rose and The American. Abruzzo has the highest number of national and regional parks in Europe, a little-known and often under-appreciated fact, home to its endangered Marsican bears, as well as wolves, eagles and other important flora and fauna. However, beyond artists and naturalists (and the more adventurous Northern European hikers) few outside Italy recognise its name, particularly in comparison to some of the other Italian regions such as Tuscany, Puglia and Le Marche.
Abruzzo’s topography is most strikingly represented perhaps by the two massifs that dominate its skyline. The Maiella massif, located at the boundary between the provinces of Chieti, Pescara and L’Aquila, and further north, the Gran Sasso.
Overlooking the Gran Sasso massif is the Corno Grande, its highest peak, where the remains of Europe’s most southerly glacier, Il Calderone, resides. This is the highest peak on Italy’s peninsula at 2,912 metres. From its top, the real impact of climate change is visible for all to see. It’s accessible by cable car and a walk, during which you can even pick up the odd seashell, a testament to the area’s geological past. You can stop off at a Refuge along the way, perfect for those who appreciate the beauty of untouched landscapes and the echoes of a distant past.
If you look at the Corno Grande from afar you can see a giant’s face, said to be the Greek god Hermes, who was taken, injured, to the mountain by his mother to seek out a fabled curative flower. The tale tells that the nearby Maiella massif, also known as ‘Mother Mountain’, is home to the remains of his mother Maiella. It’s more famous today for its rich and colourful biodiversity—more than 30% of Italy’s flora and fauna can be found here, which is why the Maiella National Park was recognised as a Geopark in 2022. Majestic and imposing, this mountain range offers not only breathtaking views but also a haven for adventure seekers and skiers who can see the sea whilst ski-ing. Whether it’s hiking through pristine trails with donkeys, mountain biking or conquering the peaks, Abruzzo caters to those who crave the exhilaration of the great outdoors.
Campo Imperatore, nicknamed ‘Little Tibet’ for its undulating lunaresque landscape, is another of the region’s bucket list spots. It’s a high meadow plateau that was carved out by melting glaciers long ago. Not only does this make a fabulous car journey, but you will discover poppies up here even in July, and it offers a fabulous jump through history. Florence’s Medici family coveted it, becoming influential patrons of the area when they made their base in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, which now houses the most famous Diffuso hotel in the world. From this base, the family could control and receive taxes from the ‘transumanza’, the bi-annual migration of shepherds in Abruzzo down to what is now Puglia, and which is now classified as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Mussolini was imprisoned in a hotel on Campo Imperatore by the Allies in 1943 but was audaciously ‘rescued’ by the Nazis, who used gliders to swoop in and extricate him. Surprisingly a film hasn’t been made of the event, but then, we are in secret Abruzzo.
To understand Abruzzo culturally, you have to look back at its Italic tribes and the influence of Rome. Abruzzo is the region that gave the country of Italy (Italia) her name. The region’s Pre-Roman Italic tribes came together to create a unified whole way before Cavour and Victor Emmanuel II, and this was their collective name. The name Abruzzo itself comes from Aprutium which means “the country of the Pretutii,” Abruzzo’s oldest and most prolific Italic tribe, whose wine Pliny is praised for its wonderfully curative qualities that healed Hannibal’s horses when he landed. Like the Medici, the Romans wanted Abruzzo for the taxes that could be raised from the wool route, and they succeeded. There are some glorious remains to be explored, such as Alba Fucens, as well as Chieti’s extensive Archaeology museum. Like most mountain regions, Abruzzo is historically poor. Even though it has its own magical low-gluten ancient wheats which grow 800 metres above sea level, including Solina and La Rosciola, people did go hungry, as recorded by Ignazio Silone’s Abruzzo Trilogy. Sharecropping and landowners made for an impoverished people. The depopulation of Abruzzo since 1860 is widely spoken about; more Abruzzesi families live outside of the region than in the region, Toronto being the city with the largest Abruzzese population outside of Italy. Although most don’t live here full-time, many return in the summer, restoring the numerous small villages and ghost towns to something more akin to their former glory—it’s a binding love affair with family and the region. Of course, they could do with more visitors to the region, but to the Abruzzesi the income generated by these returnees offsets a prohibitively large potential marketing spend to pull tourists to the region. This is why so many people simply don’t know about this region, and there is little written in English about it.
Beyond the region’s natural wonders, Abruzzo’s cultural vibrancy comes alive through its sagre, or local festivals. These celebrations handsomely showcase the region’s rich culinary heritage. Abruzzo is home to Italy’s oldest cooking school, where age-old traditions blend seamlessly with delectable local flavours. It is also home to the ‘panarda’, the 40-course extravaganza dinner, and the dishes here are rich, and extensive, with amazing sheep and cow cheeses strikingly redolent of Abruzzo’s pastoral community and spices that include pepperoncini and saffron.
Step out over the Adriatic sea aboard a trabocco, the region’s fishing platforms that have been turned into fashionable seafood restaurants, and expect to taste at least fifteen dishes across four courses—this is a region that loves to eat well! Whether it’s to savour traditional dishes or participate in lively processions, sagre offers a unique glimpse into the heart of the very diverse culture and festivities of Abruzzo.
Abruzzo has become increasingly renowned for its exceptional quality wines over recent years, a world away from the bulk Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Trebbiano wines it was historically known for. The region’s vineyards produce wines that reflect the richness of its terroir, its organic wines and Rosé Cerasuolo leading the country and the world. Wine tasting with small family growers amidst rolling vineyards and centuries-old winemaking traditions adds a delightful dimension to the Abruzzo experience. 2023 saw the launch of the first spumante processing centre outside Veneto in Italy. The centre will process all of Abruzzo’s heritage grapes, including Pecorino named after the sheep that love to eat the grapes and Passerina named after sparrows that love this small grape. The carbon footprint of grapes driven previously north and back again will finally disappear!
What truly sets Abruzzo apart is its sense of community, and the warmth and hospitality of the people, inviting visitors to become a part of the tightly-knit communities that thrive in the region. Whether it’s sharing stories over a communal meal or participating in local events, the people of Abruzzo create an atmosphere that feels like a home away from home. The region beckons travellers to embark on a journey that goes beyond the ordinary, inviting them to discover the magic that makes Abruzzo truly extraordinary.
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