Ju­dith Elen pen­e­trates the rocky fast­ness of a lit­tle-vis­ited re­gion of cen­tral Italy

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

WIND­ING the moun­tain roads of Abruzzo, grey lime­stone crags tow­er­ing over­head, moun­tains in hazy blue tri­an­gles hem­ming the hori­zon be­yond an­gled olive groves, I feel like a hero­ine in Ann Rad­cliffe’s gothic nov­els.

Abruzzo was her favourite set­ting. In the 18th cen­tury, th­ese hills were in­fested with brig­ands and though the English nov­el­ist never came here, she had a good imag­i­na­tion.

‘‘ Be­yond the mar­gin of the coast, as far as the eye could reach, ap­peared pointed moun­tains, dark­ened with forests, ris­ing ridge over ridge . . . El­lena, as she sur­veyed this wild scenery, felt as if she was go­ing into eter­nal ban­ish­ment from so­ci­ety,’’ Rad­cliffe wrote in The Ital­ian .

To­day the brig­ands have gone (you’re most un­likely to have your bag snatched) but the rugged land­scape seems lit­tle changed, as if pre­served in the sharp air.

Though Italy is squarely on the tourist path, few have even heard of Abruzzo. It is the wild cen­tral re­gion of the coun­try, from the spine of Italy — the Apen­nine Moun­tains, their foothills and val­ley plains — stretch­ing to the Adri­atic coast. It’s Italy’s true green heart, but more grey and rugged than green, and it is Abruzzo’s wild land­scape and the vin­tage qual­ity of the air that give it this rep­u­ta­tion.

On my es­corted Ab­so­lutely Abruzzo tour, we have driven east from Rome, cross­ing the Apen­nines and head­ing for the pow­dery-blue Adri­atic. Our Aus­tralian tour lead­ers, Lu­ciana Masci, who still has fam­ily in Abruzzo, and tenor Michael Howard, say the four to five-hour train trip is won­der­fully scenic.

Our first stay is at Moz­za­grogna where we will spend four nights at Castello di Septe, a 17th-cen­tury cas­tle, and our fi­nal stay is at the farm­house Le Mag­no­lie in Loreto Aprutino.

On my first morn­ing, I awake to gun­fire; am I back in Rad­cliffe’s gothic ro­mance? From my bal­cony doors I watch a bird hes­i­tate in its tree, be­fore tak­ing off in a low, des­per­ate line for the dis­tance. It’s hunt­ing sea­son: Septem­ber 1, the first day of au­tumn. The shots are off on the hill­side, but all is so quiet and still that sounds carry. When I men­tion it at break­fast, Masci sug­gests it may be fire­works.

Abruzzo is mem­o­rable for its fes­ti­vals, when saints’ stat­ues are borne aloft through the streets. Un­like Rad­cliffe, travel writer Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor did come here, in 1953. He ar­rived in the town of Cu­cullo in time for a saint’s fes­ti­val, which seems to have had all the colour of a me­dieval fair — cos­tumes, an­i­mals, ser­pents fea­ture heav­ily — a mix of rit­ual and riot.

Fer­mor walked into the re­gion from gen­tle Tus­cany and Um­bria, Italy’s more con­ven­tional green zones, and found ‘‘ wild grey peaks’’ that had a ‘‘ lu­nar re­mote­ness’’ like ‘‘ a jour­ney to an­other planet’’. His sun beats down from a blaz­ing sky and the air has a ‘‘ chill bite’’ in the shad­owed laneways of the me­dieval towns. Which is ex­actly how we find it. But we also find a land­scape of sil­very-green olive groves, vine­yards, dry­s­tone struc­tures, Ro­man ru­ins — am­phithe­atres and bath­houses — cas­tles and ru­ined Bene­dic­tine monas­ter­ies, from AD500-600, where the monks grew vines and herbs and reared sheep.

The ser­pents no longer grace the fes­ti­vals but they are still here. As are the fes­ti­vals. And along­side the brig­ands of the past were the shep­herds, here since be­fore Ro­man times, and they too re­main. Our small group fol­lows their an­cient paths.

We see their domed dry­s­tone shel­ters, the tho­los ; walk­ing in one of the re­gion’s three na­tional parks, we see shep­herds and their flocks on the trail, and we eat lamb, slowroasted and char­coal-grilled.

For more than 3000 years, herds have mi­grated up and down th­ese moun­tains, for trad­ing and to fol­low the sea­sonal pas­tures. Shep­herds traded with the Greeks; they took their flocks from Abruzzo to Puglia and back in May for the spring pas­tures, mak­ing and sell­ing sheep’s cheeses as they trav­elled. In the 16th cen­tury, Masci says, there were five mil­lion sheep here and 50,000 shep­herds.

The town of Pen­napied­i­monte was the last stop on the shep­herds’ path as they headed for the moun­tain pas­tures. Here taxes were as­sessed, and mil­lions of sheep passed through; we see lit­tle rocky caves in the hill­side, where the shep­herds lived for a week at a time, while they waited to pay their taxes and bought sup­plies for the eight months they would be away from home.

We set out from the up­per reaches of town, fol­low­ing the sheep’s path into the Maiella Na­tional Park (Parco Nazionale della Ma­jella), and see moun­tain goats graz­ing and iden­tify wild herbs and flow­ers.

The view stretches back across scal­loped lay­ers of moun­tains, and there are forested walks, wa­ter­falls and moun­tain trails to fol­low. In the most southerly of Abruzzo’s parks, a few brown bears sur­vive, chamois are be­ing suc­cess­fully rein­tro­duced and there are many wild boar.

At nearby Guardia­grele, Sun­day is mar­ket day and, hav­ing worked up an ap­petite, we visit lo­cal favourite Santa Chiara restau­rant, in a re­stored 19th-cen­tury car­pen­ters’ shop, for a slow-food lunch be­fore ex­plor­ing the mar­ket streets. A wood-lined shop is filled with tra­di­tional Baratti & Milano Clas­sica fruit pastilles and caramels. Jew­ellery work­shops sell l’orafo , a del­i­cate pen­dant of twisted gold in a tra­di­tional Abruzzese de­sign. A linen shop sells tea tow­els next to an­tique hand-em­broi­dered linen. I buy a hand­made wood-framed tomato press (for use with a wooden spoon) at an iron­mon­gers.

We spend our days mak­ing lo­cal vis­its. I start col­lect­ing dig­i­tal images of men sit­ting on tree-shaded benches in the sleepy towns, gaz­ing out at the world and noth­ing.

We wind around the roads in our small bus, look­ing down on combed fields and up at hill­towns such as gem-like me­dieval Ca­soli, which has ev­ery kind of fes­ti­val, Masci tells us. Apart from the reg­u­lar re­li­gious cal­en­dar, there are mush­room fes­ti­vals, saf­fron fes­ti­vals, lentil fes­ti­vals.

Great span­gled baubles ex­plode in the sky over Ca­soli, an­nounc­ing its fes­ti­val to the am­phithe­atre of neigh­bour­ing towns, as we drive to din­ner one evening. It’s St Mary’s feast day and the fire­works are pris­tine white for the Vir­gin.

An­other evening, as we drive from our sec­ond base, in Loreto Aprutino, to the coast for a seafood din­ner (at Ris­torante Punta Val­levo, where the chef trained with Paul Bo­cuse), vast sheets of sul­phurous light­ning ir­ra­di­ate the clouds in an arc around the hill­tops. We stop at the 12th-cen­tury church of San Gio­vanni in Venere, over­look­ing an­cient olive groves and gaze out across the Gulf of Venus with the storm brew­ing. On this stretch of Adri­atic coast, an­cient traboc­chi , fish­ing struc­tures built at the wa­ter’s edge with nets that are raised or set, are still in use.

On one or two cold days we visit mu­se­ums or sim­ply eat, but mostly the sky is china blue and clear, with Fer­mor’s hot sun beat­ing down, and the air un­der the trees and in the shaded al­leys chill with the first snows that have fallen on the brows of Gran Sasso, the Apen­nines’ high­est peak, and on the Maiella.

We visit Pescara on the coast, the largest city, with an in­ter­na­tional air­port and ferry con­nec­tions across the Adri­atic to Croa­tia. Here a cov­ered mar­ket over­flows with sea­sonal fruits and veg­eta­bles, prosci­ut­tos, cheeses, salamis, breads and pas­tries, and the in­evitable porchetta stand. At ev­ery har­vest, mar­ket and fes­ti­val, mo­bile porchetta vans fea­ture whole roasted piglets stuffed with herbs and bread­crumbs and wrapped in pancetta, which are freshly sliced into warm panini sand­wiches: the Abruzzese hot dog.

In Pescara, Genti d’Abruzzo Mu­seum, the Mu­seum of the Peo­ple, keeps us en­grossed one cold af­ter­noon. Orig­i­nal arte­facts give us a first-hand view of age-old fes­ti­vals, vil­lage life and the lives of the shep­herds. Cloth­ing and im­ple­ments, wood carv­ings, scrimshaw, mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, even an ex­er­cise book, hand-writ­ten in faded ink, have sur­vived the lonely shep­herds’ moun­tain vig­ils.

I even find an old tomato press, like the one I buy in Guardia­grele.

When the weather im­proves, we climb a moun­tain path to the me­dieval cas­tle of Roc­cas­calegna, tee­ter­ing on a rocky out­crop, and visit the church of Santa Maria in Pi­ano, on an iso­lated hill­side near the vil­lage of Loreto Aprutino, where a 15th-cen­tury fresco cy­cle cov­ers the walls and seems nearly as fresh as when it was painted.

Dur­ing the plague years of the mid-17th cen­tury, the walls were su­per­sti­tiously plas­tered over to con­ceal the colour­ful fres­coes, per­haps an af­front to God in those black times, and re­dis­cov­ered in the 1960s. We pick out graf­fiti scratched into the walls de­scrib­ing an eclipse on the last day of July 1590 and an­other record­ing tears of blood shed by the statue of Santa Maria, in June 1533, which ‘‘ opened the eyes of a blind man’’.

Our most breath­tak­ing visit is to the San Bar­tolomeo her­mitage deep in a gorge and ac­ces­si­ble by a pre­cip­i­tous track through wild broom, black­ber­ries and ram­bling rose canes with fat rose­hips. This eremo was in­hab­ited by the 13th-cen­tury pope Ce­les­tine V, driven by cor­rup­tion to ab­di­cate and lead the life of a her­mit.

Masci tells us there are more monas­ter­ies in Abruzzo a square kilo­me­tre than any­where in the world ex­cept Ti­bet. The moun­tains are stud­ded with them.

This one was in­hab­ited in about AD1000 and ser­vices are still held here on feast days. We see the flow­ers on the al­tar, look out from the tiny stone rooms and pull the heavy rope to ring the bell in its tower.

If this is our most im­pres­sive visit, the Tosti mu­seum in Pescara is our most charm­ing. Michael Howard sings for us as we sit around the small mu­seum of Abruzzese com­poser F. P. Tosti, friend of Verdi and co­hort of the then prince of Wales. Ju­dith Elen was a guest of Ab­so­lutely Abruzzo Tours and At­las Travel Ser­vice.


Abruzzo is about four hours’ drive east from Rome. There are rail, bus and air con­nec­tions be­tween Pescara and Rome, as well as other Euro­pean cities. www.ab­so­­las­

Pic­tures: Ju­dith Elen

On guard: Cas­tle out­post of Roc­cas­calegna, main pic­ture; fres­coes in Santa Maria in Pi­ano, top and cen­tre right; San Bar­tolomeo her­mitage, bot­tom right

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