Judith Elen penetrates the rocky fastness of a little-visited region of central Italy
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.absolutelyabruzzo.com www.atlastravel.com.au
On guard: Castle outpost of Roccascalegna, main picture; frescoes in Santa Maria in Piano, top and centre right; San Bartolomeo hermitage, bottom right