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My friend Novelia tells me that the tourists are finally coming back to Abruzzo. It’s been a long, cold, ridiculously snowy winter and she is ready for guests. Ready to make pasta. Ready to tour them through the Abbey where she works. And most importantly, ready to introduce them to her home town and make it heartbreakingly hard for them to leave. And she can do it, believe me. She just wishes there were moreamericani coming to Abruzzo. Maybe this will help.
Tim and I went to Abruzzo last May with a gang of 10 friends. Sulmona was our first stop, for four nights. Then we drove to L’Acquila to see the damage the earthquake had wrought and continued on to Civitella del Tronto in the north, where we would spend an additional three nights in the region.
Abruzzo is a mountainous region in central Italy that basically stretches from the Apennines to the Adriatic. It is a rugged landscape, with stunning switchback mountain roads in one part, with steep and rocky coasts in the other. It boasts many regional parks and the National Park of Abruzzo, with its hiking trails and unique animal species, namely the Marscian Brown Bear and the Gray Wolf. The region is popular with European travelers and even other Italians. But it presents some challenges for American travelers, who pretty much have to fly into Rome and then drive several hours to reach the major Abruzzese cities. Those willing to fly into another European gateway city can shorten the drive by flying into Pescara. Either way, it’s worth it. And you need a car here, anyway, so just decide what kind of drive you want when you arrive in the region.
You already know how much I love Italy — every region that I’ve visited so far. And there are many things to recommend the
Abruzzo region. Here are my Top 10 reasons:
#1 Novelia’s Pentouse — La Casa del Cuore — is truly “The House of the Heart.” Sleeps 4 or 6 in two bedrooms with two full bathrooms and a full kitchen/living area. Check it out here and contact her for rates and availability. She will give you an unforgettable experience. Tell her I sent you and make sure she cooks for you at least one night!
#2 Ovid — Why did I begin this post with a quote from the Roman poet Ovid? Because this is his homeland. Or, as he said it, “Sulmo Mihi Patria Est,” and trust me, you’ll see this quote or a simplified version of it (SMPE) all over town. Go to Piazza XX Settembre for gelato in the shadow of the monument to Ovid. Most of the town’s medieval monuments are clustered centrally aroundCorso Ovidio, so there’s just no escaping his influence. Plus, Corso Ovidio is the site of the nightly passeggiata, where couples from 9 to 90 walk the street arm-in-arm. So go between 6 – 8 p.m. and then again after 11 p.m. and people watch. A truly Italian thing to do!
#3 Confetti — Ever been to an Italian wedding? Gotten a little net bag of sugar-coated almonds? That, my friends, is confetti, and Sulmona is the world capital of confetti making to this day. But it’s not just the white ones that you might be familiar with. Confetti comes in all colors and each color is specific to an occasion: white for weddings; pink for a girl’s Christening, blue for a boy’s; red for a college graduation; green for engagements; silver for a 25thanniversary and gold for a 50th anniversary. And they can be filled not only with almonds, but also with hazelnuts, anise seeds, cinnamon sticks, coffee beans, peanuts, pistachios, marzipan and chocolate. See these and more — including amazing confettisculptures, flower arrangements and historicalconfetti-making equipment at Confetti Pellino, making celebrants smile since 1763.
#4 Piazza Garibaldi — The main piazza in town, and home of the twice-weeklymercato (Wednesday and Saturday), Piazza Garibaldi sits at the foot of the Maiella National Park and the backdrop couldn’t be more majestic. If you saw the George Clooney movie, The American, you’ll recognize this piazza when you arrive. You might even get a chance to buy cheese from the same elegant, gray-haired cheese vendor that he (and we) did. You can’t miss her. And what’s that on one end of the piazza, running into town? Oh, that’s the 12th century aqueduct!
#5 Cathedral of San Panfilo — Named for the patron saint of Sulmona and dating from 1075, this impressive
church at the end of town reveals layer upon layer of architectural additions and renovations as it was affected by fire and earthquakes over the years. Of special interest is the Crypt, with its late twelfth century marble Episcopal Chair and thealtar of St. Peter of Morrone, consecrated October 10, 1294 by Celestino V immediately after he was crowned pope in L’Aquila. Other churches in town include the Church of Santa Maria della Tomba (with its fabulous bell tower) and the baroque Chiesa di SS. Annunziata.
#6 Pasqua a Sulmona — If you get a chance, spend Easter in Sulmona for one of the most authentic, over-the-top displays of liturgical drama on the planet. Everybody in town participates. Everybody in town knows the story of the “Madonna che scappa” on Easter morning. But something happens almost every single day on Piazza Garibaldi during Holy Week in Sulmona. Go and be amazed. Find the schedule at the site for the Office of Culture & Tourism.
#7 Food — Abruzzo is well-known for its unique cuisine. Lamb from the mountains and fish from the sea. Home-made pastas and sheep’s cheese and I’m getting hungry just writing this. Here are a few things you shouldn’t miss: spaghetti alla chitarra . . . prosciutto di cinghiale . . . scamorze . . . salame di fegato dolce (or fegato pazzo) . . . agnello al cotturo . . . pasta e lenticchie . .. risotto alla zafferano. I could go on. Two restaurants that we frequented (I’m sure there are more good ones) were Hostaria dell’Arco on Via M.D’Eramo and Il Vecchio Muro just down the street.
#8 Celestinian Abbey/Hermitage in Badia— Just a few miles from Sulmona, in Badia Morronese, sits the
Celestinian Abbey, founded by the Italian Pope Celestino V. He abdicated after few months and was charged by the poet Dante with cowardice. But things weren’t so black-and-white back then, I’m sure. The abbey was damaged by a strong earthquake in 1706, and over the years has been a boarding school, a home hospice and a prison. Today, it is part of the complex where our friend Novelia is an English-speaking guide (that’s how we met) and her pride in the place and its history is palpable. Find out all about Celestino’s peregrinations around the area in his search for spiritual peace and quiet and marvel at the remains of the abbey in the present day.
#9 The Joust —This spectacle was a regular feature in the Middle Ages until 1643, when it was finally abolished. If you’ve ever seen the palio (horse race) in Siena or Ferrara or any of a number of other Italian cities, you’ll appreciate the kind of medieval splendor that these events evoke. The Joust has been restored to Sulmona only in the last few decades, and offers a wealth of historical reenactments and over 500 characters in costume. Today the celebrated Giostra Cavalleresca (a “competition” among the seven regional borghi andsestrieri) takes place in the last week in July, with horses, captains in armor and duels a plenty!
#10 Location, location, location — Because you can make all kinds of side trips while you’re based in Sulmona. Visit Scanno, a little to the south, for its resort lake and shops selling traditional gold filigree jewelry. Go up the mountains from Scanno to Azienda Agricola Rotolo Gregorio — the Bioagriturismo Valle Scannese. The drive is spectacular and if you call ahead for food, you’ll get a great meal! Drive north to L’Acquila, the capital of Abruzzo. Reconstruction is slow since the 2009 earthquake, but it’s worth seeing. There are two museums there (San Giuliano Museum of Natural Science and Museo Nazionale d’Abruzzo) and a nearby village, Santo Stefano di Sessanio, known for its black lentils. Lured by the sea? Head for the town of Chieti, a former Roman municipality, or to the tiny historical section of Pescara for a fantastic meal at La Cantina di Jozz.Finally, if you like the mountains, remember that you’re right near the Gran Sasso Mountains, where skiing is popular. Or you can go to Pescasseroli & Abruzzo National Park to check out the nature reserve and those furry wild animals.
I’ve left so much out, but I hope this gives you a taste of the region. So rent a car and get a map and go have an Abruzzese adventure. And be sure to say Ciao! to Novelia for me!