Monday 21 November 2016

Off the beaten track in Abruzzo, Italy

South of Tuscany and Umbria, and along the spine of the Appenines in the east, you wind upwards into the mountains of Abruzzo. 

Abruzzo region of Italy, from the heart of the Appenines to the Adriatic sea

I fell in love with one part of this region two years ago when I visited Norcia (link here) and it's heartbreaking to know that this beautiful town has now been all but destroyed in the latest of the series of earthquakes to have hit Italy. 

The open spaces, distinctive yellows and greens of rolling hills where bears and wolves roam, the edge of natural, wild beauty make this in my opinion one of the most underrated and worthwhile destinations in Italy. 

Steering clear of the Amatrice area that had been the epicentre of the last-but-one earthquake only a few weeks before, we headed instead to the province of L'Aquila, the region of the 2009 earthquake, figuring it was likely to be relatively safe.

  This area gets covered in deep snow in the winter. Even in early September having left a still-hot Tuscany and Umbria behind, climbing higher into these rugged mountains, the temperature began dropping noticeably.

In the perched village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a fortified medieval village in the Gran Sasso national park, we wandered along steep, narrow cobbled streets in search of the unmarked Albergo Diffuso Sextantio. 

Like the capital city of L'Aquila, this little medieval town was also damaged in the 2009 terramoto, and government-led building restoration has been painfully slow. The church atop the little town is still sadly completely destroyed.

Many buildings are secured with temporary scaffolding and wooden supports. It's not clear if some of them are inhabited. I'd be somewhat nervous myself.

San Stefano is an ongoing project in preserving a traditional way of life: local people are supported in producing regional food and traditional arts and crafts; the centuries-old Albergo Sextantio is kept with all its original rustic features intact (though thankfully with modern heating!). Click here for a visual glimpse into the restoration of the town and the unusual Sextantio Albergo.

The place is a rare and authentic experience. Which is why the series of earthquakes is so sad, both for what has been destroyed and the impact on visitors to the region.

Even with on-off rain and the slight sense of unease that comes with hoping the earth will not decide to move at this particular time, this place made a huge impression on me.

 And oh the food: we had an absurdly reasonable and delicious dinner in this tiny family-run restaurant, Gepetto's (below), where an energetic local chef and his elderly parents produced a succession of antipasti of local salumi and cheeses, ravioli filled with ricotta and zafferano (another regional speciality), perfect lamb, potatoes and salad. Feeling like stuffed pythons with no room for dessert, kind Papa brought local liqueur as a digestif.

The next day we left early and decided to take a longer, scenic route instead of the fast Rome-bound motorway, through the Abruzzo national park - beautiful even under cloud cover and in light rain ...

keeping a watchful eye out for any bears who might think of crossing the road 

The Abruzzo national park and protected nature reserve ensure the survival of an impressive 75% of Europe's living wildlife species, including bears, wolves, chamois and eagles. 

Surrounded by the Majella mountains are the lake towns of Scanno, below, which Henri Cartier-Bresson fell in love with and photographed extensively (see here)

and Barrea, 'pearl of the Abruzzo', above and below.

This part of Abruzzo has a very different landscape from the rolling hills and plains of San Stefano and the capital L'Aquila: the mountains are rocky and much higher, and there are natural lakes (amazing to see at well over 1000m above sea level) with the most fabulously deep blue turquoise water, clean and rich in fish and bird life.

If you're put off by the tourist hordes and commercialisation of so many of Italy's better-known destinations and want an authentic Italian experience in a place of natural beauty, Abruzzo has so much to offer. 'Forte e gentile' is how Primo Levi summed up the character of the landscape and its inhabitants, and I can't think of a better description.

Abruzzo, Italy, September 2016

Wednesday 9 November 2016

A drive through Chianti, Tuscany

Past Milano, the northern Italian motorways whizz one along efficiently south-east, past Parma and Modena, until, close to Bologna, you turn sharp south. And before long there are iconic sights of hilltop towns with ochre roofs, vineyards and cypresses, to let you know unmistakably that you're in Tuscany.

Between Firenze and Siena to its south is the Chianti wine-growing region

where, outside the town of San Casciano, there's an overnight stop in Mangiacane (the great dog), a pinky-orange Medici villa surrounded by cypresses

set on a hilltop overlooking the Chianti vineyards

After a long day in the car there's a pool to relax in, and one of my favourite pleasures that only a warm climate can offer: an outdoor shower

In the peaceful courtyard garden I was surprised to find Zimbabwean soapstone sculptures - slightly out of context, but they look well here. 

A sudden heavy rain shower cleared up in time for dinner in the garden: antipasti of local cheeses and charcuterie, a pasta of fresh truffles, and obviously a bottle of red Chianti. What could be more perfect?

Chianti, Tuscany, Italy, September 2016

Monday 7 November 2016

Crossing Lake Como with bikers

On day 2 of the Italian road trip, south of Basel, we entered the 17km long Gotthard tunnel that bores under the Alps and pops you out in Italian Switzerland - to drive alongside the beautiful Lago di Lugano with gorgeous homes on the edge of the lake surrounded by mountains. 

Lugano is right on the border with Italy; we cross over and minutes later have the first sightings of serene Como in muted shades of blue and green under an overcast sky.

At Cadenabbia we drive onto a car ferry. 
These ferries cross the lake every half hour and we're waved on with little concern for order, cars and motorbikes filling up the boat deck higgeldy piggeldy, Italian style. At the back, with a fabulously un-British finger to health and safety there's a basically pointless loose rope across the open end of the boat, where the bikers are standing and chatting.

As we pull away from the west side of Como lake, we join everyone else on the roof deck of the ferry 

(including a wee and clearly cosseted dog)

from where we have perfect views of a receding Cadenabbio, where Mary Shelley stayed and lingered - was she one of the first of the 19th century Brits to become obsessed with the beauty and quality of life in Italy?

and watch the 'pearl of Como', Bellagio, drawing near

The wee pooch sped off the ferry in a stylish open-top red car, bound for who knew what Sunday adventure.

Byron adored Bellagio and Flaubert declared that one could 'live and die here', but could we find the smallest sliver of a parking space?

Sadly no, so it was onwards and upwards along the coastal shore of this uniquely gorgeous lake, where locals were soaking up the last of the summer sun on jetties and tiny beaches

looked over by peeling ochre mansions and olive trees

Lake Como, Italy, September 2016

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