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

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