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Let's All Go to Abruzzo

[by Christopher Brown, UK]
Where? Sounds like an Italian cheese. It's not actually; but it is a slice of Italy. To be precise it is that part of the Italian peninsula that lies between Rome and the Adriatic coast. But despite its proximity to Rome few non-Italians have heard of it. Look in the guide books; if they mention Abruzzo at all it is to be dismissive. So why did I go there this August? Because of the internet is the answer. Search for Abruzzo and you will be bombarded by sites for travellers and tourists, mostly in English. On the net I could visit little towns and villages and walk through the Abruzzo National Park. The clincher came when the University of L'Aquila site gave me the times and fares for the bus from Rome to L'Aquila and from L'Aquila to Pescara. It seemed to me that I was being called to visit Abruzzo. And so, after a few hot and pestered days in Rome I set off from Tiburtina bus station to the cool and mysterious interior. Cool, because Abruzzo encapsulates the central part of the Appenine mountain range; mysterious because few Englishmen have set foot there.
L'Aquila is an hour and forty minutes by bus from Rome on the autostrada and is the capital of Abruzzo. It is an ancient and entrancing little town. Narrow medieval streets, steep steps down to the city gates and a beautifully proportioned central piazza, all make it feel cosy and welcoming. The many churches include the most famous basilica in Abruzzo S.Maria di Collemaggio. Started in 1287 its wide facade is built in slabs of pink and white stone so that it gleams in the sunlight as you approach it. The castle was built in 1532 and now houses the National Museum of Abruzzo. The Fountain of 99 Spouts dates, incredibly, from 1272. The spouts represent the 99 castles that participated in the founding of L'Aquila. It was exceptionally hot when I was in L'Aquila so the street taps continuously gushing ice-cold water were like recurring miracles. I stayed at the Hotel Duomo, just off the central piazza, which was cool and elegant. It made up for limited English with great friendliness and a bed and breakfast charge of only £35. On the internet (there was nothing in the guidebook) I had read that there was a spectacular underground river near L'Aquila but I was having difficulty in finding out much about it. However, at the hotel I met a young Italian student who wanted to practise his English so he fetched his car and took me there. There is a waterfall in the cave and some magnificent stalactites and stalagmites.

My new friend Andrea also took me for a meal on the Agriturismo route. 'Agricultural tourism in Abruzzo' is a scheme that operates in the north of the region and embraces 300 farms, restaurants and hotels offering food and hospitality with an emphasis on a cuisine typical to Abruzzo as well as value for money. Our delicious and authentic lunch came to less than £10 each.

Although I did not have time to visit it, another day out from L'Aquila is the snow covered Gran Sasso d'Italia, the highest peak in the Appenines, and the Campo Imperatore, a vast plain 2000m above sea level. There is a new cable car to take you to the snow level and full tourist support.

I left L'Aquila reluctantly, heading for the seaside resort of Pescara. This is a major city with commerce and industry as well as tourism. But the coastal areas are all hotels and blocks of holiday apartments. The sea front has restaurants, bars and palm trees while the miles of beach are covered with deck chairs and sun shades in the orderly rows and columns which Tim Parks describes in his account of a holiday in Pescara (Tim Parks An Italian Education Vintage, 1999). There are some museums in Pescara and a marina. It is also on the route of a special tourist train called Il Treno della Valle (something else I learned about on the net). It starts on the coast north of Pescara and then heads off inland into the mountains before returning. There are several different whole day tours that involve some walking with hotel meals included in the price.

Then I set off for Pescasseroli, a holiday village back in the mountains. The journey by bus and train took all day and included four hours in Sulmona, a former capital of the region, where Ovid was born. Today Sulmona is famous for its sugar almond confetti which is used widely at weddings throughout Catholic Europe. While I was enjoying my yoghurt served like soft ice cream the eclipse took place and the town was bathed in golden, rather than bright yellow, sunlight.

After a further stop for another bus and some more ice cream in Castel di Sangro, where the Abruzzo zoo is located, I reached Pescasseroli in time for dinner. This was a splendid affair at the Albergo Paradiso run by Geraldine McCarron and Marco di Bona. Geraldine is a Scot who has been cooking and serving marvellous food in Switzerland, Germany and Italy for most of her life. She and Marco speak French, German, Italian, Spanish and English between them and their twelve year old son, Alessandro, at school in Belgium, also speaks fluent Flemish. The hotel consists of two large chalets joined together and decorated in mountain style - with a pair of bagpipes hanging in the lounge. The hotel particularly welcomes children and it was fascinating at meal times to watch Italian families, famous for their child centredness (see Tim Parks again), in action.

The following day I found a cable car up one of the surrounding mountains (used as a ski lift in winter). At the top we were at 2000m and it was still pleasantly warm. I walked down a stony path, clambered up a steep bank through the beech tress and found myself in a grassy meadow with only butterflies for company. And there I sat down against a tree, ate my roll, drank my water and went to sleep, completely isolated on top of a mountain in the Appenines. Pescasseroli is at the centre of the Abruzzo National Park, the oldest in Italy, covering 110,000 acres. It is possible to see wolves, bears, lynx, chamois, red deer and otters wild in the Park and there are several pairs of golden eagles - but unfortunately not at the top of my mountain. There is a centre in the village where some of these animals can be seen in captivity but it is a little tawdry and entrance is over priced. The Park offers nature trails for children and rather longer hikes in some pretty wild countryside. There are waterfalls, underground rivers, a lake, churches and ruins to see. All of this is backed up by extensive information sites, museums and tourist offices in different villages throughout the Park. A strong environmental concern pervades the whole enterprise which I was rather surprised to find in Italy.

My final day in Abruzzo was spent at a splendid set of Roman ruins near Avezzano called Alba Fucens. This was a garrison town with 30,000 inhabitants founded in 304BC. The main street, the forum, the basilica and the ampitheatre have been excavated and lie quietly baking in a field under the hot afternoon sun. I am alone amongst the ancient stones and it is easy to conjure up images of a busy Roman town 2000 years ago. Some knowledge of the excavations in advance of a visit would be helpful because there is no interpretation at the site itself. On a hill above the ruins is the church of San Pietro built over the remains of an ancient Temple of Apollo, the floor of which is still visible. But the church collapsed in the earthquake of 1915. It is now being rebuilt with EU money and some Roman columns from Alba Fucens.

Abruzzo is well known to Italians as a holiday centre and there were plenty of them enjoying it. Language was not a real barrier though I spoke no Italian and Italians themselves are not too good in foreign languages. However, tourist offices can be found in even the smaller places and usually have an English speaker, as do many of the hotels. Trains and buses were very cheap, impressively efficient and went to most places - but not often! So you need to check timetables for return journeys and connections. A car would make travel easier; the roads, though narrow, were never clogged. The Abruzzo tourist offices would seem to be making great efforts to attract foreign tourists, as a search of the web will quickly reveal. Moreover I came back with armfuls of literature in English. But you need it before you go, not when you are there; and its no use asking the Italian tourist office in London. I have listed some of the material and where to get it. Whether you stay on the Adriatic coast for a beach holiday, or in L'Aquila for cultural and gastronomic excursions, or in Pescasseroli for a more active week, you will find Abruzzo different from what is more usually thought of as Italy and a change from chilly, drizzly Britain.

And you won't meet Tony Blair there.