8th July 2018
A Journey Through Abruzzo
I started my journey through Abruzzo in Italy at the seaside resort of Tortoreto Lido. An early morning stroll revealed a seemingly never-ending stretch of golden sand sliding gently into the blue sea. Waves lapped softly on this vast sandy plain banded with the colourful beach furniture of the private sections. For those who did not want to pay for the luxury of a sun bed, umbrella and changing facilities there were also public areas of bare sand. After taking a long walk along the promenade which is divided into two tracks to accommodate both walkers and cyclists I stopped for a coffee at one of the private beaches – there is no entry fee to use their bars and restaurants. These beautiful beaches are amongst the best and cleanest I have seen anywhere and definitely deserve the blue flags they have proudly displayed for many consecutive years.
Above Tortoreto Lido is the pre-medieval settlement of Tortoreto Alto which was recorded as being rich in woods and suitable for turtledoves to nest – a bird from which the town took its name Turturitus (tortore). I discovered that it still has the structure of a medieval village as I wandered around the fortress, circumvented its walls and admired the Clock Tower that was built on top of them. There are two churches here the parish church dedicated to San Nicola di Bari and an oratory, the chapel of the Madonna della Misericordia. In the past the latter has been an important destination for pilgrims and today it is significant for its sixteenth century frescoes. I got the local bus up to the village but had not appreciated the significance of the bus following a circular route so I missed it and had to walk back. This was not really a hardship as the roads are quiet and I was rewarded by lovely views of the village behind me.
Inland each of the seven hills in Val Vibrata is topped by an historic settlement. This huge valley is name for the river that runs through it, River Vibrata. I visited Colonnella, Controguerra and Corropoli. Each has its own characteristics and special feast days but of the three Corropoli was the most interesting as it is here they run the Palio delle Botti. This colourful event is a barrel rolling race through the streets of Corropoli ending in its main square.
Val Vibrata is famous for its wine and the vines of many vineyards clothe the slopes of its hills. I visited Cantina Rasicci where I met the owner Amerigo and his son Pietro. At eighty-seven the spritely Amerigo is still tending the vines. His son, Pietro, showed me around the vineyard and told me about the organic wines they produce. They also have a museum full of old farming implements and household items. I left with a bottle of their white wine, a crisp Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, which I enjoyed later with my dinner.
Before leaving the province of Teramo I visited one of its most important towns, Giulianova and explored its three main areas, the old town, the sea front and the sanctuary of the Madonna della Splendore Giulianova was built on the model of the ideal city. I had a great time exploring Giulianova with two lovely local guides and was sorry when it was time to move on.
In the province of “Aquila I was treated to a fascinating tour of Alba Fucens, an important ancient Roman town, with an expert on the subject, Fabrizio. He did not speak any English but my Italian was sufficient to understand his spirited commentary. He made a town that was destroyed by an earthquake come to life again as we explored the ruins of the market place, enjoyed the fact that fast food was popular even in those days, admired the mosaics in the thermal spas and visited the pagan chapel of Hercules. But the best was yet to come and after walking up a narrow path to the top of a hill we entered the amphitheatre that was famous for being commissioned by the Praetorian prefect Naevius Macro shortly before he was condemned by Caligula.
The church of San Pietro on the summit of the hill above Alba Fucens was originally a Roman temple dedicated to Apollo but after being damaged in an earthquake it was converted into a Benedictine church during the twelfth century. Its extraordinary interior incorporates the original columns of the temple and it is decorated in Baroque style featuring lovely mosaics. Behind the church is an old convent that is currently being converted into a museum – but it will take a while.
That night I stayed in the Borgo Medievale di Alba Fucens, permanent population five – three adults and two dogs. From the ruins of this medieval village a bar, restaurant and bed and breakfast accommodation have been fashioned through the renovation and extension of the damaged buildings. I had a lovely room on three levels with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside through the windows. Before dinner I strolled around the ruins of the village above me and watched the sun setting over the flat topped hill below me. The Romans had removed the top of this hill to build a temple there. My convivial meal that evening included a stand out dish of risotto made with lemon juice and cooked by my host, Michele who runs the bed and breakfast with his wife Vicenza.
To reach my next destination I had to cross the huge fertile plain of Fucino. This plain has an interesting history as it was originally created by the Romans when they built an underground tunnel to drain the water from Lago Fucino into the River Liri at Claudio’s Cunicoli in the hamlet of Capistrello The Romans undertook this massive project for two reasons. Essentially the lake was a huge area of stagnant water as it was neither fed nor emptied by a river. This also meant its levels varied often exposing swampy ground. They also need to feed the inhabitants of the towns in that area and needed to find more land to farm. They did not drain the whole area and after the decline of the Roman Empire the project was abandoned and water filled the valley again. During the nineteenth century the project was revived and the whole area was drained and cultivated. I visited Capistrello and walked down through the small gorge there to see the water falling out of the tunnel into the River Liri. On the way I passed the remains of a hydro-electric station which is no longer used as it was replaced by new ones at the other two places where the water exits from Lake Fucino.
Crossing the plain and gazing across an endless, flat carpet of cultivation suddenly, I could not believe what I was seeing on the horizon. Incongruous amongst the ploughed fields and patches of growing crops is the huge ground space station, the Telespazio’s Piero Fanti Space Centre. This space centre has been active since 1963 and today it is recognised as the first and most important teleport in the world for civilian use. The Fucino Space Centre Museum was built in 1968, and it houses some equipment used in the pioneering phase of satellite telecommunications. It is not open to the public but private visits to the museum can be arranged.
When I arrived at the nature reserve Riserva Zompo lo Schioppo I was presented with a helmet and a pair of wellington boots attached to some waterproof trousers that came up to my armpits and beyond. I had understood I would be walking by a river but after waddling along a road for twenty minutes I was instructed to climb down a steep bank and get in the river. With Mattia leading the way and Marta behind me we walked for two hours navigating slippery rocks, huge boulders, ducking under fallen branches, dropping into deep holes and conquering strong currents. I wished I had taken my watch off and then I would have been more relaxed about the whole experience and not at all concerned about falling over. I managed to stay upright and was proud of myself for having completed this unusual challenge. I was ready for a hearty lunch in the Rifugio lo Schioppo right inside the park. My meal was followed by a short walk to see the waterfall, Cascata Zompo lo Schioppo, that crashes down to the river from a great height. This waterfall only appears in the spring and early summer when the snow on the mountains is melting. As I stayed in the Visitor Centre that night I had a chance to browse the information displayed in several rooms there and appreciate the amount of work they do to help everyone appreciate the nature around them.
I was on the move again the next morning to Pescasseroli, another town in the province of Aquila. During my stay there I visited a cheese factory, Azienda Agricola la Grancia di Sant’Angelo. This family business is run by Claudio and they make cheese from cow’s milk. They have developed their own breed of strong cows that yield good milk that they developed themselves. While I was there the herd was feeding in the barn but they do go out pasture. The calves are kept inside until the bears and wolves that roam freely in the area are not such a threat. The farm is within the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo where the inhabitants pride themselves on their ability to live in harmony with the wild animals. They surround their pastures with electric fences to keep the bears away. A special breed of dog, the Abruzzo shepherd dog, does not work with the sheep but stays with them in case of an attack by wolves. These dogs wear spiked collars as a wolf attacks the throat. Claudio has a small herd of sheep and I watched them and the dogs making their own way to their pasture. I visited the little shop there to taste some cheese – cavallo, so named because it resembles a prominent part of a horse’s anatomy and the delightful Monte Greco cheese speckled with fenugreek seeds.
I also stopped in Barrea, and walked through the old town which has probably existed since the tenth century. The origin of this settlement was a Benedictine monastery constructed on a precipice above the River Sangro. A settlement of impregnable houses developed alongside this monastery protected by nature on one side and walls and observation towers on the other. The best place to appreciate this development is from the top of its castle. Beyond the buildings of the old town I could savour the view of Lago Barrea, a reservoir created when the River Sango was dammed to build a hydro-electric power station.
Lunch that day was a picnic in Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo sitting on a bench at a large wooden table outside the little Baite Padre Terzi. It was perfect, Pietro, barbecued piles of tasty meat that we ate with fresh focaccia bread washed down with both white and red wine drunk from plastic cups. A herd of white cows appeared, grazed on the grass in the clearing in front of us. A little later I heard the drumming of hooves and a herd of ponies cantered by on their way to quench their thirst. That afternoon I went for a walk in the oldest part of the park, the Bosco della Difesa. This ancient forest has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Beech trees that are 300 – 400 years old have been pruned so the branches grew outwards like a candelabra rather than upwards. This forest is punctuated by open areas where, in the past, the trees were cut down to create pastures. Strolling through this historic forest was the perfect way to end my day.
Pescasseroli was my last stop on my journey through Abruzzo and I had just one more day during which I explored the town – but that will be the subject of my next article.