15th July 2018
Pescasseroli, the Heart of the National Park of Abruzzo
Pescasseroli in Abruzzo is the heart of the “National Park of Abruzzo”: http://www.parcoabruzzo.it/Epaesi.scheda.php?id=66068 but more than that it is also the capital of this amazing park. It was here that Erminio Sipari, an inhabitant of the town, developed the idea of the national park to protect the landscape and the wildlife. Created in 1922 it was the first national park in Italy and one of the earliest national parks to be established in the world. Wild animals including wolves and two animals that are not found anywhere else the Camoscio d”Abruzzo (chamois) and the Marsican brown bear roam freely here. It is a matter of great pride to the inhabitants of the park that they live in harmony with the wild animals.
The splendid family residence, Palazzo Sipari, where Erminio Sipari lived still graces the town, occupying one side of the Piazza B Croce. This piazza is named for the famous Italian philosopher and writer, Benedetto Croce who was born in the Palazzo Sipari. His mother, Luisa Sipari Croce came to the family home to escape an outbreak of cholera in Naples. They returned to Naples when Croce lived for the rest of his life but he did regularly visit Pescasseroli. The palazzo is now a museum and open during August every year but group visits can be arranged at other times.
Entering the town, the first building I noticed was the Visitors’ Centre of Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo. Lazio e Molise generally shortened to PNALM. Around three-quarters of this large park is an Abruzzo but it also creeps into the regions of Lazio and Molise. Visitors to Pescasseroli can learn more about the park in this visitors’ centre where there is a natural history museum, an information desk and an area in the garden that is home to some typical wildlife of the region.
But Pescasseroli is not only about the national park as it has a very interesting history of its own. Across the road from the park Visitors’ Centre is a modern sculpture and a splash of bright colour that seemed out of place here. And it seems the local inhabitants agree with me. However, I later discovered that Pescasseroli has subscribed to an international movement, “Fondazione Mediterraneo, initiated by the Mediterranean countries in 1994 for the promotion of global peace. The foundation’s symbol is the Totem of Peace which was created by the sculptor Mario Molinari. The orange sail it represents is a symbolic of travel on the Mediterranean Sea, the cradle of civilisation. The splash of red represents dawn and sunset, the constant rhythm of the Universe.
Next to the totem of peace, at the top of Piazza Vittorio Veneto I found the pretty grey stone Church of Santa Lucia. In front of this church is a memorial to those from this town who died during the First World War, in particular the many Alpine soldiers who suffered. Every mountain town in Italy had units of the Alpine army, the Alpini, protecting their section of the mountains. When this single nave church was built during the seventeenth century it was a rural church outside the village. During the first World War it was used as a primary school. Later, during the 1930s this church was dedicated to the memory of those who died during the first World War. Today the only services held here are occasional special religious feasts. But the church is open to the public so I was able to go inside and appreciate the simplicity of its interior.
I strolled through the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, a wide street with a garden running down the middle and emerged in the main piazza, Piazza San Antonio or Piazza del Municipio. This piazza is dominated by the Town Hall or Municipio which was originally the Church of San Antonio, hence the name. I had lunch in the Trattoria da Pitone which is close to this piazza. This simple Trattoria is decorated with old farm implements and cooking utensils. It serves delicious, rustic food. I chose the traditional home-made ravioli stuffed with borage leaves and ricotta cheese. To accompany my meal, I tried a local white wine, Pecora (sheep). This light, crispy wine is not in any way reminiscent of the animal it is named after. I believe the name recognises the fact that sheep in Abruzzo like to eat the leaves of the vines.
After eating I and my companions returned to the main piazza where we had a coffee in the smallest and oldest bar in town. Then, I set off to explore the old town. As I wandered through the narrow cobbled streets the first thing I noticed were the designs in the cobbled streets fashioned from white stones. The designs themselves were not significant but it was a beautiful way of preserving the old cobble stones that would have originally come from the River Sangro that runs through the town.
As I approached the Chiesa del Carmine the custodian was locking the door but when she looked up and saw me walking towards her the door was immediately unlocked and I was invited to enter. Not only was I given the opportunity to explore the elegant white stucco interior but she also opened the door behind which the precious statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel is kept. During the Feast of Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel in July this statue is paraded through the town through a shower of rose petals from the balconies above the streets. It is taken to the Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul, where it is stays until the end of the day and is then taken back to the Chiesa del Carmine.
The Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul Chiesa is the parish church and home of another famous religious statue, Maria Santissima l’Incoronata or the crowned Madonna and also sometimes referred to as the black Madonna as she is painted black. There are different stories regarding her arrival in Pescasseroli. Was she brought her by a monk or by a shepherd or does she originate from the Orent? Of the seven original sculptures collectively referred to as the Seven Sisters. One of them is here and a second one is in Foggia in the neighbouring region of Puglia but it is not known where the others are. Her festival is celebrated on 08 September and it starts the night before when she is dressed in royal robes and adorned with her crown. The following day she is paraded around the town as part of a great procession before being returned to her niche in the church.
I emerged at the edge of the town by the Fontana di San Rocco also known as the fountain of the bears due to the bronze bear heads on the outlets. This fountain is thought to date back to the sixteenth century. In a little exhibition in the historic centre at 64 Via della Chiesa (open daily) there are old photographs of the women in traditional dress collecting water from this fountain. An inscription carved in the rock above the fountain states that the National Park of Abruzzo opened here on September 09 1922 for the protection of Sylvan beauties and treasures of nature. On the opposite side of the road the Bridge of Santa Venere The original stone bridge with a double rounded arch was destroyed by the Germans during the Second World War before they abandoned Pescasseroli. The ancient cattle track also passes by the town here. This wide, natural path of grass, earth or stone used both for military purposes and moving animals between pastures. It dates back to pre-Roman times and for hundreds of years it was used by shepherds in transhumance. This is the practice of moving flocks of sheep away from the cold mountains to the mild lowlands on foot. Over 200 kilometres in length, the Pescasseroli Candela one of the five major “royal” cattle tracks and today it has been incorporated into a network of walking trails that start from the bridge.
My final objective was the castle perched on a rocky promontory above the town. To reach the start of the path I took the long street named Corso Plistia. The buildings along this street tell their own stories with the ornamentation and inscriptions in the archways above the doors. These indicate who built the house, who lived there and what their profession was. On my way I passed through the small Piazza di Pinocchio which features a wrought iron statue of the famous puppet a long way from his home town of Collodi in Tuscany. It was put there by the art collector Luigi Cocuzzi.
The start of the trail to the ruins of Castel Mancino. Emerging from the trees it becomes a narrow stony path that winds its way up a steep grassy slope littered with rocks and sparsely clothed with pine trees. Above me I had glimpses of the remains of grey stone walls – all that was left of the once impressive castle that was built around the tenth or eleventh century as a defence against raids from the Saracens and the Magyars. It was not long before the inhabitants of this enclosed perimeter castle began to move down to the valley and the castle fell into ruins due to damage caused by earthquakes and neglect. Local masons stripped the castle walls of their fixtures, finished stone pieces and anything else that could be used for their construction work in the town. The castle became known locally as Castel Mancino after poet-priest Cesidio Gentile known as Jurico, used it in his poem Marsican Legend (1904) which was inspired by the legend of Pesca and Seroli. Sitting on the top of ruins I had a wonderful panoramic view of the town and surrounding countryside around me.
When I finally came down from my peaceful perch I was delighted to find proof of the harmony of man and nature. A beautiful fox was sitting on a step by the roadside. He did not move a muscle as I approached but just sat there as though he had every right to be there. And he did.
I flew from London, Heathrow, to Rome, Fiumicino with Alitalia. There are regular long-distance buses from Fiumicino to Alba Adriatica in Abruzzo where I started my tour, run by Gaspari which are easily booked online. Thereafter I used local trains and buses. But Abruzzo does not have a very good public transport system (part of its charm for me) so hiring a car is probably preferable. It takes 2 to 2½ hours to drive from Fiumicino Airport to Pescasseroli depending on the traffic.
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