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How to Get to the Hidden Forests of Abruzzo

Two hours from Rome, yet unknown even to many natives, this Italian region is a land of stunning medieval villages and lush mountains

By Pavia Rosati

ShermansTravel.com

April 2nd, 2008

My mother spent the first 30 years of her life in northern Italy, then married my American father and spent the next 30 in New Jersey. But every summer my parents went back, often taking my brother and me on extensive trips throughout the country. On a recent adventure we needed to get from the Marche region, on the east-central coast, across the peninsula to Amalfi in the southwest. The shortest route appeared to be through Abruzzo, a sleepy, mountainous region dotted with tiny medieval villages. None of us had been to this area, but it looked like a nice diversion, and we decided to include an overnight stop near Scanno, a town known for its gold jewelry.

We took the A25 highway through Cocullo, a scruffy hamlet that holds a snake festival each year on the first Thursday in May (touch one for good luck, if you dare), and made a stop in Sulmona, birthplace of Ovid, to visit the town’s ornate Gothic-Renaissance palazzo and its stunning baroque church, Santa Maria Annunziata.

We picked up SR479 along the eastern edge of Abruzzo National Park. The road is narrow and twisty, with switchback turns and hardly any other drivers. Green trees blanketed the hills and riverbanks, and the few houses we saw were postcard-perfect dots in the landscape. We found something new around each curve: a waterfall, a ruin, a wild boar. Everything was modest and balanced: no gaudy mansions or noisy waterfront restaurants. Our yappity conversation diminished and soon we drove in silence, stunned at the gorgeous wonder we had tumbled into.

“This is Italy?” my mother chirped from the backseat. It felt more like Vermont. Most Italian countryside is homogeneous, with gentle rolling hills, poplars, and olive groves. Not so with Abruzzo National Park, which, along with the Gran Sasso National Park, the Majella National Park, the Sirente-Velino Regional Park, and 39 more nature reserves and protected WWF oases, covers the bulk of the Abruzzo region. Most of these parks were established in the last 30 years, with impressive results; animals once on the verge of extinction have increased their populations. Marsicano bears, the unlikely symbol of the Abruzzo Park, now number around 100.

We arrived in Scanno at midday and immediately made our way to Santa Maria della Valle, a simple 15th-century church built atop a pagan temple. From there we roamed the triangle-shaped town’s steep, narrow maze of streets. We spent the whole afternoon wandering, taking in Renaissance and baroque facades of stone and painted cement embellished with arches and potted geraniums. The sidewalks and squares were largely empty, except for an occasional group of grandmotherly women clad head to toe in traditional billowing black brocade and long lacy headdresses (almost like turbans). They walked in groups of three, small clusters that evoked the shape of the city.  

Not much is known about the origins of Scanno. The first records of the town date to 1067 AD, but its history is suffused with folklore and legend. It’s widely believed Scanno’s first settlers may have come from Asia Minor, which would explain the women’s turbans as well as Scanno’s two artisan traditions: a form of round embroidery called tombole and gold jewelry worked in a filigreed, Oriental style. My mother and I browsed many jewelry shops for examples of the latter, but were struck most by Di Rienzo (Via de Angelis, 1; 39/864-74329), a store and workshop where the gold pieces were elaborate but refined. We chatted with the shopkeeper about his work and the town, then bought several necklaces. He wrapped up two delicately ornate gold charms too. “A gift,” he said. “They will look as good on your necklace as on your hoop earrings.”

The Museo della Lana has more local treats, exhibiting folk crafts, tools, furniture, and cheese-making equipment. Cozy and comfortable Hotel Roma (Viale della Pineta, 6; 39/864-74313; rooms from $90; abruzzo-green.com/hotelroma) is the best in-town stay, with a lovely lakeside garden and restaurant, and a location near the historic center.

The route south of Scanno is rugged, green, and majestic. We picked up SR83 and went to Pescasseroli, another hill town—the largest one inside Abruzzo park—that is a departure point for many excellent trails into the mountains.

The road turns north through the stunning Passo del Diavolo (Devil’s Pass) and then west to the canyons at Gole del Celano, another park highlight; the village of Celano, famous for its old castle; and finally Alba Fucens, the archaeological site of a Roman village dating from 303 BC.

To the east of Scanno, in Rivisondoli, is Ristorante Reale (Viale R. Elena, 49; 39/864-69382; ristorantereale.it), a small brother and sister–run restaurant where traditional dishes are given a modern twist, like gnocchi with saffron and zucchini or chickpeas with baccala.

Our destination for the night was Dimora delPrete di Belmonte (Via Cristo, 49; 39/865-900-159; rooms from $175; dimoradel prete.it) a palazzo-hotel in Venafro (part of Molise, the region to the south that, until 1963, was part of Abruzzo). The house has an ivy-draped staircase, interior garden, and red frescoed walls of fading rabbits and vines. We settled in for supper by the fire and a good sleep. It felt more like the home of one of my aunts than a hotel. The following morning, owner Dorothy Volpe served us her own freshly pressed olive oil, and I got a lesson in the politics of the local frantoio, or olive press.  

When I returned home, I called my globe-trotting Roman cousin to demand an explanation for why she’d been hiding Abruzzo from me. Turns out she’d never been. This was baffling: If I had Yosemite within a two-hour drive of my Manhattan apartment, I’d go all the time.

And when I return, I’ll go to Abruzzo National Park for springtime drives or Alps-rivaling skiing. I’ll go to Gran Sasso National Park for age-old forests and villages stopped in time; for Campo Imperatore, the plateau where many Westerns were filmed; for the waterfalls at Cento Fonti and Gole del Salinello; and for the castles at Santo Stefano di Sessanio and Rocca Calascio. And I’ll go to the Majella Park—for the silent, mystical valleys between Pennapiedimonte and Fara San Martino, and desolate Monte Amaro.

We had ventured into Abruzzo looking for a shortcut and gold jewelry. We discovered so much more.

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