Alberto is the cop in Pratola. He walks the old town almost daily, sporting Ray-Bans and an immaculate uniform, like all Italian policemen.
On my fourth day in town, he stops me on my way to Caffe del Corso at the Piazza Madonna della Libera. Breakfast has to wait. I have to explain myself to Alberto, although he is driven not so much by suspicion as curiosity.
Indicating my cameras, he enquires – in excellent English, a rarity as Pratola is off the main tourist trails – if I’m here to photograph his city. And hearing that I have come from Australia to do just that, Alberto makes a connection. “People left the region for America or Australia,” he says. “There were no jobs here, no future.” It is an assessment that still applies; straddling the Apennine mountains 150km or so east of Rome, the Abruzzo region has been economically depressed for a very long time.
Visually, though, it is awesome. In the northern section of Majella National Park, about an hour’s drive from Pratola, lies the spa town of Caramanico Terme. At the National Park centre I get a free permit for a walk through the dramatic Gole di Orfento, a deep limestone gorge below the town.
The rocky slopes are covered with a thicket of beech, ash and hazel. In its depths, an ice-cold, crystal-clear creek rushes over polished rocks. Birds sing. Many flowers display their splendour, among them rare orchids. The old town above is soon forgotten, replaced by a wild landscape of great beauty.
Three national parks
Few other regions of Italy can give you the likes of the three national parks and 30 nature reserves that make Abruzzo so wonderful. The most famous is the Gran Sasso National Park. A spectacular road leads up to the treeless high plains of the Campo Imperatore. Horses roam freely, alpine wild flowers colour the meadows. Locals come up to collect wild spinach, which is abundant in the soggy ground and tastes best when fried with garlic and chilli in olive oil and then tossed with pasta.
The road ends at 2130m, at the decaying red art deco Hotel di Campo Imperatore where Benito Mussolini was kept prisoner for 12 days after his regime fell apart in 1943.
Nearby is an observatory and the top station of a cable car. Above all this looms Corno Grande, at almost 3000m the highest peak of the Apennines which form the physical backbone of the Italian peninsula.
Also within Gran Sasso National Park is the ancient town of Castel del Monte, now most notable as one of the locations for the George Clooney movie The American. Although one of the better-known towns of the area, it is quiet, and I am alone as I walk the narrow alleys.
The same applies to the old village of Rocca Calascio, above which are the ruins of a castle. Nearby, at the edge of the Navelli Plain which leads into the distance towards the limestone bastion of Corno Grande, sits the extraordinary church of Santa Maria della Pieta. It was built in an unusual octagonal design in the late 16th century. Again, I am the only visitor.
Abruzzo is full of cultural treasures. Unlike those in Tuscany, their existence is practically unknown and they haven’t been elevated to exotic must-sees in novels by Dan Brown or TV travelogues.
The closest to Tuscany’s Florence is historic L’Aquila, southwest of Gran Sasso. However, since the earthquake of 6 April 2009, this magnificent centre of architectural and cultural beauty has been what my policeman friend Alberto says is “a wounded city”.
Visiting L’Aquila should not be seen as catastrophe tourism but to help the city in her healing process.
And there is still a lot to see: the fortress above town or the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio are only two examples.
Kissing under Ovid’s gaze
Much less damaged and still a cultural hub of the region is Sulmona, 10km south-east of Pratola. The birthplace of the Roman poet Ovid, the city displays a grandeur that reflects a time of importance. Every year it celebrates the Ars, Eros, Cibus festival (Art, Love, Food), and one of the festive rituals is “kissing under Ovid’s gaze” at the Piazza XX Settembre. Countless couples gather at the beginning of December and kiss under the sculpture of Ovid in the centre of the piazza. Sulmona is also famous for its sugar-coated and coloured almonds known as confetti, often artfully crafted into decorative flowers.
But it is the wildness of Abruzzo that again draws me away from the towns.
One excursion brings me to Scanno, perhaps the quintessential Abruzzen mountain village. In 1951, master French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson visited the village. Fascinated by its ancient beauty, he immortalised Scanno in black and white.
Scanno is also the starting point of walks into the mountains. I follow a track through a narrow valley, up to a saddle and into a hidden paradise of alpine meadows surrounding Fattoria Jovana, a remote farmhouse at the foot of the Serra Spavera. There I meet Dino Carfaguini a native of Scanno who’s in his 70s. Dino lives in Boston but he comes back every year for a few months. “There used to be a town with 400 people here,” he remembers. “Now there is a fattoria (farm) and some summer pastures.”
Bear, wolf and lynx return
The agricultural might of Abruzzo is shrinking fast. With people leaving the region, farms get abandoned and forests are expanding. Valleys fall silent, and bear, wolf and lynx are back.
The economic hardships may explain why the people are stubbornly holding on to traditions. Throughout the year festivals fill the calendar. On 6 June it is the turn of Raiano and its Cherry Festival. The town is surrounded by orchards and the fresh, crisp fruit piles up on tables. In the afternoon there’s a colourful parade, with town folk dressed in traditional costumes and women wearing necklaces made of cherries. They sing, dance and laugh, and there is an air of carefree enjoyment. It is not a show for tourists but for themselves. In their hearts at least, Abruzzo remains strong.
Discover Italy and Abruzzo.
The writer travelled at his own expense.
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