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Abruzzo Road Trip

The approach to Campo Imperatore
The approach to Campo Imperatore

I think of Abruzzo as Italy’s ‘big sky country’ and just like Montana it has impressive mountains and endless vistas but the roads here are mostly empty with no State Troopers and RVs slowing you down. Abruzzo is road trip heaven for me with Mother Nature providing the scenery and Steve Earle providing the soundtrack (a playlist that should definitely include Copperhead Road, Telephone Road, Nowhere Road, Hillbilly Highway et al).

The town of Barrea at the southern end of the lake
The town of Barrea at the southern end of the lake that bears its name

Even with the pedal to the metal the view doesn’t change very quickly here because everything is spread out; unlike the northern Apennines above Lucca and Florence along the Tuscan border, the mountains in Abruzzo are higher, the valleys longer and deeper and the roads are mostly tree-less with gentler gradients so there’s nothing to obstruct the views as you drive along.

By the way for those who don't know Steve Earle's music, he is a blend of rock and country - Bruce Springsteen is a fan - but he has a deep southern Texas drawl that might be difficult for some people. Having lived in the Lone Star State and knowing Italy pretty well I would say that there are some definite similarities between Texans and the Abruzzese. And the Ascolani would seem to agree with me because when they see a license plate on a car in Ascoli Piceno that has TE on it (signifying that it comes from the neighboring Abruzzo province of Teramo) they derisively dismiss the occupants as 'Texans'.

Looking south-east from Rocca Calascio
Looking south-east from Rocca Calascio. Another great road and not a car in sight.

The Majella Massif and the Gran Sasso peaks are the Abruzzo highlights for most people with only about 60 miles separating them and lots of interesting towns scattered between them. The Majella alone has more than 30 peaks that rise over 6,500 feet and there are many high altitude plateaus not found elsewhere in the Apennines.

The topography here allows the roads to meander around for miles before they reach the higher elevations which makes a pleasant change from the never-ending hairpin bends typical of Liguria and Tuscany; all of this makes it much easier for the driver to enjoy the scenery without worrying about going over a cliff if you take your eyes off the road for a second.

Church of San Pietro ruins in Vasto
The only part of the 10th century Church of San Pietro in Vasto that managed to survive Turkish raiders and landslides

These Abruzzo massifs have another advantage over most of Italy's other high mountain ranges in that you’re never much further than 40 miles from the Adriatic coastline so you don’t have to choose between mountains and sea - you can have both on the same vacation, as we did.

Città Sant'Angelo
Città Sant'Angelo

This part of Abruzzo doesn’t lack for history either. Corfinium (just north of Sulmona) was the site of the first significant military confrontation between Pompey and Julius Caesar in the civil war that saw Rome evolve from a Republic to an Empire. In January 49 B.C. Caesar crossed the Rubicon south of Ravenna and made rapid progress down the Adriatic coastline before laying siege to Corfinium and then pursuing Pompey all the way south to Brindisi. Centuries earlier this mountainous area was the last part Abruzzo to be conquered by Rome which is why Fabio di Donato called his winery Cingilia in homage to the name of the ancient city of the tough and stubborn Vestini people.

Castel del Monte
Castel del Monte at 4,400 feet in the heart of the Gran Sasso

Forty years before Julius Caesar’s arrival the Abruzzese and others had rebelled against Roman rule in a four year war known as the Social War. Their plan was to establish Corfinium as the capital of a non Roman section of this part of Italia (the Roman term for the entire peninsula of modern day Italy).

They may have lost on that occasion but the Abruzzese have always been a tough people as evidenced by the description which they have been accorded by the rest of Italy: ‘forte e gentile’ (strong and kind). From my experience they are certainly a very polite and friendly people in this part of Italy, perhaps because they have not suffered from over-tourism, quite the reverse in fact. If I had to choose between somewhere like Lago di Garda and Abruzzo as a July or August destination it would be a very easy choice to pick Abruzzo and I say that not through any lack of love for Lago di Garda.

Be prepared to share the road with the Abruzzo wildlife. Foxes, cinghiali, brown bears, a well

behaved cow and more sheep than cars

Day 1 of our Abruzzo road trip began just inside the Marche region at Monteprandone. On previous summer trips to this area we’ve stayed in Ripatransone (Marche), Acquaviva Picena (Marche), Offida (Marche) and Colonnella (Abruzzo) because we like these small unspoiled hilltop towns with stunning views in both directions, south-west to the Gran Sasso and east to the sea.

They are much more peaceful and authentic than the beachfront locations and we found Monteprandone to be the equal of the others but in fact a bit more lively. The standout restaurant for us however was the one we had found previously a short drive south of Colonnella, called Zenobi, set in a very attractive rural location with a lovely garden area for dining outside and sublime regional cooking that the nearby table of Italians had happily driven some distance to enjoy.

The early morning view of the Gran Sasso from the coast at Tortoreto
The early morning view of the Gran Sasso from the northern seaside town of Tortoreto

Our first stop the following morning was Città Sant’Angelo, another very attractive hill town with breathtaking views over both the Adriatic coastline and the equally lovely Abruzzo countryside. There are at least 7 or 8 rivers that flow down from the mountains to the sea in this part of northern Abruzzo and each one has carved out its own valley making the countryside here a patchwork of rolling hills covered with vines, olives and other crops. In the early morning light or the first few rays of sunset there is an irresistible magic to northern coastal Abruzzo, which explains our frequent trips to this area.

Coastal Abruzzo countryside near Atri
Coastal Abruzzo countryside near Atri

Città Sant’Angelo is such a jewel of a place in the perfect setting that it put our next stop of Loreto Aprutino somewhat in the shade. Famous as the source of the best quality Abruzzo olive oil as well as Castle Chiola, that dominates the upper part of town, Loreto Aprutino is a pleasant enough place but lacks the dramatic impact of many of the other towns we visited. If that sounds a little unfair it’s only because you are spoiled for choice in Abruzzo and it takes something special to stand out from the crowd.

The beaches south of Vasto stretching to Termoli in Molise
The beaches south of Vasto stretching down to Termoli in Molise

This article is an overview of our 5 day road trip so we'll describe the route and briefly mention the highlights along the way, but the more interesting towns and sights will be covered in more detail in subsequent articles otherwise this will run too long.

We chose this route for the first day because of our afternoon appointment with Fabio di Donato at Cingilia. We had the opportunity recently to taste his 2020 wines and all of them are a notch above his very good 2019s that we wrote about last year.

Loreto Aprutino

Fabio is a winemaker going from strength to strength but such is the competitive nature of the Italian wine market that his prices remain very reasonable - weekend wines at weekday prices is a good way to describe them.

Ubiquitous Montepulciano d'Abruzzo grapevines
Ubiquitous Montepulciano d'Abruzzo grapevines

Our destination for the evening and for 3 nights in total was Sulmona, without question the best place to base yourself for exploring central Abruzzo and getting the most out of a few days in the mountainous interior before heading to the coast.

The road between Scanno and Barrea
The empty road between Scanno and Barrea

Day 2 of our Abruzzo road trip took us west and then south of Sulmona on strada statale 479, truly one of those roads that makes a road trip memorable regardless of the towns you pass through. The scenery here is spectacular and the roads were very quiet considering it was the last day of August. It makes you wonder why at the very same time so many Italians were struggling through traffic jams to sit packed like sardines on baking hot beaches instead of doing what we were doing; their loss.

Villetta Barrea with Monte Marsicano in the background
Villetta Barrea with Monte Marsicano in the background (Marsicano is also the subspecies name of the endangered Abruzzo brown bear)

In an effort to get going reasonably early we tend to make our first stop for a coffee fairly soon and in this case the small but very charming town of Anversa degli Abruzzi served our purpose.

coffee and breakfast in Sulmona
Not an early riser by choice with a tendency to be grumpy until after coffee

As with many towns in the mountains of Abruzzo and elsewhere in the south, the story of Anversa has been one of generations of population decline.

The ruins of a Norman castle here were the setting for a theatrical drama by Gabriele d'Annunzio, Abruzzo's most famous son (if you exclude Madonna and Dean Martin). However, the proximity to Sulmona has not been enough to stop the population of Anversa declining by 80% over the last 100 years to a little over 300 people today.

Anversa degli Abruzzi
Anversa degli Abruzzi

Our next stop on the 479 was Scanno, a quite famous and very ancient town that pre-dates the Romans. Each stop along this route has a higher elevation as we headed deep into the mountains, starting with Sulmona at 1,300 feet, then Anversa at 1,800 feet, Scanno and Barrea at about 3,500 feet and the last stop of the day before returning to Sulmona, Pescocostanzo at a chilly 4,600 feet.

A Sulmona sunset reflected on the rocks above town
A Sulmona sunset reflected on the rocks above town

Continuing towards Barrea brings you into the eastern part of what used to be simply the Abruzzo National Park but is now a much larger area incorporating parts of Lazio and Molise.

Lake Barrea itself is quite close to where these three Italian Regions meet and is about the same distance from Gaeta on the Tyrrhenian sea as it is to Vasto on the Adriatic coast, so basically right in the mountainous middle of the Italian peninsula.

The sunset passeggiata in Sulmona

It's hard to beat Barrea in terms of scenery so I'm not sure why it isn't better known. The town describes itself as the "Perla del Parco Nazionale d'Abruzzo" and I'm not about to disagree. The lake is a huge asset and in fact was only created after WW2 when a dam was constructed on the Sangro river, but the town itself is also very attractive and perfectly positioned on the lower slopes above the water.

The spine of Italy is subject to frequent earthquakes and the 5.9 magnitude Abruzzo earthquake in 1984 was centered very close to Barrea and many residents unfortunately just gave up on their ruined houses and left town. However it looked to us like tourism in the intervening 38 years has helped Barrea to recover because we didn't see any more ruins here that one typically sees in central Abruzzo.

Pacentro viewed from Sulmona
Pacentro viewed from Sulmona

Somewhere around Barrea the 479 becomes the strada statale 83 and starts to turn the corner at Alfedena very close to the border with Molise. To complete our loop back to Sulmona we then joined the main highway 17 heading north before making just a slight detour for our last stop of the day at Pescocostanzo. A lovely place without question but definitely chilly and if that's as warm as it gets in late August then I'll certainly give it a miss in winter.

The Church of Santa Maria della Pietà at Rocca Calascio
The Church of Santa Maria della Pietà, built in 1596 to celebrate the local village's victory over marauding brigands

The main Day 3 destination of our Abruzzo road trip was a picnic lunch at the top of Campo Imperatore at 7,000 feet which is as close as you can drive to the Corno Grande peak of the Gran Sasso that reaches 9,500 feet. But first was the very short drive to Pacentro, visible from Sulmona. Pacentro is one of those picturesque medieval villages that seems to have survived reasonably well though it too has lost 75% of its population over the last 100 years.

The next stop was Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a tiny town at 4,000 feet and the last place before you enter the barren tundra of the Gran Sasso. It was good to see lots of reconstruction underway here because it was badly affected by the devastating 2009 earthquake in nearby L'Aquila. With a year round population that doesn't even reach triple figures the local mayor came up with a scheme a few years ago to pay people under 40 to relocate there and start a business. No word on how it's going but at least in the summer there was some life to the place.

Santo Stefano di Sessanio

The rest of Day 3 was spent at Campo Imperatore, Castel del Monte and Rocca Calascio and all three are worth describing in more detail separately.

Day 4 signalled the end of the high mountains after three nights in Sulmona and a chance for us to revisit some favorite places on the Abruzzo coast. The bustling seaside town of Vasto was our evening destination and on the way there we somewhat randomly stopped at Fara San Martino, otherwise known as 'La casa della Pasta'.

Many of Italy's best dried pasta manufacturers are based here because the secret is in the local water, much like Burton upon Trent in England became the pale ale brewing capital of the world in the mid 19th century because of the hard water and its mineral content emanating from the proliferation of gypsum beds in the Trent valley.

There was not very much about the town of Fara San Martino that would tempt us back so we moved on to Guardiagrele where the countryside reverts back to gently rolling hills and the sea comes into view again.

the view from Guardiagrele

Prior to our afternoon appointment at Mancini Olive Oil a few miles north of Vasto at Fossacesia, we visited the nearby Abbey of San Giovanni in Venere. Ancient churches in Italy have to be really special to find a place on my itinerary but Elena finds them all fascinating and so I am obliged to compromise occasionally.

Day 5 saw us reluctantly leave Vasto after only 1 night and head back north towards le Marche. The evening destination was the hilltop town of Tortoreto and a winery appointment at Tenuta Terraviva. First we had a visit lined up with Simona at Monaco Olive Oil just outside Tortoreto and a side trip to revisit Civitella del Tronto and see the old fortress which we hadn't had time for on our last trip there.

Civitella del Tronto

The fortress at 2,000 feet dominates the town and the surrounding countryside and affords views of the entire coastline as well as Ascoli Piceno and all the smaller hilltop towns we mentioned earlier.

A very scenic empty road in Abruzzo
Road trip heaven, though I can't remember exactly where this is


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