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Scenic Abruzzo - Campo Imperatore & Rocca Calascio


Rocca Calascio
The limestone fortress of Rocca Calascio perched at 5,000 feet above the Navelli valley

Campo Imperatore and Rocca Calascio were the two highlights on Day 3 of our Abruzzo Road Trip. Heading north from our base in Sulmona there was a lot of ground to cover in just one day so we made straight for our first stop at Santo Stefano di Sessanio, about one hour distant.



Santo Stefano is yet another of Italy’s medieval villages that is trying to recover from almost complete depopulation. With not many more than 100 residents and having sustained considerable damage in the 2009 l’Aquila earthquake, Santo Stefano’s municipal authority decided two years ago on a bold initiative to actually pay young people to relocate here to start a business. An interesting approach that definitely stood out from the typical ‘buy a derelict house for just 1 Euro’ offers made by many other similarly denuded hill towns in southern Italy.


Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo
Santo Stefano di Sessanio in the rear view mirror on the way up to Campo Imperatore

For all of its natural beauty in the summer and its dramatic views, Santo Stefano can’t be an easy place in which to live given the long, cold Abruzzo winters and very short summers here at 4,000 feet of elevation. The village today is perhaps best known as the location of Sextantio Albergo Diffuso, an upscale hotel that has all its rooms and facilities scattered around the village in restored old stone buildings.

The restoration work continues, as the cranes show in the photo above, giving grounds for optimism about the future of this tiny but historic place but there is still a remote and slightly desolate feel about Santo Stefano and the streets were largely deserted on our visit in early September.


the road to Campo Imperatore, Abruzzo
The empty approach to 'Little Tibet'

We weren’t staying the night so for us it was a convenient stop on the scenic route to Campo Imperatore and Rocca Calascio. This is a road for taking your time and pulling over to the side whenever the mood takes you and a photo opportunity presents itself. The view changes around every bend as you get nearer to the Gran Sasso but like the approach to all big mountains, it always seems nearer than it actually is.


The Corno Grande of the Gran Sasso
The 9,500 feet high Corno Grande in the Gran Sasso

Arriving at the Campo Imperatore plateau, the largest in the entire Apennines covering about 80 square miles, you can see why an Italian world traveller in the 1930s gave it the nickname ’Little Tibet’. Lying between 5,000 and 6,000 feet it’s a barren, treeless grassland covered with snow for a large part of the year but there’s a fascinating beauty to it which is very different to the Italian Alps and there is nothing remotely similar in the rest of the Apennine range.


The Campo Imperatore plateau
Dramatic scenery abounds in the Gran Sasso

It was also the scene of a famous moment in Italian history when the imprisoned Mussolini was freed from captivity by a daring glider rescue mission conducted by elite German troops in September 1943. ‘Imprisoned’ is probably overstating Mussolini’s situation at the time because his Italian guards offered no resistance to the Germans and even saluted Mussolini on the way out, just one of the many strange details of Italy’s complicated history in the last two years of the war.


Campo Imperatore

Campo Imperatore on a warm day in summer is a good place for enjoying a sandwich or Abruzzese arrosticini for lunch and walking around a bit to take in the views down the valley in the direction of l’Aquila to the south-west. Campo Imperatore is not the easiest place to reach so it’s worth spending a few hours here.


The Gran Sasso plateau near Castel del Monte
The eastern end of the vast plateau looking back towards the Corno Grande on the way to Castel del Monte

Instead of retracing our steps south we headed further east on the SS17 to Castel del Monte, a road in fact with even more dramatic scenery than on the road in from Santo Stefano.

Castel del Monte is a much more interesting place than Santo Stefano as well as having a few hundred more residents. Situated at 4,400 feet it is the eastern gateway to Campo Imperatore with views south across the valley to Rocca Calascio. Like Santo Stefano it has plenty of medieval buildings but also 16th and 17th century defensive structures courtesy of the Medici rule that began in 1579.

Much of rural southern Italy was plagued by bandits until the end of the 19th century, even after Italian unification in 1861, something mentioned also by Carlo Levi in 'Christ stopped at Eboli’. In Castel del Monte every night they would close the five gates into town and retreat behind their defensive walls to stay safe from these roaming brigands. I find it strange to think that this sort of thing was a necessary precaution as recently as my own grandfather's lifetime, something unimaginable in England at that time or even in northern Italy.



The onward march of progress may have eliminated the night time bandits but it also ended the centuries of prosperity that the wool industry gave to Castel del Monte and many other Abruzzese towns. For centuries sheep farming and wool production were essential to the town’s economic well-being but with more efficient foreign competition came the end of the transumanza, which was the annual autumn sheep drive from the high slopes of Abruzzo down to the northern Puglia plains called the Tavoliere delle Puglie, and the return in time for summer.


Castel del Monte viewed from the top of Rocca Calascio
Castel del Monte viewed from the top of Rocca Calascio. The weather changes rapidly in the Gran Sasso.

The decline in wool production started two centuries ago and never really stopped, resulting in the depopulation of many towns like Castel del Monte. Population decline through overseas migration accelerated after 1945 and there is a poignant reminder in Castel del Monte of the townsfolk who emigrated north to Wallonia to work in the mines and who subsequently met their fate in mining accidents. The plaque on the wall says 'A tutti quelli che sono partiti e a tutti quelli mai tornati'

Castel del Monte was one of many Abruzzo towns contributing to the 77,000 Italians recruited by Belgian mine owners in the late 1940s. Of the many fatal incidents the single biggest disaster at Marcinelle in 1956 claimed the lives of 136 Italian workers.


The memorial to the miners in Castel del Monte
The memorial to the Castel del Monte miners who never returned from Belgium

Tourism is the current economic model for Castel del Monte, helped by its fabulous location and the fact that so many ancient buildings have remained, if only because the preceding 100 years were so bleak that there was no incentive to knock anything down and rebuild.

Leaving Castel del Monte we headed south on SP7 to Rocca Calascio, only a short distance away but with the ruined castle always in view. There's a road that takes you up to the small village of Calascio and from there it's a short walk to the fortress at the highest point. If you avoid weekends in the middle of summer not only will parking be easier but visiting a place like this of such historical interest is much more enjoyable without crowds.


Rocca Calascio, Abruzzo
The path up to Rocca Calascio

Perhaps the first film of any note to use the castle in a meaningful way was Ladyhawke in 1985 which we mentioned in our article on Castell'Arquato. Between writing that article and writing this one I happened to catch the film on Italian tv and it was strange to see both Rumpole of the Bailey and Ferris Bueller in the same movie. British and American readers of a certain age will recognize one or both of these classic characters because both Ferris Bueller (ie Matthew Broderick) and Horace Rumpole (ie Leo McKern) were the roles that propelled these actors to fame.

Most of the present structure of Rocca Calascio dates back to the 14th century and its purpose was a military garrison to house troops, presumably to defend the valley below, but unsurprisingly given its unassailable and dominant position it was never attacked by enemy forces. After being badly damaged by an earthquake in 1703 it was never repaired, probably because it was built too high up the mountain to be of any practical use.


The view towards the Corno Grande from Rocca Calascio
The view towards the Corno Grande from Rocca Calascio

Last year the small hamlet of Calascio with just 70 year-round residents was awarded 20 million euros in EU post-pandemic funds, along with 20 other dying or deserted villages in Italy. The mayor's stated goal is to increase tourism and attract new residents. Rocca Calascio already has 100,000 visitors a year so it is hardly unknown and it's such an isolated place that it seems more likely that it is destined to end up like Civita di Bagnoregio, ie. a place devoted entirely to tourism with no real residents, an outdoor museum in effect.

Just below the fortress is a rare example of an octagonal church, built in 1596 supposedly to give thanks to God for the defeat of local brigands. It has a spectacular setting in the early evening sun.


The church of Santa Maria della Pietà below Rocca Calascio
The church of Santa Maria della Pietà below Rocca Calascio


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