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My favorite places in the Maiella, Part 1


San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore
San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore

There are very few towns in the Maiella that I didn't visit during my 5 weeks in the Abruzzo mountains. I cycled through just about all of them, hiked in the hills above many of them and returned in the car to my favorite places in the Maiella when my legs needed a rest.


Il Duomo at the very top of San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore
Il Duomo at the very top of San Valentino

You observe much more on a bike than in a car and it's the very definition of slow travel.

You notice the daily rituals of life as you pass through villages and you catch snippets of conversations as you cycle slowly by.

You can see at a glance whether the town attracts any visitors or whether there's just the usual group of old men standing around outside the only bar in town and where everything is in a state of disrepair because the young people have left and there's no-one to fill the void. Sometimes the last bar in town has already closed and you see nothing but empty streets and vendesi signs.


center of Campo di Giove

It's much easier to engage locals in conversation when you're traveling on a bike because you're always seeking out the water fountain and that's where you'll often find someone who has the time to exchange a word or two with a stranger passing through.



Scanno

I've always wondered why some small towns are thriving and others nearby are clearly not and why some are witnessing a flurry of rebuilding and refurbishment with bed & breakfast signs proliferating and others have just crumbling buildings and no signs of life.


This part of Abruzzo definitely needs more second home buyers not just weekend tourists and that means foreigners because I've yet to meet a Tuscan or northern Italian who would even consider buying a holiday home in the Abruzzo mountains. Most wouldn't even go there on holiday because old stereotypes persist, but to me central Abruzzo feels no different to southern parts of Umbria or Marche and is a world away from the much stranger and more remote mountain interiors of Sicily, Sardinia or Calabria.


Memorial to the emigrants,  Corvara in Abruzzo
A sad memorial by the side of the road to all the emigrants who left Corvara for foreign lands, leaving a dying town behind

On one of my long bike rides I chanced upon a memorial at the entrance to a very deserted town called Corvara, outside the Maiella but not very far away. The inscription is a lament titled 'Malinconia dell'emigrante' by the celebrated Italian writer Cesare Pavese. Corvara is one of those towns that may never recover as its population today is barely 200, having declined at every single census since peaking at about 1,300 after WW2.


The Garden Bar patio in San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore
The always popular Friday pizza night at the Garden Bar in San Valentino

San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore, Bolognano & Salle

I'm not going to rank my favorite places in the Maiella but if I did San Valentino would be near the top. It's small but animated with a very pleasant year round climate due its relatively low elevation of 1,500 feet. It's the northern gateway to the Maiella and the quickest route into the heart of the mountains from the nearby autostrada so it is not at all remote.


San Valentino sign at the roundabout at the entrance to town

The Garden Bar right in the center is the liveliest place in town with a lovely outside seating area and they draw a good crowd in the evening, especially on Fridays when their signature Pizza alla Pala is on the menu.


Using only lievito madre their dough is fermented for 24 hours, something we like to do at home also. You'll quickly notice too that restaurant prices are much lower in Abruzzo than Tuscany.

I lost count of the number of times I cycled through San Valentino either on my way up to Rifugio Bruno Pomilio or coming back down but I wish all main roads in Italy could be like this one because it's wide with a good surface and very quiet even in August. For those who like to be near the mountains and enjoy great views but don't want to actually stay in the more remote higher elevations, San Valentino is a good place to choose.


The old castle at Salle and its garden restaurant


Nearby Bolognano and Salle however were both like ghost towns each time I passed through with few signs of life and no noticeable bars or shops. I've seen many towns like these around Italy that cannot justify or support local shops and instead they are visited weekly by food trucks selling fresh produce. A common enough sight also in the hills near Lucca, even in prosperous places like Matraia or Sant'Andrea di Compito.


The view from Castello di Salle, Abruzzo
The view from Castello di Salle

Bolognano has its cisterna and Salle its small castle and both towns are inside the National Park but these are not sufficient attractions when San Valentino and other more vibrant Maiella towns are so close. However a local remarked to me that Bolognano has not yet been completely forsaken by those children who grew up here and moved away in the 1950s and 1960s, because many of them still return every summer and the same is true of Salle I believe.


Manoppello, Abruzzo
Manoppello

Manoppello, Lettomanoppello and Serramonacesca

Manoppello is a bigger and more interesting town than those already mentioned and one of the few whose population has grown in recent decades. It's located on the north-east perimeter of the Maiella National Park and was built over the ruins of a Roman city. The town is best known perhaps for the Holy Face of Manoppello which is an ancient canvas that purports to show the outline of Christ's face and was brought to Manoppello in 1506.


The view of Serramonacesca from up near Castel Menardo
The view of Serramonacesca from up near Castel Menardo

Manoppello is an attractive town with a good range of restaurants and is very close to two other smaller towns, Lettomanoppello and Serramonacesca, both of which I like and are in beautiful locations perched on the edge of the Maiella which rises steeply up from them.

The view of San Valentino and Roccamorice from the road up to Blockhaus
San Valentino is top left, Abbateggio center right and Roccamorice bottom right

Lettomanoppello is situated on the only other road that goes straight up the mountain to Rifugio Bruno Pomilio, going though Passo Lanciano rather than through Roccamorice as the San Valentino road does.

There was a long history of mining all around these towns on the northern side of the Maiella because of the presence of underground bitumen deposits. It began in 1844 and, until declining in the 1960s, the Maiella asphalt industry supplied as much as 40% of total Italian production. There is a new trail that memorializes this part of the history of Lettomanoppello as well as a plaque in the center of town (below).


Commemorative plaque to the miners in Lettomanoppello

Serramonacesca is much smaller than Lettomanoppello but has more accessible connections to the Maiella trails with the Sentiero dello Spirito passing just above the town.


Castel Menardo, Abruzzo
Castel Menardo

A short uphill walk on this well-trodden trail in one direction will take you to Castel Menardo and Eremo Sant'Onofrio (not to be confused with the more famous Eremo Sant'Onofrio above Sulmona).


After a similarly short walk in the other direction you'll arrive at the Abbey di San Liberatore a Maiella, a large and impressive structure given its age and location.


Eremo Sant'Onofrio, near Serramonacesca
Eremo Sant'Onofrio

Both directions on the Spiritual Trail connect to other trails rated 'E' which require nothing more than a little fitness.


I found the countryside around Serramonacesca very appealing and I will go back and spend more time exploring the hills above the town because these are the type of walks that can be done regularly for fresh air and exercise without feeling that you have to plan an all-day expedition which many of the Maiella trails require.


View of Abbateggio from Lettomanoppello
View of Abbateggio from Lettomanoppello

Abbateggio & Roccamorice

Abbateggio is just up the road from San Valentino and separated from Roccamorice by a steep gorge carved out by the Cusano river where the hidden waterfall can be found. It's a town with a 1,000 year history of ever changing feudal lords and even a rebellion against the French in 1799 to restore Bourbon dominion that didn't end well for the insurgents. Many citizens of Abbateggio were also sympathetic to the Maiella brigands in the 1860s who rebelled against the new Kingdom of Italy, despite Abbateggio itself being sacked by outlaws in 1861 causing much damage and devastation.


The memorial arch to the Abbateggio miners
The memorial arch to the Abbateggio miners

The more recent post WW2 history has for decades followed the familiar story of depopulation that came close to turning Abbateggio into a ghost town.

However the town today is very much a work-in-progress with very visible signs of reconstruction so there are grounds for optimism. The local white Maiella stone gives the town a more attractive appearance than many other Maiella towns and the rebuilding is being done with sensitivity to this heritage.


For a town, or rather a village, of only 400 people Abbateggio is doing more than most to stay alive and stay relevant. It hosts a Parco Maiella literature competition every July where submissions have to relate to the environment and the balance between man and nature, a subject which is close to the heart of all the Maiella communities given the incredible natural resource that surrounds them all.


The new Abbateggio Tholos built to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Parco Maiella Literary prize
The new Tholos built to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Parco Maiella Literary prize and the 2017 Giro d'Italia

Details of the previous winners and their entries over the past 20 years are displayed on a wall in the village and the symbol of the competition is a Tholos, reflecting Abbateggio's history and connection with the dry stone huts which are most evident today in the nearby Giumentina Valley. The new Tholos in the photo above is just before the entrance to Abbateggio, next to a very good local restaurant called Col di Gotte.


The Mercato del Pane field in Abbateggio

Abbateggio also has a long agricultural tradition of spelt (farro in Italian) production which was historically a primary food source for its people.

In recent years this cereal grain has been revived thanks to local farmers who possess the ancient seeds of a particular type of spelt that tolerates the cold and adapts well to poor, stony soil.

This is probably why Mercato del Pane recently bought agricultural land in Abbateggio as their mission is to produce various types of bread that faithfully reflect the agricultural heritage of Abruzzo.


The view of Roccamorice from Lettomanoppello
The view of Roccamorice from Lettomanoppello

You can't avoid Roccamorice if you're going up the mountain from San Valentino so I passed through quite often on my bike and when I returned in the car, my one grocery shopping experience there resulted in finding some of the best tomatoes I have ever eaten in Italy. High praise indeed because Italy is not exactly short of every variety of tomato known to mankind, but these were truly exceptional.



Roccamorice also knows how to party because my time in Abruzzo coincided with a 3 day festival of food, wine and music that started early and finished late and I'm not sure why exactly but the bar in town that is on the main road was always full no matter what time of day I happened to pass through and sometimes it was very early indeed.

Roccamorice is another town that loses population with every census but they must be doing something right because even after the festival it always seemed busy to me and for a town with only about 900 residents it has more than its fair share of restaurants.





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