Day 2 of our five day Abruzzo Road Trip took us south from Sulmona with Scanno as our first destination after a coffee stop in Anversa degli Abruzzi. With a population of less than 2,000 Scanno punches above its weight in terms of its fame and as long ago as the 1950s it attracted photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Mario Giacomelli whose photographs of traditional everyday life in this medieval town in the difficult post-war period now hang in several famous galleries, in particular the Modern Art Museum in New York.
But Scanno was always much more than a picturesque village of narrow alleyways, interesting portals and a unique traditional costume that persisted into modern times. For 400 years the town has been home to craftsmen skilled in the production of gold jewelry, in particular the ornate filigree designs that require weaving together very fine threads of gold and silver.
There is an even older artisan tradition in Scanno, that of tombolo or bobbin lace, dating back to the middle of the 16th century. These two traditional crafts influenced each other and often the goldsmiths reworked the floral patterns of the lace makers with their gold threads.
At a time when the cost of labor was much lower than that of the raw material, the highly skilled filigree masters made it possible to create delicate and very decorative artifacts and these trades are kept alive today in Scanno.
The traditional women's costume of Scanno (seen on the statue right) evolved in the 16th and 17th centuries as their reputation grew in the Kingdom of Naples for their cloth-weaving and lacemaking skills. It consisted of a black dress with an embroidered apron and lace adornments, finished with a flatish hat useful for balancing wool fleeces.
Scanno was also an important stop on the annual sheep migration known as the transumanza, from the higher pastures of the Abruzzo mountains to the large flat plain of northern Puglia around Foggia known as the Tavoliere delle Puglie.
Scanno's patron saint is Sant'Eustacchio and he is celebrated on September 20 which was the traditional departure date of the transumanza; winter starts early in the Abruzzo mountains because even Scanno on the valley floor sits at 3,500 feet above sea level. The return of the flocks of sheep in mid-June was cause for an even bigger celebration as shepherds returned to their families and it coincided with another festival, the Feast of San Antonio da Padova on June 13th.
Scanno developed as a sheep breeding center and wool became one of the primary sources of prosperity in Scanno, a part of its history that is now reflected in the Wool Museum in town which showcases various artifacts from the period 1880-1930.
The Fontana Sarracco off Strada Abrami dates from 1549 and each spout has a different carved mask and supposedly your social class determined which one you could use.
Given Scanno's small size there is no lack of churches and all of them have centuries of history which have contributed to different architectural styles from Romanesque to Baroque but in our travels I invariably prefer seeking out the local food rather than endless ancient places of worship. Call me a philistine if you must but the regional food and wine of Italy has always been one of its most important cultural treasures in my opinion and perhaps the one most under threat in the modern world.
Biscotteria Artigianale di Liliana Rosati (above) is a treasure trove of traditional Scanno and Abbruzzo sweet cookies of various kinds. Almost all of them include almonds to a greater or lesser extent, including Amaretti, Biscotto di Prato Verde (inspired the owners say by the Gianni Morandi song 'Un Mondo d'Amore'), Sassi d'Abruzzo (hard almonds) and Mostacciolo (cooked wine must).
I think only the Ciambelline al Vino and Tarrallucci al Vino (like a crunchy donut) don't incorporate almonds but I might be mistaken. Pan dell'Orso is more of a cake than a cookie and also has almonds in the ingredients. I like all of them.
A variety of Abruzzo front doors in Scanno and Barrea
Barrea is my favorite of the three places in this article because it has an unbeatable location perched over the lake with beautiful mountains and lush pastures all around (top photo). The town itself, situated hard by the Molise border and half way between the Adriatic and the Tyrrhenian Seas, is also very pleasant even if a little remote and somewhat empty.
Barrea has certainly experienced a tough last 80 years during which its population has continued to fall, essentially cut in half to little more than 700 today. Even before WW2 the steep decline in sheep farming created a stampede of emigration and then in 1943 it found itself in a strategic location overlooking the Gustav Line, resulting in the total evacuation of its population and extensive damage to the town.
This was followed in the 1950s by the Italian State confiscating much of the fertile farming land for the construction of the lake and in May 1984 Barrea was at the very epicenter of a destructive earthquake, resulting in another total evacuation. It was several years before many residents could return and by then of course many decided not to bother.
In all the places I've travelled after almost 10 years living in Italy there are not many whose surroundings can compare with Barrea and perhaps none where the immediate countryside remains so pristine and undeveloped. This is partly due to its remoteness and lack of population growth but more importantly perhaps because it's located inside the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise. There are lots of mountains to choose from when it comes to summer recreation as shown on the Park information board below which is situated on a large terrace in town overlooking the lake.
One of the many pleasant surprises traveling through the Abruzzo back country is the simplicity and quality of the typical family run restaurant. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch of pasta and barbecued lamb at Per i Vicoli in the center of Barrea where each course cost no more than 8 euros and a flask of the house wine was less than the price of a beer in Lucca. It was the last day of August and I was the only non-Italian in the restaurant and probably also in the town, as Barrea felt very much off the beaten track.
Pescocostanzo was our final stop of the day before returning for the night to our base in Sulmona. The first thing you notice is how chilly it is for a late August afternoon and that's because the town sits at 4,600 feet of elevation.
Skirting the Molise border and heading north it's only a 45 minute drive from Barrea to Pescocostanzo but it feels like you've left the wilderness and entered quite a smart little town with plenty of visitors milling about on a weekday in summer.
It's quite a contrast to Barrea and also Scanno because there are none of the cramped medieval alleyways here, instead the wide streets are paved symmetrically with grey and white stones and both the religious and civic buildings as well as the monumental fountains exude an impression of past wealth and prosperity.
The very different style and layout of Pescocostanzo is owed to its almost complete replanning and rebuilding after a severe earthquake in 1456. Some of the principal palazzi like Fanzago and Grilli date from the 17th century and there are others from the 16th and 18th centuries. Like Scanno it was a thriving commercial center for wool but used its wealth to become a city of art, culture and architecture, more in the manner off a Tuscan city than a town in Abruzzo at that time.
Pescocostanzo's prosperity attracted skilled workers and in addition to lace and gold jewelry it became known for wrought iron and woodcarving, visible in the facades of the grand noble houses and churches; jewelry and wrought iron artisans remain in Pescocostanzo today. The town's elevation makes it a draw for winter skiers and in the warmer months the nearby Bosco di Sant'Antonio nature reserve is a 1,400 acre old-growth forest of majestic beech and maple trees that are now fully protected and lie within the enormous Majella National Park.
Pescocostanzo's population today of about 1,200 has also halved since WW2 but with plenty of visitors year-round its future looks quite safe.