Sulmona is one of those rare places that are so instantly seductive that you can't help but glance at the house prices in the window of the nearest immobiliare. A pipe dream for most people but as we already live in Italy, not so much for us. We like to think that our photographs on this website are better than most but such is the dramatic setting of Sulmona that even our photographs don’t really do it justice. You need to go there in person.
If Italy’s too crowded for you in August then it’s because you’ve been going to all the wrong places like Rome or Venice or anywhere in Tuscany, even Lucca where we live year-round. But indulge your imagination a little and visit somewhere different in the interior like Sulmona and you’ll be surprised how refreshingly quiet and normal these locations can be in the middle of summer when everyone else is at the seaside.
I like Abruzzo more and more every time we visit and Sulmona is so appealing that it would be a world famous destination if it were located in Tuscany instead of Abruzzo. Long may its relative anonymity continue however because we like to seek out places with the fewest tourists as that’s where the real Italy is still to be found. And Abruzzo has these places in spades.
Travel writers started to call Umbria the new Tuscany several years ago and now Abruzzo is being promoted similarly and I understand why because it has better mountains than Tuscany, an equally good if not better coastline and very underrated wines that remain extremely affordable. See our profiles of Cingilia and Terraviva. The olive oil’s not bad either as we found out ourselves at Mancini and Monaco.
The Abruzzo mountains of the Gran Sasso and Majella massif are the highlights of the entire Apennine range and are the equal of anything in the Alps in my opinion but their southerly disposition gives them better weather and as a bonus the sea is never far away.
Having cycled through the Dolomites on a couple of occasions in summer there is no comparison in terms of road congestion; descending into Bolzano for example is a nightmare of busy traffic compared to the emptiness of Abruzzo.
Basing yourself in Sulmona is the perfect way to enjoy these mountains as we described in the Abruzzo Road Trip article last year because you can go north to Campo Imperatore, Rocca Calascio and Castel del Monte, east to the Majella and south to Scanno, Barrea and Pescocostanzo.
There's an understated sophistication to Sulmona and its historic center is beautiful in a very southern Italian way, though in fact Abruzzo is still geographically part of the center of Italy and referenced as such in Italian guide books.
It exudes an old-fashioned atmosphere and reminds me a litle of Lecce in the Salento, perhaps because of the smattering of similar baroque architecture in Sulmona or the fact that it is equally full of locals even in high summer. The center of town is compact, easy to walk around and very well preserved despite being in a seismically active area of Italy and having suffered from several destructive earthquakes over the centuries, most notably in 1706.
For much of the main section of Corso Ovidio the buildings, or at least the facades, are original and genuine and with the whole road now pedestrianized it is easier to appreciate everything. On weekend evenings locals of all ages congregate here for a cocktail or just to enjoy the passeggiata.
The most famous son of Sulmona is the Roman poet Ovid who was born here in 43 B.C. At the height of his fame he angered the Emperor Augustus to such an extent that he was condemned to permanent exile on the Black Sea in what is now Romania.
It's not clear exactly what his crime was but he unwisely mentioned Augustus' scheming wife Livia by name too frequently in his poetry and when her son Tiberius became emperor in 14 A.D. no pardon was forthcoming so Ovid died far from the town he loved.
Events move slowly in Italy so it wasn't until the two thousandth anniversary of Ovid's death in 2017 that the Rome city council got around to formally repealing Augustus' order of exile, thereby belatedly rehabilitating Ovid. Not that the citizens of Sulmona give a damn about Rome as there has been a statue of Ovid proudly adorning their city for centuries with the latest one erected almost 100 years ago.
Sulmona's climate is more benign than one would suppose from its position in the mountains as in fact it lies on a plateau at only 1,300 feet of elevation. Summer days can be hot but the evenings are always cool and the mornings refreshing which is not the case in Tuscany unless you're right on the coast. Winter days are cold but still warmer than London and the reward for a few chilly months is the view of snow capped mountains in every direction.
The ancient walls surrounding Sulmona with eight gates into the city were still mostly intact until the 18th century when they were gradually either dismantled or incorporated into the houses around the old center. In the Middle Ages Sulmona was an important and prosperous town, culminating with the construction of the impressive aqueduct in 1256. The water fountain, known as the Fontana del Vecchio, is connected to the end of the aqueduct and was restored in 1474 in a Renaissance style.
Piazza Garibaldi (the ancient Piazza Maggiore) is a large square on the other side of the aqueduct from Corso Ovidio and is where the busy twice-weekly market is held. You will find all the fresh produce that is typical of most Italian markets but here they also have copious amounts of the famous aglio rosso di Sulmona, a sweet less bitter variety that is a favorite of chefs.
It looks the same as any other garlic until you open the bulb and see the delicate reddish purple skin covering each clove.
The other edible product, more famous than garlic, with which the town is indelibly associated in the minds of Italians is confetti, the Italian name for sugared almonds. They are used in Italy for weddings and other religious and family celebrations with specific colors traditionally assigned to different events.
Given its location the town has always been of strategic importance and was involved in territorial battles all through history from Pompey versus Julius Caesar in Ovid's time to skirmishes between the Pope and Frederick II in the early 13th century and then in WW2 it was part of the Gustav Line.
Sulmona in 1943 was the site of a large prisoner of war camp and when the Italian armistice was suddenly declared on the 8th September the Germans took control of the camp.
Allied prisoners, including a large contingent of Australians, immediately staged a mass escape despite not knowing how the local population would react, given that Allied bombing had resulted in civilian deaths nearby.
They needn't have worried because the escapees were immediately housed, fed, nursed and often led to safety by the Italian people of the countryside, usually the contadini, who had nothing to gain but everything to lose by such open defiance of German orders. Many civilians were subsequently shot with their houses torched and though many POWs were also killed or recaptured those who made it to safety never forgot the sacrifice and bravery of the Abruzzese people.
58 years later several of the English veterans organized the first annual San Martino Freedom Trail 3 day walk to remember the sacrifice of the the Italians by replicating the arduous 60 mile march to freedom from Sulmona south across the Sangro river to Allied occupied territory.
The first event in 2001 was joined also by the then President of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, as well as many English survivors of the events of 1943. Ciampi joined the walk because he too as a 24 year-old anti-fascist hiding in nearby Scanno had made the same walk across German lines to freedom in early 1944.
The final day of the inaugural 2001 commemorative walk passed through the village of Pietransieri, the last stop before the Sangro river, where the entire village came out to greet the walkers in memory of the German atrocity that took place two months after the Allied escape. In November 1943 every man, woman and child was burnt or machine-gunned to death in the village and in the nearby forest of Limmari; 128 people were slaughtered and only one six year old child survived, hidden under the dead body of her mother.
As with all the other German atrocities on Italian soil, no criminal prosecutions or civil damages have ever been successfully concluded, even the most recent attempt in November 2016.