Abruzzo, an enchanted land
Imagine living in the most beautiful region of the world where life, in some areas, is still slow moving, just like hundreds of years ago.
It is an extraordinary place, full of monumental mountains, where the land climbs up to the sky and then descends into soft valleys dotted with villages where the geometric shapes of the fields are fragmented into a big, green and yellow puzzle that stretches as far as the sea of thousands of shades.
A jovial and genuine countryside where people become friends straight from the first greeting… this is Abruzzo, a small region in Central Italy which is still unknown to Italians themselves, and this is one of the reasons why it keeps all its magnificence unchanged.
Abruzzo is an enchanted land: from the mountain to the sea, everything is incredibly fantastic, so that its landscapes were chosen as setting for several films, the most famous of which is Lady Hawke, shot partly in the Rocca Calascio Castle (photo).
A journey in the most beautiful region of the world
The Gran Sasso (photo) and Majella Mountains, symbols of Abruzzo, are similar to immense cathedrals of stone. Together with the Laga, Velino and Sirente mountains they form three National Parks and one Regional Park that made Abruzzo earn the title as “The green region of Europe”.
Now, imagine being an eagle flying over the Gran Sasso, the highest mountain in Abruzzo and also of the Appennines, then slowly descending towards the Adriatic Sea. It’s a wonderful journey that leads you to the discovery of uncontaminated landscapes, each one different from the other.
The castles and the villages
The capital of Abruzzo, L’Aquila, lies in a valley in the shadow of the Gran Sasso, a rocky, massive and imposing mountain also called as “the sleeping giant” by Abruzzo people (the figure of the giant can be seen entirely from the Teramo coastline). The city of L’Aquila is as beautiful and proud as the bird that it’s named after. (L’Aquila = the eagle).
The city of L’Aquila which was completely destroyed by the earthquake in 2009, has always been linked to the number 99: 99 castles, 99 churches, 99 sounds of the bell of its Cathedral and, of course, the famous “99 cannelle fountain” (99 pipes fountain).
From a hedgehopping flight, we can observe small villages guarded by mysterious castles with imposing walls that we can still admire today: Saint Pio delle Camere Castle, Celano Castle, Capestrano Castle, the Santo Stefano di Sessanio Tower, Rocca Calascio Castle and many more (in the photo: the village of Pacentro – AQ).
Villages and parks
Abruzzo is a strange territory. The inland is mountainous and impervious, but still dotted by a myriad of small villages, often situated in inaccessible places to man. Thousands of years old settlements built out of stone where you can still breathe a medieval atmosphere.
Most of these small villages are still inhabited: a small central square encircled by stone houses where usually you can find a stunning church façade and a fountain offering its fresh and pure water.
Then, a whole lot of tangling, twisting and turning of alleys, flowery balconies, suspended vegetable gardens, doors and windows, roofs and chimneys… everything tells of an ancient time, of a simple life that still resists, of a slow rhythm punctuated by the sounds of bells and by the good smell coming from the kitchens of the houses, seducing the senses of the stranger. Do not be surprised if residents invite you to come inside to offer you a cup of coffee, it’s normal!
In some small villages on the territory of the Abruzzo National Park, it isn’t uncommon to see unusual wayfarers walking through the streets: they are the deer of Villetta Barrea, citizens to all effects. And it isn’t strange to see a bear overlooking from a bridge, as it happened a few months ago, where an example of brown “Marsican” bear was caught while admiring the beautiful view from the Camosciara bridge in the Abruzzo National Park (in the photo a marsican bear with its childern near Palena – CH).
The hilly landscape
But now our eagle turns towards gentle, green and beautiful hills. The thick and deep beech, fir and chestnut tree forests leave space for cultivated fields, vineyards and olive groves.
Above these hills, the tidily placed rows of Trebbiano, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Pecorino and other precious vine variety that offer their divine nectar every year.
When the severity of winters is finished, it is right here where fields get populated with flocks. Let’s stop to observe the white wool of lamb and the bleating sheep mothers that guide them back to order, while shepherd dogs watch them from a distance. The Abruzzo shepherd dog is one of the symbols of the region: strong and severe, hard working with a reserved and rough character, it has protected the flocks from wolf attacks for millennia.
The simple life of the village
And here are the olive trees, like soft green pumpkins arranged in a regular pattern on bright yellow color wheat fields. Extra virgin olive oil is one of the most exquisite products of these lands: golden and scented, it makes every dish of the local cuisine unforgettable.
On these slopes there are peaceful hill towns, built out of red bricks cooked in the furnace, and paved with stones. In these places, it’s not uncommon to find the kitchen door open, the sacred place where the knowledge of ancient recipes is handed down from mother to daughter.
The church bell is ringing, a lady sitting in the street on her stuffed chair is engaged in a deep conversation with her neighbor, children are playing on the square, a cat is sleeping in a sunny angle of a windowpane… this is the simple hill town life.
The open doors and the smell of the boiling sauce are the emblem of the Abruzzo people, open and friendly, laborious and honest, ready to invite you at their table after only one minute of conversation.
Romanesque abbeys and the art cities
Going down along the valleys, you will encounter the history: Romanesque abbeys which are silent guardians of the different eras, places of faith and prayer but also architectural and artistic masterpieces as well as centers of monastic communities that have disappeared.
Before diving into the blue of the Adriatic Sea, let’s stop here for another moment. Among the streets and squares of some of the most beautiful cities of Abruzzo there is Teramo, a bourgeois and sophisticated provincial capital with its cathedral, elegant palaces and open squares; Atri, city of the Acquaviva Dukes with magnificent frescoes in the cathedral, the Roman amphitheater, the Ducal Palace and the municipal theater, lying on calcareous formations with suggestive impact, “I Calanchi” (the badlands); Chieti, the ancient and solemn provincial capital with its porticoes and religious traditions still alive; Città Sant’Angelo and Guardiagrele, right among the most beautiful villages in Italy; Campli with its famous “Holy stairway”; Civitella del Tronto with its medieval fortress among the most impressive military architecture in Europe; Castelli, where the art of ceramics live there from the 400th.
Life on the Adriatic Sea
Now, we’ve arrived to the Adriatic Sea, the eagle’s flight gives the baton to a white seagull that, breathing saltiness, flows over the busy life of coastal cities, destination of summer tourism.
The Adriatic Sea, sang in a heart-breaking way in popular songs, is a unpredictable sea, cruel but benevolent, generous but demanding. It’s a variable sea that changes color several times a day, from fire red at dawn to silver color in the morning, from blue in the quiet afternoon to turquoise or dull grey in the stormy days, or to dark green when the wind howls and the waves devour the coast.
On these golden beaches, the fishing traditions are still kept alive using small, wooden motorboats. At dawn, it is not uncommon to meet fishermen returning to the shores, bringing the fruit of their hard work: small fresh fish, all you need for the fabulous “brodetto” (fish soup), the traditional dish of sea towns.
The coastline in Abruzzo is very variegated and surprising: in the north there are sandy beaches and shallow sea. Pine forests provide shade to the beaches, such as that of Pineto and Pescara. The Cerrano Tower stands not far from Pineto, it was built against piracy and now it’s site for a protected marine reserve of great importance. Right after Ortona, the coast turns rocky and steep with suggestive cliffs and small coves, where the very clear waters allow you to dive and watch the beautiful seabed. On this coast you can see buildings that are similar to thin spiders, the “trabocchi” (wooden structures similar to piles). They are marvelously balanced on the cliffs, with the function of fishing small fish and offering them freshly cooked to the enchanted visitor.
At some morning markets it’s easy to find stalls with live seafood, with fruit and vegetables from the nearby countryside…. All ingredients of the traditional cuisine are linked to the land and the sea.
At this point of our journey, we must stop and re-energize ourselves with a substantial meal. Eating and hospitality are sacred in Abruzzo. The Abruzzo people are deeply convinced that their cuisine is the best in the world… and they are not wrong!
Abruzzo’s cuisine is linked to the seasonality and obtainability of local resources. So, for example in the mountain we can find meat dishes, legumes, mushrooms and truffles, chestnuts and bread made with ancient grains of wheat. The availability of flocks and farm animals, offers mixed grills of lamb, pork, sheep cheese and cured meat. The “arrosticini” are small lamb skewers, famous all over the world. They are roasted on special long grills and are eaten rigorously with the hands, accompanied by slices of baked bread with plenty of extra virgin olive oil.
The roasted whole pork named “porchetta” is as famous as the arrosticini, it’s prepared with spices and aromas and then it gets roasted in one whole piece.
In Abruzzo we can find a great variety of cold meats which can not be found in other Italian regions: the salami from L’Aquila, the mortadella from Campotosto, the ventricina from Teramo (a spreadable spicy sausage), the sausage under oil, the lonza, the local ham…
Among the cheese, obviously, there are all those with sheep’s milk: pecorino cheese from Atri, pecorino matured in cave, pecorino from Castel del Monte named “canestrato”, pecorino from Farindola.
Traditional teramana cuisine
A separate chapter should be written for the traditional cuisine of the Teramo area (cucina teramana), the finest and most complex of the four provinces.
In traditional “teramano” restaurants we always find: “chitarra con le pallottine” (squared spaghetti with red tomato sauce and very small meat balls), the “scrippelle ‘mbusse” (from the local dialect: thin crepes, wet with chicken broth), the “virtù of the first of May” (a rich soup with vegetables and legumes), the “timballo” (a dish with crepes one above the other and filled with red tomato sauce, meat and mozzarella cheese), the “mazzarelle” (endive rolls containing stripes of lamb interior with seasonal aromas).
Generous glasses of excellent wines, of course, always accompany the meal: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo with meat or Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Pecorino or Montonico (three types of white wine) with fish dishes.
Even the Abruzzo sweets are unforgettable: the “bocconotti” are small cupcakes from the hilly area of Abruzzo and there are two variants: with a soft filling of chocolate from Castelfrentano in the province of Chieti; with a filling of Montepulciano grapes jam inside, from Montorio al Vomano (this type of jam is very difficult to find outside the province of Teramo; the “sfogliatelle” (shells of puff pastry with a filling of Montepulciano grapes jam and chocolate); the “caggiunitte” fried ravioli with a filling of chickpeas, chestnuts and chocolate; almond torrents; the “pepatelli” biscuits with pepper; the “Parrozzo” , the cake loved by the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio; the “pizza dogge” the typical layered wedding cake; the “sise delle monache” (the nipples of the nuns), fluffy pastas filled with scented cream; the “neole” (also called “ferratelle, pizzelle or cancellate”), sweets cooked in the scorching iron that you can fill with cream or jam; the “mostaccioli”, biscuits with cooked must and spices; “confetti” (sugared almonds or dragées) from Sulmona.
In Abruzzo, the amount of food and the number of meals is always exaggerated, so the after-meal is always followed by generous amounts of digestive liqueurs: the gentian, a very bitter liqueur with digestive properties or the “amaro”, made with mountain herbs; the “ratafia”, very sweet infusion of sour cherries; the licorice liqueur; the boiled wine from Teramo (that was used in important occasions as birth, engagements, weddings or trades).
In Abruzzo, every occasion is good for eating and drinking, because the hospitality is truly sacred and the people of Abruzzo are open and jovial, simple and straight in their ways, friendly and sincere. It is quite surprising how easily an “Abruzzese” person makes friends with strangers and this is one of the aspects of Abruzzo that fascinates foreign visitors. If an “Abruzzese” speaks in an informal way to you after one minute, it’s not be considered as a lack of education, on the contrary, it should be understood as a manifestation of empathy!
Folklore, religious festivals, dialect and music in Abruzzo
Everywhere, from the sea to the mountain you can find religious processions and sacred celebrations throughout the year. Depending on the place of origin, they acquire different colors and rhythms. And, of course, you can always eat and drink plenty.
During the Lenten season, there are processions and sacred representations of the Via Crucis and the Passion of Christ throughout the whole region. The two most important ones are held in Chieti and in Sulmona.
In Cocullo there is a famous snake festival where the protagonists are harmless snakes caught in the woods and left in freedom after the procession in honor of St. Dominic, the patron saint of the village. In the summer, in Pescara and in other towns on the coast, they take the fishing boats to procession, invoking Virgin Mary’s protection on boats and sailors.
At Advent in Atri, huge bundles of canes called “faugni” are carried on the shoulder and are brought in procession around the whole town after which they get burnt in a bonfire in the middle of the square.
During Christmas period, it is tradition to attend a live nativity scene (presepe), set on the streets of towns, where actors and animals – usually chosen among locals – imitate the characters of the nativity.
Now, during this journey, it would be difficult not to notice the Abruzzo dialect, a real and mysterious musical language. Between the different areas, the dialect is colored with many variants, especially in the different intonation of the vowels or even in the absence of them! The stranger remains captivated by its musicality.
Also the music is part of the culture and folkloristic traditions of the Abruzzo people. The mountains, the sea, love and work are sung in a passionate song called “Jabbruzzu” from L’Aquila (wrote by Perrone – De Angelis).
We are at the end of our journey: the eagle flies back to its nest on the peaks and the seagull stops for a rest on a cliff. The eagle and the seagull, two birds that usually live thousands of miles far away, but here in Abruzzo, you can find them at a short distance from each other… and in the middle: history, traditions and gastronomy!