Text by Alessio Romano
Photographs by Paolo Zerbini
The Traveller has just arrived in Abruzzo. Why has he chosen this particular region of Italy? In the end Abruzzo or even better its plural version, gli Abruzzi, as this region is sometimes called, is so small. It was even small when it was still joined to its little sister, Molise, smaller still, the miniature of a miniature.
A plural name to somehow underline the bipolarity and schizophrenia of a land at once sea and mountains, only inhabited by the descendants of shepherds, fishermen and farmers.
Why is the Traveller so far from the most famous historical cities, south of Venice and Florence, east of Rome, north of Naples and Matera? Why has he not chosen the coasts of neighbouring Croatia?
It’s unlikely that it is urgent business that has brought the Traveller to this land, so well hidden from the parallel affection of the Apennines and the Adriatic. Here the only wealth is the confusion of stories never tasted, colours never heard, and flavours never seen. But if he were in such a wild land for work then the Traveller would feel the same wonder as the young lawyer Jonathan Harker, sent to Transylvania before his encounter with Count Dracula, that selfsame impression of “dawdl[ing] through a country which was full of beauty of every kind [with] little towns or castles on the top of steep hills such as we see in old missals”.
If it were the right time of year, our Traveller might have come for a harvest: to press grapes all morning, prepare the must for cooking and then have lunch, farmhands and landowners altogether. Our Traveller will be in the open air. But most of all he’ll be drinking lots of wine: may I suggest Montepulciano d’Abruzzo if he likes red and Pecorino if he prefers white.
But what if it’d been for love? Maybe the Traveller arrived here, in the middle of nowhere, for one of the beautiful Abruzzian women who live kissed by the sun, so modern, so fashionable, the marvellous and hybrid fruit of that genetic mix of dominators coming from afar: the Marsi, Vestini, Paeligni, Marruccini, Frentani, Picentini, Aequi, Pretuzi, Samnites, Latins, Visigoths, Heruli, Byzantines, Lombards, Franks, Normans, Hungarians, Swabians and Anjous, not to speak of the Saracens.
Good for our Traveller if it was love that brought him to Abruzzo. And luck is definitely on his side with so many golden beaches, deserted uplands, ancient abbeys and ruined castles. With the complicity of eagles, wolves and bears under skies not yet burnt by the electricity of progress, it’d be child’s play for the Traveller in love to seduce and be seduced. In the warmth of a shelter at the top of a mountain or savouring brodetto di pesce [fish soup] in a travocco: an old wooden hut suspended over the sea thanks to a complicated system of stilts and nets – how it stays up is somewhat of a miracle – once an effective fishing machine and now a clandestine refuge for romantic dinners suspended over the water. If things turn out well, the Traveller could even have some use for the sugared almond favours from the splendid historical town of Sulmona. Giacomo Leopardi was a great fan too.
And what if the Traveller were here to visit a friend? Over time the Abruzzians have become scattered around the world. A diaspora first due to the degree of hardship in the mountains that forced generations to reach the Americas (again choosing the plural to describe these lands, which in this case really are vast) or Switzerland or Germany or death in the mines of Belgium. Perhaps the Traveller has met some of their children. Perhaps the Traveller himself is a second, third or fourth-generation Abruzzian.
Like the American writer John Fante who sang about the homeland of his father who had swapped the mountains of Abruzzo for the really very similar ones of Colorado. Or like the singer Madonna: who knows if every so often she remembers that her father’s line came from Pacentro, a medieval village huddled at the foot of an enchanted castle. But maybe it’s more recent migration and a Traveller arriving from less far afield. In more recent times, the need for a factory job or a successful application for a job in the public sector has taken other Abruzzians to northern Italy. Still today brilliant young minds study elsewhere, and make careers and families a long way from here. Is our Traveller friends with one of them?
The presence of Abruzzians is more discreet than that of other groups from other regions (they don’t have a flag like the Sardinians, a secret language like the Sicilians, or a passion for football like the Neapolitans) but once you’ve made friends with one, that feeling of mutual aid will remain with you your life long. Maybe the Traveller will meet a Michelin star chef like Niko Romito.
Or perhaps he’ll look out an old shepherd, one of the few remaining ones so dear to Gabriele d’Annunzio, who once upon a time, in September, migrated from the mountains to the sea following the shamanic ways of the transumanza. Of this we can be sure: the Traveller will return home with faces, handshakes, toasts and other memories of true friendships that will warm his heart forever.
For no reason
There’s another remote possibility: that the Traveller has no reason to be here, no business, no love, no friend. He might not know anyone and have no particular reason for coming here. In other words, he’s here because he’s a Traveller through and through.
Not any old tourist, but someone looking for little beaten paths and wild and solitary beauty. Here to uncover the best-kept secret in Italy. But where will our Traveller be arriving from? If he comes by car, he’s got three possibilities: from the north along the Teramo coast; from the south along the enchanted road of travocchi in Chieti; and if he’s from the capital, parallel to the age-old Tiburtine Way, he’ll have followed the greenest motorway in Italy, through one of the few green lungs left in Europe.
But if he’s from a long way away, the Traveller has probably caught any aeroplane, and if he was lucky, he’ll have ended up sitting next to the window. And so, if it was a clear day and there was no turbulence during the flight, even before he hit the ground he’ll have been able to enjoy the wonders of the Apennines that run the length of Italy, exploding in all their magnificence here. The Gran Sasso on one side and the Majella on the other: the two giants, undisputed masters of this land.
Whatever his reason for coming, we’ll have to give our Traveller some special tips. We like him, he deserves it: not many people choose Abruzzo if it isn’t Abruzzo that’s chosen them first. As soon as he gets off the aeroplane, if he only has a few days, we recommend that the Traveller rent a car. We’ve already told him about the coast of Chieti and the wonders of the travocchi and we’re sure the Traveller will listen to us: he’s fond of us and trusts us now. But there’s at least one other place that we want to suggest.
Abruzzo’s true heart beats close to L’Aquila. Campo Imperatore, Italy’s little Tibet, and inaccessible prison for Benito Mussolini in the years of the last war when the Brigata Majella was fighting against the Nazis in Abruzzo. Here time has stood still and nature reigns undisturbed. Don’t be surprised, dear Traveller, if little villages appear where you’d only expect to meet hobbits and elves. You’re in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a Lilliput-sized Florence wanted by the Medici family as the base for buying wool from Abruzzo’s sheep.
The village is a virtual hotel. Take a room and go out early in the morning. You’ll come to castles of ancient beauty like the ruins of Rocca Calascio. If it looks familiar it might be because you’ve already seen it at the cinema. It’s provided the backdrop for the films The Name of the Rose and Ladyhawke. And here, our dear Traveller, Abruzzo will give its all.
Take it and take it home. It’s a gift without compare.