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A Short Walk In The Italian Abruzzo

Abruzzo, Italy

The Apennines are the forgotten mountains of western Europe. It’s not that they’re without interest, either. There are some fantastic peaks and forgotten valleys, and villages that nestle against hillsides like the remnants of some lost civilization. That’s a pretty apt comparison, as it happens: right into the twentieth century you could come up into these hills and find methods of farming and – especially – viniculture that hadn’t changed since Roman times, two thousand years ago.

Abruzzo Landscape The Abruzzo, as the mountainous region to the north and east of Rome is called, has always been a little wild. That’s odd, really, considering its relative closeness to the capital. But the people seem to have been shaped by the land. Even the local wine has more of an edge to it than wines from other parts of Italy. There’s nothing soft and mellow about the landscape. The Abruzzo has always been one of the poorer areas of Italy, too. If you’re an Italian American there’s a good chance that your ancestors were Abruzzese. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, only Sicily outdid the Abruzzo in terms of the number of its impoverished sons and daughters that it sent to the USA.

Abruzzo:Castel Del Monte
Abruzzo: Castel Del Monte

The Abruzzo covers quite a large area, but if you’re traveling there from Rome the chances are you will wind up, at some point, in L’Aquila. The city’s name means ‘The Eagle’, which is appropriate for a town which perches on such a rough landscape. The quickest way to get there from Rome is by coach. Making the trip by train, however, is quite spectacular. Sitting in an elderly Italian carriage as it creaks its way up the huge ridge of the central Apennines is an unforgettable experience.

Gran Sasso
Gran Sasso L’Aquila itself is a pretty nondescript sort of town of dusty streets and suburban housing. A good bus service runs from the center of town out into the country. The major range of Apennines around here is called Gran Sasso. It’s split by a long, high, flat-bottomed valley called Campo Imperatore. It’s a wild area, roamed by herds of semi-domesticated horses. In winter, it’s very popular for skiing.

Abruzzo Streets If you take the long, winding road to the very head of the Campo Imperatore valley you reach the Campo Imperatore Hotel. This building, possibly more than any other in the area, has a place in history. Back in 1943 Italy, still on the side of Nazi Germany, was suffering badly as a result of Allied invasion. Mussolini, the fascist dictator, was overthrown by a pro-Allied government and spirited away. He was held on a number of islands until finally being brought to the Campo Imperatore Hotel – a place so inaccessible his captors reckoned the Germans would struggled to capture him. Although the Germans most certainly did struggle, they finally managed to free the captured dictator. A group of German soldiers led by a young officer called Otto Skorzeny crash-landed gliders on the plateau near the hotel, then stormed the place and rescued the Italian dictator. A light plane was landed nearby, and Mussolini was whisked off to Germany and temporary safety.

Today the hotel thrives on the ski trade in the winter. From here you can take the cable car back down to the main L’Aquila road, and save on the long bus journey back. You can also admire the fine, shapely peak of Corno Grande, the highest mountain in this part of Italy.

Abruzzo Waterfall If you’re an experienced hiker, this area of the Gran Sasso is great walking territory. It’s also very, very quiet: the Italians aren’t particularly a nation of hikers, and it’s likely that anyone else you come across will be American, British, Austrian or German. All the usual warnings apply: make sure you are properly equipped and experienced and that someone knows where you are going. There are various maps available of the region, some better than others. Buy the one that seems clearest!

 

If you do decide to take the cable car down from Campo Imperatore you’ll find a couple of small, quiet hotels at the lower station. If you happen to be visiting Gran Sasso during the summertime (i.e. out of skiing season) you’ll probably find these places have very few guests indeed. Both have excellent terraces on which to enjoy a late afternoon cup of tea or coffee. Both, too, serve excellent food. This area of the Abruzzo is something of a culinary heartland for Italians: the food is solid rather than fancy, but the ingredients used to make it are mostly of the best quality. The local pasta and roast chicken is superb.

A visit to the Gran Sasso area of the Abruzzo can be successfully combined with a trip to Rome, which isn’t very far away. Why not take in some eternal mountains while you’re visiting the eternal city?

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