A Short Walk In The Italian Abruzzo
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?