As a child growing up in Rome in the 1980s, I believed Abruzzo to be a faraway magical land, a place of mythical misty mountains patrolled by bears and wolves, with glaciers so cold and snow drifts so deep you might wander into one and never emerge alive. We’d go skiing there: a trip to Abruzzo meant ditching school and your boring city life, exchanging the routine of home for exploration, adventure and wild nature. Sure, when you’re seven years old and barely a meter tall the world looks and feels different, it’s easy to get carried away. But to this day Abruzzo has remained an otherworldly region to me, a weird and wonderful and extraordinary place.
More recently I’ve exchanged skis for hiking boots; Abruzzo is a spectacular destination for walking. If mountain summits are your thing Abruzzo has a jewel in its crown: the Gran Sasso d’Italia (the ‘Great Rock of Italy’), at 2,912 meters the highest peak in the Apennine Mountains. Despite the significant elevation there’s an easy walking route up to the apex of the Corno Grande, along a mostly gradual path. From the top, if the visibility is good, you can see the Adriatic Sea, large swathes of central Italy, and most likely the soaring resident Golden Eagles. On the other hand the Apennine wolves, brown bears and European wildcats are all rare and very difficult to spot—but definitely present in the 2,000-square kilometer Gran Sasso National Park that surrounds the massif.
Below Gran Sasso stretches a vast elevated plateau, the thirty-kilometer long Campo Imperatore, stunning domain of quasi-wild horses, formidable white Maremmano sheepdogs hounding flocks of pecore along ancient transhumance routes, and plummeting posses of Peregrine falcons. On the southern edge of this plateau lies another Abruzzo stunner: the medieval Rocca di Calascio fortress. Preferably approached, in my opinion, on foot from the neighboring town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio—going over the hills and up the back rather than via the town up front like everyone else.
The most memorable walk I’ve done in Abruzzo, however, was far removed from the popular hotspots like Gran Sasso and Rocca di Calascio. Something altogether different: an off-the-beaten-track five-day hike from the city of Sulmona—birthplace of the great Latin poet Ovid in 43 BCE—to L’Aquila, the regional capital. The route followed the Aterna River valley, dotted with Roman bridges and medieval mills, through lush forests interspersed with views of the imposing Monte Sirente to the south-east. Along the way the highlights include the beautiful San Venanzio gorge and hermitage, the impressive tower of Beffi, and the epic Stiffe Caves.
My stay in the town of Fontecchio en route happened to coincide with the local “sagra,” or festival. It involved dinner at communal tables in the piazza, plenty of robust red wine all round, and dancing in the streets. The evening was capped by a surprise, a particularly Abruzzese twist: a pupazza taking the piazza by fire-storm. Such pupazze are larger-than-life papier mâché figures, gaudily painted, with massive breasts and a wreath of fireworks in their crowns— probably a holdover from pagan harvest-rites, representing fecundity, regeneration, abundance. Traditionally they’d be burned on a bonfire at the end of the night, a ritual purification by fire. This one made a startling entrance, pirouetting around in a multi-coloured plume of smoke with a crescendo of exploding pyrotechnics.
I kept thinking about her on the remaining days’ walk into L’Aquila. Perhaps the pagan pupazza of Fontecchio was an otherworldly emissary of sorts, a manifestation of everything that is weird and wonderful and extraordinary about Abruzzo. She walked me all the way back to the faraway magical land of my childhood.
Maremma Safari Club explores Italy in well-researched and beguiling guided walking trips.