On the northeastern side of Rome, Abruzzo stretches from the Apennine mountains to the Adriatic Sea. This is the land of a thousand castles, the highest mountains in Central Italy and vast tracts of parks and ancient forests where wolves and bears still roam.
Proudly known as the ‘Region of Parks’, one third of Abruzzo’s territory is under environmental protection in four national parks. A magnificent landscape forms this region of snow-capped mountains, forests and undulating meadows. Yet the eastern border is fringed by long, sandy beaches fronting the Adriatic, including the very popular beach resorts Silvi Marina, Francavilla al Mare, Pineto, Alba Adriatica and Pescara.
Established in 1922, the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo was Italy’s first national park, whose logo is the Marsican brown bear, which still roams here along with Apennine wolves. Once hunted to near extinction, these shy bears are still an endangered species but 40-60 of them live in the Park, while wolves prowl – accompanied by the occasional howl. It’s also the perfect environment for herds of chamois, red and roe deer and rarer species such as otters, wildcats, Apennine lynx and pine martens. The area is perfect terrain too for horse-riding and pony trekking.
To the west, foothills rise to the Apennine mountains that run the entire length of the country – and to the loftiest peak in the range. The Gran Sasso or ‘great stone’ towers at 9,560ft (2,914m) and is the centrepiece of the Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso-Laga. This is Abruzzo’s largest national park covering 994 square miles(1,600sq km) and is an untamed land of mountains, deep gorges, lakes, rivers and waterfalls. The landscape is dotted with little towns and fortified medieval villages clinging to the mountain flanks which lend the area a feeling of wilderness
These are the highest mountains south of the Alps and the best place for everything from hiking for novices to rock wall ascents for expert mountaineers. There are also more than 20 ski-centres where the snowfall is often higher than in the Alps- the most developed ski resort is Roccaraso, followed by Campo Felice and Campo Imperatore. There is even a glacier – Il Calderone (the cauldron) on the north face of the jagged vertical walls of Corno Grande – the only glacier in the Apennines and the farthest south in Europe.
The capital of this sparsely populated region is the medieval mountain city L’Aquila (The Eagle), looking out from its eyrie onto the spectacular Gran Sasso massif. Much in the news recently, it suffered a catastrophic earthquake in April 2009 which killed 295 people, drove 50,000 from their homes, and destroyed or damaged many buildings. The G8 summit, originally due to have been held in Sardinia, was held at L’Aquila in July 2009 and the area is now a hub of reconstruction activity.
Other lovely towns – mercifully unaffected by the quake – include Pescasseroli, the starting point for plenty of excursions such as bear-watching walks and ‘wolf howling’ forays into the woods where recordings of howling wolves stimulate the local animals. And Sulmona at the foot of the Maiella massif, famous as the birthplace of the Roman poet Ovid who wrote about love and seduction and described it then as now as ‘a land rich in ice-cold streams, ninety miles from Rome’.
Wherever you go in Abruzzo, you, too, will be seduced by the natural beauty of this region which has redoubled its efforts to give a warmer welcome than ever to visitors this year.
Take The Train
A great way to spend a relaxing day in Abruzzo is to take the Treno della Valle. There are several different itineraries, including a day at the lake, a visit to a medieval castle, a day in the forest, an excursion to Mount Maiella, a culinary trip, and more.
Spaghetti alla chitarra - square strands of pasta made by pressing out the chunky pasta over a wooden box strung with wires (chitarra - guitar). Other specialities include salame di fegato dolce - liver salami made with honey - and testicoli di mulo - small round lean pork sausages, so-called because they are always sold in pairs. Wash it all down with Montepulciano d'Abruzzo - a deliciously smooth red wine.