Glenn and I with Piero at the Cantina di Biffi in Sulmona. Note bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo on the table.
We drank a lot of wine in Italy. Italian wine. Big mouthfilling reds and crisp Calabrian whites. But one of the most lasting wine pleasures we discovered was Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a wine I had never heard of before spending a few weeks in Abruzzo.
So last week my brother, Glenn, forwarded me an email from a wine store, touting “a true gem of a wine” in Fantini’s 2012 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The email claims a wine score of 90 for it, though my online research turns up 85 or 87. Am I concerned? Naaa. I’m gonna go look for some of this, which is available from several places at about $10 a bottle, and I’m gonna bring it home, and I’m gonna cook up some pasta with sauce that includes zucchini (because I am overloaded with it right now). Then I’ll pour a couple of big red glasses of that stuff.
I’ll be wishing my brother was here to enjoy it, like we did in Sulmona in 2004 at the Cantina di Biffi. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has become my go-to red since then.
Readers, please share your best Italian wine experience in the comments. What made it special?
Travelers to Italy often plan most of their visits around those “must see” tourist attractions like the Coliseum in Rome, the leaning tower in Pisa, and the ruins of Pompeii. Italy has enough of these to occupy many months of vacation time.
Italian Landscape with a Country Festival by Francesco Zuccarelli (18th c.) Image from Wikimedia Commons
But there’s more to Italy than the typical tour itinerary includes. And one consideration might be local festivals. Just like local festivals here in the U.S. (and probably wherever you live), the festivals in Italy usually include booths with food vendors, special entertainment, and an atmosphere of excitement.
An internet search for “festivals Italy 2013” ended in frustration. The information was too general, and often too limited to a particular area. So I began a search including the name of a region, and found much more of interest. For example, through this link for Abruzzo:
I found festivals throughout the year in towns large and small–ranging from a Trout and Shrimp Festival to a Bonfire Festival, to a snake-handling event with Roman origins. You might notice that this is the business website of a construction company in Abruzzo, but what a great service they have added for the English speaking traveler! Even a referral for an English speaking auto mechanic. Bravi, Craftsmen!
There are festivals for all kinds of interests: food (of course!!), religious holidays, history, music, and many more. You many belong to an organization with members in Italy you can connect with through a local festival in their town. And just as visitors to my town learn a little more about it if they attend our annual Irrigation Festival (going on this week, by the way), you can absorb some more Italian culture by enjoying a festival there.
So tell me, readers, have you attended a festival in Italy? Share about it in the comments, please!
We arrived in Sulmona in the fall of 2004 to a scene of celebration. Teams of athletes from countries around the world were gathered there to compete in the summer version of speed-skating, with in-line skates, and we were there for opening night!
A banner announces “World Championships” with Sulmona’s iconic medieval aqueduct in the background.
We had no idea this event was happening when we planned our visit. Piazza Garibaldi, Sulmona’s enormous main square, was transformed into a racetrack surrounded by bleachers and vendors’ booths.
A parade of nations entering the arena.
The teams paraded along Corso Ovidio and into the arena in alphabetical order by country (a little trickier in Italian!).
Team USA passing the fountain in Piazza Garibaldi.
We found the American team and wished them well.
A young fan cheers his favorites.
Here are a few photos we snapped while watching the events.
Italy has its share of tourist attractions, but don’t be fooled. Out in the countryside, in villages and hamlets, many unsung gems await discovery. Scontrone offered us such a discovery.
During one week of a two-month stay in Italy, my husband and I connected with my brother and his daughter in Abruzzo.
A trusting place–keys in the door!
And on one brilliant August day, we drove south from Sulmona in a loop that took us through Castel di Sangro, Scontrone, Barrea and a bit of the National Park of Abruzzo, then through Scanno and back to Sulmona.
Another reason to stop: to have a cool one.
We stopped at Scontrone to have a look around, attracted mainly because of its connection with Pope Celestine V, who lived there briefly in his early twenties, seeking a place of solitude, and found it in a cave. We did not find the cave, but wandered around the quiet (nearly deserted) village, taking photos, which I share with you today.
We admired the “public art”.
And along with these, I encourage you, when you visit Italy, to leave the line to get into the museum, the stiff neck from staring at grand ceilings, leave all that behind at least for a while, and get off the beaten path, practice your “Buon giorno” in a village piazza or bar, and enjoy what you find there.
I recently discovered this great blog ‘About Abruzzo’ which is one of my favorite regions of the Italian south. Written by an Irishman who’s been truly bitten by the bug, the blog is full of great insights about the region. One of my favorite features is the photo section, packed with photos from many different places in Abruzzo, and easy to navigate. But today I’m sharing a snip of a recent post, and if you like what you read, click the link to see more!
Three Days in Loreto Aprutino (from “About Abruzzo”)
In the space of a week I received two emails asking about things to do if you had a few days based in Loreto Aprutino.
Although my answer was specific to options in and around Loreto I think the general theme applies to wherever you find yourself in Abruzzo.
Explore what the local town has to offer
Relax – you owe it to yourself
Try the local restaurants
Visit other towns within easy reach by car or public transport
Walk a little
Local events and markets
What follows are my suggestions for what I consider to be a few excellent but not overly packed days discovering Loreto Aprutino and its surroundings.
On a hot, clear September afternoon Vern and I followed our friend Cesare along a trail through dry grass on the slopes of Maiella. Our destination: one of the dozens of hermitages in the mountains of Abruzzo, San Bartolomeo in Legio. Pilgrims still visit the site, most commonly on August 25 each year. The narrow trail and ledge discourage crowds!
Little doorway to nowhere
No handrails on these stairs!
It is hard to imagine spending weeks or months in this isolated place, but there is a beauty in the surroundings, and it seems a good place to encounter God. Here you can read more about it.
Have you ever visited a hermitage? Where was it, and what did you think of it?
Not too many years ago, the annual “Irrigation Festival” where I live in Washington state celebrated its 100th year. It is touted as the longest running continuous community celebration in our state, and we celebrated along with our neighbors. And when I grew up in Alaska, my family made the annual trek to Seward for the July 4th Mount Marathon footrace, in the midst of Independence Day revelry. I like community celebrations with some history.
Pacentro towers at dusk
So when my friend Cesare invited us to Pacentro (a place whose castle towers would have been reason enough) for their annual celebration which included a footrace, we were happy to go.
Pacentro is perched on the east side of the wide valley wall south of Sulmona in the central Apennines. We drove up the stony ridge, already crowded with cars, and squeezed into one of his typical, impossible, parking spots. By this point in our travels, I had been immersed in Italian for about a month, and understood more and more of the conversation around me. Cesare and his wife led us to a street overlooking the valley to the south. On the opposite hillside, a large Italian flag appeared to be spray painted on a large rock, marking the start of the race course.
An alleyway in Pacentro, filled with flowers.
A public address system, strung up to a high eave, broadcast tinny announcements that could be heard for several blocks. As the racers climbed the hill to the starting line, Cesare told about the origins of the race, when gypsies camped outside the city saw an enemy approaching, and ran barefoot down the hill, across the valley, and up to the hilltop town of Pacentro to warn them, allowing the town to fend off the danger. In honor of the “Zingari”, or Gypsies, who saved Pacentro, the annual Corsa degli Zingari, (Race of the Gypsies), is celebrated every year. It has become a coming-of-age ritual for the young men of Pacentro. The prize seems odd–a bolt of cloth. But this was the fabric used to make his first suit of clothes as a man, and young men still compete vigorously for the title, running barefoot across the rough terrain.
A band greets the runners.
As the two or three dozen racers got in place, fireworks echoed in the valley, and the noisy crowd grew around us. I struggled to hear the announcements, and to understand them. But I was sure I had misunderstood when the announcer welcomed everyone to the 556th running of the Corso degli Zingari. Wait… 556th? That puts it back into the early 1400s. Really? Yes, Cesare assured me, I had heard him correctly.
I was still absorbing the historical shock when the ringing of bells signaled the start of the race. We watched them run down the rocky, forested hillside, disappearing into the pines, and reappearing to the cheers of viewers around us. By the time they begin to arrive in the town, within fifteen or twenty minutes as I recall, they are blistered and sometimes bloody. From the finish line, racers are paraded through the narrow crowded streets on the shoulders of their friends.
The victors are paraded through the streets
We stayed for a while, walking through the narrow, medieval streets and admiring the towers before heading back to Sulmona as the sun set . My sense of history had been properly tweaked, a reset button in my brain changing just a little bit how I viewed the “longstanding” Irrigation Festival (only 117 years old this year) and the Mount Marathon race in Seward (where they wear shoes, for Pete’s sake!).
To see a glimpse of Pacentro and the race, here’s a video from 2009. If you plan to be in Italy in September, you might enjoy attending this very much off-the-beaten-track event.
I knew my research in Italy would take me to Abruzzo, and Harry Clifton’s book “On the Spine of Italy: A Year in the Abruzzi” (Macmillan, 1999) fell into my hands at the right moment, to give me a taste of the region I was so eager to know better.
Clifton is an Irish poet. He and his wife went to a village in Abruzzo to spend a summer writing. In the end, they stayed a full year, and this book chronicles their experience of village life. I enjoyed reading it, and it stoked my interest in the region, although my visit of a few weeks would not compare to a year-long stay. I believe the book is now out of print, but it is available used from online booksellers.
Clifton describes the village at Christmas time:
“The village, in its small way, was preparing for Christmas. The shop had introduced a freezer, full of packaged vegetables, hamburgers, french fries, and fish fingers, to internationalize the local cuisine. It had a glass display case, containing cheeses and cold cuts of meat, clinically administered by the women in starched white. The co-operativa, as it stood now, would have done justice to a hospital.
“They had introduced a small stand of Christmas gifts and confectionery, a smaller and far poorer version of the extravaganzas we had witnessed in Perugia. There were bottles of Spumante and Amaro, the bitter digestivo favoured in the Abruzzo. There were sundry mechanical toys, times to autodestruct a week after they had been bought. And there was a big assortment of giftwrapped panettones, the soft fruity cakes filled with jam or chocolate that symbolize the Christmas season in Italy. We bought some for Silvio’s family, as a fence-mending gesture.
“In the bar, the men played cards obsessively. the lights were on until two in the morning, as they engaged in gigantic poker sessions. As it was Christmas, they were betting heavily and playing for real stakes. We knew villagers who had been literally ruined, dispossessed of their property and the shirts off their backs, by such sessions. The late night shouting and roaring across the road had plenty of reality behind it. But anything, especially in winter, was better than boredom, and cards were the one thing in the lives of the village men that lifted the burden of empty time off their backs.
“A week before Christmas, a truck arrived from the commune of Poggio, with a string of coloured lights. In the course of one dark afternoon, they were draped over the solitary pine in the piazza. In the evening, switched on, it became our communal Christmas tree. Meanwhile, in the church, Gegeto had constructed a huge elaborate crib out of moss and mountain rocks–a miniature landscape threaded with electric lights, through which wandered shepherds, wise kings and animals, in the direction of the Holy Family. Until Christmas night, this massive construction went unwitnessed by almost everyone in the village. After Christmas, it was almost immediately dismantled. It was a labour of love. The lights on the pine tree, which were the work of the state, were still there the following May.”
I enjoyed Clifton’s book, which doesn’t identify the specific village, but includes the highs and lows of village life in rural southern Italy.
Surprise #1: Sulmona is easy to reach by train or by car–about two or three hours east of Rome in the central Appenines. It’s off the beaten path for tourists, but is gradually being discovered, as evidenced by dozens of reviews on TripAdvisor for lodgings, restaurants, and things to do.
Confetti flowers for sale in Sulmona (RaBoe/Wikipedia)
Surprise #2: Confetti! Not the bits of colored paper, but bits of colored candy coated almonds and chocolate, attached to wire stems and shaped into butterflies, flowers, swans, and other beautiful creations. Bouquets of confetti line the shop fronts along the Corso Ovidio, brilliant color drawing you along to find the next candy fantasy.
Surprise #3: History galore! I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise anywhere in Italy, but there are Roman ruins beneath the city, visible in a couple of museums attached to churches: S.S. Annunziata and San Gaetano. The city is surrounded by medieval walls, and a medieval aqueduct forms one side of the large Piazza Garibaldi.
Surprise #4: World class events! In addition to annual jousting competitions held in late July and early August, an international Latin competition celebrates the Roman poet Ovid who was born in Sulmona, nearby towns have festivals celebrating cherries, red garlic, and wine, and in Pacentro the annual Corsa degli Zingari (Race of the Gypsies) in early September has been celebrated for more than 500 years. On one visit to Sulmona we were surprised to see the Piazza Garibaldi transformed into a skating track for the International Speedskating Championships.
Medieval aqueduct in Piazza Garibaldi, Sulmona. (RaBoe/Wikipedia)
Surprise #5: Great food! We enjoyed meals at the Hostaria del Arco and Cantina di Biffi–rated number one and two among restaurants in Sulmona on TripAdvisor. Like most Italian cities, coffee shops abound, along with pizzerias and a variety of restaurants.
Surprise #6: The great outdoors! Sulmona’s valley is surrounded by national parks with lots of hiking opportunity. The mountains have remnants of ancient shepherds’ huts, along with several hermitages which are popular hiking destinations. There are also about a dozen ski areas within 60 to 90 minutes’ drive of Sulmona. The beaches along the Adriatic coast are about an hour away.
I hope you’ll try Sulmona when you plan a trip to Italy!