Pacentro’s annual barefoot race

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.

Book Excerpt: On the Spine of Italy

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.

Merry Christmas to all my readers!

Sulmona: A city of surprises

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!

If I were in Italy today…

An Adriatic beach in late summer, Abruzzo.

Crowds have thinned out at the beaches, but it’s still warm enough to enjoy! Grapes are beginning to ripen, and the market is filled with produce–tomatoes, lemons, tasty greens, eggplant, and the fragrance of basil. Blooming flowers cascade over walls and burst from their pots. A delightful season to enjoy the Italian south!

Even the calendar becomes a garden in Naples!

5th Friday Surprise: Blog tour of the Italian south!

Like the light at the end of this street in Salerno, the Italian south draws me to explore.

Join me today on a tour that will leave your hungry for more. I’m sharing some of the other blogs about southern Italy that have inspired me.

Michelle Fabio’s is a favorite–she moved from Pennsylvania to her family’s ancestral village in Calabria, and stayed!

At, Bonnie shares all things Naples, from transportation strikes to church services, in the city she describes as “beautiful, chaotic, unbending, romantic, confusing”. Get to know this vibrant, gritty city better!

If Sicily tugs at your heart, visit for a smorgasbord of Sicilian topics, like kid-friendly sightseeing, festivals and holidays, natural wonders, and lots more.

Mary at shares a lot about food, as the blog name suggests, but there are plenty of other topics sprinkling flavor throughout her posts.

Who hunts the wild boar?

One food I enjoyed in Italy, but seldom see in America, is wild boar. When we were staying in Sulmona, our friend Cesare took us through several mountain villages to see various monasteries and hermitages connected to Pope Celestine V (the subject of my research in central Italy).

We stopped for lunch in a village in the mountains of Majella National Park, and went to a restaurant called Belvedere, which hung on the edge of a precipice overlooking the wild hinterlands of Abruzzo. Vern was intrigued to find wild boar on the menu—cinghiale in Italian—and decided to try it. His curiosity was rewarded: the waiter soon delivered a huge bowl of savory chunky stew. The meat was similar to pork, and very tasty.

As we ate, I asked Cesare who hunts the wild boar they serve in the restaurant. At first he seemed not to understand the question, but I persisted. “Nobody hunts them,” he finally said.  “Where do they come from then?” I asked. “Una fattoria.”

Yes, it seems the ‘wild’ boar was raised on a farm! Quite a disappointment, as a boar hunt was fully formed in my imagination already.

Truly wild boars have proliferated in some areas of rural Italy, because their natural enemy, the wolf, has declined in population. According to some sources they now produce more offspring due to mating with domesticated pigs. They damage farms and gardens, and can be a traffic hazard.

My son and I found wild boar on the menu of La Dolce Vita restaurant in Seattle a couple of years ago, and like his dad, he had to try it. I don’t see it on their online menu now. I haven’t found any to try cooking myself, but I found a recipe online at that looks pretty good. If you want to try it using pork, and just pretend it’s wild boar, go ahead—I won’t tell!