For independent travellers exploring Abruzzo is a treasure chest brimming with natural wonders, cultural delights, historical curiosities and, in no ways least, food & wine to thrill even the most experienced bon viveur…
However, the region’s interwoven threads do take work and time to connect. Criss-crossing two of Italy’s highest massifs means that you can’t ever simply travel as the crow flies and if your time is precious sometimes you may need a helping hand to guide you or drive you on the quickest, most scenic route.
Qu-tours are a trailblazing new Abruzzo guide company, that organise grown-up days out and tours that explore the sights working with local companies to provide an engaging day of history, culture and the very best food stops and wine tasting for teenagers and grandparents alike.
This dynamic tour company was created by two old Sulmonesi school friends & a friend from Rieti who recognised that they could be the glue between tourists and the province and help promote Abruzzo outside of Italy. They passionately craft itineraries that will have you marvelling as they put your jigsaw pieces into a realistic excursion or tour and safely drive there with some fine storytelling and local commentary.
Their speciality is in exploring the province of L’Aquila and includes the main cities of Sulmona, L’Aquila, Pacentro and Scanno, as well as plenty of the jaw-droppingly gorgeous villages that balance precariously on the Gran Sasso and Majella mountains and hilltops.
They can pick you up by car or minibus depending on your numbers at your B&B or hotel, or you can join them as I did after driving to Sulmona where they arranged for my car to have free parking in the city’s car park. We went for a delicious ‘get to know you’ breakfast under the shadow of Ovid in Sulmona’s Gran Caffè in Piazza XX Settembre. Here we had the unexpected delight of the excellent local brass band warming up ready to give its performance to celebrate Panfilo di Sulmona, the city’s patron saint. One of the wonderful things about having a guide is that you get to absorb a lovely moment rather than getting lost in a guidebook or my phone trying to work out the importance of the day
Qu-Tours had crafted my Sunday itinerary to reflect my interests in art, sustainability and organic food and wine in the province’s small towns, after a meandering walk through elegant Sulmona and I was off being chauffeured in an immaculately clean and comfortable modern car on a picturesque road journey to our first destination:
Stop 1 – Santa Maria ad Cryptas Church, Fossa
Santa Maria ad Cryptas is one of Abuzzo’s jewels that was built on top of a 9th century AD Roman-Byzantine temple. It is home to some of the most important Gothic Byzantine and frescoes within Abruzzo. Those depicting the Last Judgement are said to have inspired Dante to write the Divine Comedy when he visited the area for the crowing of Pope Celestine in 1294. Unusually the sacred scenes include an agrarian calendar.
On the day of our visit, the church was having its grand re-opening following its restoration post the L’Aquila earthquake. My amiable host Riccardo had been a student at the time of the earthquake at the city’s university. Looking at the church, and the first meeting of the town together 10 years after the earthquake he gave a personal insight of being a student at L’Aquila University back in 2009. I heard his pride as he spoke about his father’s construction company whose buildings did not topple, stories of his student friends, how life had changed. Travel is rightly looked upon as one of the best educations in the world, having a guide even for one day allows us to listen, question and discover the present of the local community that we are visiting not just its history.
Stop 2 – Terre del Tirino, Capestrano
Qu-Tours made an impeccable choice when they picked Terre del Tirino restaurant and farm for lunch and a tour. It is widely regarded as L’Aquila’s Slow Food hub and model of self-sufficiency.
Its location is just outside the small medieval town of Capestrano, where the imposing C6th bc Vestini warrior sculpture was found by a local farmer. A road trip here in May and June is spectacular as you pass through never-ending lush fields of poppies. The area is nicknamed the oven of Abruzzo and its higher than average temperatures are reached by being surrounded by the Gran Sasso, the Maiella and Morrone peaks.
Owner Alfonso D’Alfonso chose to return to his ancestor’s farm from a high-flying career a world away in Rome. He started with no knowledge and learnt on the job how to successfully farm using a combination of techniques from the past and today without the need for weed killers or growth supplements and reverting to heritage grains and legumes that had flourished in the area historically. The tour was fascinating and when I got stuck for translation Riccardo stepped in!
Everything delicious created in the kitchen by their agrichef is organic, produced on the farm and stems from a traditional Abruzzese recipe. Expect dishes that made with low gluten solina wheat, farro, pulses like Santo Stefano di Sessanio lentils, Aquilini beans, home-grown vegetables that are flavoured with black truffles, saffron, aromatic herbs. Produce that is not used is sold at Farmers Market in nearby L’Aquila. Lunch was divine, and unsurprisingly the restaurant was full so I would recommend booking. One of the most enjoyable things being chauffeured here was being able to try 2 of the excellent bi-dynamic natural wines that are produced on the farm!
If there is a group of you, Qu-Tours can arrange for you to eat down by the River Tirino, one of Europe’s cleanest rivers following the award of EU grant. They can arrange a combined visit to the restaurant with a spectacular guided canoe ride or scuba diving at Lago Capo d’Acqua whose warm depths contain an old stone mill that used to belong to the family before it was flooded. Over August the farm is hosting Oxford & Pescara Universities who will be taking part in an archaeological dig as tombs and artifacts have been found in the farm’s fields. You can arrange to join the universities on a special archaeological dig and afterwards enjoy a traditional Vestini (the local Italic tribe) themed lunch for €220.
Stop 3 -Valle Reale Wines, Popoli
Our last stop for the day was a wine tasting at the acclaimed Valle Reale organic Vineyards in Popoli. This is one of the coldest places in the region for winemaking but this together with the mineral content of the local water and use of spontaneous fermentation creates wonderfully fresh wines.
The wine tasting itself was a remarkable lesson in how yeast makes up 60% of a wine’s secondary flavours. The vineyard has two locations that grew the same grapes, but the wines produced from each taste uniquely of their location, their terroir, the plants and trees that grow next to the vines by using a ‘Pied de Cuve’ to ferment the wine. A few days before harvest, some baskets of grapes are collected and pressed, and fermentation begins after a few days. This grape ‘must’ is then added to harvested grapes to ensure spontaneous fermentation without the need for any industrial yeast. Wines were paired with superb cheeses from Abruzzo’s leading cheesemaker, Gregoro Rotolo.
Our day out exploring Abruzzo came to a close, I’d had fun, learnt lots, eaten superb food and drunk some extraordinary wines (without having to worry about driving!) and discovered another part of Abruzzo but without my nose in a guidebook or spending one week planning it.
Example Qu-Tours ABRUZZO DAY Excursions
- Capestrano Archaeology Dig & Vestini Themed Lunch – £220
- Sulmona Market & Pacentro Cookery Lesson – £185
- Photography Workshop – £200
- Enograstronomic Day – £185