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Bicycling near Navelli

A Few of My Favourite Abruzzo Things – Joshua Lawrence

by Joshua Lawrence

Bicycling near Navelli

What’s your association with Abruzzo?

i.e. where do you live and why? Where did your family come from and when/ where did they emigrate to?

My wife, Silvia, is from L’Aquila and I first started visiting with her before we decided to move down when she became a researcher in Modern History at the University of L’Aquila. I call it my home even though we are still displaced in Pescara and I’m often elsewhere in Italy for work.

How long have you been living in Abruzzo or visiting?

I first started coming down from Milan for the holidays almost in 1994 when Silvia invited me to see her family. We moved from Milan to l’Aquila ten years ago and landed in Pescara in April 2009 when the Earthquake shook us out of our home. We hope to move back to L’Aquila but are also enjoying life by the sea.

Adriatic Sea

What’s the best thing about Abruzzo?

Not an easy question, because there are so many wonderful things that it’s really up to every visitor to decide. For me it’s the people I’ve come to love, and most of what I love about Abruzzo is tied to each of them. There are not many places where you can go from a  mountaintop to antique coastal fishing structures in an hour, or eat ancient legumes – like tiny mountain lentils or rustic cicerchie (a very primitive legume which is a cross between a square chick pea and wild rice) and roast lamb while listening to classical music in a medieval hill town at lunch and groove to wine and great Jazz not far from the sea in the evening.

What’s the worst thing about Abruzzo?

Like in much of Italy, including the North, too much red tape and too many officials who are unwilling to take responsibility and move things along.  Right now many offices in L’Aquila are open to the public just two hours a day with no recourse to web-based tools.

Santa Maria del Suffragio

But if you don’t try to buy a house or set up a business, none of this will create a problem, it’s something residents have to live with, not tourists. And if you are looking to buy a house, I advise – both in Italy and anywhere, to always , make sure there’s a real, licensed estate agent involved, and if they get upset when you ask to see their certificate go somewhere else (and let the rest of the world know who they are online). Whenever anyone anywhere in the world becomes evasive when you ask a simple question, it’s time to worry.

What’s the most underrated thing about Abruzzo?

Everything, really.

But having to choose I would still say L’Aquila, which was – and still is – one of Italy’s ten largest and most beautiful old cities. Unfortunately it took an earthquake shattering of it to get even Italians to pay attention. The tiny hill and mountain towns, most of them fortified, may sometimes pop up in movies but they are just the frosting flowers on the cake of internal Abruzzo. Even more stunning, Catholics flock to Rome every 25 years for the Jubilee but few know that the first ever Jubilee was the Perdonanza, founded by Pope Celestino V who had moved the papacy to L’Aquila. With the Perdonanza Celestiniana you don’t have to wait a quarter century to repent and have your sins washed away. In L’Aquila complete absolution is possible at the end of August every year.

Where would be your favourite place to live in Abruzzo?

L’Aquila before the Earthquake. Standing in Piazza del Duomo you can still look down ancient streets and see the surrounding    snow-capped peaks of the Apennine’s tallest in all four directions. It was a fun university town with its own unique character but less than two hours from the Eternal City (Rome) those days that the valley seems a bit too tight.  The city is still amazingly beautiful even now that it’s fractured and empty. I’m also really enjoying Pescara, its polar opposite.  I miss the old walls and cobblestone streets I dreamed of while growing up in the US, but this coastal city makes up for this by being one of the most comfortable and bicycle-friendly cities in central Italy.

Where would you not live in Abruzzo?

Personally I would not live in any of the hundreds of magical hill and mountain towns dotting the region. I love visiting them, exploring them, but not living in them. I’m a city dweller, I want to be surrounded thousands of neighbours, and too many theatres, cinemas, concerts and to choose from, even when I’m too busy to take advantage of any of them. August is an exception, when the towns fill with events and returning immigrants.  Waking up in the morning in a tiny stone village surrounded by snow-capped mountains can be peaceful and purifying, but every day? For you, maybe, but not for me!

Abruzzo Vista

What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in Abruzzo?

Since I’m currently working the whole week outside Abruzzo it would be biking along the seaside with my wife & daughters and hanging out in Pescara. A romantic weekend in one of the towns in the “Baronia”  (Calascio, Santo Stefano, Carapelle and Castelvecchio) would be perfect for those who love ancient stone walls and mountain , or a romantic stay in one of the timeless towns overlooking the Trabocchi Coast (Vasto, Ortona, Fossacesia, San Vito).

What’s your favourite Abruzzo vineyard and why?

Valle Reale is the only vineyard that fully understands hosting groups that I am aware of, but you can try many of the enoteche (wine bars) throughout the region to explore this whole, rich world. The Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo was what most people’s grandfathers would consider the most traditional wine and anyone who puts down rosés has never tried the ones produced by Cataldi Madona (usually my favourite). Some of the more famous are Masciarelli, Cataldi Madonna, Gentile, Marramiero, Cantina Mucci, Filomusi Guelfi, Pasetti, Valentini all make world-class Montepulciano reds, Cerasuolo rose’s and Pecorino and Trebbbiano whites. I’m particularly fond of Mucci’s limited production late harvest whites Proibito, one of the few whites you can drink freely at room temperature.

Where’s the best place to eat?

What an embarrassing question! My favourite is Percorsi di Gusto, one of the few places open in the historical centre of L’Aquila, Marzia Buzzanca knows her wine and how to put together a dining experience that entwines tradition and creativity. For coffee, torrone candy or a quick escape from the cold in winter, Bar Nurzia in Piazza del Duomo, or the historical, almost two-centuries old Cantina del Boss for a glass of wine. Outside of the centre, il Quinto Quarto is the place to go for an aperitivo that can go on all night with live music. And even though the sea is a mountain away their seafood antipasto is well worth it. Outside of L’Aquila I would eat anywhere in Santo Stefano di Sessanio nestled on top of Gran Sasso; in Pescara there’s the Bar Trieste for pizzette, or Il Cavaluccio in Rocca San Giovanni for a summer seafood lunch along the breathtaking Trabocchi coast.

Have you a favourite sagra?

As far as I’m concerned there is the Sagra di Navelli, by far the best.  Saffron and chick peas (garbanzos) from pasta and rice dishes to desserts in the main square are reason enough, but the Palio with untrained donkeys instead of horses is the main draw. And then it’s my adopted town.  Other great ones are in Santo Stefano (lentils), Bussi (trout), Raiano (cherries) and Barisciano (potatoes). And that’s just in the area I know best.

What would you do for a special occasion?

I got married in Bominaco, a town not far from Navelli. When I first saw the simple, bare stone interior of the hilltop church of Santa Maria Assunta it looked like the place I would want to tie the knot.  In part because of the garden and pine grove around, in part because the ruined castle reminded me of the knights of the round table. The tiny church of San Pelligrino, a few yards away reinforced the feeling that a marriage there would have deep roots.  Founded during the times of Charlemagne, most of the frescos from  then are still intact. If you go say thanks to the image of Saint Christopher, protector of travellers.

What’s your favourite view in Abruzzo?

From the Piazza del Duomo in L’Aquila with the rich colours of dusk with views along medieval streets with mountains behind in all four directions. The runners-up would be sundown along the coast from the tiny square below Palazzo D’Avalos in Vasto or from the monastery (basilica) of San Giovanni in Venere in Fossacesia.   An honourable mention to the view from the ruined castle at Forca di Penne.

What would be your favourite Abruzzo dish?

ArrosticiniArrosticini!   Followed by bucatini all’Amatriciana. Amatrice is currently part of Lazio but is historically and culturally Abruzzese. Although the best saffron probably comes from the area, it’s not part of local traditions (you don’t eat your livelihood).  If you like smelly fungus, Abruzzo is a big producers of the black truffles so prized in tables in Umbria.

What outdoor activities or sports would you recommend in Abruzzo and why?

Hiking! The slopes in and around both Roccaraso in the Abruzzo National Park and Campo Felice-Ovindoli in the Sirente regional park are amazing (but I don’t , I just accompany skiers and hang out at the base). There are also great opportunities for sailing and river kayaking (especially on the Tirino river)

What’s your favourite Abruzzo village and why?

Navelli is where my Italian family has a house with a beautiful rose garden and enough room for guests .The town is halfway between L’Aquila and Sulmona and my heart is lodged in its streets and surrounding highland fields

Have you a favourite Abruzzo walk?

From the town of Calascio through the eagles-nest hamlet of Rocca Calascio to the octagonal-shaped church on the other side. The ruins of the castle were featured at the beginning of the film Ladyhawke.

What piece of advice you would give someone new to Abruzzo?

Don’t be afraid to wander and follow your instincts. The region is full of so many gems that you can easily stumble upon your own personal find.  And don’t rush it.

Which ‘must see’ event or activity best sums up Abruzzo?

The Palio degli Asini at the Sagra di Ceci e dello Zafferano (the chick pea and saffron festival) in Navelli. It’s an unpredictable send-up of the Palio di Siena horse races. Pairs of teenagers from Navelli push and pull untrained asses three hilarious laps around a field. The kids race to win and the donkeys do not cooperate. It’s living satire.

Which book would you recommend people to read to understand Abruzzo?

I really wouldn’t know! Most of the classics from the area deal with a world gone by. Instead of books look at the prints artist M.C.Escher who based many of his prints on towns near L’Aquila like Goriano Sicoli and Alfadena, or the background eye-candy in movies like Ladyhawke, The Name of the Rose, The Bride’s Journey, and The American with George Clooney.  I would however suggest a fun recipe book inspired in part by the region: Breaking Bread in L’Aquila. The author, Maria Filice is donating profits to support L’Aquila.

What attitude best sums up the Abruzzese?

According to a common saying the people in Abruzzo are “forti e gentili”, that is “strong and kind”.  Strong because when they know they have to do something they will, gentle because they are open and patient with people who want to learn about their traditions.  Another word is “capotosto”, an affectionate way of saying hard-headed & stubborn which many here use to refer to themselves, especially the women.

Can you name any celebrities either from or Abruzzo or of Abruzzo descent?

Madonna’s origins are in a town near but since my heart is in L’Aquila I prefer to remember that Michael Buble has grandparents from a village that is now offically part of L’Aquila.   Keep an eye and ear open of jazz singer Simona Molinari. Some of Italy’s most influential modern and contemporary authors Gabrielle d’Annunzio and Ignazio Silone are the first that come to mind

If you lived outside Abruzzo what would you take to remind you of Abruzzo?

Silvia, Emily and Sofia and any other friends that for me form the region, assuming they would be willing to leave & come with me! The rest is already deep inside me. But there are some amazing gifts. The presentosa, a gold pendant often used as brooch or pin made traditionally in Scanno, a breathtaking time overlooking an Alpine lake in the Abruzzo National Park. Also saffron from Navelli, ratafìa – a liquor made from cherries and Montepulciano wine, Torrone Nurzia from L’Aquila or confetti from Sulmona. And lots of photos!

 

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Paul Gargaro
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Paul Gargaro

Terrific article Josh, I only just saw it…your knowledge of Abruzzo is impressive and your love of the region was very evident from the first time we met. Looking forward to seeing you and yours once again sotto le castagne!

Irene
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Irene

Very interesting! I love the way you love Abruzzo – like I do!

mauricio
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mauricio

considering moving to abruzzo. is it possible to live on about US$35000 per year for two people…?. i have no idea about the cost of living there. we will be traveling there in april. your help most appreciated.