Fontecchio has a host of adjectives that can be associated with it: charming, beautiful, sedate, historic, a cultural hot spot; this is probably why it’s high in my Top 5 of un-missable medieval Abruzzo towns to visit.
Sat 668 masl, in the Aterno Valley which is part of the Sirente-Velino park in L’Aquila, the best thing about Fontecchio is that, despite the tragic fact that 1/3 of its residents are still living in the uncomfortable pre-fabs that were built following the earthquake, it is very much a living and breathing town in which locals bustle (as much as Abruzzo ever does ‘bustle’) through its narrow cobbled alleyways and arches shaded by its towers.
There are a couple of gorgeous towns like Pietracamela and Santo Stefano di Sessanio that are a picturesque treat to visit but which at certain times of the year can leave you feeling like a lost soul as you are the only one there outside the 3-4 hoteliers and restaurants, homes having been sold to Romans for the ski-season or second house holiday owners and out-priced for locals to live there anymore.
We discovered Fontecchio completely by chance, when invited to an evening open air photography show by the Abruzzo wildlife photographer Bruno D’Amicis, it’s not mentioned by the Bradt Guide or by the Abruzzo Tourist Board. We wound our way around the former medieval fortified village, guided by lit oil lamps & candles (the street lamps were turned off); we made our way up to the former Roman Temple of Jupiter which had been converted into the now shell-like church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, but with still clear evidence of its former use.
It makes the most perfect open air theatre and a perfect night out for those with a romantic hankering for sitting in a small town Italian piazza under the stars, fragranced by trellised heirloom roses and watching beautiful images. This was followed by a feast of some delicious local wines and cheeses in which you give a donation, other events hosted in the town work in the same way. At this we later met Julian Civero another photographer, mostly landscapes that lived locally who was showing his work set to local music later in the month and we decided to make that night a stopover to explore Fontecchio a little more. Do check out the Fontecchio Commune website for a host of events that are put on throughout the year with a clutch of alternative interesting ones outside the main thrust of accordion and food sagre that Abruzzo is fantastic at providing.
In the evening listen out for the chimes from one of Italy’s oldest clocks that dates to the C15th and is housed in the town’s main tower and strikes every 6 hours. If you hear 50 it is celebrating how the heroics of the local ‘lady of the manor’, so to speak, Marchesa Covi who from her C15th Palazzo with one musket ball shot dead Braccio da Montone, the head of the Spanish troops and representative of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, that had laid siege to the town for 50 days in 1648. Sadly the impressive Palazzo has yet to re-open since the earthquake, hopefully soon as even from the outside it’s still enchanting. Another surprise is viewing Mussolini’s grafitti remains, although over 50 years old, the piece is still fresh enough to think that Banksy has just paid a visit!
In the main Piazza Popoli you can have a great breakfast coffee whilst admire the 14 faces on the gothic C14th fountain and look down to where the women of the town washed the clothes watched over by the still-bright fresco terra coloured iconicelli named Madonna dell Uccellino ( little birds). Religious celebrations include Fontecchio’s one to Sant Antonio Abbot celebrated in January with a legendary fire in the main Piazza del Popoli, and also February which becomes biscuit time in reverence to San Biagio who is the Catholic’s church protector against throat infections, so if you’re a biscuit fan now is the perfect time to eat this Saint’s special ones to ward off such ailments.
We used Fontecchio as a base to explore Bominaco, Abruzzo’s finest art treasure trove; Fontecchio is also just a short drive away from the famous Grotte de Stiffe which re-opened in June 2011.
For the more adventurous walker, it makes the ideal base to visit Pagliare, 1100 masl, the shepherd’s hamlet made from straw, lime, wood and stone used during the summer Transumanza in the quest to get the sheep fattened on the rich high Apennine meadows. The views are supposedly breathtaking (the walk a bit too much for me currently) and even with the hamlet’s earthquake damage it’s recommended to visit. You can drive up to Pagliare, but a 4×4 is recommended if you are going to undertake it, we tried but our little Mini Cooper soon put us right on what type of vehicle you need to make it up there! – this walk is detailed in Stuart Haines’ ‘Walking in Abruzzo’.
S. Pio di Fontecchio is a nearby hamlet that is reputedly the birthplace of Pontius Pilate, if you are around early summer check it out for the easy walk up to the cavalry, particularly good at dusk when soft light and the mass of broom gives the impression you’re hedged in on an spectacular organic alternative to the yellow brick road.
Our favourite Fontecchio restaurant was Ristorante Il Sirente housed in a Franciscan Monastery