The Italian region with beautiful landscapes and ancient villages – but few tourists

The Church of Madonna della Pieta near Rocca Calascio – Getty

Italy has been welcoming visitors since time immemorial. But not all of Italy: some regions have remained impervious to the Grand Tourists of the past and the Instagrammers of today. For example, who visits Abruzzo, a region east of Rome and south of the Marche?

The answer is very little – but why so secret? Poverty first, and the pure wilderness of the mountains second. The region was too high and isolated for vineyards and olives, and the medieval trade and rich history that fostered the cities – and art – of Tuscany, Umbria and Sicily.

And yet that has now changed, albeit slowly (the houses here are still for sale for less than € 10,000). Travelers are finally discovering that the mountains, still the haunt of wolves and bears, are the most beautiful in Italy outside the Alps, that the coast is wonderfully wild in places, and that many of its ancient villages are timeless and traditional in the best sense of the word. And while the visitor infrastructure is still in its infancy – part of the region’s charm, of course – newer destination hotels are gradually opening, and the food, as always in Italy, is superlative.

The new Tuscany? The new Umbria? Not quite. But a place to visit first? Certainly.

The landscapes

Glorious mountain landscapes are Abruzzo’s main draw. The Apennines – the rocky backbone of the Italian peninsula – reach their highest point here at the top of the Gran Sasso (2912 meters), where one of the southernmost glaciers in Europe can still be found.

The vast plateaus of the Campo Imperatore are known locally as “Little Tibet”The vast plateaus of the Campo Imperatore are known locally as “Little Tibet”

The vast plateaus of the Campo Imperatore are known locally as “Little Tibet” – Getty

Gran Sasso is also the name given to one of the three immense massifs in the region, the other two being the Monti della Laga in the north and the Maiella in the south. All three have national park status, as does a fourth enclave, the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo on the western flanks of the region.

For those who know only the gentler aspect of the Apennines in Tuscany, Umbria or Liguria, it is difficult to appreciate the enormous size of the mountains of Abruzzo or their wild impenetrability. Wolves and even bears still roam here, and vast, beautiful swaths of the region are only accessible by foot, via ancient transhumance trails, or by a patient – ​​but immensely rewarding – odyssey over high mountain roads.

There are still wolves and even bears around hereThere are still wolves and even bears around here

Wolves and even bears still roam here – Getty

Most people visit the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo partly because it is closest to Rome (130km via the A2 motorway and the towns of Frosinone and Sora) and partly because it is one of Italy’s best managed national parks. You’ll also find more hotels, facilities and marked cycle and walking trails, particularly in the main centers of Pescasseroli and smaller Opi, plus pretty medieval Scanno just outside the park boundaries.

Travel in the Monti della Laga on the beautiful road between Acquasanta Terme (just in the Marche) and Teramo, and consider the village of Pietracamela as a base. From here you can easily drive south and take one of the most beautiful driving routes in Europe, let alone Italy: the road that runs from west to east under the Gran Sasso through the vast plateaux of the Campo Imperatore, known locally as ‘ Little Tibet’. its remarkable landscape.

Castle del MonteCastle del Monte

Castel del Monte Getty

Visit Castel del Monte, one of the most beautiful villages in the region, located at an altitude of over 1200 meters. This is also a good place to stay, but drive a few miles further and tiny Santo Stefano boasts one of central Italy’s most interesting hotels, the Sextantio (doubles from around £150 including breakfast).

Alternatively, if you’re heading towards the coast (see below), continue east to Farindola, a classic little Abruzzese village with beautiful views and a great eatery (see below). Be sure to spend an hour or so at Loreto Aprutino to the east, one of the region’s most attractive medieval villages.

Loreto AprutinoLoreto Aprutino

Loreto Aprutino Getty

Explore the third massif of the Abruzzo, the Maiella, and you will venture into one of the last great wildernesses of Western Europe. There are few places to stay in the heart of the mountains, with Caramanico Terme being the best choice, but Sulmona, just west, is Abruzzo’s most interesting larger town, the birthplace of Ovid and of candied almonds, or confetti (Sulmona almonds were served at Harry and Meghan’s wedding).

It’s a town worth visiting in its own right, especially if you can get there on a Wednesday or Saturday morning when Piazza Garibaldi hosts a wonderful market. It’s also on a railway line – and there aren’t many in this mountain area: the drive here from Rieti via L’Aquila, and especially to Castel di Sangro and beyond, is one of the most beautiful in Italy.

Sulmona, birthplace of OvidSulmona, birthplace of Ovid

Sulmona, birthplace of Ovid – Getty

The resorts and beaches

The mountains get most of the praise in Abruzzo, but the region’s long coast offers another enticing attraction. Many of the beaches and resorts are typical of Italy’s eastern Adriatic coast, i.e. they are small, family-friendly destinations, often close to the coast’s main rail and road links, and with decent if unspectacular sand and hotels.

Although some places in the north are quite busy, there are two notable exceptions: the wild, beautiful sandy beaches at the Riserva Naturale del Borsacchio, north of Roseto degli Abruzzo, and Torre del Cerrano near Pineto, named after the adjacent historic fortification . tower.

Head south of Pescara to Punta Ferruccio near Ortona – the scene of heavy fighting in 1943: it’s not easy to get to, but it’s worth it, and there are parts where clothing is optional. Equally wild and beautiful are nearby Calata or Spiaggia del Turchino, near San Vito Chietino, where the modern hotel Le Chiave dei Trabocchi makes a great base (doubles from around £60).

This part of the coast takes its name from the eerily beautiful trabocchi, spindly wooden walkways and fishing huts built on stilts that are unique to the region.

Trabocchi are unique to the regionTrabocchi are unique to the region

Trabocchi are unique to the region – Getty

A few kilometers further south is the Lido di Casalbordino, another pilgrimage site for beach lovers, with the simple Finis Terrae bar a favorite spot for watching the sunset. Two more beaches stand out near Vasto, the last hurray of Abruzzo before the border with Molise: Punta Penna and Punta Aderci. Both are wild places that are partly protected by nature reserves.

Abruzzo also has several family-friendly Green Flag beaches.

The coast at VastoThe coast at Vasto

The coast at Vasto – Getty

The food and the wine

Like many other dishes in Abruzzo, the food in the region is little known, but often exceptional. The coast has predictably good fish and seafood, especially the mussels (cozze) from Vasto, often served with saffron (in itself a regional specialty) or stuffed with breadcrumbs, lemon, parsley, garlic and tomato sauce.

The classic pasta is maccheroni alla chitarra, a spaghetti-like creation made by pressing pasta sheets through wires (hence chitarra, or “guitar”).

Ultimately, however, Abruzzo is a mountain region, and it is the mountains, and centuries in which poverty was the culinary mother of invention, that most color the region’s cuisine.

Mushrooms and truffles are plentiful, along with legumes and beans, but lamb and mutton were and are the mainstay of mountain cooking. One of the region’s great meals – one of Italy’s great meals – can be enjoyed on the highlands of the Campo Imperatore and elsewhere (see above).

Windswept, remote shepherd’s huts sell you a loaf of bread, several roughly chopped pieces of pecorino (sheep’s cheese) and a handful of arrosticini – skewers loaded with small pieces of lamb and mutton – which you (or they) burn open and grilled. Eat with your fingers and want nothing more.

The mountains color the cuisine of the regionThe mountains color the cuisine of the region

The mountains color the region’s cuisine – Getty

Arrosticini is also a mainstay of many mountain villages – make a pilgrimage to Farindola and Lu Strego, a trattoria whose version has been praised more than once as the best in Abruzzo.

Wine-wise, no one goes to Abruzzo to tour the region’s vineyards – for the most part the mountains are not conducive to viticulture – but wherever you go you can drink Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a more than decent red that you’ll probably love you have ever encountered at home. Trebbiano is the standard white color, while Cerasuolo is a lighter red color, also made from the Montepulciano grape.

But there is quality. As elsewhere in the ‘lesser’ Italian wine regions such as Umbria, the post-war period saw newer, dynamic producers pioneering some now premium wines. Be sure to look for bottles from Pepe and Valentini, along with CantinArte, Annona, Italo Pietrantoj, Cataldi Madonna and Valle Reale.

For more unusual regional drinks, try a glass of ratafia, a black cherry liqueur; Aurum, an orange-scented brandy made in Pescara since 1925; centerbe (literally “a hundred herbs”), made from the mountain herbs of the Maiella; and genziano, made from the root of the gentian.

How do you get there?

Ryanair flies from Stansted to Pescara Airport. There are many more options if you fly to Rome, from which the regional capital L’Aquila is a 90-minute drive.

Stay there

Villa companies are generally still looking to make their way into Abruzzo – typically a company will only have one or two properties in the region – but check out the dedicated Abruzzo Turismo page or the properties on the owner’s listed Vrbo site (formerly HomeAway). For more ideas on where to stay, see our guide to the best hotels in Abruzzo.

This story was first published in March 2022 and has been revised and updated.

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