Abruzzo: a road less travelled

I make no apologies for stealing the title for this post from Morgan Scott Peck’s best seller, The Road Less Travelled, as it was perfect for a post about how I discovered the region of Abruzzo. Most blogs and websites about the region say that Abruzzo is Italy’s best kept secret; I’ve even used that phrase myself in the past, but as more people discover the region it’s becoming an obsolete expression.

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I first discovered the region nine years ago. We were in Italy again, looking for a location in which to buy a holiday home and we were having a mid-week break in Rome. One day we hired a car and just drove across the country and ended up in Abruzzo. We liked what we found and the following year we made the effort to come here. We stayed in L’Aquila and explored the surrounding towns and villages. Our property search then took us south to Calabria and Basilicata and when we returned to the UK we re-evaluated our situation and decided to concentrate on Abruzzo. Another trip over was booked and this time we fell in love with the small village of Fossa about 14 km from L’Aquila.

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The 2009 earthquake brought the region to the attention of the world and people started to question where this secret part of Italy was. We then booked a stay at the fabulous Villa Collina just to be sure that our heart was in Abruzzo and that the earthquake hadn’t put us off. Our hosts Bryan and Cilla invited a hoard of ex-pats over for a party and in between drinks and nibbles people told us their stories about how they discovered the region.

Television shows like A Place in the Sun and travel shows have been drawing attention to the region for the past few years and this has increased the tourist footfall. And now more people now know of the region that measures just 10,794 sqm and yet boasts the largest green space in Europe and three national parks and, in my opinion some of the nicest medieval villages in Italy.

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One of the benefits of being a road less travelled is that property prices here are quite low compared to the national average, wildlife flourishes in the many undisturbed corners of the region and the towns and villages retain much of their historical culture and identity. As more people visit the region there are subtle changes occurring, the younger generation are following global trends, local people are now travelling further afield to discover more about their country and local trattoria’s are filled with English speaking diners.

My search to find my personal piece of Italy has led me here to Abruzzo and would I change any of it?

Yes – I’d have discovered it sooner rather than later.

An Apple in the Lane

Over the past week the Britain has been battered by Storm Desmond, in the news I’ve seen images of flooding in Cumbria and Lancashire. There’s been videos posted of pensioners being rescued from upstairs windows by the fire service and seemingly stable roads crumbling away. And it reminds me of the storms we had here earlier in the year, where mountain roads overnight ceased to exist and the roads on the coast became flooded with sea water, silt and all other manner of debris.

Thankfully the weather here is better, the December days are bright and sunny and can be quite warm; although the locals don’t think so. I often get reproached for not wearing a coat, with warnings of being struck down with a dreadful influenza that’ll certainly kill me. The temperature drops in the evening and we then have the joy that is a wood burner. Yes, they need cleaning out every day, you have to contend with the smell of smoke and the dust they create would give many a clean freak apoplexy, but there’s that sense of satisfaction when it’s first lit and it starts to warm the room. Also there something joyous on an crisp evening of the sight of stone houses with trails of white wood smoke rising up from their chimneys.

Living in rural Italy can often be challenging, but is mostly for me rewarding. The fact that there’s only 10 properties in our hamlet, 3 are holiday homes, 3 are empty and with only 4 having permanent residents I understand that living here wouldn’t suit many people. But on a day like this it’s wonderful. A short walk along the lane can be breathtaking: The autumnal colours of the trees work so well with the traditional tiles and stone buildings that are dotted around the countryside. These abandoned properties blend well with the landscape and rather than give the area a depressed look they do their bit for the environment, they are perfect habitats for many of the critters that live here and last year one in our lane became the hibernation haven for two hedgehogs.

DSCF5116.JPGA walk along the lane this morning with the dogs more than makes up for the cold evening yesterday. The sun is warm and the sky is as blue without a single cloud to spoil it. Nature’s rich palette of colours are spread out before us as we stroll slowly with no sense of urgency; Alf sniffs every bush and leaves his calling card and Olive scans the ground for fallen walnuts which she cracks open and gobbles with gusto. Ahead of me she stops and investigates something in the middle of the road. I reach her and see that there’s a solitary apple sitting in the middle of the lane. Alf sniffs it and Olive looks up at me as if to say, “who left this apple here?”

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A quick look to the right and I have solved the mystery. There’s evidence of chinghiale (wild boar), the vegetation is trampled and the pomegranate bush has been stripped of its over-ripe fruits and the apple tree has been pulled over. Alf gets wind of the night time interlopers and his nose goes into overdrive and he’s pulling me towards the undergrowth, Olive barks as she gets the scent of the boar and for a few minutes there’s two excited canines, one bewildered human and an apple in the lane.

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Sunday morning arrived last week with a welcome burst of sunshine and I headed off down the road to the communal fountain at Perano to get my five cents of ice cold, acqua frizzante. As I drive ELO come onto the iPod with It’s Over, I turn up the volume and the multi-layered, rock music spills out of my open window into the Abruzzi countryside. I’m just coming around a bend in Altino when I’m met by the sight of five women walking along the road pushing wheelbarrows. They’re obviously off to work in the fields, but where are the men? Another bend is navigated and I have my answer, I pass a bar where all the men are chatting and drinking coffee: No self-respecting contadino would contemplate a days toil without a helping of gossip and coffee.

Our builder has Sundays off so the house is quiet, I take opportunity to make some melanzane parmiaganni and a batch of pasta sauce for storing in the freezer. After lunch we decide to take a stroll along the beach front at Fossacesia, just twenty minutes in the car and we’re enjoying the breeze coming off the Adriatic. The beach has a few people lying upon towels soaking up the sun, but no one is in the sea. The Italians have a fear of dying from all manner of influenzas and fevers that will come from swimming in the sea before June. I’m now wishing I’d packed some shorts as I’d like a dip, even if only to see the women gasp in horror and tell me that I’ll be dead before the next phase of the moon.

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We continue strolling when we notice two buffed Italian men posing as they walk along the beachfront. Obviously enjoying the attention they are getting whether in admiration or the sniggering, they slow to a snails-pace. It’s an odd sight, as the Italians are still wearing jumpers and top coats, shorts and t-shirts aren’t given an airing until April has passed. We let the parading gym-bunnies continue on their way and drop into Lu Trabocche 3, for a cold Peroni. There’s a steady stream of people coming to eat, so we make a note and say we’ll give the menu a try one day soon.

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There must be an important football match on, (isn’t there always in Italia) as many men have small radios pressed to their ears. We see a family enjoying some al fresco dining, children are doing what children do best, making noise and women are chatting loudly and occasionally scolding an errant youngster. On the periphery of the group sits an old man with his radio, it’s stopped working and I watch as he takes out the batteries and replaces them again, but to no avail, he’s missing the football commentary, so resorts to hitting the radio, beating it into submission until the sound flickers on and he’s happy. It’s nice to see that despite all of our different creeds and cultures, wherever a man is in the world he’ll always revert to that universal method of repair; if in doubt, bash it.

On the way home, with the windows open Siouxsie and the Banshee’s play Cascade, from the live album, Nocturne and I’m singing along as we sail down the lane that runs parallel with the strada statale, as we cross a small roundabout, the music changes and the Bee Gees pop up with, You Should Be Dancing. Again I sing along, this time doing my best Gibb brother falsetto impression, much to the amusement of the men sat outside a restaurant drinking beer. I wave, they cheer and I continue on my merry way wondering if the women with the wheelbarrows are on their way home too.

Wee Beasties

Growing up in the UK I lived in a semi-rural location. I was lucky enough to play in fields, help out on the local farm and as a teenager earn money stacking turves destined for the new housing estates being built in the 1970’s.

The first thing I had to tell myself, when I decided that this was the house I’d like to live in, was that I have to get used to the not so pretty of creatures that inhabit the land. The wee beasties that crawl and fly and buzz and sting. Now, I’ve never really been very good with bugs, but this said I’ve always had a live and let live attitude. I’m quite happy to live in a house with a spider, just 100_6169as long as the spider doesn’t want to walk over me. With the exception of mosquitos and ants, I usually take visiting critters back outside. Who am I to say that just because it’s not easy on the eye or creepy looking it should be stamped upon.

This week I’ve been visited by some wonderful creatures. On Monday morning the iPod shuffled and Tiziano Ferro started to sing La Differenza Tra Me e Te (Stefano Maneo Remix) and I spotted an enormous spider trapped inside the washing up bowl. It was desperate to get out, but it’s legs could find no purchase on the sides of the plastic bowl. So I removed it and set it free among the rubble from the restoration, where there’s plenty of hiding places for it to lie in wait for unsuspecting flies.

Tuesday, I noticed a small wood wasp, she was building a nest inside the old window frame in the kitchen. She was a delicate little thing, and when she flies her longer back legs dangle like clip_image002stilts. A visiting friend said I should kill it and remove the little nest that is the size of a one-euro coin, but I refused. She’s doing no harm, I don’t need to open the window, and I know it’ll not get much bigger than it already is. She just needs somewhere safe to lay her eggs, and despite her vicious looking sting, I know she’s more afraid of me than I am of her.

Wednesday, because the doors and windows in the living room were open we were plagued by flies, but a quick squirt of insecticide spray soon put pain to there foray into the house. And Friday, we had our first visit of the summer from a scorpion. I was just about to sit down for my dinner when Dutch said, “What’s that on the floor?” I looked down and a magnificent black scorpion was making its way over towards the darkness created by the heel of my Ted Bakers in the corner. So I soon snapped a quick photo, the flash causing it to scurry to the relative safety of my shoes and armed with card and plastic tub, I removed the visitor and took it back outside, where it scurried off into a dark crevice beneath the house.clip_image003

This is, however, only the beginning, as summer progresses we’ll have the mantis and the grasshoppers to contend with, not to mention the dreaded mosquitos that will be on the attack. Maybe it’s time to start thinking of getting some fly screens made in readiness.