Abruzzo: Italy's best-kept secret
Few people have a clear idea of the region that sits in the very centre of the Italian peninsula.
After travelling through Umbria and Tuscany Abruzzo comes, literally, as a breath of fresh air. For long left behind by the great centre of Rome to the West it no longer cares to compete in the frenzy that is modern Italy. Yet Abruzzo is steeped in ancient and medieval history.
The region boasts the birthplace of Ovid and has many fine medieval towns and picturesque villages that cling precipitously to hilltops and mountainsides. But it is the wildness of Abruzzo that is its greatest treasure. Thirty percent of the region is within the national park system. The many protected species, from the Marsican brown bear (named for the Marsican mountains in the Parco Nazionale d'Abruzzo) to the Maiella buttercup are a source of great pride to the Abruzzesi, who are a straightforward, welcoming people. It is the least populated region of Italy and it's easy to walk all day in the Monti Marsicani or the Maiella without seeing a soul.
Food in the area is mostly honest simple fare prepared and presented without some of the fuss which can characterise the cuisine of nearby Italian regions. Fresh pasta, particularly "chitarra", abounds. In the mountains the lamb is excellent, prepared in many ways but most frequently as grilled chops. In spring various types of wild greens are collected at heights of over one thousand metres and are then used in soups, for filling pasta shapes such as ravioli, or simply steamed and dressed with oil and lemon. Local cheeses and pork products are excellent. Wine comes mostly from the Appennine foothills; Montepulciano d'Abruzzo reigns supreme amongst reds and the Trebbiano whites are excellent.
Our route takes us from the south-western edge of the Maiella National Park, south then west into Abruzzo National Park, the smallest, oldest and best-loved of the parks in the region, home to many rare species such as the Apennine wolf, chamoix, red and roe deer, and the Marsican brown bear. In June the snows have mostly given way to myriad wild flowers and ice-blue tarns. Wonderful long hikes in breathtaking, unspoilt scenery combine with excellent food and characterful accommodation throughout.