Abruzzo – why and how to visit

In Abruzzo, Cycling, Italy, Nature, Travel
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Abruzzo is “green” — a biodiversity hotspot in the Apennines (bears, wolves, eagles and chamois are among the at-risk species clinging on there) with around a third of its largely mountainous area designated as parks. However, its mountain regions are poor, and some of its iconic species are at the very edge of existence.

The Marsican brown bear, for example, is thought to number only 40-50 individuals, which are under ever increased pressure from human activity. Developing sensitive, well-planned tourism to this relatively ignored but magnificent part of Italy may help to place more value upon living bears than dead ones, if done well and by employing lessons from global experience. What the delicate upland areas of the region certainly don’t need is a mass tourism model, that, now mature, is creating a damaging social and environmental legacy for many other parts of the country, including Abruzzo’s own heavily urbanised coastal strip (as an aside, research has suggested that transport can account for the largest and most damaging part of tourism’s ecological footprint).

The region has suffered from a history of economic neglect and its position within the south-central Appenines zone of active geological faults — L’Aquila has been destroyed or severely damaged by at least 11 serious earthquakes over the period of its existence. In 1861, when The Kingdom of the two Sicilies, of which Abruzzo represented the northern border, was united with Northern Italy, the region continued to be marginalised and suffered from extreme poverty. Modernisation of agriculture, increased tourism and industrial development have helped Abruzzo become the wealthiest region in the south, or Mezzogiorno (with a GDP adjusted for national purchasing power of €20,600 per each of its 1.34m inhabitants in 2013).

Conversely, in the region’s interior province of L’Aquila, emigration and an ageing population have given rise to relative economic stagnation, exacerbated by the 2009 earthquake. However, it also hosts innovative, high quality “place based” and eco-tourism initiatives — excellent examples include the albergo diffuso (literally “dispersed hotel”) model at Santo Stefano di Sessanio, and Ecotur wildlife trekking experiences in the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park.

Like most Italian regions, Abruzzo’s food products and cuisine are superb — highlights include, but are by no means limited to, lentils, saffron, sausages, cheeses, spelt, truffles, almonds, honey, liqueurs and delicious fruit and vegetables. The cultural, artistic and architectural attractions are also typically numerous, with hill towns that are among the most beautiful in the country.

So, please visit incredible Abruzzo and, more specifically, do the following:

  • Support Ecotur — take their amazing tours, stay in their beautiful rifugio and help to add more value and importance to living bears, wolves and eagles, thus contributing to their campaign to safeguard the remaining wildlife.
  • Bring your bike, or hire one, and enjoy world class cycling. And/or walk the miles of stunning mountain trails.
  • Support small-scale local agriculture — buy from producers; choose shops, restaurants and accommodations that source food locally. This detailed map (in Italian only unfortunately) from Slow Food Abruzzo explains more about iconic products.

To help to convince you, perhaps, I’ve put together a mini-tour in photos and video, including coverage of my own circuit of the interior on a bike tour.

After rain in the Valle della Cicerana near Lecce nei Marsi

Spring in the Valle della Cicerana

Caramanico Terme in front of the the Majella (also Maiella) massif

Pagliare di Tione and Monte Sirente

San Vittorino and the distant Gran Sasso massif from near Sant’Euphemia a Majella

Riserva Naturale Orientata Quarto Santa Chiara, part of the Majella National Park

View across the Valle Chiara near Pescasseroli at sunrise

Torre di Sperrone, Gioia dei Marsi

Ortona dei Marsi in the Valle del Giovenco

Ortona dei Marsi and the Valle del Giovenco from the road to Aschi Alto

Butterflies “puddling” near Rivisondoli

View to the distant Rocca di Calascio on the Gran Sasso massif

View across the Piana di Navelli toward the Majella from the road that winds up to Calascio from Ofena

The borgo of Santo Stefano di Sessanio from the road to the Campo Imperatore

Castel del Monte

Like the more famous Piano Grande of Castelluccio di Norcia in Umbria, the shallow valleys of the Gran Sasso massif blossom in late spring

Following the track from Santo Stefano di Sessanio to Rocca Calascio — a fortress begun in the tenth century and largely destroyed in a 1461 earthquake — one first encounters the seventeenth century octagonal church of Santa Maria della Pietà.

The central tower was built in the thirteenth century and the larger stones used in the lower half of the rocca were designed to make it impenetrable to attackers. However, the 7-8 magnitude earthquake ruined it before it was put to the test.

According to legend, locals built the church to thank the Madonna for saving them from a bandit attack

Cycle touring in Abruzzo

This tour more or less followed the “Wolf’s Lair” bikepacking route, although not religiously so. I started and finished at the Sasso-Tornimparte railway station on the Terni (Umbria) to L’Aquila line, very close to the course.

The plateau of Campo Felice at around 1,500m above sea level

Water is fairly easy to come by in this mountainous zone although some taps, like this one at Pagliare di Tione, no longer function

Breakfast stop in Secinaro

Lunch stop on a steep, rough track section of the route that required the bike to be pushed

Bear warning (for their benefit rather than ours — Marsican brown bears are shy, usually docile and present far less threat to people than we do to them) for motorists on a road near Pescasseroli. Yet another reason to ride a bike.

The Lago di Barrea near Villetta Barrea

Cycling heaven on another empty road in the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park

The end of a long descent to Ofena, with the Corno Grande peak of the Gran Sasso massif visible in the distance

Watch the cycle tour video:


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