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<i>Costa Smeralda</i>: Made for the Mediterranean
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Costa Smeralda: Made for the Mediterranean

Porthole Cruise Magazine - June 17, 2019
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An Introduction to Abruzzo

Small ships cruise here - but what is this Italian region really like?

Abruzzo, Italy Travel Guide

The inevitable question is “where is that?” Followed by the predictable “is it near Tuscany ?” Once the Google Map imagery is set into the brain, then comes, “What made you decide to buy a house there?”

Actually I was never been able to muster up anything better than “The house was for sale and we liked it”. But now that we have had the chance to spend time there, I have a hundred reasons why Abruzzo is special. I’m going to go with the top 10 things and see how that goes. Consider this the essential guidebook to Abruzzo, since we have never found even ONE!

#10 – Festivals.

August is THE month although there are a few scattered celebrations in June and July. Name a food, a pasta, a bean, a meat, or a beer and you’ll likely find a village celebrating it in some understated fashion. Basically it’s an excuse for locals to get together and party, drink, and eat (not that one is needed). Not being a local, the only way to find out about these “happenings” is by looking over the posters plastered on every inch of available wall space along the roadside. One warning: Make sure that these makeshift billboard are for the current year. I’ve seen posters still in place advertising a festival from two years ago. Hint two: Disregard the starting time. Ain’t no way that’s happening! I have come to the realization that the time posted is the time you should shower and maybe start thinking about getting ready to leave the house. Figure things to get going about two hours after the posted time.

#9 – NO Tourists.

Except for the resort areas along the beaches, namely the Pescara area, you’ll rarely see a tourist. You may occasionally spot some well-traveled Europeans at the beaches or markets but never the throngs like in Rome or Venice. Along with this comes the fact that you’ll hear very little English, if any. Don’t speak Italian? Not really a problem, as these people will go out of their way to acknowledge your needs. Not having to deal with tourists every day only enhances their patience and hospitality (more on this later).

#8 – Olives and wine

Italian gold. A drive through almost any area of Abruzzo will provide views of hills smothered with olive trees, most of which are owned by small local families, likely handed down over generations. Any casual conversation with a local will likely contain some mention of this year’s crop prospects; last year’s yield; and the price, the quality or how much work it takes to maintain the trees. But make no mistake, this is possibly the finest oil you will find anywhere in the world. One of my most memorable experiences was harvesting olives from our trees last fall by hand. I was a little late in the season (mid November) and 99 percent of the locals had already finished their work. After two days of climbing, being poked by branches, and collecting the purple marbles into plastic “cassettes,” I surrendered with just enough to take to the frantoio for pressing.

Wine. Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo is the standard-bearer of the area, although others such as Pecorino and Trebbiano also hold court in the vineyards of the area. The vine-covered hills of San Lorenzo dominate the area around Elice, Casabianca, and Castilenti and provide a palette of colors that is simply amazing in the fall. Although the wines do not reach the superlatives of the more expensive Tuscan varieties but hold their own given that the price is unbelievable. Imagine a good quality wine for only $2.50 a bottle.

#7 – Food

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the cuisine options are Michelin-rated-quality but for uniqueness and value, I wouldn’t trade for anything else in Italy.

Arrosticini reigns supreme and can be found almost anywhere. Food & Wine magazine described it as “the best Italian food that no one knows about.” Small cubes of lamb on a skewer, barbecued over hot coals, takes the regional dish award. No home would be complete without an arrosticini grill. Picture a 2-to-3-foot rain gutter with closed ends and you have it.

Porchetta is the tastiest roast pork I have ever tasted. Imagine a round, 3-foot log of tender boneless pork wrapped in a crust of crackling skin. This Abruzzo staple is sold on market days from the local butcher or food trucks. Lines form early at favorite vendors and the meat is sold as a panini (sandwich) or by the kilo or pound.

Pasta. No need to expound on this as it goes without saying that no meal is a meal without it. One type called mugnaia is from Elice and is typical of the area. A long, flat noodle but exceptionally thick, prepared with a variety of sauces.

#6 – Markets

There’s never a day when there is not a street market going on somewhere. In addition to the fruits and vegetables, this is the day for shopping. Have a gander at shoes, clothes, kitchen utensils, tools, bras, underwear, hats, table cloths, fabric, toys, sunglasses, watches, and almost anything else imaginable. It’s a big day as locals walk the street, have coffee, chat with acquaintances, charge up the cholesterol with some porchetta, and pick up the necessities of life as well as impulsive whims.

#5 – Beaches.

Nothing says summer like the beaches of Abruzzo. Miles and miles of beachfront run the gamut of pristine, secluded, crowded, resort style, public, or deserted, all of them clean and most with calm, shallow water. Expect elbow room mid-week but chock-a-block bodies on weekends at most of the more popular retreats. Parking? Well … you will find it … somewhere!

Pescara Beach is not really our cup of tea as this is more of a “happening” beach (think Ft. Lauderdale spring break).

Pineto Beach, lined with pine trees, facilities aplenty, and people-watching opportunities, is our personal favorite.

Of course what would Italian beaches be without the perfectly aligned lounge chairs and umbrellas for rent? It’s hard to find beaches as we know them, where you just plop down your towel and claim your personal piece of beach real estate, but once you get used to the “Italian way,” paying a few dollars for comfort seems reasonable.

#2, 3 and 4 – Mountains, scenery and hilltop villages.

Each of these categories deserve a rightful claim to their own piece of the pie but it is impossible to say which category excels over the other

I will give credit to scenery as one of the reasons we were sold on the area from the beginning. Hills, hills, and more hills, each with its own character. Some cloaked in green, others with the brilliant yellow of sunflower fields, and of course the vibrant grape vines and olive trees that are visible everywhere. And then there are the Gran Sasso Mountains. Majestically rising up beyond the hills with jagged snow capped points, these gifts of nature greet us in the mornings before presenting their finale of the day with colorful sunsets. In the winter, they provide home for 17 ski resorts but in summer, they provide a welcome respite from the heat with hiking – places like Rocca Colascio, Santo Stefano di Sessanio or maybe a detour to L’Aquila. One option not to be missed is a weekend picnic at Campo Imperatore. Set at the very top of the range, this vast, open, flat plateau is surrounded by the highest peaks. Here, there are two butcher shops selling fresh cuts of meat intended for the barbecue. These shops provide the hot grills and picnic tables for weekend warriors and an unforgettable experience. (See arrosticini, above.)

Then there are the dozens of hilltop villages. Clinging to their own hills, these vestiges of a past era are not only incredibly photogenic but provide a glimpse into Abruzzo life. Driving up and through these villages is an excursion into another world. Elice, perched on an outcropping overlooking the vineyards of San Lorenzo … Montefino, situated at the very top of a steep and winding climb … Atri, overlooking the sea and the surrounding countryside … and Citta Sant’Angelo, for a walk through time. Dozens more can be explored, but this brings us to our home away from home, Castilenti.

Perhaps it’s not visually as impressive as others, but I can’t envision any place better to call home. One church, one bakery, one convenience store, one restaurant, one gas station, one hairdresser, one bank, one butcher, and two bars. What more do you need? Character? Can’t think of a town with more, which leads me to …

#1 – THE PEOPLE

We have traveled a great deal but never have I found people so genuine and so kind as the people we have met in Castilenti. Never have we been so welcomed then as random Americans in an unknown village in Italy.

Let me offer a snapshot of the friends we have had the pleasure of meeting, the neighbors … Pasquale and Maria. From the first day, our dear friend offered up the kind of neighborly friendship many could only dream of. They live in the house just down the road that was his parents’. Retired from factory work several years ago, he now works his 200+ olive trees in his “spare time.” He owns virtually every tool and piece of equipment needed and is more than willing to loan it out at the very hint of need. Knows who to contact, where to buy anything (and who to buy it from) and every detail for ex-pat survival in Abruzzo. We listen for his friendly “honk” from the vintage Fiat Cinquecento as he passes by. His pride in rudimentary Internet navigation is a source of weather and politics and he loves to watch Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson movies. Holds a title in our minds as the local aficionado!

He and his wife have two sons, one the local photographer and the other a motocross semi-professional.

Top Attraction Honorable Mention.

Garbage service … OK, Not really an attraction but it has an indescribable appeal. Pickups are every day! Sound good? Problem is they only pick up certain things on certain days. It would be fantastic but … never a pattern. One Monday, it might be plastics, Tuesday, cardboard, and then Wednesday, organic, then the next week those days are shuffled around.Abruzzo street scene I guess scheduling the same things for the same days would be too logical. Maybe it’s a brain game they play on foreigners. Calendars are provided but I’m not sure where you get them.

The roads … some would say they are horrendous. But like the locals, they serve a purpose in keeping you awake and alert. Each year after the winter rain, portions just drop out and disappear down the side of the hill, never, and I mean NEVER TO BE SEEN AGAIN! Why rebuild them when they’ll just slip and slide away again?

Of course, then, there’s the lack of a systematic queue pattern at the post office; designated parking; coffee as an early morning, mid-morning, midday, mid-afternoon, and early-evening break; and….SOMEBODY STOP ME!

I love this place !

— Steve Leland

 

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