I had been searching online for four years for a place to buy in Italy. Every unfilled moment—waiting for the microwave to beep, my next class to fill with students, the wheel of death on the computer to stop spinning—each was filled with a quick search of more houses. Single, townhouse, country house, apartment, attic rooms, in Lazio, Tuscany, Umbria, Puglia, Campania. I found nothing that I could afford that fit my criteria—a house in a small town, readily habitable, secluded from crowded areas, yet with easy access to main roads and local sights, somewhere from which I could base the tours to Italy I was more and more frequently organizing. I had been about to give up when a friend said “Teresa, stop looking in all those places. Go to Abruzzo!” I did.
Driving up the twisting SP 365 towards the town of Castiglione Messer Raimondo, the first thing I notice are the medieval walls. Typical of medieval towns that spring impossibly skywards from steep hills, the walls are made of small, precisely placed stones held in place seemingly by force of will. Or some magical secret bond. They speak to me of a time past in which the roots and traditions of the area were planted. That they remain intact for so long is a sign that those roots and traditions also remain. My heartbeat speeds up.
The second thing I notice is the church. La Chiesa di San Donato Martiro, the town’s main church, rises several meters above the town. It is late afternoon and the angle of light makes the church’s limestone walls glow with an ethereal yet commanding presence. My heart pounds, skips, does a rhythmic dance of hope in my chest.
My realtor, driving in his dented and rusting old Fiat Punto, parks along the main road into town. Its steep, sharp plunge down from the Church tells me this was once where traffic going in and out of the castle was controlled.
We walk along a cobbled alley, entering a short, narrow tunnel. Lights imbedded in the vaulted ceiling throw distorted shadows of us on the brick walls. It is as if we are morphing into other selves. As we exit the arch at the far end of the tunnel, it seems we are passing through time, from present to some undefined past. In the “largo” (small square) in front of the church, people are ambling to mass. All at once, even though I knew no one, I recognize them. There is my Aunt Conchetta, with her gravelly, booming voice; there is Uncle Louie, expansive and brash with his stinky cigar; there is Nonna Maria, serene with her ever-present rosary beads twirling in her fingers. There are my mischievous cousins, their adolescent voices alternately high and low as they laugh at something only they find funny. I am home! Forget my heart. I have lost it to this place!
“Ma, Abruzzo! E’ selvaggio!" But Abruzzo, it’s wild! So exclaimed my Italian language teacher when I returned to America and told her I bought a house. It is. Kind of. I prefer “unspoiled.”
Abruzzo’s location in the midst of several mountain ranges in the Apennines isolated it for centuries from the rest of Italy. In fact, during the holy wars between Turks and Christians, many men fled to these mountains to hide and practice their faith. Abruzzo is now known as “The Little Tibet” because it is second only to that country in the number of hermitages it contains. Its Gran Sasso Mountain range holds the highest peak in the Apennines – the Corno Grande (Big Stone), over 2900 meters high, a majestic mass of grey rock that makes its presence felt even outside its immediate confines as thunderstorms roll down into valleys and surrounding towns. The autostrade A24 and A25, that connect Abruzzo with Rome were completed in the 1970’s. So Abruzzo, while now linked to the modern world, has not lost the feeling of being by Italians, for Italians. Yet the people retain their joy of sharing their lives and their region with visitors.
They love the mountains and will urge you with blazing eyes to drive through Campo Imperatore, the vast plain ringed by the Gran Sasso. It was once Mussolini’s playground, then his prison, then his escape route back to power. Bring a picnic and stop at a roadside table for lunch with a view of the many peaks around you – Monte Prena, Monte Camicia, Brancastello, Corno Piccolo, Monte L’Aquila. Several are easy climbs for the outdoor enthusiast. You may be visited by a flock of sheep with their Abruzzese sheep dog riding hard around them, or be serenaded by the distant ring of cow’s bells as they graze nearby, or look up to see wild horses cross the road. Stop at Mucciante – a tiny restauro where you can buy sausages or arrosticini (Abruzzo’s signature dish -cubes of skillfully butchered mutton) to try your hand at grilling them. Expect advice from any of the men around you doing the same. Expect some sharing for comparison, too!
For a sit-down meal or overnight stay, drive down the road in front of Mucciante to the Rifugio Fonte Vettica. Here you can also begin a hike up to Monte Coppe, or just stroll among the pines or out in the ample meadows.
Continue up the bis17 all the way to the top – to the Hotel Campo Imperatore. This is where Mussolini was held by the new Italian government after he was deposed. When he was rescued by German paratroopers, it began a whole new and devastating phase of World War II for the Italians, with the Germans battling the resistance fighters struggling to keep Mussolini out, and Americans battling the German sympathizers trying to keep him in. Some interesting books and information can be found here.
Don’t leave this part of the Campo without visiting my friend Nicola. He has a caravan full of woolens, books, calendars, maps, and souvenirs of one of the most unique places on earth.
Besides mountains, Abruzzo abounds with clean, sandy beaches bordering the Adriatic. I discovered my favorite beach town while spending my first full summer here after buying the house. My favorite beach town is Pineto. It was founded by the Filiani family, who owned agricultural industries, as the site for their summer villa. Luigi Filiani developed the area as a beach resort. In the early 1900’s he decided to plant pine trees along the beach so families could enjoy entire days there with the help of some shade. He planted 2,000 umbrella pines, along with other pines, holm oaks, and laurel. In return for the concession from the Maritime Agency to level ground and plant the trees, after 25 years, the land reverted to the state, when it was then named “Pineto”. My “go to” stabilmento” (beach post) is the Hotel San Tropea. Owner Cristofo will find you the best umbrella available. You can buy snacks there, rent a sail boat or SUP board, or go to any neighboring stabilmento for a complete lunch, as the Italians do.
I work in theater, so one day a visiting colleague and I drove out to visit the ancient ruins of Alba Fucens, just above the town of Avezzano. As we strolled through the 2,000 year old amphitheater, we noticed how well our voices carried without having to raise them. We had a blast running up to the top tier of stone seats to hear each other recite lines from plays we had been in! This could keep a rambunctious 11-year-old occupied for hours!
Such history abounds in Abruzzo. There is the fort of Civitella del Tronto, the spooky castle of Roccascalegna, Sulmona – the birthplace of the poet Ovid, and fifteen minutes up the road is Bisenti, with its claim as the birthplace of Pontius Pilate!
All these places, I discovered to my great delight, are easily reachable from Castiglione Messer Raimondo. This ideal location, and the fact that the size of my house seemed too big to keep to myself, prompted me to open it as a guesthouse. I named it in honor of my father, Carmine, who gave me my beautiful surname and love of my Italian heritage. And so, Guesthouse Casa da Carmine was born.
It has offered the perfect jumping off point for exploring the region, as well as a restful place to simply enjoy authentic Italian life. A slow day in CMR might go like this:
Rise when you want. Walk through the tunnel and down the steps to your left. Turn right to the Bar La Lanterna. Here you can start your day sitting out on the terrazzo taking in the mountains and farmed hills, with a perfect cappuccino and croissant. Ask Rita, one of the proprietors, if she has made any ricotta-filled muffins. You will walk on clouds the rest of the day! La Lanterna used to be one of eleven frantoio’s (olive oil production facilities) in the town. The stairs you walk down to get inside are where the ramps were for mules laden with baskets of olives to enter. The rest room area is where the olives were stored until grinding to a mash. If you walk along the promenade on the west side of town, you will see one of the huge stone wheels used for mashing the olives. Peek inside an old door covered in chicken wire. There you will see the alcove and watering trough where the mules refreshed themselves while they were waiting to return to the groves for more olives.
When motivation strikes you, go back up the stairs, turn right, and continue down the descending cobbled path to the promenade. Continue walking towards the bank, and the COAL grocery store, affectionately called “il forno” (the oven) because it used to be the town’s main bakery. Across the street is Donatella’s fruit and vegetable stall. Donatella, ever robust and cheerful, will guide you to the freshest produce, much of it grown on the farm she runs with her husband and children, just 2 km down the road. Buy some tomatoes and basil, pick up some mozzarella and fresh, crusty bread at the COAL, and return to Casa da Carmine’s sunny kitchen for lunch. Take your meal out to the balcony off of the front bedroom and soak in the comings and goings of the townspeople, their voices, their waves, their faces smiling up at you asking “Tutto aposto?” (All well?) If you nod affirmatively and tell them how much you are enjoying the town, they will clap their hands with joy!
After lunch in the quiet of the siesta time, visit the interior of the church of San Donato. See its frescoes and the chapel of the saint, where it is said if you leave a photo and say a prayer, he will tend to any illness you have. When you leave the church, go down the vicolo to your right (back towards the church). You will find the tiny chapel of Santa Lucia, with a 15th century portrait of the saint, and a hand-rung bell waiting to be sounded during holy festas.
Save room for some gelato! Walk back towards the COAL and at the bend in the road you will find the Bar Viale and the gelato case. I call this the “guy bar” because it’s where men congregate to play cards and watch sports events on the TV outside in the loggia.
If you are up for more walking, head west along the country road that leads out of town down from the promenade. You can get a closer view of the fields, the farm work, and watch the mountains shift moods as the afternoon advances.
When you are ready for dinner, there are two options within walking distance. The Sampei pizzeria and restaurant is on the main road alongside the belvedere. It serves mostly pizza and sandwiches, but it is a delightful place to sit outside and watch the lights come on in the town of Montefino across the valley.
Another option is a longer walk down the “Sentiero delle Pritire”, accessed at the end of town right at the hairpin turn. Just beyond the end of this nicely cobbled, downhill trail is the Ristorante Antichi Sapori. They serve a full menu of Abruzzese and classic Italian dishes. Among our signature pastas are maccheroni alla chitarra (thin pasta made on a wooden box that resembles a rectangular guitar, hence the name “alla chitarra”); and mugnaia, dialect for “miller’s wife”. She made this thick, chewy rope of pasta from the flour the miller was given in partial payment for grinding grain. Chitarra is usually served with polpettine (little meatballs); mugniaia with a hearty ragù. Enjoy as much as you like. The walk back up the sentiero will burn off the calories!
I met my American friend, Tony, when he and his wife stayed at my guesthouse while looking for their own house to buy. He was born in Appignano, the next town up the road. When he left at age five, he remembers riding out of town on the back of an ox cart. Sixty years ago, that was the only way to go! Tony is a foodie who has introduced me to some of the best places to eat in the area:
The Pantera Rosa – five minutes away on the lower road to Bisenti. Look for sign on your left.
Mario’s – a little further down the same road, on the right.
Domus – keep going towards Bisenti. The road curves sharply to the left. A smaller road veers from it to the right. This is the road towards Troiano. Follow this road up and up until you come to a little wooden sign on your left. It points to a dirt road. Yes, this is the road to Domus. Follow it to the end to the restaurant.
Le Colline dei Fiche – this is near Domus. Before you get to the Domus sign, you will see the sign for this restaurant on the right. Another tiny road, but paved. Still have to go up, though! Go early, even if they don’t start serving for another hour. The view is spectacular!
Beware! These offer multi-course meals – hot and cold antipasti, primi (pasta), secondi (meat/fish), contorni (side dishes), bread, wine, beer, dessert, and digestivi (after dinner drinks). All for about 20 -25 euro per person! Arrive VERY hungry. And feel free to pass up anything you don’t want to or can’t eat – no matter how much you are urged to “just taste”. The “taste” will likely end up being a heaping plate!
For exploring nearby by car:
Bisenti: Be sure to not only visit Pontius Pilate’s birthplace, but Patricia Fazzini’s ceramic shop on via Europa. Stop by Cellini chocolates, too. They are world famous and delicious!
Atri: Great Monday outdoor market. Visit the 14th century church and the museum of religious artifacts inside. Buy a porchetta sandwich from a food truck and take it and a drink to the park at the far end of town. Sit and enjoy lunch overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Arrive early on Monday to find parking.
Penne: Great Saturday market with enclosed fruit and vegetable area. Visit the church built over an ancient Temple. Drive out of town for a visit to Lago di Penne Nature Reserve.
Loreto Aprutino: Abruzzo’s olive oil capital. Visit the museum of olive oil and ceramics. Audio guides in English. Stop for a look or elegant lunch at Hotel Castello Chiola, a fascinating old castle.
Citta’ Sant’ Angelo- Excellent shopping and beautiful architecture. Voted one of Italy’s most beautiful “borgos”. Go inside the church of San Michele Archangelo. Have an excellent lunch or dinner at the Ristorante Belvedere.
L’Aquila: Being rebuilt after earthquake damage in 2009. Still beautiful and serene. Visit the extraordinary church of San Bernardino, the Fontana luminosa, Palazzo Margherita, Palace of Justice, the Spanish Fortress and its park, and Basilica di Collemaggio.
Pescara: Abruzzo’s bustling commercial port. Visit the pedestrian promenade leading down to the sea, along which there are many excellent restaurants. Stroll the Porto Turistico, where there are often events, entertainment, and markets. Two noteworthy museums are the Museo d’Arte Moderna and the Museo delle Gente d’Abruzzo (Museum of the People of Abruzzo), which contains a fascinating history of the region.
Then there's the ever popular "funavia" (cable car) del Gran Sasso that goes from Fonte Cerreto (a small tourist resort in the town of Assergi) to the top of Campo Imperatore. You can ride the cable car up the mountain and then hike down (fares below for one-way or round-trip). Take the Assergi exit from the A24, follow signs to Assergi and you will come to the cable car station. There are several restaurants and hotels here, as well as food trucks for snacks. Park the car in the parking lot in Assergi for the funavia and ride it up to the top of Campo Imperatore.
Saturdays, Sundays, holidays first trip is 8 AM; workdays first trip is 8:30. Leaves every 30 minutes, except for the 13:30 time.
Last trip is 17:00.
Fees: Weekday non-holiday fare- 10 euro round trip; holidays and weekenda- 15 euro round trip
One way: weekday non-holiday - 6 euro; holidays and weekends - 8 euro
Daily pass : weekday non-holiday- 17 euro; holidays and weekends- 20 euro
Bicycle transport : 3 euro each wa
There is so much more! But I think I’ve gotten carried away enough! DO come visit for at least a week. There is much to yet discover! Guesthouse Casa da Carmine offers travel planning and itinerary consultants. Find us on Facebook, HomeAway.com, or our website. We look forward to having you here!
Teresa Mastrobuono is an actress, writer, director, storyteller, voice over artist, and arts educator.
She is a second generation Italian-American who grew up with her grandparents in their very Italian household.
Twenty-one years ago, she made her first trip to Italy. It was a cookie-cutter tour that took you to famous places without telling you why they were famous. After six days, she left the group to find her grandfather's birthplace, with only a half dozen words of Italian and a pocket Italian phrase book. The journey, the town, and the people she met had a profound affect on her life. Returning to America, she wrote and performed in a one-woman show about the experience, titled "Andata e Ritorno" ( Round Trip). It toured into theaters in Pennsylvania for three years.
To assure she would keep returning to Italy, she began to lead tours there. After five years of going back and forth, she thought "What the heck, I may as well have a house there to use as a base." She fell in love with one in Abruzzo and now spends summers there running it as a guesthouse and leading tours.
The house, named Guesthouse Casa da Carmine after her father, can be viewed and booked on Homeaway and on the website.