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Home > The Italian Region With Beautiful Landscapes And Ancient Villages – But Few Tourists

The Italian Region With Beautiful Landscapes And Ancient Villages – But Few Tourists

Italy has welcomed visitors since time immemorial. But not all of Italy: some regions have remained impervious to the Grand Tourists of the past and the Instagrammers of today. Who, for example, visits Abruzzo, a region east of Rome and south of the Marche?

Very few is the answer – but why so secret? Poverty, for one thing, and the sheer wilderness of the mountains for another. The region was too high and too isolated for vines and olives, and the medieval trade and rich history that fostered the cities – and art – of Tuscany, Umbria and Sicily.

And yet things are now changing, albeit slowly (houses here can still be had for under €10,000). Travellers are finally learning that its mountains, still the haunt of wolves and bears, are the finest in Italy outside the Alps, that its coast is gloriously wild in places, and that many of its ancient villages are timeless and traditional in the best sense. And if visitor infrastructure is still in its infancy – part of the region’s charm, of course – newer destination hotels are gradually opening, and the food, as ever in Italy, is superlative.

The new Tuscany? The new Umbria? Not quite. But a place to visit now before everyone else? Definitely.

The landscapesGlorious mountain landscapes are Abruzzo’s principle lure. The Apennines – the Italian peninsula’s rocky spine – reach their highest point here in the peak of the Gran Sasso (9,553ft/2,912m), still home – just – to one of Europe’s most southerly glaciers.

The vast upland plains of the Campo Imperatore are known locally as “Little Tibet” Credit: Getty Gran Sasso is also the name given to one of three immense massifs in the region, the other two being the Monti della Laga to the north and the Maiella to the south. All three have national park status, as does a fourth enclave, the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo on the region’s western flanks.

For those who only know the more benign aspect of the Apennines in Tuscany, Umbria or Liguria, it is hard to appreciate the sheer scale of Abruzzo’s mountains or their wild impenetrability. Wolves and even bears still roam here and vast, beautiful tracts of the region are accessible only on foot, following ancient transhumance trails, or with a patient – but hugely rewarding – odyssey on high mountain roads.

Wolves and even bears still roam here Credit: Getty Most people visit the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo, partly because it is closest to Rome (81 miles/130km via the A2 motorway and the towns of Frosinone and Sora) and partly because it is among the best administered of Italy’s national parks. You’ll also find more in the way of hotels, facilities and marked biking and hiking trails here, notably in the main centres of Pescasseroli and smaller Opi, plus pretty, medieval Scanno just outside the park borders.

In the Monti della Laga, travel the beautiful road between Acquasanta Terme (just in the Marche) and Teramo, and consider the village of Pietracamela as a base. From here you could easily head south and take one of the finest drives in Europe, never mind Italy: the road that runs west to east under the Gran Sasso across the vast upland plains of the Campo Imperatore, known locally as “Little Tibet” after its remarkable scenery.

Castel del Monte Credit: Getty Visit Castel del Monte, one of the region’s loveliest villages and situated at well over 4,000ft. This is also a good place to stay, but drive on a few miles and tiny Santo Stefano boasts one of central Italy’s most interesting hotels, the Sextantio (doubles from around £150 including breakfast).

Alternatively, if you are heading for the coast (see below), continue east to Farindola, a classic little Abruzzese village with superb views and a great dining option (see below). Be sure to devote an hour or so to Loreto Aprutino to the east, one of the region’s most appealing medieval villages.

Loreto Aprutino Credit: Getty Explore the third of Abruzzo’s massifs, the Maiella, and you’ll be venturing into one of western Europe’s last great wildernesses. There are few places to stay in the heart of the mountains, with Caramanico Terme your best bet, but Sulmona just to the west is the Abruzzo’s most interesting larger town, birthplace of Ovid and of sugared almonds, or confetti (Sulmona almonds were served at Harry and Meghan’s wedding).

It’s a town worth visiting in its own right, especially if you can be here on Wednesday or Saturday morning, when Piazza Garibaldi hosts a wonderful market. It’s also on a railway line – and there aren’t many of those in this mountain area: the ride here from Rieti via L’Aquila, and especially on to Castel di Sangro and beyond, is one of Italy’s most scenic.

Sulmona, birthplace of Ovid Credit: Getty The resorts and beachesMountains take the most plaudits in Abruzzo but the region’s long coast provides another compelling attraction. Many of the beaches and resorts are typical of Italy’s eastern, Adriatic coast, which is to say they are small, family-friendly affairs, often close to the coast’s main rail and road links, and with decent if unspectacular sand and hotels.

While some some spots in the north are fairly workaday, there are two notable exceptions: the wild, glorious stretches of sand in the Riserva Naturale del Borsacchio, north of Roseto degli Abruzzo, and Torre del Cerrano near Pineto, named after the adjacent historic defensive tower.

South of Pescara, head for Punta Ferruccio near Ortona – the scene of bitter fighting in 1943: it’s not easily reached, but is worth the effort, and has clothes-optional stretches. Equally wild and lovely are the nearby Calata or Spiaggia del Turchino close to San Vito Chietino, where the contemporary hotel Le Chiave dei Trabocchi makes a fine base (doubles from around £60).

This part of the coast takes its name from the eerily beautiful trabocchi, spindly wooden walkways and fishing shacks built on stilts which are unique to the region.

Trabocchi are unique to the region Credit: Getty A few miles farther south still, the Lido di Casalbordino is another point of pilgrimage for beach aficionados, with the simple Finis Terrae bar a favoured spot to watch the sunset. Two more beaches stand out close to Vasto, the Abruzzo’s last hurrah before the border with Molise: Punta Penna and Punta Aderci. Both are wild places in part protected by nature reserves.

Abruzzo also has several family-friendly Green Flag beaches.

The coast near Vasto Credit: Getty The food and wineLike much else in the Abruzzo, the region’s food is barely known but often exceptional. The coast has predictably good fish and seafood, notably the mussels (cozze) from Vasto, often served with saffron (itself a regional speciality) or stuffed with breadcrumbs, lemon, parsley, garlic and tomato sauce.

The classic pasta is maccheroni alla chitarra, a spaghetti-like creation made by pressing sheets of pasta through wires (hence chitarra, or “guitar”).

When all’s said and done, however, the Abruzzo is a mountain region, and it’s the mountains, and centuries where poverty was the culinary mother of invention, that most colour the region’s cuisine.

Mushrooms and truffles abound, along with pulses and beans, but lamb and mutton were and are the mainstay of mountain cooking. One of the region’s great meals – one of Italy’s great meals – is to be had up on the high plains of the Campo Imperatore and elsewhere (see above).

Windblown, remote shepherds’ shacks will sell you a hunk of bread, several rough-cut chunks of pecorino (sheep’s cheese) and a fistful of arrosticini – skewers loaded with tiny pieces of lamb and mutton – that you (or they) grill on open fires. Eat with your fingers and want for nothing more.

The mountains colour the region’s cuisine Credit: Getty Arrosticini are a mainstay of many mountain villages, too – make a pilgrimage to Farindola and Lu Strego, a trattoria whose version has more than once been acclaimed the best in the Abruzzo.

Wine-wise, no-one is going to Abruzzo to tour the region’s vineyards – for the most part the mountains aren’t conducive to growing vines – but wherever you go you’ll be able to drink Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a more-than-decent red that you’ll probably have come across at home. Trebbiano is the standard white, while Cerasuolo is a lighter red also made from the Montepulciano grape.

But there is quality. As elsewhere in “lesser” Italian wine regions such as Umbria, the post-war period saw newer, dynamic producers pioneering some now top-notch wines. In particular look for bottles from Pepe and Valentini, along with CantinArte, Annona, Italo Pietrantoj, Cataldi Madonna and Valle Reale.

For more unusual regional drinks, risk a glass of ratafia, a black cherry liqueur; Aurum, a branded orange-scented brandy made in Pescara since 1925; centerbe (literally “one hundred herbs”), made from the mountain herbs of the Maiella; and genziano, made from the root of the gentian.

Getting thereRyanair flies to Pescara Airport from Stansted. A far greater of options exist if you fly to Rome, from which regional capital L’Aquila is a 90-minute drive.

Staying thereVilla companies on the whole are still feeling their way into Abruzzo – typically a company might only one or two properties in the region – but look at the dedicated Abruzzo Turismo page or properties on the owner-listed Vrbo (formerly HomeAway) site. For more ideas on where to stay, see our guide to the best hotels in Abruzzo.

This story was first published in March 2022 and has been revised and updated.