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between the sea and the sky
Abruzzo, known for its untouched mountainous regions, is more than just mountains. Between the high rock walls of the Gran Sasso and the pretty beaches of the Adriatic lies a sea of lovely nature. Olive groves, vineyards and sunflower fields cover the soft hills, crowned with medieval towns, lined with countess small streams. Romanesque churches and medieval cathedrals, pilgrimage sites like Volto Santo and Santuario di San Gabriele, are evidence of a deep spirituality. Molise, in contrast, is one of Italy’s smallest regions. It has been independent since 1963 and was previously a part of Abruzzo. It is above all characterised by its unspoiled state. The old castle ruins and various archaeological sites are evidence of earlier times.
Marche is known above all for its beautiful coast on the Adriatic. The region’s interior is at least as pretty, characterised by countless hills and valleys, which gently roll from the Apennines to the Adriatic
The National Park of Abruzzo was the first nature preserve created in Italy and encompasses an area of 44,000 hectares within the region of Abruzzo (with small areas in Lazio and Molise). The proposed hike crosses one of the most beautiful forest landscapes of the Italian peninsula. It is only a few kilometres long, with not overly strenuous elevation gains and can be accomplished in 3-4 hours. The best times for a visit are in the spring and autumn, when the number of visitors is fewer and the colours of the blossoms and leaves bring the landscape to life.
The wonderful landscape of Abruzzo was seen across the world on the big screen in the movie ‘The American’ with George Clooney, which was filmed in Abruzzo. Clooney filmed in several cities in Abruzzo. A few scenes take place on the Piazza Garibaldi in Sulmona - including the weekly market scene. Not just the story, but also the unbelievable scenery in Abruzzo is very gripping. ‘The American’ is not the first film, which used the archaic appearance of the Abruzzian landscape for its setting. Among the most famous movies filmed in Abruzzo are: ‘The Name of the Rose’, ‘Ladyhawke’ with Michelle Pfeiffer, ‘La Strada’ by Federico Fellini, ‘Bread and Tulips’ with Bruno Ganz and ‘King David’ with Richard Gere. Those who fancy con-
vincing themselves personally of the magic of Abruzzo, had best travel themselves to this region hardly discovered by tourism.
This castle, which towers above the city, belonged to the Malatesta family. According to legend, the double homicide of Francesca of Rimini and her lover Paolo took place here in 1289. Dante immortalised this crime in his poetry. The Malatesta were successful in holding on to the castle for over 200 years. After a 42 day siege by the rival Sforza (led by Frederico of Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino) they lost Gradara to their enemies in 1464. Giovanni Sforza had almost everything precious in the castle transported away for his young bride, the notorious Lucrezia Borgia. The chapel of fers a beautiful altar piece made out of glazed terracotta, although most visitors are more interested in the weapons’ arsenal and the torture chamber.
Excursion to the city of the ‘100 towers’, in the cultur al centre of southern Marche, Ascoli Piceno, and tour through the picturesque, historic dis-
trict characterised by the warm tones of the travertine. You will see impressive palazzi, family towers and the Piazza del Popolo. The legendary art nouveaustyle café ‘Meletti’ and the Renaissance cloister of Loggia di Mercati, where the vegetable market still sometimes takes place, are located on
this square, one of the most lively in all of Italy. In Macerata you will stroll through the historic district with its numerous buildings from the Renaissance and Baroque.
The Sferisterio, in which the majority of performances of the Macerata opera festival take place, was built between 1820 and 1829 with donations of wealthy residents. The amphitheatre was originally the site of games of Gioco del Bracciale (game with the arm wood),
which was the most popular type of sport in Italy between 1600 and 1900, before the introduction of football. The rows of stands, which rise up in the style of an ancient amphitheatre, are completed with two rows of boxes placed one above the other, separated by 56 gigantic Doric columns.
The enchanting Cistercian abbey San Clemente a Casauria is one of the most famous architectural monuments in Abruzzo! It was built by Emperor Ludwig II around 870. The emperor thus fulfilled a vow, which he made during his captivity during the war of Benevento. The legend of the abbey’s founding is told in the lunette of the main entrance as a giant comic with four scenes. The pope, emperor and donkey are depicted, who brought the relics of St.Clement from Rome, which are still preserved here today.
This old abbey on the east side of Monte Catria offers an unbelievably lovely view. The enormous size of the building complex is impres-sive. The monastery was led by two influential personalities in medieval history: by St. Romuald and St. Peter Damian. Dante Alighieri lived in the monastery in the year 1318 and described the hermitage in the 21st song of ‘paradise’ in his work ‘The Divine Comedy’. During a tour you will see the wonderful scriptorium, once an important centre for the production of manuscripts with elaborately ornate initials. An ingenious system was developed to best capture the natural daylight in the room to facilitate this work.
A reservation is required for groups.
No German emperor left behind more interest than the last Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick II, who is interred in the cathedral of Palermo. He was born in the wine city of Jesi in Marche. In 1194, on Christmas, he was born on the market square - in a tent constructed in the middle of the main square and in the presence of all the women of the city, as well as 19 bishops and cardinals. Why? Because his father, Henry VI, could not accompany his wife Constance on her trip to Sicily. Constance, highly pregnant, was to bring her child to the world there. However, her time already came in Jesi. As Constance was already almost 40 years old and had remained childless for nine years before that, serious doubts were raised as to her pregnancy. And so that no one could question the legitimacy of the succession of Frederick II, it was best to have as many witnesses present at the birth as possible.
Thirteen kilometres of the limestone caves have been explored at present. It is estimated, however, that the entire cave is about 35 km long. Only 1.5 km of this crystal wonderland is open to the public. You can explore the caves along easily accessible, specially laid walkways, stand in awe of the impressive Grotta Grande del Vento, the largest single cave in Europe, so big, that the entire Milan Cathedral would easily fit inside, and admire some of the, theatrically illuminated, most extraordinary, fantastical stalactites and stalagmites in the entire world. The guided tour takes about one hour. You should dress warmly: inside there is a constant temperature of 14 °C.
The Grottoes of Stiffe are one of the most well-known phenomena of Central Italy. The underground torrent, which accompanies visitors along their entire route, forms rapids and waterfalls of exceptional beauty inside the cave - a unique spectacle. Wonderful stalactites and stalagmites richly decorate this part of the grotto and stand in contrast to the soft lines of the river.
Already back in the 14th century, 1 million pages of paper were made per year in the paper mills of Fabriano, and it was also here that the watermark was invented. The paper produced here is still used worldwide for paper currency and high-quality art paper. A visit to the paper museum, the ‘Museo della Carta e della Filigrana’, housed in a Dominican convent, should not be missed. The museum tells about the centuries-old tradition of paper production in Fabriano. The tour includes the age-old machines and the collection of important old and modern works with watermarks. In addition, the manual production of paper will be demonstrated. In the bookstore you can purchase various handmade paper products.
A very special and melodious handicraft: the world’s oldest bell foundry is located in Agnone (province of Isernia). The papal foundry of Marinelli produced the bells for the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and recently the bells for the anniversary year 2000. A visit to the historical bell-making museum and the bell foundry, where bells are produced following traditional centuries-old techniques, is highly interesting. Bell concerts can also be attended.
The traditional instrument of the Molise region is a variant of the bagpipe, the zampogna. In Scapoli a bagpipes festival takes place every last Sunday in July with a market, performers and festival.
The Navelli plateau is closely associated with saffron cultivation. The multiday chickpea and saffron festival is celebrated in the second half of August. The event presents visitors with the chance to try different saffron and chickpea dishes. In addition, a comical donkey race takes place through the streets of the village.
Offida upholds a fascinating tradition: the carnival, whose historical evidence dates back to the 16th century. Then as now, the ‘bov fint’ (a mock bull) is the symbol of the festival: The ‘bull’, fashioned out of a wooden frame and white fabric, is shouldered by a pair of men and taken through the streets to the piazza, where the final ‘bull fight’ takes place. On the evening of Fat Tuesday a bundle of reeds is set alight and carried through the city in a procession to light a bonfire on the main square. When the fire goes out, a long night of celebrating and dancing begins.
A must for foodies is the national truffle festival, which takes place annually on the last weekend in October and the first three weekends in November in Acqualagna. Then the unique aroma of this precious tuber lies over the whole city and tempts one to sample and purchase. Anything and everything is for sale: truffle butter, truf flecheese, truffle oil and truffle salami. Those who so wish, can satiate their hunger right there: directly across from the sales booths, the surrounding restaurants have set up their stalls and serve their specialities like tagliatelle and polenta al tartufo.
Also of note: Even when the truffle festival is not currently being held, the truffle fan will not go away empty-handed: In Acqualagna almost every factory has a shop. Here all products relating to the delicious tuber can be purchased.
Each year on the first Thursday in May, thousands pilgrimage to the unprepossessing mountain village of Cocullo to celebrate the ‘Rito dei serpari’, one of Europe’s most unusual festivals. The snake handlers with their mountains of captured snakes drape drape the statue of St. Domenico with dozens of snakes, before the statue is led through the village in a procession. The behaviour of the snakes is considered an important omen for the
coming harvest: if they writhe around the head and shoulders, hail and storms will stay away. If they, however, slither around the lower body or even into the black robe, misfortune threatens. The most varying legends surround San Domenico. He is said to have transformed poisonous snakes into fish and thus freed the region from an infestation. He is still today considered the patron saint of farmers and shepherds. The local bakery makes ‘Serpente dolce’ and ‘Cervone’, snake-shaped pastries, decorated with green eyes and red tongue. Mobile merchants sell snake imitations and postcards with snake motifs. One of the highlights is the awarding of the snake handlers. The serpari are awarded with goblets - for the longest snake, for the animal with the most beautiful back design or for the most snakes. At the end of the festival the snakes are freed again - then the animals have their peace and quiet for another whole year.
On the first Sunday in August a thrilling equestrian tournament takes place in Ascoli Piceno ‘Giostra della Quintana’, which has its origins in the Middle Ages. The palio is a type of continuation of military skirmishes using peaceful means. The highlight is the costume festival, in which around 1,500 locals from Ascoli participate.
On Easter Sunday in Sulmona, the ceremonial procession of the ‘running Madonna’ takes place, this is spectacular, but also very moving: The apostles Peter and John inform the grieving Virgin Mary of the Resurrection. Mary, wrapped in a black robe, recognises her son and runs across the en-
tire square to hug him. In this moment the black robe falls down and uncovers a magnificent green dress, out of which peace doves fly up to the heav-
ens. The run is accompanied by canon shots, by a brass band and by the applause and rejoicing of the audience.
It is Italy‘s oldest carnival, the first firm traces of this carnival date back to the year 1347: two distinguished and rich families called the carnival festivities to life to mark their reconciliation. It is also the sweetest carnival in the world, as nowhere are more sweets thrown from the parade floats than here. And that is not all: Whoever has enough sweets in his pockets takes part in the no-holes-barred sweets’ fight. The large masked parades take place on two consecutive Sundays, during which sumptuously decorated, allegorical floats with papier-mâché figures roll through the streets. The ‘Musica Arabita’ adds to the atmosphere, a kind of ‘recycling band’, consisting of tins, coffee cups and the like, which create the suitable music for the playful bustle.
Excursion to the capital of the region of Abruzzo, L’Aquila. The city is dominated by the panorama of the mighty Apennine mountain range of Gran Sasso and has numerous old palaces and important churches. In the afternoon you will visit the impressive caves of Stiffe, an insider tip of the region.
On 6 April 2009 large sections of the historic district of L’Aquila were damaged or destroyed by a devastating earthquake. Serious damage was done above all along the Via XX Settembre. The villages in the east of the municipality, however, suffered the worst damages.
The historic district of the city of Vasto, located high up on a hill, has a very special charm with its labyrinth of alleys, its splendid panoramic vista and the numerous historical and cultural sights, including the Roman thermal baths with their beautiful mosaics in the Palazzo d’Avalos from the 16th century, the palace and the cathedral of San Giuseppe. The next stop is Pescara. The large fishing harbour and the longest sand beach of Abruzzo invite exploration.
Ancona is a lively harbour metropolis. The white of the cathedral of S. Ciriaco shines from its highest point. From here you will have a splendid outlook over the harbour and of the oldest monument in the city: the Arch of Trajan from the 2nd century. After the tour you will continue on to Jesi, birthplace of the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II. The atmosphere of this appealing city is saturated with culture. Visit the enormous city wall from the 14 th century, which was erected on Roman foundations and features giant supporting pillars and impregnable guard towers. The powerful walls enclose the historic centre, its streets and alleyways continually entice one to make new discoveries. At the end of the day enjoy a wine tasting in the nearby winegrowing region of Verdicchio.
You will spend the morning in the small medieval city of Sulmona, home of the poet Ovid. The historic centre of Sulmona is completely surrounded by the old city walls, permeated by two entrance gates. Next to the cathedral of San Pafilo a few palazzi can
The medieval historic district with its narrow, winding streets and stairways clings to the slopes of the Monforte Castle from the 15th century. The castle with its four turrets was built under the Langobards. The city was the object of dispute among several aristocratic families for centuries. In 1814 the construction of new city districts was begun in the lowlands by Gioachino Murat.
Excursion to the magical little village of Civitella del Tronto, one of Europe’s largest fortresses, in a one-of-a-kind position with a wonderful view, and built by Charles V. Time seems to have stood still here. Enjoy the splendid view and the unique atmosphere. Then continue on to the very appealing Atri with its lovely outlook over the sea. The city is surrounded to the west by green hills, rock falls and ravines. The cathedral from the 13th and 14th centuries is worth visiting. It was erected on the foundations of a Roman structure. The speciality of Atri is liquorice, which has been manufactured by the Dominican brothers since the Middle Ages.
Excursion to the city of the ‘100 towers’, in the cultural centre of southern Marche, Ascoli Piceno, and tour through the picturesque, historic district characterised by the warm tones of the travertine. You will see impressive palazzi, family towers and the Piazza del Popolo. The legendary art nouveaustyle café ‘Meletti’ and the Renaissance cloister of Loggia di Mercati, where the vegetable market still sometimes takes place, are located on
this square, one of the most lively in all of Italy. In Macerata you will stroll through the historic district with its numerous buildings from the Renaissance and Baroque.
During the Renaissance, Urbino would have won the title of beauty queen - the harmonious cityscape is still deemed unique today. The city, with its distinctive profile, lies in a position of unique beauty on the steep brow of a hill and has been able to preserve its unique coherence to the present day thanks to its secluded location between the Apennines and the Adriatic. The tour guide will accompany you to numerous sights through the narrow alleys, including the Palazzo Ducale and the birthplace of the painter Raphael. In the afternoon you will continue down to the Adriatic to Pesaro. In addition to the wide beaches and promenades, you will also discover the medieval historic district with the Palazzo Ducale, opera house, Rossini’s birthplace and the cathedral.
Travel to the well-known national park. Brown bears, chamois, lynx, golden eagles and wolves live in the middle of this gorgeous, wild and romantic landscape. Continue on through the rustic mountain world to the traditional village of Scanno, on the lake of the same name. The women here still wear traditional dress and make their precious bobbin lace with great skill.
In Termoli, sunbeams illuminate the old walls constructed under Emperor Frederick II and the 16th-century castle situated near the sea. The landmark of the city is the Torre Saracena, which served to defend the city from pirates and Turks. Termoli’s pride are not only these stony testimonies to the past and its crystal clear sea water - this small city, worth a trip in any time of year, is also the largest harbour of the Molise region and the point of departure for crossings to the wonderful Tremiti island group, which belongs to Apulia.