It’s been a long time since we’ve done the last Travel Notes! This one is very special and close to my heart.
Recently, I was invited to TBDI 2014, a travel and blogging related conference in Italy. I’m not normally the conference type, but couldn’t refuse this opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful places on earth. I left Paloma and her papa at home, promising to send photos of my every step. I had no idea what to expect, but luckily it turned out to be an amazing experience, and I am very grateful to the hosts for the invitation.
The conference hosts put us up in a beautiful historic hotel in Cesenatico, an Adriatic sea side town in the Emilia-Romagna region, right next to a charming port canal surveyed and drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. The organization of the conference was great, I met many interesting people and the energy of the whole event (which was gigantic) was truly contagious. We were very well fed – I was generally amazed at the consistent freshness of the food anywhere we visited. It seemed as if I was the only attendee who wasn’t fluent in Italian, even the Americans I met were completely Italianised.
My lack of language skills didn’t prevent me from enjoying every minute of the time spent there. The conference presented many business and personal opportunities, but best of all, I met the wonderful ladies who introduced me to the region of Abruzzo. Anna and our food and wine cluster leader Emiliana both live in Abruzzo and promote local food and traditions. I was so taken by their stories that I decided to spend a few days in the mountains of Abruzzo after the conference. After much strategizing, a friend of mine and I worked out quite an extensive travel plan, which involved several train rides, renting a car and hiking in the mountains. I decided to leave my camera in the safety of home and let my phone do all the work.
We had a brief visit to Venice first, where we stayed in a great airbnb, right off campo San Polo, in a very green and quiet cul-de-sac. We followed Valentina’s recommendation and had the most amazing lunch at Paradiso Perduto in Cannaregio.
From Venice, we took a train down south to Pescara and then drove our rental Fiat to the town of Sulmona in the region of Abruzzo. It was love at first sight. Sulmona didn’t resemble any other place that I’ve been to before – it was all like a dream. It combines the charm of a small, historic town with an innate kind of sophistication. It felt very homey and relaxed, but being there was very exciting at the same time – there is definitely an energy running through the streets. I felt like a very dear guest to all of its hospitable inhabitants – there were no other tourists in sight. It was surprising to see that this true gem of a town, as well as the whole region of Abruzzo, is still completely off the beaten path and hugely undiscovered. It’s the place to see the true Italy, unencumbered, in all its glory.
We couldn’t pick a better season to visit and enjoyed perfect weather and delicious fall mountain air even in the most narrow old streets of town. The locals, all of them unbelievably elegant, gave us the feeling of home when so far away from home. All that combined with the architecture and food, made me never want to leave.
Every morning, we woke up to the cathedral bells ringing right across the street from our charming b&b and delicious cappuccino made by Oscar, our host.
We were eager to visit the big farmers market which is held every Wednesday on Piazza Garibaldi. All the produce photos in this post are from that market. The local produce was breathtaking, it was peak season for local persimmons, apples, figs, citrus and grapes. It felt so incredibly romantic to stroll through the colorful market stalls in the middle of the most poetic Piazza Garibaldi surrounded by the mountains, in the gentle October sun. We didn’t see anyone but the locals, and the vendors were a great pleasure to converse with. I don’t think I’ve ever bought or eaten as many persimmons in such a short period of time. We also sampled a variety of pastries, and I even snuck some leftover potato focaccia on the plane ride home.
If you’re ever in Sulmona, make sure to have lunch at La Locanda di Gino at Piazza Plebiscito for the best fresh, local food.
From Sulmona, we drove higher up the mountains to visit several medieval villages – Pacentro and Santo Stefano di Sessanio are the most well known of them. The overlook of Pacentro in the soft afternoon sun put us into a sort of trance. The air was still and sweet, and there was a feeling of complete happiness radiating from the village. We climbed its ancient streets up and down, witnessing signs of everyday life of the locals who seemed perfectly content. Among the others, we saw a lady who must have been in her 60s, in shape and dressed up elegantly, sitting in a tiny rocking chair right by her front door. The street was quite narrow, so her view was pretty much limited to the neighbor’s wall. “Buon giorno!” – she greeted us with the most welcoming smile, leaving us to wonder why she didn’t feel the need to rush anywhere and whom she was dressed up for. Of course, we realized that we got a glimpse at a slice of her daily life just as it is, no special occasions.
Our next destination is located on the territory of one of the three national parks in Abruzzo. The narrow road to Santo Stefano di Sessanio kept climbing higher and higher between olive groves, and we were glad that we didn’t come across any cars on the entire stretch. We stopped often for the most picturesque views or for foraging wild flowers and rosehips, which were everywhere. Santo Stefano has been named one of Italy’s most beautiful villages and impressed us as a little heaven on Earth. We wandered through the never-changing streets, lively with beautiful dogs and well fed cats. A memorable meal there was homemade fettuccine with zafferano (saffron) from the nearby fields of Navelli, local olive oil and zucchini from the host’s back yard. The area is most famous for their lenticchie (lentils), of course we tried them too. We both noticed that after enjoying homemade pasta, we never felt too full, sometimes not even full enough, nothing like after eating pasta back home. I actually lost quite a few pounds after eating that food and running around in the fresh air.
From there we made our way to Rocca Calascio, the highest fortress in the Apennines, then to Campo Imperatore, an alpine meadow that lies next to the Apennines’ highest peak, Corno Grande. By the time we reached the vast pastures of Campo Imperatore, we realized that our car navigator had died, and we only had about an hour of daylight left. We were in for an adventure, facing a very realistic possibility of spending the night in the mountains, right in our tiny rental Fiat. If you’ve ever driven in that area, you know what I mean. On top of being pitch dark at night, the road signs are rare and not very clear for newbies like us, the roads are narrow and winding. To make things even more interesting, it’s the season for thick night mountain fogs, and cattle often wander onto the roads. Throw in the lack of any cellular or internet connection, cold temperatures and all kinds of wild animals residing in the national parks and you’ll get the picture. We had no choice but try to find our way back to Sulmona on our own. Miraculously, by the time our eyes caught the view of the village of Santa Lucia, our GPS decided to come back to us. It directed us down a serpentine road between olive trees – we would have never guessed to take that road on our own! The sunset we saw then was especially memorable, with soft silhouettes of cypress tress down in the valley and shady layers of the mountains surrounding us. We got back in Sulmona safely, right in time for dinner.
Our last destination was Bologna – sadly I did not get to spend much time there, as it was time to go home to my family.
As I learned from the locals in Abruzzo, I only got a very brief glimpse of the area in the few days I was there, and it may very well take years to explore all of it. From what I saw, Abruzzo is incredibly diverse – from beach resorts on the Adriatic coast to green pastures, lakes and breathtaking mountain views, from lively towns to remote, medieval villages. There is no question as to why Abruzzo holds the title of “Greenest Region in Europe,” with one third of its territory being set aside as national parks.
Diverse topography leads to diverse food traditions, there is lots of variety in the form of fresh seafood, delicious local saffron, truffles and unique kinds of pasta, to only name a few. The local cuisine is centered around sustainable agriculture and seasonality, which always leads to delicious meals.
From this visit arose an opportunity to organize a retreat centered around exploring the culinary beauty of Abruzzo. We’ve been thinking about bringing very small groups of guests to stay in places like Sulmona, Pacentro and Santo Stefano di Sessanio, to forage wild herbs, asparagus and mushrooms, to hunt for truffles with truffle growers and to harvest saffron. To learn from locals how to make true Abruzzian dishes while incorporating our findings into our own meals. We’ll be photographing our every step and learning how to style beautiful plates of food. And of course we won’t forget to sample the region’s famous wine – Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
I left my heart in Abruzzo and would like to see if there is any desire for such culinary retreats. Please email me at email@example.com if you would be interested in participating.