Abruzzo. Quaint It Ain’t
When it comes to the top destinations in world travel, have you noticed there’s generally a single, over-used adjective that lazier travel writers imagine describes a place to perfection ?
New York is ‘brash’; Paris is ‘romantic’; Germany is ‘efficient’; Holland is ‘laid back’; London at one point was ‘swinging’.
Abruzzo seems to be ‘quaint’. But would that be your prime reason for choosing a holiday destination ?
So when passing the time of day with Villasfor2 guests, I invariably ask how they came across us and what most influenced them to book a holiday in Abruzzo.
In general terms, Abruzzo gets featured every so often on a TV travel programme. More specifically, most guests have seen our site; or come across our listings on holiday rental sites like HomeAway; or read reviews on TripAdvisor, where our three villas – Acquaviva, Pesco Falcone and La Majelletta (each named after a mountain in the Majella National Park) – have their own separate entries.
But ‘because it’s quaint’ ? Not yet.
So who’s been peddling the line that Abruzzo’s quaint ?
Think I might’ve found the answer…
Recently, a guest handed me a lengthy and highly complimentary article about Abruzzo from the Travel Section of one of the UK’s weighty weekend papers, declaring this had been the starting point that’d led him to booking a fortnight with us.
Have you ever read anything about anywhere you know well and midway through wondered whether you were actually reading about somewhere completely different ? That’s a bit how I felt after this article.
Cutting through the pretty pictures and overblown prose came the realisation that the Abruzzo getting so extolled wasn’t an Abruzzo I recognised.
Then came a slight sense of unease that having been influenced sufficiently by this article to book a holiday here. Might our guest have felt…Dismayed ? Cheated ? Annoyed ? Confused ? Nonplussed ? to find the reality is some way removed from the image.
The writer of this article – along with pretty much every other travel ‘specialist’ I’ve read – failed to grasp (or ignored ?) just how big Abruzzo is. Get on the A25 autostrada at Pescara and head west towards Rome. After two hours at autostrada speeds, you’ll have driven around 160 miles, but still be in Abruzzo. While from Martinsicuro in the north, to San Salvo in the south, Abruzzo’s coastline nudges 100 miles.
So to visit a small part of the region over a long weekend and then paint a broad brush-stroke, all-encompassing picture is akin to extolling the delights of London after a few days in Birmingham.
So let me tell you what Abruzzo really isn’t. And what it really is.
For a start, it’s not a big slab of theme-park Italian quaintness. It’s not wall-to-wall wilderness dotted with charming old villages.
Not everyone’s involved in farmhouse-style businesses making wine; and/or olive oil; and/or the production of interesting things to eat.
And when it comes to olives by the way, they aren’t harvested by hand.
Yes, Abruzzo’s three National Parks, giving it the highest ratio of protected landscape anywhere in Europe, are the region’s pride and joy. And yes, Abruzzo has its fair share of medieval hilltop towns. (Roman ruins too, if you’re interested). But there are also thriving towns and cities; genuinely outstanding museums; bustling retail centres; two of the biggest non-polluting car plants in Italy; and, especially in summer, a packed schedule of fairs and festivals in which jazz, opera and the other arts sit quite happily alongside the celebratory pleasures of eating, drinking and watching fireworks.
Naturally enough, no tourist brochure or purple-prosed travel article’s going to go big on the Honda plant – but it exists; provides jobs; and is just as important a part of Abruzzo’s fabric as the more bucolic bits.
And while – sure – Abruzzo’s wine, oil and assorted artisan food products are justly lauded, equally so should be the less romantic but much more commercially significant names of De Cecco, Del Verde and Cocco, all based in the small village of Fara San Martino in the shadow of the Majella National Park. Who are they ? Pasta producers. By common consensus, De Cecco make the finest dried pasta in the world. Del Verde aren’t far behind; Cocco’s claim to fame is that they supply the Vatican.
Yes, it’s the Pope’s pasta.
To have all three of these world-class producers in one tiny town is akin to finding Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini factories on the outskirts of where you live.
But while each of them earns Italy huge sums of export cash, do they bring tourists to Abruzzo ? Would you book a holiday to see a factory ? (Even if it was quaint ? Or in such a picturesque setting as De Cecco and Del Verde enjoy ?)
Olives harvested by hand ? Speaking as a hardened olive-harvester – I’m out there, sleeves rolled up, acting as Rocco’s skivvy when we harvest our own small crop each November – I promise you they aren’t. Honestly. Want to see what really happens ? Here’s a video of one of our harvests a couple of years ago…
The olives-harvested-by-hand bit was one of numerous half-truths; misunderstood facts and wrong-end-of-the-stick interpretations that kept cropping up in this article, drip-feeding me into irritability.
But I’ll tell you the key fact that was overlooked – and keeps being overlooked – in everything I’ve ever read about Abruzzo.
It’s not quaint. But you’ve already gathered that.
What it is – and so much more importantly – is off the beaten tourist track.
We all know the parts of Italy that are tourist-swamped. In the case of Venice, so much so that tourist taxes are imposed in the hope they might thin down the crowds a bit (while at the same time, swelling the city’s coffers).
Meanwhile, despite being – at its nearest point – just a scant hour east of Rome, Abruzzo ambles along anonymously. The region rather likes being a well-kept secret.
Why ? It’s a strange-but-true fact that Abruzzo’s regional government has a curiously ambivalent attitude towards tourism. Of course, they want the money that comes along with it; the jobs it generates; and the myriad businesses – from restaurants, to shops, to service providers – that tourism supports. The big beach resorts that line the Adriatic, and which in summer are where Italians go for their holidays are absolutely no problem. Come one. Come all. Come anybody else we might’ve forgotten. It can never be too full, or too busy.
But go inland a little and that welcoming attitude is replaced by caution. Yes, we want our National Parks to be visited and appreciated. But not by too many people. Because if these areas start becoming over-visited, they’ll lose the basic reasons of why people want to visit them in the first place.
So while the National Parks are indeed promoted, it’s all done very very quietly.
Down at the beach, where – trust me – while you might want to get a flavour of a genuine Italian-style holiday on your own sunbed-amongst-ten-thousand; the scent of pizza and suntan oil; piped Europop; and where the cash registers start to glow red-hot as each day gathers pace, out in the country, it’s very different.
Italians like to go to the beach. Not the countryside. And as a steadily increasing stream of non-Italian visitors are discovering, Abruzzo’s countryside is actually a pretty good place for a holiday. From hotels; to holiday rentals; to B&B’s; to agriturisimi; to even campsites, there’s a huge choice of accommodation to suit everyone from big family groups to – yes – couples.
(Although – and let’s get the sponsor’s message in here – Villasfor2 is the only accommodation-provider in all Abruzzo that caters exclusively for couples).
Then factor-in the considerable plus-point that because mass tourism currently just doesn’t exist in Abruzzo’s countryside, the inland bars, restaurants and amenities are for locals only and consequently offer staggeringly good value for money.
No crowds. Great choice of places to stay. Terrific value for money. National Parks. Scenery. And easy enough to get to. As for the weather, (though I have to be brutally honest and confess that until the beginning of August, this year’s been decidedly variable), generally speaking sunshine’s pretty much assured from June to September.
The irony is that while travel writers drop-in for a few days and end-up focussing on Abruzzo’s surface appeal – the deep-down reality is so much better.