Italy’s Oldest National Park

With the Majella National Park practically on our doorstep, it probably seems a bit perverse to get into the car and drive 2 hours to the Abruzzo National Park.

The National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise – to give it its full title, and one of the three national parks that lie within Abruzzo’s boundaries – was established in 1922 and was the first of its kind anywhere in Italy.

And thanks to the fact that it’s tucked in away in Abruzzo’s remote south-west and crossed by only one main road, the Park’s remained in a relatively untouched and pristine state ever since, its very inaccessibility making it the last stronghold of the rare Marsican Brown Bear that’s now become the Park’s symbol.

But the towering scenery doesn’t of course stop at the Park’s edges and as you can meander along the borders on a few small, quiet roads – and make a couple of delightful stops along the way – it’s an especially good day out.

We drove into the area after coming off the A25 autostrada at Cocullo and heading south for Scanno.

The road instantly plunges you into an highly scenic; highly enjoyable; slightly white-knuckle drive through the Sagittario Gorge. Not the sort of road you’d want to take, if truth be told, in the dark; or if it was snowing; or raining; or in fact if it was anything other than a nice, bright, sunny day.

 Lago San Domenico

After passing the emerald tranquillity of Lago San Domenico – with stopping places thoughtfully provided at the best vantage points so you can shoot some snaps – the road will decant you at Lago di Scanno, a far bigger expanse of water known as the ‘Heart of Abruzzo’.

Why ? The answer isn’t apparent at ground level, but go high enough and you’ll see the Lake is a perfect heart shape.

It’s been developed – thankfully with a degree of restraint – into a prime leisure facility, with one large (but not too obtrusive) and just a few other small, low-rise hotels dotting the shore; boating; swimming; and plenty of places to eat, drink and relax.

We drove on another 10 minutes or so into Scanno – the ‘Pearl of Abruzzo’. The old town centre is eminently walkable and delightful. Rightly, it’s been named as one of the most picturesque villages in Italy.

Scanno - "one of the most beautiful villages in Italy"

Scanno’s a good stopping-point for lunch. Lots of choice: we ate outside on the large, shady terrace of the ‘Trattoria Scabello’ in the old town. Good pasta; exceptionally good scallopine al limone. About €40 for the two of us.

As you continue the drive south from Scanno to Villetta Barrea (and another big lake), you enter the National Park proper. The scenery is wild, rugged and remote and you may well have long stretches of the long anf winding – but generally good – road all to yourself.

At Valletta Barrea, turn right and cut through the park, under Monte Marsicano, heading for the delightful town of Pescasseroli, which is virtually at the Park’s dead-centre and where you’ll find a Visitor Centre.

Spend an hour or so in the town, maybe taking in the ruins of the 10th century Castel Mancino. Pescasseroli is on the Sangro River, which has its source a few miles to the north in the Marsican Mountains and eventually winds its way down for 122 kms past Casoli and into the Adriatic, a little to the south of Fossacesia Marina.

The long and winding road

Of bears, no sign at all. And such are the vast expanses of remote, forested wilderness, the prospect of one obligingly wandering into camera shot as you happen to be passing are distinctly slim.

But there are plenty of ursine souvenirs available for visitors, including Pan d’Orso – Bear Bread – a massively heavy and indigestible cake.

Or maybe I got the wrong end of the stick and you’re supposed to leave lumps of it scattered around for bears to eat.

Aside from August, when the area around Lago di Scanno gets extremely crowded; and midwinter, when conditions can be at their bleakest, the Abruzzo National Park is a rewarding place to visit.

Mid-autumn, when the first snows have dusted the mountains and the leaves are putting on a show to rival anything in New England, would be a pretty good choice.

Or really any time you’re looking for reassurance that pockets of genuine wilderness remain in even Europe’s most populated areas.


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