What to See in Abruzzo
Abruzzo history has been long and at times turbulent, dating back from well before the days of the Roman Empire to the modern era and the tragedy of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.
Abruzzo’s heritage is every bit as impressive as that of other, better-known parts of Italy, but so much less commercialised.
Here, you’re not hemmed-in by the crowds of mass tourism, so you can set your own schedule and move at your own pace.
Discovering what to see in Abruzzo will lead you to tiny ancient villages and thriving towns; museums, churches and Roman ruins; stunning natural landscapes and sweeping beaches. The more you look, the more treasures you’ll uncover.
Take a look at just a few suggestions of what you can visit in each of Abruzzo’s four provinces…
This is where we’re based – and the part of Abruzzo we know best.
Within a short drive, you’ll find three of the province’s most celebrated landmarks. The towering 14th century Roccascalegna Castle boasts a satisfyingly lurid and bloody history, with dark legends of evil barons, murder, hauntings and buried treasure.
Nearby are the poignant ruins of Gessopalena, a settlement dating back 2000 years, but then utterly obliterated in the winter of 1943/4 and never rebuilt. A modern town has risen next to – but doesn’t intrude on – the ruined village.
Follow the road through modern Gessopalena to La Morgia, surely the most photographed rock in Abruzzo after the Greek installation artist Costas Varotsos created a 20m/66ft green glass screen in a distinctive notch on the 130m/426ft summit in 1998.
Further inland, you’ll find the ruins of the Roman town of Iuvanum. Dating back to the 2nd century BC, this is an important archeological site that’s still being excavated.
In the Majella National Park, and an easy straight drive from us, are the Grotte del Cavallone, one of the largest cave systems in Europe. Only open in summer, the atmospherically-lit caves are accessible by cable car and feature formations of stalactites, stalagmites and rock crystal.
Our nearest sizeable town is Lanciano. From the last Sunday in August to the first Sunday in September each year, it holds the magnificently-costumed Mastrogiurato pageant. In Lanciano too is the significant religious relic of the Miracle of the Eucharist, dating back to 700AD and described as “the first great miracle of the Catholic Church”.
Lanciano’s also the best place locally to go shopping and its bar-lined Corso Trento e Trieste is perfect for sitting outside with a drink and people-watching. Especially during the early-evening passegiata in the summer, which gives the locals a chance to see and be seen; and to meet their friends.
If you spend the day on the coast, take in the lovely 11th century abbey of San Giovanni-in-Venere at Fossacesia, built on top of a far earlier Roman temple of Venus. Incidentally, the connection with Venus makes the abbey the area’s most popular wedding venue !
And a little way in from the coast is the outstandingly-restored Crecchio Castle, with it’s excellent and accessible museum of Byzantine, Etruscan and Roman artefacts.
Finally to our provincial capital of Chieti and the National Archeological Museum. Here you’ll find the Capestrano Warrior, Abruzzo’s most iconic image. This hugely imposing statue, standing some 2m/7ft is thought to represent King Nevio and was carved in stone around 600BC to commemorate his death. It was rediscovered – in astonishingly good condition – by a farmer near the town of Capestrano in 1934.
Pescara itself is a thriving modern city of over 100,000 people – by far the largest in Abruzzo. The centre is smart and elegant, with the area’s best shops. (But parking can be a nightmare). There’s a tiny remaining fragment of the city’s old town on the right-bank of the Pescara River, centred on the Corso Manthone and the Via delle Caserme. Here you’ll find the city’s best restaurants and liveliest bars, which open late and stay open even later.
Inland on a day out in Pescara province’s part of the Majella National Park – and easily reached from us – is southern Abruzzo’s only botanical garden in Sant’Eufemia a Maiella, while a short distance away is the old spa town of Caramanico Terme, where you can treat yourself to a dip in the invigorating waters. A couple of kilometers north of Caramanico is the Church of San Tommaso, which has some beautiful 13th century wall paintings and, above its main door, highly stylised and individual depictions of Christ and the Twelve Apostles.
And Pescara province is where to head if you fancy shopping on a large scale. A little inland from the city itself in Chieti Scalo is the vast, American-style Megalo shopping mall; one stop on the Autostrada north of Pescara, (or about an hour from us), is Città Sant’Angelo’s brand-new retail outlet shopping village. Mainly devoted to fashion, you can pick up some bargains here – though prices aren’t as low as retail outlets in the UK.
The mountainous inland province, the biggest – but least-populated – in the region, and that’s perhaps steeped most deeply in Abruzzo history, gained new and tragic prominence in 2009 with the devastating L’Aquila earthquake. The city – which is the capital of the entire Abruzzo region – is still inching its way back to normality, but many of its historic treasures were damaged and are still being restored.
The famous Fontana delle 99 Cannelle – Fountain of the 99 Spouts – returned to full working order in 2011. Completed in 1272 and ever since the subject of myth and legend, with supposedly coded messages built into the stone; and visible links to the Knights Templar, in the shape of their distinctive cross that’s carved into one of the fountain’s walls.
Still undergoing post-earthquake restoration – the facade is intact, but now covered by scaffolding – is the perfect 13th century jewel of the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, which houses the tomb of Pope Celestine V who died in 1296. Wonderful exterior, built in an intricate pattern of pink and white stone, echoed inside with chequered marble flooring, under a magnificent wood-beamed roof
Another, similarly-named church is Santa Maria delle Grotte in the village of Fossa not far from L’Aquila. Inside this tiny, astonishing, 13th century church are some of the most beautiful and best-preserved medieval frescoes in all Italy, depicting typical rural activities in the Abruzzo of the Middle Ages and stories from the Bible.
To the south-west of the province is the town of Sulmona, one of our own personal favourites. Highly walkable, the town’s famed for being the birthplace of the Roman poet Ovid; its candies; pungent red garlic; 13th century acquaduct – and the Madonna Che Scappa procession at Easter. Near Sulmona is Navelli, surrounded by fields that produce some of the most highly-regarded and most expensive saffron in the world. The saffron crocuses are harvested each autumn and the fields are a particular picture at that time. A study in purple.
The most northerly of Abruzzo’s provinces, bordering Le Marche, and also the production area for Abruzzo’s best Montepulciano red wine.
Teramo has some of Abruzzo’s best beaches and resort towns, getting extremely busy in August. A little inland from the resort of Pineto is Atri, surrounded by curious, weathered limestone rock formations known as calanchi. The town also has the remarkable 12th century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta with medieval frescoes in its crypt.
North of the provincial capital of Teramo town, is Civitella del Tronto , which is dominated by the massive Fortezza Spagnola – an imposing fortress towering over the town, that also houses a very good museum which traces the fort’s history.