Travel

Untamed Abruzzo: where Italy’s wolves, bears, castles and beautiful villages await

Abruzzo’s breathtaking mountains are home to Italy’s amazing wildlife, historic castles and gorgeous villages that have a charm beyond the Italian cliches of Venice or ancient Rome. Andrew Bain explains.

By Andrew Bain

Abruzzo's breathtaking wilderness  

At a glance, the Italian region of Abruzzo is more brawn than beauty. Though only 2 hours' drive east from Rome, it's arguably the country's wildest place. 

Mountains cover two-thirds of its area, it's home to Europe's southernmost glacier, and wolves and bears still roam its slopes.

It seems an unlikely place in which to find a great number of Italy's most beautiful villages and yet, on the official list of Italy's most beautiful villages – I Borghi Più Belli d'Italia – 21 of the villages are in Abruzzo. Only Umbria and Marche have greater representation.

Abruzzo's breathtaking wilderness  

Like much of Italy, Abruzzo's villages typically teeter on hilltops, often looking ignored by time. 

Historical poverty and exodus – it's said that more than one million people left the Abruzzo and Molise areas between 1900 and 1915 alone – have preserved the villages, fostering little development but safeguarding their character.

The village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio 

Set beneath Italy's largest alpine plain, Santo Stefano di Sessanio is one of Abruzzo's I Borghi Più Belli d'Italia, and one of the country's most fascinating villages.

Twenty five years ago it was a shrinking spot on a map, home to just 100 residents from a one-time population of 3000. 

Then a wealthy Swedish-Italian cement heir, Daniele Kihlgren, rode into town on his motorbike.

Within a day, Kihlgren had bought a house in Santo Stefano and soon he owned about 25% of the village. With these properties he created the Sextantio Albergo Diffuso, a so-called ‘scattered hotel’ that spreads throughout the homes he owns. 

Santo Stefano became a village that's a hotel, and a hotel that's a village. Book a room at the albergo diffuso and you find yourself in temporary custody of a historic Italian home.

It's easy to see what drew Kihlgren's fancy when he stumbled into Santo Stefano in 1999. 

Set in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains behind the Abruzzese capital of L'Aquila, the village is draped across a ridge and ringed by an ancient wall. Streets and narrow lanes spiral uphill, threading between honey-coloured walls, climbing to what was, until recently, the village's most famous feature.

At the apex of the village stood a tower built by Florence's famous Medici family, who purchased Santo Stefano in the 16th century, when it was part of a major sheep-trading route. The tower collapsed during the 2009 earthquake that flattened L'Aquila.

Santo Stefano is at its most enticing in the early evening when the setting sun warms the colours of the buildings, and the main street provides a cobblestoned circuit around the village custom-made for the classic Italian passeggiata.

Rooms in the Sextantio Albergo Diffuso can be booked on their website < www.sextantio.it>. Hedonistic Hiking (www.hedonistichiking.com) runs a 9-day Wilds of Abruzzo hiking trip that takes in Opi and spends 3 nights in Santo Stefano di Sessanio.

Rocca Calascio

A short walk from Santo Stefano is the crumbling Rocca Calascio, said to be the highest fort in Italy.

At 1460 metres above sea level, it provides a heady view across the Apennines and into another pair of I Borghi Più Belli d'Italia villages.

To the south, the stone homes of Navelli spill across a hilltop rising out of the Navelli Plain, which is famed for its saffron production (Navelli saffron is said to be among the finest in the world).

To the north, the homes of Castel del Monte are even more tightly packed onto a ridgetop, looking from afar almost like a terracotta carpet. 

Home to the Night of the Witches festival, in which residents perform an occultist drama (it's said that belief in witches prevailed long into modern times in Castel del Monte), the village's modern fame mostly comes more from its starring role on the big screen.

Featuring in scenes in the 1985 film Ladyhawke, it was also the principal location for the 2010 George Cooney action movie The American, where its narrow lanes and stairways seemed to embody the simplicity of Italian village life.

Opi is a village clinging to the road

Further south, nearing the border with Lazio, the I Borghi Più Belli d'Italia village of Opi seems even more finely balanced as it clings to a thin ridge pinched between the high mountains of Italy's oldest national park.

Few villages can match Opi's precarious location, though it wasn’t built here for aesthetic reasons.

In the early Middle Ages, the threat of attack was so real and constant that Opi was designed to thwart enemies. 

Cliffs fall from its foot into Alpine-like valleys, and the ridge is so narrow that the village is split by a single road, which parts only to get around a church.

Elderly villagers shuffle across the cobblestones, and in one building there's a museum dedicated to the Abruzzo chamois that roam the surrounding mountains. 

Among those mountains is Monte Marsicano, the second-highest peak in the adjoining Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park. 

Looming high above Opi, it creates an image that speaks volumes about Abruzzo – so imposing and yet softened by so many sweetly cute villages.

Citro travel tip:

Many airlines fly from Australia to Rome, with Qantas announcing it would fly from Sydney-Perth-Rome in the European summer. Abruzzo does have its own airport. Find more information on how to travel around Abruzzo by plan, train bus or car on Life in Abruzzo.

Citro also has a free guide on how to use your smartphone securely overseas.

Citro member offer with Designer Journeys:

Designer Journeys can tailor the perfect trip for you a trip to Abruzzo - or anywhere - that you like. They have a network of Local Designers across 70 countries who specialise in crafting bespoke travel experiences that are custom designed for each specific traveller. Citro members get $250 cashback and an additional $250 discount on Designer Journeys amazing trips. See terms and conditions. The offer is only available to those who pay through their Citro Card. Want your own card? Get the Citro App (it’s iPhone only - Android is coming soon.)

Andrew Bain is a travel writer and author of Ultimate Adventures Australia and Ultimate Cycling Trips Australia.
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