A weekend in Sulmona

A weekend in Sulmona is not enough. But I reckon even a short time spent there is better than none.

I’d been to Sulmona once before and enjoyed its refined, historic centre and relaxed vibe. Nestled in the Peligna Valley and surrounded by mountains, Sulmona is a destination in itself as well as a great jumping off point for day trips in all directions.

Most of the points of interest in the town are on or near the main street, Corso Ovidio, which runs roughly north-south. Narrow streets and parking restrictions in the centre make walking the best way to get around.

My recent trip was last-minute and finding accommodation was problematic. There must have been some event on in town because the seven or so places I tried were fully booked for at least one of my desired nights. I contacted Katy of Welcome to Sulmona to see if she had any suggestions. As it turns out, the Welcome to Sulmona site has a list of accommodation possibilities to suit various tastes and budgets.

Although not affiliated with any official city or regional travel body, the site authored by local residents Katy and Susanna (both of whom I met through the Abruzzo Blogger Community) is a storehouse of information. Welcome to Sulmona is my go-to place for things to do and see in the Vale Peligna.

Fortunately, I had luck with one of the places listed, B & B Il Marchese del Grillo. My room was beautiful and the breakfast was fresh, varied and plentiful (a highlight was the lemony yoghurt cheesecake).

My room

A corner of my very comfy room

 

The cheesecake

The cheesecake

Between proprietress Marta’s broken English and my more-broken Italian, we managed the business end of the weekend and had a chat about Sulmona’s dining scene.

One evening, wanting an early night and a light meal, I ate at La Cantina di Biffi, on via Barbato, just off the main street of Sulmona. Biffi is a relaxed restaurant that’s a cross between a wine-bar and a bistro and has an excellent choice of wines, many of which you can taste before deciding. There is no printed menu rather a boar of what’s on today.

I chose a crisp white wine, a ‘Pecorino’ to accompany the soup of the day, Farro and Chickpea Soup (Zuppa di Farro e Ceci) which was almost a stew. The staff were friendly and generous with their time in answering questions about the menu, which changes daily. Along with a generous basket of assorted breads plus some complementary small-bite appetisers, I left feeling just the right amount full.

Biffi

Biffi

 

Zuppa di Farro

Zuppa di Farro e Ceci

Another evening I ventured to the southern end of town to Il Vecchio Muro on via M. d’Erato.  I had eaten pizza here on a visit a few years ago, and had thoroughly enjoyed it. This evening, I decided to try Il Vecchio Muro’s ‘Arrosticini’ and a big ole’ mixed green salad. Arrosticini are skewers of lamb (ok, a castrated male sheep, or ‘wether’ in sheep talk) cooked over charcoals; they aren’t marinated or seasoned with anything but salt. When done well, as these were, they’re a real Abruzzo treat. And all washed down with a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo…hard to take.

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On my last visit to Sulmona, parts of the Museo Civico e Archeologico (Civic and Archeological Museum) were closed. This time some of the archeology rooms were still closed but I took the opportunity to visit the open rooms plus the fabulous display of traditional women’s costumes from the various parts of Abruzzo. (As an aside, read this interesting article on traditional costumes that just popped up in my feed!)

The Museo is housed in the stunning Annunziata Complex, comprised of the museum building and the attached church. The complex has been rebuilt over many years and there are both gothic and renaissance features still visible.  

Below are photos of some of the costumes and artefacts. Click any picture to enlarge and view as a slide show.

In the Piazza XX Settembre you’ll find a statue commemorating local poet Ovidius, a Roman poet in the time of Augustus who was a contemporary of Virgil and Horace.

Ovid, Roman Poet

Ovid, Roman Poet

Without leaving town you can do any or all of the following: stroll the charming narrow lanes, visit the medieval aqueduct (1256), people-watch from one of the cafes along Corso Ovidio, ponder the fate of Ovid, plus admire the beautiful shop windows and confetti (sugared almond) displays  – I even managed a load of washing at a self-serve laundromat! –  and that’s your weekend.

You could base yourself in Sulmona for weeks, explore the city and surrounding area, do lunch at the family run Gino’s (which I missed out on this time) and still only scratch the surface. But even if you only have a day or a weekend, I highly recommend you visit Sulmona.

I’ll be going back… 

Postcard from Vasto, Abruzzo

After three weeks in Lanciano, I was a little sad to leave, but also excited to see more of Abruzzo. The still-hot weather drew me to the coast and the ancient city of Vasto.

Views galore

Views galore along the belvedere – lookout

Vasto has a great seafaring and fishing tradition which is expressed with perfection in the most famous dish of the region, the Brodetto Vastese (in dialect, ‘lu Vrudatte’). Unlike other soups, this brodetto does not begin with a ‘soffritto’ which is a mix of things like onion, celery, garlic and carrot to start a soup, sauce or stew. The brodetto is made while at sea and uses seasonal fish and shell-fish to create the ‘broth’. Depending on what was available when the crew left shore, there could be tomatoes garlic and parsley to throw into the pot for added flavour and nutrition. Some old bread, toasted over a flame or on a grill is served with the dish to sop up the broth.

Most local restaurants serve a Brodetto Vastese and it’s usually designed for two. Travelling alone has its benefits, but when it comes to trying a variety of dishes or dishes designed for two, well, sometimes you have to miss out.

On the recommendation of a local, I decided to have lunch at Cibo Matto. There was only one couple in the restaurant when I arrived. I usually prefer a full restaurant as a sign that the food will be good, but I decided to trust local knowledge and stayed.

The couple seated near me had just received a large clay serving dish at their table and I knew it was the brodetto. With their permission I took a few photos and entreated them to enjoy!

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Back at my table I happily ordered a glass of local Pecorino wine (not to be confused with the sheep’s milk cheese), a first course of pesce crudo and a main course of spaghetti vongole, one of my favourite meals in Italy when done well.

Between my courses one of my neighbouring diners approached my table with a small plate containing a generous portion of their Brodetto Vastese. She explained that it was just too much food for the two of them. Since I was alone and didn’t have the opportunity to try the dish alone, she wanted me to have a taste. My eyes welled with tears at her utter kindness to me, a perfect stranger. This generous soul was Lucia Egidio from near Benevento in Campania. She works as an ‘Estetiste’ or beautician, but also has training in the travel industry and would like to make a career in that field. I wish her well and hope that her generous nature and personality give her an edge in life. I will think fondly of her always.

I thoroughly enjoyed the strong fish flavour balanced with tomato, both fresh and dried herbs plus a little olive oil. I didn’t waste a drop of the lovely broth and left nothing but some small bones in my dish.

Having tasted the signature dish of the town, I was able to then get on with the business of being a tourist.

Vasto has a close affiliation with the City of Perth in Western Australia and the local commune flies an Australian flag. Many emigrants, including my American cousins’ father, have family who came from Vasto. There is a small park with a statue commemorating the many who left for the new world.

A famous son of the town, (exiled to England) the writer and patriot Gabriele Rossetti, is honoured with a statue in the main piazza of the old town. Rossetti’s daughter was the poet Christina Rossetti.

Statue of Vasto local Gabriele Rossetti

Statue of Vasto local Gabriele Rossetti

I visited a number of churches but the remains of San Pietro were most captivating, sitting alone on the edge of a cliff. An old building which formerly housed wealthy citizens, Palazzo d’Avalos, now houses art galleries and an archaeology museum. The grounds of the palazzo are beautiful and lush and include some Roman columns.

I spent many a happy hour walking the long ‘belvedere’ on the edge of town, drinking in the view and contemplating the next stop in my ‘giro d’Abruzzo’, Manoppello. But more on that later.

Quiet Lanciano streets in the midday sun

So much of life in Abruzzo is lived outside in the warmer months. Air conditioning in homes is rare. Families live on pretty balconies, terraces and courtyard and gather in parks and piazzas for shade and company.

During my recent stay in Lanciano and my travels beyond, I wandered the streets, chatted with strangers and enjoyed the wonderful street life. But in the heat of the afternoon, when everyone was inside to ‘fare un pisolino’ – take a nap – the streets were silent and still and mine to photograph…

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A few weeks in Lanciano and beyond

Athena International Italian Language School

Athena Scuola Internazionale di Lingua Italiana – International Italian Language School

In this age of technology you should be able to have an electronic postcard within seconds of the writer completing the text. However, I am actually some kilometres from Lanciano, where I recently spent three weeks studying Italian and exploring the region around Lanciano with fellow students and the staff of Athena International Italian Language School. Just like a real postcard, this one has been written in one place and read some days or weeks later in another.

My primary motive for going to Lanciano was to attend Athena. I chose this school because it is in Abruzzo, a region with which I have a family connection, and because I had heard good reports of the school and its quality teachers.

Learning a language is never just about the words and the grammar. It’s a mix of words, culture, history, current events and daily life in a country where the language is spoken. I was fortunate to be in classes with students who were committed to learning and who had an interest in the local culture and history. It was a privilege to be in the care of Palma, Virginia, Marina and Paola, our teachers. Palma is a font of knowledge about local history and she encouraged us to join excursions with her and the Athena family. 

Together, we visited the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery in the nearby town of Ortona. The battle against the German defensive line, known as the Gustaf Line, cost the Canadians dearly. However Ortona was taken after eight days of fighting. The Canadian War Cemetery contains the graves of 1615 Commonwealth soldiers, with 50 remaining unidentified and 1375 of them being Canadian.

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The composer Francesco Paolo Tosti was an Ortona native and we were given a tour of National Tosti Institute by the husband of one of our teachers, who happens to be a librarian at the Institute. One room in the Institute recreated Tosti’s London music salon and study. One of our students, a violinist, treated us to two Tosti songs to complete our visit.

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A recreation of Tosti’s London music salon and study

After the business end of the visit, we strolled the remains of the Aragonese castle then enjoyed on a seafood lunch at a local beach restaurant.

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Aragonese castle at Ortona

My time in Lanciano coincided with the Feste di Settembre (celebration of September) which includes various events, traditions, foods and public celebrations like rides for the kids and fireworks for all!

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Arrosticini time

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Porchetta panino

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Fireworks – Fuochi d’artificio

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Illuminations

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Beer and Arrosticini

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Everyone out on a hot, end-of-summer night

Lanciano’s Basilica (the church of Madonna del Ponte)is the focus of an annual tradition of ‘Il Dono’ or the gift. This is an important tradition whereby the local parishes in the Lanciano-Ortona diocese provide gifts of food and other items to the church for distribution to families in need. The celebration takes the form of a procession led by bullock-drawn carts, down the main street leading to the Piazza followed by locals of all ages, representing different communities. There are men, women and children in traditional costumes on the backs of carts and truck and on foot, carrying gifts to be donated. There are bands playing. Traditional breads and sweets plus plastic cups of wine are handed out to the crowd. It’s a real spectacle and a family event.

Another memorable excursion took us to the Abbazia di San Giovanni in Venere. Tradition tells us the Abbey was built over the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Venus. Possibly built around 540 AD, the buildings we see now were reconstructed in 1165 for Benedictine monks. The church and grounds are stunning as are the views from the lookout across the Adriatic. Click any photo to enlarge and view as a slide show.

So much happened during my three weeks in Lanciano and I can’t possibly fit it all in one post. I hope you enjoy the photos I’ve included and keep following for more (there will be more food of course).

Ciambellone – an Abruzzo specialty

The Ciambellone is the sweet symbol of every Abruzzese nonna (grandmother). Recipes vary from nonna to nonna.  Some incorporate a touch of sweet, citrus-scented liquor; some a spoonful of cocoa powder; and others a sprinkling of crusty, crystallised sugar on top.


This recipe is based on the recipe used by Lucia at my favourite B&B in Roseto degli Abruzzi. Grazie Lucia per la ricetta!

Lucia's Ciambellone with cocoa

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients

Serves 6-8 people, depending on how hungry!

  • 300 g plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 150 g sugar
  • 3 whole eggs
  • a drop of vanilla extract
  • a pinch of salt
  • 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 glass of milk
  • 2 teaspoons of cocoa powder
  • 1 packet of lievito per dolci (16 g) if you can find it *
  • butter and a little more flour to grease the pan

* Substitute 1 tablespoon of baking powder & 2 teaspoons baking soda if you can’t find lievito. See picture below.

Method

  1. Add all dry and wet ingredients, except the cocoa, into a bowl.
  2. Using a hand mixer, mix for 15 minutes until blended thoroughly.
  3. Heat the oven to 150 centigrade (@305 F).
  4. Butter and flour a ring (kuglehopf/bundt) pan.
  5. Add half of the batter to the pan.
  6. Sift most of the cocoa onto the batter and gently run a skewer through in a wave pattern to mix the cocoa in (this will give you subtle stripes of cocoa, not a chocolate cake).
  7. Pour the rest of the batter into the pan.
  8. Sprinkle the remaining cocoa on top in a random fashion.
  9. Cook in the oven for about 35 minutes or until done.
  10. Allow to cool on a rack then turn onto a plate.
  11. When cool, sprinkle with a small amount of confectioner’s sugar to serve.

Delicious for breakfast, morning tea or afternoon coffee break (pretty much anytime, actually).

The ‘lievito per dolci’ is pictured below, along with a serving suggestion for breakfast! There are many brands available in Italy but I have never noticed it in Australia.

Buon Appetito!

Roseto degli Abruzzi – finalmente

Reaching Roseto degli Abruzzo is easy from Rome. There is a Baltour ticket window at Tiburtina Station. Buses depart in morning, midday and late afternoon and take about 2 and a half hours.

On departing Tiburtina, you’re soon out of the built up urban area and the scenery changes from light industrial to rural. The Apennine mountains appear quickly in the distance then suddenly you are amongst them, going through tunnels and coming out to a different world on the other side. It’s wild and rugged and lush and green. After a while, the scarred city of L’Aquila appears with more cranes on the horizon than I can count. Signs of the ‘terremoto’, earthquake, of April 2009 are clearly visible.

Soon the mountains give way to hills and I get my first glimpse of the Adriatic Sea. My grandfather, Giovanni Pergolini couldn’t talk about the bounty of the Adriatic without welling up with tears. I smile remembering him.

I am greeted by my great friend Lucia at the station where the bus me off, and we go to her B&B for an aperitivo and spuntini (a glass of wine and some nibbles).

After a swim and a shower I wander up to the centre of Roseto to see my cousin Walter at his shop, the Cartolibreria D’Ilario. Near closing time, Adriana, Walter’s wife, arrives to ride home with him. We chat. I ask her where to get the best gelato in town and she points me in the direction of her favourite, a family business that is pumping with holiday-makers, even at 10.30 on a weeknight.

At Gelateria Mario Magrini, undeterred by the crowd, I wait until my number comes up. I choose lemon, a classic benchmark for gelaterie everywhere, and a local seasonal flavour called Fichi di Montepagano which is fig from the local hilltop village where my grandfather and generations of the Pergolini and De Angelis families were born. The lemon is perfectly tart and the fichi rich and creamy, but not overly sweet. I ponder the number of trees that must be on that hillside surrounding the medieval village of Montepagano.

Walter has told me that his sister is in Roseto for a few weeks to enjoy the end of summer with her daughters and granddaughters. I have never met Gabriella and I’m excited at the prospect of meeting more cousins.

The next day I pedal up to see Walter again and Gabriella arrives at the same time with her charming and cheeky little granddaughter. I promise to go to the house later and meet the rest of the family who were holidaying together.

I have now met six more cousins: Gabriella, who is my mother’s first cousin’s daughter, plus her two daughters, two granddaughters and a son-in-law. We share family stories, look at old photos and dine on pizza and beer. I return to Lucia’s tired and happy after a short stroll along the beachfront. The moon is full and I have a stupid grin on my face. I really like these new cousins and I’m more motivated to continue to improve my Italian.

It’s so comfortable staying with Lucia, who makes all her guests feel at home with lovely touches like cake on the breakfast table! ‘Il ciambellone’ is a typical ‘dolce delle nonna’, a real nonna specialty. The recipe varies in each family. Lucia’s is divine. I’ll post a recipe soon.

Click any picture for a slide show.

I’m ready to settle in happily for a few days. But I’m registered to attend Athena International Italian Language School and the Abruzzo town of Lanciano is calling me…

Return to Italy

Flying across to Rome

Flying across to Rome

There’s a sense of excitement when you look out the window and can clearly see the place where you are headed, like flying into Sydney and seeing the iconic Opera House or into JFK and seeing the Manhattan skyline. And two weeks ago when I flew to Rome, we crossed over southern Greece then headed up the Adriatic coast of Italy.

The heel of Italy was clearly visible and I could see small settlements where all of the building looked white. Soon I could make out the Gargano Peninsula which is in the northern reaches of Puglia near the border with Molise. Just north I could then see the mountains of Abruzzo as the plane banked left towards Rome. My face broke into a grin that I couldn’t wipe off. I thought, “Che fortunata”, how lucky am I.

My sweet cousin Marina and her daughter Giulia met me at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Giulia had to go to work soon so we dropped her at the train and continued to Marina’s apartment on the ‘periferia’, the outskirts of Rome. Their apartment is large and airy and so welcoming after the long journey.

Flying across to Rome

These trees tell you that you’re in Italy

As luck would have it Marina was able to settle me in before she had to go off for a late shift at work. She needed to pick up some groceries so I went with her to the supermercato. I was like a kid in a lolly shop, checking out all of the pasta brands and salume and cheeses.

After a good night’s sleep and a strong cup of coffee, I headed into the centre of Rome to buy an Italian SIM card for my phone since I am in Italy for 2 months.  Then, after enduring the 36 C heat (102 F) I managed to cool down for a bit in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, the National Gallery of Modern Art, just to the north and west of Villa Borghese.

Amongst other things, the gallery includes Renato Guttuso’s black and white study for ‘La Vucciria‘, a painting that evokes all the colour, sights and smells of the marketplace of the same name in Palermo. I was temporarily transported to Sicily.

On the way out I spied another painting, this one quite sentimental in its style and subject, Gli Emigranti or The Emigrants, by Angelo Tommasi. The picture represents the great era of Italian Emigration when millions of Italians were desperate for a new life due to poverty and political unrest. My mother’s parents were both part of this great exodus from Italy and it’s easy to imagine the little girl in the centre of the painting as my nonna Anna Mezzacappa from Morro d’Oro in Abruzzo.

I felt profoundly sad looking at Gli Emigranti and rested on a bench in the museum until I could contain my tears. Part of that sadness stems from the knowledge that there is another crisis for young people in Italy today. I have spoken with many (including young Giulia in Rome) who are looking to leave for mostly economic reasons. We in the new world have a romanticised view of life in Italy.

So here I am in Italy once again, on a voyage of discovery of the language, food, lore and traditions of my mother’s family, but also to better understand modern Italy. A few months will not give me a deep understanding, but I know this isn’t my last trip…

Andiamo. Let the adventure begin!