Abruzzo: Undiscovered Italy
By Hideaway Report Editor
August 6, 2018
Bordered by a craggy spine of the Apennines Mountains to the west and the Adriatic Sea to the east, the Abruzzo region lies just a two-hour drive from Rome’s Fiumicino international airport. Remarkably little-known, it offers a combination of Tuscany’s rolling landscapes and Umbria’s verdant scenery. Today Abruzzo is being discovered by connoisseurs of Italy who love its leisurely ways. The region does not yet have a luxury hotel of an international standard, but it does offer small properties of comfort and character. And what also makes them especially memorable is the Abruzzese tradition of hospitality.
Abruzzo is a blissfully relaxing destination, in part because sightseeing duties are minimal. The Museo Nazionale d’Abruzzo in L’Aquila, the region’s capital, is fascinating, as is lively Pescara, a city on the Adriatic coastline. But my strongest memories are the honeyed smell of yellow-flowering broom, the bleating of lamb and goat herds, and the villages of cream-colored houses spilling down distant hillsides. The pleasures of a trip are waking every morning to birdsong, admiring the routinely spectacular views and exploring the region’s superb cuisine during long, lazy lunches. (Many of Rome’s most famous recipes, including spaghetti alla carbonara and bucatini all’amatriciana, actually have their roots in Abruzzo.) With three major national parks and one regional one, this sparsely populated region remains a tract of Italy where time has largely stood still.
When the Italians speak of Abruzzo, the adjective they use most often is “pastorale.” Like the corresponding English word, it derives from the Latin “pastoralis,” meaning “of shepherds or herdsmen,” and for centuries most of the inhabitants earned their living by herding flocks. The Italian term for the seasonal movement of animals from the plains to the mountains is “transumanza,” and as the charming Federico Rosati, the owner of our first hotel, told me, “Even today, it is the transumanza that defines Abruzzo, since it explains our landscapes, our cooking and our character. We live very close to our land and its history.”
The six-room Casa Rosati is a country bed-and-breakfast in the tiny town of Ripa di Fagnano Alto, located some 15 miles southeast of L’Aquila. It is housed within a renovated stone building that had a former life as a convent in the 16th century and was later remodeled to become a small palazzo. We were welcomed by Federico’s warm and friendly mother. Before showing us to our room, she gave us a tour of the house, including the first-floor sitting rooms, which, she said, we were welcome to use during our stay. With their framed family photos, frescoed vaulted ceilings, tables piled with books and magazines, and comfortable armchairs and sofas, they offered the agreeable impression that we were house guests, not clients at a hotel. One of the recurring frustrations of travel is the sensation of being an outsider, someone lacking access to the real life of a place, which is why a stay at this intimate family property is such a special experience.
The Balcony Room is, I suspect, the best that the property has to offer. It came with terra-cotta tile floors, a vaulted frescoed ceiling and a large wrought-iron bed. There was also a writing desk, a brown leather armchair and an old stone fireplace. The lighting was excellent, and the bath was immaculate, with a stall shower and a terrazzo floor. Its best feature, however, was a window that offered glorious views of the forested Valle Subequana.
Casa Rosati does not have a restaurant, but the owners booked us a table at Osteria della Posta in nearby Poggio Picenze, where we enjoyed an excellent and very reasonably priced dinner of saffron chitarra pasta with ricotta and truffles, roast pork in pear sauce, tiramisu and a good bottle of local red wine. On returning to the hotel, we left a bedroom window open to enjoy the grass-scented country air.
After breakfast, we headed east to visit the Museo Archeologico Nazionale d’Abruzzo in Chieti, where the Roman objects on display were more than worth the visit. Afterward, we had lunch at Villa Maiella, a family-owned restaurant in the hilltop town of Guardiagrele. The dining room is under the supervision of Pascal Tinari, who recently returned from a stint at Michelin three-star L’Auberge de l’Ill in Alsace to work with his brother, chef Arcangelo. On a sunny day, the views from the terrace are ravishing. Arcangelo is a gifted chef, and the meal that followed was consistently delicious. The Menu del Territorio offered a delectable selection of regional dishes, among which I especially liked the pallotte cacio e uova — a delicate breaded ball of ewe’s milk cheese, egg and breadcrumbs in a light tomato sauce — and the chitarra pasta with lamb ragu and juniper-smoked ricotta.
(Villa Maiella deservedly has a star in the “Michelin Italia” guide, but from my long experience of traveling in Italy, this is one of the rare cases where the inspectors got things right. In general, I’d discourage anyone who loves good Italian food from taking Michelin’s advice, as the guide often favors a fussy version of contemporary Italian cooking that is more French than Italian.)
Casa Rosati 88
Warm hospitality; attractive rooms; the convenient location from which to visit places like Capestrano, one of the prettiest villages in Abruzzo.
The absence of a swimming pool on the large terrace overlooking the valley.
Good to Know
There are almost no shops in the village, so arrive with everything you may need.
Rates: Lowest Rate: French Room, $130; Editor’s Choice: Balcony Room, $180
Address: Piazza Luigi Rosati 6, Fagnano Alto, Ripa
Telephone: (39) 347-546-7388
Castello di Semivicoli
From Guardiagrele it was a 20-minute drive to the Castello di Semivicoli in Casacanditella, an 11-room hotel housed within a 17th-century castle, which is part of the renowned Masciarelli winery. Set on a hilltop, it offers panoramic views of vineyards and Apennine peaks. Our arrival was somewhat unpropitious, since the front desk clerk’s second question was “What time will you be leaving?” But deciding to overlook this bumpy welcome, we went for a tour of the property, which has handsome public rooms, including a bar with vaulted ceilings where you can sample some of the excellent wines produced by the estate.
Every room at the hotel is different, but given the Castello’s elevated location, we’d opted for the 1,290-square-foot Superior Suite Granaio on the top floor, the house’s former granary. This came with beamed ceilings, a terra-cotta tile floor, a writing desk and a sofa, plus a large Jacuzzi tub. It was stylishly rustic and very comfortable, though the bath was rather small. Thanks to no fewer than 17 windows, the suite has a 360-degree view. However, as there is no turndown service, closing all the shutters took quite awhile!
Although the property has no restaurant, the breakfast buffet was excellent. Amenities include a fitness room and a small swimming pool. Wine tastings are offered and should be booked ahead of time. Overall, this is a fine base from which to explore southern Abruzzo.
Castello di Semivicoli 90
The glorious location; the excellent wines served in the wine bar.
The lack of a restaurant.
Good to Know
Few of the staff speak English, but a couple of words of Italian go a long way.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Standard Servitù, $180; Editor’s Choice: Junior Suite Monastero, $200
Address: Via S. Nicola 24, Semivicoli, Casacanditella
Telephone: (39) 871-890-045
Leaving tranquil Casacanditella, we headed to the town of Castel di Sangro, a 90-minute drive through a rugged landscape dominated by peaks that were snowcapped even in late May. The nine-room Casadonna Reale hotel and restaurant is set on a hilltop and housed within a 16th-century former monastery. The property is the brainchild of chef Niko Romito, who has been extolled as “the new Gualtiero Marchesi” (the late chef who is considered the father of modern Italian cooking). Following a major investment by the Rome-based Italian jeweler and luxury-goods brand Bulgari, Romito has become the rising star of Italy’s culinary scene, with a three-star restaurant in Castel di Sangro, a just-opened spot in Rome and a third at the Bulgari resort in Dubai.
Arriving in the late afternoon, we found gardeners busy in the large plot that supplies the kitchen. Our whitewashed junior suite initially struck me as excessively austere, but once we’d settled in, I decided it was sufficiently comfortable despite its uncompromising minimalism, thanks in part to a spacious bath with a rainfall shower and a large circular Jacuzzi tub. Public areas at the hotel are fashionably decorated with sleek, contemporary furniture.
Romito holds three Michelin stars at his Reale restaurant, a self-described “laboratory” bringing the “Italian cuisine of tomorrow to life.” The dining room is under the supervision of his sister, Cristiana. Some of the dishes we tried as part of our €140 Essenza menu were brilliant, including beef tartare with olive oil and raspberry-vinegar mayonnaise, and ravioli filled with ricotta cheese and spinach, but others were underwhelming, notably the cold duck with smoked-duck water and spinach. Romito has a singular talent, but this is definitely not an address for anyone who likes traditional Italian cuisine, as his cooking is more contemplative than hearty and sensual. But if culinary understatement sounds intriguing, you may enjoy the experience. Breakfast the following morning was more conventional, with fresh juices, superb baked goods, yogurt, charcuterie and eggs, all served in a sunny room with gorgeous views.
Casadonna Reale 89
The spectacular views; the outstanding breakfast buffet.
The lack of a second restaurant serving a less exalted and more rustic version of the Abruzzese cuisine that originally inspired chef Romito.
Good to Know
Reservations for both the restaurant and the hotel should be made as far in advance as possible.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Classic Room, $250; Editor’s Choice: Deluxe Room, $310
Address: Piana Santa Liberata, Castel di Sangro
Telephone: (39) 086-469-382
Sextantio Albergo Diffuso
The ensuing drive to the fortified medieval village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio was astonishingly beautiful. Avoiding highways in favor of small country roads, we headed north through rolling green Abruzzese countryside to the province’s best-known hotel, Sextantio Albergo Diffuso. This comprises 29 accommodations dispersed among formerly abandoned stone houses of an ancient village, located at an elevation of 4,100 feet, inside the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park. The village has been painstakingly brought back to life by visionary hotelier Daniele Kihlgren (who also has a similarly rustic and preservation-oriented hotel, Le Grotte della Civita, in Matera, Basilicata).
Kihlgren happened upon the village in 1999 while motorcycling through Abruzzo. At the time only 120 inhabitants remained. He decided that the houses might be saved from extinction without effacing their past. Today his intention is revealed by telling details such as hand-woven Abruzzese coverlets, woolen mattresses, venerable furniture and careful staging aided by low lighting and an abundance of candles. (The interior design of the rooms was inspired by pictures that Paul Scheuermeier, a Swiss linguist, took in Abruzzo in the 1920s.) No telephones or televisions break the spell of a time long past.
Kihlgren knew that the people who would be most responsive to his project might be willing to forgo television, but that they would definitely require reliable plumbing. So Philippe Starck-designed baths and extremely comfortable beds were installed. My accommodations were in an old house, whose front room had once been both the kitchen and living room. Sextantio is an invitation to meditate on the life that once existed in small, isolated Abruzzese villages. At first, the place is disorienting, but getting lost — both in time and on the uneven stone lanes of the village — is intentional.
Locanda sotto gli Archi serves traditional Abruzzese cuisine using time-honored recipes and locally produced ingredients. Dominated by two large stone ceiling arches and a central fireplace, the dining room comes with antique dark wooden furniture and handcrafted plates and mugs. Wine tastings are offered in the cantinone, an ancient cellar. And in the tisaneria, you can sample teas made with local herbs. Classes are offered in cooking, weaving and soap-making.
Those who require 24-hour room service, a pillow menu and other tropes of five-star luxury will feel greatly deprived at Sextantio Albergo Diffuso, but for more-adventurous travelers this hotel offers a rare and exceptionally memorable experience.
Sextantio Albergo Diffuso 90
The fascinating experience of traditional rural life in Abruzzo.
It is difficult to find the main office for check-in, and parking is problematic. A PDF map of the village should be sent to guests so that they don’t end up driving in circles.
Good to Know
The activities are all popular and should be booked well in advance.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Classic Room, $160; Editor’s Choice: Suite, $310
Address: Via Principe Umberto, Santo Stefano di Sessanio
Telephone: (39) 862-899-112