The Abruzzo straddles the mountainous spine of southern Italy, but despite its famous wines, its breathtaking scenery remains largely off the tourist map, writes Gus MacLeod
Mention Abruzzo and wine drinkers will extol the virtues of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. But they might be hard pressed to tell you where this region is. Yet this beautiful area, halfway down the leg of Italy, offers much to the independent traveller, and is gloriously uncrowded.

Drive an hour east of Rome on the motorway, leaving the crowds at Tivoli far behind, and you find yourself surrounded by wild, wooded hills dotted with ancient villages, some clinging, seemingly in defiance of architectural credibility, to the top of hills high above the road. Monasteries seem carved out of rocky gorges, and churches still dominate villages as they were intended to.

Travel a little further up this extraordinary road - a succession of viaducts and tunnels, the name and length of each shown helpfully on a sign - and the hills become mountains, the highest in southern Italy and the equal of anything in the Alps. The Gran Sasso d'Italia (the Big Rock of Italy) rises to almost 10,000ft, the highest point along a ridge of mountains which looks as though the spine of Italy has broken through the surrounding hills and thrust its jagged bones towards the sky.

The whole of this interior area amply repays time given to unhurried exploration. And with surprisingly little in the way of tourism, your visit will be unhampered by tourist coaches and camcorder-wielding crowds.

The jewel at the heart of this is L'Aquila, the ancient capital of Abruzzo. Surrounded now by an untidy sprawl of modern developments, the old town (its name, "the eagle", given by its founder Frederick II) has remained substantially unchanged down the centuries. It was founded in 1242 and established as part of the Kingdom of Naples and, legend relates, was established around 99 rioni, or quarters, 99 castles, 99 squares, 99 fountains and 99 churches. The spouts of the Fountain of the 99 Conduits (Fontana delle Novantanove Canelle - Italian is so much more evocative) still pour out water through faces said to represent each of the original noble families. A maze of narrow, cobbled streets meanders from the Piazza Duomo. Here there are enough churches, piazzas and crumbling buildings to ensure you're foot-sore by the end of the day.

You should then limp up to L'Aquila's castle. Vastly austere and seemingly impenetrable, it was built in the 1500s and houses the National Museum of Abruzzo. No romantic ruin this, it seems to have been built to stand for ever, its sharp, symmetrical corners jutting defiantly into a moat of improbable depth.

Evening entertainment, meanwhile, is limited but no less enjoyable for this. Before choosing one of the many trattoria offering real Italian food (as opposed to dishes designed for tourists), take part in that most sociable of Italian customs, the passeggiata. In the Corso each evening it seems that the whole town turns out, the salutations (interspersed with the obligatory double kiss) creating an extraordinary hubbub of voices.

When such town talk gets too much, head for the tranquillity of the hills and mountains surrounding L'Aquila. If skiing (at the Gran Sasso or Campo Felice) or a guided climb in the high peaks don't appeal, then drive out to the south-east and head underground at the Grotto de Stiffe. Or drive up to the ruined fortress of Ocre, built at the time of the Crusades and still imperiously surveying the valley far below. Like so much else in this area, you won't find it mentioned in many guide books, and it's symptomatic of the lack of interest in tourism that this huge fort is kept locked. However, the intrepid visitor can clamber in over the wall - this unofficial access is on the clifftop side and requires a good head for heights.

Drive further along the mountainside and visit Bominaco to see two jewels of ancient church architecture nestling side by side on a hill top. Ask at the shop for directions to the house of the chatty old man who keeps the keys, and he'll let you explore the 12th-century church of Santa Maria Assunta and, below it, the church of San Pellegrino, rebuilt in 1263, its walls and vaulted ceiling a mass of lurid murals depicting, among other things, the signs of the zodiac.

Across the valley, high in the wilderness of the Campo Imperatore, sits one of the most spectacularly located forts anywhere. Rocca di Calascio must have been a formidable place for anyone trying to gain entry with wings. Today, it takes an energetic scramble to reach the fort, but it's worth it for the vertiginous views to the valley below. After that make your way back to L'Aquila, and reward yourself with a generous glass of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo

Abruzzo adventures

Reaching Rome

From airports in the London area, the choice of scheduled flights to Rome is wider than ever.

You can fly to Fiumicino (Rome's main airport) from Heathrow on Alitalia (0171-602 7111), British Airways (0345 222111), British Midland (0345 554554; this flight operates via Cologne), Ethiopian Airlines (0171-499 9119) or Kenya Airways (0171-409 0277). Alitalia and BA fly from Gatwick. Debonair (0500 146146) flies from Luton to Rome's Ciampino airport.

From Manchester you can reach Fiumicino on Alitalia or Air India (01753 684828).

Charters are available through Italy Sky Shuttle (0181-748 1333). Fares from London in the autumn are likely to fall to about pounds 150 including tax.

Approaching Abruzzo

The best plan is to rent a car; some airlines and travel agents have good fly-drive deals, but otherwise contact the big multinational rental companies and specialists such as Holiday Autos (0990 300400) or Suncars (0990 005566).

More information

The Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes St, London W1R 8AY (0171- 408 1254).

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