Abruzzo: Poetry in motion in central Italy

First prize in last year's Bradt/Independent on Sunday travel-writing competition was a trip to Abruzzo and the chance to write about it in these pages. Here, Julia Bohanna reveals a region where Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' comes to life

Islip on a metal grid in the pavement near Porta San Francesco. Twice. Staring upward, mouth open, drunk on history. The arch marks the beginning of the old town – the medieval Abruzzi town of Penne, in the province of Pescara. I'm accustomed to monuments that are academically labelled and protected. However, in this central Italian district that reaches from the Apennines to the Adriatic, three hours north of Rome, there is little money to preserve buildings.

"San Francesco is supposed to have come to Penne," says my guide Alessio. "It's only a legend. George Michael though – he came here one New Year's Eve. Good place for a party."

You could certainly party royally here. Nobles once had residences in Penne, a town originally called Pinna Vestinorum – pinna meaning rocky hill. Some palazzi still have street-to-street underground tunnels so that the aristocracy could escape with their servants when under attack. In the 15th century, the townspeople of L'Aquila were at odds with those in Penne; both were trying to gain control of Farindola, another province in Pescara.

"Penne is designed to exhaust the enemy," Alessio jokes, ushering me into the doorway of Palazzo Castiglione on Via Pansa, as yet another tinny Fiat rattles up the slim, cobbled street. "Although you bombed us during the war," he adds, in what I later discover is typical Abruzzi humour.

Oleander and baobab – rich men's imported trees – are dotted around the city as a legacy of whimsy and indulgence. The inhabited palazzi have newer, caramel-coloured doors or even small amounts of washing pegged out. Inner thermal doors trap heat. There are 16 palazzi in Penne. Sixteen, in a town with only 12,500 people. On one stands a 14th-century window, untouched for centuries. The only modern concession is anti-pigeon spikes.

Houses here are Roman colours – pale yellow, breadcrust brown and terracotta. There is one garish rebellious yellow home, but even that custard-coloured house has its own beauty, thanks to the elegantly unified architecture.

I had taken a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses to read. The poet was born in 43BC in the local province of Sulmona. He penned witty, visceral poetry that now seems oddly modern. I'd travelled here with my sulky teenage daughter, on trains, a plane, noisy buses and with a taxi driver shouting at a football commentary on the radio. Journeys such as these kill poetry. However, arriving at the Castello Chiola hotel in Loreto Aprutino, Ovid's poetry was re-ignited.

In his poem "The Giants", in part one of Metamorphoses, he talks of "… the giants aspired to the throne of heaven and built a path to the stars on high". Here, shutters open on mountains, church bells clang from every direction. The castle is an aristocrat with a holey jumper and labradors – unflustered posh. Once the village protector, the building dates back to AD864. The owners are relaxed about peeling wallpaper and dusty decor; many of the other guests are Italians in trainers.

Our room is vast – a sofa, three comfortable chairs, lots of wardrobe space and a marbled bathroom. One lovely element is the wooden-shuttered windows where I can see the pool – too cold for swimming at the time of my visit – and the tall mountain ranges of the Gran Sasso.

Man has worked the land to patterned perfection in Abruzzo. There are never-ending rows of olive trees, some tall and mature, and squat lines of grapevines. There are also old clay-tiled farmhouses and churches cradled within clumps of trees.

Alessio takes me to Tenuta de Melis, a typical vineyard and olive oil farm. Valeria, a 23-year-old trainee sommelier, introduces me to her mother. Mama is shy about appearing in her working flannels, but brings out plate after plate of olives, homemade bread and slivers of hand-reared ham.

My daughter nibbles the olives, which she hates at home, but now she is smiling. Abruzzi warmth is melting her reserve. Later, we see an olive oil processing plant. Like wine, the precious oil is monitored from field to flagon. Finally, buttery liquid pours from taps and we taste it on bread, with salt and red wine.

It's not only olive trees that grow in Abruzzo. San Lorenzo, a vineyard lined by cypress trees, has diversified into bed and breakfast and "marriage rooms". "The world runs on and we must not stay still," says Alessio.

We negotiate the way to Atri – roads that locals call "Russian mountains"; roads with more twists than a bad novel. Atri is small and genteel. In the Roman-Gothic, Basilica Cattedrale dell'Assunta, restored frescos tattoo walls and ceiling in vivid colours – one by Andrea de Litio, from 1460.

We sit in the café of the Teatro Communale, enjoying the university student vibe. I am being persuaded that Italians have the best tea.

"But it's Twinings, Alessio."

"Ah," he says with sorrow (or is it Abruzzi humour?) "I thought Twinings was Italian!"

On darkening roads, we return to Castello Chiola. Pigeons are being ousted from the castle walls by loud, spooky-eyed jackdaws. All geographical variation is here, even the vast canyons used in Sergio Leone's Westerns. Solar panels stretch across fields and make another pattern on the landscape.

An Ovidian transformation is happening in my hard-to-reach teenager. She wants to walk, to nod to elderly men with sun-lined faces who puff on the paths leading up to the castle. At Ristorante Convivio Girasole near the hotel, she eats anellini con pistacchi pancetta affumicata e ricotta di pecera – pasta rings with pistachios, bacon and ricotta. Without ketchup.

Modern poets who use the word soul are ridiculed. But Abruzzo was so full of soul, it entranced an adolescent. We were ordinary people, but in such surroundings gradually felt like Ovid's mythical heroes – strong, confident and appreciative of things. Ovid also questioned what it was to be human. In Abruzzo, being human meant being dazzled by beauty. Enough to fall over in wonder.


Getting there

Julia Bohanna won the Bradt/Independent on Sunday travel-writing competition 2012. Her prize was to travel to the Abruzzo region as a guest of Railbookers (020-3327 2439; railbookers.com). The firm can tailor a package to the village of Loreto Aprutino, in the heart of the Abruzzo, from £859 per person. Flights are with British Airways from Heathrow to Bologna, where you stay overnight in a hotel (with breakfast). Next day, you travel by rail to Pescara, with the transfer to the hotel included. Accommodation for five nights is in the Castello Chiola and includes breakfast.

An alternative flight option is with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted to Pescara, which operates daily except Tuesday and Saturday.

Getting around

Guiding was provided by Wolf Tour (00 39 085 82 78 444; wolftour.it).

Tenuta de Melis (00 39 085 828 9270; tenutademelis.it)

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