To savor Italy unyoked from the herds that clog the narrow cobbled arteries of Rome, you might try a few days in the alpine Abruzzo region. Much-neglected by tourists yet just over the border of Lazio, Abruzzo is a verdant paradise of national parks, wildlife reserves, and botanical gardens. There’s hearty highland cooking at little spots where you can just take the courses as the host brings them. The landscape is dotted with family farms where you can roll up, ring at the door, and buy a variety of portable palate pleasers like infused honeys, wine, genziana, olive oil, and the region’s ubiquitous pecorinos. There are rock climbing lessons, Italian Maiolica and saffron tours (Abruzzo saffron is widely considered the best in the world), castles and monasteries to visit, and hosts of picturesque hill villages, each with its own attractions and claims to fame.
One of those villages is Pescocostanzo, the “City of Art" in the Aquilana highlands, about 120 miles from Rome.
A living picture postcard designated one of “the most beautiful villages in Italy,”*
Pescocostanzo is a pleasant walking town with a lovely central square. In an overnight stay, you can check into the cozy 4-star Hotel Le Torri in the pedestrian center, then stroll among the quaint homes and shopfronts; sample locally-sourced highland fare; visit historic churches with masterful wood and stone work; or head out to the miles of nearby ski, hiking, and horseback-riding trails. And you can do it all against a soundtrack of squabbling birds rather than screaming motorini.
I often recommend Pescocostanzo as an easy getaway from the eternal roar of Rome.
The town’s population numbers about 1,300, although that’s about 1,000 more than seems altogether likely. Yet Pescocostanzo’s snow-globe-sized beauty belies its cultural prominence. Its status in the Middle Ages as a Universitas and as a commercial center for wool bound for Lombardia and Tuscany made the region not only wealthy but a rich crossroads in which the arts thrived. (Interestingly, the word for money in the local dialect is “pecunia,” from “pecora,” or sheep.)
Among those arts was stone- and wood-cutting– readily visible in the facades of Renaissance homes and in the interiors of the town’s churches. In fact, the typically Renaissance urban architecture was to a great extent the product of architects and master masons summoned from Florence and Como. Even Michelangelo exerted his influence on the character of the city.
That, together with the many art exhibitions it hosts, is part of the reason Pescocostanzo can claim the moniker “City of Art.” It’s an indoor/outdoor museum of Renaissance art and architecture, and of ancient artisanal crafts like wrought iron, lace work, and goldsmithery.
In winter, “Pesco” has a diamond hardness — sparkling, cold, and edgy— its approach along mountain roads sometimes forbidding. Its situation 1400 meters above sea level at the hemline of the Bosco di Sant’Antonio, part of the Maiella National Park, makes it popular with Italian skiers. Come spring, the arguing of the birds wakes you long before does the chatter of pedestrians or the grateful mumblings of a long-neglected car. The wrought ironwork shops swing open their massive doors to reveal elaborate headboards, chandeliers, gates, sconces. The painter Roberto DiJullo closes up shop in Rome and sits in his sunny atelier waiting to welcome passers-by arrested by his canvases of horses. (More on DiJullo in another post.)
On the way in or out of town, you can stop in the Bosco di Sant’Antonio (ten miles of protected forest) for a picnic and a hike or, if the equestrian spirit moves you, hire horses to carry you through the ancient beechwoods. (But beware! You might take it into your head to climb a gnarled tree and have a tough time getting down again. I had reason once to offer a prayer of thanks to the sylvan gods that nobody was around to witness my shame.)
Pescocostanzo is one of my favorite highland towns in Abruzzo. I’ll have more to say about it, together with some other of Abruzzo’s more particular spots, in subsequent posts.