Land of a 1000 Castles: The “Ooh” in Abruzzo by Linda Oatman

It’s 1:00 a.m. on the East Coast of America, and I’m somewhere over the ocean, on Eurofly’s inaugural flight to Pescara, Italy. Dinner has just been served, but this is no ordinary airplane meal. This is a feast of fine Italian cuisine, cooked and served in style: Linen tablecloth carefully placed across the tray, my own personal little bottle of olive oil, stainless steel flatware, china, and endless smiles from the immaculately groomed attendants. They all seem to be blessed with great figures, these young Sophia Lorens of the sky. They all have flawless lipstick, gleaming teeth, and luminous skin.

You’d never guess that these women might suffer from jet lag every now and then, or have an off day in the wild blue yonder. This is a pleasant switch from the snappy I’m-Doing-You-A-Favor-By-Giving-You-A-Pack-Of-Pretzals employees that have all too sadly become the norm of the air travel industry. Flying with Eurofly is as travelers must have felt in the early days of airplanes: rather glamorous, relaxed, respected.
I heartily consume the food – all 5 courses or so – and then pop up my movie screen. Every seat in business class has a screen, with a selection of movies in both Italian and English. Every gorgeously patterned seat reclines, too, with an adjustable footrest. I recline. I close my eyes. I rest my feet. Ahhhhh. La Dolce Vita. This is The Good Life. There’s another Italian saying: Il ddce far niente. The Sweet Doing Nothing. I’m doing nothing, nothing but flying, in style, over the ocean. I sleep, and it’s sweet.

I awaken to the landscape of Pescara, east of Rome on the Adriatic Sea, the calf of the leg in the boot of Italy. This is Eurofly’s first flight to this landing strip, and like their other JFK-based flights, it’s a direct route. In operation for 3 years, Eurofly’s non-stop Italy destinations already include Rome, Bologna, Naples, and now Pescara, a city in the region of Abruzzo.

The landing is smooth, and the Airbus 330 is greeted by a welcoming committee. There’s a red carpet to walk, hands to shake, smiles to exchange, and a jaunty brass band. I feel a little bit like Madonna, whose roots are in Abruzzo. The entire country of Italy welcomes its visitors with open arms, and Abruzzo is no exception to the rule. They seem to love Americans here, and they often acknowledge our role in assisting Italy during the second World War.

The President of Abruzzo tells of his relative who began a successful seamstress business by making a wedding dress with cloth given to her by a U.S.A. soldier. It’s a story that tends to bring tears to the eyes of the listeners, especially those from America. “We live in a troubled time when it’s good to meet and promote peace,” comments one man on the welcoming committee. “We are so happy to see a big plane in our little place,” says another. “Welcome to Abruzzo.”

American immigration was the dream for many people of this region, and those who remained are touched to see Americans immigrating on vacation to Abruzzo. Madonna’s not the only celebrity with Abruzzi roots. There’s Alan Alda and Perry Como, Penny Marshall and James Darren, Henry Mancini and Rocky Marciano and Al Martino. They’ve done their homeland proud, and so have those who remained. There’s a sense of pride in the residents, a strong work ethic and a dedication to open-mindedness, a core value of community and family and food and wine. These people seem to have a deep respect for life and for the passing of time, and they want to savor and enjoy every moment, every meal, every meeting with a stranger from a far land.

Abruzzo is an amazing and geographically unusual place. Within an hour or so, one can drive from the highest of mountains peaks to the greenest of seas, making obsolete the age-old vacation question: Beach or Mountains?
There are four national parks here, and more than a thousand castles. There are shepherds herding sheep, and craftspeople painting brilliant ceramic plates made from the clay of the land. Here too there are eagles and wolves and bear. Three cubs were born during my visit, and the baby bears made the front page news.

Abruzzo is a place where it’s rare to wait in lines. I didn’t see one turnstile or expensive ticket to be purchased in this place that’s one of the least populated in Italy and the greenest in Europe. The towns are the quintessential Italian villages: narrow winding streets of old stone, steep walks, villas with laundry drying on balconies and flowers lovingly tended by those living inside. There’s the smell of wood smoke and garlic, olive oil and wine, sauce simmering on the stove. There’s also the interesting juxtaposition of modern and ancient. I saw a Fisher Price playhouse in the backyard of an castle, and a big-screen TV flickering within a darkened villa apartment.
State-of-the-art is no stranger to those who live in this place, but still, they preserve what came before. Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying something about there being nothing better than Abruzzo in the fall. I can’t imagine anything better than Abruzzo in April. It’s all good.

A comfortable central place to stay in Abruzzo is the Sporting Hotel Villa Maria. The rooms are clean, there’s a view of the sea, and the spa is incredible. Who has time for a massage or a facial, though, when there’s a wonderland to discover?

Exploring Abruzzo is like going on an enormous treasure hunt with gasp-inducing surprises around every curve. The “ooh” factor is huge here, as big as the sweeping panoramic views of mountains and valleys and water. There’s the fortress in Civitella del Tronto with its battering ram and tiny flowers growing through concrete in dark rooms, the restaurant at the Hotel Zunica, the castle in Capestrano, the snake-catchers in Cocullo (their festival is the first Thursday in May), the lace-makers in Guardiagrele. There’s the dazzling confetti candy – almonds coated with sugar in vivid colors and shaped into bouquets – in Sulmona. There’s the church of the Eucharistic Miracle in Lanciano, and the incredible meals at the Castello Chiola: a breath-taking medieval castle towering over the quaint village of Castello.
I visited Castello at twilight, and the space between day and night was stunning. The sky shone with a phosphorescent dark blue, glowing as if lit from behind. It looked silky and shimmery, kind of like a gigantic prom dress spread overhead. The slice of moon was the brightest, whitest I’ve ever seen, and a colossal star sparkled just below it. It’s lovely to be under the Tuscan sun, yes, but Italy visitors should plan time to drive a bit south of Tuscany because it’s just as beautiful below the Abruzzi moon.

There’s an Italian word: solare. It means “the light within.” The entire region of Abruzzo is full of solare, and it infuses the visitors, too. It can be found in the faces of the locals, in the smooth glow of the olive oils, in the sheen of the wine, in the hues of the art.

One of the world’s best-known Italian red wines – Montepulciano D’Abruzzo – comes from this place, and so does most of the saffron you may have while in Italy. Harvested from the hills, the flower stamens from which the spice is made must be handpicked, requiring sometimes a quarter million flowers to make just one pound of spice.
Sugar and spice and everything nice: That’s Abruzzo.

I’m in Rome now, which is an easy 3 hour drive from Abruzzo. Not all roads lead to Rome, but this one does. The A-24 highway is an efficient one, with picture-postcard views. And now I’m gazing down on another Kodak-moment-come-true: the view of the Forum area from the Villa Caffarelli terrace restaurant on Capitol Hill. Urns flicker with flames, and the sky is turning first purple, then pink, then a streaky combination of both. It looks like a fruit gelato melting, and spreading sweetly overhead. It’s a lovely sight, and I breathe deelyp of the nighttime smells of one of the oldest cities in the world.

Below the terrace, an old man paints. He’s propped on a stool, easel before him, paintbrush in the air, eyes to the sights. He’s in his own little world, and I know just how he feels. A toddler squeals, two women walk arm-in-arm, and an Italian supermodel type teeters across the cobblestones in spiky heels. Young lovers kiss and old people smile and all is right for the world, here above this city so full of history and religion and faith in what remains.

Now I’m in my room at the Exedra Hotel. The room is a suite, and there’s a loft. From the bed, I can see the fountain of the Piazza della Republicca. I met a woman of Italian descent who told me of having an old black and white home movie of her husband walking around the fountain, 46 years ago. It was their honeymoon, and they were so happy to be in Rome. The husband is now gone; the fountain remains.

From my gigantic window in the Exedra I can also see something brand-new: the world premiere of the Spiderman 3 movie. There’s a carpet (not red, though. It’s black, with spiders), risers painted red, lights and sound and crews of good-looking men in black suits. There are buses and vans and workers and hundreds of spectators. They’re waiting for the stars of the movie to exit the theatre and walk the spider carpet. The crowd keeps stirring and cheering in anticipation, and gorgeous people keep exiting the theatre and strolling the carpet to the flash of digital cameras. TV crews are there, and so is the papparazzi, hoping to get the best shot of Kirsten and Tobey.
But I’m here, in my bed, content. It’s fun to watch the combination of old and new; the union of movie and fountain. The water splashes into concrete ? That’s been here long before films and digital cameras and Hollywood movies.
I feel small here in this big place, and I’m aware of how good life feels now, at this moment. I push the button that opens the curtains a little wider so that I can see more, and then I just kick back and relax: The Sweet Doing Nothing. La Dolce Vita!