Italy: High-rise journey to the dark side

"YOU'RE best to hire a guide," said the man from the tourism office. "You can get very lost in Abruzzo National Park."

So we ignored his advice and, as predicted, got hopelessly off-track.

The narrow roads that criss-cross Italy's Apennine Ranges (highest peak 2912m) are not for the nervous driver and are probably not covered by a car rental contract.

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There are signs saying "Attenzione!" with pictures of the native brown bear, reputedly shy, but still a carnivore.

The landscape at this altitude is spectacular but empty, save for a few vehicles in car parks waiting for the trampers they have disgorged into the hills.

As the beech forests get thicker the air gets thinner. On the hillsides, tiny houses lean into each other like crooked teeth.

"Where possible, do a u-turn," advises Billy Connolly on sat nav. And, when we don't comply, "It is advisable to turn your entire car around. Do not just turn around inside the car."

But we are having fun.

Abruzzo is Italy's wild heart. "A strange place, full of strange people," said my hotelier in Rome, when I said where I was headed.

It is only 90 minutes east of Rome but it might as well be on the other side of the world. The countryside is straight out of a Grimm's fairytale with fortresses built into the vertiginous slopes.

The Romans considered the region the cradle of witchcraft, and strange rituals still flourish.

At the Cocullo Snake Festival, dating back 3000 years, live snakes are draped around a statue which is then paraded through the streets.

If the snakes twist around the statue's head, the omens are good but if they entwine the arms, dark times lie ahead.

I came to Abruzzo because it is everything Tuscany is not. Tuscany is warm shades of ochre, villas with pools and English voices.

Abruzzo is dark green and silver; there is no flat land for a pool and, outside the main centres, you rarely hear English spoken. Tour buses are deterred by the gradient.

Abruzzo moves more slowly than the north. It is "old Italy" and one of the best places to see a Europe that existed before industrialisation.

In Scanno, women still wear heavy black traditional costumes, not for tourists but for comfort.

Sheep farmers still practice the traditional transumanza (crossing the land) - shepherding their flocks up mountains in the summer and back into valleys when the snows come.

There used to be three million sheep in the region; now there are just 200,000 to provide the famous Abruzzo pecorino cheese.

Tourists can join the transumanza, and for around $300 a year they can sponsor a sheep.

During the ski season, thousands of Romans and Neapolitans flock to Abruzzo's resorts and spa towns, and in summer serious trampers walk the park trails. But in the smaller mountain towns, off-season, tourists are rare.

In Cansano, where dogs sleep undisturbed in the piazza, our rental car is viewed with curiosity and my request for a midday cappuccino is greeted with a sigh. In another hamlet, the owner of a trattoria turns us away saying he is not open for lunch for dieci minuti (10 minutes).

But there are plenty of gestures of goodwill. At a local produce market a stall-holder happily snips off a single bulb of garlic from a metre-long string and charges nothing for the trouble; a restaurant owner, on learning we are Kiwis, brings complementary limoncello.

There was a prisoner of war camp (Campo 78) near Sulmona, now one of Abruzzo's larger tourist centres, where many New Zealand officers captured in North Africa were held.

The best place to stay in Abruzzo is a mountain town where the air and views are exhilarating.

We based ourselves at Pacentro, best known for being the birthplace of pop star Madonna's grandparents and the location for a scene in the George Clooney film L'Americano.

In its glory days, Pacentro was home to around 4000 citizens, but most left early last century as economic hardship prompted mass emigration.

These days the population is around 1200 and most are elderly.

Like most towns in these parts, Pacentro appears glued to the mountain.

There are two small piazze, a supermercato, a 14th century castle with two intact towers, and a bar/petrol station where men smoke and drink whisky while they fill the tank.

There is also a Michelin-star restaurant. As far as I know, we were the only strangers in town.

 Our days began with an espresso, a fresh-baked cornetti or brioche and serious consultation around the map. Every destination was up; it was just a matter of how far - and how steep.

The journeys always produced surprises - hidden shops with exquisite gold filigree jewelry, fine lace and wrought iron work, a whole town adorned with brightly-coloured ceramics - and what must be the best loo in the world with a floor-to-ceiling view of the snow-tipped peaks.

The food in the region is as robust as the terrain. Lamb, kid, sheep and mountain goat are staples in most eating places.

Abruzzi cooks flavour their dishes with hot chilli, scented saffron and fruity olive oils pressed on the plains below. A culinary tradition in Abruzzo is la panarda, a multi-course feast of gargantuan proportions, which can run to 50 courses and last all night.

I didn't experience la panarda but, at Ristorante Taverna de li Caldora - our neighbourhood Michelin-starred restaurant - I came very close.

The restaurant is unpretentious save for the views across the valley. There is no menu.

"Mangiate di tutto," said chef Carmine Cercone ("You eat everything.") So, this is what we ate: antipasti of courgettes, artichokes, fresh goat's ricotta, tiny balls of minced lamb coated in batter, thinly sliced porcini and salad greens, followed by shredded lamb and cabbage, beans, chopped liver in rich gravy, courgettes stuffed with anchovies, goats' cheese and mushrooms.

Pasta was spaghetti with truffles (about 80 per cent of Italy's truffles are grown in Abruzzo) tagliatelli with porcini mushrooms, ricotta and spinach ravioli.

The meat dishes were lamb cutlets, pork sausage, and a steak so big it filled a plate.

Dessert was the Abruzzo specialty, dolce pizza, a rainbow cake drenched in liqueur custard and smothered with a bitter sweet chocolate icing, chocolate ice cream with nougat, lemon mousse with fresh fruit salad, green figs and biscotti.

When the last dishes were cleared, Carmine Cercone produced dessert wine, followed by grappa. The cost was less than $50 a head.

On the last day, we drove to L'Aquila, Abruzzo's capital. The city has been off the radar for travellers since an earthquake in 2009 shattered its commercial centre killing 308 people and leaving 60,000 homeless.

Parking is free - unprecedented in Italy - to encourage people back.

The city is not pretty.

Shops in the main street are boarded up and soldiers stand guard against looting.

A fence strung with house keys from crushed buildings is a macabre piece of street art.

Two premises are open for business: a cheese shop and a brightly-lit bar run by a young man, who declares L'Aquila will bounce back - as it has done many times before. It is a sobering reminder that Abruzzo's other claim to fame is earthquakes.

 As we drive home, the moon lights up the spine of the Apennines. It's hard to believe that directly below the mountains are the fault lines that wreak so much damage on the region.

As we round the last hairpin bend before Pacentro, Billy Connolly reminds us we have reached our destination. "You may thank me and remember that without me none of this would have been possible and you would have been hopelessly lost".

He sounds relieved.



Accommodation: There are no hotels in Pacentro but several B&Bs and privately owned rental houses. Check, or

Further information: La transumanza: La Porta dei Parachi offers transumanza walks in June and July, with dates fixed 15 days before departure. The trip includes a night at the farm with dinner and breakfast, food for the two-day journey and one night camping.

Best time to visit: Spring or autumn, when skiers and trampers are back home.

Cocullo snake festival: Held on the first Thursday in May in celebration of St Domenico (protector against snake bites).