things to see in abruzzo

Things to see in Abruzzo: A Forgotten castle and sacred forest

This was one of those surprises that Abruzzo is generous with. While walking near a small hamlet of San Tommaso in the La Majella National Park, I looked up and saw ruins of a castle atop a tall rock tower. Piano dei Luchi, where the ruins are, is a fascinating place virtually unknown to foreign visitors to Abruzzo despite its natural beauty and rich history. It certainly deserves to be on your list of things to see in Abruzzo.

castello di luco

Flanked by high canyon walls that the Orta River chiselled in prehistoric times, Piano dei Luchi is a large flat area studded with tall rock formations. These natural towers reach up to 30 metres and are inaccessible as the rocks are steep and crumbly, so even the bravest climber wouldn’t dare to ascend them.

things to see in abruzzo

There is a well-beaten path running from the hamlet of San Tommaso to the village Musellaro but the area is always quiet, except on summer weekends when locals and people in the know come for a swim in the river. But just like many other quiet forgotten places in Abruzzo, this area is hiding a glorious past.

Humans settled here a long time ago. Archaeologists have found rock carvings on the canyon walls dating back to the Bronze Age. In pagan times, it was a sacred forest. Ancient Romans built settlements and roads in the area and you can still see the remains of two Roman bridges along the river, a short walk from the valley. Apparently, Julius Caesar marched here from the Rubicon to the battle in the ancient Corfinium in 49BC. There is still a saying among old people in the nearby village of Musellaro “If Musellaro had a seaport, Rome would fall,” meaning that this area was so important and had so much power that it could almost overthrow Rome’s rule.

The settlement in Piano dei Luchi was called Lucus, or Luco (meaning “a sacred forest”). It was dominated by a fortified castle, Castello di Luco, built in 1006 atop a 30-metre-high natural rock formation. Luco is mentioned many times in important documents between the 11th and 14th century and historians believe that the castle served as a military outpost on a busy road that connected this area to the San Clemente Abbey, Corfinium, the Tiburtina-Valeria road and the Tratturo Magno (the 244km-path that shepherds used to bring sheep from L’Aquila to Foggia for seasonal migration).

things to see in abruzzo

Today, not much remains from the castle: only two walls and a few stacked up stone fragments running around the rock formation but the views from up there are breathtaking.

Over the centuries, this corner of Abruzzo succumbed to feuds, earthquakes and emigration. The reminders of its past glory have crumbled and been swallowed by nature. I walked there so many times without noticing the castle as it is hidden behind the trees but, as it turned out, some kind soul put it on Google maps (see at the end of the article)!

Up until 50 years ago, this plain was cultivated and you can still see abandoned olive groves and stonewalls marking the fields. Walking around, you’ll also spot a few rock cavities turned into enclosures for sheep and goats.

If you do go to explore Piano dei Luchi and the castle, make sure you stay quiet. The silence there is special and, if you are patient, it will reward you with a sighting of deer, wild boar, or, perhaps, even a wolf. When I was there last time, five magnificent red deer stopped not far from me to graze.

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For more information about history of the area see:, Il Ponte Romano, Musellaro.

Oreste, the deer of Villetta Barrea

Driving in a small village of Villetta Barrea in the Abruzzo National Park I saw a large deer standing beside the road and graciously accepting gentle strokes and pats from two adults and a child. I slowed down to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. The deer was real. As it turned  out, it was Oreste, the stag that frequents Villetta Barrea in search of rubs and treats. The first time he arrived to the village after a heavy snowfall in 2012. The deer liked the locals’ hospitality and continues to visit them on a regular basis.

Villetta barrea abruzzo

A few years back, Oreste caused some commotion in the village: he jumped on a police car and tried to chase someone. After the incident, he ran to the village park in hope to sit it out munching on juicy grass. However, local authorities, concerned about public safety, surrounded and apprehended the troublemaker. Oreste was placed in a fenced area nearby to make sure that nothing like that happened again. However, the locals immediately organised a protest: they painted a sign on the fence where the deer was kept that read “Oreste captured: he was only returning home”; a petition was signed by every villager demanding to let the animal go. They won, Oreste was returned to the woods in the mountains.

When the magnificent 200- kilos deer with a splendid rack of horns visits Villetta Barrea he strolls down the streets without fear. Locals think of him as the village mascot and an honorary citizen. A few times he stopped by the post office and everyone laughed joking that the deer came to pay the bills for the services rendered. The villagers say that seeing him walking around the village before Christmas makes the atmosphere especially magic.

However, he is not the only one who loves dropping by Villetta Barrea. The village is often called “the deer kingdom” because they are always wondering around here. Next time you visit the charming Villetta Barrea, take a walk in the areas where are the deer are often spotted: the Villa Comunale park, the pedestrian path along the Sangro River, the shores of the lake and local camping site.

Check out this short video of Oreste clopping on peacefully past cars in the village centre.

Featured photo by Guglielmo D’Arezzo.