Have you ever heard of the Sirente crater? It is a seasonal lake located near the village of Secinaro, in the Sirente-Velino regional park. If you are a nature lover and history buff, visiting the lake should be on your list of things to do in Abruzzo.
Late spring and early summer is in its full glory, filled with rain water reflecting the blue sky, with a few cows munching on the green grass around it. In summer the lake dries up and looks more like a large dirty puddle. Although bikers and hikers visit this place, you won’t see crowds of tourists and only few know that the shallow lake is somewhat of a mystery.
The Sirente crater, as the lake known, was the subject of heated discussions in the scientific world some years ago. A number of experts believe that it is an impact crater created by a meteorite that hit the plain around the 4th century. They link their theory to the story of Roman emperor Constantine, who was believed to have seen a large falling star in the sky in 312 AD that he interpreted as a sign from God and converted to Christianity.
Local oral legends also tell a story of a star that outshone the sun and hit the Sirente mountain with a huge force causing fire and an earthquake. Is it possible that this shallow puddle beloved by local cows holds a key to the event that changed the world’s history?
The National Geographic made a fascinating documentary, “Fireball of Christ”, trying to find the answer (you can watch it below).
Other, less impressive suggestions exist regarding the origin of the Sirente crater: it could be a man-made watering hole for the cattle or an old mud volcano.
When I was there last time the Sirente mountain was still covered with snow, the birds screamed their sun salutation hymns and the trees stood with their buds ready to burst with leaves any day. A perfect setting for a peaceful day and contemplation about mysteries of the universe…
How to get there: follow signs to Secinaro. About 13km after the village you will see the mountains on your left hanging over a small valley with the lake. There are BBQs and a picnic table by the road. You can stop there and walk on a path parallel to the main road towards the lake.
There are so many things to do in Abruzzo in summer! Lazing on the beach is great but to get to know our beautiful region better make sure you check out some these events to understand local life and traditions. There is something going on almost every day: big festivals, smaller local celebrations, village feasts. Here are just a few of my picks of the top events not to miss this summer.
Loreto Aprutino (PE), June 8-10
The festival is celebrated 50 days after Easter, so the
dates vary every year. On Pentecost, the beautiful town of Loreto Aprutino,
celebrates its patron saint, San Zopito. For three days, the locals will attend
church services, participate in religious processions, enjoy live music and
street food. The most interesting procession re-enacting the arrival of the
saint’s relics will take place on Monday evening. A large white ox decorated
with bright ribbons and pompoms will carry an Angioletto, a little girl dressed
in white with a flower crown on her head. Accompanied by bagpipers and a group
of farmers, the majestic ox will slowly walk through the town’s historic centre
stopping at several churches to kneel. One of the stops will be at the noble palace
of the Valentini family, the famous wine producers. They will treat everyone to
tarallucci biscuits and wine.
The festival’s origins go back to an event in 1711. A local farmer Carlo Parlione worked with a white ox in the fields. He didn’t stop working when the religious procession that was bringing the saint’s relics approached Loreto Aprutino but his ox kneeled at the sight of the cortege. At that moment, a sick farmer’s relative was miraculously cured. For more details see the event’s Facebook page.
Pescara, July 8-22
The International Jazz Festival in Pescara is turning 50 years this summer. Over the decades, it has hosted such famous jazz stars as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis Group, Dizzy Gillespie, Tracy Chapman and many others. During the two weeks of festival there will be 24 concerts, many of them free, at different venues across the city. I love the great atmosphere that it brings to Pescara, open air concerts on balmy summer evenings and the buzz of the eclectic crowds of locals. Tickets for some performances such as that of Dee Dee Bridgewater, Joshua Redman or Jacob Collier will sell fast, so don’t wait, book them now. See the full programme on the Pescara Jazz Festival’s website.
Castel del Monte (Aq), July 13-14
During this small but fascinating event you’ll be able to
visit old cellars in the town that have been used by local families for many
centuries to store cured meats, wine, cheese or keep animals. In each cellar
you’ll taste local specialities such as the pecorino canestrato cheese,
marcetto cheese made with larvae (it is served without them, don’t worry), a
local drink la tromba, pasta dish ciafrechìglie e fagioli, see how locals make cheese and pasta or
dye wool with natural pigments. There will be traditional music, dances and a
A jousting tournament is held in Sulmona over two weekends in July and August. Popular in the Middle Ages, the event was stopped in the 17th century due to lack of participants. The city of Sulmona revived the tournament in 1994 in a modernised version without bloodshed (in the past, knights and warriors hit each other with spears). Seven neighbourhoods of the city are represented by a rider compete for the highest score by hooking rings with their lances on the city’s central square, Piazza Garibaldi. During the tournament weekends, you can see stunning costumed parades, flag throwing, birds of prey shows. The city’s neighbourhoods are decorated with flags and livery with drummers and trumpeters entertaining visitors. For more details and tickets go to the Giostra Cavalleresca website.
Scanno (Aq), August 14
One of the most beautiful events in Abruzzo, Il Catenaccio (or “Ju Catenacce” in dialect) is a re-enactment of an ancient marriage procession. Locals, dressed in traditional festive costumes, walk the narrow cobbled streets of the medieval village in pairs led by the bride and groom. Now and then, youngsters block their way with a ribbon demanding to be bribed with sweets or coins. The women’s costumes are made exactly the way they were in the 1700s. Luckily, several documents dating back to the 18th century describing the bride’s outfit have survived, which allowed the organisers to recreate it down to a minute detail. The procession finishes in the central square with dances and traditional music. You can see the same re-enactment in May. For the event announcements follow this Facebook page.
Sagra della porchetta
Campli (Te), August 18-23
Put this event on your list of things to do in Abruzzo if are a carnivore! The oldest food festival in the region, la Sagra della porchetta will be celebrating its 48th edition this summer. Every year a dozen or so of porchetta producers gather in Campli to compete for the gold medal. This moist boneless pork roast has been made in Abruzzo for many centuries. For five days the town fills up with divine smells of roasting pork and sounds of music as various bands play Italian pop, rock, indie and Latin American tunes. The best part of the festival? You can become a judge and taste all porchetta for free! The organisers make a call for volunteer judges a few months before the festival, so keep an eye on their website. Please note, when I was writing this post the dates for 2019 hadn’t been announced yet. Please check the exact dates on the website before heading to Campli for the porchetta feast!
Abruzzo has its share of castles, some of them are just glorious ruins while others have been beautifully restored. Almost every village boasts a tower, foundation or a few walls remaining from an ancient stronghold that remind us of this land’s glorious past, thriving economies, powerful nobles, bitter feuds and bloody sieges. Here are a few of my suggestions to put on your list of places to see in Abruzzo.
The formidable fortress above the village of Calscio has
been named one of the most beautiful castles in the world by National
Geographic. It is also the most photographed place in the region but don’t
worry, you won’t have to elbow your way for the best Instagrammable spot.
Although, it gets a fair amount of tourists in August, most of the year you’ll
have the castle to yourself. Built in the 10th century, Rocca
Calascio was used as an observation point from where signals were sent, using
fire torches at night and mirrors in daylight, across the Tirino Valley and
Navelli Plains. The fortress was enlarged over the following centuries.
According to local legends, during the nights of the winter and summer
solstice, ghosts gather around the castle. You can wonder around the ruins and
admire stunning panoramic views any time of day or night. The observation tower
is open every Sunday in summer.
Castello Piccolomini di Balsorano
Very few foreign visitors have heard of this one. A few decades ago, it used to be one of the most popular filming location with more than 30 Italian movies shot here. I have to add, though, most of them were horror or … ahm… pornographic works of questionable quality. Constructed in 1470 by the Piccolomini family, it was always used as a residential castle rather than a military fortress. The legend has it that the Piccolomini practised the “jus primae noctis”, the right of the first night with newly married women of the village. The ones that refused to sleep with the were thrown down from the ramparts. Despite the serious damage after the earthquake in 1915 and a not-so-careful restoration of some parts, the castle still retains its original Gothic and Renaissance features and beautiful frescoes. It houses a hotel and restaurant and is open for visits on request (call 00 39 337 668 068 to inquire).
Castello di Celano
One of the best-preserved ancient military structures in Abruzzo, the fortress dates back to the 14th century. Badly damaged in the earthquake of 1915, the castle’s splendour was restored in the 1950s but its magnificent frescoes were lost forever. Today, it is home to a sacred arts museum and the Ministry of Cultural Heritage offices. The views over the Fucino plains are to die for. I’ve seen some old paintings picturing Castello di Celano overlooking the Fucine lake, once the third largest in Italy, and am convinced that if it had not been drained in the 19th century, this part of Abruzzo would have become a major tourist destination today.
Castello di Bominaco
There is not much left from the castle but it still should
be on your list of places to see in Abruzzo for several reasons. First of all,
it is in a stunning location. Second, there is a beautiful chapel, Oratorio di
San Pellegrino, near the castle with magnificent frescoes that is worth a
visit. Constructed in the 12th century to guard the thriving Benedictine
monastic community of Bominaco, the castle was one of the 99 castles that,
according to a legend, founded the city of L’Aquila in 1254. In 1424, the
mercenary captain Braccio da Montone during his rampage tour through Abruzzo
destroyed the castle and the monastery. Although it was partially re-built in
the 15th century, the fortress never regained its glory. Some locals
believe that spirits of the victims massacred by Braccio da Montone still
gather around the tower on dark moonless nights.
Another reason I love the Castello di Bominaco is because it gives you a clear idea how the fortresses in the area used to communicate. If you stand near the tower, you can see the castles of Rocca Calascio on the horizon as well as the fortress of San Pio Delle Camere across the valley and a few towns on the hills around. Being visible to each other, hey could send important messages lighting fires and flashing mirrors.
Castello di Salle Vecchio
As far as I know, this is the only castle in Abruzzo that has been in the same family for the last 400 years. Built in the 10th century as part of the defensive belt of the San Clemente Abbey (located in Castiglione a Casauria), Castello di Salle was an important military outpost in the Valley D’Orta. Over centuries, it changed many hands until it became a home of the noble Di Genova family in 1636. It remains in their possession today. Badly damaged in several earthquakes, the stronghold was restored by the owners 50 years ago and registered as a protected national monument. Small and rather cosy, the castle houses a history museum with the family’s collection of medieval arms, metal armor and documents. Visitors are allowed to take a glance at the private rooms of the nobles and see the bed where Napoleone Bonoparte once slept while visiting the Di Genova family. There is also a restaurant in the castle, which is open in summer.
Castello Ducale di Crecchio
Like any great castle, this one comes complete with a ghost. They say, the spirit of Duke De Riseis d’Aragona wonders inside the building on some nights. The castle has been through many turmoils: plundered and pillaged by Saracen pirates and feuding lords, damaged by earthquakes and reduced to rubble by the Allied forces, it rose from the ashes after a thorough restoration in the 1970s. The royal Savoy family visited this splendid abode on numerous occasions. Last visit was in 1943, when the last King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III, his wife and son stayed here before fleeing on a boat from the port of Ortona. Historic documents say that the lady of the castle, Duchess Gaetana De Riseis, tried to convince the king to return to Rome. The room and bed where the King stayed miraculously survived the bombings. Today, the castle is home to the museum Museum of Byzantine and Early Medieval Abruzzo. In summer, the town of Crecchio hosts a wonderful event, A Cena con I Bizantini, with locals dressed in period costumes, guided visits to the castle and medieval food stands.
Visiting Abruzzo during the Easter holidays? You are in for
a treat! There are so many traditional events taking place all over the region.
Religious celebrations start on the Thursday before Easter Sunday. Almost every
village has a procession or re-enactment during the Holy Week. Here is a quick pick of the most interesting Easter
events in Abruzzo.
Giovedi Santo in
Organised by the local confraternity Morte e Orazione di San
Filippo Neri, the procession of Maundy Thursday is solemn and almost hypnotising
with its beautiful music written especially for the event in the 19th
century. The confraternity members dressed in long black tunics carry flame
torches and symbols of the Passion of Christ. The central figure is il Cireneo,
who is chosen by the Prior shortly before the ceremony as a reward for his
dedication and passion for the brotherhood. Il Cireneo, barefoot, carries the
heavy cross in the procession.
The procession starts at the Santa Chiara church at 10pm. You can arrive earlier to see the preparations.
Venerdi Santo in
You don’t need to be religious to appreciate the atmospheric
Good Friday procession in Chieti. The oldest of its kind in Italy, the rite has
been taking place in Chieti every year since the 9th century. Local
confraternities dressed in hooded tunics walk along the streets of the old town
centre carrying various stations of the cross symbols. They are
accompanied by 150-members strong orchestra and choir, who play and sing the Miserere.
The procession begins at 7pm at the San Giusto Cathedral. The choir and orchestra start practicing in the morning. There is a shuttle going to the town centre from the free parking space at Chieti Tricalle.
Venerdi Santo in
On Good Friday, early risers can see the processions of the stations
of the cross symbols, which starts at 5am at the Chiesa del Purgatorio. In the
evening at 8pm, another procession departs from the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle
Grazie. It is lead by a group of 250 women, all in black. In the past, they were
mostly widows, who lost their husbands in sea.
For over six decades the picturesque village of Barrea organises a beautiful theatrical revocation of the Passion of Christ. In different locations of the village various scenes are enacted by locals: the Last Supper, the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, betrayal by Judas, the crucifixion. It is fascinating to see biblical characters and centurions on the narrow streets of Barrea.
The event starts at 5.30pm. Get there early to find parking and walk around the village.
On Easter Sunday, Sulmona hosts La Madonna Che Scappa in
Piazza, the famous revocation of the moment when Mary sees her risen son. The
statue of Madonna is carried by the Confraternity of S. Maria di Loreto’s
members along the main street. When they arrive to the central Piazza Garibaldi,
at midday, they pull the black mourning cape off the Madonna to release 12
white doves and run towards the statue Christ. The run accompanied by the excited
applause of the people in the square and music. The event starts with a mass at
9am. It attracts thousands of people, so arrive early.
Orsogna hosts the festival of Talami, a biblical scenes
re-enactments, twice a year: on Easter Monday and on Ferragosto (August 15). It
is an old tradition connected with a miracle when Virgin Mary appeared in front
of a few locals in the Middle Age. The town of Orsogna announces the theme for
the scenes and chooses seven best ideas to be re-enacted. Six floats are put on
tractors and one, like in old days, is carried by local men.
This year’s celebration, on April 23, will start at 10am with fireworks and continue with the parade and traditional music. For more details see the event’s website.
Easter Monday Pasquetta
Easter in Abruzzo means big feasts and picnics. On Easter Monday, locals pack picnic baskets and head for parks and picturesque mountain locations to celebrate Pasquetta. Many restaurants offer a Pasquetta menu. The Majella Brewery in Pretoro organises a great picnic on the grounds with live music, street food and their excellent craft beer. Another lively place for Easter Monday is Ristoro Mucciante in Campo Imperatore, where you can buy meat, sausages and arrosticini to grill outdoors.
Featured image by Madonna Che Scappa in Piazza/Facebook
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.
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.