Abruzzo off the beaten track

I have been coming to Abruzzo with my husband each June for many years and for those seeking an authentic Italian experience where shepherds still exist, then it is well worth a visit.

Introducing Abruzzo

Abruzzo is one of the lesser known regions of Italy which makes it a great holiday destination for those wanting an authentic Italian experience.  It has a population of approximately 1.2 million and is bordered by Le Marche to the north, the even lesser known region of Molise to the south and Lazio to the west.  The regional capital is L’Aquila which was tragically hit by a major earthquake in 2009.  When I think of Abruzzo, I think of national parks, medieval hill top towns and an Adriatic coastline dotted with the traditional wooden fishing huts on stilts known as Trabbocchi.  As it not on the main tourist trail, Abruzzo is not in your face and it is up to you to do ample research to uncover the hidden gems that it offers.  You also need to cover a lot of ground so hiring a car is a must.

 

What to see and do

Hiking

One of my favourite things to do in Abruzzo is to get back to nature and go hiking.  This year I was very lucky to have family and a close friend join us for part of our trip so I organised a hike into the mountains near where we staying in Castel di Sangro.  It is always recommended to use an experienced local guide as they have an understanding of the unpredictable weather conditions.  The surrounds of Castel di Sangro is snow country and we hiked along the mountain line above the village of Pescocostanzo.  I love this hilltop village which is famous for the earrings which, I am informed, the local women are given when they marry.  They make a distinctive clanging noise.  There are still a handful of goldsmiths who continue to hand make these earrings from intricate designs handed down through the centuries.  Pescocostanzo is also where Pope John Paul II used to ski and has one of my favourite bars in Italy, Vin Café dal Corvo.  The literal translation is the wine cafe of the crow.  Not sure if crows imbibe but it is such a cute little bar in the middle of absolutely nowhere which does that typical Italian thing of serving you up a plate of delicious cheese and cured meat with your wine.

One thing to bear in mind is that although Abruzzo is dotted with hilltop towns, a lot of them are like ghost towns so do not go in thinking that you will stumble upon the most amazing local restaurant.  Not going to happen.  Pescocostanzo is, however, an exception.

More Hiking

Abruzzo has three national parks: The National Park of Abruzzo, Majella and the Grand Sasso.  My husband and I did a 4 hour guided hike in the Majella National Park visiting the St Bartolomeo hermitage.  We found this fascinating as it is actually a cave comprising a couple of rooms on the side of a cliff and where, the then monk, Pietro da Marrone, lived as a hermit in the 13th Century until he was elected Pope Celestine V.  He resigned 5 months after his Papal appointment and was sadly imprisoned until his death at the age 81.   I could not recommend this hike enough as not only did we get a bit of culture and history, the scenery was amazing and we got to end our day with a gelato in a gelataria in the village of San Valentino.   The company that I organised the hikes through is well organised, sent maps of meetings points and provided walking sticks.

Walking Tour

Okay not strictly a hike, but a nice alternative is a leisurely walking tour of one of the main cities of Abruzzo.  On this trip, I did a guided walking tour of Sulmona.  Sulmona is in the province of L’Aquila and in addition to being famous for Confetti, the sugar-coated almond confectionary, it is also the birthplace of Ovid, the Roman poet whose works include the mythological epic Metamorphoses.  My tour started at the Sulmona Cathedral and we then meandered through the town passing the bronze statue of Ovid and many of the interesting piazzas.  The tour ended on the terrace of a local house where we got to relax with a couple of glasses of prosecco and some regional fare.  This included the local red garlic which was served as a spread on toasted bread.

Where to eat

Typical of the coast of Abruzzo are Trabocchi, wooden fishing huts, many of which have now been converted into restaurants.  My recommendation is Cungarelle which is in the beachside town of Vasto.  It is one of those places that you daydream about and cannot wait to return to as the food is that good.  Being on the sea, not surprisingly, the dishes are based on local fish and seafood.  It is open for lunch and dinner but as it is really popular and the hours are very limited, bookings are essential in summer to avoid disappointment.

Another little gem is Il Boscaiolo (meaning the Woodman) in the mountain village of Castel di Sangro.  We have been going here for years and although not fancy, always serves good inexpensive dishes of local cured meats and cheese, pasta, pizza and grilled meat.  If you are looking for Michelin stars, then try Nikita Romito’s Reale, also located in Castel di Sangro.  This restaurant has three Michelin stars which always amazes me as Castel di Sangro is literally in the middle of nowhere.  Although housed in a former 16th-Century monastery, the restaurant is very sleek and modern and given it is a destination restaurant, has nine-guest rooms.

Were to stay

My favourite place to stay in Abruzzo is Castello di Semivicoli.  I adore this place.  The hotel is a 17th-Century castle and located about 20-25 minutes from Pescara Airport.  What I love is throwing open the shutters in the morning to the most amazing view.  The breakfast is also to die for with homemade cakes and jams.   The hotel has a great pool area and also does wine tastings which we did on our return to Pescara Airport at the end of our trip.

Fact file:

Each time I come to Abruzzo I uncover a little bit more.  There are good parts and not so good parts but my tip is always do your research and work out what you want to get out of your trip.

  • For guided tours in Abruzzo I would recommend Abruzzo Link which can be found at: https://abruzzolink.com/
  • Castello di Semivicoli is located in Semivicoli (30 kilometres south of Pescara Airport).  Further details can be found at: http://www.castellodisemivicoli.com/
  • Ryan Air fly to Pescara from London Stanstead.  An alternative is to fly to Naples or Rome and pick up a hire car.  Castel di Sangro is 124 kilometres from Naples International Airport and 218 kilometres from Fiumicino Airport in Rome.   I prefer Naples as the rental car queues are much shorter and I can tack on a cheeky trip to the Amalfi Coast.
  • Traboccho Cungarelle is located in Vasto (an hour’s drive from Pescara) and opens from 30 March 2019.  For further details visit www.traboccocungarelle.it/
  • Ristorante Reale is located at Piana Santa Liberata, 67031 Castel di Sangro.  For further details visit https://www.nikoromito.com/en/reale/
  • Ristorante Il Boscaiolo is located at Via Riviera 12\14, 67031 Castel di Sangro.
  • Vin Café dal Corvo is located at ia della Fontana, 11, 67033 Pescocostanzo.  Please note that as this is a bar, it does not serve meals, snacks only.

 

Payne’s Hut, a mandatory requirement for all travellers

A stay at Payne’s Hut in the Victorian high-country should be a mandatory requirement for all international tourists. It is so unique and so special that it deserves to be shared with only the most discerning travellers.

My husband and I were fortunate enough to be able to spend two nights at Payne’s Hut over the 2018 Easter weekend.  Payne’s Hut is a small boutique lodging located in Glen Valley a 6.5 hour drive from Melbourne and a 12 hour drive from Sydney.  The drive via the small Victorian ski village of Falls Creek is nothing short of spectacular owing to the seemingly infinite alpine scenery.

Payne’s Hut is a labour of love.  Its owners, Tess and Graham Payne, have painstakingly built the property from ground up.  The rustic buildings and meandering garden sit on a 1 acre lot carved from the remote Australian landscape.  We especially loved the arbour enveloped with a magnificent kiwi-fruit vine under which we ate breakfast and afternoon tea each day.

What to do at Payne’s Hut

Relaxing, reading a book and taking in the scenery are high priorities but for the more active traveller, your options are hiking, horse-riding or trying your hand at fly-fishing.  I am lucky enough to have my very own fly-fishing instructor (husband), so we set out each day to experience some of the most remote streams in Australia.  I did not manage to land anything but just being out amongst the stunning beauty of the Australian bush far outweighed my dismal fishing score.

Eating and drinking

Given the remoteness of Payne’s Hut, there are not a lot of restaurant options.  In fact, the only option is the local pub, the Blue Duck, which is a 10-15 minute drive away.   Fortunately, Tess and Graham give you a half-board option which we readily took-up.   They can also provide lunch provisions on request.  The half-board option also includes afternoon tea.  On our first day, we were treated to the most delicious carrot cake and home-made coffee scrolls fresh out of the oven.  Breakfast and afternoon tea are served in the arbour and the three-course dinner is served in the formal dining room.  You can take in your own alcoholic provisions but there is really no need as unless you have a special bottle that you wish to enjoy, Tess and Graham have a bar stocked with wine, beer and some spirits.

Accommodation

Payne’s Hut can accommodate up to 11 guests.  We stayed in “The Hut” which is the honeymoon suite.  It was very well-appointed with a very comfy queen sized bed and high quality linen and toiletries.   The hut also had a small stove for the colder months which we kept us snug and cosy.  For those who want to experience sleeping outdoors, Tess and Graham have set up a day bed on which you can roll out a sleeping swag.

 

Fact File

  • Payne’s Hut can be found at https://payneshut.com/.
  • If you are not as lucky as me and have your own fly-fishing guide husband, then my recommendation for the area would be Scott Mcpherson of Indulgence Fly-Fishing who can be found at http://www.indulgenceflyfishing.com/.  Scott is a long-term high country resident and knows the area like the back of his hand.
  • Payne’s Hut is very remote and for time-poor international visitors, our recommendation would be to charter a helicopter from Melbourne which can be landed in the paddock adjacent to Payne’s Hut.  Please contact Payne’s Hut for recommendations on charter companies and landing arrangements.

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