The lives of many in picturesque Abruzzo are tied to the land. We take a tour of the top tables, producers and places to stay.
For at least 3,000 years the transumanza, a tradition of moving flocks of sheep and herds of goats between mountain and pasture, has been practised across the rocky slopes of Abruzzo. Something about this almost tidal rhythm captures the mood of the sparsely populated mountainous territory wedged between better known Lazio and Puglia. Abruzzo is one of the last places in Europe where the seasonal migration of animals continues to define almost every aspect of life. In its medieval villages, nearly everything you can do or consume is closely linked to the animals and land, including the very strong wine that is poured, generously, throughout long, joyful lunches.
Declared an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by Unesco in 2019, the movement of flocks has created bonds between people, animals and ecosystems. Twice a year, in autumn and spring, hundreds of animals are shepherded with the help of horses, dogs and, occasionally, shepherds’ families.
Outsiders who want to experience the soul of Abruzzo, one of Italy’s most isolated regions, can join some of the flock movements. This entails a long weekend of walking – take sturdy shoes – with more than 1,000 sheep and goats moving towards the pastures of the Piana delle Cinque Miglia, a grazing area near the village of Roccaraso. Departures are ususally from the hamlet of Anversa degli Abruzzi in Gole del Sagittario, a stunning nature reserve in the L’Aquila region.
Among Anversa degli Abruzzi’s 400 villagers is Nunzio Marcelli, who presents himself to us with a firm handshake and even more imposing beard. Marcelli studied economics at the Sapienza Università di Roma but spends his days working the land and herding sheep, battling the push of modernity that threatens the age-old traditions of Abruzzo. “The goats and sheep of the transumanza once followed tratturi, ancient paths that were part of an immense network of trails along which churches, taverns and bridges were built,” he says. “These natural highways could be up to 111 metres wide, and up to 245km in length but only a few are still accessible. Today only a few remain; most have been swallowed by roads, villages and private land. Along the way, strategically placed resting points called riposi would occasionally appear, providing shade and water to shepherds and their flocks,” adds Marcelli, who would like to see such waypoints and trails protected further and become Unesco World Heritage Sites.
“Flanked by canny maremmano sheepdogs and centuries of folk wisdom, the shepherds know exactly what their flocks need and how to protect them from wolves and bears”
Marcelli’s co-operative farm, La Porta dei Parchi, is open to visitors who want to learn more about the traditional way of farming in Abruzzo. There is also a bed and breakfast where simple but excellent food is served at wooden benches overlooking the spectacular countryside. Visitors can buy organic products from the farm at a tiny on-site shop.
To ensure the continued existence of traditional Abruzzese agriculture, Marcelli has also launched Adopt-a-Sheep, an initiative that supports villagers’ time-honoured methods of herding. In return for an annual fee, sheep-adopters receive a selection of Abruzzo’s finest organic cheese, meat, woollen socks and other accessories a few times a year. There is nothing industrial about the scale of the products that Marcelli makes. Members of his programme might get artisanal lamb and goat salami; brigantaccio (this area’s pecorino) made from raw sheep’s milk; or ricotta lightly smoked with juniper. Marcelli’s philosophy of producing fewer but better products provides lessons that are applicable well beyond rural Abruzzo.
sleep:Sextantio: This is a must-stay: a collection of hotel rooms distributed over 28 age-old village houses (albergo diffuso means “scattered hotel”), thoughtfully restored to preserve the soul of Abruzzo.
stay and eat: Ristorante Casadonna Reale: In a former monastery in a mountainside village near the town of Castel di Sangro, Casadonna Reale has 10 bedrooms and the three-Michelin-starred restaurant of chef Niko Romito, which serves clean, straightforward dishes of Abruzzese origin.
seafood: Trabocco Palombo: In the old days, trabocchi were wooden fishing installations that endured the fierce seas along the coast. Now these shacks are the most charming of seafood restaurants. Try Trabocco Palombo near Fossacesia.
buy: Rio Verde Tartufi: It’s a well-kept secret that Abruzzo has the best truffles (both black and white) in Italy. Vittoria Mosca goes out truffle hunting every day with her husband and runs a little shop. She also supplies many of the top chefs in Italy.
eat:Taverna de li Caldora: The simplest and most sumptuous food of Abruzzo can be eaten on the huge terrace, which has views over Pacentro, or down in the cool cellars of this restaurant. It’s the perfect place to try the fabulous regional cheeses and meats.
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Anversa, a village of medieval houses in a dramatic landscape of snow-covered Apennine peaks, is the perfect point of departure from which to discover the region. Residents meet several times a day in the village bar for coffee or aperitivi, but you will have to rise early to spot the shepherds opening the gates of farms to release their sheep. Flanked by canny maremmano sheepdogs and centuries of folk wisdom, the shepherds know exactly what their flocks need and how to protect them from wolves and bears. Horses and donkeys are brought along to serve as pack animals and carry foods including ricotta, pecorino, scamorza and caciottine for the walk.
A typical transumanza for visitors might take three days and cover about 60km. The accommodation is homely but that means home-cooked meals, Abruzzese wine and plenty of impromptu dances to mountain folk songs. The landscape, despite being only 150km east of Rome, seems very far from the concerns of fast-paced city life. The rhythm that’s important here is that of the animals who walk, stop, eat and graze on the mountains. In October the transumanza moves in the opposite direction, from the mountains to the farms, as the cycle begins again.