We are in Ascoli Piceno for language school, which is much like boot camp complete with a drill instructor, fatigue, and heat, all the things a boot camp conjures up in the mind, but set in a beautiful medieval city with fantastic regional foods and lovely mountains nearby. The temperatures have been in the 90s with humidity, something we are completely unaccustomed to and which we feel intensely. The heat makes us cranky and exhausted as well as lethargic and, to make matters worse, I have an itchy heat-rash on my arm and legs to go along with the mosquito bites I acquired in Anzio before coming here.
The two-week class we enrolled in has proven to be draining on the brain as well as the body. I have an hour of individual lessons with the school’s director before my regular group instruction, rendering me nearly brain-dead before I enter my group. In my class there is a girl from Poland and a man from Mexico, so Italian is the only common language. It can be difficult to understand as they both have their own accents on top of their Italian (as do I). Bryan and I come back from class feeling like our brains have turned to polenta. And so, come Friday we decided we needed a little break for the weekend. We packed a few things and set off on Saturday for points south in Abruzzo. There were several towns we had desired to explore as possible living quarters, and the high mountains of the Gran Sasso beckoned us with the promise of cooler air. We drove as fast as the little Lancia Ypsilon would carry us into the hills.
Abruzzo is one of the overlooked regions of Italy. It has remained somewhat isolated by the Apennine Mountains, and tucked away within its confines are beautiful hill towns, castles, and gorgeous mountains rising majestically. The autostrada has many tunnels and vertigo-inducing bridges erected high over the valleys. Much of the landscape is rugged and peaked, reminiscent of the San Juans in Southern Colorado.
We began by stopping into some towns on a postcard-hunting mission: several friends’ families are from this area and we wanted to send them picture cards of their ancestral lands. Spoltore, Penne and Popoli provided our entrée’ into Abruzzo. Then, more personally, we headed to Sulmona, our main destination. Driving into town gave us a very good first impression – it is one of the few cities set on the valley floor instead of carved into the hillside, and is virtually encircled by mountains. Beautiful. The town itself is lovely and much more “upscale” feeling than we had expected. The passeggiata brought out most of the town, the streets teeming with people stylishly dressed with care, laughing and walking, eating gelato, meeting and greeting. It gave a nice impression of an active community. We joined in, sometimes walking, sometimes sitting on the steps of the museum to watch and take it all in.
The hotel owners were very kind, spoke slowly so I could understand them (and I did understand them very well and conversed rather easily, I must say), kindly inviting us to a neighborhood party (more about contradas and sestieri in another blog post), and telling us a bit about the closest mountains. We felt duly welcomed.
Architecturally speaking, it is a pleasing sight with several grand palazzos and the typical, narrow streets lined with medieval buildings. At the end of town there is a section of medieval acquaduct that proved to be a meeting spot. After dinner we strolled down there and found a nice surprise: about 5 older citizens were ensconced in chairs with musical instruments, a sweet, little band playing old Italian folk music and 1940s and 50s classics. They were energetic and played quite well. Nearby an old woman, who had to be at least 85, was dancing to and fro to the music and clapping her hands, clearly enjoying the revelry. People milled in and out, applauding and smiling. After the performance someone popped open the Prosecco for the musicians, their payment for providing the town with some entertainment.
Sulmona is famous for their confetti - colorful, candy-coated almonds that are traditionally given out at wedding receptions. They are fashioned into elaborate shapes – bouquets of flowers, pretty pussywillows, cute snails sitting on a leaf. They are adorably simple treats (and quite tasty, too). There are several producers in town and many of the shops specialize in these little confections, to which we are now duly addicted.
We hated to leave. We wanted to explore the town a little more in-depth but had to return to school. We will go back for another visit, to get a better feel of the town, but it is definitely on our “possibilities” list. Sulmona seems a very charming place, indeed; you gotta like a town that welcomes you with music and confetti.
copyright2006 Valerie Schneider