In The Press
Enchanted by Abruzzo, Italy's less-known wonderland, where the olives need picking and the landscape will steal your affection
By Amanda Platell
The first sound you hear is the dawn chorus of sparrow and finches as the sun creeps over the mountains, casting a veil of pink as sweet as gossamer. Then you notice the smell, a mixture of wild herbs trod underfoot by goats and sheep in the night, rosemary, oregano, sage, thyme. Then the scent of olive groves and lavender, and, perhaps best of all, the pungent aroma of rich, black Italian coffee.
Open the windows and it is Italy as nature intended – wild, magnificent, cultivated, but unmanicured; bowed, but unbent. By day, the sheep graze, by night the wolves prowl.
The wagtails greet you with song at dawn, the eagles fly endlessly in circles overhead in the heat of the day.
This is Abruzzo, untouched by the congestion of modern life. Believe me, as the economy totters and most of us are looking for more affordable breaks, there is no more perfect spot than here.
It’s as beautiful as Tuscany (without the plague of tourists or breaking the bank), as steeped in art as Florence (albeit on a more modest scale, without the crowds and queues), and as devoted to fine food and wine as Rome (but here you can afford great food if you know where to go).
I am spending a weekend picking olives in Piano La Roma, on the flanks of the Maiella mountain, and fall in love with the place.
I’d always imagined I was more of a Tuscan girl, but Abruzzo has stolen my heart.
It must have something to do with the 200-year-old barn (Il Fienile) in which I’m staying, styled and furnished by the exuberant Notting Hill interior designer Bimbi Bellhouse and her husband, the artist Spencer Power. Some of his wonderful paintings, abstracts of the valleys before you, hang on the walls.
It is comfort personified: elegant yet modern but has a real romance about it. My favourite room is upstairs, away from everyone, with the Romeo and Juliet balcony overlooking the pool and olive groves, in the soft shadow of the mountains.
The antique French bedstead is quite an invitation to romance, as is the copper bathtub in the front window. I love sitting there at dusk with a glass of the local rose wine (at £2 a bottle!) watching the fireflies sparkling in the bushes like allyear-round Christmas lights. Fireflies only live where the air is pure.
There’s a huge double-height family sitting room, a square window framing the mountains and an open-plan kitchen downstairs with three beautiful double rooms and a large bathroom. And the best part is that the flights are cheap, especially if you book ahead, car hire effortless at Pescara airport (small, friendly and quick). And you will never tire of this setting. Just down the steep road is the kind of store you don’t see any more, run by the magnificent Maria Domenica and her family.
One minute she’s slicing prosciutto and weighing her misshapen local tomatoes as red as a toreador’s cape, the next she’s making double espressos to die for and insisting you have a beer or a rose or a grappa on the house in the tiny cafe next door. You park right outside – no tickets, no parking inspectors. Bliss.
The old locals sit sipping their coffees, smoking their cigarettes conversing cheerfully with you in Italian. I just nod. It’s like a Covent Garden Italian deli without the price tag and the pretension.
At night, the mountaintops light up like fairy lights with a series of medieval hilltop towns. They provide all the elegance and antiquity you expect of Italy.
Every village is worth exploring. Even the poorest and simplest-looking churches will surprise you with a Renaissance altarpiece, filigree crucifix, reliquary or Byzantine fresco. Many of stone carvings date back to the 11th or 12th centuries, and there are many archaeological sites to visit as well.
I adore Guardiagrele, the 13th century hilltop town with its restaurants and bars, beautiful churches, sophisticated boutiques and panoramic views over miles and miles of valleys to the Adriatic.
Bar Fil is my favourite, right in the centre of town; its cocktails are worthy of the best Manhattan bars. On a cobbled street next to the Santa Maria Maggiore church, it is a fine place to sit and watch the world go by.
Santa Chiara is a fantastic restaurant with its vaulted ceilings, stone walls and cellars, its delicious food based on local produce but with a sophisticated wine list Its owner is a lecturer at the Villa Santa Maria cookery school, which has been going for more than 500 years. Or you can try the Cantina Tripio with its colour-washed rooms in a side street proud of its genuine local cuisine cooked by granny and served by son.
My favourite town turns out to be Casoli, not just for its charming old town and 360- degree views, but because it was there that the British under Montgomery had to defend their position during some of the fiercest fighting of the Italian Campaign, 1943-1944. The Germans were occupying Guardiagrele, and the Gustav Line, the front line of the war, ran through the olive groves surrounding the barn and farmhouse. The Battle of the Sangro River was waged in one of the worst winters for 80 years.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at the Val di Sangro is a salutary reminder of the sacrifices our troops made then, as now, so far from home.
My favourite pre-lunch venue is the Caffe Al Piano, a bar in the centre of town with freshly made pastries and cakes, home-made ice cream and delicious free nibbles with your drinks.
Most Abruzzo towns have regular markets where they sell fabulous fruit, meat and cheeses. I love wandering through them, selecting prawns, mussels and crayfish fresh from the sea that morning, artichokes, peppers and plump black olives for a lazy lunch under the wisteria pergola by the pool.
The Agnello d’Oro is a tiny family-run restaurant with more good food than you can eat at crazily low prices. La Torretta, in the shadow of the 12th-century Longobard tower, is set on the edge of a brilliantly blue lake. Its huge antipasto dishes are more than most people would normally eat in a whole meal.
I like Miramonte, too, for a more sophisticated, yet still simple, meal true. Vincenzo, the chef, has worked internationally, yet stayed true to his roots.
The countryside, with its mountains, rolling hills, meadows, vineyards and olive groves, is ideal for hiking, skiing, pony trekking, walking, painting. And it has beaches you can drive to in less than half an hour.
Abruzzo is a celebration of family, festivity, good food and unfussy wine. It can be utterly transforming. For example, one evening, I find myself dancing with friends and strangers at the Castello Ducale in Casoli.
I haven’t danced for years, yet a local lady still in her apron and old enough to be my grandmother suddenly pulls me out of my seat and dances and dances, moving and grooving like a teenager.
At one point, it seems that the whole town is there, dancing and laughing – mostly at my expense. But oh, what a night.
Il Fienile and the adjoining Casa Marrucina can both be rented. The three-bedroom barn sleeps seven and prices range from €750 a week. The main house has five bedrooms, sleeps ten, prices range from €3,000 a week. (07901 924 568, http://www.mirabilialondra.com). Ryanair flies from London to Pescara from £50 (0871 246 0000, http://www.ryanair.com).