This past weekend, I had my last school study tour.
It was my favorite yet.
On the bus bright and early Saturday morning, we were en route to the mountainous region of Abruzzo, Italy.
To give you a little more directional clarity, Abruzzo is located two hours due East of Rome, in the South-center of Italy. Abruzzo is a region, not a city – the common example would be Tuscany, which borders it to the North.
If I had to describe it in short I would say it’s a cross between Tuscany and Avatar. Because the mountains are insane.
Our one-night stay was at a farm called La Porta Dei Parchi in the town of Anversa degli Abruzzo (Italian for Anversa in the Abruzzo region). There, we stayed in cabin-like apartments that smelled like pine and had the feel of the North Shore. We ate unbelievable four to five course farm-fresh meals in the dining hall and washed them down with sweet wine. We played with farm animals including a pregnant horse, an obnoxious donkey…. oh, and puppies. We made ricotta and pecorino cheese, and ate it at least six times a day. And we had a campfire – sans s’mores, but rich with guitar and campfire songs.
You’re probably thinking “wow, sounds like camp”. And it was exactly like that. And who doesn’t love camp?
That was just in our down time on the farm, but there was so much more that we did in just two days.
saturday / 10 am / Badia Morronese
Translated to “The Abbey of the Holy Spirit”, this huge complex started off as just a chapel dedicated to Santa Maria del Marrone, the patron saint of this region. It was then hermit named Pierto Angeleri, who would go on to become Pope Celestine V, who arrived at the small chapel in 1241 with the hopes of expanding it. In 1293, it was equipped with a convent.
A first reconstruction of the monastery was due to the King Charles II of Anjou in 1299 , and later there was a major embellishment in the sixteenth century and a reconstruction due to the earthquake of 1706. An amazing thing about Abruzzo was how earthquake-proof everything was. They get at least two sizeable ones per year!
In more recent times, it was used as a prison after the suppression of the religious orders in 1807, then an American war camp during the second occupation. Finally, the building underwent a massive renovation in 1997 and now is open as a museum and art exhibition showplace. Cool, huh?
saturday / 12 pm / Mount Marrone
Like I mentioned before, the man who would become Pope Celestine V was originally a hermit living in the nearby mountain. A short hike led us up to a large home and religious edifice built into the mountain. The style of the structure, and many other in this area, have a Spanish feel – because of the number of Spanish settlers that once came to this specific region. The views aren’t bad, either.
It was a great spot to eat our bag lunches of fresh bread, pecorino cheese, and fresh salami.
saturday / 2 pm / Pacentro
We paid a quick visit to Pacentro, the home of Madonna’s grandparents. And that was about the only thing that town had going for it.
saturday / 3 pm / Pelino Confetti Factory
The city of Sulmona is the world capital for confetti making. No, not the paper bits.
For those of you who didn’t know confetti was also a candy (I didn’t), you’re missing out on a true home run in the sweets game. They’re morsels made by coating nuts, primarily almonds, in sugar and sometimes chocolate. My personal favorite was white chocolate covered almonds in the candy coating. Artisans also arrange these treats in pretty designs like flowers and plants, and they’re consumed often in Italy at birthdays, holidays, weddings, and even funerals.
I even got a little bag for myself to munch on the way back to the farm!
sunday /10 am / Villalago
After the my new favorite breakfast of ricotta, jam, and sugar on pound cake, we hopped on the bus in search of some great outdoors.
Winding through hairpin turns as the clouds lifted out of the jagged, lush mountains, the Avatar experience really came to life for me. I was mesmerized, inspired, and a little carsick.
When we got off the bus just moments later, we were on the shores of one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever set eyes upon. From a bridge crossing a narrow of the lake, you could see down nearly 100 feet into the cerulean depths. It was perfect – but a little cold for a swim.
From there, we hiked a few miles up in to a town called Villalago – literally, “the town by the lake”. Nestled up on a mountain, it was a quiet village where the brick, stair-plenty streets were filled only with midmorning sunlight, until we reached the small town square where everyone and their brother was gathering after church.
Of course, they stared at us like we had just walked off Survivor Island. Oh, the woes of being an American abroad.
But the mayor walked right up to us and (translated by our advisor) proudly told us about his town, which unsurprisingly was a pretty short story. However, they do have one really unique tradition:
Every December 26th, a few priests, city officials, and the mayor scuba dive down in the nearby lake to place statues that represent their patron saints. Those statues stay their for about 5 months until they are brought up and cleaned, ready to go down again the day after Christmas and at some point, every single town member will go down to pay homage.
Which was weirdly cool, until the mayor (who is in his 80’s) casually states that the statues are about 30 meters under the surface. That’s nearly 100 feet! And that’s amazing.
After a wild morning, we were happy to return to the farm for a plentiful lunch and cheesemaking lesson. Then, with bellies full and calling for an afternoon nap, it was only fitting that we got back on the bus and headed back towards the city.
Our weekend in the mountains wasn’t short on activities – we were busy night and day. And yet, it was undoubtedly the most tranquil experience I’ve had this side of the world. To wake up and leave our rooms seeing the clouds sleepily resting on the dewy mountains, to hear the soft sounds of distant farm animals, to eat plentiful, whole food straight from the Earth, to breath in the wild, unconstrained air.
It was euphoric, and unforgettable.
Especially those confetti almonds.
Ciao, for now.