A quick weekend trip to Rocca Calascio and Santo Stefano di Sessanio, ending with a great sandwich in L’Aquila
Roma is a particular type of capital in that a lot of her just doesn’t work. That’s part of her beauty, I tell myself, while the train to the office is 45 minutes late and seagulls are aiming their poops at my head. It’s part of her charm. Over the years since I moved back here from highly functional California, I’ve realized that my mind has made my city an anthropomorphic one, maybe born of the need to understand her. But probably because she has so much personality. Roma è sempre viva. And she strikes me as very much female. She lives, she breathes, she thunders. She’s stunning in her decay and her refusal to admit to the modern ages, and when I wake up to a light springtime chill but then walk outside to flurries of hail, only to get to the office accompanied by blazing sunshine, I realize we’re all living in the grips of a very hormonal non-human.
But I digress. Or I’m telling another story.
Living in a capital city, and to be fair, any major metropolis, means that sometimes you need to do that thing where you get out of it. It’s loud, and sometimes you don’t need loud. Sometimes you need to see the stars. I see you rolling your eyes, but come on. It’s clichè because it’s true. And here, Italy makes finding silence easy. Just a few hours drive north you hit the Abruzzo region, and although there’s a lovely chunk of it by the water, I spent my weekend traipsing around the mountainous part, looking for silence and finding silence’s best friends, Mr. Oh my god the food here is amazing and Mrs. Why yes, I’d love some more wine. We also spent a fair amount of time with their offspring, little Ms. Why don’t these jeans fit anymore, but that doesn’t matter, because sweatpants are totally appropriate star-gazing attire.
Rifugio della Rocca is a lodge, if by lodge you can picture the way the Italians do lodges – it’s ancient, on the top of a mountain in a national park, and a ten-minute walk through what can only be described as rolling hills from one of the comfortable little nook apartments brings you to the highest fortress in the Apennines. About an hour and a half stroll (read: more like gentle hike) further takes you to the little hilltop town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, where you’ll get lost in the tiny stone streets and find yourself again in the little piazzas on the top of the world. If you’ve read Lord of the Rings, you’ll be ecstatic. If you haven’t, you’ll be ecstatic anyways, because the views are breathtaking, the air is crisp, and there is cheese and prosciutto and wine galore. Here, then, is the Italy that first-time visitors sometimes feel they’re missing in the bigger cities, the one you picture from far away, the one that stays with you when you’re back home, wherever home may be. You turn a corner into a tiny hidden neighborhood and find the most delicious cafè. The stout, slightly short Abruzzese gentleman inside will tell you about how he makes his caffè napoletano, how the old coffee maker is the best because the water “spends more time with the coffee”, and he’ll serve it with a dollop of homemade cream, and his smile will be real.
For those of you into snow athletics (skiing, snowboarding, everything in between up to and including sledding, which can get really intense and totally counts, okay?), this region is famous for its mountains and for Campo Imperatore
, one of Italy’s oldest ski resorts. You’ll need a car to get around, and if you stay at the Rifugio near Rocca Calascio, you won’t be disappointed by the food or the hospitality. The lodge is run by a lovely family originally from Rome, who will give four hungry travelers breakfast even when they’re late, because they forgot the time changed last night and, please, we’re hungry. No but on a serious note, the apartments are clean and comfortable, the owners lovely, the prices reasonable, and the food nothing short of heartwarming. And pants-stretching. And! If you love music (mostly, I believe, classical), the Rifugio puts on a series of concerts this time of year, the program for which you can find here
On our way back, we swung by the city of L’Aquila, which I had never been to and am connected to only in the same way that every Italian instantly became tied to it in 2009 when I was woken up in the middle of the night to the queasy feeling of my bedroom shaking. I fell back asleep that night in Rome troubled but safe, and didn’t find out until the next morning that L’Aquila had fallen. Among the loss of lives swirled the rumor that so many newer buildings had collapsed because they had been built cheaply, with mafia contracts. This isn’t that kind of blog, so I won’t go into it, but for a slew of reasons L’Aquila became another wound in my country, another place on international and local lips, and I had hoped for some time to see it. My American friend commented that he was surprised that the city is still very much alive, that it isn’t all rubble and ruins. I remembered what I had heard a few years ago, that some of the ancient buildings didn’t fall, but rather stood strong. Today, L’Aquila is trying to rebuild itself, and walking through the streets gave me the resonating impression that it is a city that doesn’t want to stay on its knees. We saw two soldiers typical of the region, the bersaglieri, wearing the feather in their caps that is their trademark, giving a tourist couple directions, and a little farther along, scrawled on a wall, the phrase l’aquila che torna a volare, a word play on the name of the city, which translates to eagle. The eagle that returns to flight. I may essentially be an extremely sentimental being, but in today’s world, today’s Italy, that’s the phrase I hope we can cling to. I loved L’Aquila. I hope you get to see it.