We were living in the heart of Old Rome with two small children, when suddenly I could hear and smell more of it than I could bear. Into the car we piled, setting off in search of paradise—a pristine place where the sky would be clear ad bright, the people friendly, the landscape inspiring. We found it in the Abruzzo, and bought a vacation home there, which we enjoyed for seventeen years, or until the grown-up children moved to the U.S., meaning that I too travelled far too much.
But the Abruzzo remained, a kaleidoscope of heart and memory, each corner so different from the other that every day there was something fresh and new, from seashore to magnificent mountains behind my little house, 3 km. from the nearest village. Behind our little chalet the neighbors built a treehouse, which all the neighboring children enjoyed. One day there was an invitation to a mountain picnic on a spring day. As a lamb was roasting the village women gathered in a circle in the meadow, and, as an accordion was played, these normally quite serious women played a game of catch-the-kerchief.
Then there was the August evening when a political party had a rally with a supper. There being a number of Roma (gypsies) visiting in the vicinity, they too came and dined at the mayor’s table. Yet another serendipitous moment was to happen upon an elegant church with a Tuscan look, solitary in the countryside. And indeed it was Tuscan, built because Florentine merchants crossed regularly through the Abruzzo en route to the Adriatic Sea.
When the snows came we were often isolated for a few days because we lived so far from a village. This was not a great problem because we kept emergency food supplies and plenty of flashlights and firewood. On cross country skis during one of those rather beautiful snowbound days we were excited because we actually found wolf tracks.
If this was rustic Italy, there was also the more sophisticated towns, like splendid L’Aquila with its historic fountain. A visit to Sulmona was always a treat, for the entire town seemed decorated with flowers in rainbow colors. They were, in fact, bouquets of the colored sugared almonds which Italians traditionally offer at weddings. Sulmona, birthplace of the Roman poet Ovid (known then as Sulmo), has to be the world capital of sugared almonds.
And not to be missed is the magnificent archaeological museum at Chieti. Housed in the neo-classical Villa Frigerij, built in 1830, its collection dates back to the 6th century BCE. The region had attracted Greek colonists, who left their imprint upon the early culture, in a symbiotic relationship with those already inhabiting the country. The museum’s greatest treasure, and one of the great treasures of European archaeology, is the statue of the Warrior of Capestrano, from the 6th century BCE. Found accidentally and in broken pieces by workers in a vineyard, it was a marble funeral monument, presumably to a warrior prince. He wears sandals on his feet and, on his head, a peculiar hat that resembles a sombrero but is more likely his shield. The same museum has a precious collection of some 15,000 coins on display in a dozen cases, plus smaller objects which illustrate the daily life of the Piceno people: glass bottles, ivory and bronze statuettes, and small figures of deities.
Not least, ancient Pescara on the seaside is home to a Museum of the Abruzzi people, which illustrates the region’s 4,000 years of history.
There is, of course, a contemporary Abruzzo, a region on the move. In the second half of 2011 exports from the region surged by 13.5% over the same period the previous year. The big success stories: pasta and other baked goods (E 3.4 million), wines (E 3 million), and meats (E 1.9 million). In addition, exports of textiles, metals and machines and pharmaceuticals also rose, so that by early 2011 total exports had bounced up by over 21%, improving upon the previous year’s already excellent 18%.
Whereas youth employment has plunged in the rest of Italy, according to the official statistics-gathering agency ISTAT, at the end of last year 18,000 more young people had jobs than did the year before. Although Italy is officially in recession, Abruzzo analysts say that not only is there a certain revival of business, but also that a reform of the region’s industrial consortiums plus efforts to innovate and attention to modern communications are contributing factors.
So what is pushing the economy forward? Latest available statistics show over 509,000 are employed, and total unemployment stands at 7.9%, a healthy improvement over 2010 and a return to the pre-recession figure of 2008. Industry and construction employ 14,000 and services, 6,000. But there are still plenty of farms where sheep and cattle graze, and over four thousand are still employed in agriculture.