(Photo: Guido Paradisi)

What follows is a story I wrote last year for an aborted blog about a June trip I’d just taken to Abruzzo, but I think it’s worth resurrecting and reposting now. It’s about the region, what makes it so special, so “green” in the 21st-century sense, and - with our very real concerns about our future - why Abruzzo and a few special people working there to promote an intelligent, discreet tourism might offer a way forward. .

I go to Abruzzo to restore myself, to be reminded that there are still places where priorities - nature, traditions that respect and preserve the land and human dignity, vocations that produce good and useful things - seem to me sensible, in balance. In a world that seems blithely indifferent to the intrinsic value of healthy farm land, traditional ways of life, wilderness or wildlife or that, at the very least, seems unwilling to countenance the damage and loss that its pursuit of profit and obsession with the “now” engender, Abruzzo offers a welcome tonic. In much of its territory, largely untouched by mass tourism, daily life offers lessons in sustainable agriculture and animal husbandry, examples of pride in work and craft and respect for one’s surroundings.

But, of course, it’s endangered. Like most of Italy, Abruzzo is mired in a deep economic crisis. And like other naturally beautiful and comparatively untouched places, it attracts the gaze of those who’d exploit - and in the process ruin - its charm and ecological balance for short-lived economic gain. This seems to me, and my Abruzzesi friends, a shortsighted and potentially tragic perspective. I owe Abruzzo so much - my inspiration, my work, any claim to sanity I might make (that’s almost no joke) - and feel it offers a model of how to move forward in ways that preserve what actually sustains us. My friends in the region are hoping to create a sustainable economy that would preserve its flora and fauna and support its traditional ways of life - farming, shepherding, the production of artisanal foods, craftsmanship, music, art. They strive to make people aware of the importance of wilderness, crops and livestock that are naturally grown or raised, foods that include only genuine, wholesome ingredients and the value of traditional vocations and what they produce. One of the things they most want to encourage is a discreet and respectful tourism to the region. RealItaly Abruzzo, a consortium of farmers, fishermen, artisans, artists, musicians, restaurateurs and professionals, embodies this ethos. (Their website is currently being redone, so please go to the site provided above or contact me, Francis Cratil Cretarola personally; I do not mind helping anyone interested in RealItaly Abruzzo’s services get in contact with the principals- this also includes translation help, gratis).

My brother Fred and I recently took off for a few days in Abruzzo’s Majella National Park to clear our heads, bond (working with family, I’m sure many of you know, presents certain “challenges”) and reconnect with the region that informs our work. I know Abruzzo very well - I’ve been traveling and living there for extended periods since 1998 - and usually create our itineraries, but this time I trusted several of our days to RealItaly Abruzzo. Truth is, I’ve known some of the people in the consortium as friends. Knowing how well I’d traveled Abruzzo, they asked me for the opportunity to do something that would show me what they were capable of, to do something that would surprise me.

The Majella is known in Abruzzo as the “Montagna Madre,” the “mother mountain.” Its vast, rugged expanse - topped in part by the Passo San Leonardo, a treeless plain surrounded by dense, wooded solitudes and penetrated by plunging canyons filled with caverns and caves - has for millennia offered sustenance to shepherds, farmers, craftsmen and carbonai (“charcoal makers,” who were once a big part of the local economy), and provided seclusion for religious hermits and shelter to brigands. The Majella has a palpable air of mystery and mysticism that is hard to describe, and many of my Abruzzesi friends talk about it in a way that reminds me of the Sioux and Cheyenne’s spiritual feelings for the Black Hills. I wanted to penetrate some of that mystery, to share it with my brother, and I asked RealItaly Abruzzo to create an experience that would accomplish this. What they delivered was pretty much magical.

We were asked to come to the isolated village of Decontra, located at the west end of the Majella National Park and perched above the Valle dell’Orfento, a deep, river-carved gorge whose sheer, rocky sides contain the shelters of several medieval religious hermits. These simple eremi (hermitages) became places of worship for local religious cults and points of pilgrimage. The infamous briganti, who in the 1860s and ’70s defied the northern takeover of southern Italy - the old Kingdom of the Two Siciilies, a Bourbon realm extending south from Abruzzo and Molise (before 1963 grouped together and known as Abruzzi) and including Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania and Sicily - also sought refuge here. Decontra didn’t get paved roads until late in the last century and still seems mostly untouched by the 20th century. I’d visited once a couple of years before with members of the Le Virtù staff and the Abruzzese-based musical group DisCanto for lunch at Il Cervo, a restaurant specializing in game meats and the cuisine of the Majella. The town is a scattered collection of farmhouses made from local limestone. The houses conform to the topography and sometimes seem sculpted from it. We would be staying at “Pietrantica,” an agriturismo (a working farm/B&B) where one can stay and which only serves food that is raised or produced on its premises. After winding through the village past culitvated fields, pens of sheep and goats and terracotta-roofed cottages in varying states of repair (and only after consulting with a farmer, perched on his tractor), we located and parked on the road above the rustic B&B. Across the valley, the crest of the Majella’s southern rim, framed by clouds, towered above the farmhouse.

I should say that, as is the case in much of Abruzzo, Decontra and the Pietrantica agriturismo are not perfectly tidy or postcard-pretty. This is working farm country and looks it. And this makes it, to my eyes at least, all the more compelling and beautiful.

We were a little ahead of schedule but our host, Marisa, cheerfully greeted us, made coffee and began conversing with us about Abruzzo and her family’s work, what they hoped to accomplish with the agriturismo and the products they farmed. We were seated in what now served as the B&B’s dining room but which once must have been the farm’s barn. It was a large but warm space, with a sloped wooden ceiling supported by ancient timbers. Marisa, her husband Camillo and several local farmers were committed to continuing the town’s agricultural and pastoral traditions. She spoke of their insistence on using indigenous grains, some of which they’d actually been able to rescue from what had seemed - due to the dominance of GMOs and corporate farming outside Abruzzo - certain extinction. These local grains could thrive in high altitudes and better resist frost and blight. They produced a versatile range of foods - pasta, focaccia, cakes, pies and a bread that kept for days- which was and is no small thing in Abruzzo’s mountains. She talked about how the villagers seasonally gathered to make sheep- and goat’s-milk ricotta and cheeses in the traditional way with fresh milk flavored with the mountain grasses and herbs the animals consumed. Camillo, a former Alpino (elite mountain soldier), was an expert on the local topography. He knew the trails, flora and fauna and had grown up in the village shepherding and farming. Together, they harvested the wild herbs, truffle, mushrooms, berries and vegetables that the Majella provided. During our talk locals came and went, contributing stories about life in the mountains, products and dishes particular to their village and what traditions managed to persist. The talk was animated, frank and lively. While there was some sadness about traditions that’d been lost, there was much more determined optimism and a sense of mission.

The plan was to have a meal of rustic local dishes there that night and, with Camillo’s expert guidance, to descend into the precipitous Orfento gorge the next day to visit the hermitage of San Giovanni (perhaps the valley’s most evocative and difficult to reach). The climb would not be very long or harrowing - Camillo could create itineraries for any type of hiker, from the novice to the expert, in the Orfento and nearby Valle dell’Orta, another natural reserve - but it would require some effort. Marisa showed Fred and me to our comfortable, private room (the farm has several rooms, all autonomous) and told us to be back in the dining room an hour or so before dinner.

When we reemerged, Marisa asked us to follow her to the lower area in the farmhouse. We were going to help her make bread and focaccia. I ran to get my camera and by the time I returned, I found my brother at work with Marisa kneading the dough. The room had a vaulted ceiling and walls covered by the tools used at the farm in each season: wicker baskets and wooden implements for making cheese, simple shears for sheep wool and blacksmith tools. Just beyond this room, a wood-fired oven was already blazing.

When the kneading was done we climbed to the dining room where we were joined by two married couples from Hamburg who were also staying at the farm and an English woman who worked editing U.N. documents but who improbably (but, as was becoming clearer with each moment, understandably) spent as much time as she could in Decontra. But there was another guest coming who made the occasion particularly moving and meaningful for me.

Years before, friends Sara and Michele of the musical group DisCanto had given me a small book. Its title was “My Dreams Were All On The Majella” (“I miei sogni sono stati tutti sulla Majella”) and it was written by a shepherd/farmer from Decontra who’d had almost no formal education. Despite his lack of polish (or maybe because of it), the book’s simple, honest and loving descriptions of life in the village - growing up, planting the crops, the deaths of loved ones, festivals, shepherding flocks on the mountain, protecting those flocks from wolf attacks along with Abruzzesi sheepdogs, the arrival in 1943 of the Germans and experiences of wartime, courtship and married life - were incredibly affecting and poetic. The narrative made no effort to hide the hardships endured, but also expressed a satisfaction with life, a joy in each season and love for community that was as irresistible as it was foreign to someone (at least, me) living in contentious times at the beginning of the 21st century. I read and reread the book, and I’d brought it with me on this trip. Marisa and Camillo’s description of their lives as well as the tools for nearly every essential trade present in the farmhouse reminded me of many of its passages.

The author, Paolo Sanelli (known to friends and family by the nickname Paolino), often referred to as Decontra’s “shepherd poet,” was still living and in his 80s. It was explained to me that he was coming before dinner to meet me, that Camillo was his son, Marisa his daughter-in-law and the house I was staying in his former home.

Paolino arrived and we sat together for a while. He was thin, with the tough, weathered skin one would expect from someone who’d made his life farming and shepherding in these beautiful but uncompromising surroundings. His dress was modest and dignified. His memory was vivid and his mien that of a much younger man as he recounted tales of having to chase wayward sheep into the foreboding Orfento, hiding in its caves with his flocks during savage lightning storms, walking with the rest of the village to the high fields to harvest grain, dealing with the Wehrmacht occupation and his one trip far from Abruzzo (three months picking apples in England). He was everything his book represented: joyful, gentle, strong and wise. It tickled him immensely to think that his book had traveled from Abruzzo to Philadelphia and back again. He promised to have lunch with us the next day after our hike into the gorge.

That night seems sepia-toned in my memory, which might’ve been a product of the homemade wine. Marisa and her helpers brought rustic breads and focaccia to the table, then a simple pasta with tomato and housemade sheep and goat’s-milk ricotta followed by grilled lamb. The bread, focaccia and pasta were all made with the same local whole grain - solina - as was the crust of the unforgettable pie that followed. Table conversation went on in Italian, English and German, in various combinations. The communal feel was infectious, and by the end of the meal, we were all singing.

The next morning we were joined at breakfast by Alessandro Sonsini, one of the principals of RealItaly Abruzzo, an architect and the producer of a series of TV documentaries, “Talenti e Territori,” that told the stories of Abruzzesi entrepreneurs, artisans and artists who’d used the region as inspiration for their work. Several months before, I’d taken part in one of these, a program on Michele Avolio (it had been Sara and he who’d given me Paolino’s book), of DisCanto (perhaps the greatest living proponent and performer of Abruzzese song). Michele had asked me to talk about his music, what I thought it and Abruzzo offered the world, with Alessandro as my interviewer. It had been both an honor and a humbling experience.

Alessandro had taken the idea from this documentary series and teamed up with some of its subjects to create a region-wide network of farmers, fisherman, restaurants, artisans, and artists who could offer services to those wanting to experience real immersions in Abruzzo’s traditional culture. From fishing boats and trabocchi (traditional wooden fishing platforms) on the sea, to farms like Pietrantica and remote, medieval mountain villages in the region’s many parks (over 30% of Abruzzo is preserved as parkland), RealItaly Abruzzo could propose a diverse selection of options. Places like Pietrantica provided a look at rural customs, natural modes of farming and food production as well as guided mountain tours of natural, cultural and historic sites. Other contributors guided excursions to see the region’s wolves, bears and other wildlife. Some artisans offered lessons in traditional loom weaving, ceramic and jewelry production, canning and preserving and the construction of complex houses with mud bricks (an ancient practice once common in Abruzzo’s Chieti Province which, owing to its “green” technology, is now being rediscovered). Itineraries, of any length, could be built around the travelers’ interests and the talents of of the consortium members. These could be customized or one could pick from some pre-designed itineraries. A couple of the planned itineraries capped off the day with a concert of traditional music by DisCanto. This seemed to me a rare opportunity to penetrate the region’s dense, beautiful culture and experience it from the inside. Abruzzo has enormous soul, and RealItaly Abruzzo provides a singular opportunity to know it first hand.

We - Alessandro, Fred, our guide and driver Camillo - piled into a beaten old 4×4 for a half-hour ride up the mountainside and along the gorge toward a starting point that made for the most convenient descent for the San Giovanni hermitage. Lucky, Camillo’s black-and-white mixed-breed dog, shadowed us the whole route, sometimes rushing ahead of the car and flushing animals from the rocks and brush. It reminded me of the time we’d spent living with our two Jack Russells in the Gran Sasso National Park. They never forgave us for coming back to Philadelphia. Abruzzo is a dog’s paradise. Along the way, Camillo talked about his frequent encounters on the mountain with wolves, the odd bear sighting (Abruzzo’s bears are mainly south of the Majella, in the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo). As he was telling us one of these stories, we spotted an eagle perched on a tree above an old ruined capanna, a mortarless rock hut much like a trullo or tholos and used by shepherds for shelter well into the last century. It seemed to mind our presence, spread its wings and took off, coasting in circles above us for a while and then returning to its perch after we’d rumbled down the road. We reached the trailhead, parked the car and began our hike. A dense fog had fallen over the gorge. It was thick in the trees and along the trail, which disappeared in front of us. The five of us, Lucky included, walked into a dreamscape.

(First photo: Guido Paradisi www.tripsinitaly.it)

Along the way, Camillo told us about life in the mountains, the ethos that informed it, the idea of caring for and tending the woods. As many of the mountain villages have become depopulated, some of these traditions have weakened. Many of the young people here leave in search of work. For most it’s a heartbreaking choice. He hoped that a reevaluation of the area’s traditions and natural treasures might create an economy that would allow these young people to stay.

The trail was steep but usually not too difficult. The profound depth of the gorge, sometimes in front and sometimes to the side of us, was obscured by the mist. We passed a basin carved by shepherds into the rock countless years ago. Water issued from a crack in the wall and filled the basin, where sheep and goats could drink. Camillo talked about experiences in the gorge from his and his father’s life, about his father having to shelter all night with his flock in grottos when weather or darkness caught him too far from home to safely return. We talked about the briganti who’d used the gorge as a place to hide from the Piemontesi authorities and Carabinieri in between raids. Many of the locals, here and in the rest of Southern Italy, saw the briganti as Robin Hood-like figures, independent souls who resisted subjugation. There’s a line in a DisCanto song about the briganti living in these very mountains that speaks volumes: “three are the powerful: the pope, the king and he with nothing to lose.” Most of their lives ended violently. In the gorge and other parts of the Majella, their presence seems to lurk in every shadow.

Eventually the trail flattened, relatively, and we came to a narrow point that required us to hug the stone and creep sidewise. I inched along, my cheek flush against the rock wall, at my back a great void, now mercifully obscured by dense fog. If I fell (which, honestly was unlikely - there was a tree that I could grab and Camillo was within arm’s reach - but the imagination does that kind of thing to you…and I’ve always had a deathly fear of heights), I’d disappear forever into a plush cushion of mist. Which is probably a more poetic fate than I’ll get. Sensing my nervousness, Camillo remarked that village lore held that a cow, lost in the canyon, had once managed to pass this point. The dog seemed to smile at me. We all passed without difficulty. After about an hour we reached the rock shelf beneath San Giovanni’s lair, which was a deep, nearly perfectly rectangular pocket carved out of the rock some 30 feet above. It was reachable only by a narrow staircase, crudely cut out of the stone and leading to a even narrower ledge. At a point midway along the walkway, the overhanging cliff forced those who’d enter to get on their bellies and crawl like a snake into the chamber. Camillo and Lucky demonstrated as we watched from an elevated rocky projection further down the main trail.

(Photos: Alessandro Sonsini)

San Giovanni is the toughest of the eremi to reach and enter. It appears almost entirely natural, but it’s certain that some of it was excavated by hand. The Spartan niche contains a primitive alter and a cistern for water collection. Archeological evidence indicates human presence at least back to the Bronze Age but it’s most significant inhabitation occurred during the 13th Century. The Benedictine monk Pietro Da Morrone, better known to the world as Celestino V (Celestine V), the “Hermit Pope,” and the only Pope before Ratzinger to renounce the papacy, spent the better part of a decade living here before being named the Bishop of Rome. He’s the lone Abruzzese to have ever held the office. Other monks stayed here with him and there is evidence of a monastery. The other hermitages in the Orfento include complex structures and can be entered by a doorway and on foot. They are impressive and moving in their own way, but the presence that one feels at San Giovanni is singular. The mystery of the place, its spirituality, heightened our senses. I’m not religious, but there was an undeniable power in this place.

Then it was my turn (Fred and Alessandro opted out). I reached the overhang, got on my belly and began to wriggle toward the lair. The width of my shoulders and an old offensive center’s frame were no assets here and I felt myself being pushed out over the ledge. Almost half my torso hovered over the side. Most Abruzzesi are not very big people. Camillo has the compact, muscular frame typical in the region. He’s at least half a foot shorter than I, more narrow in the shoulders and slender. At this point, Lucky greeted me and began licking my face. It wasn’t as funny then as it might seem now. My nerve failed. I admit it. I crawled backwards toward a wider part of the ledge. Next time. And there will be a next time.

During our climb out of the canyon, the weather began to break and the true scope and depth of the Orfento became clearer. Vast plunges emerged from the misty canopy. Aside from a few spots where we were required to briefly climb using our hands - and these seemed to have ledges and crannies designed to support the novice trekker - the path out was relatively easy and pleasant. We talked excitedly about what we’d seen, the potential of RealItaly Abruzzo and places like Pietrantica, the priceless opportunities they represented for the right clientele and Abruzzo’s future. I determined then and there to make them a cause, which is, I guess, what this piece represents: the first steps of a personal crusade.

We drove back down the mountain toward Decontra, Lucky running beside the 4X4 the whole way. At Pietrantica, Marisa was waiting with a lunch of housemade cheeses and ricotta, a salad of fresh tomato, arugula and farro, served with cerasoulo rosè. Paolino came through the door and sat beside me. He wanted to write something personal in my book, a simple inscription stating his wonder at the nature of our journeys:

“Paolo Sanelli. I am happy for the knowledge we have gained of each other. America. Italians. Abruzzi. Caramanico. Decontra.”

He smiled contentedly as we all talked and laughed. And inside I’d the feeling that I’d come home. Again.