Pescocostanzo, Sulmona, and the Apennines
10/15/2014 - 10/16/2014
By the time we left Vieste, restaurants were already opening for lunch but we hadn't any appetite yet after our self-catered breakfast. Getting out of the Gargano Peninsula was slow going and we wasted a lot of time in a city called Lucera trying to find a castle that stubbornly refused to appear on Google Maps. We gave up on the castle and tried to find lunch in the center of town, but once again were frustrated by the tendency of restaurants to have very limited opening hours for lunch in the offseason. Eventually we abandoned Lucera and set off for Pescocostanzo in the Apennine mountain range of central Italy. At this point I wasn't expecting great things from the last two days of the trip and just wanted to enjoy a little more Italian countryside before the long flight back. I had tried finding an Airbnb in Pescocostanzo but the few options listed didn't respond so I chose a Booking.com hotel in Sulmona a few miles further north, and reduced Pescocostanzo to a stopover. This ended up being a very fortuitous decision.
Dusk was already falling when we reached the hilltop town of Pescocostanzo so we parked close to the center and made a beeline for the old town. The buildings were picturesque but the streets were strangely empty of pedestrians, although cars regularly barreled down the main avenue at surprising speed. Still smarting from our missed lunch, we found a pastry shop where we were able to take the edge off our hunger with apple strudel and cappucino. There seemed little to do in the quiet town and I was relieved that we weren't sticking around all night.
Naturally, when we arrived in Sulmona a little while later we were eager to get a real dinner. It didn't help anybody's mood that our B&B was in a restricted zone and I had to leave the family in the car and walk several blocks to the place to find out where we could park and get a pass. We had to squeeze into a very tight spot so that our wide car didn't block the street, and extracting the gondola and bags was like delivering triplets. Our suite in Il Marchese del Grillo was nice but both beds were in one room, a little more of a cramped situation than we were used to. The hostess at the B&B recommended the Lonely Planet's top choice, Hosteria Dell'Arco. After our usual difficulties locating the restaurant deeper in the old town, we had a very disappointing dinner of lifeless antipasti and greasy overgrilled meat. As usual, it was hard to understand why it was so difficult to get a decent meal even when we were so careful in making our choices. We ate enough to ward off hunger for the night and made our way back to the B&B. Sulmona was a much larger and livelier town than Pescostanzo, so despite the difficulties of the day I felt like we were staying in the right place.
We had a restful night and woke up in much better spirits. Mei Ling took the kids upstairs for the rooftop breakfast and I followed soon after. What I saw when I came out onto the terrace was absolutely breathtaking. The B&B was apparently one of the tallest buildings in the area with the exception of the nearby bell tower and dome of the Church of the Santissima Annunziata. We had wonderful views over the entire old town and we were completely surrounded by the Apennines, which looked as though they had been painted on a set in the background. The breakfast spread was simply the best I have ever encountered at a B&B, and was high on the list of the top ten meals we had on our journey. There were fresh fruits and tomatoes, a wide selection of salamis and cheeses, freshly squeezed juices, and a delicious olive/truffle tapenade that we couldn't get enough of. Our hostess told us that almost everything there came from her family farm nearby, and it was obvious from the taste that everything had just been picked or prepared. Between the setting and the meal, the effect was overwhelming and gave us a wonderful start to the last day of our journey.
We spent a couple of hours strolling in Sulmona, and eventually found ourselves in the main square. We found a new backpack and duffelbag at a dollar store in the square, which interestingly enough had a Chinese proprietor. The proprietor told Mei Ling he had come to Italy twenty years earlier and opened a Chinese restaurant, but at the time of the SARS epidemic rumors swept through the area that one could contract the virus by eating at Asian restaurants and he was forced to close.
After the shopping and another lengthy episode where we stocked up on dumplings for Cleo at a Chinese restaurant, we had a very late start getting out of Sulmona. Our destination was Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a small town perched atop an Apennine hill that had a reputation for not having changed in centuries. Driving through the isolated mountainous area, it was hard to believe we were only an hour east of Rome. Picturesque villages dotted the hillsides and hilltops while the valleys seemed bereft of human inhabitants.
Once we got close to our destination and had to leave the main road, Google Maps started to get hinky as usual and led us down some back roads. A couple of times we got caught behind slow-moving farm equipment and once had to stop for a herd of sheep that were crossing the road. Eventually we rolled into Santo Stefano and parked in a small lot just outside the center. At first, it seemed like the town was only populated with stray dogs. In order to get to the entrance to the old town I had to practically step over a group of sleeping dogs and I wondered what kind of mood they would be in if they woke up. I needn't have worried, because as we were packing up the kids they got up and ambled around the lot, completely ignoring us. Once we got inside the old town, we found one art shop that was open and otherwise the streets were eerily quiet and empty. Nevertheless, we could sense that the ancient and crumbly walls hid a living community that preferred to exist in peace and quiet during the eight months of the year they weren't overrun with tourists.
We hunted in vain for a restaurant, reaching our last hope just half an hour after they had closed their kitchen. I hadn't planned anything after Santa Stefano, but I didn't feel quite ready to end our trip. We had a late morning flight the next day and we had decided there was no point in dealing with Rome traffic, so we had booked a basic motel in the airport suburb of Fiumicino. Once we arrived there, our trip was essentially over. I thumbed through my Lonely Planet on the iPad and realized we were close to a ruined mountaintop fort called Rocca Calascio that was briefly mentioned in passing. We decided we would make that our last stop and then head back towards Rome and Fiumicino.
Rocca Calascio was just a few kilometers back on the mountain road we had taken to San Stefano, a turnoff just after the small town of Calascio. I had actually passed the fork earlier without taking note of the sign for the fort. We made our way up a steep winding road and past a few hairpin turns until the road eventually terminated in a small parking lot. From here, a pedestrian street led up into another deserted-looking medieval town. We stepped up onto a grassy platform just above the parking lot which was only occupied by a short segment of crumbling stone wall, and could see rolling valleys for miles around. In the distance were peaks and ridges of the Apennines. Behind us was a steep hill on top of which we could see more ruins.
A cobblestone path led into the remains of a town that clearly had no permanent inhabitants. Grass and trees were growing over the buildings and paths. After a couple of turns, the path turned into a dirt road and the walk up the hill started to feel more like a climb.
A little further up we encountered the abandoned 17th century church of Santa Maria della Pietà. Although beautiful, its forsaken appearance on that desolate mountainside made it an intimidating sight. I don't think you could have paid me enough to spend a night in that place.
At this point, there was no path left at all and rocky outcroppings impeded our view of the top. After a couple of false starts we eventually rediscovered the upward route and proceeded to the fort, which was absolutely spectacular. At the lower level of the ruin, we had the best views yet of the Apennine mountains and valleys extending for miles in every direction. The wind was forceful and would have chilled us to the bone in a cooler climate. As it was, I was grateful that Ian was kept snug by the carrier and my own body heat. We picked our way up the rocky slope to the main fort which was better preserved, with continuous walls and corner turrets. Cleo insisted on walking across the short wooden bridge into the fort by herself, although I was afraid the wind would blow her off her feet.
Rocca Calascio was one of the best experiences of the entire journey, and it came right at the end when we were practically ready to pack it in and head to our airport motel. It's very hard to find the words to describe the isolated beauty of the mountain fort, which felt like walking on the surface of another planet despite being only an hour away from Rome. As we descended the winding roads towards the highway, I wistfully looked at all the other hilltop towns and wondered what other Apennine secrets would remain hidden from us forever.
In our zeal to avoid being caught in Rome traffic, we wasted much more time getting lost in search of a TripAdvisor recommended restaurant in the suburb of Frascati that turned out to be average, and then becoming hopelessly disoriented when our phone signal disappeared on the way to Fiumicino. Eventually we found the motel and the rather surly proprietor and spent a couple of hours reorganizing our belongings for the flight home. It seemed like we'd only just closed our eyes when the alarms went off and we were piling into the car for the drive to the airport. We had one last panicky episode where we couldn't figure out where the dropoff was for the car, and then we were ready for the gate agent, security, and the eleven hour flight to Miami.