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Locked down but not out in Italy

Singing from the balconies! One nice thing about this crisis ... solidarity! “Guess you’re not living like a tourist anymore,” was the funny, truthful and somewhat gut-wrenching message of a friend the day the lockdown in Italy began. Today is day 6. My beloved Italia has been hit hard with the COVID19 epidemic. With the second largest elderly population in the world, the epidemic has meant a disproportionate amount of deaths in the country. So though I haven’t been worried about contracting it myself, this isn’t about me or someone like me who, if contracted it would probably have a sucky couple of weeks and then recover. It is about if someone like me contracted it and then spread it to a person with a complicated health history or an elderly person with a weakened immune system. Eerily orderly: Lines for the grocery store, each person one meter apart In a country with no concept (and no physical room really) for personal space, and in a city with reproachable hygie

Nel Cuore d'Abruzzo (In the Heart of Abruzzo)

Representation of the Cuore d'Abruzzo by local artist

Friday evening, we hopped into the shiny red, Fiat Cinquecento (500) that we had rented and fled from the casino (chaos) of Pope John Paul II’s beatification weekend in Rome. We were off to Abruzzo, a much neglected part of Italy in my opinion, and a region from which my favorite wine originates. Those two reasons were enough for a visit. 

Meet our Shiny Red Cinquecento
Our choice to leave Friday night, however, meant that we would be arriving at our remote agriturismo within the mountainous valleys of Abruzzo two and a half hours into the darkness of the night. It was indeed as difficult as it sounds, and without any signage whatsoever, we resorted to having the owner pick us up in the nearby town. He didn’t seem to mind at all, however, and in his fast Italian and hyper and happy demeanor, he led us to our room in the Country House Antiche Dimore, a cozy stone cottage amid a clearing in the forest with an incredible view of the nearby city, a view that we didn’t actually see until the next morning however. 

Our Agriturismo. Roccamorice in the background.
The result of our 45 minute climb up serpentine streets and rocky roads was a view from the top of a mighty looking valley, Italy’s Grand Canyon we joked. But my stomach, remembering the windy path to get here, was not as amused when realizing that the way back down would offer no repose. 

Grand Canyon d'Italia
The nearby town was Roccamorice, a town with which we apparently shared a kinship. Out of the approximately one thousand residents, a large proportion had emigrated from this particular town to Canada. By the plaques all over the city, in the church and on prominent buildings, it was obvious that these residents kept close ties with their mother country and sent money back home for the renovation of their village. 

Sign thanking the Roccolani Canadesi
A town the size of Roccamorice needs no more than 15 minutes to see its entirety. However, it was adorable, and aside from its magnificent view and its Canadian-ness, my favorite aspect of this town was the Hard Rocc bar. Clever. 

Roccamorice's Hard Rocc Cafe
San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore
Another nearby town was San Valentino, and it was charming just upon entrance. A combination of its layout on a hill, its large stone buildings and, perhaps even its name, gave it a sense of beauty. It was also from here that I bought the Cuore d’Abruzzo featured above from a local artisan shop, Majarte, displaying all types of abruzzesi crafts.

San Valentino
Eremo San Bartolomeo- Hermitage San Bartolomeo
Being low profile generally speaking but also unbeknownst to us on a personal level, exploration of Abruzzo was our only plan for the weekend.  In Lonely Planet’s 924 page guide on Italy, Abruzzo receives a measly 10 page mention and could well have read, “Not worth your time”; the author(s) very obviously did not favor this region. 

Therefore, we pruned ideas of sites to visit from our Agriturismo host and not the book. Aside from nearby towns like Roccamorice and San Valentino, the area was also known for spiritual hermitages situated within the obliging national park. Eremo San Bartolomeo, for one, sounded like an interesting adventure. A place for spiritual retreat, this hermitage was built into a rocky cave that can only be reached by a fairly lengthy walk through the vastness of the Majella National Park. So we took Cinquecento as far as shiny red could go and then parked him on the side of a field to await us. Then we began our trek. Without any map, and of course, with no real guidance from Italian signs, we periodically wondered whether or not these less-than-frequently traversed paths would in fact take us to our destination. Debating whether to turn around, we at last saw a lonely and faded sign giving us enough reassurance to continue the hike. 

Barely legible sign to the hermitage
As the path got narrower and more overgrown, we wondered when the last pilgrims/visitors had been. To amuse himself on the otherwise plain and somewhat dreary hike, my mischievous ragazzo began inventing tales of various wild animals stalking us as we walked. Perhaps as punishment for this hubris, we came to a part of the path where visible animal tracks could be seen and then we heard noises in the very nearby bushes. We froze. “There’s something in the bushes,” he says. “I know. I saw it,” I reply, my own eyes being proof that this time, he wasn’t just teasing. I didn’t see much, but what I did see was not comforting: a glimpse of a four-legged, darkish gray/black furry animal, definitely on all fours and somewhat low to the ground. Abruzzo is known for two animals: wolves and bears. My brief glimpse of this animal didn’t rule out either one. His glimpse of this unknown creature was the same with the exception that he saw two of them. Cubs perhaps? We stayed frozen, worried that our previous jokes had masked the fact that we really knew nothing of what to do or how to act when faced with any of Abruzzo’s animals: Run? Scream? Play dead? Stay perfectly quiet? With nothing on us but a phone out of reception, we had no choice but to stay still hoping not to invoke the interest of whatever it was. 

When nothing charged or pounced at us after 5 minutes, we started walking slowly back the way we came, ditching the idea of the hermitage. We crept forward carefully, picking up sharp rocks as we went as the only possible tools for defense. After another five minutes of retreat, we started walking much faster back toward our cherry Cinquecento. Twenty tense minutes later, and safely back in the car, we kind of laughed and kind of cursed ourselves for walking along the path so naively. It was a wild region after all and even if Lonely Planet claims, “Abruzzo and Molise boast three national parks encompassing 3350 sq km of mountainous terrain. Here a small number of wolves and bears roam free, and although you’re unlikely to meet one, it adds an edge to know you might.” For us that “unlikely” comment seemed far less reassuring now. Whether it was a bear, wolf or wild boar (we also learned these are inhabitants of the park), it had not been worth hanging around to see how our fate might befall us in each of these three scenarios. So in the end, we did experience a retreat… just not San Bartolomeo’s

As for the rest of the trip, it focused more on wine and food rather than mysterious animals, but those tales are to come!