Here we are at our second itinerary in a wonderful Italian region: Abruzzo. A region that wisely preserves an extraordinary heritage of art, culture, traditions and nature.
The splendor of this region is confirmed by a real record: as many as 23 Abruzzi villages are included among the most beautiful of Italy. We start our itinerary from the Stiffe Caves and then visit the suggestive and typical villages of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Scanno and Calascio.
Grotte di Stiffe
In the middle of the Sirente-Velino Park, through a typical mountain route, we reached the Stiffe Caves: one of the most peculiar karstic places of Italy (even if little known).
The cave complex is located near Stiffe, in the municipality of San Demetrio ne' Vestini, province of L'Aquila.
These caves, technically, constitute an "active resurgence". In other words, they have been generated by the presence of an underground river that comes out on the surface, an almost unique case in Italy.
This seductive underground stream forms within the cavity some waterfalls of extraordinary beauty, a unique "representation" that has accompanied us throughout 700 meters along the tourist route.
Historically, this complex was used since the bronze age. Inside, in fact, archaeological remains dating back, even to the Neolithic and Eneolithic have been found.
In 1907, the presence of the underground waterway led to the construction of a hydroelectric plant, of which some remains are still visible near the entrance to the cavities.
After the dismantling of the power station, in 1956, the first speleological explorations followed, leading to a real enhancement of the site that led to the opening to the public of the caves in 1991.
In 1994 a group of speleologists managed to enter the unexplored area for the first time (area following the first waterfall) and in 1996 the speleological museum was opened, and named after Vincenzo Rivera.
A second extension of the tourist route was addes in 2007 with the opening to visitors of the second waterfall. Really extraordinary!
The tourist route was thus brought up to the final length of about 700 meters (although the extension of the explored cavity part exceeds the kilometer).
The environment maintains a temperature of just 10 ° C, constant throughout the year.
The tourist route in the caves takes about an hour and covers most of the cavities explored, up to the second waterfall.
Before getting to the top of the village, to reach the entrance to the caves, you will need to buy an admission ticket, which can be purchased at a special "visitor center" located at the entrance to the village, down the mountain.
All well signaled, it is impossible to make mistakes!
Entrance to the caves takes place in correspondence with a prominent rift in the mountain, just above the town, and about 2 kilometers away from it.
A footbridge climbs up the watercourse and enters under a 100-meter rock face.
Once you have entered and started the route, you will come across a first cavity where the important archaeological remains just mentioned have been found.
After this first cavity, through a canyon, you reached a large area called "Sala del Silenzio"; the adjective "silenzio (silence)" is used precisely because at this point the river tends to dry up, canceling the noise, typical all the way along the route.
The Sala del Silenzio is the antechamber of the first wonderful waterfall that develops a difference in height of over 20 meters on a 30-meter-high wall.
In this environment a staircase has been created, at the top of which there is a suggestive "belvedere" right on the waterfall.
When visiting, it will be possible to observe some splendid details of the hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites encountered during the journey.
A place that absolutely deserves a visit!
At the exit from the caves we could not not miss to visit the Caving Museum named after "Vincenzo Rivera".
The museum itinerary includes sections dedicated to paleontology, mineralogy, geology and speleological photography.
It preserves important archaeological finds including an intact skeleton of Ursus Speleus, a primitive cave bear, and the cast of the original Broken Hill skull.
Santo Stefano of Sessanio
In the heart of the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park we discovered this scenic village, perched on a hill at 1,251 meters above sea level.
This spectacular "Stone Country", one of the most interesting in Abruzzo, still preserves the historical and architectural features of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
It's impossible not to be stunned as you wander through the narrow streets of the charming old town of medieval origin.
All buildings and streets are built of white limestone, made opaque by the passage of time. The village is a real work of art, not by chance Santo Stefano di Sessanio is mentioned in the prestigious selection of "The most beautiful villages in Italy".
An intricate maze of stone streets, arches and galleries arouses enormous charm at every corner, managing to give the magic of old times.
Each alley of the charming village leads to the top of the village where stands the so-called "Medicea Tower" that dominates the entire town and has the coat of arms of the famous Florentine family De' Medici, who in the 16th century was feudatory of the small village.
Unfortunately, following the earthquake of 2009, the tower has suffered serious structural damage and is currently undergoing renovations.
This striking lookout tower, built in mountain stone and symbol of the delightful village, dates back to the 14th century. This is a circular-shaped lookout tower with some windows on the central body and a crowning of simple battlements at the top.
Walking along the winding streets there has opened a suggestive succession of fifteenth-century houses, among the most characteristic we have met the "House of the Captain", located near the Medicean Tower, so called because during the Second World War was occupied by fascist teams.
The lodges of this ancient house certainly do not go unnoticed. Loggias were made by master stonecutters, called (in his time) directly from Florence.
The largest and most charming building in the village, built by the Medici as a noble residence, is located along the road that leads to the church.
The stone construction has two large ramparts and two double-gothic style mullioned windows.
Currently, the building houses a hotel that bears the name: "La Bifora". The façade facing the interior of the village is decorated with an array of classical loggias.
The whole village is surrounded by the famous "wall-houses": very tall houses characterized by thick walls and very small windows that faces onto the outer village. This architectural built of the village was certainly a defensive measure of the time; in fact, with these structures it was much easier for the population to defend itself from external excursions.
The "wall-houses" or "tower-houses" are the peculiarity of other villages, such as the nearby Castel del Monte, but certainly only of Santo Stefano di Sessanio is the famous Buscella, a narrow opening on the last circle of walls , where it is said that, in medieval times, young lovers met to exchange fleeting kisses (being impossible to do it publicly at that time!).
Santo Stefano owes its name to the church of its patron saint, Santo Stefano Protomartire, built between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in the village cemetery. Its plan is irregular and is articulated as in five bays, with an unusual presbytery area.
Another very suggestive church is the so-called "Chiesa Madre" located in the middle of a charming square, next to the city gate.
Originally this church was built in the fifteenth century as a Medici chapel, today it has become the parish church of the historic center, decorated with a facade with a classical style portal and a Medici coat of arms on the architrave, flanked by a small bell tower sailing.
Walking along the street of the "alleys" of this wonderful village you can see, next to the church, the so-called "Porta Urbica", a village gate.
It has a round arch, with the Medici coat of arms on the architrave. The part of the top of the door is raised, because in the past the look-out guards used to live there.
Just outside the village center, there is the Church of Santo Stefano outside the walls;the largest church in the village. Built in the thirteenth century or so, it was remodeled in the Renaissance. It has a single nave with a rectangular longitudinal plan, and a tower bell tower with a cusp.
Leaving Santo Stefano di Sessanio we went visiting the Sanctuary of the Madonna delle Grazie and the enchanting Church of the Madonna del Lago.
It is located a short distance from the historic center of the village, at what is called "the pond of Santo Stefano". The building (with a single nave, in Baroque style, with a portico on the facade) is surmounted by a characteristic pastoral chapel built in the seventeenth century, then expanded with the succession of time.
Then, the Church of the Madonna del Lago, dating back to the 17th century, appeared spectacular. It was deliberately built outside the walls of the village, on the expanses of green pastures, in a very specific point: just where it is reflected in the lake that opens right in front of its door. Lovely place!
You cannot leave Santo Stefano di Sessanio without having tasted the typical lentils of the place. Yes, yes: lentils!
A quality of tiny lentils, a few millimeters in diameter, globose and dark in color, brown-violet. This extraordinarily tasty legume grows exclusively on the slopes of the Gran Sasso.
Another stop on this wonderful itinerary in Abruzzo, sees Scanno as protagonist, featuring among the most beautiful villages in Italy.
Surrounded by the Marsican Mountains and very close to the lake of the same name, Scanno is certainly a delightful tourist destination for both winter and summer and is also known as "the city of photographers".
The unmistakable views of this village were, in fact, the favorite subjects of thousands of shots made by countless Italian and foreign authors.
For all photography enthusiasts it will be very exciting to walk the "Via dei Fotografi". A street where you can take the most picturesque photos of the village.
The whole village is absolutely fascinating: with its succession of small squares, noble buildings, wrought iron balconies, stone fountains and characteristic portals that characterize the entire historic center, it will be absolutely impossible not to appreciate the splendor of this town full of traditions.
Walking through the magnificent village, among its typical houses leaning against each other, it will not be difficult to incur the traditional female costumes that, even today, are worn by older women.
Peculiar of these ancient dresses are the relative headgear, very similar to oriental turbans, probably a reminiscence of the original Saracen and Ottoman domination. A real leap back in time!
Moreover, it is impossible not to be bewitched by the multitude of the special goldsmith shops that we encountered on the way. In this place, the expert craftsmen make jewels like the so-called "Presentosa": a circular star-shaped jewel with surprising inlaid gold filigree with one or two hearts in between, symbol of fidelity and eternal love.
Typical of the village are also the manufacture of lace and the production of woolen objects, many of which are displayed in the characteristic Museo della Lana, housed in a characteristic building of the early twentieth century. Must visit!
Also in the historic center you can admire the beautiful arches of the village. They are of two types: those that are part of the ancient city walls (for instance the actual access gates to the inhabited center) and others that simply connect the different buildings to each other.
Of particular note is the Arco di Sant'Eustachio, which represents the ancient gateway to the medieval city and the Arco della Nocella, characterized by its charming eighteenth-century stucco decorations.
Wandering through its alleys we came across many churches, there are 11 churches in Scanno!
Among the most important places of worship of the village certainly to visit are: the Church of Santa Maria della Valle dating back to the thirteenth century, characterized by a wonderful Romanesque portal; the Church of Sant'Eustachio is, however, the oldest in the country and is located in the upper part of the village; and, again, the church of Santa Maria di Costantinopoli inside which the beautiful fresco of the Madonna in Trono is preserved.
After dedicating the right attention to the enchanting historical center, a started a long visit to the amazing "Lago di Scanno", which is absolutely essential. A delightful natural basin, surrounded by woods, now known for its characteristic heart shape.
In order to fully admire the peculiarity of this form, we recommend reaching the belvedere, called the "New fracture", from there you can fall in love with the context in which this spectacular and unique body of water is placed.
The lake, with a surface of about one square kilometer and 930 meters above sea level, was formed following an ancient landslide generated by Monte Genzana.
The original landslide thus obstructed the course of the river Tasso giving life to the lake in its current shape. At the moment of maximum full reaches a depth of 36 meters.
Very interesting are the different legends that hover over this lake (and that we were told during the itinerary).
According to an ancient legend, the lake of Scanno would have formed after a fight between the Roman troops and King Battifolo, monarch of Scanno. It is said that when the King was about to be defeated by the Romans, he asked fervently the help of the wizard Bailardo who with a spell made the enemy camp flood with water.
Another legend refers to the deeds of the fairy Angiolina, of whom he had fallen in love with a certain Pietro Baialardo, who ordered his abduction. To escape the kidnappers, the fairy made a lake appear, in which they collapsed and she managed to save herself.
Fascinated by these legends, we allowed ourselves a beautiful ride on the shores of the lake, remaining amazed by its emerald green waters.
We point out that the lake is navigable and you can rent boats or pedal boats to fully enjoy the thrill of visiting this beautiful basin.
Last stop of this extraordinary itinerary in Abruzzo, was Calascio, a small village in the province of L'Aquila that falls within the National Park of Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga.
Calascio, a village of ancient medieval origins, was born from the fusion of two communities: that of Calascio and that of Rocca Calascio. Around the year 1000, the fortress on the mountain overlooking the village was founded in its territory.
Initially the fortress was built as a simple watchtower to prevent enemy assaults.
With the passing of time, the fortress, acquiring ever more strategic importance, was modified and expanded, up to the current training: a stunning castle with a real town at its feet.
In 1703 a violent earthquake seriously damaged the fortress, which was then abandoned. Only at the end of the twentieth century, the entire area of the fortress was restored and consolidated and today is a major tourist destination (as well as being the protagonist of many film sets, among all remember the wonderful fairy tale set in the Middle Ages "Lady Hawke").
We must not forget that the suggestion of the place is also due to the fact that, with its almost 1,500 meters of altitude, it represents the "highest" castle in Italy and one of the highest in Europe. Virtually extraordinary!
Worth noting is the splendid Church of Santa Maria della Pietà, dating back to the 16th century. The church is located along the path that leads to the castle of Rocca Calascio right on the place where, according to tradition, the population defeated a band of brigands.
The church was probably built on a pre-existing Renaissance shrine and has an octagonal exterior structure with an eight-part dome and a lateral sacristy "resting" on the right of the large entrance portal.
Inside there is a painting of the Virgin and a stone sculpture of St. Michael.
We reached the top of the ancient castle: a marvelous structure, built in white stone with squared ashlars.
The castle is made up of a central "tower", probably pre-existent, surrounded by a circle of crenellated walls in pebbles and by four corner towers with a circular base built on impressive slopes, almost to draw a spontaneous "extension" of the rocks.
Access to the building is through an opening on the eastern side located about five meters above the ground, which is accessed via a wooden ramp, originally retractable, resting on stone shelves.
From that point on, the panorama that has opened up before our eyes has been decidedly breathtaking: the view ranges from the Maiella massif with Morrone to Sirente and Velino to the mountains of the Abruzzo National Park; then turn your gaze to Campo Imperatore and the Gran Sasso chain to the entire Tirino valley.
Thus ends our second itinerary in Abruzzo. It has given us the opportunity to admire a surprising heritage of art, culture, traditions and nature.
See you at the next itinerary!
Our preferred restaurants and hotels during this itinerary were: