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The towns do not have the same sprawling dimensions as other regions. The large number of public squares are used as a meeting place for old and young - especially during the summer months - and form the human dimension of the towns' architecture. Maintaining a cultural identity and a low population density (1.25 million residents in the entire region) have given the Abuzzi region Italy's lowest crime rates. The Mafia has been unable to establish itself here.
The standard of living is high. Foreign tourists are still a rarity in the towns. Italian is still spoken in the cafés and bars. In contrast to the well known metropolises of the "Bel Paese", in which the overriding languages are German, English and Japanese, the Abruzzi region is still a paradise for Italian authenticity!
L'Aquila with its 70,000 residents is situated on the southwest side of the Gran Sasso National Park at 721m above sea level. The town has been enjoying economic growth over the last few years. A university town (founded in 1458), it is a lively and dynamic place with rich cultural life. It often plays host to jazz concerts and theatre performances.
The large number of "Piazze", which are all adorned with fountains, churches or Palazzi, the fashion boutiques and nice restaurants all conspire to make L'Aquila an inviting town with the charm of the undiscovered (by tourists, that is). Here you can enjoy the Italian way of life in the town's many elegant cafés and cappuccino bars. Here there's no shortage of bars and restaurants and in the warm summer months life in the town moves out into the streets. You can sense a zest for life and, rooted in its own history, the town's identity.
Indeed, it was because of the town's own way of life that the American Pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, described L'Aquila as the "Salzburg of the Abruzzi region".
L'Aquila was founded in 1240 by the emperor Friedrich II. He wanted to secure the influence of the Kingdom of Naples in the north. And it was for this purpose that 99 of the province's districts were represented in the town. Ever since, the number 99 has always been of special importance for the people of L'Aquila. The town hall's clock tower strikes 99 times and in the "Fontana delle 99 cannelle" (Fountain of the 99 Spouts) water flows from the same number of masks. The fountain is a magical location and a place to muse the time away.
The town is characterised by its Romanesque architecture. The most important church in L'Aquila is the Basilika by S. Maria di Collemaggio dating back to 1287. It's typical of the Romanesque style found in the Abruzzi region.
The town was conquered by Emperor Karl V. in 1528 for the Spanish crown. The people of the town rebelled against this foreign rule. In order to secure its hold and to protect themselves against the dissatisfied people of the town, the Spanish built a mighty castle. Having survived the ravages of time surprisingly well, the castle now houses the Abruzzi Region National Museum and serves as a picturesque backdrop for concerts.
Those interested in art will find small attractions in every corner of the town centre: Churches and frescos from the Middle Ages, renaissance and baroque periods, charming courtyards, arcades, "Palazzi Nobiliari" (noble palazzi) and manor houses (Palazzo Centi, Palazzo Dragonetti, the renaissance manor house by Messer Jacopo di Notar Nanni, the Villa of Buccio di Ranallo, Palazzo Alfieri among others).
There is a pleasant small pine forest (=Pineta) on the outskirts of the town (=Pineta) a "green lung" where you can go on those hot summer evenings for a breath of cooler air.
The L'Aquila province is has a great deal to offer when it comes to the spectacles of nature and cultural attractions. Here is just a taster:
The Gran Sasso National Park offers visitors a number of different landscapes such as Campo Imperatore, a spectacular plateau that is unusually large for Europe and which is also known as "little Tibet.
Romantic mountain villages are characteristic of the province. Perhaps the most charming of all these villages, however, is Santo Stefano di Sessanio. A flourishing wool market existed in Santo Stefano during the renaissance. The past wealth of the town is still reflected today in the architecture of the old houses, towers, Palazzi and the characteristic narrow streets.
Abandoned by its residents during the 20th century as part of the migration to America, Santo Stefano has been the focus of an important renovation project by the University of L'Aquila and several private sponsors. A large proportion of the old renaissance buildings are being carefully restored. The objective of the initiative is to preserve the cultural heritage and revitalise the town. Indeed, it is to this end that concerts (as of 2003) are being held in the town.
The village of Rocca Calascio (1464 m above sea level) is sharing a similar fate. Visitors to the village will enjoy a spectacular panoramic view of the Navelli Plateau, the Maiella range and the Sirente massif. From here it's only a ¼ of an hour walk up a steep and marked path (strong footwear) to the Oratorium Santa Maria della Pietà from the renaissance period.
The region's most spectacular castle, Rocca Calascio, is only a little higher. We found this a magical location that has often been used in films because of its mysterious appearance.
The next picturesque village is Castel del Monte, which is popular among cross-country skiers in the winter because of its close proximity to Campo Imperatore. A cultural walk has been established in the village itself. On the walk you can find out all about the region, the people and traditions in the "Botteghe artigianali" (small handicrafts).
At a height of 1313 m above sea level, Campotostosee is popular among tourists. Given that temperatures during the summer months are comfortable, this is a popular area for sports such as canoeing, wind surfing and cycling around the shore of the lake.
The Stiffe Caves with their underground waterfalls are also well worth a visit.
The Navelli Plateau is a good place to enjoy the crocuses in flower in early spring, a wonderful patchwork of colour from the multitude of plants that obviously feel very much at home here. A large proportion of the saffrons produced in the Abruzzi region come from here.
Anversa degli Abruzzi with its lanes and old houses is a wonderful place
from where to enjoy the view of the Sagittario ravine, which is today a
Located at 1360 metres above sea level, Pescocostanzo is known as the "Promenade of the Abruzzi region". Its elegant town centre is a magnet for Italian tourists,
who also use the town's altitude to escape from the heat of the cities. A part of the ancient building was destroyed by occupying German forces during the Second World War. The building was carefully restored during the post-war period.
Roccaraso and Rocca di Mezzo are popular skiing locations (downhill, cross-country, Alpine ski), as well as the nearby village of Rocca di Cambio (1433 m). These villages are located in the Sirente Velino regional park. The German emperor Otto II. also discovered the relaxation offered by this region and spent his holidays here. The Campo Felice plateau is also nearby, an important skiing station.
Those interested in culture should definitely include the small town of Tagliacozzo in their plans. In 1846, the English poet and painter, Edward Lear wrote that he had never experienced anything more majestic than the approach to this town; it was an almost artistic appearance. It is home to several Romanesque churches, a lovely Piazza and the Doge's Palace with interesting renaissance frescos.
Located in an underground Physics lab in the Gran Sasso massif and almost completely hidden from the outside world, 600 scientists are researching the limits of physics with the help of a giant particle accelerator. A section of this lab is open to visitors following prior registration (please ask us about organising guide and registration).
The list of places worth seeing is endless. Each site is special in its own way: Alba Fucens (the site of archeological digs), Avezzano (art nouveau buildings), Barrea with its lake, Villa Santa Maria (the place of origin of many famous chefs), Bominaco (wonderful frescos in the Oratorium San Pellegrino), Celano (one of the longest canyons in the Abruzzi region and Piccolomini castle with its museum for sacral art).
We would like to end our short summary with Scanno, a small place on the banks of a lake with the same name. It's just like a picture postcard with old buildings resembling mussels clinging to a reef. The narrow streets, the steps, the handicraft shops and especially the warm and friendly nature of the people underline what the Abruzzi way of life is all about.
Descriptions of Sulmona, Pescara, Chieti and Teramo will follow shortly.