April-May 2005 in Italy and Malta
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April 24-27 Capri
May 6-7 Sicily, Scilla and Charybdis
May 7-8 Tropea (Capo Vaticano)
May 10-12 Abruzzi National Park
May 12 Tivoli, Villa Adriana
Parco Nazionale d'Abruzzo
The drive north
There were effectively two main options for driving north to the National Park, the autostrada we used going south, or coastal highways along the east coast. So, for the first hundred or so kilometers, we did neither. Instead, we took minor roads along the ridge of hill-towns perched between the valley west of Matera and the next valley westward, on the far side of which runs the Napoli to Reggio Calabria autostrada. It took an hour to cover less than 40 km along this road, so from one of the hill towns we took the hairpinning road down to the larger highway along the valley floor. This was the main road to Potenza.
Although this was a major road, with four lanes, before long we were in some rather spectacular mountain scenery (unfortunately we couldn't stop for pictures). This lasted for some time until finally we met the A3 Autostrada, backtracking our southbound route out of Salerno. We got the impression that there may well have been some kind of cultural divide around Salerno, because south of there, we hardly saw any small villages in valley bottoms. The were all on defensible hill crags. Past Salerno, the towns seemed mainly to be in the valleys, with few on hill shoulders. A couple of days later, after we left Pescasseroli going north, we saw hilltop towns again.
Whereas on the way south, we went between Vesuvius and the sea, this time we went around the back (the eastern side) of Vesuvius. From that angle, you can see how much must have been blown off in the Pompeiian explosion. The cone that has built up in the subsequent 1925 years hardly begins to fill the void.
Not too far beyond Napoli, we turned inland, and were soon back in the mountains. We could see snowcapped ones, but even though we did quite a bit of hairpinning up and down, we did not encounter any snow. We did, however, feel a big drop in temperature, from 27 °C at the autostrada rest stop where we had lunch, to 15 °C when we finally arrived in Pescasseroli, where we had booked at the Hotel Il Buccaneve (Snow Hollow). The drive had been 435 km, not much on good highways, but only half of the trip had been on good highways. The other half was more interesting, but it made this day's drive seem very long, and numerically it was the longest of the holiday.
Walks in the Park
At the hotel, they were renovating the dining room, to be ready for the following weekend's anticipated crush of visitors. We had just beaten the start of the summer rush, and were the only guests apart from a small family. We were given a room with a large outdoor patio that had a great view in three directions. The patio was appreciably bigger than the room itself, but it was a bit cool for relaxing in the shade watching the horses next door, or the mountains that surrounded us.
When we arrived, we were greeted by a very nice woman who seemed to run the place, acting as reception, waitress at dinner, and director of the renovations crew, as well as no doubt many other functions. Right off the bat, we were given a dinner menu from which we had to choose more or less on the spot. The problem was that this menu had a lot of words we didn't know, so we guessed. It turned out very well, though, when the time came.
Pescasseroli is the official centre for the park, and as soon aas we had been settled into the hotel, we went to the visitor centre nearby and got a large-scale map of the park with many suggestions for walks of all kinds. Some were said to be strenuous, some to offer great views, some to have archaeological interest, some to have botanical interest, and so on. Before dinner, we had time for a wonderful walk on an easy trail with good views. We drove back the way we had come along the main highway through Pescasseroli a couple of kilometers, and parked at the outlet of a side valley with a brook running through it. In summer this must be a very popular walk, especially on weekends, since the trail was wide and gravelled, but not permitted for vehicles (although park official vehicles appeared to use it, as might some others).
When one starts on this valley walk, one sees the snowcapped mountains forming a headwall in the distance, with the green hillsides framing it. It was late in the day, and much of the valley was already in shadow, but the eastern hillsides were in bright sunlight, making a nice contrast. By the time we got back, only the higher levels of the hills were still in the sun, as you can see by comparing the rightmost picture with the second from the right, whcih shows the same hill a bit later in the day.
When we were there, there were a few trees in full blossom, meaning that the season was as much as three weeks delayed from Rome. Many tiny field flowers were also showing their finery if you looked closely. The brook at the bottom of the valley is occasionally overhung with trees one might conceivably use to cross from one sandy beach to another, and sometimes is 3 or 4 metres deep in a sheer-cut gorge. The hillsides are sometimes open field, sometimes forest. At one point we saw a pair of caves that our walking map claimed to have been inhabited in prehistoric times, but we saw no evidence of archaeology.
When we got back, it was time for dinner, which was quite welcome, and quite enjoyable. Afterwards, we read a bit about the park and its history. The name Pescasseroli is of uncertain derivation. There are a couple of other "Pesca" towns in the general region. Pescara, Pescoconstanzo, and Pescina are three. Nevertheless, there is a romantic story about the name.
The story goes something like this: At the time of one of the Crusades, the local lord had a son called Pesca. The son went to the Crusades, but the father was too old or didn't want to go, so Pesca left his fiancee in the care of his father. After a while the father became enamoured of the girl, but she rejected him. Eventually, he became too impatient and tried to force her, but she escaped and threw herself off a cliff, just as Pesca returned. Pesca killed his father and jumped off the cliff after the girl, whose name was Seroli, and the town was named after the unfortunate lovers.
The next day, we took two separate walks in different parts of the park, and in two very different kinds of weather. But first, we went into town (the hotel was about 1.5 km away from the town centre), and bought a bottle of local wine for the eveing. We also filled a water bottle with what turned out to be very good water from the fountain in the town square.
The first was a sunny walk, starting off a side road about 5 km north of Pescasseroli on the road to Pescina we intended to use when leaving the park. When we got to the turnoff, we noted a sign that seemed to say the road would be closed for the Giro d'Italia, for which we had also seen signs on banners in Pescasseroli itself. At the time, we didn't know what the Giro d'Italia was, but we soon found out that it was the Italian version of the Tour de France bicycle race — a big deal, indeed.
The path for this first walk started from a small parking lot in the wood at the bottom of a valley. The map showed several paths starting from the same spot, and we had decided on one that went up to the top of a hill that promised a good view. It was a little hard to find where it started up the hill, as there were many weakly visible paths to a large area obviously popular for picnics. But eventually we found where the path started into the woods, and started up through the forest. We had the impression that hardly anyone could have been that way since the winter, as the prolific growth of new saplings made the path sometimes hard to see, and fallen branches and low twigs growing across it made some places hard to negotiate. But it was rather beautiful, with the light shining through the new spring leaves. Several times, we came across dark snaky trails through or under the leaf debris, which we guessed to be the traces of mouse burrows under the snow in the winter.
After climbing perhaps 300 m in height, we left the forest and emerged onto a rocky slope with mixed grass and alpine flower cover. We climbed another 100m, because the views were getting better, but did not go to the top. It was a most pleasant place to lie down, relax, and enjoy the warm sunshine, so that's what we did for a few minutes.
After we got back to the hotel from our 2 1/2 hour walk, we rested for an hour or so, and then went to the other end of the park. On the way, we arrived at the small town of Villa Barrea, at the end of the Lago di Barrea, and then turned north up a steep road towards Scanno. Villa Barrea itself is arranged on a steep hillside. The main road goeas along the lakeshore, but each successive road is a zig-zag up the hill to the next level. Going out of town involves following a couple of these zig-zags, and then some more, looking down on the town. After quite a bit more climbing, we reached the summit of the pass, where there was a large empty parking lot and two buildings labelled Hotel/Bar/Restaurant, which seemed to be closed. A little further, we came to the start of the mapped path we had chosen for the walk.
By now, it was quite cold, grey, and windy, a complete contrast to the morning weather. The walk started up a rising valley floor between two rather barren hills with patches of juniper and a little grass among the grey rocks. Incidentally, that grey colour seems to be caused by air exposure, since newly broken rock is golden. The cold wind was funnelled down the valley in our faces, and it was a bit unpleasant, as we had been used to much hotter climates in the past couple of weeks. But when we got to the crest, the views were well worth the discomfort. We faced a large, deep valley, across which was a snow-capped range. Despite the grey, we could see a road on the other side, winding up to a high hill-town.
The hillsides were scattered with tiny flowers, despite that the roadside still had remnants of the winter snowdrifts. We saw yellow buttercups, mauve and purple crocus, some deep indigo flowers I don't know, a green-yellow euphorbia. Purples, mauves, and indigo blue seem to be common flower colours here. Yellow is the other colour, with very few reds.
On the way back down, we encountered a flock of sheep meandering along the road.
Eventually, they decided to cross to the side. There was no shepherd with them, as there always had been whenever we had encountered such flocks in other parts of the Mediterranean world. They were just free to go as they pleased.
Shortly before arriving back at Pescasseroli, we passed for the fifth time in two days the hill town called "Opi", around which the road makes a sharp hairpin. This time I took its picture, but it would have been better had I taken it the previous day, when it was sunny. Back at the hotel, we enjoyed on our windy patio the bottle of Montepulciano Cerasuolo wine we had bought that sunny warm morning so long ago.