Abruzzo’s three Italian National Parks – the Majella; Gran Sasso; and National Park of Abruzzo (the country’s first-ever, inaugurated in 1922) – occupy 25% of the region’s total area. Add other locally-protected habitats, and that figure rises to over 30% – the highest proportion of any region in all of Europe.
Each of the National Parks has its own special character. The Majella, practically on our doorstep, is the most mountainous, with more than twenty peaks over 2000m/6500ft. It’s also home to good numbers of the Apennine Grey Wolf.
The Abruzzo National Park, which spills over into neighbouring Lazio and Molise, is the most remote, crossed by just one road. A thickly-forested, true wilderness area, in the most part satisfyingly pristine. Here’s where you’ll find Abruzzo’s small population of Marsican Brown Bears.
The Gran Sasso is the biggest. But embarrassingly – seeing as we’ve lived here now for well over six years – it’s remained the one Abruzzo National Park we hadn’t yet visited. Not through any lack of interest, but a 3-hour drive, coupled with its inaccessibility in winter and our own inability to get away in summer, has meant that autumn and spring are the only realistic periods open to us.
And spring comes late in the Gran Sasso. June is spring.
Almost twice the size of the Majella and the Abruzzo National Park put together, the Gran Sasso’s sheer size gives it the most varied habitat. Here’s where you’ll find Corno Grande, at 2912m/9550ft, the highest mountain in the entire Apennine chain, with Il Calderone, Europe’s southern-most glacier, at its summit.
At the heart of the Gran Sasso is the bare, bleak, windswept Campo Imperatore plateau – an area of austere splendour known as ‘Little Tibet’, virtually uninhabited, but dotted with herds of cows, sheep, goats and semi-wild horses.
As we found when we took the one road that runs for some 40kms right across the Campo Imperatore from Passo delle Capannelle in the west to Vado di Sole in the east, he weather here can turn against you in a moment. At the start, it was warm and sunny, with a temperature of 27˚. Nearing Assergi roughly halfway across, the sky blackened; the temperature sank to 16˚; and a thunderstorm broke overhead.
A contrast to this intimidating landscape lies off the Campo Imperatore along the Gran Sasso’s eastern edge. Lake Campotosto is Abruzzo’s largest man-made lake, created in the 1930’s as part of a hydro-electric project on the Fucino river.
The long drive round the 14 square km lake is wonderfully scenic and on our mid-June visit, the lake shore and surrounding countryside were carpeted with wild flowers. The main town, on the north shore, is Campotosto; much smaller, but rather prettier is Mascioni, down on the south-east corner, which you’ll inevitably reach on any round-the-lake drive.
Mascioni clearly suffered damage – as did so much of this area – in the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. Restoration and repair work is still doggedly ongoing.
It was in Masciano, rather depressed by a couple of dispiritingly non-event places we’d thought of stopping for lunch, that confidence was restored by the Locanda Mausonium, a cheerful small hotel happy to provide a meal for non-residents.
If you know your Italian food, you’ll have heard of Pasta all’Amatriciana, a speciality from the town of Amatrice just a few kms to the north of the Lake. Pasta – spaghetti in this instance – with the trademark sauce of tomato, crisply-fried shreds of guanciale (cured pig’s cheek, though pancetta or bacon are good substitutes) and pecorino cheese.
The version at the Locanda Mausonium was a delicious treat.
We visited the Gran Sasso on a beautiful day in mid-June, (though that weather did change dramatically while we were crossing the Campo Imperatore), and found traffic and other visitors extremely light, enabling us to drive round at our own pace, stopping wherever we felt like to take-in the spectacular scenery.
But come prepared for this tranquility and solitude with a full tank of petrol (we didn’t see a filling station anywhere on our trip and this is definitely not an area you’d want to run out).
And one last (but very big) plus-point. Just outside the Park, on the road that leads there north from L’Aquila, are the Roman ruins of Amiternum. Here you’ll find a theatre and an arena. The fact that we were the only people visiting the theatre ruins mid-afternoon on this day led to our own exclusive private tour by the site’s English-speaking resident curator.
An amazing experience that merits its own upcoming blog…