If you’re driving from your Abruzzo holiday villa on your way to the extraordinary landmark-cum-artwork of La Morgia, you’ll pass through Gessopalena. It’s a pleasant but unremarkable village, strangely bland and modern in appearance given its great antiquity. Unlike its regional neighbours, here there are no old streets, buildings, or churches.
For a clue to this curiosity, glance to your right as you near the end of your drive up the hill into the village. You’ll see a massive, sheer-sided rocky promontory, dark and brooding, dotted with what look like ruins.
This is where you’ll find the old streets, buildings and chuches of a village that ceased to exist in the winter of 1943/44.
That village – the original Gessopalena – was once an important and prosperous town, renowned for one famous product. The ‘Gesso’ of its name coming from the production of gesso, a paste made of chalk and glue spread over wood and walls in medieval times – and well into the 20th century too – that enabled paintings and murals to ‘stick’ to the surface.
In 1933, the village was severely damaged by an earthquake. Then as the Allies pushed northwards up the eastern side of Italy in 1943, Gessopalena was utterly destroyed by retreating Nazi forces. The surviving villagers moved down off that promontory and into what has now developed into modern Gessopalena. They left behind a haunting memorial.
Gessopalena’s oldest remains lie at the furthest end of the promontory. To reach them is a literal walk back through time, starting with remains from the late 19th century. The devastation is total, though one or two buildings have been restored to house an information centre (open from 0900-1200 and 1600-1800), local archeological societies and the Brigata Maiella, Italy’s most famous and decorated wartime partizan group which, attached to the British 8th Army, was highly active in this area.
Look to your right now and you’ll see all that remains of the entrance to the 14th century Chiesa dell’Annunziata. As you walk up its steps, glance to your right and you’ll see – still perfectly preserved – the communal village ovens, still smoke-blackened, from the same period.
Despite its devastation, there is more still standing of this old church than any other building. No more than a shell now, but still with echoes of what in its in its day must have been a hugely imposing building. Tucked away in a corner, if you look carefully, you’ll find just a fragment, no more than about 18 inches high, of a slender column attached to a beautifully carved base. A poignant reminder of what once was here.
Walk a little further towards the end of the promontory. Around you now is the very oldest part of Gessopalena, the foundations of houses nearly two thousand years old hewn out of bare rock. Glance back over these ruins to the remains of the Church of the Annunciation for an unforgettable view.
To your left now is an area of bare grass. This is where, every other Easter, the local people of Gessopalena, dressed in period costume, re-enact the Crucifixion. This torchlit spectacle, in this historic and atmospheric setting, is a moving and memorable experience.
At the tip of the promontory, amid the ruins of war, lies perhaps Gessopalena’s most lasting and powerful testament. Set against a stunning mountain backdrop is a memorial in iron and Majella stone to the victims of Nazi oppression and those who perished in a dreadful wartime atrocity that happened nearby. You don’t need to speak Italian to grasp the sentiments – and the anger – lastingly inscribed here.
While you’ll want to relax and unwind at your Abruzzo holiday villa during your stay with us, you’ll also probably want to spend a little time exploring this wonderful part of Italy. Though you’ll find you’re spoiled for choice, Gessopalena has to be very high on any Abruzzo sightseeing schedule.