Ringed by the mountains of the Gran Sasso and the Majella, L’Aquila sits 2150 feet up in the broad valley of the Aterno River. The city was founded in the 13th century by Frederick II, who drew together the communities from 99 surrounding small villages.
Originally, L’Aquila was planned as a stronghold to rival ‘corrupt’ Rome and the power of the Pope. The 99 founding villages were to be represented by 99 churches and 99 piazzas, but after centuries of war and the ravages of earthquakes – the last in 1703 – only a few of these original traces remain. But those that do are stunning and magnificently restored and preserved.
You can read much more about L’Aquila and its turbulent, fascinating history here.
L’Aquila is an easy 2-hour drive from your Abruzzo villa for two through some of the most spectacular scenery in the region. And once you’ve arrived, you’ll find…
While you’re visiting the market, step inside the Cathedral of San Massimo – better known simply as ‘The Duomo’. Originally dating from the 13th century, it was substantially rebuilt after the 1703 earthquake.
You’re spoiled for choice, but if you only visit two churches on your day in L’Aquila, go first to the 15th century Basilica of San Bernadino near the Market and then go (by car – it’s a little too far to walk) to the famous Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemagio.
The Basilica di Collemaggio is a 13th century jewel of great and simple beauty. The main facade is an intricate design of red and white stone, echoed inside by the chequer-board pattern floor in red and white marble, all capped by stunning wood-beamed roof.
On the walls inside, you can still see tantalising traces of the old medieval wall-paintings that once covered the whole interior. Outside, at the rear of the Basilica is a shady and tranquil 15th century cloister. (A favourite location for wedding photos !)
The Basilica di Collemaggio, which remains open desite currently undergoing external restoration, houses the tomb of Pope Celestine V, who died in 1296.
There are a couple of good bars here for a coffee or a drink, (with prices more in keeping with big city Italy than you’ll find in the bars around your Abruzzo villa for two). The shops are a rewarding mix of local goods and international Italian glitz.
But window shopping doesn’t cost anything and the displays are terrific. The big picture is of the eye-catching window of a food shop. (Far too grand just to be called a deli). The little statue on the right was outside a high fashion clothes shop.
Walk on up the Corso Emanuele away from the centre of town, (you’ll notice the prices in the shops start dropping), and you’ll come to a couple more famous L’Aquila landmarks.
The Fontana Luminosa at the end of Corso Emanuele was installed in 1930. It’s very highly regarded. While I was trying to figure why, my eye was caught by the white mountain peak in the top-right corner of the picture. (Click on the pic a better view).
That’s the Corno Grande – all 2912m/9550 feet of it. It’s the highest peak in the entire Apennine chain and tucked away in a gulley on its north-facing slope is Il Calderone – the southernmost glacier in Europe.
And if you can still keep your eyes off the Fontana Luminosa, away to your right you’ll see the massive 16th century Forte Spagnola. It’s the home of the National Museum of Abruzzo and inside you’ll find the skeleton of a mammoth, unearthed locally about 50 years ago.
There’s one more sight to visit in L’Aquila I haven’t mentioned yet. The famous Fontana delle 99 Cannelle – or ‘Fountain of the 99 Spouts’. Shrouded in medieval mystery and allegedly concealing another of those as-yet unlocked Knights Templar secrets so beloved by ‘Da Vinci Code’ conspiracy theorists. I’ll tell you more about it next time !
(For larger images, click on the pictures in the text)
* Written before the tragedy of the 2009 earthquake