Hand on heart, I can honestly say I’ve never been anywhere in Abruzzo I haven’t liked.
True, the big coastal resort towns in the north of the region don’t appeal much – but then again, that’s probably just me being not wildly keen about big coastal resort towns anywhere, besides which I’ve never been to any of the major Abruzzo variants, thus neatly sidestepping the issue.
But until last Thursday, the one place I’d only previously visited once, with blink-of-an-eye brevity – but which I’d been assured was delightful/charming/interesting/buzzing in equal measure; and that to not know it better was a yawning gap in my Abruzzo CV, was Vasto.
Where’s Vasto ? On the coast, a scant hour to the south of us. It’s a town of around 40,000 and while, yes, it’s a big summer resort, the holiday part of the town is some way removed from ‘old’ Vasto.
To be precise, down a cliff; across the SS16 coast road; then look for a parking space.
The seaside bit is Sunbed City on a glorious sandy bay – but the good thing about Vasto is that you don’t have to go anywhere near it if you don’t want to.
And by the same token, if it’d take several wild horses to drag you from your sunbed and around old Vasto looking at stuff, the good news is – you needn’t.
The day was blazingly hot and the idea was we’d have a little wander round the old town; maybe sample a bar; and then find somewhere offering great views, even better food and a shady umbrella under which to sit and enjoy lunch.
Not a big ask in mid-July you’d have thought.
The day started well. A lovely drive along the coast through Abruzzo’s southern-most wine country; the road into central Vasto well sign-posted; and exemplary off-street parking, again well-signposted.
We stepped out onto Vasto’s main drag – the Corso Garbaldi – right across the road from the medieval Caldoresco Castle, which marks the entrance to Vasto’s Old Town.
We made our way past the San Giuseppe Cathedral – also medieval – before stopping off at an extremely helpful Info Point on the Piazza del Popolo, opposite the Avalos Palace and Civic Museum.
At the end of the Piazza del Popolo is a supreme vantage point looking down over Vasto’s beach. The perfect spot to decide: a) You’re well out of it; or, b) Wow, that looks like fun !
Leading off to the left of the Piazza del Popolo, the Via Adriatica offers continuing great vistas on one side; and virtually wall-to-wall bars and restaurants on the other.
Only snag as regards the latter was that all bar one were determinedly closed. And the one that wasn’t seemed intent we should try their Tourist Menu. (Interestingly, the first time this has ever happened in Abruzzo).
So we went looking for a drink, happily finding a Wine Bar offering tasting glasses, nibbles and an interesting-looking menu. But that was turned out to be closed too. In fact, it was only open in the evening.
A little disconsolately, we wandered into the Piazza Rossini, built on the site of a Roman amphitheatre. Here, we found a bar that was open and ordered a couple of glasses of Trebbiano. This arrived, generously poured, and accompanied by a large plate of nuts, crisps and rather tired-looking snacks. Of the British Rail school of mass catering circa 1970, if you go back that far.
Now this is actually an under-reported little scam operated by the majority of bars in tourist areas across Italy. The assumption those unfamiliar with Italian bar culture make is that this unordered offering of stuzzichini – snacks – is on the house.
Oh no it isn’t. The bars we frequent around here – as almost all do – will provide stuzzichini with drinks. They’ll also ask you if you want them, rather than just plonk them down on your table.
At some bars – most notably our favourite, the Caffe ai Portici in Lanciano – the stuzzichini are lavish. Almost a meal in themselves. But you’ll pay for the pleasure. A big glass of wine with stuzzichini is €10, as opposed to around €3 without. But here in Vasto, still harbouring hopes of an imminent lunch, we wanted the zero stuzzichini option.
“You don’t want them ?”
“Oh.” (Shrug). “OK”.
The people at a nearby table got them instead.
Our wine was beyond reproach both for taste and price (€2.50 a glass). Worse thing was that it’d sharpened our appetite, but the only place we found open was in a basement, which seemed a sinful place to sit and eat on such a gorgeous day.
And looking around, everything seemed weirdly free of people. Probably explained by the fact there wasn’t really anywhere open for anyone to eat/drink. Unless you fancied the Tourist menu. It all seemed such a waste of a great setting.
Thinking about it, perhaps everyone visiting Vasto spends a mid-July weekday at the beach – where eateries innumerable are probably guaranteed – while in the evening, the focus switches to the Old Town, which awakes from its sunlit slumbers and becomes party central. Looking at the posters and flyers for the bands and other upcoming entertainments, I rather suspect this is the case.
But the locals have to eat lunch too, you’ll suggest – and you’d be right. But you have to be a local to know where these usually infallibly excellent, but unassuming, places are – and they’re not the sort of spots that get mentioned in guide books.
Even if we’d possessed a guide book to check they weren’t mentioned.
So we didn’t get lunch in Vasto. Which meant we didn’t get to see the nearby Nature Reserve beach at Punta Aderci, which we’d particularly wanted to.
Instead we drove back up the coast for fifteen minutes and late-lunched on the shady terrace of an old favourite, La Sirenella, overlooking the beach at Fossacesia Marina.
And before summer’s out, we’ll take in Punta Aderci. Probably with a picnic. Or we’ll go back to the one open bar on the Piazza Rossini and this time say ’Si’ to stuzzichini.