From San Martino sulla Maruccina to Roccamontepiano

Today’s plan was to ride from town to town through the rolling nearby hills: an approximate 40K loop with 880 vertical metres (v.m.). If you include the climb to Passo Lanciano add another 20K + 850 v.m., for a total of 60K with 1.730 v.m. Not necessarily a ride in the park but the ride offers great scenery and its share of fun descents.

The reason I split the tour up into two separate tracks here is because we rode the loop and the Passo Lanciano climb on two separate days. The main loop takes you through Roccamontepiano; the town where my father was born and where my relatives still live. And since my aunt had invited us over for lunch that day, I knew she’d cook up a storm and I didn’t want to cut the visit short. Which is another way of saying I chickened out at the prospect of climbing this much in a single ride of fairly short distance. But if you’ve got your legs on, take your time, and have decent cardio, it’s definitely doeable.

As mentioned in the intro article to this series, our HQ is Agriturismo La Brocca in San Martino sulla Marrucina, where our tour begins. It’s a sleepy little town which was put on the wine map because it’s the home of the Masciarelli winery. A legendary producer who also put Montepulciano d’Abruzzo on the map by proving the grape of the same name is capable of producing quality wines with character, rather than just the typical “pizza wine” its usually known for.

From La Brocca we make our way towards Casacanditella, which is a light but constant uphill ride untill you reach the neighbouring town. It too is a sleepy little town. Actually, any town mentioned here is small and sleepy, so I’ll stop mentioning that. But each has its own charm.

I personally spend a lot of time visiting friends in Casacanditella: twin #1, mechanic and vintage car/motorcycle fanatic Aligi Mariani. He sold me my first ever vintage car, a 1970 FIAT 500, back in 2002. Aligi’s always got his fingers in one motorised project or the other so if you’re looking for a vintage Italian car or Vespa, you may just want to stop in.

And just down the road you will find twin #2, Aligi’s brother Manuel, who gave up his career as a mechanic approximately 10 years ago due to his love of animals, and decided to become a farmer and make fresh cheese on a daily basis together with his wife Ada. Visitors are welcome and they have  a little shop at the main entrance of the farm.

Once you’ve reached Casacanditella a fantastically fun and winding descent begins at the edge of the town for a few kilometers. There is a very steep descent, a shortcut which will lead you directly to Fara Filiorum Petri between Casacanditella and Semivicoli but I prefer the extended route since the road is wider and the downhill flow that much more fun.

Once we reach the Val di Foro (state road SP214) we take a left towards Fara Filiorum Petri, which is known for the Farchie Festival in January, where each town borough makes and burns long reed bundles (known as a ‘farchia’ (sing.) and ‘farchie’ (plur.)) in honour of Saint Anthony the Abbot.  A ‘farchia’ can be as much as 1 metre thick and 10 metres long . If you happen to be passing through on a Wednesday, Fara hosts a weekly open air market.

Rather than staying on the busy SP214 to get to Pretoro, we recommend driving through Fara and taking Via Colle Pagnotto (ending called Contrada Colli), which is much more scenic and almost void of cars. The 6 km ascent towards Pretoro has an incline between 4-7% and gets steeper the closer you get the mountain village – as much as 14% for short spurts. And not to mention, the route is lined with olive groves and vineyards, definitely more pleasing than cement bunkers on the parallel route along the Foro river. Once you reach ‘Strada Provinciale 539’ I can highly recommend the small hut at the corner, which sells regional cheeses and fresh scamorza.

It is on this stretch of road that Pretoro looms in the distance like a toy town stuck to the side of the mountain. The village is known far and wide in the greater region for its character and the fact that it’s the ‘door’ to Passo Lanciano, the only ski area nearby – the next one being in Roccaraso on the opposite side of the Maiella range, which is much larger.

Pretoro is very close to my heart because it’s my mother’s hometown. So I guess I can call this ride a ‘Back To The Roots’ tour in many ways. Taking the time to walk around the village, which is like a labyrinth of small alleys and stairwells, is definitely worth it. If you happen to speak or understand Italian and stumble upon some locals speaking in a ‘foreign’ language, it’s the Pretorese dialect. No worries, not even the neighbouring towns understand it.

Though the village has been bestowed with the ‘Borghi più belli d’Italia’ title, it has definitely seen better days, considering every time I return it seems to get quieter, somewhat melancholic even. It’s such a pity because I feel the village has so much to offer. But just like the exodus of yesteryear (there are more Pretorese in Ottawa, Canada – where my parents emigrated to and I was born – than there are in Pretoro today), the village has also lost a lot of ‘young blood’ due to Italy’s economic situation this past decade+. But it’s definitely worth a visit.

If you happen to be there in May, the first Sunday of that month they celebrate ‘San Domenico’ by parading with live snakes… if you don’t mind snakes that is. And in August (dates vary) they celebrate ‘Le Notte di San Lorenzo’: a three day festival where the village streets and alley ways are lined with torches, stands offering regional handmade fare, merchants, music and generally, a very nice and vivacious atmosphere.

The route continues towards Passo Lanciano on a slight positive incline for a couple of kilometres. You can’t miss the route up to  Passo Lanciano as it’s marked by a roundabout with a wolf statue, the symbol of Pretoro. The climb starts off quite steep for approx. 4 km (with stretches between 10-14%) but gets more gradual as you ride. The route is lined with trees and there aren’t many parts that offer a view. Our ride stopped in Passo Lanciano where he had a bite to eat and warmed up, but if you continue to ‘Mamma Rosa’, the ski area, the view is very rewarding. Further on is ‘Blockhaus’, the famed Giro d’Italia mountain stage, which ascends from the other side of the Maiella. ‘Blockhaus’ also happens to be the first major tour stage Eddy Merckx ever won back in 1967 and was also commemorated with a special edition Merckx bike in 2017, celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the win.

As mentioned, if you prefer to leave out the climb, just follow the road right of the wolf roundabout and enjoy easy sailing for 6 km all the way to Roccamontepiano. The upper part of the town has a single road (turning left, leading to Serramonacesca) and here you will find the sanctuary of San Rocco – the town’s patron saint. Our ride continued to the right towards Terranova (a burrough of the town) and down a steep hill leading towards the cemetery. The view is beautiful from here: you see olive groves and vineyards, the Gran Sasso, Bucchianico, Pretoro and the ‘calanchi’; deep rock formations forming spectacular furrows.

Roccamontepiano is also known for the production of ‘vino cotto’, literally translated, cooked wine. The traditional wine, which is semi-sweet and quite viscous (think Vin Santo), is made by boiling wine must – of red or white grapes – till you’ve reduced it to a almost syrupy consistency, which will then ferment in a vat together with freshly squeezed wine must. The fermentation process can take quite a while as the sugar content is very high. The wine is made for personal use and when a baby is born, a batch will be made that year to later be served at the child’s wedding. The wine is usually served with intense cheeses or dry homemade cookies. It’s a dying tradition but one my family has maintained for generations.

My cousin’s husband, Giovanni, stirring, stirring and stirring some more.

We backtrack and continue the route back up to the top of the town – the long way. There was no way I was going to try my hand at the steep climb we rode down to get here, especially after having lunch at my aunt’s. The longer climb isn’t a killer but I don’t recommend doing it, or any climb, on a full stomach. Once you arrive at the top, there’s a road on the left (Via Colle San Donato) which leads back to Fara Filiorum Petri. This is probably one of my favourite stretches of roads anywhere in the area. It’s truly beautiful, offers a relaxing ride and breathtaking views to right and to the left.

Once we reached Fara and the dark clouds decided to open up, we chose to take the more direct route – the state road – back to San Martino rather than the back roads. It’s not the most scenic route but the road is wide and since it’s popular with cyclists, it offers an ample shoulder to ride on. This route passes right in front of the Masciarelli winery, just a kilometre or so from La Brocca, so we quickly popped into their wine shop to pick up a good drop so we could wet our beaks and warm up when we got home.

We got back to La Brocca soaked to the core but happy after a truly fun and satisfying ride.

Here are the tour tracks if you’re interested in going on this ride:

Mentioned in this article:

Agriturismo La Brocca
Via Fonte Giardino, 39
66010 San Martino sulla Marrucina
+49 0871 809 100

Room prices are €50 p. night based on double occupancy and includes a simple Italian breakfast. The restaurant offers four course menus with typical homemade regional delicacies (including wine, water and espresso) for only €16,00 per person.

Masciarelli Tenute Agricole
Via Gamberale, 1
66010 San Martino sulla Marrucina
+39 0871 85241

La Fattoria di Manuel Mariani
Contrada Foro, 22
66010 Casacanditella

If freshly made bovine cheese purchased on-site is your thing, you won’t want to miss dropping by Manuel Mariani’s farm. Choose from ricotta cheese (made daily), mild caciotta flavoured with herbs and spices, caciocavallo, yogurt and a variety of other products.

Other interesting places to eat or drink along this route:

La Vineria di Salnitro
Via S. Salvatore, 31
66010 San Martino sulla Marrucina
+39 328 392 0553

A stylish little wine bar and restaurant which wouldn’t be out of place in a large metropolitan city. Reservations are recommended if you plan on eating dinner, dropping by for a glass of wine on the fly isn’t a problem.

La Torre di Pretoro
Via Rua di Livio, 1
66010 Pretoro
+39 0871 898 400

Concettina D’Innocenzo opened La Torre di Pretoro in 1998 and it was the first restaurant in the area which offered handmade regional dishes with a modern twist. Not to mention La Torre has a great regional wine list with older vintages available. The establishment is literally, for the most part, carved into the bare stone of the Maiella. Definitely an experience: great food and friendly service. Reservations are recommended.

Ristorante Brancaleone
Via Corsi, 36
66010 Roccamontepiano
+39 0871 77571

Maurizio Basile has been running Brancaleone for a couple of decades now and his reputation is impecable. The restaurant is quite hidden and not the type of place one would stumble upon by accident but that doesn‘t change the fact that it‘s always full. The quality truly speaks for itself. Definitely worth seeking out. Great wine list with older vintages available.

Il Castello di Semivicoli
Via San Nicola, 24
66010 Casacanditella
+39 320 417 9875

A beautiful stately manor transformed into a premium boutique hotel by winemakers Marina Cvetic and Gianni Masciarelli, Italian modern wine production protagonists. The quality of the wine list needs no mentioning. Located approx. 20 minutes from the coast. Please visit their website for prices and availability.

Ristorante Pizzeria Il Lago
SP214, 22
66010 Fara Filiorum Petri
+39 0871 706 004

As attractive and bright as a high school cafeteria, televisions blaring with typical Italian ‘Tutti Frutti’ type shows, but I can’t deny they make a damn good brick oven pizza. Just bring headphones and sunglasses… or better yet, order take-away.