The reaction I predominantly get when I mention vacationing in Abruzzo is “Huh? Where‘s that?”. Located in central Italy, it’s a mecca for people who enjoy exploring, cycling, hiking, climbing, beaches and for foodies & imbibers alike.
The region boasts hundreds of kilometers of beaches and endless rugged mountain peaks; the highest in the Appenines being Corno Grande which is 2.912 meters a.s.l. The Parco Nazionale Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga is Europe’s first nature reserve and the province in general is considered Italy’s green lung. The mountain region is an Eldorado for mountain bikers, gravel grinders and bikepackers. The sheer choice of trails is immense.
Sandwiched between the mountain region to the west and the Adriatic coast, you will find countless hillside towns amongst the vast rolling hills. The fact that the roads are close to void of cars in many parts makes this a dream location for cyclists, though I have encountered secondary roads screaming for attention in the maintenance department, it was nothing which would deter days, if not, weeks of cycling adventures.
Abruzzo is also home to the legendary Giro climbs: Gran Sasso (Campo Imperatore) and Blockhaus (Passo Lanciano) located on the main ridge of the Majelletta mountain – the area we will concentrate on in this series. On a side note: Blockhaus happens to be Eddy Merckx‘s first ever Grand Tour stage win in the 1967 edition of the Giro d’Italia.
And since the road cycling culture is popular and respected, as it is across the nation, I still have yet to ecounter any fits of road rage. We had no issues when riding on „superstrade“ – which we generally try to avoid but can’t always do so, even if just for a short distance – with cars zipping by at quite high speeds. I found the cars were always willing to slow down due to oncoming cars or the such, if they weren‘t able to pass us with an adequate amount of distance. And the shoulder of the SS16 Adriatica for example, is very ample so we felt quite comfortable.
Abruzzo‘s culinary offering is generally rustic but based on quality, wholesome ingredients. Home and handmade are not just hipster buzz words here, they just call it “normal”. Meat and pasta dishes dominate, cheeses and cured meats are ample in choice and a staple as well. If you love lamb, you’ll love Abruzzo. Don‘t be surprised should you find yourself in a small random town and enter a family run trattoria, which has stood still since the 70‘s related to its deco, but offers an amazingly tasty 3-4 course homemade meal for *€ 15-20.
When it comes to wine, this is probably the first touch-point most people usually have in regards to the region: Montepulciano d‘Abruzzo is one of the best known Italian wines and is exported across the globe. Known for its full body, fruit forward character, drinkability (due to low level of tannins), and not to mention, its huge bang for the buck, the wine is pretty much available in every simple Italian restaurant and pizzeria around the world.
What few are aware of is the quality winemaking push which has taken place in the region the past two decades, and proof of the complexity and quality the Montepulciano grape is capable of… in capable and respectful hands of course.
Legendary winemakers such as Edoardo Valentini, Emidio Pepe, Dino Illuminati and Gianni Masciarelli are proof of this philosophy, and many winemakers have recently followed suit in the realisation that quality beats out quantity, especially in today‘s highly competitive international wine market.
Though the availability of wines in the €4,00 to €8,00 range are almost overwhelming, treat yourself to a bottle in the €20,00 range for a completely different experience. The fact that higher priced Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wines have to compete with such a vast array of lower priced brethren and a “cheap wine” image, the quality to price ratio is truly amazing at the higher range in some cases. And if you’re willing to splurge, Valentini’s and Pepe’s wines are absolutely mythical. Masciarelli’s flagship, Villa Gemma, is Burgundian in style (based on finesse and complexity, rather than intensity) and in my opinion, underpriced for a wine of this quality, even at €45,00 p. bottle.
In regards to other wine offerings in the region, the other two most common are Trebbiano d‘Abruzzo (white), Pecorino, and Cerasuolo d‘Abruzzo (rosé); though it isn‘t a household name, it has been growing in popularity the past years with the international popularity explosion of pink wines.
Disclaimer: Not only do I visit Abruzzo on a regular basis because of its many natural and gourmet offerings, it’s where my family is originally from – my parents emigrated to Canada, where I was born and raised. And since I have relatives and friends there, I enjoy getting back as often as possible. If I come across as overly enthusiastic about the region, I may be somewhat biased but I do so out of conviction and not because this article is sponsored by a regional marketing board or the such.
This article series is based on a four days of riding in the province of Chieti (near Guardiagrele):
- Beach Cruise: 40K loop along the coast from Francavilla to Montesilvano.
- 94K loop from San Martino sulla Maruccina to Fossacesia.
- Rolling Hills of Chieti and Passo Lanciano: 60K Loop
Our home away from home was Agriturismo La Brocca in San Martino sulla Marrucina (approx. 25 minutes from the coast and just over 5 minutes from Guardiagrele), owned and run by Carla Dicrescenzo. The agriturismo is in a very tastefully restored farm house with four inviting rooms on the upper floor and the restaurant, which offers handmade regional fare, located on the main floor.
Regional tips and links
Where to sleep in the hillside region of Chieti (near Guardiagrele):
Agriturismo La Brocca
Via Fonte Giardino, 39
66010 San Martino sulla Marrucina
+39 0871 809100
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.
Castello di Semivicoli
Via S. Nicola, 24
+39 0871 890045
A beautiful 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.
Where to eat and drink:
Both establishments mentioned above are highly recommendable when it comes to dining.
Ristorante Santa Chiara
Via Roma, 10
+39 393 912 7278
Santa Chiara offers regional delicacies made with finesse and if you‘re a fan of the Slow Food movement, this restaurant will be right up your alley. The prices are above average for the region but still very fair considering the quality and know-how which goes into their cuisine. Decent wine list. It helps if you know a bit of Italian in regards to the wait staff, but that pretty much applies for the entire region.
Via Corsi, 36
+39 0871 77571
+39 333 206 5291
Maurizio Basile has been running Brancaleone for a couple of decades now and his reputation is impeccable. 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.
Trabocco Pesce Palombo
+39 333 305 300
A seafood restaurant and dining experience you definitely won‘t want to miss out on. The trabocchi of Abruzzo are UNESCO Heritage structures and unique pieces of regional history. Originally built as fishing structures on piles over 100 years ago, though some of the trabocchi are still fished from today, most have been converted to restaurants (16 to be exact) and Pesce Palombo leads the pack. A deep collection of regional white and sparkling wines on offer, therefore a great opportunity to enjoy various regional labels you probably won‘t find anywhere else.
Gran Caffe Vittoria
Corso Marrucino, 89
+39 0871 330844
The city of Chieti, one of the oldest established cities in Italy (even older than Rome), is definitely worth a visit, even if just for half a day. And when you’re there, the visit wouldn’t be complete without an aperitivo or quick lunch at the legendary Gran Caffe Vittoria.
Piazza S. Maria Maggiore, 5
+39 0871 83942
Bar Fil is located right beside the Duomo of Guardiagrele and their patio in the main piazza is a great place for people watching and enjoying a coffee, aperitivo or gelato. Good coffee and fair prices.
Where to shop:
La Fattoria di Manuel Mariani
Contrada Foro, 22
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.
Ex Strada Statale 363, 122
+39 0871 83960
Gianfranco Fiore owns and runs the best sorted wine shop in Guardiagrele and surrounding area. You will be able to find a very large selection of regional and international wines and if the simple, fruity variety is more to your liking, you can purchase wine by the liter for as low as €1,00. Very friendly service.
Il Tempio del Gusto
Via Roma, 212
+39 0871 83463
Il Tempio del Gusto is located on Guardiagrele’s main corso and offers a wide variety of regional delicacies such as cured meats, cheeses, pasta, sweets and more. The shop is very inviting and the employees are very competent in regards to the products they sell.
Pasticceria Emo Lullo
Via Roma, 105
+39 0871 82242
Nestled in a small shop since 1889, just a stone’s throw from the Duomo of Guardiagrele, this pastry shop run by 4th generation pastry chef Emo Lullo, is renowned for its “Sise delle Monache” (Nun’s Ti**ies) and a medley of other handmade regional desserts. A true master. Definitely worth seeking out.
Bike Pro Chieti
Via Maestri del Lavoro, 20
66100 Chieti (Scalo)
+39 0871 226549
If you’re looking for any replacement parts, apparel or need your bike serviced, Bike Pro is highly recommendable. Dealing in high-end bikes, parts and components, they know their stuff: SRAM, Shimano and Campagnolo are all spoken here. Very friendly and competent service.
Nearby places of Interest and Landmarks:
- Centro Storico di Chieti (Chieti’s historical center)
- Pretoro and Pennapiedimonte (charming mountain hamlets)
- La Costa dei Trabocchi
- Museo Archelogico Nazionale, Chieti
- Abbazia San Liberatore a Maiella, Serramonacesca (various hiking trails nearby)
- Blockhaus – the renowned Giro climb atop La Maielletta mountain
*Please note: Prices mentioned here may be subject to change.