Villages and scenery in the Gran Sasso National Park, in the Abruzzo region of central Italy, are stunningly beautiful. This 48 hour itinerary takes you to the picturesque medieval hill town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio and the abandoned Rocca Calascio, then to caverns with a waterfall inside and Roman ruins. This part of the Abruzzo region is best explored by car because most of these places aren’t easy to reach using public transportation.
Santo Stefano di Sessanio, about 20 miles east of the city of L’Aquila, is one of the most picturesque towns in Abruzzo. Start your visit by walking through the medieval gate with the Medici coat of arms to the main square. The village center, still enclosed by medieval walls, has several little streets and alleyways to explore. Its main monument, the Medici Tower, fell down during the earthquake of 2009. Many medieval buildings and a few churches remain.
In town are a few shops and places to eat or drink and an interesting hotel. Since many residents left to find work elsewhere just over 100 inhabitants remain but the village is being revived by tourism. Santo Stefano is one of the Borghi piu Belli d’Italia, most beautiful villages of Italy.
Continue up the mountain road to Rocca Calascio, remains of the highest fortress in the Appenine Mountains, at 4,790 feet above sea level. Built for the military, it dates from the 10th century and has sweeping views of the mountains and valleys. Although damaged by earthquakes, the ruins are impressive and fun to explore. Nearby is an octagonal 17th century church, Santa Maria della Pieta’.
In the little village below the castle have lunch at Rifugio della Rocca, a very good, inexpensive restaurant serving traditional dishes of the area. They also have simple rooms for overnight stays.
From Rocca Calascio, continue to the medieval village of Castel del Monte, set in the mountainside. Castel del Monte is another of the Borghi Piu Belli d’Italia. Much of the movie, the American, was filmed here. The town has a Museum of Wool, churches. and restaurants, bars, and shops. It’s known for its canestrato cheese, made from sheep and goat’s milk, and for its Night of Witches festival on August 17.
Rocca Calascio was used as a movie set for scenes from the Name of the Rose and the American starring George Clooney.
The village of Castelvecchio Calvisio, a stop on your return down the mountain, suffered huge damage in the earthquake of 2009 and was almost completely abandoned. More scenes from the movie, The American, were shot there.
Today’s itinerary takes you to two places in the valley to see caverns and Roman ruins.
Grotte di Stife, near the village of San Demetrio ne’ Vestini, is one of Italy’s most beautiful caverns. If you visit in spring, you’ll usually be able to see the unique waterfall inside the cave. From December 8 – January 6 a beautiful nativity scene is set up inside the caves.
The caves are open from 10:00 to 13:00 and 15:00 – 18:00 (last entrance at 17:00 in winter) every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day. The visit lasts about an hour and is by guided tour, arranged at the ticket office. The temperature inside the cave is constant at about 50 degrees F so bring a light jacket. Most hotels in the area, such as the Monastero listed below, offer discount vouchers. There’s a picnic area near the entrance so buy picnic supplies in advance and eat in the park.
From San Demetrio, take the road toward Prata di Ansidonia and then toward Castelnuovo on Via Principale Umberto. About half a mile from Prata di Ansidonia, is the turn off for the archaeological site of Peltuinum. The Roman town dates from the 1st century BC. At the site (currently free) are remains of the town walls, the theater, a temple, and other buildings. Peltuinum is known as the birthplace of Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, Roman general during the time of Emperor Nero. Next to the site is a 12th century church.
For more scenery and villages, head south on the SS261 from San Demetrio through the Sirente-Velino Nature Park or take the SS17 from Castelnuovo, a pretty drive through the valley.
Monastero di Santo Spirito d’Ocre is a restored fortress monastery on a hill. It has 12 comfortable guest rooms, a garden, and beautiful views of the valley and Gran Sasso mountains. It’s about half an hour’s drive to Santo Stefano but only about 15 minutes to the caverns.
Albergo Diffuso Sextantio is a hotel spread out in various buildings in the center of Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Rooms are decorated in traditional decor and the restaurant serves typical food of the area. Through the hotel you can book (in advance) cooking, bread making, soap making, or weaving classes to experience traditional Abruzzo mountain life.
* Get an Abruzzo Guidebook: Italy: Abruzzo (Bradt Travel Guides)