a trip to Abruzzo

August 14, 2009

sulmona saints

Yesterday I returned from a couple nights in Abruzzo, the mountainous region east of Rome.  I spent most of my time in a town called Sulmona, an ancient village that predates the Romans, probably founded by Solimo, a buddy of Aeneas. Sulmona is most famous for being the birthplace of Ovid. The town’s central square, Piazza XX Settembre, features an impressive statue of the poet, and many of the roads and buildings [and even a line of locally-made liquor] are named for him. Yeah, I picked up a couple samples.

ovidio liquors

Ovid grew up in a wealthy family in Sulmona and was sent to Rome to be educated, with the expectation that he would forge a career in politics, law, or rhetoric. But he fell in with the wrong crowd and started scribbling verse, eventually writing his most famous work, Metamorphoses, and becoming recognized as a master of elegiac verse. At age 51 he was banished by the Emperor Augustus under shadowy circumstances and died a decade later in modern-day Romania. [While tomorrow, August 15, is the Christian feast day of the Assumption of Mary, it was originally an ancient Roman holiday named for Augustus. I don’t think that Ovid, if he were around, would be participating in the pub crawls and togas parties.] There’s a cafe on the Piazza XX Settembre — you can see it in the photo below, just behind the Italian hipster listening to his iPod on the base of the statue — where they’ve printed a quote from Ovid above the bar: “et Venus in vinis ignis in igne fuit”; “Wine turns the heart to love and sparks it into fire.”

piazza xx settembre

ovid and moon

Sulmona is secondarily famous for supplying confetti for many an Italian wedding.  No, I don’t mean the sort of confetti that one chucks at newlyweds or tosses down from balconies during parades. Around here, “confetti” refers to a candy of almonds with a hard-sugar coating.  They’re typically given to the bride and groom in hopes that they’ll have a fertile marriage, although what almonds have to do with fertility, I’m not sure.  Maybe they’re an aphrodisiac.  Anyway, these candies drive the local economy.  There are little sacks for sale in every store, but the confetti industry in Sulmona has also taken over the kitschy-household-decorations market niche. The flowers and other colorful things below are actually made of almonds. Sadly, I didn’t buy any of these.

confetti fiori

By a stroke of luck, my first night in town was the Danza Sportiva, an annual event held in the largest piazza. My camera ran out of juice as the event began, so you’ll just have to imagine all the Cuban salsas and paso-dobles performed by locals from ages 8 to 40. The crowd-favorites were Luca and Esteban — every brightly-colored cotume in which Luca appeared featured a fluorescent tail of feathers; all of Esteban’s polyester shirts were v-necked straight down to the navel, and his chest hair made even me envious. They had some severely impressive moves, at least as good as any on those new TV shows. The kids and teenagers were talented, too, and even though their routines were often surprisingly inappropriate, the audience [mostly elderly] loved it. The real highlight for me was a fifteen-minute surrealist tribute to Michael Jackson, performed by an overweight twenty-something Italian who wore a fake headset so he could lip-synch the lyrics. He’d stitched together a medley of all the hits, and he was flanked by a team of dancing wardrobe-assistants who speedily helped cram him into a series of classic MJ outfits between songs.

This is the edge of the piazza just after sunset.

piazza garibaldi

If you’re ever in Sulmona, get a meal at La Cantina di Biffi. A delightfully nerdy young guy runs the service on the small patio, while his mother cooks up regional specialties in the kitchen. There are no menus, just a handful of dishes that he rattles off — he begins by saying, “Today my mother is cooking…” — and the selections change daily. The restaurant also features delicious local wines. I ate there twice, once for lunch and once for dinner, and definitely had a couple of my best meals so far in Italy. Here’s my lunch dish — homemade green tagliatelle [the noodles infused with spinach], with an Abruzzo summer sauce of local tomatoes and spices and a touch of lamb.

biffi tagliatelle

On the way back to Rome, I tried to visit L’Aquila, the town that was devastated by an earthquake in April. Interesting experience — more on that later.

Here’s a pair of angels from the facade of a 16th-century palazzo on Sulmona’s main street. One of them is wearing a pigeon-hat — a very popular local fashion.

sulmona angels and pigeon


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