A new initiative spearheaded by a glamorous Italian princess and featuring a dashing concrete magnate hopes to promote the best of the Adriatic’s culture and history. ‘Adristorical Lands’ is an ambitious project characterised by some little-known or hidden but outstanding attractions in relatively tourist-free regions – beginning in Italy with Abruzzo and Le Marche. Both have historical sites, beaches, scenery and cuisine to rival the likes of Tuscany and Veneto, and even if they don’t have the cultural clout of Florence or Venice, they also lack the crowds, the overpriced coffees, and the menu turistico. Here are some of the beauties they do have.
Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo
With his tatty jumper, designer stubble and unkempt hair, Daniel Kihlgren looks every inch the Fellini-esque hunk. Despite his family making their fortune in concrete, Kihlgren’s loathing of the material’s widespread use in residential building has compelled him to save the ancient architectural integrity of Italy’s hilltop villages, by buying up abandoned properties and turning them into village-wide hotel rooms. The most established of these, Sextantio (www.sextantio.it) in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo, was home to George Clooney during his two-month shoot of ‘The American’, and it’s easy to see why he chose it; the village is gorgeous, rooms are characterful and unique, there are great walks and the views out across the snow-tipped peaks of the Apennines’ Gran Sasso National Park are breathtaking.
San Pellegrino Oratorio, Bominaco
Depressingly, Abruzzo’s cultural heart, L’Aquila, has remained closed to tourists – and everyone else – since the devastating earthquake in 2009, with numerous medieval churches and Roman sites tied up in a sad mess of official wrangling that locals fear could result in the eventual disappearance of the town. But within a 25 mile radius, hidden in the regional and national parks of Sirente Velino, Gran Sasso and Majella, are plenty of other cultural jewels, like the San Pellegrino Oratorio in Bominaco. Through the three-arched entrance of this pleasingly simply medieval building lie some of the region’s finest frescoes, dating from the 13th century and featuring a range of styles from Byzantine to emerging Renaissance and some excellent examples of manuscript illumination. The church of Santa Maria Assunta just beyond it dates back to the 1100s and has elegant architectural features, including rounded arches and a beautiful altar and nave.
Saffron, lentils and sheep’s head grapes
Granted, these raw ingredients may not sound like the stuff of culinary dreams, but the end products – saffron ice-cream, hearty lentil and pasta dishes, plus excellent Pecorino wines – named for the fact that the grape shape is vaguely sheep’s head-ish – make for some very fine dining. Sample the wines at a tasting in Spaziovino Enoteca in Offida (www.lemarchedelpiceno.it), and some of the region’s specialities, including porchetta (roast pork), pecorino soup, smoked ricotta cheese and sagne e fagioli (pasta and beans) at Santo Stefano di Sessanio’s Agriturismo (Il Borgo, Piazza del Borgo, tel 0862 89447), at Rocca Calascio’s Rifugio della Rocca (www.rifugiodellarocca.it) and at Zunica in Civitella del Tronto (www.hotelzunica.it).
Torre del Cerano
You don’t have to go far to find amazing beach along this stretch of the Atlantic coast, but some standouts include Pineto, reached by a railway line through a pine grove and fringed by rolling green hills, and the nearby medieval town and less-medieval resort of Giulianova. The protected marine area of Torre del Cerano features 7km of sandy beaches backed by dunes, pine trees and the 15th century Spanish tower that gives the reserve its name. Further south, Vasto offers a nice smattering of cultural distractions, including a Roman amphitheatre and some good churches, and, north in Le Marche, Senigallia’s so-called velvet beach has been a seaside resort since the 19th century. The palm trees lining the seafront around Grottamare and San Benedetto del Tronto south of it make the Riviera del Palme feel very French Riviera chic.
Arriving in Ascoli Piceno, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d wandered into a film set for a particularly swoonsome costume drama, so luminous and pretty is this town. It’s due to the white Travertine stone used comprehensively in the town’s construction, including in two wonderfully laid-out squares (Piazza Arringo and Piazza del Popolo), the cathedral, Baptistry, the municipal art gallery, archaeological museum, cloisters of Saint Francis and the Ventidio Basso theatre. Take it all in while sampling Ascolan fried stuffed olives at the sumptuous and perfectly preserved art deco Caffé Meletti (www.caffemeletti.it). But watch out for errant lances in La Quintana, Ascoli's jousting tournament, held here on the first Sunday of August.
Church of Santa Maria della Rocca, Offida
The lovely streets and squares of this hilltop town in Le Marche, with its pretty portico-lined corso leading to a nicely laid-out piazza dominated by its towered palazzo communale, are enough to make a visit worthwhile, especially if you take in the tiny 19th century theatre, lace museum, and a rest stop over a glass of sparkling local Ciu' Ciu' on the terrace of the Spaziovino Enoteca. But the main reason to visit is to see the church here, a former castle dating from the 15th century. It’s hard to tear yourself away from the view of the vine-covered hills, but the views inside are just as lovely; a perfect frescoed Romanesque-Gothic crypt features terracotta brick pillars and travertine columns under a vaulted ceiling, while the church proper, a simpler spiritual structure in the shape of a Latin cross, contrasts perfectly with it. Don’t miss a walk round the back of the church for more of those views.
Civitella del Tronto
Hilltop towns don’t come much better than Civitella del Tronto, in the Teramo region of Abruzzo. And fortresses don’t come much better than the one that gives the town its name. Thanks to their strategic placement and the huge size of the fortress (it’s the largest in Italy), both town and fortress withstood sieges for more than four centuries, right up until 20 March 1861 when, annexed to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Civitella finally surrended to the Garibaldine and Piedmontese fighting for Italian unification. Three days earlier, Victor Emmanuel II had been proclaimed King of Italy. The fortress is open daily for self guided tours, but it’s worth taking one of the free hourly ones to learn about the fascinating history of this imposing structure.
The Borgo Storico Seghetti Panichi
In the hills near Ascoli Piceno, with views out across the Adriatic and in to the Sibillini Mountains, Principessa Giulia Panichi tends her roses at the historic garden of the Borgo Storico Seghetti Panichi (www.seghettipanichi.it), planted in the 19th century by renowned German botanist and landscape architect Ludwig Winter. This charming and genial dynamo is president of Associazione Le Marche Segrete (secret Le Marche) and is driving the Adristorical Lands initiative too. Stay in one of her rooms at the Borgo, turned into a small hotel in 2000, and you’ll almost certainly meet her, be seduced by both her and her passion for the project, and most likely find yourself talked into visiting a nearby unknown church, eco-village, artist’s studio, crumbling fortress or picture gallery with a Titian in it. But not before being introduced to all the staff, eating in the kitchen, and promising to meet Giulia in the very near future at an opera, or theatre, or garden, or winery, somewhere on the Adriatic.