L'Aquila: Little-Known Capital of Abruzzo

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This beautiful city has a captivating mountain setting and many stunning monuments, but it's rarely on the list of foreigners' must-sees. Its establishment as a city is recent, by Italian standards, for it was only in the 13th century that Frederick II of Hohenstaufen called on the inhabitants of 99 nearby castles to consolidate and be his strategic allies in this crossroads between the Middle East and Northern Europe. As you walk through the streets of L'Aquila, you'll see all sorts of reminders of this event, most illustrious of them the stunning fountain of 99 spouts in Piazza di Porta Rivera.

L'Aquila is too large and its major monuments are too widespread to encompass them all in one walk. See as much of the old town as you can, popping in whenever you spot an open doorway: you may easily discover a hidden Renaissance courtyard. Here are the major attractions you won't want to miss:

Santa Maria di Collemaggio. With its magnificent pink-and-white stone façade, its 14th-century frescoes, its Holy Door (the only one in Christendom outside of Rome), and its majestic pure Gothic interior, it would be a masterpiece of Abruzzo-style romanesque even without the unique story of its creation.

Santa Maria di Collemaggio owes its life to Pietro Angeleri [1215-1296], a pious monk who was a hermit for 3 years on Mount Maiella. In 1294, after he wrote a letter of protest to the college of cardinals in Rome, he was unexpectedly elected pope, taking the name of Celestine V. 100,000 people, including Dante Alighieri, attended his incoronation in L'Aquila.

The new pope issued a general pardon to everyone who made the pilgrimage to his beautiful parish church to repent. Then, just as unexpectedly, after a mere three months, he became the only Pontiff ever to renounce his throne. He begged to return to his hermitage but his successor, Boniface VIII, locked him up in Fumone Castle, where he died two years later. Only in death did he return to this beautiful church, where his tomb is visible in the austere nave (stripped of its ornate Baroque trappings as recently as 1972), and his life is illustrated in a series of canvases painted by a 17th-century Flemish disciple. L'Aquila celebrates Pietro Celestino's general pardon every August 28 and 29, with two beautiful processions that are memorable for their pomp and circumstance and exquisite period costumes.

14th-century Santa Maria Paganica is located in the charming medieval square of the same name. This is the center of the walled old town, featuring narrow alleys and romantic little squares. Santa Maria del Soccorso has a sweet, simple façade and an inviting Renaissance cloister. People who enjoy "deciphering" iconography should visit the church of San Silvestro (pictured at right) to study its renowned Madonna and Angels fresco by Francesco da Montereale, pupil of Il Perugino.

L'Aquila's other crowning glory is its perfectly preserved castle, one of Italy's outstanding 16th-century fortresses. Designed by the architect who built the imposing Sant'Elmo castle in Naples, it was erected by the Spanish to punish the citizens for having attempted to revolt. Climb to the top and you'll see that soldiers would have been better able to perform surveillance of the aquilani than of any eventual foreign attackers. Today it houses the National Museum of Abruzzo, whose collection boasts some excellent pieces.

15th-century San Bernardino (where the saint is buried) is a fine example of Renaissance harmony, with a three-tiered 16th-century façade and a carved, gilded Baroque ceiling. Don't miss the lovely tomb of the local noblewoman Maria Pereira Camponeschi and the enameled altar by Andrea della Robbia.

Explore the steep streets around Via Sassa, and do try to get a glimpse of the 15th-century fresco in the Beata Antonia church (ring the bell at #29a).

When you're ready to explore the area around L'Aquila, take bus #6 from Piazza Battaglione to the highest point on the Italian peninsula, Gran Sasso. Buy an extraurbano ticket at the kiosk in the piazza, then settle back for the spectacular 12-mile trip. An hour later you'll be in Fonte Cerreto, where you can follow some moderately difficult, marked trails for a hike, or take the cable car (every half hour from 8:30am to 5:30pm) up to Campo Imperatore, a vast high plain that is a sea of flowers in springtime, a burnt-out moonscape in summer and a romantic snowfield offering downhill and cross-country ski runs in winter. At the top you'll find a huge hotel that's as stark as the view is exuberant. Be sure to have a look at the enormous "socially uplifting" frescoes of workers in the ugly Fascist-era hotel, site of a daring rescue that whisked Mussolini off to the ill-fated Republic of Salò in 1942.

From L'Aquila, take route 17 a few miles east to Bazzano to see the evocative 12th-century church of Santa Giusta, built on the site where the saint was supposedly martyred. There are beautiful classical fragments inside. Continuing south along the same road, past fields which yield the highest amount of saffron in Europe, you'll reach the provincial road to Bominaco. The abbey that once was here is in ruins now, but two splendidly preserved churches are well worth a visit: the undecorated Santa Maria Assunta and the unforgettable San Pellegrino. Founded by Charlemagne, the latter contains an important cycle of 13th-century frescoes.

If you'd like an English-speaking guide in L'Aquila, contact Edward Burman (SS17bis, loc. Paganica, 67100 L'Aquila; tel. 39-862-689704). For more exciting places to visit in the L'Aquila area, see " Castles and Fortified Villages".

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