The National Park of Abruzzo

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Imagine driving out of New York City at 10 am and being in Yellowstone Park by noon. If that idea appeals to you, take the A24 autostrada from Rome for about 50 miles, exit onto the A25 and then get off at the Pescina exit. From here, take SS83 to Pescasseroli, a very popular (and thus crowded) summer and winter resort that makes the best base for visits to the park. Take a quick stroll through the town, mainly to visit the 14th-century Cistercian cathedral of San Pietro ad Pesculum, with its romanesque portal and belltower. The picturesque Mancino castle that overlooks the town was once a pre-Roman fortified township.

These days, Pescasseroli exists as the gateway to the Parco Nazionale d'Abruzzo, which is among modern Italy's proudest accomplishments. A 150,000-acre protected area crossed by only one paved road (although there are countless unpaved roads for cyclists), it receives two million visitors a year. Like most of them, you should stop off at one of the park's seven visitors centers to select maps and information about 150 marked walking itineraries of various length and difficulty.


Two-thirds of the park's surface is covered with huge forests of beech, pine, fir, oak, yew, ash, maple, wild oak and other trees, home to a handful of formerly endangered species: the Apennine wolf, Marsican bear, fox, mountain goat and Apennine lynx. Small groups of these animals thrive here now, alongside myriad other wild species which are occasionally supplemented by large herds of domesticated sheep. For centuries, local shepherds have practiced the custom of "transhumance," moving their flocks down to the warmer pastures of Apulia in fall and back in spring, following the same ageold tratturi (trails). A good example is the titolo trail that starts from the Santa Venere bridge in Pescasseroli.

No matter what your tastes, you'll find plenty of fascinating walks in the park, all clearly marked with numbers on the ground. Take trail 11 into the Valle delle Rose (5 hours round trip) and you're almost sure to see mountain goats, and perhaps red or roe deer. But beware: this is one of the most popular itineraries, so do not try it on summer week-ends!

Trail FN1 starts by an old lumber mill (off route SS83 near Villetta Barrea) and winds for 50 minutes through the lush Fondillo Valley. You'll see plenty of birds, small marsh animals and, on the slopes overhead, you may spot a mountain goat. Trail PN1 is an easy 30-minute walk. Starting by the Park Refuge (near route SS509 at Forca D'Acero Pass), it leads straight into a magical forest of stump-growth beeches. These tall, slender, identical trees have regenerated from a forest that was clear-cut years ago.

Deer and roebuck often graze in this silent wonderland, and if you see overturned rocks you'll know the Marsican bear has paid a visit. For a great view of the whole Pescasseroli Valley, follow trail BN1, a moderately difficult 50-minute walk, from the outskirts of town, through the black pine forest to the ruins of Mancino castle.The Italians have created what they call "zoo reserves" in the vicinity. More than zoos, they are wilderness areas where semi-tame wild animals can be approached with caution. In Civitella Alfedena you'll see twenty wolves; Villavallelonga is a haven for deer; Bisegna is the place to see mountain goats; and roebuck hang out at Gioia de' Marsi.

There are several lovely towns in the vicinity, including Barrea, whose ancient stone buildings, towers and medieval churches are all the more dramatic against the background of mountain peaks. Its medieval old town is crowned by a 13th-century cylindrical castle and the cylindrical church of San Tommaso. From Barrea it's a pleasant two-hour ascent to Vivo Lake.

Take SS83 back to Villetta Barrea, then follow SS479 for a few miles to Scanno, a classic southern Italian hill town. The houses here are not as pristine or exquisitely "accessorized" as in Tuscany or the northern hill towns, but the views are spectacular, the people are friendly, and the atmosphere is that of small towns anywhere: all the residents are "cugini" (cousins), people linger to chat in the streets and shops, children kick soccer balls around in the alleys, women wearing folk costumes sit outside their houses making lace and other handicrafts. The custom of mourning is still very much in vigor here; you will see most women over fifty wearing long black dresses with ample skirts, dark aprons and deep pockets galore.

Scanno has a graceful 13th-century church, Santa Maria della Valle, built atop a pagan temple. The 13th-century church of Santa Maria di Costantinopoli contains an elegant fresco of the Madonna and Child. When you've seen the town, drive out to romantic and panoramic Lake Scanno, a perfect place to have a picnic.

Although we've outlined a driving itinerary, the National Park is one place you can easily visit without renting a car. Take the train from Rome to Avezzano, then take one of the frequent public buses to Pescasseroli. They run several times a day and stop at all local villages. Or you can take a bus all the way, from Rome's Piazza Esedra. Buses cross the park on its one road several times a day.


Castello di Balsorano
Guided tours of the park can be arranged in Pescasseroli at the Azienda Autonoma di Turismo (Via Piave 67), at the Museo Naturalistico e Parco Faunistico, a museum of folklore and natural history with an adjacent zoo (Via Consultore 1) or at Cooperativa Ecotur (Via Vittorio Veneto 24). The latter two sell maps with 25 itineraries for hikers of all levels. Among the most rewarding are trail 2B from Pescasseroli to Monte di Valle Carrara and trail C3 from Pescasseroli to Valico di Monte Tranquillo. Both walks take two to three hours. In summer, the museum and Ecotur organize 5-hour guided hikes and half-day bus tours. Agenzia Wolf in Civitella Alfedena also organizes walking tours. If you're going in July or August, be sure to book your hotel in advance.


Click here for a Photo Album of the National Parks
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Click here for photos of some towns in the National Park of Abruzzo.


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