Off the beaten track. Train ride to Sulmona and Castel di Sangro.
An early start today to visit the wild and spectacular heart of Italy, the Abruzzo, to the east of Rome. The commuters rush past in their thousands on their way to work, but the 07.45 train from Rome to Pescara is very peaceful. It is best to read the newspaper for the first 40 minutes, as the countryside between Rome and Bagni di Tivoli is the opposite of lovely, but then the climb up to Tivoli begins, and there are spectacular views down into the chasm of the Villa Gregoriana, due to reopen, refurbished, in May this year. From now on the railway line rises steadily for more or less the next two hours, through countryside of astonishing wildness.
Vicovaro comes up on the left, with its fine baroque church and splendid white Palazzo Cenci Bolognetti; then follows a dizzying series of tunnels and viaducts as the train ducks to and fro under the columns of the A24 motorway.
Around Carsoli the country opens up slightly, and this becomes the pattern: a series of cuttings, tunnels and uplands some desolate which lead past Tagliacozzo and on to Avezzano. This city, sadly devastated by a terrible earthquake in 1915 and then by bombardments in 1944, sits at the edge of the vast fertile plain created from the bed of the Lago del Fucino. This was once the third largest lake in Italy, which Emperor Claudius unsuccessfully tried to drain in the first century AD, an enterprise finally achieved by the Torlonia family in 1875.
Further round the former edge of the lake are Celano, with the handsome four-towered Castello Piccolomini (ca 1460) and Pescina, the birthplace of Cardinal Mazarin (1602) and Ignazio Silone (1900). Now the train dives into further cuttings and tunnels before climbing to almost 900 m at Cocullo and emerging at Goriano Siculi, to begin the long descent to Sulmona, along a twisting and hair-raising route with its dramatic panorama over the plain, hundreds of metres below.
At Sulmona station the traveller must make a fast decision either to visit just the town, which is the easy thing to do, or else to jump on the one-coach train to Castel di Sangro, Isernia and Naples, which is by far the most spectacular part of the itinerary. It is still possible to visit Sulmona later in the day, although it means getting back to Rome at about 20.30. A quick decision is needed, because the little train waits only a few minutes for the passengers from Rome.
The train starts its climb, turning this way and that, across viaducts and through tunnels beautifully built in cut stone, up seemingly perpendicular mountainsides, into a land of severe mountains skirted by beech woods and then across the broad upland the Piana di Palena. The train is carried across this plain on a raised causeway, as here in winter there is deep snow that melts in spring, creating a broad lake. This gradually dries out as summer advances, giving way to an amazing display of flowers.
At the end of the plain is Roccaraso, the ski resort, and a bit further on is Castel di Sangro, an ancient town, which was drastically damaged by German mines in 1943. This is the furthest point of the expedition, with one-and-a-half hours to pass before the return train arrives. Providentially, there is an excellent trattoria on the platform, which harbours ambitions, judging by the nettle gnocchi and frog risotto featuring on the menu, along with what can normally be expected.
Back in Sulmona, the train to Rome arrives after eight minutes. The next one leaves about two hours and twenty minutes later, which is just about long enough to have a look round.
Sulmona, with its backdrop of the wild and spectacular Parco Nazionale della Majella, has two claims to fame. Firstly it is the birthplace of the Latin poet Ovid, whose life was so scandalous that Augustus banished him to the Black Sea where he pined to death. Secondly it is the world centre of the sugared almond, the confetto, a delicacy dating back to Roman times. Here these sugar-covered almonds come not only in bland whites, blues, pinks, golds and silvers, but also in garish yellows, reds, oranges, greens and cobalts, tied into elaborate floral confections known as mazzolini, almost dazzling in their brilliance. Architecturally, the city is a delight, from the main square with the panorama of the mountains, to the 13th-century aqueduct, the handsome baroque church of SS. Annunziata and the adjoining mediaeval palace. There is a maze of streets round the centre, lined with mostly 18th-century buildings, from the modest to the very fine. The town has a most orderly and civilised air, and is clearly cultured, even boasting an international piano competition. It might be tempting to move there, although the winters are notoriously severe.
l The train leaves Rome Stazione Tiburtina for Sulmona at 07.45 and 10.36 and arrives at Sulmona at 10.37 and 13.51.
l From Sulmona the train leaves for Castel di Sangro at 10.47 (arrives 12.05) and 14.00 (arrives 15.16).
l The return train from Castel di Sangro to Sulmona leaves at 13.38 (arrives 15.01) and 14.24 (arrives 15.14).
l The connecting train from Sulmona to Rome Stazione Tiburtina leaves at 15.09 (arrives 17.56) and 17.23 (arrives 20.36).