If youve ever dreamed of living in a castle, this could be your chance. A young family from Rome took the plunge a few years ago. They moved to the Gran Sasso national park in Abruzzo and opened a restaurant in Rocca Calascio a picturesque 15th-century ruined castle and borgo, setting for the Michelle Pfeiffer film Ladyhawke.
The rugged mountains and sweeping plains of the ancient wool route of the Medici, which led from the province of LAquila to Tuscany, are peppered with old castles, abandoned convents and semi-deserted mediaeval villages, just waiting to be discovered. Until now, the treasures of the area on the south-east side of the Gran Sasso range, known as the Terra della Baronia, have been unfairly neglected, according to the Abruzzo regional government. The tourism development department of the region has therefore launched a bold and imaginative project called Invest Abruzzo, aimed at turning these assets to practical use.
The 14th-century Castel Camponeschi is one of the typical properties on the list. It crowns a spur of rock in the midst of a splendid pine and deciduous forest, above the village of Prata dAnsidonia, an important centre of saffron production. Abandoned by the last inhabitants in 1963, the local town council has saved the castle and the surrounding walled borgo from ruin by using it for the odd conference or cultural event. The upkeep, however, is too onerous for the little village. They would like to see the property taken over by an imaginative entrepreneur, who could develop it into a hotel.
The idea is not as farfetched as it may seem. A similar project is in an advanced stage of realisation in nearby S. Stefano di Sessanio, a fortified mediaeval village perched high in the hills in the Gran Sasso park. Like many Italian mountain villages, S. Stefano was largely depopulated until an Italo-Swedish businessman, Daniele Elow Kilghren, saw it and realised its potential. He gradually started to buy abandoned property in the village and to restore the old buildings. This summer, S. Stefano di Sessanio will open its doors to the first tourists, who will be lodged in suites and rooms in the ancient Palazzo delle Loggette, near the old town gate, crowned with the Medici coat of arms. A restaurant and conference hall have already been inaugurated inside the old town cellars and stores built into the thick defensive walls. Kilgren has spared no expense in preserving all the authentic old features that give the place a unique fascination and he also hopes to revive village life by attracting crafts-
people and artists to occupy the empty shops.
On a lesser but no less impressive scale is the restoration job carried out by Paolo Barattelli at the nearby town of Paganico. Barattelli took over the abandoned country residence of Marquis Dragonetti and has transformed it into a delightful country house hotel. Every room is decorated with the original 18th- and 19th-century frescoes, and most of the furniture also belonged to the Dragonetti family. The hotel is already making its mark among the jet set, since Leonardo Di Caprio stayed there while filming a television commercial on the heights of the Gran Sasso.
The imposing Palazzo Santucci at nearby Navelli is also waiting to be brought to life by an imaginative entrepreneur. Navelli is on the ancient transhumance route of the hardy Abruzzo shepherds, who conveyed their flocks twice yearly between the mountain pastures and the plains of Puglia. It is also very near Capestrano, which produced the famous saint S. Giovanni better known by his Spanish name, S. Juan di Capestrano as well as the celebrated prehistoric sculpture of the warrior of Capestrano, symbol of the region.
The whole area is fine walking country and full of places of interest. The vast ruins of the ancient Roman city of Peltuinum, which extend over some 20 hectares, are in the vicinity and the old shepherd tracks giant pathways some 100 metres wide are strewn with old Romanic churches, hamlets and monuments. The Gran Sasso park is a jewel of nature, with 2,600 plant species, some of which are unique. Wildlife includes five pairs of golden eagles, over 40 wolves and 170 chamois. In September a botanical garden containing native plants will be opened at the 14th-century convent of S. Colombo, which has now been converted into a hotel and restaurant.
If you cant set your sights on a castle or manor house, there are plenty of opportunities to acquire a more modest holiday home. Abruzzo is earmarked as one of the next Italian dreams for northern Europeans, now that Tuscany and Umbria have practically priced themselves out of the market.
Antonio Bini, director of the tourism promotion department of the Abruzzo region and one of the promoters of the Invest Abruzzo project, believes that the area has enormous untapped potential. However, he is anxious that possible investors and buyers respect the cultural identity of the territory.
This is not a place for the mass tourism market, he says. We would like to recreate something of the atmosphere of the Grand Tour, when foreign visitors lived the life of the country and tried to learn from its culture.
For further information, contact Antonio Bini, tel. 0857671,
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.invest-abruzzo.com.
S. Stefano di Sessanio, www.sextantio.it.
Hotel Dragonetti, Paganico, tel. 0862680222.
Picture: The rugged mountains of the Abruzzo are peppered with old buildings just waiting to be discovered.