This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Dream of Italy. Updated 2019.
The central Italian region of Abruzzo is called la terra di mare e monti, where you can travel from the Adriatic Sea to the mountains in under an hour. Though only two hours from Rome, Abruzzo is one of Italy’s last unexplored frontiers where you can hike through rugged mountains and verdant valleys only to stumble upon medieval villages and hidden hermitages carved into stone.
It is a region with a proud pastoral tradition that has seen hardship and poverty due to wars and an isolated geographic position, but whose generous people have emerged with an indomitable spirit of survival and loyalty to their land and to each other, earning them the handle forte e gentile – strong and kind.
High in the mountains of Abruzzo, overlooking the lush, Eden-like Orfento River Valley and the proud Maiella mountain, is the tiny hamlet of Decontra. Decontra emerges out of thin air, at the end of a road perfumed by canary yellow brush during spring and summer, its stone houses huddled together like the flocks of sheep that have passed through for centuries.
And when you enter the sleepy rural village, you may spot an old man ambling along with a cane, wearing a baseball cap and a smile that no amount of labor or hardship has succeeded in dimming. He is Paolino – shepherd, contadino, poet, dreamer.
At five years old, Paolino was sent up to the mountains to pasture sheep, and from that day, began Paolino’s love story with the Maiella – or Majella – the “mother” mountain of Abruzzo named for Dea Maja, a goddess of growth and nurturing. Paolino recounts his experiences as a shepherd and farmer in a small book called, My Dreams Have All Been of the Maiella.
Paolino and other young shepherds from Decontra brought their flocks of sheep to grassy meadows of the Maiella at altitudes of over 4,100 feet. From April to June, they remained on the mountains and witnessed the pastures overtaken by the herds returning from the transumanza. During the transumanza, which means “crossing the land,” shepherds in Abruzzo led their sheep in autumn to the warmer lowlands of Puglia and returned in spring to their mountains. Paolino recalls, “It was a real spectacle when the herds returned and there was a fine party.”
He speaks frequently of a deep, almost sacred, relationship to nature and nostalgically recalls a time and place in which life was harder, but also simpler. “At the time when I was a young shepherd … we were always together and also in our village there was so much harmony. People worked, people worked really hard but there was good cheer,” Paolino writes.
Paolino has spent his entire life in Decontra, save for a brief stint working in an apple orchard north of London. Of his time in England, he’ll tell you, “Non mi e’ piaciuto” or “I didn’t like it.” “It used to rain every day…one never saw the sun…So I longed for those lovely mountains of the Maiella, which used to offer me so many fine days of splendid sunshine.” In those mountains, Paolino protected his sheep from attacks by hungry wolves; survived an invasion by the Nazis; fell in love and raised a family; and spent countless nights gazing and dreaming under a blanket of stars.
These days, you can find Paolino – now 92 years old and affectionately known as Nonno Paolino – seated at the stone patio of Agriturismo Pietrantica, owned by his son Camillo and daughter-in-law, Marisa. And if you take the time to sit with Paolino and listen to his stories, you will be rewarded with tales of a life well-lived and of dreams that have all been of the Maiella.
To meet Nonno Paolino, find out more at: www.agripietrantica.com.
Gina Sarra (We are saddened to learn that Gina passed away in December 2018)
Gina Sarra picked saffron for the first time at the tender age of three. It was a crisp October morning and the little girl was sleepy and shivering so her mother beseeched her to mimic the very crocuses they were picking: “When you get cold, put your arms inside your sweater and hug yourself just like the flowers do.” And from that moment, Gina’s saffron story began.
“The Sarra family has always worked in saffron,” says 79-year old Gina in a booming voice as she pours saffron tisana and serves slices of freshly baked ciambella in her little kitchen. For the 98 small saffron producers from 13 different villages in Abruzzo’s Navelli plateau, the cultivation of saffron has been a way of life and a labor of love for centuries. In fact, in 1971, Gina’s brother Silvio formed a union to protect local saffron farmers from unfair market competition called the Cooperativa Altopiano di Navelli.
At Gina’s urging, Silvio introduced the world to Abruzzo’s oro rosso – red gold – via a popular television program which over time led to numerous culinary accolades for Navelli’s prized saffron including the holy grail for food producers – DOP certification, the highest distinction that a food in Italy can be afforded.
Gina is a natural storyteller, who, despite having lived in the little village of Civitaretenga her entire life, clearly knows how to work a crowd. After all, she’s had her share of practice. She is regularly visited by chefs and food cognoscenti from around the globe. “Gina e’ internazionale (Gina is international),” a neighbor chides. Her phone rings off the hook with calls from visitors who seek her as much for her stock of fragrant Navelli saffron as for her infinite knowledge about the spice.
“In October, the flowers are collected – strictly by hand, one by one – early in the morning before the sun opens them,” explains Gina. “From one hectare of cultivated land we obtain – if all goes well – one kilo of dried saffron. In that kilo are 250,000 flowers and over 500 hours of work.” Navelli saffron’s hefty price tag of approximately 25€ per gram reflects the manual labor involved in its cultivation and production as well as the Cooperativa’s guarantee of quality and authenticity.
But Gina hasn’t slowed down; saffron – despite all its toil – is who she is. It is rumored among her neighbors that Gina keeps a tattered sheet of paper on which she proudly recorded her personal best records both for raccogliere – picking the crocuses – 1,623 flowers picked in 12 minutes, 18 seconds, and for the number of crocuses sfiorati – stripped of the pistils that will ultimately become saffron threads – 1,000 in one hour, 4 minutes, 23 seconds.
Is it true? She may never tell, but with a twinkle in her eye and over a final sip of saffron tea, she fondly recalls, “When I was a child and was tired after a long day’s work, my grandmother would tell me, ‘Dai, keep going and I’ll buy you dried figs.’ But I’m still waiting for those figs!”
To meet Gina, find out more at: www.zafferanoaltopianonavelli.it.
The sun begins to dim on an unusually balmy October day in the gently sloping hills that frame the town of Bucchianico. Francesca DiNisio, the young owner of CantinArte, an olive oil and wine company in Abruzzo, pauses for a moment to wipe a bead of sweat from her brow and take in the endless rows of silvery green olive trees. These were her grandparents’ trees and they now belong to her. Her reverie is broken by a child’s voice calling out to her. “Mamma, sono stanca (I’m tired),” says her four-year old daughter and Francesca chuckles to herself as she often does when she wonders whether her two small children will one day appreciate the lands they will inherit.
For Francesca, the olive harvest has always held an aura of romanticism, despite the long days and intense labor involved. Her grandparents’ 60-year love story began among those very olive trees. “My grandmother’s family owned a farm and my grandfather and his brothers went to pick the olives. There were many girls bringing water, wine and taralli to the workers, but my grandfather spotted my grandmother from across the uliveto and it was love at first sight.”
As a small child, despite her protestations, Francesca was banished to the sidelines, but as she got older, she was assigned tasks such as removing the leaves from the nets spread out under the trees and eventually climbing nimbly up the ladders to pick the olives. By the time Francesca was in her teens, it was clear she was a natural and before long, she was running the operation. “My grandmother taught me to see the beauty in taking care of plants like they are children,” says Francesca as she gazes at the olive trees that surround her with adoration and awe.
“My grandfather used to say, you can live without wine, but without good oil, never!” laughs Francesca. But she immediately grows serious and says, “But it’s true, olive oil flows in our family’s veins. None of us could survive without it. Even if it is difficult to get up early on the mornings of the harvest, to bend down with your back breaking to position the nets, to keep raking those olives from their branches until the evening – we do it willingly because we want that olive oil – no, we NEED it.”
In this way, the seeds for Francesca’s career were planted. Her love of country life and fierce entrepreneurial spirit propelled her to launch CantinArte, a company she founded 10 years ago that produces organic olive oil and wines in Abruzzo from lands that have been in her family for generations. “The incredible oil that is pressed from our olives is a gift from nature and we are blessed to share it with others.”
To meet Francesca, find out more at: www.cantinarte.com.
Marcello Natarelli is a man on a mission – he has made it his life’s work to prove to the world that Abruzzo is a destination that deserves to be explored. In 2014, Marcello combined his web marketing expertise with his passion for his region’s innumerable natural wonders to launch Majellando, now the largest tourism outfit in Abruzzo. Majellando specializes in nature tourism, offering guided hikes and excursions in Abruzzo’s three national parks as well as other immersive experiences including biking, canyoning and sailing.
Marcello is often asked why travelers should choose Abruzzo as a trekking destination given the many well-trodden options in Northern Italy. His response comes easily: “Abruzzo is an authentic land. Much of its territory, especially the mountains, has remained linked to its ancient pastoral traditions. Those mountains have been preserved over the centuries by the very men who relied on them to survive. Most of the mountain trails retrace the shepherds’ ancient paths. It is magic to breathe in their history.”
Marcello’s earliest memories of trekking in the mountains are with his great-grandfather, who would gingerly place the little boy in his donkey’s saddle basket at 5 a.m. on scorching August days in the hopes of completing the farm work before the intense late summer sun forced them back home.
These days, Marcello’s favorite hikes include the path that leads to the Hermitage of San Giovanni all’Orfento, a trek suited for more experienced hikers that “takes you to a magical place that I recommend everyone experience at least once in their lives,” says Marcello with reverence.
Majellando also offers a variety of walks along routes suitable for all hikers including to the dramatic fortress of Rocca Calascio. Two of Marcello’s other favorite places to explore are the waterfalls of La Valle di Cusano and a tucked-away cistern in the Orta River, both stunning settings to cool your heels in the summertime. However, for himself, Marcello admits, “I love going to the mountains alone. My favorite paths are the ‘hidden’ ones. Perhaps one day I’ll organize a trekking excursion called ‘Majellando’s Hidden Trails.’”
Marcello’s goal for Majellando is as much about education as it is about tourism. The company leads didactic programs tailored to families and children that convey the stories and traditions of the mountains. Marcello also wishes to educate local people about the beauty of their territory so they can join his efforts as an ambassador for Abruzzo.
“I always say that to speak of beautiful things, we must live beautiful things. I am fortunate to live every day in the places that I love deeply and I believe this shows in the work that I dedicate to my land every day.”
To join one of Marcello’s hikes, find out more at: www.majellando.it.
Michelle DiBenedetto-Capobianco is the founder of Majella Home Cooking & Abruzzo Tours. A former-corporate-lawyer-turned-private-chef in New York, Michelle organizes immersive, small-group tours of Abruzzo. For more information, visit www.majellahomecooking.com.