Flanked by bleak mountains and bristling with legends about its most famous son, Ovid, SULMONA is a rich and comfortable provincial town owing its wealth to gold jewellery and sugared almonds. Although it sustained some damage during the 2009 earthquake, most of it was internal, and it remains an atmospheric little place, with a dark tangle of a historical centre lined with imposing palaces and overshadowed by the mountainous bulk of the Majella. Sulmona’s sights can be seen in a morning, but the town makes a good base for exploring the surroundings – from ancient hermitages to towns with snake-infested festivals.
Corso Ovidio, Sulmona’s main street, cuts through the centre from the park-side bus terminus, leading up to Piazza XX Settembre. From here, Sulmona’s sights are within easy strolling distance.Read More
A popular tourist destination, SCANNO is reached by passing through the narrow and rocky Gole del Sagittario, a WWF reserve that makes a spectacular drive along galleries of rock and around blind hairpin bends that widen out at the glassy green Lago di Scanno. Perched over the lake is a church, the Madonna del Lago, with the cliff as its back wall, and nearby there are boats and pedaloes for rent in the summer.
A couple of kilometres beyond, Scanno itself is a well-preserved medieval village encircled by mountains. In 1951, Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed the village, in a series of atmospheric shots focusing on the traditional dress worn by Scanno’s women. Some elderly women can still be seen wearing the long, dark, pleated skirts and bodices with a patterned apron that suggest a possible origin in Asia Minor; the annual Costume di Scanno festival in April sees the locals taking to the streets in their finery. Scannese jewellery also has something of the Orient about it – large, delicately filigreed earrings, and a charm in the form of a star, known as a presuntosa, given to fiancées to ward off other men. If you want to see the costume and jewellery at close quarters head for the shops on Strada Roma and Corso Centrale.
It’s a pleasure strolling around the old town, built into the steep hillside, the squares and alleyways lined with solid stone houses built by wool barons when business was good. Though shepherding as a way of life is virtually extinct and the population has dwindled, it’s still a living village.
Cocullo’s snake festival
Cocullo’s snake festival
A tatty hill-village west of Sulmona, Cocullo is neglected by outsiders for 364 days of the year. However, on the first Thursday in May it’s invaded by what seems like half the population of central Italy, coming to celebrate the weird festival of snakes, an annual event held in memory of St Dominic, the patron saint of the village, who allegedly rid the area of venomous snakes back in the eleventh century.
The festival is an odd mixture of the modern and archaic. After Mass in the main square, a number of snake-charmers in the crowd drape a wooden statue of St Dominic with a writhing bunch of live but harmless snakes, which is then paraded through the streets in a bizarre celebration of the saint’s unique powers (he was apparently good at curing snake-bites too). It’s actually thought that Cocullo’s preoccupation with serpents dates back to before the time of the saint when, in the pre-Christian era, local tribes worshipped their goddess Angitia with offerings of snakes.
As well as gold, the Corso’s shops are full of Sulmona’s other great product – confetti – a confection of sugared almonds or chocolate wired into elaborate flowers with the aid of coloured cellophane, crêpe paper and ribbons. Through ingenious marketing the Sulmonese confetti barons have made gifts of their intricate sculptures de rigueur at christenings, confirmations and weddings throughout Catholic Europe. You can learn more about confetti manufacture at the town’s most famous conveyor of sugary confectionery, the Fabbrica Confetti Pelino at Via Stazione Introdacqua 55 at the southern end of Corso Ovidio. Here, the Museo d’Arte Confettiera holds an assortment of antique sweet-making machines and a sixteenth-century laboratory, complete with all manner of mills, toasters and polishing machines.