The region of Abruzzo in Italy takes the concept of a 'power lunch' to a different level - but there are plenty of opportunities to walk it off
For centuries, the residents of Abruzzo in Italy have been famous for their amiable hospitality to visitors who come to the area – and I was their latest victim. It all started quite innocently with an invite to lunch - but no ordinary lunch. I was to be a guest at the re-introduction of ‘la panarda’, a special lunch, originally held to mark a significant occasion for the men of the village. But more of that later.
The Italian area of Abruzzo has, for a long time, remained at a distance in tourism terms, a little withdrawn, but a firm favourite with Italian families. However, little by little, this land between the Apennines slopes and the waters of the Adriatic Sea has attracted a new cache of international visitors, gradually moving inwards into the hinterland, seeking out the religious, cultural and gastronomic tourism elements of this diverse region.
With a coastline stretching 133 kilometres, the scenario that greets tourists reaching the Abruzzo coast is certainly varied. The coastline switches from lively beaches such as Pescara to solitary shores where you can bask in peace. During the summer a combination of excellent food, thousands of bars, a wide range of accommodation and friendly locals mean that the seaside resorts along the coast are both entertaining and relaxing.
Among the unique attractions to see on the Abruzzo coast are the famous trabocchi or ‘fishing machines’, located to the south. These are basically fishing huts built entirely of wood and arranged on platforms supported by stilts, where the fishermen cast their nets into the sea. Long, hazardous walkways, also set on stilts, connect the huts to the shore and tend to be many metres in length.
The origins of these spectacular fishing devices are uncertain, but it is thought that they were built so that fish could be caught without going out to sea. I was assured that the fragile and unstable appearance of the trabocchi is misleading, as they have an astonishing ability to resist rough seas. This is a theory I did not intend to put to the test.
The coastal city of Pescara is an excellent base from which to explore the area, with direct flights from London into the nearby airport. Again, long sandy beaches, leafy squares, some great shopping areas and a host of diverse restaurants and bars will certainly keep you occupied during your stay. Rail and road transport links from Pescara ensure that the attractions of Abruzzo are always within reach.
Heading south from Pescara, it’s off to the mountain-top town of Carunchio to take part in a cookery class. For a person who needs a sat-nav to find his way to the kitchen, I was very much in doubt that my short visit to the Abruzzo Cibus cooking school at Carunchio, would make little difference to my culinary skills – but I was wrong.
Managed and owned by local chef Massimo Criscio, the Abruzzo Cibus offers culinary tours in the region including cooking classes in the morning and fun excursions in the afternoon. It's a complete package where everything is included: superb accommodation, cooking classes, transportation, all meals, all beverages, and all in a spectacular setting, straight out of The Sound of Music.
Well worth a visit is the “town of pasta”, Fara San Martino, a village at the bottom of Majella’s eastern slope, where you can see the fresh pasta being made. The home-made pasta also includes the famous maccheroni alla chitarra.
In recent years, no other Italian region has equalled the leaps and bounds made by Abruzzo to improve its wines. At the Bosco Nestore farm, not too far from Pescara, the wine cellars represent a subterranean architectural treasure, with the big durmast casks, the little barriques and the niches for the bottles where the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo rests.
I mentioned earlier about the religious elements to Abruzza tourism. If churches, holy faces, holy doors, hermitages and festivals are your thing, then you have come to the right place. Well worth a visit is the Volto Santo Sanctuary, at the foot of Majella’s northern slope, near the village of Manoppello. It houses the Veronica veil, from ‘vera icona’, meaning ‘true icon’.
The area also has more than its fair share of hermitages, small churches clinging like some Mexican pueblo to the rock, where various saints liked to chill out. I visited the Hermitage of San Bartholemeo in a similar location, which involved a 45-minute hike through meadows and down vertical mountain paths. It was intended to be a religious experience, and I certainly felt closer to my maker - I thought I was going to die! Not for the faint- or weak-hearted.
Also not for the faint-hearted is my reason to be in Abruzzo: la panarda. It was described to me as a long, long lunch, to which I am quite partial. The official description of a panarda is a multi-course feast of gargantuan proportions, which comes close. The reality, however, is somewhat different. This is a gastronomic orgy! Most panardas consist of 35 to 56 courses and last all night. The theory is that it gives the guests time to taste every dish in a pleasant way. And in theory it worked.
The afternoon, evening and most of the night flew by, as I waded my way through the first 15 fish dishes and on through the meats and sweets – with wine continually spouting like a burst pipe and me looking increasingly like a burst couch! The food, and not in small portions, was magnificent, and to leave the table before finishing it was considered an offence. Not wishing to be offensive, I stayed from soup to nuts.
Without doubt, this certainly is a tradition worth reviving. At the end of it I was presented with a certificate from the mayor, possibly for last man standing. I was now officially certified. This was my first panarda and I hope not my last. The area of Abruzzo is rightly famed for the amiable hospitality of the people – and the arresting officer was very understanding.
Ryanair flies to Pescara from London Stansted and Glasgow.