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MY ITALY - ABRUZZO

TRAVEL

‘The food keeps you coming back for more’

Sam Dunham chose Abruzzo to escape a frenetic London lifestyle. A decade on, the founder of the Life in Abruzzo guide tells The Local what she loves most about the central Italian region and reveals its best-kept secret…

'The food keeps you coming back for more'
Photo: Sam Dunham

So what brought you to Abruzzo in the first place?

Being freelance 'web people' my partner and I didn’t have a pension in place. We wanted to invest in something that could benefit us in the here-and-now as a retreat from the speedy life of London, as well as a future nest egg.

My studies in Florence as a teenager had instilled in me a love for Italy, so we decided to buy a small village house a decade ago. We are mountain and sea lovers so I popped this phrase into Google which came back with Abruzzo – a region that neither of us had even heard of at the time but fell in love with on our first visit.

How does the region compare to other regions of Italy?

Topographically Abruzzo is amazing, from snowy mountain peaks to spans of hidden beaches on the edges of atmospheric national parks. The amount of glorious personal space you have to explore and revel in is epic – a density of just 123.5/km2 (319.7/square miles), plus property and land are still relatively affordable.

Like all of Italy, living here as an expat can be a love-hate/basta-pasta thing. Abruzzo infrastructure is underdeveloped, which is a central part of its slow charm but that can also make it utterly frustrating.

Perhaps other regions are slightly savvier and have people from different businesses and provinces working together, but Abruzzo is sometimes infuriating for a lack of collective will and co-operation to work for a common good, or for neglecting opportunities to represent itself appropriately to those from outside Italy, such as appointing people who travel aboard and represent regional interests.

Click here to view a gallery of Dunham's favourite places in Abruzzo

What is the region known for?

Wine, its biggest and most glorious export. Its Apennine mountains and national parks. Its regional cuisine is numbered amongst Italy’s top three. The superb dry pasta that is made by companies like De Cecco in the small mountain town of Faro San Martino and shipped worldwide. Its bagpiping shepherds (Zampognari) that feature in nativity sets are from the region and are still invited to play to the pope at Christmas. Its sugared almonds called confetti from Sulmona and maiolica ceramics from Castelli.  

Where would you take a visitor for a day for a real Abruzzese experience?

An early morning walk around Decontra for incredible views of the Majella National Park and visits to its most famous nearby hermitages, popping in to buy a cheese picnic lunch at La Porta dei Parchi to eat in Castrovalva, the favourite village of the Dutch artist M.C. Escher.

Alternatively, driving up to Lago Campotosto in the Gran Sasso range, hopefully seeing some of the wild ponies along the way and visiting La Mascionara to buy some of their incredible cheese and salami, then driving down to Cesacastina to walk its 100 waterfall ramble.

If it is too cold to have a picnic, I'd take them to an agriturismo for lunch, 99 percent of which are wonderful and have an incredible array and meze-style antipasti.

I’d close the day with a visit to Campo Imperatore, dubbed ‘Little Tibet’ and its lunar landscape – it’s unmissable. I’d stay here, watch the stars come out for some amazing light and shadow play on the peaks and then perhaps eat dinner the wonderful refuge in Rocca Calascio or Locanda delle Streghe in Castel del Monte.

What’s the food like?

Greece had its sirens, Abruzzo has its food to lure you and keep you coming back for more. Goodness knows how many kilos I’ve put on since being here.

Expect amazing dishes crafted from superb ingredients which are the best storytellers to the region’s history; wonderful lamb dishes and incredible sweet and nutty pecorino cheeses served with honey and eclectic use of heirloom pulses and grains oiled with the very finest olive oils and perfumed with herbs or mushrooms.

The unexpected influence of saffron (this is its Italian home and where it is grown) and its use of chilli peppers rubbed with orange into the very finest salami or served at the table snipped into olive oil after sun-drying.

I love eating fish at Motel Boston in Silvi Marina. It’s the most amazing white-linen truck stop in the world that serves great fish affordably: expect two courses and free mussels with wine for two people for €35.

Sunday lunch in Frattoli is another small gem that plays on the Alpine heritage in décor and is high in the Gran Sasso mountains. On Sundays, everyone gets served together, the smell from steaming vats of truffle soup and pastas as they are walked around the room are so memorable as are the views from here across to the Corno Piccolo afterwards.

You also blog a lot about wine in Abruzzo – which are your favourites?

My favourite white is Pecorino, it’s an Abruzzese/La Marche heritage grape that is finally even making it into the supermarkets in the UK like M&S. I love the fruitier Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, this has even been served chilled at a local agriturismo and its clean fruits really work even in the depths of winter.

What are the people like?

Hospitality was learnt trading/bartering, going up and down mountains which often meant you stayed overnight, the people are not just good hosts they are great hosts.

If you’re planning on moving to a rural farm village don’t expect a great variety of conversational gambits beyond food and wine. Life in the mountains used to be really hard, and it’s still a challenge hence there being so many Abruzzese living in other countries and sentimentality doesn’t sit well with self-sufficiency.

With our limited Italian, having a two-way conversation can be hard enough at times, but the strong dialects here can create conversational spaghetti junctions sometimes making it almost impossible!

You’ve also listed some beaches on your website. Which are your all-time favourites?

I love Teramo’s sand banked blue and green flag beaches, Pineto and Roseto, that let you walk out some 50 m (perfect if you have a toddler like us). As they’re low rise they provide great views of the mountains on a clear day.

And now that the winter is approaching, what about skiing?

I like my local ski-resort at Prati di Tivo, Italy’s second oldest ski club. It’s a little more laidback than Abruzzo’s biggest resort Roccaraso that has 65 pistes.

Ovindoli and Campo Felice are separated by just a 15 minute bus journey so if you chose to ski there you have a choice where you’ll ski, their joint ski-pass also includes Campo Imperatore.

And finally, what is Abruzzo’s best kept secret?

With Pecorino wine now becoming more well-known, I would suggest the wolves and endemic Marsican bears. Just imagine you could drive just over an hour out of Rome and you could be in bear country.

Sam Dunham is the founder of Life in Abruzzo, a holiday and lifestyle guide to the region.

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TOURISM

Why are so many of Italy’s beaches privatised?

Many holidaymakers will have to pay for the privilege of enjoying Italy's coastline this summer, as the number of privately-run beaches keeps growing. Why are there so many, and is this about to change?

Why are so many of Italy's beaches privatised?

Golden sands, crystalline waters and rose-tinted sunsets – Italy’s beaches are rightly known as some of the best in the Mediterranean.

But if you arrive on most parts of the coast in August, you’ll find your path blocked by sea of umbrellas and beach chairs priced at anywhere between €10 and €50 a day.

If you want a free-to-access beach, you’ll usually have to walk some distance to a small patch of sand on the least attractive and accessible part of the shore; and in some parts of the country, the entire coastline is privatised.

READ ALSO: The Italian beaches you might want to avoid this summer

Italy’s private beaches aren’t actually privately owned – they’re leased by the state to private operators under a concessions system.

But with licenses handed down without question from one generation to the next and little available in the way of any alternatives, as far as the average holidaymaker is concerned, they may as well be.

How did Italy get to this point? And are things likely to ever change?

‘SOS free beaches’

Fewer than half of the beaches on Italy’s roughly 8,000km of coastline are free to access, the environmental association Legambiente estimates in its newly published 2022 annual beaches report.

A census conducted by the State Maritime Information System in 2021 (no data has been collected for 2022) found that there were 12,166 private beaches in Italy; a 12.5 percent increase on 2018.

Vacationers sunbathe at a private beach near Santa Margherita Ligure, southern Genova, on August 11, 2011.
Vacationers sunbathe at a private beach near Santa Margherita Ligure, southern Genoa, on August 11, 2011. Photo by OLIVIER MORIN / AFP.

In regions such as Emilia Romagna, Campania and Liguria, approximately 70 percent of the beaches are privately run. In popular beach towns such as Riccione in the northeast, that figure rises as high as 90 percent; in nearby Gatteo, it’s 100.

“SOS free beaches”: the situation is an emergency, says Legambiente, whose members, along with those of the Mare Libero (‘Free Sea’) national campaigning network, have called on the Italian government to commit to making at least 60 percent of Italy’s beaches free to the public.

“The lungomare (‘seafront’) has almost everywhere become a lungomuro (‘long wall’), physical or metaphorical; a kilometre-long wall, which imprisons the sea and the beaches, takes them away from the territory, from the citizens, and hands them over to the interests and exploitation of a few,” argues Mare Libero in its manifesto.

The coastline should be returned to the community, the organisation insists: the beach “must be made available to anyone who wants to enjoy it, regardless of their economic or social status, regardless of their origin and culture.”

How did Italy get here?

Legambiente president Stefano Ciafani blames Italy’s out-of-control private lidos on the fact that the country has no limits on how much of its coastline can be privately controlled: “an all-Italian anomaly that needs to be remedied,” he sums up in an introduction to the association’s 2022 report.

Such a state of affairs would be “unthinkable” in nearby countries such as Spain, Greece or France, the report says, citing French laws that require 80 percent of beaches to be kept free of any man-made structures for six months out of the year.

MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

So why is Italy the exception?

Seaside resorts have been around in Italy for at least a couple of centuries, and beach tourism was particularly popular in the fascist era (Mussolini was a particular fan of the seaside).

Private beaches in Italy are now estimated to occupy more than 50 percent of the coastline.
Private beaches in Italy are now estimated to occupy more than 50 percent of the coastline. Photo by OLIVIER MORIN / AFP.

But beach clubs really exploded in the country’s post-war economic boom, and for many they represent the ‘dolce vita‘ lifestyle that characterised 1960’s Italy – making them actively prized by some Italians, and at least tolerated by others.

A number of concessions that were first assigned to World War I veterans in the 1920s (originally to start fishing businesses) and World War II survivors in the 1940s, before the industry took off, have remained in the same family for generations.

READ ALSO: Ferragosto: Why the long August holidays are untouchable for Italians

In 1992 the government passed a law that awarded priority to existing concession-holders and automatically renewed the concessions every six years, making it all but impossible for new entrants to get in on the scene.

This history has instilled in many lido operators the mindset that the beach does, in fact, belong to their family and not the state – even if these days many are subcontracted out to third party operators for vast sums, far from being small family-run businesses.

Operators insist that beachgoers prefer private clubs to the alternative of unfolding a towel on the spiagge libere.

“People who come to the beach want to relax, they want the services and assistance that only establishments can offer,” Ruggero Barbadoro, president of the Rome Beach Club Federation and operator of the ‘Venenzia’ club in Ostia told the Corriere della Sera news daily in August.

As the number of concessions granted has only expanded in recent decades, however – “in the last twenty years continuing at such a pace that in many towns it is now impossible to find a spot where you can freely lie down and sunbathe,” says Legambiente – there’s a general feeling that the situation has got out of hand.

Many private beach clubs have remained under the control of the same family for generations.
Many private beach clubs have remained under the control of the same family for generations. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP.

In the early 2010’s lower wage earners hit by the recession complained they had been priced out of their area, as various Italian and foreign outlets reported a ‘class war’ on Italy’s beaches.

Under Italian law, the 5m stretch of beach directly in front of the sea is always free to the public, and clubs are legally required to display signs outside their premises indicating public access routes.

But many clubs simply ignore these rules, chasing away and threatening people who try to walk through their establishments without paying.

This led to a heated altercation in June when two Mare Libero activists challenged a club manager who had hidden his sign and refused to grant them entry. The encounter became so heated that police ultimately had to intervene.

“It’s an arrogance that stems from a certainty of impunity,” Danilo Ruggiero, one of the campaigners, told the Guardian.

The situation might, finally, be about to change: a new law approved by the Italian senate at the start of August is set to bring Italy in line with EU competition rules, requiring all beach concessions to be put up for public tender by 2024 at the latest.

READ ALSO: Italy’s private beaches to face public tender in tax fraud crackdown

More importantly, for those longing for free beaches, the law states that half of the beaches in each municipality must be free to access – having the potential to revolutionise seaside towns which are now under majority private control.

Whether the measure will actually be implemented by whichever government comes to power following Italy’s general election in September, however, remains to be seen.

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