I have some very special memories of my stay in Abruzzo. It was made possible by a very generous person who, without blinking an eye, when asked by his friend if, I, a perfect stranger, could stay at his condo for a couple of months, immediately answered yes. And so I found myself in Villa Rosa, a summer resort town on the Adriatic.
The generosity extended to helping me get oriented not only by having maps and guide books at the ready but also by taking me to see and experience this part of Italy which was his birthplace.
My first “taste” of the diversity of Abruzzo was a drive up to the mountain village of Amatrice (Amatrice is in the province of Lazio bordering on Abruzzo). We went specifically to eat spaghetti all’ Amatriciana in the village of Amatrice! It had never occurred to me that the name of the dish referred to the specific town where it originated.
We took the scenic route through Il Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga National Park . The drive up to Amatrice was my first mountain road experience. Part of the way the narrow road followed the Vomano River which flows through a tight ravine that falls straight down from the side of the road. I was surprised at the dramatic change in terrain from coastal beach to rolling fields and olive trees to a quiet and beautiful coniferous wilderness in under an hour. And it was also my first time experiencing how temperatures can drop as the elevation increases. It was about 18C when we left Villa Rosa. I watched the signs along side of the road indicating the increase in elevation and I also watched the thermometer with amazement as the outside temperature continued to drop.
We were surrounded by low hanging cloud and by the time we reached Lago di Campotosto at about 1400 metres the temperature had dropped to 1C. I knew what that would mean – snow or freezing rain for sure. As we turned to go onto the smaller road that runs around the lake, there was wet snow falling and several centimeters of heavy slush on the road.
Lago di Campotosto is a man-made lake created when a hydro dam was built in the 1930s. The surrounding area is flat and we passed cows grazing very close to the side of the road. We drove round the lake and as we turned away from the lake the road narrowed, went up a steep hill and then through a small town. There was snow piled up against the sides of the dark stone houses and I realized that with this much snow still left in March the area must get a lot of snow. The Canadian in me wondered, where do they put all that snow with the roads being so narrow and with the houses built right on the street?
It was foggy with a cold rain falling when we reached Amatrice around 13:00. The drive up took us about 2 hours to travel the 100 km or so. We had met very few cars on the road and yet the parking lot at the restaurant was full.
I was feeling very chilled but I completely forgot about that when I entered the dining room. There was a full wall of windows and I could see we were perched over a rolling valley below. In the distance low clouds hung over the snow-capped Gran Sasso range, just a stunning view. The room was made to feel even warmer with pots of lively pink cyclamens on the window-sills and a wood burning stove.
The waiter came to tell us what he had to offer us that day. It was my first experience as well with the idea of “primo, secondo, contorni”. It went without saying that the primo would be spaghetti all’ Amatriciana. I had no idea that the meal would go beyond the spaghetti. I also had some difficulty understanding what the waiter was saying, but my companions settled on roast lamb as a secondo and then asked what contorno I would like. I answered potatoes as it is what I know best!
I have no idea why, but I never really enjoyed eating pasta of any kind and so I did not eat pasta. I knew that I could not say, “thank you but I do not eat pasta”! The waiter arrived with a large, long-handled pan full of pasta. He put a generous portion in my bowl, as I tried to signal “basta”. I did not know how I could ever eat all that pasta. Now I can’t really explain what happened next. The pasta was a thin spaghetti with a light coating of tomato sauce and tasty morsels of guanciale clinging to it. It was just delicious and on that cold day, it truly was comfort food. When the waiter came by to see if we wanted seconds, I actually said yes!
Our host told us a little bit about his family history. His father had been sent to the Russian front during the second world war. His mother sadly was left a very young widow having to care for an infant son on her own. The Italian government did recognize the situation and set up boarding schools for the children of the fallen and when he was ten years old he was sent to a “collegio” located in Amatrice. Living conditions especially after the war were harsh and life at the collegio was not easy. As he tells the story, there was bean soup for every meal but he does not recall every having seen even a single a bean in the soup!
Amatrice has been largely destroyed by the earthquakes last August and the terrible snowstorms this winter.
When a tragedy occurs in life we are left asking ourselves – why did this happen? We seek answers for questions that have no answers. I was watching a RAI television interview with a resident of Amatrice. He had lost his home, his livestock, family members. The government was evacuating the residents to a town on the coast. He was asked why he did not go. He answered that his life was in the mountains and it was the only way of life he knew or wanted. He said also that those who left would never come back. The earthquake is termed a “natural” disaster but the consequences are even more devastating – a loss of homes, buildings, of a community all many centuries old, a loss of a way of life.
I want to thank my host, for taking me to Amatrice to a place very special to him. He is a very generous person that I have come to know well as a most true and loyal friend.