Just a week ago I made my first journey to Abruzzo and the wonderful town of Sulmona. Boy, did I get lucky. You see, Abruzzo, hadn’t really been on my radar, with the exception of sadly noting the devastating earthquake in Aquila in 2009.
The universe works in mysterious ways, and my new mantra is allowing the river of life to take me to new places and experiences. Trying to overly orchestrate life if for the birds. Serendipity is my friend, and I’m discovering magic, indeed, can happen in our lives if we just get out of the way.
So, the universe brought me Novelia Giannantonio. She found me through my blog and began writing me and weaving her magic spell to coax me to come to discover the warmth and beauty of Sulmona, which is in the heart of Abruzzo. My busy schedule was threatening to delay a trip there indefinitely. But, thanks to Novelia’s kind persistence, a small window of opportunity presented itself, and I seized the moment and booked train tickets for a two-day stay in Sulmona.
In typical fashion, as I quickly learned, Novelia sprang into action, helping me to secure a beautiful place to stay in a 16th-century structure (next time, with more notice, I’m booking Novelia’s beautiful penthouse!). She and her kind husband Peppe insisted on meeting me at the Pescara train station. She also informed me, quite proudly, that she had included me in a very special guest list for a private concert by an amazing soprano singer who was coming from Modena (more on that later in this post).
I could not have been welcomed more enthusiastically to Sulmona. What did I do to deserve this kind of good fortune? Novelia and Peppe were my loving shepherds for the two days of my visit. Feeding me (quite deliciously, I might add – Novelia is an AMAZING cook), giving me a guided tour and history of the town, and introducing me to their circle of friends, which included a delightful community of expats (from New Zealand, Australia, Scotland, the U.S. etc.). Incidentally, several of the expats were a tad afraid of my exposing their hidden treasure in this remote corner of Italy.
If you read no further in this post, I encourage you to reach out to Novelia about her sweet penthouse, the “House of the Heart.” I’m happy to put her in touch with you (send me an email through my contact link). I can vouch for her enthusiasm and desire to welcome everyone with open arms. Novelia clearly loves her Sulmona!
I hope you find this post compelling and informative – without being cumbersome. My challenge is the abundance Sulmona offers – which is ironic since my stay was so brief. Novelia and I agreed that this “maiden voyage” was simply my antipasto, and a return trip in early autumn is in order.
So, now I endeavor to hit the high notes of things to do and experience in Sulmona. Again, my thanks to Novelia for providing me so much information to share. If you wisely decide to include Sulmona in your explorations, you will not find a better guide.
A brief history of Sulmona.
Sulmona is one of the oldest towns in Abruzzo, and is considered to have been well-established in 49 BC. It is in the Valle Peligna, which was once the site of a lake in prehistoric times. Details and writings about Sulmona’s earliest history are sparse, and it isn’t until the 3rd century that more information begins to emerge.
One of the Sulmona’s earliest bishops, San Panfilo, was a convert to Christianity in the 7th century, and he is the patron saint of Sulmona. He is interred in the cathedral that bears his name.
Today, Sulmona is a town of 25,000 inhabitants.
To delve deeper into Sulmona through the ages, Wikipedia provides a fine overview.
Sulmona is revered by Italians as the birthplace and center of confetti production.
Italian confetti is entirely a different breed from what Americans know as confetti. In Italy they are sugar-coated confectionary delights – most often with almond centers (imported from Sicily) but other nuts also are used as the core – as are coffee beans, anise seeds, chocolate, etc.
My first encounter with Italian confetti was at a big Italian wedding three years ago, where each guest was given a handsome linen-covered box, with simple white confetti (with almond centers) in a beautifully gathered tulle pouch. Besides weddings, this celebratory treat has plentiful applications, including anniversaries, christenings, graduations, etc. Displays and expressions of confetti artistry are abundant throughout the streets of Sulmona. However, if you really want to hit the jackpot, you must head to the factory of the legendary Pelino family. They’ve been making confetti since 1783.
Novelia took me to the Pelino factory and museum. Upon entering I thought I was walking into a florist’s shop until I realized that I was looking across massive displays of flowers crafted from confetti.
Sulmona is the birthplace of the poet Ovid.
Also known as Publius Ovid Naso, Ovid was born in 43 BC. Ovid wrote of love, and for this reason Sulmona often is referred to as the City of Love.
Ovid enjoyed enormous popularity in his day, yet in a great mystery of history, he was exiled by Augustus to a remote province in the Black Sea, where he died. A bronze statue of Ovid can be found in one of the main squares of Sulmona, the Piazza XX Settembre.
Sulmona’s “The Madonna that Runs in the Square” is an Easter event not to be missed.
I know where I’ll be next Easter. I’ll be in the giant square in Sulmona, the Piazza Garilbaldi, with throngs of Italians anxiously waiting to experience this emotionally charged event, and one of the most legendery in all of Italy. “Le Madonna che scappa” has been reenacted annually since the 11th century.
The Running of the Madonna celebrates the resurrection of Christ and Mary’s realization that he, indeed, has risen. I am vastly oversimplifying the event, but in essence, a statue of a reluctant and mourning Mary has been kept in the Chiesa di San Filippo Neri since the preceding night. At noon the following day, statues of saints are paraded in front of Mary, symbolizing an attempt to coerce her to emerge from the church. Meanwhile, the statue of the resurrected Jesus has been placed in the central arch of the aqueduct immediately opposite the church.
After three attempts to convince Mary to leave the church, the Saints finally are successful, and the statue of Mary, in a black mourning coat, is paraded down the stairs. Then she sees her resurrected son, the cloak is whipped away in a flash, and she rushes to her son on the shoulders of six men. As you might imagine, the crowd goes wild, and tears flow freely.
If you are lucky enough to be in Sulmona for this spectacular event, be sure to stake out a spot early, as the crowds can be intense.
Check out this YouTube video of the event.
Speaking of aqueducts, Sulmona’s has one of Italy’s finest.
Built in 1256, Sulmona’s aqueduct is a marvel of Medieval engineering. It helps frame Piazza Garibaldi. This area is the heart of Sulmona, and you’ll find people strolling, sitting, and communing. If you hanker for a calmer, friendlier pace, this is the spot.
And, if you see The American, with George Clooney, you’ll get glimpses of Sulmona’s famous aqueduct.
Enjoy the spectacle of the Giostra Cavallerersca di Sulmona
This Medieval jousting event is held starting the last Saturday of July and ending on the first Sunday of August and includes three separate tournaments, in which different neighborhoods for Sulmona compete. When I arrived for my short visit two weeks ago, people already were hard
at work hauling in massive amounts of earth to fill the Piazza Garibaldi, specifically for this event. Also, I saw seamstresses in there last preparations of Medieval costumes and flags which are gloriously displayed during the festivities.
I encourage you to visit WelcomeToSulmona.com and its rich accounting of this wonderful event. WelcomeToSulmona.com is also a resource well worth your exploration as you seek to learn more about Sulmona.
Check out this YouTube video to see a snippet of the jousting in action.
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The beautiful Cathedral San Panfilo has risen from the assaults of several earthquakes.
Like many amazing architectural treasures in Abruzzo, the Cathedral of San Panfilo suffered great damage from the earthquakes which have plagued Abruzzo through the centuries. Yet, it remains a magnificent attraction in Sulmona. Its construction dates back to 1075. In the twelfth century it was dedicated to San Panfilo, Sulmona’s patron saint.
In 1706 a massive earthquake brought down much of the structure, and it was rebuilt in the Baroque style. The oldest remaining part of the church is a crypt from the 11th century.
Personally, I was mesmerized by the ceiling paintings of Amedeo Tedeschi. Just a week before my trip to Sulmona, Simone and I had spent a wonderful afternoon at the Accademia in Venice, and while I was duly impressed by the paintings executed on a grand scale (putting it mildly), by the time we left, I felt “done” with paintings so elaborate and so “over the top.” How refreshing it was for me to gaze at these ceiling paintings in this cathedral, done centuries later, with a style and expression that I found more compelling. To me, the use of negative space made the scenes depicted incredibly powerful.
The spectacular Abbey of Santo Spirito al Morrone.
The Abbey of Santo Spirito al Morrone (Holy Spirit in Morrone) or Morronese Abbey is located in Sulmona in the Badia hamlet, 5 km from Sulmona and close to the hermitage of Sant’Onofrio al Morrone, and the shrine of Hercules Curinus. Originally a monastery, the building dates back to the second half of the thirteenth century and was built by the will of Pietro Angelerio from Isernia, before he was appointed pope Celestine V in 1293. The structure was ravaged by earthquakes in 1456 and 1706 and consequently was reconstructed in the present Baroque manner. It became a poorhouse in 1807, and then a prison for many years.
The closure of the prison in 1993 accelerated the reclamation of the whole structure, distinguished by the church’s façade in Borromini’s style, the Caldora chapel, the refectory with the magnificent monochrome paintings (1717-19) by monk Martinez, and a monumental staircase.
The church itself was closed during my visit, due to an extensive restoration underway. I look forward to the day I can be allowed inside!
Today the huge abbey houses the offices of the Abruzzo’s government departments responsible for the environment and historical buildings, for monuments and other treasures, and for the offices of the Majella National Park.
I could go on and on about all that Sulmona has to offer, but this post might become unwieldy. When I make my return trip I will endeavor to write about other worthy things, not the least of which are the amazing culinary treats of the area, including sphagetti all chittara (one of Novelia’s many specialities), red garlic, local salumi and pecorino cheeses, and a gelato made with olive oil (yes, olive oil) and artfully crafted with in-season fruit offerings.
I also plan to learn more about the local shepherds and the journey they make with their flocks on the ancient paths leading into Puglia – this is tops on my list.
In closing, I share with you the highlight of my recent trip…
A thrilling, powerful voice, and an intimate gathering.
Wow, I keep saying to myself, to describe the experience I had on my last night in Sulmona. Novelia had orchestrated, through her magical skills, an evening gathering at the home of Lucilla Pelino, of the legendary Pelino Confetti family.
Lucilla and her husband warmly welcomed us into her home. And, we were treated to a concert by Ana Petricevic, a soprano, currently residing and studying in Modena, with a voice that will carry your soul to ecstasy. I had no idea, when I first met Ana at Novelia’s and Peppe’s dinner table, that such a powerful voice resided in such a beautiful and gentle young woman. If memory serves me correctly Ana’s first song was O mio babbino caro (Gianni Schicchi) by Puccini – which was followed by other Italian pieces, and two arias from Porgy and Bess. And, I Could’ve Danced All Night brought smiles and hearty applause from all.
And, so, my two magical days in Sulmona came to a conclusion with an exclamation point of musical delight. On the long train ride back to Treviso I endeavored quickly to chronicle the events of these days, lest the memories take flight, or fade.
Be certain of this, I will be returning to Sulmona in autumn to move past the antipasto, and on to a fuller meal.