June 29, 2007 9:21 am

In the land of bears and castles

The Abruzzo lies 70 miles east of Rome, between the Apennines and the Adriatic. This mountainous region of Italy, covering 700,000 sq miles, has a population of 1.3m. Four national parks cover a third of its territory, with 37 nature reserves and 80 per cent of all Europe’s flora and fauna species, including lady’s slipper orchid, edelweiss and gentian. The sheepdogs still wear spiked collars when protecting their flocks because wolves and bears still prowl the mountains of the Maiella. Indeed, Orsogna, in the south of the region, was once Ursonia, the Kingdom of the Bears.

Enviably under-populated, the Abruzzo is also under-visited and property prices are correspondingly low. Tuscany has charming small villages but none of the grandeur of the Abruzzo’s mountain ranges. “Over the past five years, prices for well-restored Tuscan properties have risen by 40-50 per cent,” says Clare Sturdy of Savills’ Associates. “Values for similar properties in the Abruzzo are 10 to 15 years behind the Tuscany-Umbria triangle”.

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A period stone property in need of restoration in the Abruzzo can still be had for €15,000. “In Tuscany it would cost €150,000 – if you could find one,” Sturdy says. “But Tuscany and Umbria are so much better known and visited that finding a wreck is like finding a gem”.

The Abruzzese have their own ideas of what will attract visitors to their region. The marketing literature produced by the august bureaucracies of tourism are gems in their own right: “Europe discovered the Abruzzi thanks to the mutual effects of three forces: the outset of mountain-climbing as a sport, the spreading of the historiographical positivism and the love for landscapes-painting,” explains one brochure.

Unearthing recondite historical figures is clearly perceived to be a major draw. According to this charming booklet, with sepia photographs and a misspelt curlicued title, one Douglas Freshfield, “under a sportive point of view . . . recognised that the mountains in Abruzzi were gorgeous, even if they were not attractive for mountain-climbers looking for emotions”.

Despite historiographical positivism and cold-fish mountaineers, the real charm of the Abruzzo does lie in her mountains – and lakes and waterfalls – with a wealth of wildlife more visible than the shy Marsica bear: chamois, ibex, golden eagle, peregrine falcon, crested lark and Ortolan bunting. The Gran Sasso massif has the highest peak in Italy, Corno Grande, at 9,554ft above sea-level. Below it lies Europe’s most southerly and rapidly shrinking glacier, Il Calderone; and to the east, the plateau of Campo Imperatore, Italy’s oldest ski resort.

Fashionable in the 1930s, the resort’s eponymous hotel was much patronised by Mussolini, although his last “visit” was not optional. Imprisoned there after his fall in 1943, he was sprung by German commandos to run his short-lived puppet régime, the Republic of Salò, from the north.

The most handsome city of the Abruzzo is its capital, L’Aquila, southwest of Gran Sasso. Destroyed by earthquake in 1703, it was rebuilt in Romanesque style, although some medieval churches and Renaissance palaces and villas remain. There is a medieval university, colonnaded arcades, a good Saturday market and great restaurants. You find few English tourists here, yet there are more than 20 ski-centres nearby and it is just an hour from the sea

Property is naturally more expensive here than in the surrounding villages: a restored first-floor period apartment of 80 sq metres sold recently for €260,000. On the other hand, you can buy a three-roomed tower with battlements (75 sq metres), needing restoration, in a Gran Sasso village for €55,000 or a modestly restored 14th-century palazzo with round tower and 20 rooms in Castel del Monte for €860,000. By comparison, Sturdy says: “An equivalent palazzo in Tuscany commands more than double the price”.

At Santi, in the Forcella valley 15 minutes west of l’Aquila, is San Donato, a development of 100 luxury apartments. Abutting the national park and overlooking the mountains, it has a two hotels and an 18-hole golf course – a rarity in mainland Italy – designed by Peter McEvoy. “Great location and only 15 minutes drive to l’Aquila,” says project manager Lucio Forgione. “Equivalent resorts with similar facilities and services in Tuscany command three times the price.” One-bedroom flats are priced from €197,854, three-bedroom from €358,000.

The city of Pescara, which produced the Fascist poet Gabriele d’Annunzio and a monumental post office, is modern and horrible. Apart from half a decent avenue of smart-ish shops, it has a macaroni junction of slip roads to motorways and a dirty river. The long beach, occupied in summer by the squads of sunbeds beloved of Italian tourists, runs into Montesilvano, a dormitory of hideous blocks of their holiday flats. But “although [the] riviera evidences a sensible calling for the lots of people who love bathing tourism, it also addresses to those who love the direct touch with nature,” asserts another of the locally produced brouchures.

Receding from the coast are gentle alluvial slopes where the fertile land provides vineyards for Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and wheat for the best pasta. The Romans grew spelt here and brought its water along massive aqueducts to the capital. Spring and autumn see a succession of festivals, from flowers to chestnuts and witches to snakes.

Most of the towns and villages inland have Roman bits and pieces, medieval churches, castles and fortifications. This is the land of a thousand castles. The mountain villages are forcible reminders of a hard past of subsistence farming, worsened by deforestation, subject to recurrent famines and epidemics of the plague and cholera. Unsurprisingly, emigration was widespread: by 1915 500,000 Abruzzese had gone abroad.

Roccacasale, typical of these stone habitations, once had a population of 5,000. Now down to 800, its numbers have been swelled recently by an influx of 12 Staffordshire families buying holiday homes, led by Nigel Gardiner-Harvey and his wife Sarah.

They bought a three-room house for €17,000 in November 2005 and the property next door, which has four rooms and a roof terrrace, shortly after, for €15,000. Verging on the uninhabitable, it is costing €100,000 to restore.

They are joining savvy Florentines and Romans who have been buying second homes in the Abruzzo for some time, attracted by the impressive scenery, low property prices and the distinctive cuisine, despite the manner in which the tourist board describes it: “Mazzarella alla Teramana: lamb entrails and curatella meat, rolled up with endive leaves and stringed with lamb bowels”.

Savills International, tel: +44 (0)20 7016 3740; www.savills.co.uk

www.overseashomesearch.co.uk

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