Castel del Monte has been known as the capital of the shepherds since pre-Roman times. Due to it’s medieval beauty (it’s officially listed as on one of Italy’s most beautiful villages) and its enviable strategic position has ensured that at one time or another it has been led by every major ruling Italian family! We asked local Mauro Cironi, to tell us a little more about this small town that still celebrates its witchy past in its August festival.
1. Castel del Monte in 5 words!
Tradition, nature, flavours, wilderness and light.
2. What to visit
One of the best things to do in Castel del Monte, is to simply take a walk in its historic centre through the ancient limestone sport antichi’ (arches) that form tunnels and lead you out to the most striking views of the town as well as Campo Imperatore. Simultaneously you can visit the Museo delle Tradioni (Museum of Traditions) for free, its 5 sections are scattered throughout the centre – The Ancient House, The Art of Wool, The Dancing Oven, Pastoralism and Work in the Fields. It’s a real journey back in time, rediscovering how people lived in this village and what their fundamental tools were.
Among the monuments worth a visit is the baroque jewel, the Church of the Madonna del Suffragio, at the foot of the town. The facade of the Church appears modest but inside it contains unimaginable wealth, including some paintings and an organ worthy of note. The rectangular plan with a single nave is dominated by the huge carved wooden altar covered with gold; a masterpiece of baroque art that most believe is the most impressive in the province of L’Aquila.
The church is intimately linked to the seasonal rhythms of transhumanza (the traditional, twice-yearly migration of sheep and cows from the highlands to the lowlands, and back). In 2019 it was recently recognised by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage. There are two processions that occur, the first on the 2nd July that marked the return of the local shepherds from Puglia and on the 8th September their departure, when they were greeted and blessed. To coincide with the departure in early September, the “forty hours” took place: a period of fasting and prayers before the trip back to the Tavoliere delle Puglie began.
Last but not to be missed is certainly the visit to the nearby medieval castle of Rocca Calascio, now a destination for international tourism, it needs no introduction. The history and the atmosphere that you breathe here is unmatched and it is located just a few minutes drive from Castel del Monte. The fortification stands at about 1400 meters above sea level on a spur of rock and dominates the surrounding area and infinite and sumptuous peaks of the Gran Sasso National Park. The Corno Grande is its highest peak at 2912 meters above sea level.
3. Best places to get a view
Let’s just say that having a beautiful view is just a general feature of Castel del Monte. Nestled in the center of the Gran Sasso National Park, it enjoys an unparalleled view of the Gran Sasso, Majella and Sirente-Velino massifs. Not to mention the view of the magnificent Rocca di Calascio which you have from almost every corner in the town. Although a few kilometres away it is almost better appreciated when viewed from afar, inserted in its natural context, letting us easily understand why it is was built right there!
Having said that, among the thousand places from which to enjoy the best of these wonders and perhaps waiting for the sunset, I’d definitely recommend:
– Viale dei Pini, or the upper street of the town from which you have a very privileged view of the historic center and the tower!
– Via Duca degli Abruzzi which is located straight in the heart of the village under the tower and the matrix church, from here an elegant staircase and the old houses form a perfect frame for the splendid panorama that opens onto the San Marco plain!
– Capo di Serre pass, outside the village and reachable with a few minutes by car, is absolutely one of the best views of the entire massif, with the infinite plateau of Campo Imperatore that stands out straight in front of your eyes, framed by the succession of peaks of Monte Bolza, Corno Grande, Monte Prena and Monte Camicia. This is an absolutely essential stop!
4. Local dishes to try
Calcioni, black pork in marinella, arrosticini in vetica source (mucciante, giuliani and de carolis), canestrato petronio, mappavel’s beer
Castel del Monte is brimming full of traditional dishes that can be tasted in the many restaurants within our small town, a great variety of “ammassate” pastas in various forms – strangolapreti, surge sfunnete, laganelle, ciafrichiglie, taccuzzelle which are eggless, made with only flour and water. There is also the typical “Chiaranese” mutton which has been cooked slowly until tender in large cauldrons as was the way of the shepherds.
If I was to recommend some of the most delicious they would be these: – “Calcioni” or a savory rustic pastry, stuffed with eggs and cheese. They used to be made at home by all the housewives of Castel del Monte on important occasions such as weddings and anniversaries and prepared as a meal to be taken along by the shepherds during transhumanza. The production is now carried out by the ‘Forno di Castel del Monte’ which supplies most of the town.
The culatello of ‘Maiale Nero d’Abruzzo'” (the Black Pig of Abruzzo), is a variety of mountain pig raised free-range without the use and need of antibiotics. Its superb taste from that it grows very slowly, eats natural food and guarantees a mature, tasty and above all healthy meat! You can sample it and other specialties at the store of the producer Alessandro Pelini!
Arrosticini also called locally “rustell”, an exquisite Abruzzo delicacy now famous all over the world and consisting of sheep meat (castrated) cut into chunks and stuffed onto wooden skewers that are cooked in a typical “canaletta” filled with embers. I recommend you to try them in the characteristic Giuliani and Mucciante Ristoro located in Fonte Vetica, in the middle of the Campo Imperatore plateau, where you will find independent barbecue stations ready to cook with a view of the mountains! PS don’t worry you can ask the staff with years of experience for tips on grilling! Ah and accompany them with bruschetta and a good Montepulciano d’Abruzzo!
Pecorino Canestrato di Castel del Monte is a typical cheese made from raw sheep’s milk with the only addition of salt and rennet. The name “canestrato” derives from the imprint that the basket, leaves on the cheese. Its main characteristics are that its scent and aroma taste like hay and high meadow pastures, with a creaminess and balanced spiciness.
Mappavel‘s craft beer is popular for using ancient local grains to produce modern new beer recipes, all materials are raw and 0 KM.
5. Great Walks & Cycle Rides
Castel del Monte is a real paradise for hikers and bikers but also for any lover of the mountains and outdoor life in general.
The possibility to range from a low mountain environment immersed in history and in castles passing through one of the largest plateaus in Europe and finally reaching the dizzying peaks of the Gran Sasso means that the variety and choice of itineraries for various sports is almost infinite. It is in fact possible to find itineraries suitable for everyone, from beginners to experts, from families to climbers.
Three walking itineraries I suggest are:
An excursion to Rocca Calascio, fully customisable it is possible to insert the Rocca in variety of walks based on travel time and the difficulties you want to face, from the long ring that starts from Castel del Monte and also touches Santo Stefano di Sessanio up to a simple walk that is suitable for everyone and families starting directly from the small village of Rocca Calascio.
- Ring excursion Monte Meta and Voltigno plateau, a wonderful itinerary that will take you through green valleys and ancient forests to the top of Monte Meta from where you can enjoy one of the most beautiful and 360 degree panoramas on the other peaks of the massif. To complete the tour you will descend to the karst plateau of the Voltigno, a real treasure chest of green landscape and rich in animals.
- Excursion to Monte Camicia, this is a more demanding high mountain itinerary with a difference in altitude and pure physical effort required but you must not miss out on the view of the famous balcony of Monte Camicia. The view falls into the abyss of the wall north of this mountain, dropping steeply for more than 1000 metres vertically on the Fondo della Salsa and the Teramana countryside up to the Adriatic Sea. This is the kingdom of the Abruzzo chamois and the golden eagle who occasionally show off with their races and aerial acrobatics.
As far as bikers are concerned, there is a fantastic route on a mixed dirt road that will take you from the Borgo up to Rocca di Calascio, the Racollo lake and across the Campo Imperatore plateau where you can soak up the Valianara Canyon, the scene of several spaghetti western films, will bring us at the Capo di Serre pass and then downhill again to Castel del Monte. There are many tours organised with e-bikes to make the ride even more pleasant that costs €30 per bike and include a guide!
6. Where to have an aperitif (quality and for great views or atmosphere?)
For an aperitif, you are spoiled for choice: from the panoramic terraces of the Hotel Gran Sasso to the atmosphere of the Pub le Civette!
A nice alternative for the more adventurous and to fully immerse yourself in the town through its beauty spots with a bounty of local flavours Buy yourself a picnic-aperitif and move up to the upper part of the town to consume a kind of picnic-aperitif in the open air with the unique view of the village surrounded by nature at sunset!
7. Recommendation of a Local vineyard or Bar to visit or go for a tasting
If you want to savor the specialties of local products quickly, visit Pelini Azienda where you can enjoy the true flavors of the land fresh and sliced before your eyes, their aromas will make your mouth water! Ham and other cuts of black pork from Abruzzo, seasoned and sweeter cheeses such as Pecorino Canestrato from Castel del Monte, and all those that I mentioned will be delivered by the all knowing Marinella, the owner!
8.Restaurant Recommendations – Budget and High-End
There are several excellent restaurants in the town, you really won’t go hungry whatever your budget! The most sought after for their locations and traditional dishes are La Locanda delle Streghe (read LifeinAbruzzo’s review) and the Civette, for its historic setting is the Osteria del Lupo and for its delicious hand-made pasta you must try Il Gattone, for those with food allergies do visit Loredana restaurant! Expect to pay between €50-60 for two people for a two-course meal.
9. Sagre and Festivals!
Like most of the mountain villages in the central Apennines, the festivals and festivals are concentrated in the summer when the village was historically more alive and populated by the men returning from their winter transumanza!
Among the most important and famous festivals held in Castel del Monte is the Night of the Witches (La Notte delle Streghe), which usually takes place between 16-18 August, during which the town completely changes and becomes a kind of open-air theater where actors and townspeople evoke ancient beliefs, customs and propitiatory rites. The main re-enactment concerns the ritual of the “Seven Sporti” with which mothers walked under the 7 sporti (arches) of the historic center to remove the evil eye from babies that were thought to have been cursed. In addition to the various religious and traditional festivals, I suggest two other events to join in with over the summer, the gastronomic July ‘Open Cellars’ (Cellari Aperti) when all the old houses of the historic center are open and laden with food and wine. The town really comes alive with music and the party and tastings go on late into the night. There are also a number of sporting events with marathons, cycling races, the GranSasso Skyrace and Street Boulder, climbing competitions in the alleys of the center.
As for the non-summer periods, the village remains a unique destination to be enjoyed. The colours of autumn transcends the town and create a magical atmosphere ideal for those who want to enjoy nature and tranquility so different from the crowds of summer. In winter, it is the ideal place for sports and snow lovers when the village turns into a real winter sports resort. Being able to practice cross-country skiing on the large rings of groomed trails, snowshoeing, mountaineering, and ski mountaineering up to family fun and children on the snow with the return in the evening in a warm and pleasant location where you can enjoy the beauty of the snowy village looking through the windows sheltered by the fireplace.
Spring is one of the most eye-catching periods with the thousands of wild and field blooms that color the surroundings and the whole of Campo Imperatore plateau. To many who don’t know the area Castel del Monte is seen as purely a summer destination, but I must emphasise Castel del Monte it’s possible to enjoy nature and all aspects of town-life all year round!
10. The Under 12s – What to do!
For the under 12s, Castel del Monte can certainly be a school of life and a place where the heart where they can get back in touch with practicality and the real things in life and some independence. It’s an experience that can bring children closer interactively to the manual skills of the past as well as physical adventures away from headphones and computers. They can visit farms, stay in contact with animals, learn how to make cheeses and other products with their own hands, and rediscover many aspects of life that unfortunately increasingly difficult for them to experience first hand.
Obviously, sports and recreational activities will be at the center of their days with the opportunity to participate in trekking, skiing, mountain biking, and countless other outdoor sports!
For more details on Castel del Monte visit their official website
Written by Mauro Cironi writer and photographer, do have a look at his recent special jury mention at the Banff Film Festival for his Last Shepherd photo essay.