For many Francavilla al Mare is simply a modern seaside town, to be enjoyed for its sandy beaches, shallow waters and eating a wonderful seafood lunch, but it has a rich cultural history and was formerly nicknamed Abruzzo’s ‘Cradle of Art & Beauty’, which you can still dip into when you visit helped along by a local whose tips are always the very best to follow!
My name is Elisa, I was born and grew up on the hills of Francavilla. I moved away for a few years, but I returned to my hometown and now manage the family ceramic lab. If you are around Francavilla stop by to say hello and have a coffee!
Francavilla al Mare in 5 Words!
A tranquil spot between the hills and the sea.
What to see
“Lungi, su ‘l cielo chiaro, la sagoma di Francavilla, netta, agilissima, tra ‘l verde.
The silhouette of Francavilla, clear-cut, extremely agile, amidst the greenery; long shades of the soft sky”
With these words, the well-known Abruzzese poet Gabriele D’Annunzio described the skyline of Francavilla in the late 19th century, which the town possessed until the 2nd World War: a group of buildings nestled on a patch of brush on a hill that stood out against the bright sky. It described what was San Franco Hill, now called Civitella, the oldest part of the town and which is just a neighbourhood of Francavilla today. Post the war, rebuilding occurred mostly by the beach and its coastal areas, which completely changed the appearance and focus of the town.
I casually mention D’Annunzio to introduce Francavilla as he was a close friend of the most important artist in town and potentially Abruzzo of the period, Francesco Paolo Michetti. Thanks to him and through the intellectual club he established in a former convent, the so-called Cenacolo, the town became a meeting point for high-profile Italian intellectuals like the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, the musician Francesco Paolo Tosti, the poet Edoardo Scarfoglio, the writer Matilde Serao, the sculptor Costantino Barbella and many others.
What’s left from this important time in the Civitella is the Michetti studio and two of his giant paintings held in MuMi (Michetti Museum) but you can relive the memories and history of that time through one of the guided tours organised by the local cultural and environmental association, Buendia. The guided tours (average duration 2 hours each) are managed by the authorised guide and art historian, Federica Rapino who’ll share her passion and knowledge giving you an insider’s version of Francavilla, the one that doesn’t stop at the beach!
Here are some of the tours you can enjoy.
Cenacolo Michettiano Tour: The Most Prestigious Intellectual Club
Listen to the many stories around Michetti’s ‘club’ that he housed in the former monastery on the hills of Francavilla, you’ll get a taste of the poet D’Annunzio’s life by the seaside, saints and mermaids, love letters, models and shepherds, memories of an Abruzzo in the 50 years that led to the 2nd World War.
You’ll get to visit the Michetti Museum, MuMi for short. Here you’ll get to admire the impressive two giant paintings Le serpi (the snakes) e Gli storpi (the cripples) and visit the Michetti Convent where the artist’s studio is still housed, learning about his techniques. As this is private, visits have to be agreed upon with the owners in advance, so pre-booking is essential!
The MuMi has been recently converted to ‘Abruzzo in Miniatura‘, so you’ll get to see that exhibition as well!
Do try and visit the palazzo in Civitella after the tour, here on the floor you can find some pieces of modern art from the annual painting competition “Premio Michetti” that has been run by the Michetti Foundation since 1947. Its aim is to balance a modernist thrust and the language of the pictorial tradition, the enhancement of the local reality and national and international openness.
Another suggestion is to stroll along the narrow streets and pop into San Franco Church. Even though it is a quite modern building, there some interesting art pieces inside made by the famous local modern sculptors, Andrea e Pietro Cascella. The Cascella family has played a hugely important role in the experimental art scene between the 19th-20th centuries. Look out for their terracotta frieze and the white stone sculptures by them the Finestre di Cascella. If you are a fan of Abruezzsee gold working do look out for the Raimondo Volpe and a silver ostensory by Nicola da Guardiagrele dated 1413.
Paese Alto Tour: Ruins of Medieval Towers and spring Waters
The tour is a stroll through the “rue” (streets) of Francavilla’s ancient town to discover what’s left of the medieval town. Despite destruction and rebuilding, the San Franco hill still preserves some traces of the past like Civitella, the ancient part of the town, the ruins of the old towers, Ciarrapico Tower (now home of the Naval museum), the ruins of San Francesco church, Santa Maria Maggiore church. During the tour you will be told the story of a garden-town, healing waters, the French and Bourbons, The Bethroed of Abruzzo, the ancient graffiti W il re W la monarchia (hurray for the King, hurray for the Monarchy), travel diaries, some rebuilding ideas.
Villanesi Park Tour. From the Roman ruins to the 30s Cinema
This tour starts on Villanesi Hill, in the pine park from where you can enjoy a view of the sea, the hills and the mountains. On the walk in the park, you’ll see Santa Maria delle Grazie church (from the outside) and the archaeological area discovered by chance. You’ll hear stories and facts about the French court of Charles, the Dominican damnation, the regret of Angelo Bon, the movie Torna Caro Ideal, all treasures and memories to be taken away from the town and not just of the beach!
Places to Get a View
If you feel like having a walk, head to San Domenico palazzo (where MuMi is housed) from the central Piazza Sirena up through the staircase that takes you up on San Franco. Walk in the direction of MuMi for an unmissable view of the sea from the terrace just next to the museum.
Going down the steps you can have a walk on Pontile and have a view of the city from the sea.
In Piazza Sirena there is also the town’s historic cafe, Tennis Bar. People use to say they go “Dal Professore” because the owner was a professor well known in the town. Here you can have a good gelato and maybe try some local cakes like parrozzo. Children may like to stop at the bookshop here which has some good books about Abruzzo for children.
Food and Recipes
Nonna Ninetta and a Special Recipe for Santa Liberata Feast
Even though the Patron Saint of Francavilla is San Franco, who is celebrated with a great fireworks show, Santa Liberata has a special place in the heart of Francavilla, especially for the fishermen and families living in the seaside area.
On May 1st the statue of the Saint leaves the church in the morning. It is carried on a small boat and goes all along the coast of Francavilla. It stops in the Michetti neighbourhood for a first open-air mess. Then it goes to Pontile (the pier of Francavilla), where the statue is taken off the boat, a prayer is said and then a procession winds its way accompanied by fireworks, to the Caduti (war memorial). The band plays the piece “Il silenzio”, the Mayor lays a wreath. Then the statue returns to the church.
On May 1st stuffed cuttlefish is the typical dish prepared to celebrate this special day. Here is ‘Seppie ripieni’ (stuffed cuttlefish) from Nonna Ninetta’s original recipe. You know how Abruzzese family recipes work: everyone has its own and you don’t have exact quantities: you need to go by feeling!
Ingredients: cuttlefish, stale bread, parmesan, salt, garlic, pepper, parsley, olive oil, white wine, hot water. Needle (“quadrello” in local dialect) and twine.
Gut the cuttlefish and split each into two parts but do not remove the bone. In a bowl moisten the stale bread that you have torn into rough breadcrumbs (don’t make it wet). Add salt, garlic and grated parsley crumble, parmesan, a bit of pepper. Knead this mixture, adding a small quantity of oil at a time. The mixture should be soft but not sticky. Once ready put a quantity of the filling into the cuttlefish and close it with needle and thread, roll-up some twine around the cuttlefish too to make sure the stuffing doesn’t pop out!
Warm your oil in a frying pan and brown the cuttlefish. Add a dash of white wine. Add hot water to soften the cuttlefish as needed until they will be completely cooked. Cooking time is one hour more or less but it depends on the size of the cuttlefish. You know when they are ready as the Cuttlefish should be soft: try with a toothpick or a fork.
Walks & Bike Rides
The Pista ciclo pedonale (cycle path) goes along the beach north-south. It is a recent recovery project in Francavilla, that gives a proper seafront to the city. The path runs along the beach and you can enjoy a walk right by the sea. If you prefer to feel the sand under your feet, it’s next to you and you just have to have a skip hop and jump down walk on the water’s edge. In the low season you can enjoy peace and tranquillity and spot the local fishermen coming back from their fishing with some local fish that they sell on little stands along the street.
While walking along the path, stop by one of the many beach resorts for a coffee or an aperitivo. A suggestion for you: many beach clubs also have a restaurant. Ask for a frittura di paranza (local fried fish assortment): it is a great match with a local white wine like Pecorino (yes, there is a vine variety that has the same name of the cheese) or an evergreen Prosecco. Some tips for a real ‘frittura di paranza’: this small fish bonanza should include, anchovies, squid, shrimps. If you don’t like fishbones you may ask for squid only, but keep in mind that local ones are usually small, they won’t be the size of the onion ring sized ones you may have back home.
In Sirena area, few steps from the train station, you can stop at Ventunosei: they have some taglieri with local cheeses and a good choice of local wines. Just past Piazza Sirena, Sette e cinquanta is also a good choice and here you can sit at the small tables on the square.
Last, but not least, if you’re feeling a little bit wilder, grab a couple of beers (or a bottle of local wine) , a beach towel and sit on the sand barefoot waiting for sunset!
While staying in Francavilla don’t miss a visit to Cantina Rapino where Emilio will be happy to show you the family vineyards and have a taste of their wines. You can also ask to participate to the grape harvest in September or the Cantine Aperte event in May.
Tastings here are conceived as an emotional trip through different seasons and harvests. With each glass of wine you will learn something more about the relationship the family has with the lands of Francavilla and the happy or complicated moments of the harvest of past years.
Even if you have special dietary needs do go for a tasting, Emilio is happy to pair his wines with a tasting that everyone can enjoy from local products that are always based on the seasons and your own preferences.
High-end Prospettive is nice at night, but so much better for lunch when you can enjoy the view of the sea. Although Mecomilla is not at all fancy many locals like to go here especially for crudites and its very fresh fish. Don’t forget to book your table as the place is small and the fish is only served when available from the local market.
If you’re looking for a lovely atmosphere then Rampa Letizia and Vittoria Beach are a good choice. The first restaurant has tables along the step way up to San Franco while the second offers tables actually on the beach.
Sagre and Feste
Carnevale d’Abruzzo has been held in Francavilla for 66 years and has an official mask known as a Patenello. This was drawn by a Neapolitan artist that loved to spend his holidays in Francavilla. The townsfolk will tell you that the Patanello character was inspired by a local cobbler whose life crossed the 19th and 29th centuries, a bizarre man that used to joke around and loved having fun. In local dialect he was called Zì Patane (literally Uncle Potato) and from that comes Patanello. The main attractions of the Carnival are the cartapesta floats that local groups and craft associations design during the year and which are pulled by tractors during the parade. Political satire, films, stories, places are just a few of the themes you’ll see covered. Children adore showing off their costumes, dancing to the rhythm of the music, and throw handfuls of their confetti and streamers around as they try to get the sweets that are thrown from floats. Band, majorettes and dancers complete the atmosphere.
On 18th August, the town comes together to celebrate their patron saint’s feast Day, San Franco. Part of the event includes a traditional and magnificent traditional ‘Fuochi a mare’, a great firework show held over the sea. The area in front of Piazza Sirena, Pontile and the waters around, are used as a platform to launch fireworks that explode both at water level creating magical reflections on the sea and in the sky. People usually arrive earlier to get a favourable spot on the beach before it gets super crowded, but there are others who prefer to stand in the shallow waters! The luckiest enjoy the show from the sea on board of their boats or from the balconies of their apartments.
‘Cenacolo dei Sapori – it is a quite new festa, but it is really worth a stop by as it is one of the best events in town. During the event, usually held in the last week of August for four evenings, the area of San Franco, goes back to the times of Cenacolo Michettiano. Delicate torches light the streets, classical music is played and on street corners, you’ll find vintage furniture. People in old costumes walk around the area together with actors playing the poet D’Annunzio, the painter Michetti and all their friend from Cenacolo. So you can meet D’Annunzio who’ll shake your hand and will tell you a poem or two, or you can hear the friends arguing on some important topic from the day. Vintage cars, a Belle epoque circus with stilt walkers, unicycle, charleston dancers, musicians and two stages with famous actors and good music animate the evenings. You can eat at street food stalls, buy some local craft in the market and have an evening visit to Museo Michetti too.
Music is always there when talking about summer in Francavilla. Concerts are usually held in Piazza Sirena or Piazza Sant’Alfonso. You can catch many famous Italian singers, and there is Blubar, a festival dedicated to seventies music.
The Best Things to Do Locally for the Under 12s
Bike rides, monopattino, a sandy beach with shallow water, horseriding on the hills.
Children can also enjoy a nature experience at the Ortobosco, a recovered wood and vegetable garden, whose paths they can enjoy a walk along that has a view of the valley and learn the tales of its trees and plants.
According to the season, local cultural and environmental association Buendia organises many activities like: leaf moulds, vegetable painting and textile colouring, Indian shed building, storytelling on the hammock, snack with local fresh veggies (like bread, oil and tomato), wild berries and almond harvest and many others creative workshops so do check the calendar before you visit.
Visits at Ortobosco are suitable both for adults and children, while its activities and workshops are especially for children.
See Elisa’s family ceramic on the LifeinAbruzzo gift marketplace or visit their website to view their full catalogue
From the LifeInAbruzzo Faecbook Group
Peter Austin’s views of Francavilla Mare taken from the 1960 Attraverso L’Italia, Abruzzo e Molise Edition