Often when people think of cycling in Italy, they visualize the picturesque rolling hills of Toscana or the majestic and challenging Dolomiti in the northern reaches of the country along the Austrian border. In fact, great cycling is to be found in every region in this beautiful and varied country.
In October, 2021 I completed a cycling tour in two regions I had not yet visited: Abruzzo and Molise. These regions, both due east of Roma in Central Italy, stretch from the mountainous backbone of Italy, the Apennines, to the shores of the Adriatic. The mostly rural countryside is dotted with medieval mountaintop villages scattered around treeless plateaus and dense forests. The area is also home to some of Italy’s largest national parks, which was the focus of our trip.
Our trip was organized by Cinghiale Tours, a US cycling company named after the wild boars that roam the countryside and grace many fine meals. The owner of the company, Andy Hampsten, is well known in the cycling community as the winner of the Giro d’Italia back in 1988 - and is still the only American to have won this prestigious race. Unlike many of his peers, Andy has maintained his fitness even after all these years and looks ready to zip on his jersey and compete in a race at a moment’s notice. The small group tour was comprised of 15 Americans many of whom return each year to cycle with Andy.
We spent seven of the nine days on the bike saddle, covering between 35 and 80 miles each day. The riding was quite mountainous as would be expected from touring in national parks tucked in the Apennines, but the climbs weren’t overly steep. Many of the gradients were quite lovely. Some of the hour-long climbs hovered around 6-8% for the entire route; steep enough to let you know you were getting a good workout but not so hard that you couldn’t enjoy the scenery. The quality of the road surface was quite variable. Some roads were generally in good shape, but others required particular attention, dodging cracks and potholes, on technical, challenging descents.
As someone who likes the challenge of climbing on my bike, there were two noteworthy highlights. The first was the climb up to Gran Sasso, a well-known cycling climb in the Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga nestled beneath Corno Grande, the highest point in the Apennine Range. The climb is situated deep within Campo Imperatore, a high elevation treeless plateau that is often referred to as “Little Tibet”. The area supports a thriving sheep grazing industry, which supplied the wool for the textile industry of the Medici family centuries ago. The Gran Sasso climb also hosts the infamous Campo Imperatore Hotel at the summit, in which Mussolini was temporarily imprisoned for several weeks in 1943, only to be freed after a daring glider plane rescue.
The other notable climb was up Blockhaus, a notoriously hard climb reputed by some to be the second most challenging ascent in the country. The climb ascends almost 2,000 meters over 31 kilometers, with long sections hovering around nine percent. Though challenging the grade is consistent, with the road winding through fields on the lower slopes and heavily forested higher up. The last few kilometers are on a narrow path, totally devoid of cars, running along the spine of a ridge, with spectacular views on both sides, complete with a shrine at the top. Supposedly, one can see the Adriatic from this perch on a clear day though we were not treated to that view.
Our lodging accommodations were primarily in two restored villages. Known as “albergo diffuso” or “scattered hotel”, this innovative concept in hospitality was originally conceived in the 1980’s and has now expanded to over 50 properties across the country. This is a very different model for hoteling in which an entrepreneur purchases and renovates an old and largely vacant town or section of a village. Rooms are scattered throughout a village, typically in many different buildings, but all under a single owner/manager and with some common amenities, such as a front desk and restaurants. As a hotel guest, you feel integrated into an existing village. These properties are an intentional way to support local communities by not only employing residents with few options for paid employment, but also for locally sourcing the food, furnishings, linens, and toiletries.
The food in these regions is consistently delicious, but let’s face it, that’s true across the whole country. Abruzzese cuisine is perhaps best-known food for arrosticini – delicious lamb skewers cooked over a brazier, which is an extended wood grill, typically along a roadside. These regions are not particularly known for a diversity of wines, with the significant exception of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (not to be confused with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a wine from Toscana), an easy drinking and affordable red wine that pairs very well with meat dishes, hearty pastas, and pizza.
Abruzzo and Molise are undiscovered gems, particularly in the mountainous national parks. We didn’t visit the many beach towns scattered along the Adriatic, but they are reported to be lovely and very popular with Italians. It seems that less well-known regions in Italy are routinely “discovered” by American tourists and become, temporarily, the “IT Region” to visit. It was Sicilia a decade ago, then it was Puglia, and now it is seemingly Abruzzo’s turn. These regions are very welcoming to tourists, and have the necessary infrastructure in place, but are largely overlooked by folks traveling from the States – though the regions are easily accessible. And finally, I found the people exceptionally friendly – which is generally the case in Italy, but even more common, in my experience, in regions that are not overrun by hordes of tourists. Be sure to visit these regions before your neighbors do.
By Steve Boutcher