SCANNO, ITALY – The village is a cliffhanger, all right, long in the tooth and stuck against a molar in the snow belt of Abruzzo. Scanno poses an adventure in walking tilting, cobbled streets, wondering if you’ll get out of town the fastest way – falling head over heels into the lovely Sagittario River valley 3,500 feet below.
Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. Gravity hasn’t claimed anybody lately, says Gabriela DiMasso, innkeeper at her modest yet immaculate Albergo Centrale. But, like so many towns in these mountains, the central Apennines, Scanno seems to be clinging dangerously by its collective thumbs. However, the packed stacks of graying stone and tile – a huddle of homes, churches, small palaces, and shops – have hung and clung together like a crowd of fall-proof goats at least since the Middle Ages. Signora DiMasso sees no reason why they shouldn’t stick it out together for another millennium.
The women of the community also hang on – onto a sartorial style that goes back centuries with Asia Minor origins. Shod in black slippers, garbed in long black dresses and aprons, topped by black turbanesque head wrappings, they might be showing off a folk costume for a local pageant. You feel as though you’ve stumbled into such a performance, or possibly even tumbled back into another age. However, it’s not a costume worn as an amusement for tourists in a village that time forgot.
“It is just part of our culture. Not changing much,” says Signora DiMasso, who doesn’t favor the fashion herself, and isn’t dressed as somberly as the majority.
“No,” she answers a question, “it isn’t limited to widows or women in mourning. Just a custom. Tradition. We have television and roads, modern ski lifts now, but maybe people who lived by themselves in the mountains for so long are slower to change.”
Nazarreno Ricci, the ebullient proprietor of Serenissima, a trattoria to salivate for in Rome (a couple of blocks from the Cavalieri Hilton), frequently has urged us to look into Abruzzo, his native turf. Of course, every Italian you meet boosts the grounds where he stomps, or did stomp as a youth – and is usually justified.
For example, Publius Ovidius Naso (the poet Ovid) enthusiastically applauded his own birthplace a few years before the birth of Christ: “Sulmo mihi patria est!” (“Sulmona is my fatherland!”) Eventually the initials, SMPE, of the famous local boy’s tribute were incorporated in his hometown’s emblem.
Southeast about 100 miles from Rome, and on the way to Scanno, Sulmona is a pleasingly unhurried valley city of 25,000, embraced by remaining sections of its medieval wall and some of the gates.
It nurtured a couple of yet highly regarded romantic items. First, arriving in 43 BC, was Ovid, whose “Art of Love” and other amusing poetry devoted to commingling of the sexes, is still read. Later came a product, the confection called “confetti”: sugar-covered almonds that are considered good luck and appear on wedding tables as favors.
Inspecting several confetterias and buying up a variety of them in the shapes and colors of flowers, my friend Aurelio said, “These local candy-makers are artists. They’ve gone well beyond the originals, the sugar-coated almonds in pastels that we call Jordan almonds in the US. Don’t you remember seeing them as favors at Italian weddings at home?”
Very good weddings since I remember nothing.
Poor Ovid, who used to make fun of marriage. His wit got him into big trouble. It is unknown whom he offended or why, but Ovid, a star in Rome among the crowd of Emperor Augustus, was run out of town by imperial decree. Augustus exiled him to the chilling, barbaric wilds of what is now Romania where, despite pleas for clemency, he spent the rest of his days, nine years, forlorn and lonely – but still writing.
How did he live? David Maloof, the Australian writer, conjures it up in a fine novel, “An Imagined Life.”
Ovid’s stuff has lasted, and a few of his lines may have influenced people such as Bill Clinton: “You who seek an end of love, love yields to business: be busy and be safe.”
Or: “You will go most safely in the middle.”
Then there’s the one that applies to most of us: “I see and approve better things, but follow worse.”
There are worse roads to follow than the gorge-flirting pavement that creeps through a beautiful stretch of the Apennines, the spine of Italy from top to bottom: Alps to Sicily. Diving through tunnels and bridging gaps, to reach Scanno, it is a challenging route with enough curls to make a snake nauseous. Or envious.
Snow is coming, though some of it has never departed the creamy, cloud-pinned crests that jut all about. Lake Scanno, an aqua-tinted bowl, will stiffen with ice. The ski hotels on the outskirts are getting ready for the season, but Scanno is still quiet. Beside the tall bell tower of Santa Maria della Valle, a church with parts belonging to the 12th century, old men sit on old benches and gaze into the hazy valley, perhaps reminiscing about the good old days of the wool-trade boom of the 16th century. Probably none of them is enrolled in the computer course advertised in a shop window.
Our landlady recommends Alle Fonte, the Tarullo brothers’ restaurant, for dinner. “Massimo, Nuncio, and Orazio will take good care of you.” They do, in an attractive pine-paneled room where the three of us are the only diners.
“Oh, it gets busier,” says Massimo, also a carpenter, “when the ski season begins, and later, summer.” The homemade gnocchi with a tomato sauce is especially good.
As a finishing touch, Massimo brings Amaro with fresh-baked cookies, saying, “You should come back in January for the Festa of St. Antonio Abate. We cook a giant lasagna outside, beside Santa Maria della Valle, and everyone is free to eat all they want.”
Sounds like dreaded lasagna overload to me, but interesting. I mean, what journalist ever turned down a free meal?
After dinner we walk the compressed, dark, empty streets of “this lop-sided place, a pedestrian roller coaster,” in the words of compatriate Ron Sampson. “I hope the politicians are on the level because nothing else is in this town.”
The moon dips and ascends as we also do on steep staircases that pass for thoroughfares and passageways leading . . . where?
TVs babble behind shuttered windows, a card game is glimpsed through a cafe window. Two old women, only yards apart, converse in raspy whispers from facing iron balconies. Laundry hangs hopeful of sunshine and breeze tomorrow. Puncturing the stillness, cats warble and dogs croon. Our footsteps on paving stones are percussion completing the ensemble.
Sloping ramps, leaning alleys, rising and plunging arteries give us passing grades as we wander, wondering what it’s like when snow and ice appear. “A slalom on foot? Tricky,” says Sampson.
“Maybe people are roped together like mountain climbers,” Aurelio speculates.
I’ve fallen out of trees, love, sorts, favor, and beds – but never a town.
Aurelio takes my hand, reassuringly, “I won’t let it happen. After all, you’ve got the credit cards and the room key.”