Monday, May 31, 2004

Atri and Abruzzo

In Atri on Saturday, I was thinking it might be a good idea to throw away my Rough Guide guidebook. We had come all of the way down from Macerata to this Abruzzo town of Atri, based on a recommendation in my guidebook, which talks about Atri like it's a crumbling medieval town with tiny side streets to get lost in, and that you might decide to change your itinerary in Italy and spend the rest of your time there.

So, as we stopped into a less-than-stellar rebuilt church in Atri, I was considering tossing the book into the Abruzzese hills and depending solely on Lonely Planet from now on. Antonello and I both felt like we had been misled. Where were the arched streets and side alleys to wander through? Where was the sudden feeling of wonder, like we had found some lost treasure? Where was the beautiful drive promised to us as we left the coast and headed inland? We didn't know what to do.

I suggested "let's wander some more."

My main connection with the region of Abruzzo was a two day visit to the charming little city of Sulmona, where Corrie, a friend Kelsey, and I visited for a writer's retreat last June (see archives for more details). I had fallen in love with the landscape and the confetti (Almond wedding candies), and the wonderful little piazzas with mountains hovering around. Therefore, Atri was only my second experience with Abruzzo. I was determined not to be disappointed.

As we arrived in Atri that afternoon, the towers of the churches, foreign looking with their colorful panels and odd shape, almost beckoned us in. We parked the car and hurried into the main piazza where the cathedral is supposed to house a stunning cyle of frescoes by an important local artist, Andrea de Litio. I hurried to the front of the cathedral, whose interesting square facade is typical to Abruzzo. I tried the door. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. People playing soccer in the piazza began to look at me funny.

We asked at a bar, and they told us that the inside of the church was under restoration. It would be open again in January.

Maybe that is where the disappointment started. It culminated with my guidebook thoughts, and then, as Antonello and I made a conscious decision to enjoy our time in Atri, we did just that. We began to enjoy it.

Atri does have its fair share of arched alleyways and pleasant side streets. We found one street that led through an arched portico down to a gorgeous view of Atri's countryside and, inevitably, Abruzzo's mountain range. One of the nicest things about the city, though, is its fascination with flowers in windows. Some of the little houses had gorgeous displays of flowers in their windows, and apparently Atri had been the location of window flower shows in the past (we spotted an especially ornate window design with a plaque stating that it had won the contest in past years). Also, the piazzas were very pleasant--the kind of piazzas that you could spend days waiting for sunset in, with their colorful palazzi and mix of townspeople floating about.

We left around six that evening, after peaking our heads into the cloisters of Atri's cathedral--which looked especially pleasant with their range of gothic arches--and I felt much better about Atri. I apologized to Rough Guide in my head as we drove away. Sometimes I let my hopes take over and don't give the cities I visit a fighting chance. I expect instant beauty and exceptional art, architecture, and the sort of views that you see in fairy-tale cities. But Atri was better taken without expectations, and when we decided to stop looking so hard, we found so much more.

But it wasn't until the drive back that I realized what my guidebook was talking about. It had promised a sensational drive into the city, which we didn't have on arrival. Instead, as we left, the road we had taken in was closed off, so we had to find another road. We followed a sign for the beach town of Silvi, and, as I was busy looking over the postcards I had bought, Antonello said "look at that," and nudged me.

This was apparently the road we should've taken in--parts of the hill eroded away showing bare rock, and charming towns sprouted up everywhere. It was exactly as Rough Guide had said and, as we came about it somewhat unexpectedly, it was especially nice. There was a feeling of driving on the crest of a hill, with Abruzzo there, all around.

Update: Thanks to my mother for the editing work! I guess I won't be writing for Rough Guide any time soon! :)


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