Abruzzo’s spectacular Sulmona seizes and captivates your heart – you won’t ever want to leave! A few days is not enough to explore the must-sees of this fabulous underrated city.
Where is Sulmona?
Have you heard of Italy’s Sulmona?
With an invitation to spend a few days over Easter in Sulmona with friends, I’m not crazy enough to pass up this opportunity.
The chilly April air and soaring snow-capped Apennine Mountains nearby haunt and tease your journey until finally, the bus arrives in Sulmona.
A comfortable base from which to explore the superb province of L’Aquila – most mountainous of the Abruzzo region – Sulmona sits in the Valle Peligna’s plateau whilst edging the ridge of the Apennine Mountains. These majestic rugged mountains run almost the entire length of Italy.
At an elevation of 405 metres, it seems as though the bus descends into Sulmona after a steady short climb, but think this is just an illusion.
A little history
Predating ancient Rome and the birthplace of celebrated Roman poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) – exiled during the reign of Emperor Augustus for unknown reasons – Sulmona’s history is tumultuous. And, included succumbing to Hannibal’s devastation of the territory in 211 BC.
Established since the 3rd-century and long ago as an important migration and trade route, Sulmona also enjoyed prominence during the Middle Ages. Fast forward to the 19th century, the city established itself as a major stop-off on the train from Rome to Pescara on the Adriatic Coast.
What to see
When in Sulmona, you’re forced to wander along Corso Ovidio. Sulmona’s principal street is lined with engaging shops, busy cafés, enticing restaurants, and medieval history while connecting main piazzas with the cathedral.
Sulmona’s Ancient Gates – an integral part of the Medieval walled system – provides a great 60 to 90-minute circular walking tour. If you desire a little exercise after indulging in some sumptuous local cuisine, then take a walk.
The tour takes in 10 gates (doors) or the existing sites built over various centuries, as not all of the gates are still standing.
The grand Porta Napoli is typically the main entrance to the city and the first gate that you come across if your bussing it to Sulmona.
Amble through this stone gate and be thrown back in time to a medieval piece of history and Sulmona’s remarkable historic centre.
Dating back to the 13th century, two districts formed at the south of the city. During the 14th century, the wall was expanded to include the two new areas. The original wall included several more unused gates, although sadly, these were destroyed with the expansion of the new wall or during earthquakes.
Although not quite as impressive as the Porta Napoli, you also explore the Porta Romana, Porta di Santa Maria della Tomba, and the other 5 gates on this meander.
First mentioned in the 1376 city’s land registry, Porta Romana’s actual structure dates back to 1429 as inscribed in Roman numerals at the arch’s left.
Crossing Porta Napoli spills you onto cobble-stoned Corso Ovidio for the next part of your Sulmona explorative walk. Veering right although still on Corso Ovidio, Fontana del Vecchio (Fountain of the Old Man) announces the Medieval Aqueduct.
Fontana del Vecchio
Built during 1474 and standing at the start of the Aqueduct, the noble fountain still provides fresh free drinking water. Remember to fill your water bottle with refreshingly cold mountain water.
One of the ‘most important examples of the Renaissance period art in Sulmona’, the fountain is also a stop-off point for many locals.
Continue your stroll past the Fontana Del Vecchio to Sulmona’s commanding 12th-century Gothic aqueduct, which confronts you with its sheer 105-plus-metre length still meticulously preserved.
Dating back to 1256, the ashlar stone aqueduct carried water from the Gizio River to the Vella River. Centuries later, the aqueduct doesn’t fail to impress and is an integral meeting point for Sulmona’s locals and tourists.
From this point, venture onto Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi for a delicious espresso and pastry stop.
Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi
Surrounded by cafes, shops, and bars, the piazza provides a haven to relax and absorb Sulmona’s locals and scenery.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Sulmona on a Wednesday or Saturday morning, then check out the extensive market in the square for fresh flowers, fruit and veg, and fish.
Should you visit at the end of July, then you’re treated to the Giostra Cavalleresca – historical Renaissance re-enactment of a knight jousting tournament and a medieval festival, taking place every year.
The Big Fountain (Fontanone)
While still wandering in Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi, take note of the piazza’s recent addition in 1823 – the Baroque fountain, which carries a quite unusual legacy…
…as noted by the historian Guido Piccirilli with regards to the unfinished fountain.
“The pitch that finds itself beyond the three arches of the aqueduct bore the name of the fish square. Next to it there was a large slab of stone called the staffo. Those who would not or could not pay the debts, in order to be discharged by the Magistrate, had to hit that slab three times with a certain naked part of their body in broad daylight. The story is told by our old and deserves to be believed, because the stone of staffo is not only mentioned in a document of the 16th century, but it has left a specific saying in popular culture: “A certain person not to pay his debts beat his … on the staffo stone”. Now this plate was the one that served as the great basin of our fountain.
According to the drawing that no longer exists in the Town Hall’s archives, four dolphins should have leaned against four streams of water, with their heads on the rocks and kinked tails supporting the monolith’s basin. The work, therefore, was not brought to completion.” (Di Tommaso, Mattiocco, Pelino 1970, p. 27)
Head back onto Corso Ovidio until you stumble on Piazza XX Settembre on your left and stop at Ovidio’s statue.
Statua di Ovidio
Relatively recent in Sulmona terms and inaugurated in 1925, the statue of Sulmona’s beloved poet Ovidio takes centre stage in stylish Piazza XX Settembre.
Born in 43 B.C., this is not the only Ovidio statue. An identical statue graces the Ovidiu Square in Sulmona’s Twin Town Constanța, Romania.
Head back onto Corso Ovidia and continue your exploratory ramble until you pass Piazza Carlo Tresca to find a rest spot in the enchanting gardens – Villa Comunale.
A peaceful spot away from the maddening Easter crowds, Villa Comunale offers two wide ponds with fountains made from volcanic tuff. Another two drinking fountains are available in the gardens for drinking water.
Take a passeggiata along the Villa’s tree-lined pretty boulevard and be seen with the locals content to pass the day away chatting.
The rectangular 800-metre-long garden follows a geometric layout and a pleasure to explore.
Along your walk, many Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance churches adorn the city’s alleyways and thoroughfares. I show you several of these in Part 2 of Sulmona’s posts, which also takes you across the Ponte Capograssi (bridge) to Sulmona’s eastern side. A different and contemporary taste of this diverse city. And of course, my post introduces you to Sulmona’s world-famous Confetti – sugar-coated almonds.
Spending a few days in this marvellous and memorable city is just not enough and must return someday. But for now, check back for my Abruzzo: Spectacular Sulmona, Part 2 and Abruzzo’s Sulmona: Bus, Eat, Sleep posts.