For an alternative to well-worn Tuscany, the relatively unknown Central Italian Abruzzo region offers an authentic experience with the capacity to surprise.

Florence, San Gimignano, Siena. L’Aquila, Sulmona, Pratola. I hazard a guess that more often than not the first three names ring a loud bell, the second three not so much. The first set belongs to an Italian region that is much publicised, much loved, much visited: Tuscany. The second three, on the other hand, belong to a region further south in Central Italy, just north-west of Rome, that is still off the tourist track: Abruzzo.

I base myself in Pratola. The town doesn’t feature in any of the few guide books available on the Abruzzo region. Its old part is typical of Italian towns: narrow alleys, washing hanging off balconies, hidden jewels such as the little church, Suore Della Presentazione Maria SS, and the piazzas, central to social interaction. Once a week the Via Corso turns into a farmers’ market with offerings from artichoke to zucchini, from fish to fennel, with truffle and saffron thrown in. Patrola is a piece of genuine Italy. And it still belongs to Italians. This, I will learn over the course of the next few days, applies to most of the Abruzzo region. It is an Italy that the overrun and expensive Tuscany can’t supply anymore.

In the northern section of Maiella National Park, maybe an hour’s drive from Pratola, perched on the slope of a hill is the spa town of Caramanico Terme. It is one of the few towns with tourist infrastructure. The hotels, restaurants and coffee shops, however, cater almost exclusively to Italian tourists. In town is also the national parks visitor centre. Here I obtain the free permit for a walk through the dramatic Gole di Orfento, a deep limestone gorge below town. The steep rocky slopes are covered with a green thicket of beech, ash and hazel. In its depth an ice-cold, crystal-clear creek rushes over polished rocks. Birds sing. The dry summer heat caresses walkers in soft breezes. Many flowers, rare orchids among them, are displaying their splendour along the track. The old town above is soon forgotten, replaced by a wild landscape of touching beauty. This is one of the trademarks of the Abruzzo region. Between the old villages and relatively untamed nature there are few buffer zones.

The outstanding feature of Abruzzo, and another that distinguishes it from Tuscany, is its network of three national parks and 30 nature reserves, making it the green heart of Italy.

This story was originally published in the December/ January 2016 issue of Australian Country. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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Words and photography Don Fuchs