In 2009, a big earthquake hit the nearby town of L’Aquila, killing 308 people. The town itself was virtually destroyed, and if you visit it now, you can still see the signs of buildings awaiting repairs. It’s a somber experience. On my first visit to the town, my friend paused for a minute outside the university halls of residence where many bright, young students lost their lives. I had never been to the town before, I had no connection with anyone there, but I felt a great sense of grief at the tragic loss of life.
The earthquake also affected many of the smaller towns and villages in the surrounding areas. One of the towns affected was San Benedetto in Perillis. SBiP (I like this new name!) is quite a drive from Sulmona and situated up in the mountains. The town boasts an overwhelming population of 127 people, although according to the local barman, many Americans are buying cheap houses in the area so in summer the population is a lot bigger. He also said that foreign visitors are far more polite than the local population. Go us!
At the moment, the centre of the town is completely closed off, due to the instability after the earthquake. If you call the municipal offices in advance, they will sometimes open the gate for you and show you around (you can find the info here). Unfortunately, we went on a Sunday so that wasn’t going to happen. However, our friendly barman said that we could just hop over the fence and see for ourselves. Nobody would ever know. Well, as you know, I’m British and we simply don’t do such things!
After my friend finished his coffee (typical Italian espresso) and I finished my tea, we set off to have a look around the town. According to official data, the town sits between 450 and 1237m above sea level. That means a lot of walking up hill to get to the centre. Luckily for SBiP, it is quite a charming little town so I forgave it. Once we got to the centre, we encountered the wooden gates that forbade us from going any further. Now, before I continue with the rest of the story, you have to understand that my friend is a bit of a rebel – he doesn’t like to do as he’s told. A bit of a punk and an anarchist as a teenager has left him with a rather dismissive opinion of authority figures. Therfore, these gates were nothing but a challenge to him. However, to me, a rather reserved Brit, they were clearly sending a message – entry prohibited. We must have stood in front of those gates for a good ten minutes as he tried to persuade me to jump over. It was not the jump that scared me, that seemed easy enough (even though I did rip my jeans). It was the fear of getting caught.
Finally, I threw caution to the wind and followed him over and I have to admit, I am so glad I did. Inside, were the abandoned homes of families who had moved away from the area. Ivy was starting to creep up the walls, windows were smashed, chains were draped around the doors. We walked all around, looking at the various houses and then through to the abandoned monastery. A few years before, my friend had been part of a film shoot in the area. He showed me where the tunnels led to the accommodation underground for when it was too hot in the summer. In the past, SBiP was famous for their wooden door locks, and you can still see them on the doors now. Intricate pieces of carpentry that have since been forgotten about. I didn’t take many pictures inside, as it felt disrespectful, but I did get this one shot looking out over the valley.
Outside some of the houses, there were dead pot plants and damaged satellite dishes, signs that the people had just upped and left, never to return. As we headed back to the gate, we heard a noise. Cue slight moment of panic on my behalf, terrified that we would get caught. We peered out cautiously before hopping back over and heading back down to the car.
Before going home to Sulmona, we headed to Raiano, where my friend’s cousin was holding an afternoon tea session at her parents’ bar. Perfect! So we stopped off at the bar and found Susanna in full swing – giving an in-depth talk about the two teas she had chosen for today’s session. Both were white teas but I can only remember that one of them was with violets. Either way, they were delicious and just what was needed. We also tasted some of the bar’s biscuits and some of Susanna’s aunt’s birthday cake – auguri! Susanna knows a lot about permaculture and growing lots of fantastic plants, fruit and veg. Raiano is famous for its cherry festival in the summer. If you want to know more, you can pop over to Susanna’s blog – she’d be very happy to hear from you (she speaks fantastic English).