Knightly jousts add a touch of time travel each summer to the escapist pleasures of culture, cuisine and wild nature offered by central Italy's soaring Abruzzo mountains.
Flee the tourist hordes of Rome, Florence and Sienna and head this weekend for ancient Sulmona, “Sienna of the Abruzzo”, and its Giostra Cavalleresca, or jousting (www.reuters.com/article/2011/07/29/us-culture-italy-sulmona-jou ting-idUSTRE76S2G320110729). Unlike the Tuscan city's famed Palio horse race - let alone the London Olympics - a handful of euros puts you at the very heart of the action.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors explore.
5pm - By direct rail or motorway, 90 minutes from Rome brings you curving down into the Peligna valley, nestled under the 9,000-foot peaks of the central Appenines. Sulmona lies below. International flights serve Pescara (www.abruzzoairport.com), 40 minutes away.
6pm - After settling in (hotels Stella (www.hasr.it) or Rojan (www.hotelrojan.it) will put you at the centre of the largely pedestrianised old city) step out on to corso Ovidio, the kilometre-long spinal artery of the town, named for its favourite son, the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-17 AD). Stroll to its southern end at the decorative, 14th-century city gate, Porta Napoli. The road heads to Naples, whose kings ruled here until 1861. Look out for the colourful banners flying from houses and across streets throughout town. These mark out the city's seven rival districts competing in the Giostra (pronounced “joss-tra”).
6:30pm - A walk back along the corso takes in main sights and shops, including street displays of “confetti”, the sugared almonds which Sulmona supplies to weddings across Italy, and the world. Passing the 13th-century aqueduct, built by the German emperor Frederick II whose rule the Sulmonese regard as the zenith of their city's power, you see the big market square beyond, the piazza Garibaldi, embraced by the mountains and transformed into an arena surrounded by grandstands.
7:30pm - Passing the statue to Ovid, you come to the Annunziata, a unique architectural mix of styles and functions dating back to 1320. Its eclecticism is testimony to the earthquakes that have periodically flattened Sulmona, forcing regular rebuilding. At present, its church is closed for repairs following the 2009 quake that devastated nearby L'Aquila, but the Civic Museum - until the 1960s the town hospital - is open again, as is the tourist information office located next door in the complex's old, wood-panelled pharmacy. Staff here will fill you in on what to expect in upcoming events, always a big part of life in Sulmona, ranging from music (this summer features the Muntaginjazz jazz festival www.muntagninjazz.it), exhibitions and food tastings to religious drama, like Sulmona's famed Easter ritual, “La Madonna che scappa”, or the Running Madonna.
8pm - Step across the street for an aperitivo outdoors and watch the crowds go by as the setting sun picks out new details on the riotous facade of the Annunziata. Or, further along the corso, flirt with the locals as George Clooney did at Caffe Europa - in his 2010 Abruzzo-set thriller “The American”.
9pm - Round for dinner at Clemente, a temple to Abruzzese mountain cuisine. Try the mixed antipasto for hams, sausage and cheeses from local producers, savoury lentils and light fritters of zucchini or eggplant. Chitarra (guitar) pasta is a specialty, made with the premium durum wheat from Abruzzo's high valleys and cut into strips on a device that looks like a stringed musical instrument. Wash it down with Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.
11:30pm - Join the “passeggiata”, when the whole town seems to be out enjoying the cool and catching up on gossip. Look out for street entertainment and savour a “gelato”. A favourite ice cream kiosk sits at the top of steps by the aqueduct offering a grandstand view from what is left of a Gothic church portico, shattered by the last big quake, in 1706.
8:30am - Start the day with a fine cappuccino and cornetto at Di Marzio, on the corso near Ovid's statue, or linger longer in the sun on the terrace across the square.
9am - The Civic Museum at the Annunziata will give you bearings. It features the remains of a Roman house on the site and some fine artworks. Then head for Santa Chiara, a former convent now museum on piazza Garibaldi. Aside from its baroque chapel, treasures include 13th-century frescoes and silverwork and gold which was a feature of Sulmona's early Renaissance. See photographs by Alfonso Rossetti, a Sulmonese painter (and cousin of London's pre-Raphaelite clan), whose camera studies of town and peasant life in the valley a century ago are striking. Also worth a closer look is the imposing 12th-century church of Santa Maria della Tomba, a model of Abruzzese simplicity.
11am - Refresh yourself with a draught of pure mountain water from the fountain at the end of the aqueduct and turn to commerce. The Saturday market is displaced by the Giostra from the main square but its flavours can be matched by shopkeepers on the corso. Try Soldo di Cacio by Tomba church or D'Antuono on via Mazara for sausage, hams and truffle delicacies and Masseria Agnonese on the main piazza for cheeses, especially local, hard “pecorino stagionato”, made with sheep's milk, and mozzarella-style stracciatella. For the famed red garlic, “aglio rosso di Sulmona”, or for fresh saffron, look for elderly farmers selling their produce from barrows. Browse at Artigianato Artistico Abruzzese at corso Ovidio 139 for local lace, linen and woollen housewares, notably the bright bedspreads, or “coperte”, that keep mountain folk warm through winter.
1pm - The cool garden tucked away at Il Vecchio Muro, via M. d'Eramo 20, or the shady street tables at Giostra-themed Il Quadrivio on via Mazara, make perfect escapes for lunch.
2:30pm - Wander some of the cobbled back streets, like via Corfinio and via Quatrario, exploring the old nobility's palazzos, like that of the Tabassi family on via E. Ciofano.
3:30pm - Check out the confetti stores more closely. For fine, handmade, multiflavoured varieties, including famous “zafferano” - saffron - as well as “torrone” nougats, head to the fragrant, family-run Rapone, by Ovid's statue. If your tastes run to more permanent luxuries, look also for local gold jewellery, notably ear-rings and pendants rich in Byzantine filigree. Perhaps buy a traditional Abruzzo “presentosa” star for a loved one. Try Gentile at corso Ovidio 29 or Pacella, via d'Eramo 16, where you can see goldsmiths at work.
4:30pm - Time to grab a spot on the steps of the Annunziata to watch the pre-joust costume procession. From 5 p.m., the districts, or borghi e sestieri, will parade, banners flying, trumpets blowing and drums beating, each with its suite of 15th-century nobles in their finery and men-at-arms to welcome their knight, or cavaliere, who will emerge from the Annunziata to cheers as each team's “capitano” passes.
5:30pm - Take your seats on piazza Garibaldi. Pricier stands on the north side are shadier. Or join the rowdy, flag-waving masses in the districts' stands on the sunny south side.
6pm - A first pair of horsemen line up “alla lizza” - in the lists. On the cry of “Via!”, they will race in opposite directions around a tight figure of eight, using lances to pick off small coloured rings of varying points-value from the lances of dummy knights set up around the piazza. Time also counts, so the pace is breakneck as the riders charge back toward each other for the finish line. The local crowd whips up the drama.
8pm - The first day's jousts set the scene for Sunday's finals. Follow the district teams drumming their way back to home turf, where neighbours are waiting with communal meals on the town's small squares. Sestiere di Porta Filiamabili runs a fine and welcoming kitchen on leafy largo Mazara, but feel free to hop from one canteen to another, indulging in portions of juicy Abruzzese “arrosticini” lamb kebabs and local wines.
11pm - Be sure to have your dancing shoes on, as the DJs hit the outdoor decks after dinner.
9am - Time to explore the surroundings. Local agents rent cars and bicycles. You may be tempted just to head for Abruzzo's Adriatic beaches, but indulge in the spiritual. Sulmona honours Pietro da Morrone, a 13th-century hermit monk who was summoned to be pope and then, as Celestine V, soon became the only ever pontiff to resign. His rock retreat up on the cliff is visible but sadly closed for now due to earthquake damage. But the massive Santo Spirito abbey he founded below it is well worth a visit, as is the neighbouring site of an earlier religion, a sprawling temple to Hercules dating to pre-Roman times.
12am - Cool off by heading higher up into the surrounding Majella National Park. Keep a watch for wolves and bears, though you will be very lucky to spot one. The village of Pacentro offers shady lanes, a ruined castle and splendid cuisine, notably at the Taverna de li Caldora (www.tavernacaldora.it).
2:30pm - Choose an excursion. Walk hill tracks from picturesque Pettorano, drive the gorge up to atmospheric Scanno, where some women still wear antique costume. You can swim in its crystal lake or explore the Spanish-influenced goldsmithing town of Pescocostanzo near the high-altitude ski resort of Roccaraso.
5pm - You might take a last aperitivo on piazza Garibaldi, catching the setting sun at Caffe Caprice, beside the charming facade of San Filipo Neri...
6pm - And then again, the Giostra may have you gripped. Sudden-death finals are capped by the presentation of the palio banner, parades and drowning sorrows for the six losing teams in feasting on the town squares that will last into Monday. - Reuters