If you can discover a town by accident, that’s what happened to me. Finding things on purpose is much harder – I can’t tell you how many times we’ve wound up on farm tracks or dead ends thanks to our friend Google and our unerring capacity for getting lost. It’s not that unusual for me to find things by accident here in Italy – once I found a lake when I was looking for a garden center – but this particular town was only a few miles from our house in Guardiagrele and we “discovered” it after living here for almost two years.
Previously on our expeditions we had explored far and away and not really delved into our local area, ‘saving’ that for later. Later arrived, in the shape of lockdown. It reduced our field of travel to close – very close. “What’s that on that hill?” we said from our terrace. “Let’s go look.” That’s how we discovered San Martino sulla Marrucina, Abruzzo.
Hidden in plain sight, one of the many gems of the Abruzzo region is the little town of San Martino sulla Marrucina, a village with at least 2000 years of history located in the province of Chieti. Perched on a hilltop in front of the Maiella, San Martino (not to be confused with the mountain town of Fara San Martino) has a community of about 900 and has managed to preserve its identity through the dedication and care of its inhabitants despite its proximity to cities such as Chieti and Pescara (with its airport, reachable by a convenient highway), as well as being only two hours away from Rome.
The town was already inhabited in the fifth century by the people of the Marrucini, peasant-warriors who left traces of their presence in burial places and utensils, many exhibited in the museums of nearby Chieti. The Marrucini were allies of the Romans and contributed to famous victories such as those against Hasdrubal (Hannibal’s brother) and Pyrrhus. Around the ninth-tenth centuries the Martinese community built a castle on the hill, which by 1145 numbered about 2-300 people – enough to pay taxes for the maintenance of two knights. In the seventeenth century the Martinesi began to develop the production of gunpowder, utilizing the sandy caves below the town and a secret recipe handed down from father to son. In 1799 through the use of their secret stocks of gunpowder the local community repelled an attack by Napoleonic troops whose aim was to plunder nearby Guardiagrele. Unfortunately not much remains of the castle: the town was heavily bombed during 1943-44 and lost most of the defensive walls. The town takes its name from the saint San Martino di Tours and the Via Marrucina of Roman origin: it is the smallest municipality in the world to have the honor of a minor planet named after it (discovered by a Martinese and with the same size as the municipal territory, 7 square kilometers!).
Food and wine
The walkable town with stunning views of mountains and sea is located just 24 km from blue flag beaches and 10 km from the Maiella mountain range, where activities such as hiking, skiing, mountain biking, climbing and paragliding can be found. The world-famous winery, Masciarelli, (try their Montepulciano d’Abruzzo!) has its headquarters there and offers tours and tastings at the Castle of Semivicoli. Local farms produce their own cheeses and cold cuts, which can be purchased and even tailor-made to your preference. After trying an excellent meal with homemade cheeses at the nearby beautifully renovated old farmhouse restaurant of Agriturismo La Brocca, we asked for 3: a simple cheddar, a piquante pepper and basil, and a walnut cheese. We picked them up fresh from being made the next morning and they were some of the best we have ever had. Also try the fresh pasta alla chitarra, made using products from their farm. The true definition of “farm to table!”
Of course there’s fantastic pizza as well – try the pizzeria / restaurant Il Gatto e la Volpe and watch Rocco cook your pizza in the wood oven. Choices are plenty, but don’t go home without trying the pannacotta! There is also La Vineria di Salnitro, a quirky little restaurant set in the medieval walls in an ancient oil mill, with Baroque-style sofas, bottles of wine on the walls, musical instruments, paintings, mannequins wearing lacy underwear and an old barber chair, where you can try beetroot pasta and whatever fresh dish Angelo has planned for that day. In the piazza is the cozy bar Caffe del Borgo, where at most times of the day you can find locals enjoying a coffee, a beer or a spritz, and chatting with the owner (fluent in English and German), as well as practice your Italian without fear. The owner, Monja, is a great character. She calls my husbands American coffee “caffe Morto” (death coffee) and doesn’t roll her eyes one bit when I ask for a cappucino in the afternoon. Next door you can pick up some local produce at Alimentari Stefy.
The food is delicious, local, fresh and very reasonably priced. In general, the most expensive meal we had was 35 Euro including wine, and most fall into the 8-15 Euro range. Should you need a change of scene, there are several medieval towns within a 10 km radius – try Guardiagrele, Pretoro (both voted amongst the most beautiful towns in Italy) and Rapino, each with their own distinct personalities.
New residents are welcome
The family of the famous American writer/director Garry Marshall (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Lucy Show, Pretty Woman) emigrated from San Martino, changing their name from the local Masciarelli to Marshall. Many Masciarellis still remain and are well known in the area.
San Martino sulla Marrucina isn’t resting on its laurels though. As in much of Italy the town has suffered from depopulation, with a high percentage of young people who left to work in large cities and a reduction in births reflecting the trend at national level. Mayor Antonio Masciarelli and the city council have developed a five-year plan aimed at helping residents and attracting new buyers of real estate to the municipality. The town also seeks to encourage young people through academic and sports awards, summer camps, day trips to nearby seaside resorts and areas of historical interest, and development of fiber optic wifi for all to encourage smart-working. Obviously, the older generations have not been forgotten: the plan also provides for creation of an integrated home care service, the use of municipal buses for free transport to local health and commercial services, and the provision of a home shopping service. The administration is also planning “Days of Remembrance” during which, through both narrative and direct account, the experiences of the older Martinesi will be filmed on video, archived and handed down to future generations. When I asked the mayor if he’d like to say anything about his town for this article his reply was “San Martino sulla Marrucina is a welcoming village nestled between the mountains and the sea, where dreams are inspired by beauty, where traditions and the future are in unison, following the rhythm of your emotions.” I think when he’s done being mayor he has a definite future as a poet!
There are numerous homes for sale in the town — many of which need renovations of various kinds — though turnkey properties are also available. Prices range from 10,000 Euro on up, most are in the under 100,000 range. The town is happy to assist new foreign residents in finding builders and experts in everything from complete reconstruction, plumbing, electrical, plastering etc, to just a touch-up of paint. The local administration is friendly, speak English (or will find someone who can) and can help with any question.
The mayor can be contacted via email in case you are curious about the town and thinking of moving there: firstname.lastname@example.org
By Deborah McCarthy.
Featured image by axwel1985/Instagram
Deborah McCarthy and her husband Jesse live in a 300 year old farmhouse in Guardiagrele (Casale della Maiella) with their two dogs, Liam and Dobby, and are enjoying life with the warm and friendly local Italians. Jesse speaks passable Italian due to being stationed in Italy for several years in the long distant past, while Deborah is studying online and trying not to get lost too often.