Villetta Barrea: the Rocky Heart of Italy

villetta barrea abruzzo

Back in August, I took 10 days vacation from my 9-5 pr gig to “bop around Rome.” This is what I told everyone I was doing when they asked. The truth is, my main goal was to make it to a small town in the mountainous heart of Italy: Villetta Barrea Abruzzo.

In the summer of 2015, I was living near Perugia for three months and my biggest regret was that I never visited this town–Villetta Barrea is the name of the village that my paternal great-grandparents were from, and the region of Italy that my father adored most. When I arrived back in America and went about making a life for myself, I had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that wouldn’t go away. I needed to go back to Italy so I could make the trip into Abruzzo and see Villetta Barrea, if only for a day.

So, of course, I called my friend Aryn.

Getting there Villetta Barrea, Abruzzo

villetta barrea abruzzo
Aryn when she found our rental car was some fancy VW with a fancy engine.

If you know me, you know I’m a nervous driver (and flyer, and person in general). If you know Aryn, you know she LOVES driving, especially if there are no rules (there aren’t in Italy).

All of the men in the rental place were watching as we pulled out because they couldn’t believe that two young girls, a) were renting a car alone, and, b) were driving a fast little stick-shift. You should have seen their faces in the rearview mirror when Aryn peeled out onto the narrow streets of Rome. I tightened my seatbelt.

Honestly, I don’t know if it was more terrifying to drive through winding mountains, sometimes at 6,000 feet above sea level, WITHOUT GUARDRAILS(!!!!), or to drive, knowing Aryn had NO FEAR of ignoring the speed limit.

I could do a whole series about driving and navigating in Italy (without GPS), so for now, I’ll skip to the part when we get there.

Arriving to Villetta Barrea Abruzzo

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When I got out of the car I was sweating and Aryn had to pee.

It’s funny, the details you remember from days gone by. After checking into the hotel, we scaled the village…for hours. Up and down. Villetta Barrea is tiny, and perched atop a windy, cobblestoned hill. Even so, there were three churches within sight at all times. For lunch, we went down to the lake and ordered the monstrosity of panino above (with Abruzzese salsiccia, yum!).

Finding home

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It took about two hours of climbing up and down the narrow, cobblestoned streets of the village before I finally resigned myself to ask for directions. All I had with me to go off of was a picture of my Dad a few years before in front of the door of his grandparents. There was no way we were going to find that little number 5 all on our own. I asked about four vecchi (old people) for directions. Alas, standard Italian doesn’t exist in this part of the mountains, and they didn’t understand me. We must have been the only Americans to visit the village in months. Finally, I asked a guy from Rome who was visiting his family, and he brought me directly (10 feet away) to the door. Relief, warmth, and awe flooded me.

A hundred years ago, my great-grandparents saved all the money they had to start a new life in America. Here I was, their namesake, standing at the door they closed behind them. 

It was these grandparents that influenced my father the most in his life and this region of Italy that he admired the most. It was important to him to see where he came from, so it was important to me, too.

Nap time for Aryn

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Self explanatory. I owed her BIG time.

The ravioli that made me cry

villetta barrea abruzzo

Hot tip: whenever you’re traveling to a foreign country, always ask the waiter what he recommends.

You’ll end up sobbing into your napkin while Nat King Cole croons in the background because the ravioli is so damn unbelievable.

Sneaking out at 6am

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After waking in the middle of the night because of an earthquake (yes), I couldn’t fall back asleep. Eventually at 6am I snuck out of the room and went to explore the village in the early hours. There were birds chirping, stray dogs running up and down the street, nonne putting out the wash, and men driving into town with fresh produce and salame. A remarkable morning.

Horse’s Wild Spirit

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The part where Aryn’s happy and I’m a baby and can’t handle being on a horse (albeit, a wild one). The stable was called Horse’s Wild Spirit and I’ve spent hours wondering if the name is grammatically correct. Our guide, Filippo, took a selfie with us in the middle. He moved his entire family from Rome to Villetta Barrea so he could own his own horse ranch. He was my new best friend for one hour as we rode on horseback through the Abruzzese countryside. We became Instagram pals, too.


villetta barrea abruzzo
Aryn and her sweet car overlooking the mountainous Abruzzo region

We left later that day to avoid the storm and visit some friends in Perugia. These two days that we spent in Villetta Barrea outlive every other experience I’ve had traveling in my memory. I’ll never forget the people met, the food we ate, the steps we climbed, the church bells we heard, or the earthquake that woke me up at 3am. I’ll never forget the deafening silence that surrounded us as I looked out my window to admire the clear night sky.

Highly recommend. 

villetta barrea abruzzo

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  1. Una storia e un post molto interessanti, Domenica.
    Ho sempre trovato affascinanti i racconti degli immigrati, o dei loro discendenti, a proposito dei legami con il loro paese d’origine.
    Il modo in cui hai ripercorso il cammino dei tuoi avi per arrivare a quell’indirizzo e quella porta e’ bello e commovente.
    Per di piu’ mi hai dato l’occasione di visitare un altro paesino italiano che non conosco!

    Io stesso, cresciuto in Italia, ora vivo negli Stati Uniti da molti anni, a NYC ora.
    Ho due zii in Pennsylvania, originari della Calabria, che rappresentano molto bene l’ambivalenza identitaria di chi ha vissuto nei due mondi.

    Comunque sia, come dicono qui, thank you for sharing!

    1. Ciao, Dario. Grazie per il commento! Sono contento che tu pensi che il post è interessante.

      Inoltre, mi piace imparare di immigrati e di questi piccoli centri in Italia.

      Spero che un giorno che io divento una italiana e anche una americana – tutti e due! Voglio una esperienza di vita come i tuoi zii.

      Grazie per tu leggi il mio blog! Mi piace leggere i commenti sul mio post 🙂

      (and please forgive my italian!)

  2. Figurati!

    Il tuo italiano si capisce perfettamente.

    Fammi sapere se passi mai da NYC.
    E’ una coincidenza interessante, sono venuto in visita a Burlington l’anno scorso, per incontrare un professore che lavora alla UVM.
    E’ una zona molto bella la vostra.

  3. Professor Charles-Louis Morand Métivier, insegna cultura e lingua francese.
    Ma si trattava di una questione personale e confidenziale, che riguarda anche alcune ricerche che sto svolgendo.

  4. Date le tue origini abruzzesi e la tua passione per i viaggi in Italia, mi stavo domandando anche se avessi mai visitato Campo Imperatore e Rocca Calascio, entrambi all’interno dello straordinario Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso, in provincia dell’Aquila.
    Si tratta di siti davvero incredibili, con paesaggi incantevoli e quasi sospesi nel tempo, non molto conosciuti nemmeno da tanti italiani.
    Due perle della tua regione “ancestrale”.

  5. We (my wife and I) particularly enjoyed Abruzzo and spent some time in L’Aquila (my favourite little city and before the big earthquake). Your comments section has pricked my conscience about letting my limited Italian fall into disrepair. As a blogger, I appreciate your style and reminds me I was planning to publish the rather long story of our 5 week ‘all-the-little-roads’ trip from Rome – Reggio Calabria- Sicily – Abruzzo – the Alps – Rome. More determined than ever to return for a long stay. Thanks.

    1. Hi Dan– Thanks for the comment! I would love to read about your travels throughout Italy—sounds like it will be an awesome post. Please don’t forget to share it here or with me on Twitter when you’ve written it! -Domenica
      PS: It’s a lot easier to write in Italian on the Internet than it is to speak it in person—you can go as slow as you want! 😉

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