Abruzzo Mountains, a Pastoral Gala

December 18, 2015 / Events
Campo Imperatore, Abruzzo

With brightly-luminous blue eyes and a twinkling grin, bare-chested, bearded Sergio was one of the shepherds showing sheep flock (450 in the herd, 50 goats included) at the four-day Rassegna degli Ovini (Sheep Show) at Campo Imperatore (“The Emperor’s Plain”), high in the Abruzzo mountains.

Goats, sheepnad the crowds

All the herds – in temporary wire fences – were guarded by noble-looking white Maremmanno shepherd dogs, some with anti-wolf collars which looked like some sort of medieval torture gadget. The dogs warily encircled the herds of goats and sheep, tingling bells on the necks of some, others with clanging larger bells.


Sergio bounced his grandchildren Georgia and Piero on his knees, seated on a stool behind their camper as he chatted with friends and a stream of well-wishers. Daughter Morena served snacks and drinks to visitors and I chatted with her brothers Alfredo and Mirco, both working the herds with their father, “since we could walk”, they told me. And Sergio, too, started scrambling the mountains with his shepherd father as a young tot.

Two brothers, united shepherds

When I asked the brothers if they could imagine a different life, they shook their heads in unison. “We need the air, the freedom, nature all around,“ was how Alfredo put it. When querying about the difficulties of a shepherd’s life today, papa’ Sergio immediately targeted two issues: “Taxes – too many” and “Water – too little,” for increasingly sizzling summers require water transport to the herds with cistern trucks. “That’s expensive,“ he told me and when I replied, “..and that’s a reason pecorino is getting so expensive..?“ He nodded agreement with a resigned shrug.

For over fifty years now, Abruzzo has celebrated her shepherds and their swiftly-disappearing pastoral traditions with the four-day event. Jagged mountain peaks like reclining giants encircle the “Emperor’s Plain” where clutches of peaked white tents sidle up to the fenced herds of sheep and goats with their vigilant Maremmano guardians, stretched out and panting.

Parents with children by the hand wander from fence-to-fence, photographing unusual goat breeds, asking the shepherds about wool or cheese production. In the corner of one “corral,” a clutch of furry white balls draws the children: young Maremmano pups. In an adjacent fence, sheep were being tagged and marked: just sold to another shepherd.

Maremmano pups attract the wee ones

Visitors meander from the fences to the peaked white tents for tastes of pastoral – and not only – Abruzzese goodness. Pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheeses of endless varieties lead the culinary litany – aged in hay or in grape leaves, rolled in cumin or sesame seeds or chives, aged three months or a year – or longer (if you like the bite). At a couple tents, you can taste goat’s milk cheeses, too. Porchetta is never missing at a central-Italy festival. At Gianluca’s stand, we ordered porchetta sandwiches with a robust vino rosso locale.

Pecorino tastes coming up
Cheeses of every imaginable type
Pecorini STAR..b.ut not only
Ubiquitous porchetta

A nearby stand offered paper cones filled with salami, capocollo, dried sausage nibbles to carry around and munch as you strolled stand-to-stand.

Paper cones of salami nibbles

One stand’s goods please the eye as well as the palate: garlic braids intermingle with red chili pepper strings, pale green mountain oregano bunches, purple Tropea onion bunches. Donkey milk beauty products at the next stand!

Garlic, chili pepper and oregano

Pastoral music backdrops the festivities: a young couple play organetti and a tall mustached bagpiper in traditional costume puffs on the traditional shepherd’s bagpipes, la cornamusa.

BAgpiper puffs up

In the afternoon, awards were presented to rassegna shepherds and Alfredo climbed the improvised stage to receive a prize in the name of his De Paulis family. Time for a quick photo with his wife and tiny daughter before they moved their herd out, heading back to Paganica, hours away.

Heading home with the HERDS
Winding roads head home

…and soon, other shepherds and their herds moved out, too, for they had long treks ahead. The sharp bark of Maremmano sheep dogs blended with tinkling, clanging sheep bells and goat bells as the herds became white flecks on the massive Abruzzo mountains. The Abruzzo shepherds were returning to their solitary mountain life of “the air, the freedom, nature all around.”

Alfred herd disappears
On the way, mountain majesty
ON the way to the raduno

Anne Robichaud

by Anne Robichaud

An authorized Umbrian tour guide, Anne and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970’s so rural life, rural people, rural cuisine are una passione for her. See Umbria from “the inside”: join her May 2017 ten-day tour centered on discovering Umbria, Anne’s Umbria.

See www.annesitaly.com for more on her Umbria tours. Do see www.stayassisi.com for news on the Assisi apartment – and Assisi countryside guest house – she and Pino now rent out.

Anne writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. Read about her annual U.S. Feb/Mar cooking classes and lectures, as well as her numerous Italy insights on her blog.

30 Responses to “Abruzzo Mountains, a Pastoral Gala”

  1. Anne –

    I must say you write the most engaging stories about Italy and its wonderful people, traditions, festivals and ‘piccolo paese’ events. These are valuable accounts which record, many of them, ages-old traditions that would otherwise not be remembered as passionately as you describe.
    Your entries surpass anything found in a guide book – even the venerable Baedeker – and we are fortunate for that. Plus, your accompanying photos are always the perfect complement.

    Thanks Anne and keep up the great work.

    Buon Natale!

  2. Thank you, thank you for this beautiful article on the Abruzzo region, it is so often overlooked. My family is from this region and have been to Campo Imperatore it is beautiful beyond words and the rustic cucina is the best…grazie

  3. Jim and Alice

    Our hearts leap every time we see a post about Abruzzo, the region of our ancestors; just wish there were more on this hidden-jewel-of-a-region. But, we can always count on you for stories, pictures and heartfelt accounts that transport us not only there, but everywhere in beautiful Italy. Maybe someday, if we realize our dream, we can contribute, too! Again, thank you for this tasty treat!!

  4. Jack Litewka

    A lovely portrait of a way of life… which, incidentally, made me so-o-o-o hungry!

  5. Hazel Rotondo Potvin

    It is great to read a story and see such wonderful pictures of the Abruzzo. My great grandfather had sheep and I have seen the shepherds and the mass of gray sheep on the move on two of my visits there. I hope to get back one more time and explore the higher regions my ancestors surely knew.

    Hazel Rotondo Potvin

  6. Dan Johnson

    Anne, when we found my wife’s relatives still in the small village where her father was born just near Guardigrele, we marveled at the pastoral scenery all around when we came across Italy from Rome then travelled up the Adriatic coast after overnighting in Pescara. Now we know through your insight what takes place in these highlands and more of who the inhabitants are. Thanks and Buon Natale!

  7. Jane Ellis

    I love all your posts, but the photos and text in this one felt especially evocative. I don’t know that part of Italy and it was great to see a bit of it through such a wonderful physical and visual lens. Thanks!

  8. Lucy Smith

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful place and it’s people! Your photos and narratives always bring somewhere far away right into my own little world, enriching my life. Thank you!

  9. Mary Cappiello

    Anne— your articles and the pictures that accompany them are always so evocative of the special places and traditions of Umbria, and now Abruzzo, too. Just keep exploring and writing and taking those wonderful pictures that bring your story home for us. Boun Natale to you and yours!

  10. Some of these pictures remind me of the high country of New Zealand, where I live. Unfortunately, our sheep are bred for wool rather than food. There are some Italian people living here now, who are experimenting with sheep’s milk cheeses and products, and they sell at my local market in Christchurch. We have a long way to go here until our food culture matches that of Italy, but with the help of our new countrymen and women, this will be sooner rather than later. Blessings.

  11. Rosemary Johnson

    Beautiful article! How cute are those Maremmano pups? Hope the shepherds never lose their love for the air, freedom and “nature all around”. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into the Abruzzo Mountain people! The highlight of 2015 for me was my wonderful trip to Italy and visiting with you and your family in lovely Assisi. Much happiness to all in the new year!

  12. Janine Belveal

    Anne, your posts are always a delight. The photos and the well written narrative always make me feel like I’m there. Missed seeing a photo of Pino sampling something. My nonno from Sicily regretted having to leave his sheep herding life to come to the U.S. He, too, enjoyed the free life in the mountains. Thanks, again, Anne. If it weren’t for you we wouldn’t know about these wonderful events in Italy.

  13. Janet Eidem

    What healthy looking people these shepherds! Your photos are marvelous. I especially love the one of the herd leaving the area. Merry Christmas dear friend.

  14. susan Merrill

    What a wonderful article Anne, and so interesting. There is so much to know and learn from you. My sister in law and family will be visiting you in June. I have encouraged them to take advantage of your tours and expertise. I have fond memories of Assisi and will return. Buon Natale !

  15. Mary Ellen Gadski

    Anne Robichaud can always be counted on for a fine contribution to Italian Notebook. The tinkle of sheep bells is one of the most charming parts of staying in rural areas of Abruzzo. I had no idea how many cheeses beyond pecorino are made with sheep’s milk! Like others commenting, I suddenly developed a craving for cheese. One question: is the name of the dog breed now Maremmano? We’ve always known it as Maremma. When we got to know some of the local people in a weeklong stay near Caramanico Terme, my grandmother’s native town, a paesano offered to procure a Maremma puppy for us to take home. We loved and admired the dogs, but that would have been beyond impulsive! Our later research indicated that they do not make good pets. Like the shepherds, they like to be out in the fresh air and are very independent, if not downright cattivo!

  16. Jenny Hannan

    Well, well! Along with the birth of our son in Florence, we also acquired a wonderful pure white Maremmamo-Abruzzeze. An amazing sheep dog whose hair around the neck it so, so thick. His sheep became our son!

  17. Suzanne and Jack

    Wonderfully descriptive. Thank you Annie. Sad that the changing climate conditions are impacting so severely on traditional food and food production. A powerful reminder of the importance of conservation and reduction of energy emission.

  18. Anne, You always do ‘poetic justice’ to Umbria and all things Italian. I enjoy reading your articles. I hope that you will return to the Land of AZ and treat us to another of your informative lectures. AUGURI a Tutti …. Buon Natale!

  19. Judy Thomas

    That’s amazing about the sheep and goats – the photos are so surprising – looks like it could be Afghanistan or many other places

  20. Anna Retsker

    Anne, it is very interesting! One day I’ll travel to these places! Thank you very much for this exciting story and pictures. Anna

  21. carol weed lundin

    It is always fascinating to read about Annie’s travels. I am always wishing I could be there and her descriptions make me happy even though I am living it all vicariously

  22. Eileen G.

    Just had to let you know, Anne, how much I enjoy reading your articles about Umbria in”Bel’Italia”! Your notes seem to truly capture the heart & soul of each person & locality you write about. My family, friends & I are so looking forward to meeting you in June 2016. We can’t wait to experience the Beauty & magic of Umbria with you as our guide! Mille Grazie per Tutto!

  23. Shannon Good

    Your posts are simply wonderful, I always look forward to reading them. This is no different, the photographs are amazing and your narratives and descriptions of the people and places in Italy are so evocative. When I read them, I feel that I am right there among the festivities (which I always wish I were!) I think you should consider publishing a book of essays that include all these posts! It would be a bestseller!

  24. Patrice Makovic

    Always interesting articles Anna. The shepherds mention lack of water, is that because of drought?

  25. Gloria Fogler-Mancini

    In the mountains few miles outside L’Aquila, we saw herds of sheep. A mountain near there had many horizontal “ridges” that I thought might be from grazing sheep. I have a photo, but it won’t upload here.



Leave a Reply to Shannon Good

Click here to cancel reply.