In search of... Ovid in Abruzzo, Italy
The Latin poet was a country boy who metamorphosed into a metropolitan sophisticate.
By Roland Lloyd Parry
Sulmo mihi patria est, gelidus uberrimus undis Milia qui novies distat ab urbe decem.
Not my words, but those of Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso), arguably Rome's wittiest poet. He was born at Sulmo, now Sulmona, in the beautiful Abruzzo district in central Italy, in 43BC. In this couplet he describes it as "a land rich in ice-cold streams, ninety miles from Rome", an accurate geographical description even now. These days Sulmona is a charming medieval town which, with its lack of tourists and sleepy surrounding countryside, is simply a nice place for literary tourists to combine a literary pilgrimage with a countryside break.
Literary pilgrimage? Does that mean we get to put flowers on his grave?
No, he's not buried here. He died in exile in what is now Constanza on Romania's Black Sea coast – a dreary place with little more than a few cafés, a dusty Roman museum, and ferries to Turkey. Abruzzo must have seemed very far away.
If it's so nice, why didn't he want to come back?
The poet loved the city, and Sulmo was, then as now, the antithesis of the excitement of Rome. Ovid was not the scruffy bohemian type content to live in a country cottage and spin out ditties, but a Roman at heart – urbane and sophisticated in wit and taste. After going away to study, he probably had a student-like dissatisfaction with the quiet life of his sensible parents in Sulmo. And once he was exiled it was too late – he was just able to mention Sulmo briefly in his last work, written in exile, Tristia ("Sorrows").
Sounds like a dull place to grow up?
It probably was in Ovid's day. Nowadays, it's still nothing like Rome, of course, and in the middle of the day the town goes to sleep. But in the evening things come alive. The well-dressed youth of the town converges around Ovid's statue and on the terrace of the cafés on the Piazza, and the older generations socialise in the restaurants over pasta and football.
Should I expect lots of self-indulgent Ovidiana? Souvenir T-shirts, poems on plates, things like that?
Actually, the presence of Ovid in Sulmona is very understated – nothing in comparison with Florence's tributes to its many artists, for example. Sulmona's Piazza XX Settembre, on Corso Ovidio, has a bronze statue of the poet at its centre: he is depicted holding a pen and his chin and with a thoughtful expression, as though thinking up some subversive couplet or particularly fiendish intertextual reference. But the people of Sulmona seem indifferent to him – it's certainly not as big a deal to them as it is to the excitable classics student. Mariana, from a nearby village, was curious as to why a tourist would think of visiting Sulmona. On hearing of the Ovid connection, she remarked that in any case she preferred Orazio (Horace).
So no risk of Florence-style Stendhalismo?
Not much danger, due to the town's relaxed atmosphere. Apart from the statue, there's a plaque in the Piazza Garibaldi, the town's beautiful main square, with the above quotation inscribed on it. The only devotional souvenirs available are copper Ovid plates, unobtrusively displayed in the expensive ornament shops on the Piazza Garibaldi. The likeness is not the most accurate. And to the traveller, once the statue's been photographed, the place's pleasures are a lot simpler. Between noon and teatime one or two of the cafés stay open, encouraging you to sit and doze over espressos. The narrow streets are pretty enough, but there's not much to buy apart from confetti.
Confetti, eh? An appropriate place to find your mate for life?
Could well be. Ovid went to Rome to find all three of his, but then he wasn't always the right person to ask about that sort of thing. (His poem on the art of love was apparently one of the reasons Augustus banished him.) In any case, nowadays, Sulmona is the centre of Italian confetti production, and the main Corso is dotted with shops selling the work of Sulmona's confetti-making families. It's more fun than it sounds, however, and can be enjoyed even by non-betrotheds. You don't even have to have a partner. Italian confetti, as produced so abundantly in Sulmona, consists of many-coloured sugared almonds, sold loose in bags, or wrapped in coloured paper and arranged in floral designs, the sweets forming the petals. For the less soppy souvenir seeker, there is also a good range of chocolates filled with Sambuca and Tia Maria.
It sounds well suited to the lazy dreaming poets among us.
Absolutely. After a sleepy day there, the traveller is likely to decide to go walkabout.
Ah, the "land rich in ice-cold streams" Indeed.
Sulmona is an attractive base for exploring the mountainous surrounding region and the protected forests of the Abruzzo's Parco Nationale. The historical town of L'Aquila is a bus ride away, as well as the quiet mountain villages of Scanno and Cocullo. It's also, to paraphrase Ovid, a great place – predictably – to eat the "land's rich cold ice-creams".
A place for lonesome wanderings? It's all good country for walking and exploring, though a hired car can make things easier. Typical of Italy, the train journeys around here, such as the one inland from Pescara to Sulmona, take you through some priceless countryside views. Sulmona is deep in the Abruzzo, and the ride from the white beaches of Pescara passes through scenery that differs from the farmland beauty of Florence in being fairly wooded and mountainous, with dusty medieval villages appearing unexpectedly. The area has a peaceful, remote feel, and not much English is spoken outside Pescara. It seems the kind of place an old poet wouldn't have minded retiring to.
I'm feeling a bit poetic myself.
How do I get there?
Ryanair flies twice daily from Stansted to Pescara. Regular local and express trains connect Pescara to Sulmona.
(N.B. Click here for more travel tips)
Source: The Independent, 21 January 2002