Words by Tara McLaughlin

When people think of Abruzzo, they usually picture astounding National Parks and verdant countryside to rival that of anywhere else in Italy. However, taking some time out from the greenery can prove extremely rewarding.

Buried in among the rolling hills of Teramo lies a stunning, quaint little medieval town named Giulianova, which will propel you back to a peaceful past.

Giulianova is split between the old town in the hills (Alta) and a recent tourist development by the sea (lido). As is it happens with many other towns along the Adriatic coast, tourists tend to see only the new towns and locals do a very good job of keeping their hidden gems exactly that. However, if you can afford to take time out from your sunbathing, it is well worth travelling up into the hillside to visit the original medieval town of Giulianova Alta.

Situated in the north of Abruzzo, between the Tordino and Salinello rivers, Giulianova nestles at the foot of the spectacular Gran Sasso mountain range, which is curiously capped with snow from September right through until July. It is a peculiar experience to stand gazing over rolling green countryside at the height of summer, only to look right and catch the sight of snow. But there is more to the town that an intriguing landscape.

Stepping out of the busy fishing village of Giulianova Lido and into Giulianova Alta is like entering a time warp. The old town hasn’t changed much since the 19th century. It centres around a main street with traffic lining either side. Right at the heart of the town is a haven of lush lawn, colourful flowerbeds, park benches and inviting shade. It is common to find elderly men taking a well earned break from the taxing mid-day sun on one of the park benches, reading their local paper.

But it is when you veer away from the main street that Giulianova Alta really charms you. A maze of narrow streets and alleyways just waits to be explored. There appears to be a church around every corner, each one housing as diverse and ornate an exhibition as the next.

Shops too are a fascinating find. My best discovery was tucked away in what can only be described as something resembling Aladdin’s cave. It was a family-run boutique-like interiors shop. The genie was Signora Donatella and she was immensely proud that an Irish girl had taken such a keen interest in her display of wares. Her shop stocked everything from handcrafted chocolates to intricately laced bed linen and sweet fillers for the Italian wedding tradition of Bomboniere (favours).

Asking Signora Donatella to wrap my purchase gave rise to an elaborate fuss of what colours should be used and an entire twenty minutes was dedicated to this procedure. The result was truly a work of art and I left feeling that she was a lady happy and content at her work of making the world (or at least this part of Italy) look beautiful.

On turning the next corner I discovered another fascinating little shop - with an extremely different display of goods. Every nook and crevice here was home to an extensive display of Italian military merchandise. I was intrigued to find original war medals alongside modern day Carabinieri badges, cufflinks, wallets and hats. Signora Claudia and her son Marco were only too glad to relay the story that the shop serves its purpose to the staff of the modern day Carabinieri and Polizia by kitting them out with their dapper uniforms - but also sells unofficial items to the public. Theirs was a family treasure passed down through generations and they were definitely two people to add to my list of interesting and eccentric Italians.

Rambling on through the infinity of narrow streets I stumbled upon an enchanting building with an interesting facade made of what appeared to be cinema posters. On closer inspection I was surprised to learn that the building was indeed a cinema and the only one within a five mile radius. A later visit revealed that the cinema had just two screens with eighteen seats each - and every movie had a scheduled ten minute break to allow viewers to top up their vino. This was definitely a very different experience to that of our multiplex, 3D, HD, Blue-ray, VIP cinemas back home. In fact I doubt if news of High Definition viewing has even reached this corner of Italy yet - it’s probably stuck in and around the same place as satellite TV, Dyson vacuum cleaners and brand new cars (with the exception of the Fiat 500 of course).

However, the true pride and joy of the people of Giulianova is the Sanctuary of “Madonna Dello Splendore,” to which I was kindly introduced by an enthusiastic local pensioner. The Sanctuary is situated a little outside the centre’s confusion of alleyways and getting there requires you to walk along what was clearly once a street for the wealthy inhabitants of Giulianova. Along the palm-lined cobbles, behind thick but immaculately finished brick walls, lie the most incredible villas, each one with its own individual, sophisticated style. At the end of this cent array of buildings lies the Sanctuary of Madonna Dello Splendore.

Its location is spectacular, right at the peak of the hill, overlooking the new town and miles of Adriatic coastline. But the building itself is the true beauty of this place. According to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to a local farmer named Bertolino in the exact spot where the sanctuary now rises. The modern day building, which is home to a group of Capucine monks, has an elaborate display of mosaic spelling out the Christmas story. Even more fascinating are the 12 life-size stations of the Cross situated along the entire hillside. Locals often complete this procession on Good Friday and it is an energetic alternative to the monotony of the stations in a church.

Much as I enjoyed each sight, though, what really struck me about Giulianova Alta is its stubborn detachment from the modernity. Yes, there are cars through its streets and televisions in its homes but the buildings, lives and even the mentality of its inhabitants have been etched through centuries of simple existence. It really makes a refreshing and welcoming contrast to the hustle and bustle of the tourist town below. If you get a chance to walk its placid streets count yourself lucky. But all I ask is that you don’t tell too many of your friends about it. This is a secret that deserves to be well kept.