Bastion of the Abruzzo
Driving up from the south by the coast road Ortona kind of springs on you. You can see it from a distance as you approach, but then the road dives into a gulley and suddenly there is the sign on your right to turn up the steep escarpment and reach the flat-topped ridge the town sits on. In fact the town fairly juts out to sea, like some aircraft carrier with its sharp prow turned smartly to face the waves.
At the prow sits the high walled Aragonese castle, a veritable ‘forecastle’ recently restored after many decades of neglect and the loss of its seamost wall. From this old bastion the Kings in Naples and their lords in Chieti could control the ancient and important port below, which as is often the case was the reason Ortona came to be.
Within the town itself, bright colored houses face off at one another across sun drenched streets, while in the narrow and crooked alleys that every so often separate them their gaudy façades are quickly abandoned to become cool stone faced refuges from the midday heat.
Other than the castle and the great battle that raged here in World War II, Ortona is best known for being the final resting place of Thomas the Apostle, his bones being brought here from the Greek island of Chios in 1258. This is the much traveled Thomas who doubted miracles; you can imagine his surprise if he knew he is one of Christianity’s few divine powers, with his body also being buried in India at the same time as being in Ortona. Still there is some logic in it – “T’oma” means “twin” in Aramaic. Who knows?
Best times to be there
This was once a main resort town, so you can be sure the weather is pleasant almost all the year round. In May, Ortona holds a special historical and religious pageant associated with St. Thomas. The Ladies of the Silver Key bring a silver key on a fine cushion (this being the responsibility of the Damsels of the Parishes) to open a Reliquary said to contain Thomas’ bones, after which the bishop gives everyone present a plenary indulgence forgiving their sins. All of which is the central moment of a great festival with costumed jugglers, flagthrowers, archers, musicians and locals dressed up as lords, ladies and lackeys.
Where to stay, eat and buy something local
I ate a really great lunch of home made pasta with mussels at a restaurant just across the open space in front of the Aragonese Fortress. There’s something about Abruzzese sauces that is always special: no-one else makes sauces like the Abruzzesi. The portion was really generous, the white wine was chilled just perfectly, the service was a delight – and I arrived late, so in many places I’d be told the kitchen was closed. Turns out the chef is also the owner, which is always the best. And the price – surprisingly reasonable, given the quality of both the food and the excellent location. If you are in Ortona you have to eat at …..
Interesting places nearby
Lanciano, Parco Nazionale dell’Abruzzo.
A little bit of history
No-one really knows who first settled Ortona or when. Its position on a prominent high cape with the sea on one side and fertile fields on the other probably means its origins are deep in the Bronze Age (before 1000 BCE). The later Roman town lay atop the first settlement; it passed through many hands before finding itself under the control of Frankish Chieti in 800 CE. Later Chieti itself fell to the Kingdom of Naples/Sicily, whose Aragonese King had the fortress built. Ortona became a sea resort for the new Italian elite in the 1880s, replete with hotels, theaters and a funicula to the shore. The Savoia King of Italy and his family escaped from Italy here in 1943, never to see his throne again. Just three months later Canadians battled Germans here through every bomb-blasted and bullet-ridden house, for Ortona was the eastern anchor of the German defensive line after the Allied invasion; the western anchor was Monte Cassino …
Article, photograph and video © Carl Ottersen