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The Town with Two Names

Why two names? Because for millenia until being basically wiped out a thousand years ago, this was a typical little provincial town called Histonium (Istonio in Italian). It was finally reduced to nothing; the Guasto d’Aimone it was then called, after the warchief Aymon who laid it waste and then had it resettled. A thousand years later Mussolini had its old name reinstated, but since he was not much appreciated around here, when Mussolini was gone the people went back to being from Guasto/Vasto.

As always, this is a place built on the spur of a low hill so that its citizens can enjoy the light breezes that keep summer bearable – and keep an eye on the sea in case of danger. The area around is quite peaceable now of course, with local industries down on the flat land behind the tourist beaches and near its old port a few kilometers away. A local pensioner I met in the bar while having a morning coffee told me these industries keep some of the youth here, but many are still obliged to look elsewhere for work, up in the north or even in Germany, as he did once.

With the enjoyment of meeting someone new and, as he told me, with also the obligation to welcome strangers and offer them the hospitality that is sacred tradition in these parts, Sergio walked me round his town.

The streets are wide enough to be pleasant, narrow enough to be cool. You can see the business of the town today is all about tourism, with cafès, restaurants and nightspots at every angle. An outdoor theater has been built by the side of its old Roman era one, so people can enjoy a spectacle in freshness of evening. There’s still much to do: even though it houses the local museum, the old Palazzo of the D’Avalos family is half derelict, as are many other palazzi in the old part of town.  Now then, who wants to buy a noble palazzo and make it beautiful again!

The big elephant in the town is the Castello Caldoresco, trumpeting its strength from its very center. It’s a most interesting fortress, its golden colored brick walls and tower with its odd crown clenched to the ground deep in its moat as though to say “you won’t take me away”. The Turks tried, and fired the place to boot, but it clung on.

The old church, where Pope Alexander called for a crusade and the German Emperor Barbarossa once prayed, didn’t make it – all but its front door fell with a recent landslide that took away a large slice of the eastern ridge. In the early morning you can stand at its entrance now, as did the Pope and the Emperor and, instead of the altar before you, you will see the sun rising over the sea. A much more beautiful and poignant experience, I think.

The southernmost part of the Abruzzo, just before Molise and Puglia, the weather remains mild in the winter and quite hot in the summer, so any season is good.

In January the Catholic Church celebrates the “Beneficum”, the plenary indulgence given to Vasto for sheltering Pope Alexander III during a month long storm back in 1179.

In late October the Vastesi celebrate “La consegna della Collana del Toson d’Oro”. This event goes back to 1732 when, on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor, the Marquis of Vasto ceremonially placed the necklace of the Order of the Golden Fleece around the neck of Prince Fabrizio Colonna of Rome, his kinsman. A great excuse to re-evocate a clattering cavalcade, wear great costumes, drink red and white wine from the fountains and generally have fun.

Interesting places nearby: Punta della Penna, Gargano, Vieste

A little bit of history

For thousands of years this town was called Histonium; like many places in the south of Italy founded by local Italic peoples and then brought within the Greek sphere of influence so that its foundation story became Greek with a Trojan flavor: by Ulysses’ friend Diomedes in this case. The Romans eventually turned up, of course, so the town prospered as the regional capital until Rome faded away, to be fought over for centuries by competing powers as every other town in the region. It was finally reduced to nothing; the Guasto d’Aimone it was called, after the Frankish warchief Aymon, who laid it waste and then had it resettled, and from whom Vasto gets its name today.

Eventually the King in Naples put someone with authority and ambition in control; thanks to the Caldora family the town was rebuilt, refortified and rearmed. It worked for a while, until the Turks set fire to the town. Another family was sent in, this time the Spanish D’Avalos, who managed their fief well enough to bring back some semblance of prosperity. From then on it followed the fortunes of southern Italy until the country was united, from which time it has continued to follow the fortunes of southern Italy in the development of local businesses and tourism.

The poet Gabriele Rossetti was born in Vasto; to escape the heavy hand of the state of the time he left to settle in politically liberal London. His two sons were among the founders of the pre-Raphaelite School that greatly influenced nineteenth century British art.

Article, photograph and video © Carl Ottersen