L'Aquila: lovers of culture are indebted to its 99 founders
L'Aquila - Italy's ''eagle'' city, also known as ''city of the 99'' - was created for lovers: for music lovers; lovers of drama; lovers of painting, sculpture, architecture; lovers of history and tradition; lovers of good eating.Skip to next paragraph
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Unlike most European cities, L'Aquila was never a cluster of prehistoric huts. It was created in 1254 by a federation of princes and patrons. It sprang, as did Athena from the brow of Zeus, into an active, successful life. It is a mere child of 700 years - only 400 more than Boston. And my adopted city of Rome - now linked to L'Aquila by a fine freeway - is a Methuselah of 3,300 years.
The easiest way for a tourist to visit L'Aquila is to take a pleasant drive into the Abruzzi hills. An hour and a half will bring you to this unique city, nestled in a concave with the peak of Gran Sasso looming behind it on the backbone of the Appennine range. The Aquilani will tell you that their weather is ideal - 11 months are cool, and one is cold. No high heat.
Why is L'Aquila known as the city of the 99? Because - according to tradition - it was founded by 99 princes and patrons, each of whom built his own palace, his own square, his own church. The original L'Aquila, therefore, boasted 99 magnificent palaces with aristocratic courtyards, 99 spacious piazzas, 99 monumental churches.
But tradition enjoys hyperbole. History records at least 80 churches, now reduced by a succession of earthquakes to fewer than 60. Yet the fantastical figure of 99 persists - especially in the grimacing gargoyles of the Fountain of the 99 Spouts, and also when the town clock in the Torre di Palazo strikes 99 bells every evening.
This fabulous fountain, designed and built by Tancredi di Pentima in 1272, is said to be inconsistant with those who try to count the 99 spouts. True, the jets may come out 99 when counted from left to right; but when counted from right to left - who knows? Although I've seen the fountain many times, I've never put it to the test.
Let's suppose you've come to Rome - perhaps during July and August - and you find yourself caught in the high heat. How about spending a day in L'Aquila? Or two days? Or at least a week during the music festival?
You can rent a car in the early morning and find yourself in L'Aquila around 10:30. Go at once to the Castle, a huge, square, muscular fort built by the Spaniards in 1535 to house their troops. Today it houses the National Museum of Abruzzo. Here you can enjoy some important archaeological finds and masterpieces of sculpture and painting, as well as work by local artisans in gold, ceramics, weaving, pillow lace, tapestry design. The museum hours are from 9 to 1:30. Closed on Mondays.
If you are ready for luncheon, don't miss L'Aquila's ristorante supremo, Le Tre Marie (the Three Marys). Founded in 1912 by Guiseppe Scipioni, painter and gourmet, the restaurant is now presided over by his grandson, Paolo Scipioni, a gracious host who will tempt you with many specialties known only in the Abruzzi region. Ask him for his recommendations.