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.

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.

Highly prized are the Scrigno (a sublime blending of artichoke hearts, chicken, and scamorze cheeses encased in a casket of pasta) and the Maccheroni alla Chitarra (thin strips of pasta made by pressing the dough through ''guitar'' strings and flavored with goat cheese from the Aquilani mountains). For an unusual treat you can try the lentils from Santa Stefano di Sessania - very small and very tasty.

You will not only enjoy the items on Signor Scipioni's menu but also the paintings on his walls and the antique kitchen utensils in his fireplace.

In the afternoon you will have time to visit some of L'Aquila's churches - museums in themselves. Chief among them are the Chiesa di San Bernardino and the Chiesa di Santa Maria di Collemaggion, both of which combine architectural harmony with eye-filling paintings, sculptures, frescoes, and stained glass.

Experienced travelers know that there is nothing more helpful than an experienced guide. Maria Pia Renzetti is a guide of encyclopedic culture; and if your Italian is scanty, she will assign you an English-speaking colleague. She can show you more things in less time than anyone else I know.

You will find Signora Renzetti at L'Aqualia's tourist bureau, known as the Ente Provinciale per il Turismo. If you choose, you can write her for illustrated brochures, and she will mail them to you before your arrival. You may also collect many guidebooks at her office that will list the points of interest.

President of the Ente Provinciale per il Turismo is an engineer, Dr. Emilio Tomassi, who loves the arts and has been instrumental in the great renaissance of music and theater now enjoyed by L'Aquila's citizens and visitors. I Solisti Aquilani, for instance, is a superlative chamber orchestra, founded in 1968, which performs under the skillful direction of Vittorio Antonellini.

If you are also a music lover, plan to be in L'Aquila for a festival titled ''Costruire per la musica,'' to be held from the 5th to the 25th of July. The programs will consist of Renaissance, baroque, classical, and romantic scores, with a few moderns tossed in. The 110 concerts held during the winter season, already referred to, will terminate on June 3. Three or four are held each week.

If you wish to spend more than one day in L'Aquila - and the city will beckon you to do so - then make your reservations at the Hotel Duca degli Abruzzi. A second-class hotel with first-class service, it is L'Aquila's newest - comfortable and clean - and boasts an excellent rooftop restaurant with a panoramic view of the city.

And by the way, if you do spend two or three days in L'Aquila, ask Maria Pia Renzetti to take you to see the little oratory of San Pellegrino in Bominaco, a short drive from L'Aquila through the fields of saffron crops. This chapel dates back to the 1200s and is filled with some of the best-preserved frescoes of medieval design.

Enjoy yourselves!

Practical information

Hotel Duca degli Abruzzi is in Viale Duca degli Abruzzi, No. 10; telephone ( 0862) 28341.

The address for Le Tre Marie: Via Tre Marie, No. 3; telephone (0862) 20191. Closed Mondays.

Ente Provinciale per il Turismo, the tourist office, is in Piazza Santa Maria Paganica, No. 5; telephone (0862) 25149.

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