The Campo Imperatore plateau in the Gran Sasso mountain range is without doubt one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen; 200 metres higher than Ben Nevis at its lowest point, 10 times taller than the Shard at its highest and occupying a vast area of over 80 square kilometres, it understandably dominates the area around Casa del Colle. For those staying at the villa it is certainly worth the 40-50 minute drive up the winding road that takes you out onto the plateau.
I, like Sergio Leone of “the Good, the Bad & the Ugly” fame and numerous Spaghetti Western directors, was awed by the miles and miles of open expanse sandwiched between distant mountain peaks and interrupted only by bumbling herds of grazing livestock that invariably plonk themselves on the only road across the plane. But it’s OK! That same livestock, as it turns out, is delicious and available in abundance at a surreally placed butcher situated in the middle of the plateau. I have fond memories of purchasing an assortment of meats, cheeses and other tasty morsels ready to cook on one of the free-to-use open-air barbeques adjacent to the butchers. I remember cautiously approaching the cooking area and feeling the sense of utter bewilderment as I looked on at a field of barbeques that were being periodically lit by someone with a flamethrower – like something out of a post-apocalyptic Mad Max-esque film scene. Despite the unfamiliar setting, as soon as fire-wielding Max tended to the charcoal in the barbeque I had claimed, muttered something in Italian and pointed (I was clearly foreign after all) towards an area where I could find cooking utensils I was instantly at ease. A highly recommended trip for the most unforgettable picnic and for arrosticini as it should be.
Of course it’s not just meat, cheese and a spectacular view that draws people up the largest plateau in the Apennines. There are the beautiful but precariously placed medieval villages – Santa Stefano & Castel del Monte being my favourite – and some of the most rewarding road cycling this side of the Alps. Bring your own bike or hire one from Active Abruzzo and you’ll forget all about the Dolomites when you, like Pantani, complete the Gran Sasso d’Italia ascent. Bit of snow? Not a problem – head to the slopes and experience some of Italy’s oldest – and best – skiing. And for historically minded skiers combine your interests and explore the Hotel Campo Imperatore where Mussolini was imprisoned – and almost died – during the Second World War. If this has you intrigued, read on:
The 7000-feet (2100 metres) high ski complex on the Campo Imperatore plateau in the Gran Sasso Mountains near to the house that you’re renting is Italy’s longest serving continuous ski resort, with road access in summer and reachable in winter via a cable car from Fonte Cerreto. Alongside the ski resort are the Rome Observatory and the Hotel Campo Imperatore, a hotel built in the art deco style in the 1930s with mosaics, a glass-roofed reading room and a cocktail bar, and with a curious history as it was used as a prison in September 1943 for the Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. In July 1943 British and American Allied forces invaded Sicily and the Italian King, Victor Emmanuel III, the Italian Army High Command and elements within the Italian fascist movement conspired to topple Mussolini, blamed for Italy’s defeats in the war and the invasion of Sicily. In September 1943, Italy declared an armistice and stopped fighting with the Germans. The question for the conspirators who had pulled Italy out of the war was what to do with Mussolini? At first, Mussolini was kept on a lonely prison island, Ponza, off the coast west of Naples. Meanwhile, the German Army was now occupying Italy and its agents were searching for Mussolini, urged on by Adolf Hitler who wanted to see his former ally freed and reinstalled as Italy’s leader. With Gestapo agents closing in, and a German rescue squad gathering in Italy, the Italians moved Mussolini to the island of La Maddalena off Sardinia’s northern coast, home of an Italian Navy base. They then moved him to Lake Bracciano near Rome on 28 August. Meanwhile, a team of German paratrooper commandos led by Otto Skorzeny (1908-75), an Austrian born SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant-Colonel) with a dramatic duelling scar across his face, was tracking Mussolini with a view to rescuing him. By September 1943, Skorzeny had found Mussolini’s final prison hideout – the Hotel Campo Imperatore (also called the Albergo Refugio), high in the Gran Sasso Mountains, where Mussolini had been sent on 1 September. Italian Carabinieri police guards held Mussolini at the hotel and so Skorzeny needed to get to the hotel fast, achieve surprise, overcome the policemen and then get Mussolini out quickly. To do this, Skorzeny devised Operation Oak, a glider-borne assault on the mountain-top hotel by joint German paratroopers and SS special forces. On 12 September 1943, four days after Italy publicly surrendered to the Allies, a ground force of Germans attacked the lower ends of the cable car link while ten gliders landed in waves starting at 2.05 pm on a small field near the hotel. The paratroopers were the experts on the raid; Skorzeny and his SS troopers were less experienced (indeed, Skorzeny spent much of the time publicising his own role at the expense of the mission). Mussolini’s guards put up no resistance and a jubilant Skorzeny eventually found the Italian dictator in the hotel, with whom he had his picture taken by a photographer brought in by glider at the expense of bumping off several paratroopers from the raid. A small strip was then cleared outside the hotel for a tiny short take-off and landing Fieseler Storch single-engine plane. Keen to make sure he made the headlines, Skorzeny crammed his hefty bulk into the plane and this almost led to disaster as the light plane took off and fell down with the extra weight and off the edge of the mountain, recovering just before it hit the ground and it took Mussolini to a bigger airfield held by the Germans and then to meet Hitler in Germany. The Germans then established Mussolini as a puppet ruler in the northern part of Italy controlled by them. The remaining raiding force departed by the cable car, descending to the lower station taken by the ground force earlier on the 12th, and which took them away to safety. Today, neo-fascists visit the hotel to see the room in which Mussolini slept, including the actual bed, it seems. The hotel is in need of preservation, and some of the huge windows in the dining room have been cracked by winter storms.
Further reading: Greg Annussek, Hitler’s Raid to Save Mussolini: The Most Infamous Commando Operation of World War Two (2005)