A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary
Undiscovered Sabine Hills
ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN'S GUIDE
The Sabine Hills is an appealingly undiscovered niche of Italy, which-although blissfully lost in time-is an exceptionally convenient area to visit since the region is just north of Rome. We have suggested this itinerary as an "add on" to our Umbria itinerary (which precedes this one) since one flows gracefully into the other. However, you can just as easily reverse the route and start in Rome and include the Sabine Hills as you head north toward Umbria and Tuscany.
This adventure takes you over winding, tranquil mountain roads into the Sabine Hills (or Sabina as it is often referred to), an idyllic area in the region of Lazio offering splendid scenery with rolling, olive-clad hills and tiny, medieval hilltop villages. This part of central Italy-perhaps more than any other-has preserved its original rural character, and, not withstanding its proximity to Rome, is one of the least populated parts of the country. A wonderful time to visit is spring when the countryside explodes in color with yellow broom and fields of sunflowers, accented by the silver green of the olive trees which produce some of Italy's finest extra virgin olive oils.
Recommended Pacing: We suggest spending a minimum of two nights in this region of northern Lazio to savor the authentic charm of the long-forgotten villages in the Sabine Hills. Since the area is small, choose one town as your base of operation and go out from there each day for sightseeing.
As you study the map at the beginning of this itinerary, it is obvious that you could begin your drive to the Sabine Hills from numerous places in Umbria or Tuscany. However, since we ended the Umbria itinerary near Orvieto, we have chosen it as a suggested starting point. If your time is limited, the quickest way to get to Sabina from Orvieto is to take the A1 south and exit at Ponzano/Soratte, but we suggest in our itinerary a more leisurely approach through the less discovered corners of northern Lazio.
Parco dei Mostri and Villa Lante: Leaving Orvieto, drive south toward Rome on the A1. Because they are convenient to your route, we suggest stopping to visit two extraordinary gardens: the Parco dei Mostri and the Villa Lante. For these excursions, exit the A1 at Orte, and then take the superstrada 204 west toward Viterbo. About 27 kilometers after leaving the A1, take the exit marked to Bomarzo where the sacred garden of Parco dei Mostri is located. Dating back to 1552, the park was designed by Pirro Ligorio, who also created the incredible gardens of Villa d'Este in Tivoli. He is also responsible for the completion of Saint Peter's Cathedral, a commission he took over after the death of Michelangelo. A 30-minute walk through the wooded park with gigantic hidden statues of animals and mythological characters makes this a great destination for children. After visiting Parco dei Mostri, it is just a short drive on to the enchanting gardens of Villa Lante.
To reach Villa Lante from Parco dei Mostri, follow a small, ancient road flanked by olive and hazelnut groves in the direction of Viterbo. Before reaching Viterbo, follow signs for Bagnaia, where you find the classic Italian renaissance gardens of Villa Lante, which date back to 1568. The lavish life style of those in the aristocracy of the Catholic Church is clearly evident; an opulent villa surrounded by sensational gardens seems to have been a perk of being a Cardinal. Villa Lante was built by Cardinal Gianfrancesco Gambara and later was occupied by a succession of Popes until the Lante family bought the property in 1657. The Duchess of Lante was born in France and when she moved to her new home in Italy, she brought with her a French agronomist who added a French flavor to the Villa Lante gardens. Open 9 am to 4:30 pm in winter, 9 am to 7:30 pm in summer.
Terni: After visiting both gardens, return east toward Orte. When you reach the A1, do not get on the freeway but continue east to Terni, which is on the border of Umbria and Lazio. Because it was rebuilt after extensive damage in World War II, Terni is a city of modern architecture. Although it does not have an old world ambiance, it is worth a stop for those who love fashionable couture-it seems every Italian designer is represented here. Our suggestion is to drive through Terni and get onto the smaller roads that lead to Marmore.
Marmore: From the center of Terni take route 79 to Marmore, a tiny village where Cascata delle Marmore is located. If you are a nature lover, you will not want to miss this side trip to the highest waterfall in Europe, which was created in 290 B.C. when the Romans changed the course of the River Velino. To admire the falls, leave your car and enter the parkland. The viewpoint is open year round for two hours a day: 1pm to 2pm and 4pm to 5pm. The times vary each month but you can check them on Google (Marmore waterfalls opening). The waterfall can be admired from below or above. You view the falls from above on the way to Greccio.
Greccio: As you leave Marmore the road divides. At this point, leave Route 79 that goes on to Rieti and take instead a very small road that parallels the river Velino. After 12 kilometers you will reach Greccio, a peaceful monastery in a spectacular position on the slopes of Mount Lacerone with views stretching across the green plain below to the peaks of Mount Terminillo. It was here in December, 1223, that Saint Francis of Assisi, along with the local noblemen, enacted the first live nativity scene. The tradition has continued ever since the 12th century and each year at Christmas people flock from all over Italy to see this traditional event in which a cast of a hundred people participate dressed in splendid costumes: the convent is open 9:30am to 1pm and 3pm to 6pm. After visiting the Greccio sanctuary, drive back down the steep winding road and continue south toward Sabina, following signposts for Contigliano. Before entering the town, make a sharp right. You find yourself on a mountain road with no traffic at all.
Cottanello: The first hilltop village you come to is Cottanello, a tiny, remote, picturesque hill town surrounded by mountains instead of olive groves. The inhabitants are mostly shepherds and you might need to stop along the way to let a shepherd with his flock of sheep cross the road. The typical regional products of the area are pecorino and ricotta cheese made with sheep's milk. Just outside this sleepy town is the tiny medieval cliff-side Hermitage of Saint Cataldo, carved out of rock hanging over the road. It is possible to have a guide open the hermitage for you if you have an appointment and arrive before lunchtime. Also of interest is the nearby archaeological remains of a Roman farmhouse, which belonged to Lucius Cotta, the brother in law of Julius Caesar, and features a lovely mosaic floor. The site is hard to find and rarely visited, so a reservation is essential. For both of these stops, call the Comune of Cottanello (0746) 66 122 or Sig. Stefano Petrucci, a guide, whose cell phone is (3287) 42 50 58. If you pass by in the afternoon and are planning to stay at one of the hotels or bed and breakfasts in the Sabine Hills, your hosts can call for you and make an appointment for the next morning.
Jewels of the Sabine Hills: Passing Cottanello, turn left at the bottom of the hill toward Poggio Mirteto and Casperia. As the road descends, the panorama widens to include the rolling plains of Lazio and the Tiber valley. You are now in the heart of Sabina which hasn't changed much in the last 1,000 years. Here you will discover authentic, off the beaten path, hilltop villages such as Casperia, Montasola, Roccantica, Poggio Catino, Farfa, and Stroncone and a romantic landscape of olive farms, abbeys and castles. To add to the enchantment, there is a total lack of souvenir shops and tour buses-a treat for those who enjoy experiencing the life of the local people. What fun it is to not rush about. Relax in one of hill towns where time seems to have stood still; enjoy a cappuccino or sip a glass of wine in the piazza and peer over the medieval walls at the inspiring landscape of the Tiber Valley. Happily, the area offers a rich selection of places to stay. Choose one of these as your hub for a few nights stay and venture out to explore the area, visiting the towns and sites featured in the following part of this itinerary. You will soon discover why the Roman emperor, Hadrian, chose Sabina as one of his favorite getaways from Rome. Some of the jewels of the Sabine hills are featured below.
Montasola: This tiny, intact medieval hilltop village, typical of the region, has no more than 80 inhabitants. The entrance gate, dominated by a medieval tower, leads into the village. There are no famous monuments here, but stop to take some photos and enjoy the splendid panoramas (the town is at an altitude of 600 meters).
Casperia: Perched on a rocky outcrop and bound by the remains of its original stone walls and watchtowers, Casperia is one of the most picturesque medieval villages in the Sabine Hills. While enjoying the local food and wine, you can often listen to a live jazz pianist as you watch the sun set over Mount Soratte. In this completely pedestrian town every turning along the narrow cobble stoned alleyways offers a photo opportunity. A local craftsman, Gianni, has been making a wonderful model of the village for the last 10 years as a setting for the Christmas nativity crib. Every year he adds more. The model is located in the church of San Giovanni Battista, which is usually open in the afternoons around 5pm. A favorite place on a summer's evening is the panoramic café in the piazza of Casperia.
In 1852 the famous German historian, Gregorovius, described Casperia in his book Wandering in Italy "In all my travels I have never beheld a panorama of such heroic beauty as that offered to me from the top of the hill in the territory of Aspra (the old name for Casperia). It is truly a paradise on earth! A majestic solitude dominates both the nearby mountains where timeless castles stood, and the villages of the Sabines where ancient families still dwell, solidly preserving the customs and the ways of life of the past...the ideal place to dream." Little has changed since Gregorovius fell in love with Casperia and the Sabine Hills.
Farfa: Not to be missed is the Abbey of Farfa, one of the most famous European religious buildings of the Middle Ages, found in the town of the same name. Charlemagne was its protector, and at the height of his empire, a vast part of central Italy was owned by the abbey. A visit is not complete without including the magnificent, recently refurbished, library that contains more than 60,000 volumes and original manuscripts, including one of the first books ever printed. The staff in the herb store will arrange your visit. Do not miss a well preserved Roman sarcophagus that was found on the premises, attesting to the fact that the 6th-century abbey was built on the site of a Roman villa: tel: (0765) 27 73 15 (not much English spoken).
Castelnuovo di Farfa: A small winding road leads to the nearby village of Castelnuovo di Farfa where a contemporary museum of olive oil is located, the first of its kind in Italy. It has an unusual exhibit that interprets the history of the olive, which has always dominated the landscape of Sabina. International artists have participated in creating the exhibit, which also features a rare collection of oil presses. The museum is open weekends and on request for small groups, tel: (0765) 36 370.
Castel San Pietro: This small picturesque hilltop village built around a large 17th-century palace makes a fun place to stop for lunch after having visited Farfa. There is a great restaurant here, Re Burlone, located in the cellars of the palazzo.
Fara Sabina: The highest village in the Sabine hills is Fara Sabina. Once a Lombard stronghold the village offers the most spectacular view of the rolling plains of Lazio-the land of the Latins and birthplace of our western civilization. You can see across the Tiber valley as far as Rome, and, on a clear day, the dome of Saint Peter's is visible.
Tivoli, Villa d’Este, and Villa Adriana: While based in Sabina, enjoy a daytrip to one or more of Italy's famous renaissance gardens and the archeological site of Villa Adriana. To reach Tivoli, drive south from Fara Sabina, crossing the Via Salaria S4 and continuing on the small backroad 636 to Palombara Sabina. Then continue on to Tivoli. In Tivoli you find the Villa d'Este with its 16th-century fountains-a must see for Renaissance garden lovers. Nearby you find Villa Adriana, an incredible archaeological site with 300 acres of grounds.
After visiting Villa d'Este and Villa Adriana, take the link road to A1, direction Florence (the entrance is just a few kilometers from Tivoli). Exit at Ponzano/Soratte and head east, making your way back to your base in the Sabine hills. NOTE: Villa D'Este and Villa Adriana can also be visited en route to Rome, if this is your next destination.
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