oggio Mirteto, Cantalupo, Casperia, Vacone, Configni, Stroncone. Cities on top of a hill in the ancient land of Sabina, calling each other across patchwork vineyards and cornfields. Forests, gardens, olive groves. You can drive to these places, of course. But my experience is, when you arrive on foot they are different. They are better. And the best in summer.
You will need water at all times for this adventure. Lightweight backpack with only one change of clothes. Trekking shoes on your feet, poles in your hands, sweat shirts and shorts and underwear. Plus a wide-brimmed hat, pattern and large sun cream. Then, surrender yourself to the heat and crickets.
The beginning is quite simple. An hour’s train ride is ferocious in the northeast next to Tiber, from Tiburtina Roma station to Poggio Mirteto Scalo. Then climb four miles, cross country, to Poggio Mirteto. This will make you familiar with the idea that every place you will go in the coming days is at the top of a long, steep slope. The fact poggio meaning small hill. I remember the chalky paths between dry bushes that were so high that their bushes waved above our heads. You enter the city through a narrow stone arch perched above a mere drop. You can look down and feel satisfied.
The key to running in the heat is to start before daybreak and get into it. So, check Poggio in the afternoon you arrive, then get up early and get up at five. Piazza Martiri della Libertà has a dusty decoration, more oval-shaped extending from a tree than a square. The creamy baroque church at one end and the hard brick cathedral at the other. Beautiful facade, green patches. A strong yucca tree blew rocks from the 15th century. On an elegant table Caffé Gentili You can practice ordering the first cedrata. Made from Calabrian cedro, a large yellow orange, and served in a small bottle that you pour on broken ice, this drink is sharp ecstasy and quenches thirst. You will need it.
One final requirement. It is difficult to find detailed paper maps in Italy. The countryside is also not thick with finger poles pointing to the road. If you will avoid the streets, you need a climbing application to find the path – they are easily available. And it’s wise to plan at least the start of the route every day the night before; then, when you close your B&B door at an ungodly hour, you will know where you are going.
There was special intimacy to slip out of the medieval wall while it was still night. Thankfully, that day began to decline. The deep shadows of the trees were clandestine and fresh, the grass dewy, cool in the air, and around the atmosphere a calm plant-based pressure towards the splendor of the rising sun.
That came too fast. Towards the seven lights suddenly sharpened on a feathered bamboo stand. Fast heating. In a corner, a large agave plant waved grayish green. Sunflowers raise their heads. In the peach orchards began to shine. Then around 8:30, as if the switch was tripping, crickets started. One attacked in the tree directly above, a hoarse rhythmic roar, then the other and the other, and the other, until the loud and hypnotic choir fused with the hot-oven air which was now in a vast summer’s extraction.
We were walking north here, in a broad, bumpy valley, through a charred field of straw watched from a tower and a castle in the hills on each side. At the end of the valley is the larger city of Terni, two days away, offering a choice of trains back to Rome. But if you have an appetite and energy, stay two more days north to Todi, enjoy the magnificent ruins of Roman Carsulae and the beautiful city of Acquasparta. Then maybe two more to the west to Orvieto. Or north to Perugia and the upper Tiber valley. My partner and I took this trip as part of a longer trip, following in the footsteps Garibaldi when he tried to march troops from Rome to Venice after the collapse of the liberal Roman republic in 1849. This segment seems to be Italy’s most intense, and most unknown.
But the first goal this morning was Cantalupo. You have to raise your head to see it, a pile of messy stones piled up from the gravel trees far above. The slope is very steep. But the pleasure of today lies in the intensity of the contrast: first, sweat and tension, then entertainment provided by each small town. A fountain near the ancient gate. Coolness in the dark, stinking churches under the wrinkled pine tree. Fortunately, rarely more than three hours drive between one settlement and the next. You will be in the Cantalupo square in enough time for fresh orange juice, cappuccinos and croissants, in the shade of the sun, surrounded by a burning oleander pot. It will never feel so good if you arrive by car.
We had set our sights on Vacone as a place to stay, taking time to have lunch at Casperia, another climb to the medieval miracle which was paralyzed in the blue light of the day. Then our application disappoints us: the path becomes nothing. We turn around. It was past night when we handled a broken track that climbed a thousand feet. There is a stone trough here, located on a cliff next to a path, and ode words written by the poet Horace, more than 2,000 years ago, to praise the water that emerged from the rock. “O Bandusia fountain!” When Garibaldi passed in 1849 the spring was dry and his men, mules and horses became crazy with thirst.
Our water is also gone. But we are almost there. The track turned into rocky alleyways, then a large terrace under the ancient clock tower. Vaccine. Two women sat on the parapet, a wide panorama of the sunset behind them. Are there places to stay, we ask. Not. Is there a cafe? Not. Really, no cafe? There is a bar, they said, which opened after dinner, “So that men play cards.” And a small grocery store.
I mention this moment to warn you that you must decide before deciding whether you want to spend the night in the open. Whether to take a lightweight tent, maybe. We have one, but Eleonora, my colleague, has read that there are wolves on these hills. Of course no one has been killed by wolves in Italy for more than 200 years. Wild boar and dogs are more likely to meet. But imagination is a terrible thing. Jealous and generous, the two women called all their friends and relatives. Does anyone know anyone who has a place to live? Children running back and forth. Grocery stores provide beer and mozzarella. Finally a B&B was found, another 40 minutes to walk, in the dark.
On arrival, every day, you must put your clothes in the sink and wash them all at once. They will dry at night and be ready for dawn. In bed you feel your body glowing, ripe with summer sunlight.
Some cities offer nightlife. Carmina Burana on the steps of the Duomo. Beauty pageant below a loggiato. In one village a magician. In another band one person. And yes, there are works of art to see along the way. If you must. The good San Sebastiano, for example, cheerfully withdrew to the arrow above the small church altar on a rocky road to Configni. But this holiday is not about wall paintings and monuments; it’s about the pleasure of eating cappellacci with radicchio and Robiola cheese behind a bead curtain at one of the Configni osteria. Then the scent of lavender and mint as we plunged back into the valley; elegance of grass and blue corn flowers; creeping away from the donkey.
The incredible vaccine to Terni via Configni and Stroncone is 27 kilometers, very tiring. There is a flow that must be traversed, with slimy stones under your toes. At midday on a burning day, in a path that was submerged between tall shrubs and thorns, near a place called Coppe, you might find a miracle lavatoio, two long stone tubs for washing clothes, full of dark water. If you find it, take off your socks and shoes, sit on the edge and drop your burning feet. A plaque on the wall beside him said that per dysgrazia fatale – through fatal misfortune – Virgilio Giusti died here in 1948, at the age of 18, under the interest of youth. The Italians love this sad memorial, flowers are always fresh at the point where the feet slip or get struck by lightning. There will be names, dates, a few words. They spin the sticky web of sentiment across the landscape, and remind you, as the whole trip should be, how lucky you are to live in a world where there is Italy, summer, and freedom.
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