Wednesday, 28 November 2012

SABINA TRAVELOGUE Part I - March 15 to 20 - And So It Begins...

Ciao Amici! Over the next while I will be posting exerpts from a travel journal I kept on Facebook during our holiday in the Sabina. I have always loved writing and have been interested in travel writing for a while now. So this journal was an attempt to relay some of the highlights of our trip to our family and friends in Canada during the trip, and to lock down some memories and impressions of our holiday for my writing later. I am so glad that Richard brought along his new IPad (Though at times I know he regretted it because he thought that doing all this writing got in the way of being in the moment and enjoying the holiday). 

Except for the correction of spelling mistakes (IPad has an annoying habit of autocorrecting words written in foreign languages into the closest word in English) these posts are more or less an unedited version of my travelogue. This first section focusses on our first few days in Europe, including the time we spent in Germany and Athens. Anyway, here goes...

Collage of Sabine Scenes by Giorgio Clementi
March 15
Casperia, Roccantica, Stimigliano, Cottanello, Montàsola, Poggio Mirteto, Monopoli, Bocchignano, Greccio, Santa Maria in Vescovio, Selci, Cantalupo, Catino, Poggio Catino, Farfa, Fara in Sabina, Toffia, Montebuono, Tarano, Rieti, Leonesse, Cittaducale, Fianello, Rocca Sinibalda, Castelnuovo di Farfa, Monteleone, Civita Castellana, Falerii Novi, Nazzano, Antrodoco... 

The place names of the Sabina just roll of the tongue, creating such poetry... The great thing is that each and every one of these small towns and villages are as beautiful as they sound. Take a look: (Photos of the Sabina by Giorgio Clementi).

March 16 
Safely arrived in Frankfurt-am-Main. We go a bit lost getting to our hotel, but we're saved by some nice guys from Munich. Friday night is crazy in Frankfurt, which--by night anyway--feels like the Vegas of Europe... We arrived so late at night, we ended up having Chinese for dinner washed down with a Biteburg beer. Time for bed. Gute nact!

March 17 

Had a great afternoon in Frankfurt... There is a flea market on the Main River, which was really fun to look at, though it is no Porta Portese. : ) On the recommendation of one of our hotel's staff we went to a restaurant called Adolf Wagner on Schweitser Straße, south of the Main River, and had an amazing traditional Frankfurter style "heavy-on-the-deep-fried-schnitzel" lunch with Apfelwein. Apfelwein is a tart apple cider, very different to the stuff we made and drink here in Canada. One of the pleasant discoveries of this stop in Frankfurt is Grüne Soße or Green Sauce, a traditional accompanyment to Schnitzel.  

This evening we went to an Austrian restaurant on the same street called Edelweiss. I had an amazing Farmers Salad and Chicken Cutlet, while Richard had Spinach Dumplings and some great Austrian white wine... 

We had a nice walk home along the river... We are packed for our early flight out to Athens, and then Rome, and then finally we will be in the glorious Sabina. can´t wait!!! If this message has anz ys or zs mixed up, it is because thez are reversed on the German kezboard, not because I had too much Apfelwein or Austrian wine!!! A domani!

March 18 
Today we got up at 5am in Frankfurt, took the train to the airport and flew to Athens... (I know a four hour stopover at an airport doesn't really count, but at least now I can say that I have been to Greece). Athens Airport is surprisingly small, but very nicely laid out with a wonderful mini museum on the upper floor that highlights some of the archeological finds that were unearthed when the airport was recently expanded.

While we were waiting in the departure lounge for our 6:15pm Lufthansa flight to Rome, Richard and I were practicing our Italian using this great textbook we found in a second hand bookstore in Vancouver. Overhearing our whispered fumbled phrases, two Italians who were waiting in the seats opposite to us, a man from Firenze and a woman from Napoli, started talking to us. It was a real hoot! Finally we were in our linguistic and cultural comfort zone. 

Roman Forum
Finally we were on an airplane to Rome. We were dead tired from jetlag, but so excited to be on our way to Italy. Our plane touched down on time at 7:25pm. Our arrival was a joyous blur. We navigated through the crowded airport to the train station and made it to the platform for the Orte line and the 8:28 train bound for Poggio Mirteto Scalo on time. 

The problem with how our (budget) itinerary was set up was that it had us arriving in Rome so late that the last train from Rome to the Sabina had no bus connection to Casperia. Though we have friends in Rome and love the city, we could not wait to get to the Sabina. There are no taxis for hire in the countryside. Ultimately our problem was solved through the kindness of another friend we had made on Facebook, Arianna Ceraola. Arianna is an intrepid local tour operator, tour guide, and hard working Sabina booster, originally from Toscana. When she found out our predicament a few weeks before our departure, she very kindly offered us a ride from Poggio Mirteto to Casperia...

Our crowded train rumbled out of the station toward Rome, and ultimately Poggio Mirteto Scalo, stopping at every station on the way: Parco Leonardo, Fiera di Roma, Ponte Galeria, Muratella, Magliana... The closer we got to Rome our excitement grew... Villa Bonelli, Roma Trastevere, Roma Ostiense, Roma Tuscolana, Roma Tibertina,  Roma Nomentana, Nuovo Salario... By the time we reached Fidene we were on the other side of the city heading towards the Sabina... Settebagni... By Monte Rotondo we were in the countryside, surrounded by rolling hills covered in magestic umbrella pines and a smattering of olive groves that grew thicker as we got closer to our destination... The train continued on to Pianabella di Montelibretti... Just two more stations and we would be there. We made a stop at Fara in Sabina, then with the Tiber flowing darkly on our left and the rolling Sabine Hills to our right, we arrived at Poggio Mirteto Scalo where Arianna awaited us with her van.

Map showing Poggio Mirteto Scalo in relation to Casperia

There is something about travelling any familiar road to a beloved and much missed destination. The thrill of anticipation makes the heart beat faster. It is about a 20 minute ride from Poggio Mirteto Scalo the road to Casperia—depending on who is driving. The Strada Regionale 313 climbs slowly up from the Tiber Valley, skimming around hills crowned with sage-coloured olive groves and picturesque stone hamlets. In the dark we could see the twinkling lights of Poggio Mirteto and Poggio Catino to the east. Rounding a curve the lights of a familiar hill town loomed above us, but it was not Casperia, but the town of Cantalupo, which some say was the first place in continental Europe where the Cantaloupe melon was cultivated after it was brought there from Armenia.

Cantalupo in autumn, courtesy of Filippo Simonetti
The SR313 took us up and and into Cantalupo. Then we veered northeast onto the Via Ternana, but even on the other side of Cantalupo Casperia was still hidden behind Montefiolo Hill. Every now and then, the lights of Roccantica could be seen to our right...

We were just a few minutes away... The road climbed higher, skirting the lower reaches of the Donduccio hill, then suddenly we were there. I suppose any time of the day is a good time to arrive, but at night, with all the lamps of the town lit up, Casperia looked particularly beautiful. 

Casperia, courtesy of Alessandra Finiti
We got out of the van, unloaded our bags and said our goodbyes and many a "Grazie infinite" to Arianna. A few minutes after Arianna drove off, we were met by Rosella Montirolli, who looks after Il Sogno while the Philips family is in America, and were guided up the familiar stone steps to where we received the keys to our Sabina home away from home for the next month...

The view of Via Mazzini from the front steps of Il Sogno
There is always a bottle of Sabina red wine waiting for people who arrive at Il Sogno. Since our last visit to Casperia three years ago, the Phillips have built beautiful garden terrace just outside the door. We took some glasses and the opened bottle out to the terrace and toasted the Phillips, our new friend Arianna, Il Sogno, Casperia, and our good fortune to finally be back in the Sabina.

First thing tomorrow we will go and have a coffee and a croissant at the Petrocchi Bar, then off to the alimentari for supplies... Now the adventure in the the Sabina begins!

March 19                           (Click on the video)

Richard! Svegliati! Caffè!!!!!!!!! So, we finally got up and set out to have breakfast and do some shopping... 

The steps to Il Sogno
Looking down Via Mazzini just as we are about to set out and do some shopping
We walked down the winding stone cobbled street past La Torretta B&B, past the piazza and the town hall, to Friends Caffè, which was closed (they open at 11:30) and proceeded out the Porta Romana gate to the alimentari and shopped... I mean SHOPPED! Our bill came to just 101 Euro... 

Two types of salami and prosciutto from the alimentari
For that we got two types of cheese, including our favourite local semi-ripened pecorino "Campagnolo" three types of salami and local prosciutto, two round and two regular zucchini, arugula, Swiss chard, bananas, tomatoes, blood oranges, cereal, yoghurt, two tins of Illy coffee (one decaf and one regular espresso), mixed olives, bella di cerignola olives, canned chickpeas, tuna in olive oil (4 tins), two types of dried pasta, arborio rice, great crusty bread, a bottle of gin, a bottle of Campari, and a bottle of red Martini Rossi... 

Interestingly enough the alimentari does not regularly carry the famous local Sabina olive oil!  Maybe this is because it belongs to the Conad chain. Massimo the owner, however, said he had some at home and would bring us a litre after 16:30 this afternoon... 

Maria at the fresh produce counter was especially sweet, even after Richard got in trouble for picking up the produce (here in Italy it is customary for the shopkeeper to choose your fruit for you... That sounds odd to North Americans perhaps, but that is the way it is done here... When in Rome, you do as the Romans do!) 

We are still a bit jet lagged but things are improving. The people are wonderful. As I said, Maria at the produce counter was very sweet, as was the young woman at the deli counter. We asked what the best prosciutto was and she recommended a dark looking slab of local product... She knew we had bread (same counter) so she said, this is best eaten on a slice of fresh hot toast... The heat of the toast melts the fat of the prosciutto... It's best that way... So we took her at her word and tried it when we got home... Verdict?  ; ) Yum! 

Traditional Italian breakfast at Petrocchi Bar - The coffee is delicious
Before heading up the hill with our bags we stopped at the Petrocchi Bar for a coffee and a pastry... I made the mistake of asking for a latte instead of a caffelatte and got a cup of steamed milk. The problem was solved with the addition of espresso. We sat and listened to some great pop music on the the video screen.

Richard, a bit jetlagged but very happy...
The air here is so clean... The birds are chirping (some that are familiar, most which are not) and some dogs are barking... Probably at being frustrated by seeing the town cats walking free like lords when they are kept on a leash.

I forgot to mention that in Frankfurt we heard some unfamiliar birds singing after dark.... Something we don't hear often in Canada unless it is a swift or a killdeer, but all of a sudden I put two and two together and realized that we were hearing were nightingales... I remember reading about them as a kid... They sound amazing. More soon. A presto!
Great blog on the Sabina
So here is the rest of our day... I finally got Richard to got out for a late lunch at Friends Caffè and go out for a long walk through the walled town and took a lot of pictures of house doors and the scenery and the many cats that greeted us. 
When we got to Friends, it was closed, so we continued our walk out the Porta Santa Maria gate where we gave ourselves an Italian lesson by reading a large involved sign that explained the history of Casperia Già Aspra, as they say.. I will explain later... 
The steps leading into Casperia from the Porta Santa Maria

Our Italian and Casperia History Lesson

I have to say, it may be that jetlag is lessening or we really are getting better at Italian. Richard especially is really picking up speed and confidence... Anyway, we proceeded north out of the town out the Porta Romana admiring people's gardens and looking at the various farm houses and properties along the road. 

We scouted out a pizzeria that is supposed to be good "under new management" and went further and further out into the country. Suddenly we turned and looked back and there was an amazing view of the walled town of Casperia in all its glory... 
We ended up going on a little circle route out into the country. There were some amazing farm houses—some were even for sale, here and there—surrounded by fields and olive orchards... 
The Sabina has been famous for its olive oil since ancient times... The famous ancient Greek physician Galen mentions in his writings that the olive oil of the Sabina was some of the best in the world—not only for its taste, but its medicinal properties... Anyway we had quite the time wandering around, taking pictures... 
We found an ancient brick bridge across a dry stream bed and a roadside fountain with fading medieval frescoes in a niche above it... 


There was no sign, no explanation—it was just part of the landscape... We made it back into town as the rain began to fall... We headed to the alimentari where we bought, white and red wine, some Mirteto and Limoncello, some bottled water, and some materials for watercolours. I hope Richard has time to paint here. We got everything up to the house and I made a plate of salumi, crostini with prosciutto, olives and a bit of cheese before we headed down to Friend's Caffè. 

We took the long way down, through a bit of a construction site... When we arrived at the door of Friends, Stefano the owner turned around and greeted us each by name with a kiss on each cheek and re-introduced us to Nicoleta  (who is originally from Roumania and has been working at Friends' for the past five years). We sat down outside, even though it was cool--we have one particular table that we like—and we ordered Negronis... We had had one each at the house before we left... : )

Out come the Negronis, which had to be six ounces of liquor, followed by a platter of assorted chips, crackers, pretzels, etc. all for the price of the Negronis. We asked for menus and both ordered the Stringozzi al Ragù.
Some of you will remember that Stringozzi is the local particular hand made pasta of the Sabina and some parts of Umbria. As Nicoleta promised, Stefano's Ragù was pretty amazing... 
With Stefano at Friends
Carried away by the moment, I ordered two grappas thinking "Canadian size", but no... Here again the servings were very generous. The world seemed quite a bit brighter (and at the same time a little fuzzier) after we finished the grappa. When we went to pay, we found out that the Negronis were on the house. What a warm welcome back to Friend's Caffè! As we headed out the door for home I blurted out to Stefano and Richard "Ma, rimangonno le scale!" "but the stairs are still there..."
Anyway we made it safely home. Thank you, Stefano and Nicoleta, for a wonderful evening. We look forward to many more happy visits to Friends Caffè.
March 20 
Happy Birthday to our friend Candace Crosson! We are waiting to celebrate with you here in the Sabina! Ti aspettiamo!

We woke up bright and early and I made a great frittata with fresh zucchini, delicious local pecorino Campagnolo cheese and some Swiss chard. We are finally getting the hang of making espresso on the stovetop. 

Vicolo Serpenti - For Clelia Angelelli
After breakfast we took a little walk through the winding streets and alleys of Casperia. We took pictures of a number of doors, cats, houses and the 1000 year old observation/defensive tower on the top of the hill on which Casperia perches. 

We found what looked like the remains of an old frantoia or olive oil mill in some rooms carved out of the rock of the hill... At least we found what we think looks like an old abandoned millstone.


We then went out the main gate of the town and walked by Annunziata Church to see the town cemetery which is on top of Donduccio Hill behind the church. 

It was very touching to see the various tributes to the various people buried there, young and old... 

I am not sure how old the cemetery is... There must be an older one nearby because most of the gravestones and monuments we saw were from the early 1900s onward. As we walked up the hill toward the cemetery we came upon this beautiful silver grey long haired female tabby who peered out at us with green eyes from among the scrub at the side of the road. 

Nicoleta's Maomao
We crouched down to greet her and she sauntered over and proceeded to rub herself all over our legs and hands… Such sweet kisses.

Oh what a drooler. She was beautiful, but I have never seen a cat drool like her before. : ) 

The view of Casperia from the road to the cemetery
On the way back we dropped into the alimentari and bought some more pecorino, some Parmigiano, yoghurt, more arugula, some apples and kiwis, some local butter from Rieti, another loaf of crusty light bread, some frozen white fish and some frozen peas. We were presented with more fruit boxes for kindling from the staff. Today we introduced ourselves properly to the young woman who staffs the deli counter, Letitia, and also met Irene and Luga. As we left Letittia handed us a small bag of olives as a gift. The people are very friendly here. We bought some postcards of Casperia at the small tabachi outside the town gate then headed up the dreaded stairs. Inside Casperia there are no level streets so if you walk around town it is like being on the stair master machine in a gym.

At Friends caffe' we saw Stefano and Nicoleta sitting outside and stopped to chat. We thanked them again for the Negronis we had last night, said our "ciaos" and headed home. Little did we know, but the beautiful grey tabby who greated us on the roas to the cemetery was Maomao, Nicoleta's adopted cat.

I just took a deep breath now as I paused. The air is fragrant with firewood. I can see the hilltop town of Montasola from where I sit. It is particularly beautiful at night when it is lit up.

For lunch I made a salad of arugula, chickpeas, tuna, pomodorini, fresh made croutons and shaved Parmesan drizzled with extra virgin D.O.P. Sabina olive oil and a bit of balsamic reduction. Richard carved off two slices of bread and drizzled them with some more of the D.O.P. Sabina olive oil and we took everything out to the small garden terrace the Phillips have built outside the front door. There are fragrant green and purple species irises growing in one part of the garden and lavender, rosemary and other herbs growing in another section. Beautiful orange bees buzzed in the irises, and little iridescent wall lizards
skittered across the warm rocks of the garden as we ate our salad munched our bread and sipped some delicious and very inexpensive Bigi Orvieto Classico in the sun. We have just finished the dishes. It is time for a nap. Ciao tutti! Alla prossima.

Facebook message from our friend Clelia later the same day…
Carissimo James, voglio esprimerti il mio particolare ringraziamento per come descrivi...ogni angolo ed ogni profumo di Casperia...e ogni tua parola e' un passo che faccio con te...rivivo tutti i miei scalini e i ricordi!!! Mi ha emozionato sapere che sei stato al cimitero dove e' sepolto mio padre e i miei nonni...e la nonna di cui porto il nome di cui soltanto io ho l'unica sua foto... mancata a soli vent'anni dopo aver messo alla luce mio padre...e a me fu dato questo nome che porto come un tesoro in uno scrigno....♥...oggi ho rivisto il servizio che fece la Rai su Casperia a Sereno Variabile il 3 dicembre 2011...e oltre alla passaggiata nel paese e la sua storia...hanno dato risalto ai gatti aspresi...che solo capisce quanto siano particolari nel girovagare in questi vicoli..silenziosi...e' vero la gente e' molto signora che scende le scale...ti saluta...e i portoni belli, artistici e le finestre socchiuse...e le campane che rintoccano dal campanile della Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista...e la sera quei vicoli...da bambini ci correvamo e il buio non ci metteva paura...perche' la luce dei lampioni anche loro molto dava la luce tenue...e ci tranquillizzava....Grazie e Buona Vacanza e mi raccomando ...presto le foto ♥

Another post from me, later that evening:
It is 7:45pm. I have just gotten back from a walk to the alimentari where I bought two bottles of Orvieto Classico secco, two bottles of the most amazing blood orange juice, and two large bottles of water. Like I explained earlier, the people at the alimentari are great. Letitia, bless her heart, told me about a service the alimentari has for people with heavy purchases. You go early Wednesday morning and buy what you want and they send it up to your house in the town by mini tractor. I told her that my legs were okay. : ) but I appreciated the gesture... : ) Can you believe it, the bill came to just over 11 Euros! That is something like 15 Canadian dollars... and the Orvieto Classico is superb at about 5 dollars a bottle. 

I wish there were better post cards in the Sabina! Note the card being sent to Japan in Japanese.

We had bought some post cards earlier so I stopped off at the Friends Caffè for a Negroni and wrote out ten while I enjoyed a scene that plays out every evening here in Casperia before sunset. People young and old gather in the small piazza by the little fountain beside the caffè to socialize, admire each other’s children, greet the nonni and nonne who climb the stone steps into the town, piano piano, and admire the view of Monte Sorrate as the sun sets in a golden glow over the Sabina hills.

Spectacular Sabine Sunset over Monte Soratte, courtesy of Alessandra Finiti

There is a strong sense of community in this town, something we experience a lot in our own little slice of Vancouver's East End, and maybe it is because Strathcona has strong Italian roots that we experience this today, but the feeling is palpably stronger here in a town whose identity and history are almost as old as the Sabina hills themselves. While I was writing my postcards Stefano and Nicoleta busied themselves planting new spring flowers and miniature roses in the pots around the caffè. I saw Franco, the affable owner of our favourite agriturismo GustoAl Borgo, who presided over some unforgettable meals we enjoyed three years ago on our last trip. He and his wife Paola have just moved in to a newly restored house in town. I told him we would see him for lunch at Easter and who knows... I am just glad we have the Asprese stair climbing machine to keep us in shape here between meals. I got home and Richard was playing a video we took at lunch earlier today. The resolution is amazing on his IPad. He showed me some photos of the trip so far and they are beautiful. Hopefully we can upload some over the next few days. Richard just called me out to the balcony to look at the night sky which is so beautifully clear tonight. Venus shines bright among the constellations whose lights are mirrored by the twinkling lights of the hill towns, farms and hamlets that surround Casperia.

I see a plate of cheese, olives, salami and bread with a bowl of Sabina D.O.P. extra virgin olive oil on the table... It is time to sign off and get ready for dinner. Richard has a Negroni and is brushing up on his Italiano. "Ora ho una casa nuova..." In the Sabina? Magari!

We just finished dinner. There is a little restaurant in the neighboring town of Montàsola called Quello Che C'è C'è which means “what there is there is” Basically there are only a few dishes served each days as specials. Anyway, we had some Swiss chard, some zucchini and onion and garlic so I sautéed it all together with some chopped prosciutto and added a tiny bit of porcini mushroom stock and tossed some cooked pasta in it and served it with some parmiggiano. It was pretty good. Richard and I are heading out for a stroll under the stars. Ciao tutti!


Campanile of San Giovanni Battista Church

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