Monday 11 February 2013

SABINA TRAVELOGUE PART 22 - APRIL 12 - Lions, Bats & Pocket Coffee in Monteleone Sabino

View of Casperia by courtesy of Pierluigi Pier Renzi

How are we ever going to be able to leave this place? It just seems that each day is more incredible than the one before, and we have had some amazing days here in the Sabina.

Today we woke up bright and early to meet Stefano and Nicoleta from Friends Caffe'. Both Stefano and Nicoleta are avid speliologists. 

Courtesy Stefano Aperio Bella
The walls of Friends Caffe' are covered with pictures of Stefano, Nicoleta, and others spelunking in claustrophobia-inducing bat-filled caves and exploring the wet and murky depths of recently discovered underground Roman aqueducts.

Some weeks back Stefano had asked us if we would be interested in going out to see a cave with them... How could we refuse? Of course, neither of us have had any experience, and there was proper gear: helmets, suits, and shoes to consider; but Stefano was keen to see our reaction to a tour itinerary he was thinking of promoting... If I remember correctly how he put it was, would we would being their 'crash test dummies'... Mamma Mia! 
Fountain outside Friends' Caffe in Casperia with the cupola of Sta. Maria in Assunta Church, courtesy Stefano Aperio Bella
Anyway, Stefano arranged for all the gear. 

Richard trying his helmet on for size

We met shortly after 8am on a bright sunny morning, packed ourselves into Stefano's car and drove with him and Nicoleta over what I think has to be the most beautifully scenic road in the Sabina...

Casperia, photo courtesy of Richard Rooney
 ...the road that skirts the rolling lower reaches of the Colli Sabini linking Casperia with Roccantica, Catino, Poggio Mirteto, Bocchignano, Castelnuovo di Farfa, and Frasso Sabino with our ultimate destination the ancient hill town of Monteleone Sabino. 

Salisano, courtesy of Giorgio Clementi
To our left and right perched higher on the olive studded hillsides were other spectacular hilltowns, Mompeo, Salisano, Toffia, and Casaprota. These Sabine jewels will have to wait for another visit...  But they are on top of my list for our next stay in the Sabina.

Toffia, courtesy of Giorgio Clementi
And I know when we visit them, we will make further spectacular discoveries beyond them as well. So much to discover and so little time!

Aerial view of Monteleone Sabino from Comune website
In little more than an hour we were in Monteleone... a town who's streets are so narrow that most foreign tourists driving through would hesitate trying to stop the car for a visit, but this little town is a real gem.

Monteleone was an important Roman centre known as Trebula Mutuesca . Before it was a Roman town, it was a Sabine settlement. The ruins in the area are so extensive that a lot of the town's medieval houses and other buildings contain marble spoglia recycled from the ruins of the old Roman town, especially around the front doors. 
There are quite a number of marble lions throughout the little town and these lion statues most likely gave the town its current name.

Of particular note are the nearby ruins of Trebula Mutuesca's Roman amphitheater which are exceedingly well preserved. 

Stefano and Nicoleta took us on a tour inside and underneath the amphitheatre.


Amici! Sempre nel mio cuore!

Opus reticulatum walls under the floor of the amphitheatre

Tunnels under the floor of the arena. From here wild animals would be released by trap doors into the arena.
La bella Nicoleta!

 We had a lot of fun exploring the ruins, taking pictures of the impressive opus reticulatum walls and disturbing a number of emerald coloured geckos or wall lizards which were sunning themselves in their hundreds in the ruins. 

Stefano showed us a number of wells and opening leading to the Roman aqueducts underneath the ruins of the amphitheatre. 

Stefano and Nicoleta show Richard the well hole into the underground aqueduct

Entryway into the aqueduct under the amphitheatre
Here and there you could still find rooms where the stone walls still had there plaster and there were large sections of floor that still have their tesserae mosaics intact. 

Mosaic tiles in the amphitheatre

The ruin truly is impressive. Richard and I were going, OMG, OMG, this is amazing, and it is... Trebula Mutuesca was so large and important a centre that it had its own facility for gladiatorial games...

This inscription contains the name of the Emperor Nerva, the 12th Roman Emperor

We were thanking Stefano and Nicoleta over and over, but they told us, wait, this is just the appetizer... The main course is coming later...
In Monteleone we stopped by the town's little alimentari...

Note the recycled Roman remains of Trebula Mutuesca around the door
 ...where a lovely lady made us panini with typical crispy hollow Roman buns called rosette...

Rosette, courtesy of

These she filled with prosciutto cotto and mozzarella. 

She also made us some sandwiches made from pizza bianca (people in other areas of Italy call this focaccia) and mortadella. We also bought some water.... Very important when you are hiking!

Grazie tanto! Arrivederci!

Armed with these supplies we continued our tour, first inspecting the towns centro storico...

Ma cos'e'?
Un insediamento Italo-Canadese?
 ...taking pictures of the fascinating Roman spoglie that adorned various buildings around the town square including a number of impressive stone lions.

We then hopped back in the car and drove out into the country to see the famous Santa Vittoria church.

Sadly, this was undergoing some restoration construction and we were not allowed to get a peak inside the Romanesque church with its famous crypt and Roman foundations. Oh well, next time... In the meantime...

We did, however, take a number of goofy photos inside the church grounds taking turns pretending we were severed heads laid out on top of the Roman columns used to fence off the church from the road. 

From there we made our way deeper into the countryside up a mountain road that got progressively more and more impossible for our gallant car to go over, no matter how slow or carefully Stefano drove. We parked the car and hiked up the road further up the mountain. 

As you can see, we got the lighter of the bags to carry.

The road alternated from cracked stone, to muddy gravel generously dotted with cow paddies the size of platters. Luckily most of them were big enough to avoid. Here and there we saw beautiful wildflowers among the scrub. 

Stefano also assured us that wild asparagus could be found on the forest floor. Wild asparagus? Richard was in seventh heaven.

We soon left the road to find the cave... La Grotta Grande di Monteleone...

A rest while Stefano explores the mountain to locate the mouth of La Grotta Grande
It took some time for Stefano to find the cave. Recent forestry activity had removed a lot of familiar landmarks. After some searching and finding some wild asparagus here and there Stefano finally found the cave entrance. 

Photo courtesy of Stefano Aperio Bella
We then tied up our bag of panini to a tree and changed into our gear. 

I sure hope I fit!!!
Stefano and Nicoleta carefully explained the use of the helmets and how our special flashlights worked.



We all had a couple of sips of water, then first Stefano, then Richard, then I followed by Nicoleta crawled into the narrow opening of the cave crawling like crabs...

 I wasn't afraid... I didn't know what's to expect but I have never experienced claustrophobia before so I felt quite relaxed and calm in the care of Stefano and Nicoleta, who were very experienced and enthusiastic cave explorers, and who knew this particular cave intimately. 

Wow! We are in!
As soon as we got through the narrow aperture the cave widened up into a number of stalactite and stalagmite-filled rooms. The cave was breathtaking... Mozzafiato!

We went from room to room, some with tall ceilings covered with stalactites, and others that were very low ceilinged that we had to crawl though on crablike sliding on our butts or on our hands and knees. 

The entire inside was dropping with water... The most delicious water that Richard immediately began to drink, right off the stalactites, to the delight of our hosts who as you can see took a lot of pictures... 

Stefano told Richard that the water in the cave had the same regenerative powers as the fabled Fountain of Youth... We will see... Nicoleta has suggested that Richard may wake up with a full head of hair... That will be interesting... I hope he doesn't wake up with a mullet!


Here and there among the dripping stalactites slept bats... some were quite tiny, but others were larger. We were able to get right up close to them and take pictures... 

Nicoleta, Richard, Stefano and I hanging out in Monteleone in Sabino - courtesy of Stefano Aperio Bella
At one point when Richard was drinking water from the ceiling and Stefano was taking his photo Stefano said for Richard to tilt his head a certain way and Richard almost ended up kissing a bat. 

Lots of people have adverse reactions to bats but seen up close, I thought they were really cute, it was amazing to see how they held on to the ceiling with their tiny feet. 

This show reminds me of a bat in a bugs bunny cartoon. His little feet are so cute!
As we got close to take pictures we could see their little bodies move as they breathed... some looked like they might fly but none did... Although we did see a bat flying in the cave later none seemed to be too bothered by us. 

Another interesting find in the cave were a number of large spines or animal quills. It turns out that the Istrice that Stefano and Nicoleta described is an Italian porcupine. They often take refuge in the cave. I thought our Canadian porcupines were big but these quills were over six inches long! I am glad we didn't meet any in the cave. : )

At one point we all sat down together and shut of four lights to experience the silence of the cave... It wasn't entirely silent... There was the gentle drip drip of the water as it fell around us and sometimes on is... Our friends, the bats, we're totally silent . It was a wonderful experience. ...and then Stefano made "a noise". Hahahahaha!

We were getting hungry so we reluctantly left the cave out into a world overcast skies. I tell you those panini and mortadella sandwiches were the most delicious things you could imagine. As I munched on the crusty bread and savoured the delicious ingredients inside I blessed the nonna in the Monteleone alimentari. 

At the end of the meal, Stefano produced dessert: Pocket Coffee! Essentially a pick-me-up espresso in a chocolate! Yum! 

Pocket Coffee is made by Ferrer, the same people who make Ferrer Rocher which is so popular, especially around Christmas time, in Canada. I wondered why we had never heard of them before... and resolved to buy as much as we could find to take back to Canada. 

Richard waiting for lunch... showing some mud from the cave...

Lunch was over but not our adventure. For the remaining two hours we had on the mountain Stefano and Nicoleta showed us how to rappel down the hillside.  

The gear...
The theory...
Cold feet?
"Don't worry, be happy!"

First Richard and then me. It was quite daunting at first but the calm, self-assured manner in which both Stefano and Nicoleta showed us how the various clips and the 8 ring worked with the ropes and that they had a way to stop us should we fall, we gained confidence and made a couple of short descents.  
The ropes...
The technique...
Over the edge... the angle is desceptive... you don't want to fall where he is

Final pointers from Nicoleta!
Me ne vo!

Stefano demonstrating angle, foot placement and technique. The cave mouth is below

Fai cosi'!
Richard's turn...
A slight misstep and Richard is swinging in the mouth of the cave

Another try with more confidence...
He did it!!!

Now my turn...

One last adjustment...

Safe and sound!
Unfortunately it started to rain and it was getting late. Nicoleta and Stefano had a full evening of work at Friends Caffe' waiting for them when they got home so we trekked down the hill back to the car and drove back to Casperia.

Storm clouds over Monteleone Sabino
What a day! What an adventure! As we drove down the road leading out of Monteleone I turned around and asked Richard, "Did you ever dream that you would be having a day like this when we were planning our trip to Italy?" The answer of course is no. It seems that every day we have been here in the Sabina that each day was full of wonderful surprises, interesting new places to see, wonderful friendly people, amazing scenery, and fabulous food. Every new day was another adventure.

Before we arrived in Casperia we dropped by Poggio Mirteto for a gelato. 

Poggio Mirteto's famous gelateria
We drove into the same beautiful piazza where many weeks before Richard and I were met by Alessandra Finiti and her father Luigi. While the gelato was being ordered I ran across the square to take a peak into the cathedral church opposite the store. 

It was beautiful inside... Creamy yellow gold... I walked back across the square and rejoined the group, had some amazing strawberry and chocolate gelato and we continued our journey.

Back in Casperia we flew up the stone steps to il Sogno where Candace was waiting for us. Then altogether we descended the steps and had dinner at Friends Caffe'. We first toasted the day with Negronis then had a wonderful meal, made all the more wonderful that we were able to talk about the days events with Stefano and Nicoleta and show Candace some of our pictures.

It truly was an amazing experience. I hope that others who follow us have a chance to visit Monteleone and its cave like we did. Over and above being truly fabulous human beings, Stefano and Nicoleta are excellent hosts and guides. ... And the bats are friendly too!

Tomorrow is our last full day in this amazing house and our second last full day in Casperia. What an amazing trip this has been.
Grazie Stefano! Grazie Nicoleta! Grazie a tutti gli pipistrelli! Grazie infinite!

Rain outside Friends Caffe' courtesy of Stefano aperio Bella
 Endnote: The photos used in this post were many, and came from a number of sources. Most of the pictures that showed Richard and I together or with Nicoleta were taken by Stefano Aperio Bella, and others of us with Stefano were taken by Nicoleta Stoichescu. So, over and above the truly unforgetable experience you two gave us, thank you Stefano and Nicoleta for the use of these pictures... But most of all, thank you for your precious friendship. You guys are amazing. Vi vogliamo bene!

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