Monday 26 November 2012

A LITTLE ABOUT CASPERIA (formerly Aspra) Our First Window onto the Sabina

As I mentioned earlier, how we found Casperia and the Sabina was by sheer fluke. In preparation for our second trip to Italy, in 2009, we had been looking for a place to stay in a hilltop town in a rural setting outside of Rome… someplace that was close enough to Rome that we could do day trips into the city by bus/train combination or car, but also far enough from the beaten tourist track that we would be immersed in real Italian life and culture. I cannot even find the website now where I found that first picture of Casperia and the Sabina. Perhaps it no longer exists, but I will be forever grateful we found it. 

Casperia, courtesy of Giorgio Clementi
There was something about that first photo of Casperia that convinced us that the Sabina would be the right place for us. And then, when we found the website for Il Sogno, everything just fell into place. It was like fate.   

Casperia from
Casperia is in many ways like all the other hilltowns in the Sabina that had their origin in the incastellamento or encastlement of the region brought on by the Saracen incursions into Lazio in the 9th century. Rural communities that had once flourished in the rich agricultural lands of the Tiber valley were forced to relocate to higher, defendable land to protect themselves from the Saracen raids. 

Aerial photo of Casperia through the kind permission of the photographer, Ugo Colalelli
Though the incastellamento forced the people of the Tiber Valley to the tops of the hills and the sides of valleys, differences in the topography, locally available building materials, the relative power of each town's ruling family, lord or abbot, and the vagaries of history give each of Sabina's hilltop towns its own look, feel, layout... and its own charm. 

During our past two visits to the Sabina, we were struck by just how different each one of these towns and villages are. Each one is its very own adventure. If you are lucky enough to have the time to spend exploring the region, you will be amply rewarded for your efforts.

Winding Casperia Street, courtesy of Alessandra Finiti

Casperia is a town of basalt-cobbled streets winding up and down interlaced with twisting alleys. It is a fascinating cross between a 1100 year-old stone snakes and ladders board and a 3D Escher painting . The Centro Storico is off limits to car traffic. The Banca Etruria with its all important Euro-dispensing ATM, the friendly little gas station, the bustling Petrocchi Bar where you buy your morning caffè and cornetto and your BIRG tickets for the bus and train, the lovely little bakery, the post office, the news stand where you buy your post cards, the macelleria and Massimo and Irene's Conad alimentari where you buy everything from your prosciutto, cheese and bread, olives, blood orange juice, wine and prosecco, fresh fruit and vegetables, not to mention your bottled water (frizzante o liscia), is a 200-step climb away from the house we rented near the top of the hill. Grocery shopping, and you do it every day in Casperia, is like a daily trip to the gym.

Though the medieval town has a history that stretches back to the 900s, its current official name dates from 1947. The historic name of the village was Aspra Sabina. There are a number of conflicting theories about the origin of the name. Aspra means harshness, and the name is thought by some to reflect the rocky ruggedness of the defensive position the town was built on. Another theory is that the name derives from a local noble family, the Asproni, who once held sway here.

Remains of a Roman Wall in Paranzano, just south of Casperia proper

The remains of two sizable Roman villas and aqueducts in the nearby frazioni (villages) of Paranzano and Santa Maria in Legarano attest to the fact that the region around Aspra  supported a flourishing agricultural economy. One of these villas in Paranzano is reputed to have belonged to Marcus Antonius Pallas, the powerful freedman of Antonia Minor, the daughter of Mark Anthony and the mother of Emperor Claudius. The name Paranzano apparently derives from Pallantianum, a reference to the land and the villa owned by Pallas.  Marcus Antonius Pallas figures prominently in Robert Graves novel I Claudius and the TV series that grew out of it.

Bernard Hepton in the role of  M. A. Pallas in I, Claudius

Several significant archeological artifacts and cultural treasures were unearthed in the villa sites. Sadly, the two magnificent marble nymphs unearthed in Paranzano in 1871 were carted out of the Sabina and sold off to foreign owners. Today, one is housed in the Museum of Art and History in Geneva, while the other is on display in the Carlsberg Museum in Copenhagen.

Images from "La romanizzazione della Sabina tiberina" by Mara Sternini

Here is a better picture of the nymphe housed in the Museum of Art and History in Geneva. What a sad loss of Sabine regional cultural heritage!

As if this amazing Roman pedigree was not enough, there are those who claimed that Aspra's history stretches back even furthur to an ancient Sabine settlement called Casperia which is mentioned in Virgil's Aeneid. Despite the fact that underground Sabine aquaducts dating from the 5th and 4th century BC have been discovered in the immediate area, there is no objective evidence to support the theory that modern day Casperia has any connection to the ancient Sabine city.

1874 etching of Aspra by Lorenzo Capanna
Whatever its origins, Aspra became a free comume in 1189 and during the 13th and 14th centuries, it was one of the most powerful towns in the Sabina. There are two sets of town walls, the oldest nearer the top of the hill are now largely invisible, having been incorporated into a number of buildings. The current outside walls date from 1282 and are pierced by two gates, the Porta Romana, closest to the modern car park, the bank and all the other local amenities mentioned earlier, and the Porta Santa Maria or Porta Reatina, which leads to the road to Rieti. 

Porta Sta. Maria (Porta Rieti) courtesy of Giorgio Clementi
There is an interesting clock above this later gate which was designed to tell the time according to the canonical hours.

At the town's highest point is a lovely piazza overlooked by the venerable San Giovanni Battista Church with its stately Romanesque bell tower. 

Piazza beside San Giovanni Battista Church, courtesy of Giorgio Clementi
Part of the reason that Casperia and the Sabina are little known outside Italy is that for a long period of time the region was part of the Patrimony of St. Peter, the Papal States. While independent city states like Sienna, Florence, Venice and Genoa established high profiles before and during the Renaissance, The Sabina languished in relative obscurity. 

There are a number of interesting stories about the town during WWII but I am going to save these for a later posting.

Manhole Cover from 1885, courtesy of Giorgio Clementi
Aspra was renamed Casperia in 1947. This was partially out of a desire by the town council to give prestige to their borgo through its association with the Virgilian epic, but more importantly the change came about in order to avoid confusion with another Aspra in Italy, this one in Sicily. 

Today, Casperia is home to about 1200 inhabitants. Its pristine rustic rural setting and spectacular medieval streetscapes, combined with a proud history, culture and Sabine identity, not to mention a good number of cultural festivals and close proximity to other Sabine attractions, make it an unforgettable vacation destination. 

The View from Il Sogno's Master Bedroom with Montasola in the distance

In 2004, the Italian Touring Club awarded Casperia the prestigious Bandiera Arancione (Orange Flag), their seal of approval for environmental tourism, in recognition of the authenticity and preservation of Casperia's historic centre. I feel the award is very well deserved.

Many people have fallen under the spell of Casperia and the Sabina. Slowly, more and more people are posting pictures and videos of the region on the Internet. Here are a few links you might find interesting:

Casperia's Sky by film documentarian Nicola Moruzzi

Photos of Casperia by renowned photographer Giorgio Clementi

Casperia tra mito e realtà - A Video highlighting the scenery and visual highlights of Casperia

"Sereno variabile" in Sabina - A RAI 2 mini documentary on Casperia and Cottanello.

Gnam - Casperia - A delightful video showing local kids learning how to make Stringozzi

Rhodes Across Italy - Casperia - UK celebrity chef learns how to make Stringozzi at La Torretta B&B 

Sagra dei Stringozzi 2009 


·     Sabina Segreta Vol 1 Castelli & Rocche Nell’Italia del Medioevo

·     Il Mio Lazio/Casperia

·     Casperia Comune Website

Where to Eat:

Gusto al Borgo courtesy of Franco Angelelli
Gusto al borgo
Agriturismo/Cooking School
via Massari, 34

Fattoria Mercuri
Agriturismo (Reservations necessary)
via S. Pietro, 14

Osteria Vigna
Ristorante/Wine Bar (and your base for some fascinating olive oil tastings and tours by Casperia's own Johnny Madge) 

Piazza Umberto I
+39 0765 1893267

Ristorante Pizzeria L'Asprese  
Via Guglielmo Marconi 81/B

Il Terebinto Agriturismo
Via Roma, 93 (Paranzano)

Where to Drink:

Al Solito Posto (only open evenings Thursday to Sunday)
Piazza del Municipio, 2

Bar Petrocchi (Closed Wednesdays)
piazzale Oddo Valeriani

Bar S. Maria
S.P. 48 (S. Maria in Legarano)

Osteria Vigna
Wine Bar/Ristorante

Piazza Umberto I
+39 0765 1893267

Sabine Sunset courtesy of Stefano Aperio Bella



  1. lovely introduction to the town... Im friends with Chris P and Maureen and Roberto...nice to have you on board.

  2. Thanks Mary Jane,

    Sabina: A Stunning Land - My Secret Italy has over 2800 views now in 45 countries around the world. We will be visiting Tuscania on your side of the Tiber on March 10th. Can't wait to see the Etruscan side of the Tiber.

  3. Just discovered your blog- we spent a week at Il Sogno last year and like you fell in love with the Sabina and Casperia. Don't tell too many people!

  4. dear James, just found you blog when looking for some info about Casperia...
    the father of my son's anchestors have come from casperia, shown by their family name Savini! i only visited twice. infortunately he has sold his beautiful 3 floor apartment house with a splendid view over the plain. it had been build to his great grand grand parents in 1800. thank you for the informative introduction to this little gem of medival town. greetings from bali/indonesia. april