Wednesday 9 October 2013


Castel Gandolfo and Lago Albano courtesy of Luca Deblu68
Last year, when we visited the Sabina, we stayed in Casperia for about a month... It was the most amazing time in my life for so many reasons. Every day was an adventure. Every winding country road we took during our day trips through the rolling olive studded hills of the Sabina led us to discover new amazing medieval towns, beautiful pastoral valleys filled with picture-book farms and fields with happy sheep. We were surrounded by the most breathtaking scenery I have seen outside Canada. 

But even more than the amazing history and the panoramic scenery and the breathtaking Negroni-coloured sunsets, it was the people that we met in the Sabina that truly made our holiday.

I have written extensively about our good fortune in meeting truly amazing people during our 2012 trip to the Sabina... If you have been following this blog, you know their names already: Clelia, Daniele, Alessandra, Arianna, Fiorenzo, Paola, Massimo, Giorgio, Andrea... And if you follow this blog you will be reading more about them soon... 

But this post focusses on two people in particular, our friends Stefano and Nicoleta who during our visit in 2012 took us under their wing and gave us an experience that truly changed our lives, an expereince we will never forget, a day trip to the Grotta Grande of Monteleone.

If you click on the link above, it will take you to the post I wrote about that adventure. In a nutshell, Stefano and Nicoleta are avid speleologists, or cavers. There are a huge number of caves, both natural and man-made in the area, and they wanted to take us to explore the inside of a bat-filled, stalactite-roofed cave in Monteleone. They first took us to explore the amazing ruins of the Roman amphitheatre in Trebula Mutuesca...

...before making a pitstop in the beautiful centro storico of Monteleone Sabino to buy prosciutto cotto and mortadella-filled panini for lunch.

Neither Richard nor I were prepared for our experience in the cave... I mean, this was really something outside of our usual experience... something we would not have actively sought out to do ourselves, but we are sure glad that we did when this rare opportunity presented itself.

I thought we would feel claustrophiobia, or at least that was what I was afraid of... but instead we were filled with wonder...

Later after we got out and had our panini lunch, when they proposed we try rappelling over the small cliff above the cave's mouth, we didn't blink an eye. Our knees may have shook with fear a bit... but we didn't blink an eye...

What an amazing bonding experience it was! When we arrived back in Casperia this year Nicoleta and Stefano made us promise to save every Wednesday, their weekly day off, for them... They wanted to take us out to some of their favourite haunts in the region. What can I say? Our first excursion together was such an extraordinary experience... this request was extremely easy to agree to...

On our first Mercoledì insieme Stefano and Nicoleta took us to visit the Castelli Romani.

These are a collection of picturesque towns perched on the rims of volcanic lakes to the southeast of Rome.

It is a region known for its wines, including the famous Frascati wines which local Romans and tourists alike love to drink in the trattorie on hot summer days. It is also the place where the Popes over the centuries have had their summer residences. Fifty five hectares of the town of Castel Gandolfo, an area eleven hectares larger than Vatican City, actually belongs to the Pope.

Stefano sets the GPS for the Castelli Romani as we depart Casperia... Hey! What are Richard's tap shoes doing on the dashboard?

As Stefano and Nicoleta feared, il tempo era un po' cattivo. The sky was a dull grey as we left Casperia and headed south, and it did not improve the entire day... I know Stefano and Nicoleta were disappointed... but we were just thrilled to be on a road trip with them.

Adults in front... kids in the back

It is not far from Casperia to the Castelli Romani, especially when you use the A1. Stefano explained to us the points of interest on the way. 

Did you know that if you greet a flock of sheep as you pass by in your car or riding your vespa or whatever, that it is supposed to bring you good fortune? Every time we saw a flock of sheep we would all break out into a chorus of "Ciao pecore! Ciao pecore! Ciao! Ciao! Ciao! And they would turn and look at us like this...

Ciao Pecore!

Yes, we were like a bunch of kids in the car... The two  worst behaving ones were in the back.Richard and Nicoleta chattered and joked with one another. Every now and then they would burst forth into another round of "Ciao pecore" and when there weren't any sheep to be seen they would break into the Italian version of "Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet." Stefano just laughed and rolled his eyes.

Arricia in the Castelli  Romani, courtesy of Conto Italiano
We passed by Ciampino with its airport. As we drove south into the Alban Hills it became apparent that the Castelli Romani was a prosperous area. Gone were the small farms and austere stony hill towns so familiar in the Sabina. Here there seemed to be villas everywhere. When we arrived in Arricia, our first destination, it was pretty socked in, but what we saw was impressive. Once one of the main cities of the ancient Latin League, Arricia at one time rivalled Rome during the days of the Republic. In the 1700s, Arricia was a popular stop between Rome and Naples for Europe's wealthy during the age of the Grand Tour. With its imposing setting and awe inspiring skyline it was also a popular subject for visiting artists. Even with the town shrowded in the mist and rain I could understand why.

Arricia Sunset by Joseph Mallord William Turner
Today, among other things, Arricia is famous for its Porchetta, Italy's greatest gift to pork lovers... There is nothing like the flavour, juicy texture, and herby aroma of fresh sliced roasted porchetta.  
Porchetta courtesy of Alessio Damato via Wikipedia

Anyone who has visited our house in Vancouver knows that our cat Smokey goes crazy every time we cook pork tenderloin or port sausages or eat bacon. The smell of pork for Smokey is more powerful than the most potent catnip...
Smokey waiting for some pork during one of our regular Stringozzi nights.

I think that if there was ever an Italian "kitty heaven" for Smokey, Arricia, with all its succulent porchetta, would be it. 

Our lunchtime destination was a family-run restaurant called Osteria Dar Compare. Stefano and Nicoleta have been there a number of times... This is one of their favourite restaurants... I could feel their excitement as we drew nearer. I was getting excited too. They had described the porchetta and a number of other menu items in glowing terms, and truth be told, I was pretty hungry. Finally we had arrived. Across the street, nestled in among a number of other fraschette as the local tipical restaurants are called, was our destination.

Shot of the entrance of Osteria Dar Compare on Google Maps... It was not as sunny on the day we were there.

As we were parking the car, the rain began to really pour. But who cared? It was lunch time. We all jumped out of the car and ran across Via Borgo San Rocco to the  entrance of the restaurant.

The first sight to greet our eyes was an amazing display case full of cheeses, salamis, olives and other antipasti and roasted vegetables preserved in oil and vinegar. 


The owners recognized Stefano and Nicoleta and greeted them warmly, guiding us to one of the long tables ranged along the wall.

I don't remember Stefano or Nicoleta really ordering anything, other than a delicious platter of pasta... The food, mostly a huge variety of antipasti, and wine seemed to appear almost automatically, like magic.

Olives, cheeses, prosciutto, little liver sausages, chewy spicy air dried coppiette, bufala mozzarella, marinated zucchini slices and artichokes, delicious bread...

But the star of the show was of course the porchetta which was served not on plates, but on pieces of butcher paper. I must confess, we were so hungry and focussed on eating the porchetta that we forgot to take a proper picture of it until it was more than half eaten.

Oh well. You will just have to trust me...  Of course we had some wonderful local wine... 

Italians aren't prissy about their wine pairings... Although some wines will be traditionally be served with certain foods, in general we have found that red wine is consumed during the cold season, and cooled white wines prevail in the hot summer. 

It was a cold, rainy day in the Castelli Romani, so we were poured some red which we drank in stemless bistro-style glasses.

Cin Cin!

Stefano and Nicoleta introducted us to a delicious sparkling red, typical of the region called Romanella. Wow! After all the antipasti and porchetta I couldn't believe that Stefano would have room for pasta... but he did.

Wow! What a meal! At the end of it all came out a tray of digestivi: Limoncello, Nocello, and Grappa, with some delicious ciambelline.

It was a  perfect end to a perfect lunch spent great friends! But our day wasn't finished yet. We stood up to bid our farewells to the owners of the restaurant... As we were leaving, they presented Richard and I with a souvenir... one of the restaurant plates with "Dar Compare" written on it.

Happy and very full, we made our way through the drizzle across the street to Stefano's car. Before heading back north to the Sabina, Stefano took us on a tour through some of the towns. At the heart of the Castelli Romani are two circular volcanic lakes: Lago Albano and Lago di Nemi. We drove south through the town of Genzano Di Roma which perches on the cliffs along the edge of Lago di Nemi. Genzano is another town with ancient roots. There are a number of significant archeological remains in the area from the time when wealthy Romans built their summer villas there. One of the Roman Emperors, Antoninus Pius (reigned 138-161 A.D.), the builder of the Antonine Wall in Scotland, was born in one of those villas.

From Genzano, we turned north and headed to the beautiful town of Nemi. It was raining so much we didn't bother to take our cameras out. We were blissed out from the amazing and just savouring our time with our friends. But Nemi even in the rain and low clouds was indeed beautiful. 

Panorama of Nemi by Renato Clementi via Wikipedia
If Arriccia is famous for Porchetta, Nemi is famous for its delicious fragoline, or wild strawberries. 

Nemi strawberries by Stephen Sommerhalter via Wikipedia
We parked the car and ran through the rain to a small little restaurant with a beautiful wood fire blazing inside called
Lo Specchio di Diana

Lo Specchio di Diana means Diana's Mirror. The cult of the Goddess Diana, the goddess of the moon and the hunt, was centred in the Alban hills in ancient times. I assume that the name is a reference to the lake. The restaurant is on the main floor and there is an inn above the restuarant in the upper storeys.

We were a bit damp and cold from the rain so we sat down by the crackling fire and it was here that Stefano and Nicoleta ordered out dessert: wild strawberries in cream!

Nemi has some interesting history too. Like most of the Castelli Romani, its roots go back to ancient times... Like nearby Genzano there are a number of archeological features in the area.  During the renaissance two ancient Roman ships were discovered at the bottom of the lake. This is how Wikipedia tells it:

Caligula built several very large and costly luxury barges for use on the lake. One ship was a shrine dedicated to ceremonies for the Egyptian Isis cult or the cult of Diana Nemorensis, designed to be towed, and the other was a pleasure boat with buildings on it. After Caligula's overthrow, the boats were scuttled.

The ships were rediscovered during the Renaissance, when architect Leon Battista Alberti is reported to have attempted to raise the ships by roping them to buoyant barrels. While ingenious, this method proved unsuccessful, because of extensive rotting.

The boats were finally salvaged from 1929 to 1932 under orders of Benito Mussolini. This was just one of many attempts to relate himself to the Roman Emperors of the past. The ships were exposed by lowering the lake level using underground canals that were dug by the ancient Romans. The excavation was led by Guido Ucelli and was reported in Le Nave di Nemi by Guido Ucelli (Rome, 1950). They were destroyed by fire on 31 May 1944, it is disputed whether this was done by defeated German forces retreating from Italy at the end of World War II or accidentally by squatters taking refuge in the museum building. Surviving remnants from the excavations as well as replicas are now displayed in the Museo Nazionale Romano at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. The ship hulls survive today at Museo delle Navi Romane, Nemi.

Dessert and coffee finished, we reluctantly went out into the wet once more and got back into the car. This was a very different day than the one we spent with Nicoletta and Stefano visiting the Grotta Grande di Monteleone Sabino the year before. But what a wonderful adventure.We drove back to the Sabina in the growing dark, happy and full, not only from the great food, but of some amazing memories. Grazie, amici miei! I couldn't wait to discover what our next Wednesday adventure together would be.

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