The spigot fills my mug with warm, cloudy water and I take my place among the smiling, retirement-age Italians. We sit quietly, in leaf-dappled sunshine, reading newspapers or gazing at the distant hills. To the outside observer, we must look like a colony of convalescents. As our mugs rise again and again to our eager mouths, I fear we look vaguely like some sort of cult. We’re all here to worship this special, strongly mineral-smelling water. Its previous devotees included Michelangelo, who swore it cured his gallstones. Various kings of Italy came here to sup it too, and modern doctors insist it lowers blood pressure. Who knows whether they’re right or wrong? I’m not yet old enough to be worried about gallstones or blood pressure, but I can’t deny a growing feeling of wellbeing as I rest here in the sun sipping tepid springwater and looking forward to a massage at one of the plush local spas.
I’m in Fiuggi, in southern Lazio, on a mission to get to grips with one of Italy’s few remaining ‘undiscovered’ areas: Ciociaria. ‘Cho-cha-REE-a.’ No, I hadn’t heard of it either before coming here. Beginning about thirty miles east of Rome, and spreading southeast for fifty miles with its back against the border of Abruzzo, Ciociaria is a land of green, gumdrop-shaped hills, fertile valleys and high forested mountains. Clean and unspoilt, with huge vistas round every bend in the road, it nonetheless has thriving small towns and an enterprising population. It wasn’t always the case. Less than a hundred years ago, Ciociaria was a byword for economic migration, with the locals leaving in droves. When D.H. Lawrence passed through the area in 1919, he described it as “staggeringly primitive”.
But now the young people of Ciociaria are staying put – creating small businesses, encouraging tourism, bringing local wine and foodstuffs up to gourmet standards. Meanwhile, the previous generations who went abroad to make their fortunes have come back to retire in Ciociaria, and built lovely country villas with their wealth. There are very few tumbledown homes in this vast landscape, very little that is untidy or unkempt. Mercifully underdeveloped, but not impoverished, Ciociaria now enjoys the best of both worlds.
Geographically, Ciociaria often resembles Umbria – its pleasingly-shaped hills backed by much steeper, softly-rounded mountains and fronted by immensely fertile valley-floors. Like Umbria too it is unrelentingly green and wooded – olive trees bristling across grassy arcs of hillside, dark conifers and shaggy deciduous trees cloaking the slopes of mountains. With its fresh and relatively cool summer air, Ciociaria has long provided stressed workers from Rome with a respite from the capital’s heat. But to visitors from beyond Italy, the area is almost entirely unknown. Only two places in Ciociaria have ever seen significant numbers of foreign visitors – Fiuggi, whose mineral-rich waters put it firmly on Europe’s fin-de-siècle spa-trail, and Montecassino, whose mighty hilltop monastery was a regular sightseeing stop between Rome and Naples for young gentlemen doing the Grand Tour.
I decided to see what lay between these two relatively well-known places at either end of Ciociaria. The plan was to spend three days meandering from Fiuggi to Montecassino. I’d be starting out forty miles from Rome and ending up fifty miles from Naples. Leaving the contented streets of Fiuggi, I begin my exploration by driving a dozen miles south to Ferentino – a little town perched on a tall knoll. People have lived here for 3,000 years, and it’s a mini history-lesson just looking up at the high walls that gird the town. Giant, irregularly-shaped Cyclopean blocks from the 8th century B.C. climb upwards and meet smaller blocks 700 years younger – some with Roman inscriptions. On top of these, later stones, and medieval townhouses sprouting flush from the edge of the steep, cliff-like walls. I wander the handsome, deserted streets, noting an old Roman marketplace in a neat cave, and a medieval townhouse with a scavenged Roman lintel above its doorway.
Full of thoughts of stone and millennia, I drive eight miles northwest to Anagni, bright in midday sunshine. But the town’s real illumination lies indoors, in the cathedral’s Crypt of San Magno, dubbed the ‘Sistine Chapel of the Middle Ages’. Every inch of wall and vaulted ceiling is covered in dazzling Byzantine-style frescos from the 12th and 13th centuries. The faces of the angels, saints, and townspeople burst with life and personality. Biblical stories resemble brightly-coloured comic strips. And a bright Cosmati pavement swirls underfoot. You hardly know where to look – there’s a feast for the eyes in every direction.
Back outside in the sun, I admire the cathedral’s elegant asymmetric exterior and stroll around Anagni among the cheerful locals. Again, Ciociaria puts me in mind of Umbria. The pale cobbled lanes, the delicate churches built in whitish-grey stone, the immense vistas of landscape from public ‘belvedere’ terraces. It’s an impression that’s only reinforced when I carry on to little Fumone a few miles away. A clutch of quiet lanes built around a castle, with mighty views all the way into Abruzzo, Fumone makes me think of a more rustic version of Montefalco – the tiny Umbrian town with the big, big vistas.
The next day I drive up through steep, untameable mountainscapes to the large and impressive Charterhouse of Tresulti – a 13th-century monastery with all the remote seclusion a monk could want. Ironically, for a place which would traditionally have banned women, there’s a wedding party here when I arrive. Young Italian ladies glittering in Oscars-style finery totter around the place in a state of haughty excitement, while the resident monks glare at me in my scandalous shorts. I quietly explore the fine church with its highly ornate altar and Baroque frescoed ceiling, then the intriguing ‘pharmacy’ where monks used to blend their herbal remedies, and the lovely garden festooned with topiary shaped like coils of whipped cream.
I travel onward to the near-centre of Ciociaria, Veroli – a truly charming and friendly hilltown full of gentle dogs basking in sunny piazzas and happy Verolesi sitting at café tables. There’s a fine couple of churches, and a historic Roman calendar set in stone on a wall off a main street, but for me the best of Veroli lies in its tidy domestic lanes, its little public squares, and its phenomenal views across the green and fertile landscape below. This is definitely a place you could imagine yourself living in, and it doesn’t surprise me much to learn that the British have already started trickling in. A handful of foreigners – all English – have bought homes in or near Veroli over the last decade or so. Still, how on earth did these Brits hear about Ciociaria in the first place?
From Veroli I drive 14 miles east to Cicero’s childhood home, Arpino – now a handsome medieval town pitched on a ridge in the landscape. As in so many once-Roman settlements, Arpino’s modern central piazza occupies the original space of the town’s ancient forum, and the biggest church sits where the main pagan temple used to. An excavated stretch of large Roman cobblestones running alongside the piazza drives the point home. I admire the doughty, fruit-coloured buildings climbing up from the piazza, and drive up to the ancient apex of the town – the acropolis. Taking the form of a grassy hilltop meadow strewn with crumbling bits of fortification, Arpino’s acropolis reveals there was life here long before the Romans. Cyclopean walls and an unusual Mycenaean-style pointed-arch gateway attest to settlers centuries before Roman civilization began. From this historic vantage point, the view is breathtaking – little Arpino unfurling its maze of terra cotta rooftops on the olive-skirted ridge below, and all of Ciociaria’s wild green landscape spreading beyond it.
The next day I head deep into southern Ciociaria – if anything, wilder and more remote than the north. I drive into the strangely cosy Camino Valley – all soft green undulations and tiny villages. Picking one at random, Picinisco, I find a very well-kept hamlet with white cobbled lanes and a friendly central terrace offering wonderful views. Elegant villas on the outskirts reveal that many locals went away to make their fortune before coming home. I meet a sprightly 85-year-old local man who worked as an haute-couture dressmaker in London for 40 years, and hear that many others in the village used to work in Scotland. I smile to think of the long, ongoing love affair between the British and the Italians – the mutual fascination that draws us to their homeland and them to ours. In the wilds near Picinisco, D.H. Lawrence spent a winter writing a lesser-known novel, The Lost Girl – having sought out a remote nowhere-land to inspire his writing. I go along to visit the snug little house he had stayed in, now a museum.
Outside, a trio of musicians in folk costume are playing giddy tunes on strange instruments – a fleece-covered set of bagpipes, a dainty accordion, and a recorder-like pipe. The music style veers from Baltic to Alpine, and is intoxicating. Equally mesmerising are the trio’s footwear – bizarre leather sandals with pointy curled-up toe-tips and miles of leather straps wrapped tightly round the ankles. The traditional footwear of the area, they’re called ‘ciocie’ – and they gave Ciociaria its name. To the Romans who christened it, this was ‘The Land of the Strange Sandals’. Having seen the sandals, and therefore somehow touched the very heart of Ciociaria, I feel my journey of discovery is nearly over. There’s only one place left to go – 15 miles south to Montecassino.
And I can see why the Grand Tourists had to stop here. A huge white slab of architecture dominating a high hilltop overlooking a broad valley, how could anyone miss it? Unfortunately, the monastery’s conspicuous size and significance has often brought it trouble. Enemies of Christianity or of Italy, plus one mighty earthquake, have variously destroyed the place no fewer than five times over the last fifteen centuries. Completely rebuilt now, it’s an inspiring place to wander and to gaze out across the enormous Ciociarian landscape below. Standing facing the general direction of Fiuggi, I take a deep breath of fresh mountain air and consider what an enlightening few days I’ve had exploring this beguiling and little-known stretch of Italy.
for tours of Ciociaria, contact: www.ciociariatour.com
GRAND HOTEL PALAZZO DELLA FONTE
Via dei Villini 7, Fiuggi
+39 0775 5081
Perhaps the best hotel in all of Ciociaria, this sumptuous Art Nouveau beauty has large and extremely tasteful rooms. Ringed by private gardens and festooned with terraces, it also boasts an absolutely top-notch spa. Charles Forte himself, a native of Ciociaria, bought and restored the place. Service is super-efficient. A class act.
Double room from €220
HOTEL FONTANA OLENTE
Via Casilina, Ferentino
+39 0775 24181
Situated next door to the Terme Pompeo, a health-spa complex with every facility including sulphuric inhalation rooms, this smart modern hotel offers very quiet and comfortable accommodation. On site, there are shops, a bank, and other services. There’s also an excellent adjacent restaurant, ‘Le Antiche Vasche’.
Double room from €110
HOTEL ANTICO PALAZZO FILONARDI
Piazza dei Franconi 1, Veroli
+39 0775 235296
Just round the corner from Veroli’s duomo, this beautifully restored and converted former convent is a restful and quietly elegant place to stay. Unusually for a hotel, it maintains a fully consecrated church within its walls. There’s a vaulted lounge, two dining rooms – one decorated with angels – and an internal courtyard for taking lunch or dinner in the open air.
Double room from €72
HOTEL IL CAVALIERE D’ARPINO
Via Vittoria Colonna, Arpino
+39 0776 849348
In the old centre of Arpino, this elaborately decorated hotel occupies a 16th-century woollen mill. The rooms are decked out with antique charm, the windows festooned with swags and tails. There are two dining rooms, one with a giant mural, the other with a vaulted ceiling and abundant flowers. There’s also a lovely jungly garden outside.
Double room from €60
HOTEL VILLA GRANCASSA
Via Roma 8, San Donato Val di Comino
+39 0776 508915
Set in the centre of an attractive medieval village tumbling down a steep hillside in the remote Comino Valley, this rather aristocratic hotel was converted from a private mansion built in the 19th century. The village of San Donato is well-positioned for the Abruzzo National Park, and half an hour from a ski resort.
Double from €80
CASALE VERDE LUNA
Località Civitella, Piglio
+39 0775 503051
In a restored stone farmhouse completely ringed by vineyards and offering beautiful views of nearby mountains, this top-notch restaurant serves delicious, creative dishes fashioned from locally-grown ingredients. The antipasti are especially dazzling. Be sure to sample the excellent DOC wine made on the premises, ‘Cesanese di Piglio’.
Meal for two about €70
LA TAVERNA DEL BARONE
Via del Ponte 4/6, Fumone
+39 0775 49655
This novelty restaurant – originally a medieval tavern – occupies two large, cave-like rooms with candles hung on the walls. Staff wear period costume and there are often interludes of live music – whirring medieval dulcimers and honking bagpipes. The food is hearty and traditional, with especially succulent, enormous roast turkey legs.
Meal for two about €40
Via Pietro Nenni 96, Località Carnello, Arpino
+39 0776 869140
Set beside a sinuous little river, this lovely family-run restaurant serves stupendous freshwater fish – a change from Ciociaria’s more usual meat dishes. The menu is long and interesting, and the wine cellar is world-class, with the very best of Italy available for remarkably reasonable cost. There’s a huge pretty mural indoors and a charming garden outside.
Meal for two about €65
FARM PACITTI AT CASA LAWRENCE
Via Serre 61-62, Picinisco
+39 0776 688183
Only open weekend lunchtimes
This family-run farm, next door to the house-cum-museum where D.H. Lawrence lived for several months in 1919, serves wonderful homemade food in large rooms with the atmosphere of a welcoming country kitchen. The owners make delectable cheeses from semi-wild sheep and goats, and also serve excellent pasta, melt-in-the-mouth lamb, and superb homemade cakes and liqueurs.
Meal for two about €50
LE CANNARDIZIE – ASSOCIAZIONE CULTURALE ENOGASTRONOMICA
Piazza Garibaldi, Atina
+39 340 142 4611
About as historically authentic a restaurant as you could hope to find, Le Cannardizie remains fiercely loyal to the gastronomic traditions of southern Lazio. The extensive menu includes a wide range of cheeses, cold cuts, pasta, risotto, meats and desserts. Dining is in several rooms – one with a little museum of wine and aperitifs – or on a terrace with lovely views of the Comino Valley.
Meal for two about €60
+39 0775 5451
Fiuggi’s thermal springwaters have a variety of benefits – the basic water has been proven in laboratory tests to break up kidney stones, and the sulphuric water allegedly helps with respiratory problems. You can inexpensively sip the stuff in a variety of relaxing, leafy locations round Fiuggi, visit a sulphuric inhalation centre, or choose from a range of massage-based therapies.
FIUGGI GOLF COURSE
+39 0775 515250
Founded in 1928, Fiuggi’s golf course is one of Italy’s oldest. Extended not long ago, it now includes a full 18 holes across six kilometres. The setting is wonderfully panoramic, with green hills and mountains always in the background. Many important tournaments have been played here, but beginners are always welcome and lessons are available.
CRYPT OF SAN MAGNO FRESCOS
+39 0775 727852
The small hilltown of Anagni has a historical significance that belies its tiny size. A host of popes were born here or summered here, and the local dialect preserves a remarkable amount of Latin. In the crypt beneath the cathedral, some of Italy’s best Byzantine-style frescos dazzle the eyes from every inch of wall and vaulted ceiling-space, while a highly-decorative Cosmati pavement swirls underfoot.
CHARTERHOUSE OF TRISULTI
+39 0775 47024
This early Carthusian monastery sits in splendid isolation on a leafy mountainside just beyond the hilltown of Alatri. Some of the buildings date from as long ago as 1210. There’s a perfectly-preserved 18th-century ‘pharmacy’ with delicate figures and animals dancing playfully across its walls and ceiling, and a charming little garden stuffed with abstract topiary.
ABBEY OF MONTECASSINO
+39 0776 311529
Almost certainly the most famous monastery in Italy, the abbey of Montecassino is a vast white building perched magnificently on a high hilltop overlooking the Garigliano Valley. Completely destroyed five times, it’s been loving rebuilt. Enjoy the courtyard with its wide vistas, the church interior dripping with gold, and the excellent little museum of ecclesiastical artefacts.