Wednesday, 12 December 2012

SABINA TRAVELOGUE PART 9 March 28 - Torri in Sabina, Montebuono & Fianello

Collage of images from Torri in Sabina with photos by Aessandra Finiti, Giorgio Clementi, and yours truly 
March 28
And now, we leave Casperia on another date with our strangely English-sounding G.P.S. guide, Maria Sabina... 
...But who needs Maria Sabina when your guide is Signor Fiorenzo Francioli?
By now I fear that you may be getting bored with the superlatives I have been using to describe what our days have been like, but this has truly been an unforgettably wonderful day here. This was our last day with our rent-a-car—our last day of true independence in this vacation. From now on, if we want to go somewhere, it will be by bus and/or train, and in a region where most of where you want to be are small hilltop towns, not having a car at your disposal can be very limiting. 

Rocchette in Torri in Sabina courtey of Giorgio Clementi
We have seen some truly spectacular little towns perched on some very steep hills. We have fallen in love with Fara in Sabina, Montopoli, Bocchignano, Rocca Sinabalda, Catino, Poggio Catino, Poggio Mirteto, Castelnuovo di Farfa, and have been charmed by the ageless peace and quite of Farfa Abbey

We have also had some great times in towns that we got to know three years ago when we first came to the Sabina. Some of you may roll your eyes at a festival that celebrates deep fried cauliflower, but I am sure that Richard will agree with me that the Sagra del Fritello, in the neighbouring town of Roccantica, will be one of the highlights of our trip.

Roccantica courtesy of Giorgio Clementi
I guess 'highlight' is an apt expression, as most of our highlights have been towns perched on a hill. So where do you go when you only have one more day with your car? There are so many places in Sabina we wanted to see that we haven't seen yet: Greccio, Leonesse, Stimigliano, Selci, Cottanello, Collevecchio, and Fianello... And there were old friends, places that held special sentimental meaning for us from our time before, places like Rochette, Montàsola, and Santa Maria in Vescovio... And what about lunch? There are so many great restaurants in the region that are only accessible by car.

One place which truly caught my imagination from all the photos that I saw posted on Facebook and from the research that I did on the Internet was a tiny, mostly abandoned little walled town called Fianello on Lazio’s border with Umbria.

Fianello and its pentagonal tower courtesy of Matteo Bordini via
It is a little stone donut of a town on a small hill in a verdant fertile valley. Like many towns in Sabina, it boasts a pentagonal Langobard tower. What really interested me was to see a small church on the outskirts of Fianello called Santa Maria in Assunta. The church is built on top of the remains of a Roman villa and some of the materials used to build the church were recycled stone columns and other material from the villa. 

Here in the Sabina there is not the developed tourism infrasture that is available in other more tourist-travelled parts of Italy. Local points of interest, including country churches and archeological sites, are naturally kept locked and you need to apply to the local town tourism authority, or Pro Loco, to get access to these sites. Fianello is a frazione or village division of the Comune of Montebuono

I was told by our friend Alessandra Finiti to call a certain Signor Fiorenzo Francioli. She said that he was the president of the Pro Loco (local tourism promotion association) for Montebuono. She said Signor Francioli would arrange for access to the church. So I called him up and we arranged to meet at 3:30 in front of the bank in Montebuono. 

What we next needed to decide was what to do with our time up until then. Part of this was taken out of our hands when the son of Rosella Montirolli, the lady who manages Il Sogno for the Phillips, arrived with some firewood we had ordered. There is an immense camino or fireplace in the house. During the first couple of nights of our stay we had used up all the available firewood, so I had talked to Rosella about getting a delivery of wood, one that would last us a couple of weeks... Well, Mrs. Montirolli's son arrived with 500 kilos... It took us a while to load everything through the downstairs door. By that time it was already 11:30. 

A winding street in Casperia courtesy of Alessandra Finiti
We headed down to the car hoping to go to Santa Maria in Vescovio in Torri In Sabina where we knew there was a restaurant called L'Oasi. L’Oasi is located beside the ancient Sabine Cathedral we had visited three years before.

We tried to programme our GPS, Maria Sabina, for Santa Maria in Vescovio, but for some reason this didn't work, so we programmed Maria Sabina for Selci, a town nearby, that has a great restaurant called La Vecchia Quercia. Maria Sabina did a great job of getting us to Selci, but we saw no signs for La Vecchia Quercia, so we just followed the road signs from there to Santa Maria in Vescovio.

SantaMaria in Vescovio is built on the site of an old Roman trading centre called Forum Novum. The ruins of the Roman town are clearly visible beside the old church. 

A valley site, Santa Maria in Vescovio has a totally different flavour than most of the other towns we know in the Sabina. It is a true oasis with a wonderfully grounded quietness about it that invites you to sleep—something Richard did three years ago when we first visited here. In front of the 8th century Cathedral church, built on the site of a house where Saint Peter is supposed to have celebrated the Eucharist close to 2000 years ago, is a beautiful park with large pine trees and benches.

L'Oasi restaurant is built to the left of the entrance of the church. I don't know why we didn't know about it the last time we visited but I sure am glad we found it this time...

...because we had a truly amazing lunch. I ordered Trofie con salsa di noci (Pasta twists with walnut sauce), and Richard had Fettucine with wild mushrooms. Originally I had wanted to order a pasta with truffle sauce, but I had never heard of Salsa di Noci before, so I opted for something new and I am sure glad I did. I think that plate of creamy troffie was perhaps one of the best pasta dishes I have ever eaten.

For my main I had perfectly grilled sea bream, a fish I knew well from my time in Japan where it is called 鯛 "Tai" and is traditionally served on festival occasions like weddings and birthdays. Richard had grilled calamari. For contorni, we had braised chicory, and stewed mushrooms. The chicory was a revelation.

After lunch we went inside the old Cathedral church and took a few pictures, 

Photo courtesy of Matteo Bordini via

The amazing stone pulpit. Photo courtesy of Matteo Bordini via

Interior of Santa Maria in Vescovio's old cathedral courtesy of Giorgio Clementi

Fresco of the Crucifixion restored in the 1930s, James Johnstone

...then went out into the park for a short rest before heading out to Montebuono to meet Signor Francioli in front of the Bank of Etruria in Montebuono.

Our rendez-vous point in Monte Buono. Photo courtesy Google Maps
3:30 rolled around and all of a sudden a big bearded leather jacketed bear of a man rolled up on a motorcycle and said, "James?" This was our guide. 

Photo of Fiorenzo Franciolli in Sardegna courtesy of Antonella Bigi
Signor Francioli indicated we should head across the street to a bar for a coffee before we set out. We were treated to espressos and not allowed to pay. "Ospiti!" “Guests!” was his explanation... And that was that.

Our intrepid Sabino guide - photo courtesy of Richard Rooney
After our coffees we got back in the car and followed Fiorenzo along winding narrow mountain roads for some kilometres before we came to an intersection over the medieval town of Fianello. He indicated we were to wait for him at the intersection while he went off to get the keys for the church. While we waited, Richard took the opportunity to get out of the car and check the roadside for wild asparagus

Image from
Before we left for Italy our friend Alessandra Finiti told us it was wild asparagus season and that we would find it aplenty along the roads we would be travelling. No such luck!

Throughout our stay here we have looked for this seasonal delicacy along the roads as we have driven by and have even seen people walking along the roadsides with handfuls of the delicacies at their side, to the point where Richard jokingly remarked that the only way were going to get any of these wild asparagus would be if we waylaid one of these asparagus-savvy old ladies and made off with their stash.

Anyway, before Richard could find any wild asparagus, Fiorenzo came back with the key and we descended into the valley and stopped in front of the ancient church of Santa Maria Assunta. This small church is built on top of the foundations of an old Roman villa. 
Reduce, Re-use, Re-cycle in medieval Sabina
Mosaic and roman brick recycled as building material in outside wall of Santa Maria in Assunta Church, Fianello
Here and there throughout the medieval church you can still see traces of recycled marble, tufa, and even mosaic used as building materials in the church. 

Fiorenzo explained to us that the capitals of the columns in the crypt were not actually capitals at all but marble slabs with Latin inscriptions from the villa that had been cut and reused as capitals. 

The church is built on two levels. The oldest part of the church, the crypt, likely dates from very early Christian times. Here and there on the floor of the old crypt are remains from the old villa, including some old terra cotta water pipes that used to bring water into the villa from an outside source.

Fiorenzo shows us the remains of a Roman terra cotta water pipe
The upper part of the church is not as old. There are remains of some stunning frescoes in the apse and in the crypt of the church. 

In the apse is an ancient marble chair or cathedra throne for the priest or bishop. This too is made from recycled material from the old villa.

Outside the church are the remains of a campanile—an old bell tower—long ago collapsed. Here and there in the lower walls you can see old Roman tufa blocks, bricks, and pieces of marble recycled from the villa. 

Recycled Roman bricks

Behind the church are the remains of an old cistern and bath complex and across the road behind the church is an old Roman spring and aqueduct that brought water to the villa. 

The remains of the villa's cistern
As we walked through the church yard Fiorenzo picked roman mint, or mentuccia, and wild fennel and taught us how it was used in the local Sabine cuisine.

After our visit to the church, we drove down the hill to Fianello. This little town, now mostly deserted, is truly a gem. Like many towns in the Sabina, Fianello lost a lot of its population after WWII, when people from the war torn impoverished countryside flocked to Rome and other large cities to find work and food. 

Collage of images from Fianello by Giorgio Clementi

Fianello's problems were exacerbated by the fact that part of the town, including the magnificent Palazzo of the Orsini, was slowly falling over the cliff, or rather alongside with the cliff, as land subsided due to underground erosion. 

The crumbling Palazzo dei Orsini
Detail of the Palazzo Savelli-Orisini courtesy of Alessandra Finiti
Today, the side of the town at risk has been shored up, but you can still see buildings whose walls have huge cracks in them.

Fianello's Lombard Tower
Main street of Fianello - Photo courtesy of Alessandra Finiti

Old olive mill - Photo from TevereNotizie Quotidiano On-Line
We walked through the town with Fiorenzo listening to his explanations about how olives were pressed in frantoio located in vaults under the towns houses...

...and how the people of the town used to make bread in a communal oven, each bringing their own dough and some wood in turn and how the resulting ash was used to make soap. 

Communal Bread Oven - 15th Century courtesy of Alessandra Finiti
The highlight of the visit was being shown Fiorenzo’s favourite viewpoint overlooking the valley and beyond to the hills of Umbria. We took a number of pictures there. The one Richard took of Fiorenzo and I under the archway makes us look like we both have haloes, because of the back lighting.

Photo courtesy of Richard Rooney
On the way out of Fianello, I had trouble extricating the car from the steep and narrow place I had parked it. The narrow street with what seemed like a 45 degree slope I was backing down caused me some problems and Fiorenzo, thankfully, volunteered to turn the car around for us...

We then headed to see another church, San Pietro ai Muricento

Bust of Agrippa Pushkin Museum
This is a much larger church built upon the ruins of a much larger and more important Roman villa, reputed to have been built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the builder of the original Pantheon in Rome.

I will say that Richard and I were totally blown away by the incredible remains of the villa including mosaiced floors and frescoed walls underneath the church. The remains of the villa underneath the church have been carefully excavated and covered over with thick glass sections. 

Photo courtesy of the Comune di Montebuono website
Photo courtesy of Giuseppe Carosi
Photo courtesy of the Comune di Montebuono website
Equally impressive are the multilayered medieval frescoes that decorate the apse the walls and ceilings of the church. Fiorenzo showed us a fresco that dates from 1451, signed by the artist, a man named Jacopo di Roccantica. 

Photo courtesy of Giorgio Clementi

On the same fresco is a rather poignant graffito of a soldier who escaped from Rome when it was sacked by the Spanish in 1527 giving the precise date of the sacking and also of a battle at nearby Cottanello.

One of my favourite frescoes in the church was this one of the martyrdom of San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence) being roasted alive on a grill. According to the legend, when taunted by his tormentors the Saint asked to have his body turned because he was already done on the side closest to the grill. They say that this legendary quip is the reason why San Lorenzo is the patron saint of cooks.
Signor Francioli is a true treasure of the Sabina—a real walking encyclopedia, with a pride and passion for the history and the culture of his region. When Richard and I found out we would have to have someone come to open up the church for us, we had no idea we would be spending a full three hours with this scolarly gentlemen, escorted by him on his motorcycle from wonder to wonder. This was truly an unforgettable day spent with a marvelous man, another wonderful ambassador for the Sabina.  

On top of it all, Fiorenzo finally found for us a sprig of wild asparagus!!!

 ...which we have brought home and will have with our eggs tomorrow morning... Or perhaps we should have it preserved in bronze. : )
Photo courtesy of Comune di montebuono website

Photo Courtesy of Giorgio Clementi
Before we said goodbye, we drove back to Montebuono where Fiorenzo showed us some more examples of materials recycled from Agrippa's villa in the parish church, including an old Roman fountain. He also showed us a stone statue of the Sabine goddess Vacuna incorporated into the foundation of the church, and explained to us how the checkerboard road plan of Montebuono attested to the fact that the town was most likely built on top of an old Roman fort… A fort that was built, most likely, to protect Marcus Vipsianus Agrippa's villa which now lies under the church of San Pietro ai Muricento...

Fiorenzo was full of fascinating stories. There is apparently a Templar and Holy Grail association with St. Peter's Church and a very interesting story arising out of some unusual iconography used in the fresco of the annunciation, but those stories and more will have to wait for subsequent posts.

I will say that a visit to Montebuono and Fianello is very much worth your time, especially if you are blessed with a guide like Fiorenzo. 

All I can say is, I can't think of a better way to have spent our last day with our rental car. Thanks again Fiorenzo for a truly amazing day in the Sabina. Grazie di cuore per una giornata meravigliosa. Sei grande!

1 comment:

  1. We are back in the Sabina now and during this visit we have been lucky enough to visit Santa Maria in Vescovio church and L'Oasi Restaurant twice. I will write about these visits in future posts but what I would like to say is that the last time we visited the former cathedral church of the Sabina we were able to visit to crypt under the main alter. This spot, according to tradition, is where Saint Peter celebrated the Eucharist during a visit to the Roman town of Forum Novum shortly before his martyrdom in Rome... It was an amazing experience to be in that place...

    As far as L'Oasi Restaurant is concerned, it is still one of my very favourite places to eat in Italy. The bruschette alone dripping with Marco the owner's pungently delicious green-gold Sabina D.O.P. olive oil are totally worth the visit, but their extensive seafood and pasta menu will have something to please everyone... And the desserts are fabulous!

    Marco sells tins and bottles of his unforgettable Fattorie San Biagio Sabina D.O.P. EVOO in various sizes. Now all you have to do is to find some rustic crusty italian bread and a fire to make your own bruschette.