‘Giovanni, buon giorno!’
‘Eh, Giovanni, come stai?’
Everyone in the little hill town of Tolfa knows Giovanni Padroni. The greetings rang out from doorways and on street corners as we prowled the steep cobbled streets under curlicued balconies and sagging lines of washing. Giovanni knows architecture, history, herbs, archaeology, farming and flowers, poetry and plays. He speaks of one subject as lightly and informatively as another. He loves his native town with a passion. I was lucky to have him as a walking companion and guide around Tolfa and its hilly countryside on this cloudy late autumn day.
The Tolfa mountains rise some thirty miles north of Rome, in thickly wooded ridges that climb to peaks a couple of thousand feet high. The ancient Romans built summer villas there to catch the cool breezes; alum miners dug canyons into a few of the hillsides. Other than that, the outside world has tended to pass by, rushing to and from Rome and leaving the Tolfa mountains as a high green world apart.
‘In 1799 Napoleon’s troops destroyed a lot of the town,’ ruminated Giovanni, cigar-holder between his teeth, as we stood breathless in the castle ruins on the peak of La Rocca, contemplating Tolfa’s great fan of pantiled roofs spread out below. ‘We don’t know exactly which part. In fact we don’t know a lot about the town’s history. But it’s full of beautiful old buildings – come, I’ll show you.’
We descended ancient paved laneways, ducked under Renaissance arches, and leaned gossiping in medieval doorways carved from the white volcanic trachite that caps the dark tufa lava-stone of the district. Views from the town’s many belvederes were stunning – fifty or sixty miles from the Apennines to the coast, Tuscany to the hills beyond Rome.
‘As kids in Tolfa just after the war,’ Giovanni reminisced, ‘we didn’t have a lot, but we had fun! Chariot racing along the Via Roma, wearing our school tunics like cloaks; sword-fighting with peeled chestnut switches, climbing La Rocca and the other cliffs.’ He puffed out fragrant blue cheroot smoke, grinning. At the Fontana di Canale laundry tanks below the town we gave good-day to a woman slapping her soapy socks and shifts (‘Ah, Giovanni! Buon giorno!’), and walked on down old cobbled droving tracks into the valleys to the east of Tolfa.
Pink blobs of cyclamen showed in the hedge roots, and the chestnut groves and medlar bushes were heavy with fruit. We sucked the sweetly rotting medlar flesh from the husks and spat out the seeds while Giovanni expatiated on the iniquities of the Allumierasci, the inhabitants of the neighbouring village of Allumiere, Tolfa’s deadly rival since time out of mind. ‘Provocative people,’ declared Giovanni. ‘They can’t get over their inferiority complex. And, let’s face it – we Tolfetani haven’t been able to stand them since the Pope gave one-third of our land to them five hundred years ago.’
We climbed an old track deep in the oak woods and came to the grassy plateau of the Pian Conserva. ‘Wild chicory,’ said Giovanni, digging up a plant with his knife. ‘Boil it, dry it, cook it in a pan with garlic, oil, peperoncino – we call that cicoria ripassata in padella. It tastes … ahhh! …’ He raised his eyes to heaven in silent reverence.
Giovanni and his friends have helped uncover many of the Tolfa mountains’ archaeological sites. Some of the most remarkable are associated with the pre-Roman civilization of the Etruscans. Here on the Pian Conserva, Giovanni showed me a unique section of Etruscan roadway, cut some ten feet down into the soft volcanic tufa. Wheel ruts made 2,500 years ago were still clearly visible in the floor of the cutting. Along the sides of this manmade canyon opened the arched black mouths of Etruscan cave tombs.
The Pian Conserva holds around 150 Etruscan tombs, ranging from simple hollows in the volcanic tufa rock to elaborate ‘houses of the dead’. In these round, domed tombs, silence falls – the silence of cold stone. Bats cling to cracks in the vaulted roofs. We inspected the stone beds on which the dead were laid, their heads resting in special compartments with a raised semi-circular rim. One bed held two of these, side by side, perhaps carved for a mother and her child.
Outside the tombs under a cloudy afternoon sky we idled on the grass, peeling apples and chatting. ‘My school friends from northern Italy couldn’t read Dante,’ mused Giovanni, ‘it was like a foreign language. But for Tuscans and for us here in the Lazio region it was like talking in our own dialect. Language – it’s really something to learn to love. I loved Shakespeare the first moment I read him. That man had a million things to say, and a million ways to say them, don’t you think so?’
At last we heaved ourselves up and went on, descending to the floor of the valley on white dirt roads among ploughed slopes whose mineral-rich volcanic earth shaded from grey through brown to red in the span of a single field. The peak of La Rocca beckoned ahead, a dark shark-tooth of rock against a darkening sky.
We battled down an overgrown green lane and came in the dusk to the hot springs of Il Bagnarello. Two square bathing pools lay cut into the rock, their clear blue water dimpling as the spring stream ran through them.
‘Good for rheumatism and for bad skin,’ said Giovanni as we sat dangling our tired feet in water as hot as a steaming bath. The splash of the spring and sigh of the evening wind were the only sounds. ‘A quiet place,’ Giovanni murmured to himself, dreamily, letting the volcanic water soothe the stone bruises away.
MAP: Tolfa town hall has local maps for sale – CTR at 1:10,000 or IGM at 1:25,000. At Ignazio Padelli’s shop (Via Roma 106, tel 076-692-017), Ignazio will draw out the route for you on the map.
TRAVEL and ACCOMMODATION:
Exclusive Destinations, Wellington Gate, 7-9 Church Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN1 1HT (01892-619650;
firstname.lastname@example.org; www.exclusivedestinations.co.uk) – flight from London Heathrow or Gatwick, hire car, 3 nights dble B&B at La Posta Vecchia Hotel (06-994-9501; email@example.com; www.lapostavecchia.com): £676 per person. Superbly comfortable former palace, ½ hr from Rome Leonardo da Vinci airport.
Alitalia (0870-544-8259; www.alitalia.co.uk) fly to Rome Leonardo da Vinci.
Avis (0208-268-5482; www.avis.co.uk ) rent cars at the airport.
Driving: from airport, A12 motorway (NB Cerveteri-Ladispoli jct. for La Posta Vecchia) to San Severa junction; Tolfa signposted from here. Park in Piazza Nova, the main square.
From Piazza Nova keep ahead along Via Roma to Piazza Vecchia. Left downhill past fountain; in 150 yd, right down slope of side road Via Canale, curving downhill past new houses, out of town to pass laundry troughs. In ½ mile pass barn on right; at electricity pole in fork of road just beyond, go left downhill on cobbled way to meet tarmac road. Turn right along road for ¾ mile.
At bottom of long slope, road goes under power lines and makes sharp right bend (3 warning arrows). Left on dirt road here (La Rocca and castle ruin seen over your right shoulder). Continue for ¾ mile to T-junction of track in woods, by electricity pole. Right up sunken track; at crest (150 yd), left over fence (2 blue blobs) into fields with Etruscan tombs (explanatory notice-board). Return to track. Left (downhill) to cross tarmac road by factory. On along flat dirt road on valley floor. In ¾ mile, left to cross Virginese River on concrete bridge. In 250 yd, right off dirt road at crossing of tracks (stone with blue blob on left), aiming for La Rocca dead ahead, to recross river and follow white road uphill.
This country road will take you back to Tolfa (3 miles). To visit Il Bagnarello hot springs – after 1 mile, where road bends sharply right and thicker concrete surfacing starts (beside electricity pole, where stone-walled track joins from left), keep ahead along grassy lane with vineyard on right. Lane descends among bushes to cross river (NB boulder scramble – could be dangerous after heavy rain) and climb, following electricity cables, to T-junction with good dirt road.
Left along dirt road. Cross river (probably dry) by humpback bridge (careful of hole just beyond!); continue to farmyard on corner of another dirt road. Left along road. By grey metal electricity pole and green metal gate, fork left; in 200 yards, left down steps to hot springs.
Return up steps; right along track to green gate; left to road. Right to Tolfa (3 miles), either walking or by request stop Damibus (c. 12.30 p.m., 4.45, 7.25).
LENGTH: c.11 miles.
REFRESHMENTS: None en route – take picnic and water.
READING: The Tolfa Mountains by Kari Austbo (from Padelli’s shop).