Italy: Exploring the Monte Rufeno Nature Reserve
Living Large in Lazio and Loving it: Central Italy’s Undiscovered Beauty
By Paul Shoul
Rome: I am sitting at Trattoria Angelo across the street from the Roma Termini railway station, the city is humming. Motorcycles line the sidewalks, restaurants and shops are packed with travelers, crazy Rome traffic whips by. A parade of people pass my little outdoor table as the waiter zigs and zags between them to deliver my lunch. Before me is deposited a tribute to the culinary arts, an edible shrine, my reward at the end of a two-week no carb diet.
Pasta alla carbonara twisted into a perfect spiriling mound, so yellow, glistening with eggs and cheese, topped with pieces of guanciale ( thick bacon). Creamy, salty, al dente perfection.
To the side, a simple salad of fresh greens and a toasted bruschetta with juicy fresh tomatoes and basil drizzled with the intense bright green new olive oil of the region.The food and wine, the sounds of the street, my new friends at the table next to me, I could linger for hours at a spot like this.
Back to the station I retrieve my bags I had dropped at luggage storage. Safe and cheap at 3.8 euros for the first 5 hrs if you have a layover in Rome and don’t want to haul them around the city.
Termini station is giant and daunting, but logical. 27 tracks lined up numerically. Buy your ticket, wait for your track assignment at the large central display at the end of the track gates, and then run like hell. Make sure to validate your ticket before you get on the train at one of the little green stamp boxes posted all around. The fine for not doing this can be more than the cost of your fare. It’s easy when you get the hang of it.The countryside
After a 45-minute train ride and a short bus trip to the Viterbo region of Tuscia, I arrive at Agriturismo bed & breakfast Pulicaro, close to the 7,000 acre Monte Rufeno Nature Reserve on the borders of Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany. It will be my home for the next four days. I am a guest of the Lazio region partner project of MEET, The Mediterranean Experience of Ecotourism. MEET is cooperative of eight project partners in nine Mediterranean countries. Based around protected areas, their goal is to encourage conservation and create a model for sustainable eco tourism through authentic experiences with the local community and nature. Here is the website link for this trip to Lazio.
Travelers in the know describe this rural area of Italy as the undiscovered Tuscany. Rolling hills with endless olive groves?, check. Locally produced wine, check. Stay in an ancient home on a working farm, check. Sleep in a castle in a medieval town and have dinner with an opera singer performing around your table? Lazio has all this and and less. No hordes of tourists.
In 2001 Marco Carbonara and Chiara Dragoni moved from Milan to restore this beautiful property. A working organic farm, Marco walks with us through his gardens, olive trees and animal pens. He bends down to scoop up a handful of dirt in the garden holding it with pride and reverence, it is dark and rich, alive. He talks of the farms equilibrium, of how he rotates where his animals graze, “They feed the soil, the soil feeds them.” He keeps a flock of over 300 turkeys. There are chickens and rabbits, pigs, sheep and goats. “ If there is anything I am proud of it’s that when the animals get out of their pens, they do not run away.”
The restored guest rooms, are beautiful and spacious. I lucked out and stayed in the Tower room, a multi level space with a full kitchen and bed and bath on the top overlooking the farm.
The Pulicaro agroturismo is just one of the options to stay at within the “Central Italy Undiscovered Beauty Program” I also went to a cooking class at Il Tesoro where we learned to prepare the wild mushrooms we had gathered earlier in the day, with Rita Favero and her mother Carmela Ronca. It is another ridiculously beautiful ancient working farm with unique restored rooms, all with original antique furniture.
Another evening we were the dinner guests of Lady Cecilia Cecchini Bisoni and her husband John at the Castle Proceno in the heart of Tuscia. A medieval fortress that has been maintained rather than restored, this has been the family home of Cecillia since the XVII century.
A Powerhouse, Pucci
Known to all as “Pucci” at 76 years young, she is still a powerhouse, full of energy and a master of hospitality. I had to run to keep up with her as we toured the seemingly endless courtyards, gardens, stone tunnels and towers. A colleague of mine counted 86 steps up the steep ladders to the top of the main tower. She made the climb 17 times the day before preparing for a dinner service at the top.
The suite’s in the castle were some of the most charming I have ever seen, and dinner that night with opera singer Cesare Cesinni and guitarist Luca Mereu, was as delicious as it was entertaining.
With the guidance of The Monte Rufeno Nature reserves wildlife experts, we hiked through some of the reserves stunning forests, picked mushrooms and were taught about local plants, animals and the ecosystem of the area. It is a wild place. In fact, many wild boars roam the paths rooting up the earth in search of food. It is a problem the reserve managers are constantly fighting, but as Rita Favero said “ Boars? yes there are many, so we make boar sausage!”
On my final day in the reserve we were guided by Claudio Speroni to learn about life in the past at the “Felceto” farmhouse “ (House of Rural traditions, 1850-1890) Like all farms in the area, it has an olive grove. The trees were ready for harvest and our group was given the task of picking the olives.
Hand Picked Olives
What a totally cool thing to do. large nets are spread under the tree, the olives are either by picked hand or shaken from the top branches with a long vibrating device that looks like the world’s biggest back scratcher. Olives must be pressed within 24 hrs of harvesting and the intense fresh oil is a seasonal treat. After work, we had a lunch of pork filets grilled over the kitchen fire, toast with fresh olive oil and crushed olive tapenade, vegetable stew and white bean soup. It was the foundation of great italian food, Simple fresh ingredients, coaxed into perfection.On our last evening in the reserve we hiked to the Monte Rufeno Astronomical Observatory situated on the summit of Mt. Rufeno. With a powerful telescope to view the heavens and a vista of the valleys below, It is a beautiful spot.
We were treated to a cooking demonstration by Michelin star chef, Iside de Cesare of Ristorante La Parolina. To be on the top of a mountain and be served by a chef of her caliber was simply spectacular. She created her own signature dishes combining a respect for traditional foods, reconfigured and enhanced with skill and delicacy.
The next morning on my way back to the train station, I talked with my cab driver about what makes great italian food. “ Good olive oil is 30% of the plate, if you have good oil, you have a good meal, and we have the best in italy.” And then he nailed my ending to this story for me.
“Special food is a normal thing here”
Find out about the many diverse offerings for new ecotours all over Europe from the Meet Program.
Paul Shoul is GoNOMAD’s staff photographer and has made his living shooting photos in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts for more than 30 years. Read more of his stories on GoNOMAD here, and visit his website.