Mt. Rufeno: Beautiful Nature Reserve in Lazio, Italy

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Freshly picked olives in the Monte Rufeno Nature Reserve. Photos by Paul Shoul
Freshly picked olives in the Monte Rufeno Nature Reserve. Photos by Paul Shoul

Living Large in Lazio: Mount Rufeno and Central Italy’s Undiscovered Beauty

By Paul Shoul
GoNOMAD Staff

Pasta Alla carbonara twisted into a perfect spiraling mound, so yellow, glistening with eggs and cheese, topped with pieces of guanciale (thick bacon). Creamy, salty, al dente perfection.
Pasta Alla carbonara twisted into a perfect spiraling mound, so yellow, glistening with eggs and cheese, topped with pieces of guanciale (thick bacon). Creamy, salty, al dente perfection.

After a 45-minute train ride from Rome Termini station, and a short bus trip to the Viterbo region of Tuscia, I arrived 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 a 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.

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 less. No hordes of tourists.

The Pulicaro

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.

Civeta di Bagnoregio. A part of the dynamic landscape in the province of Viterbi in central italy.
Civita di Bagnoregio. A part of the dynamic landscape in the province of Viterbi in central Italy.
Il Tesoro cooking class with Rita Favero and her mother Carmela Ronca.
Il Tesoro cooking class with Rita Favero and her mother Carmela Ronca.

 

He talks of the farm’s 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, multi-level space with a full kitchen and bed and bath on the top overlooking the farm.

The Pulicaro agriturismo 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.

Marco Carbonara and his rich organic soil
Marco Carbonara and his rich organic soil

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 Cecilia 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 dinner service at the top.

The amazing Pucci. Lady of the castle Proceno
The amazing Pucci. Lady of the castle Proceno

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.

Nature guide Claudio Speroni with a basket of fresh picked olives.
Nature guide Claudio Speroni with a basket of fresh-picked olives.

Hand-Picked Olives

 Chef Iside
Chef Iside

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 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”

The view from Mount Rufeno
The view from Mount Rufeno