As we walked along the short trail back from the olive grove in Lazio, I began to smell fresh mint and other aromatic herbs underfoot, wildly growing on the side of the farmhouse, and instantly felt transported to a simpler time when families had to grow their own food and raise their own livestock to survive.
Although paling in comparison to those more likely difficult times, I still was satisfied with having taken part in the harvesting of an olive tree’s lovely green and purple colored olives ready for the first press. We collected nearly 90 lbs. of olives that morning and, once again, found ourselves at a large family-style Italian table ready for a feast.
For anyone who has traveled throughout the Mediterranean, the scene may be a familiar one. But, once you account for the details, you realize it is anything but common.
We had spent the last few days exploring the Monte Rufeno Nature Reserve, an area of about 7,100 acres just north of Rome and now were at a beautiful traditional farmhouse, named Casale Felceto, or the “House of Rural Traditions”.
Our meal was prepared solely using the fireplace. There was traditional bruschetta, some with fresh olive oil and others with chopped mushrooms, bread soup with plenty of vegetables topped with more fresh olive oil, a white bean dish with more olive oil, a hearty meat dish and plenty of local wine. Did I mention the dark green colored olive oil?
As I sat around the table with our guide, a poet / keeper of local traditions, a couple of park rangers, and my three fellow travelers who, along with me were invited by the Mediterranean Experience of Ecotourism (MEET) to test this new travel package, I began to reflect on the past days in this often overlooked region in northern Lazio.
The Monte Rufeno Nature Reserve can easily be reached by train from Rome or Florence. However, as most tourists take a high-speed train between Florence and Rome, Orvieto becomes a scenic blur in the windows.
For all that this region offers – biking and hiking trails, horseback riding trails, thermal springs, lakeside activities, agritourismo and castle accommodations, gastronomic walks, and even an astronomical observatory – a cooperative destination management company, Cooperative L’Ape Regina, was formed to spotlight this face of the Italian countryside.
“It’s just like Tuscany, but without the high prices,” said one of our hosts Rita Favero, who owns the agritourismo Il Tesoro, and who hosted a cooking class for us based on the wild greens and mushrooms we had foraged (with a park ranger that was a mushroom expert) during our botanical walk.
Our time was well spent exploring the Monte Rufeno Nature Reserve, which is one of Italy’s few protected areas that has received the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism (ECST) award. We stayed at Agriturismo Pulicaro, which is a renovated farmhouse offering traditional rooms as well as larger family apartments. They are also part of the World Wide Opportunity on Organic Farms (WWOOF), where students can volunteer their skills and talents in exchange for room and board.
They raise free range chickens, turkeys, geese, goats, and pigs as well as grow their own olives, fruits and vegetables – all in season and without the use of pesticides or antibiotics.
In addition, they employ renewable energy sources for lighting and hot water generation. “We want to teach our daughters a different way of life and why it’s important to be in balance with the environment,” said Marco, an ecologist by training, who along with his wife Chiara, manage all aspects of the agriturismo, including its restaurant.
We spent four days in the region discovering the medieval town of Civita di Bagnoregio (“the dying village” so named because of the fact that it is built on top of a fragile foundation of volcanic tuffstone that is eroding by the year), the medieval fortress of Castello di Proceno (whose lady of the house, Lady Cecilia, is a delightful, multi-lingual, septuagenarian with a quick smile and grace that immediately makes you feel that her castle is your home), Sasseto Woodland with its fairytale forest setting that is bound to please any child and child-at-heart, Museum of Flowers (an interactive museum equipped with labs and nature trails where we made ‘seed bombs’), Astronomical Observatory at the summit of Mount Rufeno to peer into the cosmos, and a cooking demonstration of traditional southern dishes of Italy by Michelin-starred Chef Iside.
Civita di Bagnoregio, as envisioned by a local painter
Lady Cecilia climbs the 82 steps to the castle’s tower at least once per day
The beautiful stillness, color and shapes of Sasseto Woodland
Our experience was quickly paced, so my recommendation would be to spend at least 6 days in the region so you have plenty of time to relax (maybe even more time since northern Lazio is easily reachable to sites in southern Tuscany and western Umbria).