July 2019: Rieti and the most beautiful province in Italy

Monday, 15 July 2019

Exhibitions in July:

Exhibitions in July:

Claude Monet.  Return to the Riviera.; Villa Regina Margherita di Bordighera and the Castle Dolceacqua, Imperia (Liguria); www.monetinriviera.it; until 31 July.  This fascinating exhibition celebrates Claude Monet’s visit to Imperia (Liguria) on the Italian Riviera in 1884 by placing three of the major works the master painted during his stay in the very locations in which they were created.  The exhibition is enhanced by photos, documents and a multimedia presentation.

Unforgettable Umbria.  Palazzo Baldeschi, Perugia; www.fondazionecariperugiaarte.it; until 3 November.  This exhibition presents a selection of over fifty paintings and sculptures by internationally renowned artists who lived and worked in Umbria (the ‘Green Heart of Italy’) in the 20th century, including Alberto Burri, Alexander Calder, Yves Klein and Sol DeWitt.

The Renaissance as seen by the South: Matera, Southern Italy and the Mediterranean between 1500 and 1600.  Palazzo Lanfranchi, Matera; www.matera-basilicata2019.it; until 19 August.  As part of its role as the European Cultural Capital, Matera (in Basilicata) is hosting this exhibition dedicated the flowering of art in southern Italy in the 1500 and 1600’s.  Often overlooked by the Florence and Rome in this period, the over two hundred works (including sculptures, paintings, ceramics and gold works) reflect the vibrant cultural life of southern Italy and the influence of the Mediterranean as a theatre of intense cultural and artistic exchange.

Events in July:

Events in July:

Stragusto; Trapani (Sicily); www.stragusto.it;  24 to 28 July.  The historic port of Trapani, on the west coast of Sicily, will be hosting its annual Mediterranean Street Food Festival under the arches of its historic fish markets.  There is something for all tastes: sweet and savory, Italian and foreign: including graniteFlavoured shaved ice); panelle (fried chick pea strips from Palermo); lampredotto (boiled offal buns from Florence); brik (deep-fried Tunisian pastries); baci pantechi (a delious cream and chocolate dessert from Pantelleria) and, of course, plenty of cous cous.

I Suoni delle Dolomiti (the Sounds of the Dolomites); www.isuonidelledolomiti.it; until 15 Sept.  This wonderful festival celebrates its 25th anniversary with music of all kinds performed in extraordinary settings including the complete opera The Barber of Seville performed on the Pian della Nana, a plateau at 2090 mts asl in the Non Valley; a variety of ‘musical treks’ and a 06.00 am concert on the Col Margherita (2514 mts asl) to watch the sun rise.

Radicepura Garden Festival:  Essenza Mediterranea; Via Fogazzaro 19, Giarre (Catania), www.radicepurafestival.com, until 27 October.  Set in the black soils at the foot of Mt Etna in Sicily, this biennial event was the first international festival dedicated to Mediterranean gardens and landscape design.  It includes wine tastings, Sicilian street food and musical events.

Hidden Italy Weekend: Rieti and the most beautiful province in Italy

Hidden Italy Weekend:  Rieti and the most beautiful province in Italy

Known as the humbilicus Italiae (the belly-button of Italy) because its location at the centre of the peninsula, Rieti, a bustling town eighty kilometres north of Rome, is also the capital of one of the most beautiful and diverse provinces in the country: a wedge of land in the north eastern corner of Lazio, bordering on the regions of Umbria and Le Marche, that starts in the jagged peaks of the Sibillini Mountains, tumbles down the valleys of the Apennines, over the Sabine hills to the alluvial plains of the Tiber River. 

Founded in the 9th century BC, Rieti is a far older town than Rome.  In fact, according to legend, to help populate their fledgling city, the Romans kidnapped the women of Rieti, an event that became known as the Rape of the Sabines, something which the locals have forgiven but not forgotten.  The Romans did, however, make some amends.  Rieti sits at the southern end of the floor of a huge crater, ten kilometres in diameter surround by towering forested rim.  In the late 3rd century BC, in an extraordinary feat of engineering, the Romans diverted the Velino River into the Nera River (creating the Marmore waterfalls along the way) and drained the crater floor, converting swamp lands into fertile farmlands, which are still worked today.

On 24 August 2016, the whole province of Rieti was shaken by an enormous earthquake, which devasted a number of towns, most famously the small mountain centre of Amatrice, on the border with Umbria, where two hundred and thirty-four people died.  In the three years since, much has been done, including the re-establishment of services, the reopening of some of the most iconic Apennine hikes and the reopening one of the region’s most celebrated restaurant, the Ristorante Roma, known throughout central Italy for its speciality, amatriciana, a delicious, spicy, tomato-based pasta dish.  More than enough reasons to rediscover this spectacular corner of Italy.

How to get there:

By train: trains leave regularly from Roma Termini station and require a change at Terni.  It takes around two hours.  By car:  Part of Rieti’s importance for the ancient Romans was its strategic location on the Salt Road (Via Salaria).  The road that connects Rome to Rieti today (SS 4) follows this route and is still called the Via Salaria.  The simplest way to Rieti from the capital is to get on the SS4 where it starts (intersection with Via Liegi) and follow the road out of the capital to Rieti, one and a half hours away.  By air:  The closest airport in Aeroporto Leonardo da Vinici at Fiumicino (Rome).

Where to stay:

Albergo Quattro Stagioni (Piazza Cesare Battisti, Rieti).  This traditional, 4-star hotel occupies a 19th century palazzo overlooking the main square in the centre of Rieti.  It has 43 elegant rooms, all with wifi and en suite bathrooms.  Doubles start from 70 euro, b&b.

Hotel Europa (Via S. Rufo, 49, Rieti).  This relaxed, family-run 3-star hotel is in the historic centre of Rieti, a short walk Piazza San Rufo (the geographical central of Italy).  It has a good restaurant serving local specialities.  A double room with breakfast starts at 60 euro per night.

La Torretta Historical Home (Via Mazzini 7, Casperia).  This elegant B&B is set in a beautifully restored 16th century palazzo in the heart of the small town of Casperia.  It has six rooms, the best of which is the suite, which has a small lounge room, blackened beams and views over the Sabine Mountains.  Rooms with breakfast start from 90 euro.

Tenuta Due Laghi (Locality Campignano 29. Rivodutti).  This fabulous agriturismo is set in the middle of the Nature Reserve of Lungo and Ripasottile Lakes.  It is surrounded by beautiful grounds and has a swimming pool and an excellent restaurant.  Each of the rooms is named after a bird species found in the Reserve.  Doubles with breakfast from 75 euro.

Where to eat:

L’Osteria Le Tre Sorelle (Vicolo Bressi, 4, Rieti).  An authentic, old-school osteria in the heart of Rieti.  With a welcoming, rustic ambience, it serves traditional dishes on solid tables covered in traditional chequered tablecloths.  The star turn is the antipasti: salamini di Amatrice, local pecorino, crostate, bruschetta and olives.  Dinner around 25 euro per person.

Osteria Reati di Gola (Via della Verdura, 21, Rieti).  This osteria is within the Le Tre Porte cultural and gastronomic zone in the centre of the town.  Its menu is rigorously local.  Not to be missed: gnocchi made from local Leonessa potatoes served with red cabbage and gorgonzola sauce.  Dinner from 25 euro per person.

La Trota (Via S Susanna 33, Rivudutri).  Operating since 1963, this fab restaurant captures the spirit of the province.  Run by the Serva brothers, Maurizio and Sandro, it has two Michelin stars.  Its menu specialises in freshwater fish found in the nearby lakes.  Not to be missed: ziti arrostiti ripieni di coregone affumicato (local tubular pasta baked with smoked lake fish).  Dinner starts from 120 euro per person.

Ristorante Roma (Frazione San Cipriano, Amatrice).  The reopening of this historical restaurant (operating since 1897) after three years of closure was a powerful step on the road to recovery for this small town.  It is the only place to try the ‘true’ pasta amatriciana.  Dinner from 30 euro per person

What to do:

Friday evening:

Check into your hotel.  If you are staying in Rieti or Casperia, go for a walk in the historic centre and enjoy an aperitivo watching the passeggiata.  If you are staying at the agriturismo, get your boots on and go for a walk before dinner, watching the sunset over the lakes.

Saturday morning:  Explore Rieti

Spend the first part of the morning exploring the treasures of this busy town, which has nearly three thousand years of history.  The highlights include: the Roman bridge (that dates from the 2nd century BC and is still in use); the Town Hall and the Bishop’s Palace (which hosted St Francis) two fine examples of Renaissance architecture; and the town’s cathedral, which includes a chapel to the town’s patron saint, Santa Barbara, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. 

After having a coffee, take a tour to explore ‘underground Rieti’.  This fascinating visit takes you into an underground road system built by the Romans in the 3rd century BC.  By crossing under the Velino River and the city, this viaduct allowed traffic along the crucial salt road to continue unimpeded by flooding or social unrest.  The takes around 1.5 hours and can be booked via ‘Rieti Da Scoprire’ (www.rietidascoprire.it).

Lunch:  ‘Campagna Sabine’ is a cooperative that aims to promote local food and producers in the wake of the 2016 earthquake.  Le Tre Porte, a six hundred square metre space in the centre of town, is spread over two floors and celebrates the Reatina specialities.  It includes a cafeteria, a growers’ market, a brewery and an osteria, as well as an events space.

Afternoon:  Explore the region around Rieti. 

Rieti sits on what is known as the Valle Santa, the Blessed Valley.  The Via Salaria, that runs through the middle of the valley, connected Rieti to Umbria and Assisi to the north and Rome to the south.  It has always been an important line of communication that brought wealth, ideas and beliefs to and from Rome.  Because of this traffic, the surrounding towns have a rich religious history.  The area was particularly beloved by St Francis and a number of the small towns to the north of Rieti have strong associations with Italy’s patron saint, including Greccio (a lovely town a short drive to the west) where the saint improvised the first living Nativity (Manger) Scene in 1228.  Poggio Bustone, a very attractive hill-town to the north that looks down over the crater towards Rieti, was where the saint founded his monastic order in the 13th century.

South of Rieti is the 6th century Abbey of Farfa, one of the most important in the Middle Ages (www.abbaziadifarfa.it).  It has one of the largest libraries in Italy, including rare miniatures and manuscripts.  Today the Benedictine monks dedicate their lives to prayer, garden and guiding visitors.  They also produce olive oil, cosmetics, teas and liqueurs, all for sale at the abbey’s shop.

Nearby is the Monastery of Fara Sabina, occupied by a closed order of Clarissa nuns.  It holds the only museum in the world dedicated to silence (http://www.clarisseremite.com).  Located in a 7th century church within the complex, the museum is a creative means of encouraging silence and reflection in a noisy world.  The nuns have also laid a series ‘Trails of Silence’ that wind through the forests and gardens that surround the monastery.

Sunday:  get your boots on and go walking

There is plenty of great walking in the province of Rieti.  The Cammino of St Francis, a pilgrim route that dates from the 13th century, passes through Rieti on the way to the Vatican from Assisi (Hidden Italy has a self-guided walk following this route: www.hiddenitaly.com.au/self-guided-walks/page.aspx?p=65).  As part of the reconstruction of the earthquake damage, considerable effort has been made up in the mountains to repair and relaunch some of the region’s iconic walks.  The Club Alpino Italiano (CAI), the historic Italian mountaineering and walking association, has set up their regional centre in Amatrice, a beautiful one-hour (65 kms) drive into the mountains from Rieti (www.caiamatrice.it). 

Amatrice, still badly scared from the quake, sits on a high plain surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Laga Mountains, part of the Gran Sasso National Park in the central Apennine range.  It is an extraordinary setting, with rolling green pastures butting against the forested slopes of the mountains, scattered with small hamlets and a number of deep glacial lakes.   Because of its relatively benign climate and its strategic location on a system of valleys that link the Adriatic coast with Rome, Amatrice has a long history (there are traces of settlements dating from the second millennium BC).  

There is a range of walks in Amatrice that follow the historical trails that lead out of the town.  For example, there is an easy marked trail that leads across the plain following traces of the old salt road to, and around, Lake Scandarello.  There are some more challenging walks as well such as a 5 hour/8 km loop route from Amatrice to Serrarotta following the ancient droving trails and a 5 hour/10 km out and back walk from Amatrice to Mt Pizzitello. 

The Sentiero Italiano (a 4000 kms long marked trail that runs the whole length of the Italian peninsula and its islands, starting in Trieste and finishing in Sardinia) passes through Amatrice.  It is possible to pick up sections of this from the town, for example the 13 km long leg that heads south Campotosto, overlooking the large Lake Campotosto.

Apart from its great natural beauty, Amatrice is most famous throughout Italy for its gastronomic excellence and its signature dish, pasta amatriciana: a spicy, tomato-based pasta dish.  So celebrated is this dish (and as a way of giving the local economy a leg-up) that it is in the process of receiving the Traditional Speciality Guarantee (TSG) that will require anything labelled ‘Amatriciana’ to be prepared only with Amatrice pecorino (sheep cheese) and Amatrice guanciale (pork cheek).  The dish is in good company - TSG has only been granted to two other specialities in Italy so far: mozzarella and pizza.

Happily, the best place to try this dish is the historic Ristorante Roma, which has been run by the same family since 1897, and has recently reopened in the neighbouring hamlet, San Cipriano – well worth the drive up here alone.

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