A driving tour of the towns and villages north of Rome.
In this second article on the medieval hill towns around Rome, we’re focusing on is the Rieti Province, which is that part of the Lazio Region north of Rome. Again using Rome as the starting point, the driving tour includes 5 towns, with a total round-trip drive of about 155 miles — a comfortable one day tour. There are other towns along the way, such as Cottanello and Toffia, but they’re just more of the same and so were left out.
As we’ve pointed out in other driving tour articles, some towns may only be worth a drive through while others might require more time. Budget your time accordingly if you want to see everything, and try to plan ahead where you expect to have meals. You can find restaurants in each town on either yelp.com or tripadvisor.com. Winging it is not always a good idea when it comes to these small towns.
We also want to remind you to use a GPS so you don’t waste time getting lost, which can easily happen in Italy. And it’s best to plug in each town to your GPS before you leave home, save it, and then pull up each town from your saved destinations when you’re ready to move on. You should also print out the itinerary pages so you have a hard copy while on the road.
The map below lays out the full itinerary, and that’s followed by a very brief description of each town. We don’t provide a lot of specifics, e.g., descriptions of architecture, museum pieces, etc. We’re not experts in those areas and we think it best to leave that to those who are. We’ve provided website links for each town if you want that information. But we did include pictures so you can preview each town before you get there.
Finally, as we’ve also mentioned before, not every one of these towns will be a gem, but hopefully a few will turn you on. Regardless, you’re driving through the countryside of Italy and there’s lots to take in along the way. Sometimes it’s about the journey and not just the destination.
CASTEL DI TORA — 52 MILES
Castel di Tora is a small village located on the lake of the same name. It’s origins date back to about 1000 AD, and was first named Castelvecchio. It’s name was changed in 1864 after the unification, in honor the ancient Roman, Thora Thiora. From the 11th through the 18th centuries, the town was under the control of various landlords — first the Abbey of Farfa, followed by the Orsini family, then to Estouteville, back to Orsini, then to the Borghese family, then to Lante Della Rovere, then to the Gentiles, then to the Princess of the Dragon, and finally to the Papal States.
Through it all, Castel di Tora has retained it’s ancient character, and is certified as one of Italy’s most beautiful medieval villages. It’s a quiet town, which is not surprising with only 300 or so residents, and has a splendid panorama, wonderful old town center, lots of the narrow streets and arches, little alleyways, a medieval castle, small piazzas, and lots of steps. If you visit, be prepared to walk up those steps to get to the town center.
To learn more, go to visitlazio.com
RIETI — 20 MILES
Originally, Riete was a city of the Sabine nation, but became part of the Roman empire after it was conquered in the 3rd century BC. It’s location made it a strategic point on the Roman salt road (Via Salaria), which linked Rome to the Adriatic Sea.
As with all of these towns, they’ve known their share of misery. It was conquered by Barbarians after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, was sacked by the Saracens in the 9th and 10th century, then by Roger II of Sicily in 1149, and then again by the Kingdom of Naples.
Rieti is a fairly large city, and a good part of it is modern. When you arrive follow the signs to “Centro Storico” — that will bring you to the old part of town. You’ll know you’re close when you see the original walls that enclosed the city. If in doubt, just head for Il Duomo.
There’s a lot to see in Rieti beyond just strolling through the narrow streets. For example, you can take a guided tour of underground Rieti, where you will see of vaults, architraves, and ancient passageways. Those who have done so describe it as unexpectedly fascinating, and it may be worthwhile to check it out if you have the time.
For learn more, go to visitrieti.com
LABRO — 13 MILES
Labro is quite small — in fact, it’s so small that a detailed guide on the town doesn’t seem to exist, probably because it’s not warranted. No matter, you may still love it. It has it’s share of stone house and winding cobblestone streets and alleyways, and even a castle dating from the 10th century, despite its size. It deserves a quick visit for its well-preserved historic center, which has allowed it to retain its identity as a medieval town.
Getting into Labro requires that you park your car outside the center and walk up, and there are lots of steps. If you’re not up to that, the road that circles the town and the parking areas off the road offer pretty amazing views of the countryside. But if you decide to make the effort, you will feel transformed in time, and the views of the surrounding area are even more spectacular. In fact, it’s the views that are really the highlight of this visit.
CONTIGLIANO — 14 MILES
Contigliano was built on top of the Roman ruins of Quintilianus and it’s castle was one of Rieti’s strongholds going back to in the Canera Valley going back to at least the 10th century AD. It is a typical hill top town for this area, with a preserved and very well-kept historic center, cobblestone streets and alleys, medieval stone buildings, some palaces from the 1500 and 1600’s, interesting little arch covered by-ways, and fantastic views of the surrounding area. Of the castle, only the defensive walls and two gates are still standing.
The town has an interesting tradition. On August 7, 1501, the castle was defeated by mercenaries under Cesare Borgia and over half the population was murdered for having denied the army provisions, and for throwing a rock that hit the commander in the face. Every year, the residents reenact the event, including the throwing of the rock, and of course including a Palio. The week before the Palio, workshops and restaurants along the alleys are open, and items are purchased items with a special currency that’s made for the occasion.
CASPERIA — 14 MILES
Casperia sits on a rocky outcrop and is considered as one the most picturesque medieval villages in the area. In 1852, the German historian, Gregorovius, described his experience in the town: “In all my travels I have never beheld a panorama of such heroic beauty as that offered to me from the top of the hill in the territory of Aspra (the old name for Casperia). It is truly a paradise on earth!”
Casperia is totally pedestrianized and has fewer than 350 inhabitants, and is one of the last villages of Italy that doesn’t have a tourist feel to it. The town has retained all of it’s medieval ambiance, with winding cobble-stoned streets, narrow alley-ways, and stone buildings.
As is typical of these hill towns, you have to park on the outer rim of Casperia and walk up into the historic center. That again means lots of steps — getting there and getting around. But then again, you’re in the Sabine Mountains and the views from the town are breath-taking.
To learn more, go to visitlazio.com