My first visit to the region known as Sabina coincided with my first ever trip to Rome, years ago now, when I had booked six days in the city and then decided that one of them should be used to explore a small town within day-tripping distance. The list of potential destinations inside that radius is not exactly short – the countryside around Rome is full of small towns, a constellation of tiny dots with mysterious names filling up the map and making a choice difficult. My only requirements were that the town would be charming and that it could be reached, wandered, and then returned from within one day… using only public transport.
I ended up choosing a tiny town called Casperia, nestled deep into the rolling hills of Sabina and thoroughly off the edge of most tourist-oriented maps. I chose it quickly, the night before I left, based on the results of a couple of hasty searches. “Charming town near Rome”, I typed into Google, clicking into a result halfway down the page. There was a picture of a serpentine, cobblestoned street winding past a few ancient buildings. Another picture of olive trees. A small, grainy shot of a medieval-era village spilling precariously over a hillside. I was smitten. It was the ideal, archetypical Italian small town. The web site told me that the town, Casperia, a name I immediately mispronounced, was reachable by taking a short train trip and then switching to a bus, which would bring me right to the town’s main piazza. It sounded easy. It sounded foolproof.
The next morning, I found myself sitting on a dusty, graffiti-covered regional train – the kind of train so outdated that it gets relegated to the most insignificant routes, where it quickly gathers more dust and more graffiti – as it rumbled through Rome’s outskirts and headed out into the countryside. Following the directions from the website, I got off at Poggio Mirteto, an anonymous-looking station that appeared to be the only building around. Outside there were three buses, all unnamed, unnumbered and unmanned, idling by the curb. After wandering from person to person and asking “Casperia? Casperia?” while pointing at each bus in turn, I finally got onto one, which eventually lumbered off on a narrow road riddled with potholes and sharp curves. I was the only tourist on the bus. I got the impression that I might have been the only tourist to ever get on that bus.
The bus eventually reached Casperia. It was 2pm (things had not moved quite as quickly as I had envisioned). It was hot, the cracked pavement of the main piazza baking under a still-fiery September sun. It was also deserted. There was not a single person in sight. Shutters were closed tightly over every window, and metal grates had been pulled down over the entrances of the only two shops I could see.
Feeling my plans for a leisurely lunch and a wander through lively streets beginning to disintegrate under my feet, I trudged up one of the steep, cobbled streets radiating out from the piazza. There was a church at the top. It was locked tightly. It looked, in fact, like it hadn’t been opened in years. I trudged around a bit more – at one point, I crossed paths with an old man leaning heavily on a cane, the only person I had seen so far, and he stared at me in a way that suggested I might look slightly out of place. I stumbled across one single restaurant, which was, of course, thoroughly closed. Defeated, I headed back down to where the bus had dropped me off and waited.
And waited. And waited.
A single car crawled past, its driver eyeballing me curiously, then silence descended again. After an indeterminately long period of time (I was beginning to imagine a life of being stranded forever in an Italian ghost town), a tall, suntanned guy appeared in the doorway of one of the buildings, then loped across the piazza towards me and began to speak. In English! There would not, he explained regretfully (having accurately sized up my predicament by the way I kept staring at the bus stop sign and then down the road), be another bus until later in the evening. I was welcome to wait, he offered, otherwise the town’s policeman was preparing to finish up his shift and would be driving to the train station at Poggio Mirteto. He would be willing to give me a lift.
A few minutes later, I found myself sitting in the back seat – grateful, slightly confused, more than slightly embarassed – of an Italian policeman’s car. He was grey-haired, with a deeply browned face and the kind of rounded figure that suggested that police officers in Casperia didn’t have much of a reason to get out from behind their desks. My arrival and subsequent departure from Casperia was likely the most exciting thing that had happened all day. Making liberal use of the rear-view mirror, he insisted on conducting a lengthly one-sided conversation with me in rapid Italian, of which I understood not a single word. At one point, he stopped the car in front of a house and two more men, both wearing police uniforms, got into the car. Soon, they were all laughing. Although I’ll never know exactly what was said, I have no doubt as to what their laughter was directed towards: the hapless tourist who tried to visit Casperia.
Later, on the train, as the hills of Sabina flattened out and gave way to the buildings of Rome sliding past the windows, I decided that someday, I would go back.
This summer, wanting to escape from Rome for the day, I headed back to the Sabina region to give it another try. This time though, I went armed with the Italian language, three years of experience in handling Italian idiosyncrasies, a car, and Alessandro. Casperia, perhaps unsurprisingly, felt like a completely different place. We also visited the nearby town of Roccantica, which translates to “Ancient Fortress” and is as fascinating as the name suggests.
Last weekend, unseasonably warm for January and relatively clear-skied, we headed back to the area again – it would take a good number of day trips to visit every little town that makes up Sabina – and wandered through Castelnuovo di Farfa (as well as the abbey of Farfa, several kilometres away) and Toffia. And although Alessandro claims that they all look alike, I strongly disagree – each one has personality – and intend to visit them all, one by one.