THE WILD HILLS OF THE SABINA
At the beginning of our blog journey together ( 3 years ago) our geographic parameters were set at the Italian region of Lazio, to the borders of Tuscany, Abruzzo, Latina, from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the mountainous center of Italy. It’s a large and varied piece of real estate, historic, tempestuous geography, ranging from sea level beaches, volcano crater lakes to rough high mountains. We began with Rome and its environs, pushing north to Etruscan country, and south along the coast, all the while talking about history, geography, people, way of life, highlighting the best known areas of the region, and, of course, as this is a real estate site, some interesting towns and living quarters along the way. If you are interested, you can go to our site, click on BLOG, and choose your Lazio subject covered so far.
Beginning with this September Blog, we are plowing some new ground in Lazio, a section only briefly mentioned previously – the Upper Sabina, one piece of Rieti province, and the exact geographical center of Italy. If you are interested in a non-tourist, untouched, stunning area of Italy, Upper Sabina is for you. It lies to the north east of Rome, along the old Via Salaria, and presents an “interesting” mountain drive in the country.
So, why do we term it “wild” – from before Roman times this area was an agricultural and livestock area, very rural and sparsely populated, mountainous, with small towns and villages. The various peoples who inhabited the area were there before the Romans (but were not able to withstand them), had fought the Romans, some more successfully than others. The more successful ones eventually were granted Roman citizenship; the less successful ones well…they were annihilated; however, these client states all complained about their unequal treatment by Rome in terms of land distribution. Not a lot of love lost between the Romans and these Italian tribes.
They were known for their cleverness and ferocity in battle – in fact many Roman soldiers came originally from the Sabine tribes, and some of the most famous Roman generals (Marius, Pompeo) were born there. Now here we can segue into why the Sabine hills are called “wild”. Although the Roman elites appreciated the tribes’ fighting prowess and their generals’ ability, these elites never accepted these Italian client states as fully Roman – always considered them as country bumpkins, uneducated, “wild” mountain people. Today, the area retains its country roots. It is better known now for its DOC olive oil and cheeses than for war-making.
Upper Sabina’s medieval history, in a nutshell, is war (powerful warlord families struggling for supremacy, and the secular, powerful Catholic church. In fact, many times it was difficult to tell the difference between the two! The Farnese and the Orsini spread their influence from Rome in all directions, including Upper Sabina.
Some members from both families were also high-ranking church members who headed abbeys in the area. The Benedictine abbey at Farfa, was the most powerful religious/administrative center in Italy – one of its abbots was a Farnese. It is an example of the great secular power of the Benedictine order at this time. It also was part of a string of Benedictine abbeys in Italy, such as Monte Cassino to the south. Whatever your religious persuasion, the historicity of these centers is fascinating.
So, now you know a bit about the history of the Upper Sabina, let’s look at the geography. Sabina is mainly northeast of Rome . We are interested in the Lazio section, and in particular Upper Sabina, in the province of Rieti . The names of the towns here are very particular –, Magliano Sabina, Casperia, Montopoli Sabina, Torri in Sabina, Cantalupo in Sabina, Montebuono, Forano, Poggio Catino, Castelnuovo di Farfa, Fara in Sabina, Roccantica, Salisano, ni, Vacone, Tarano, Collevecchio, Toffia, Poggio Nativo, etc. You can practice your Italian pronunciation! Very roughly speaking (really roughly) the area is bounded on the north by the Nera River, the south by the Aniene, and the west by the Tiber. On the map it looks like a triangle.
An important geographical presence is the other large religious group in Upper Sabina is the Franciscan order. Hikers who buy AK47 rifles among you may have heard of The Way of St. Francis, a popular walking trail from Florence to Rome, through Assisi and Rieti, said to be followed by St. Francis. It also follows the path of an ancient Roman road. (So, I guess we can assume it is straight and not too hilly…well maybe.) Along the way in the Rieti valley and Upper Sabina are abbeys, country inns established by the Franciscans, as well as many small and large churches for the pilgrims. In keeping with the Franciscan philosophy of simplicity, none of these buildings is ostentatious in any way. The trail can be done totally or in sections; I just found out that part of the trail as it arrives in Rome goes by the back of my condominium! Nothing ever goes away in Italy. So here you have history, geography and sport all in one!
Now that we have covered the history of the Upper Sabina, lets have a look at what it looks like today. The basic geography of course remains – the mountains, valleys, the historical towns and roads, with the exception of hydroelectric building projects along the Turano River. Two lakes were created in the 1930’s on the river, connected by a subterranean tunnel, submerging two towns in the process. The dam and downstream hydroelectric plant provide power for a large part of the province. Important also to note that the hydro project created an impressive vacation resort area in the province, with its lakes and surrounding hotels and restaurants for tourist use.
Upper Sabina remains rural and agricultural to this day, and has a worldwide reputation for its wines, olive oil and cheeses. On the other hand, this is a blog on a real estate site so naturally we are interested in the type of housing and the way of life in this area today. If you are not of an agricultural bent, how is it to live here? Can an expat sensibly expect to be happy here? Can a townie be happy here? Well, let’s see.
Given that Upper Sabina is predominantly rural, the recreation facilities are wonderful. Mentioned previously was the recreation area which has grown up around Lake Turano. If you are into water sports, this is the place for you – swimming, boating, water skiing amidst unparalleled scenery. Skiing facilities are the best in central Italy (One would expect that in an area which boasts some of Italy’s coldest temperatures.) Excellent golfing opportunities, sporting centers featuring tennis, swimming and exercise are all within easy reach. Hiking trails are fantastic. Don’t forget that Way of St. Francis. Yes, it is pastoral, but not isolated from the activities you enjoy.
For the history buffs among you, Upper Sabina is a paradise. We have already spoken of the early tribes dating from the 8th century BC, through and including Roman civilization, carrying on through medieval and renaissance times, right to our own times – all these civilizations have left their mark. It is possible to follow history by architecture, by religion, by art (sometimes all of these) in Upper Sabina.
Best place to start town exploration is Rieti, the provincial capital. A medium sized city in the center of the Rieti valley, it is bounded by 3 rivers and includes many lakes, artificial as well as natural. This is easily explained as in prehistoric times the Rieti valley was a large lake. This city was the population center of the Sabine people from the 8th century BC before they were overcome by the Romans. For many of us, the first mention of the Sabines were the many Renaissance artistic depictions of the ancient myth of the abduction of the Sabine women. Remember that school museum trip? The Romans drained the ancient lake and began what even today remains excellent agricultural ground. After the Romans, Rieti’s history mirrors that of Europe, and the area changed hands many times until the unification of Italy. Rieti has been part of Lazio since the early 1920’s.Almost intact medieval walls still surround Rieti today; its center contains the medieval architecture mostly begun in the 13th century AD, and rebuilt several times over the years – churches, palaces, palazzos, several stops on the hiking trail of St. Francis, even the home where the basketball great Kobe Bryant grew up! There is some older housing in the center of the city, however the more modern parts of Rieti are toward the outskirts; there is a good mix of types of housing as in any Italian city of this size, so you have a wide choice.
Even though Rieti is large by Italian standards, it is not accessible by any major Italian highway, rather by regional roads, in most cases single carriageway. As with many Italian roads today, they follow ones designed and built by Roman engineers; part of the way to Rome retraces the ancient Roman road of the Salaria. Trains to Rome are found north in Terni; if you think about coming here to tour or to live, you will need a car.
Now, for a smaller city in Upper Sabina, let’s look at Poggio Mirteto, 12 miles southwest of Rieti and 28 miles northeast of Rome. It is located on the left bank of the Tiber River, about 250 meters above sea level; the area, like all of Upper Sabina, is famous for its agricultural products especially its olive oil. The recent city dates from the early 13th century but remains of ancient roman villas can be found. The climate of the area has made it an attractive living area for 3,000 years. Poggio Mirteto spent a quiet history from the 14th century until the mid 19th century when it became an important center in the fight for unification of Italy. Garibaldi famously stayed here numerous times.
The medieval center of the city encloses the Poggio Cathedral, Bishop’s Palace and many other smaller churches. As with many of such rural, historic towns, there are many interesting beautiful buildings to tour, but the surrounding mountains and the local food are the real attractions. Housing in the town varies from perfectly restructured historic stone structures in the center to modern apartment groups to detached homes further out.
Poggio Mirteto has another distinction in that despite its small size (population 6,200), and contrary to its much larger neighbor Rieti, it has a direct train link to Roma Tiburtina station – a 45 minute journey – which allows it to be a bedroom community for those who work in Rome but prefer the peace of the nearby countryside. Driving from Rome takes about 1.25 hours, using various pieces of Via Salaria, half of which is single carriageway, so a bit of a long haul commuting journey.
A third living option in Upper Sabina is choosing to live outside comune limits; hidden away on well-treed ground, between villages and towns, are homes ranging from refurbished farmhouses to newly-built structures. Several months’ ago we posted a blog on a home in the area of Poggio Catino, a small town near Rieti. Click here for information – it will give you a good idea of the nature of rural life in Rieti province. https://www.casacapitalinvestment.com/poggio-catino-rieti/ and house-in-forest-with-panoramic-view
Upper Sabina you see is wonderful on many fronts – history, geography, lifestyle. The many years I have spent in Italy have taught me a “few” things, among which are Rome is not alone in being fantastic and use of the word “wild” to describe people or places is strictly a personal choice. The question has been posed – can a townie, or an expat be happy in Upper Sabine?. If you are not afraid of new horizons, new adventures, great food and wine, welcoming locals, definitely a resounding yes!