Nothing had changed. The routine was the same: pick up rental car, make our way out of Rome’s busy Leonardo Da Vinci airport and take the A12 highway north. It was the same pattern that we had followed countless times before. The silence this time made it different. Unlike the excited chatter between my husband and me about what we would be doing, the airplane ride, the delicious espresso customarily consumed at Fiumicino upon our arrival….this time there was none of that. His thoughts must have been the same as mine. I would have been willing to bet on that.
I was overcome by an unusual emotion that kept me silent, if slightly bemused. What was it? Unbounded joy? Apprehension? A sense of relief?
Two long years had just passed; years fraught with fear and uncertainty. At times, in the beginning, when Italy was crippled and brought to its knees by the staggering numbers of people afflicted and killed by the virulent disease that calls itself Covid 19, we all wondered whether we’d ever come back to the shores of this amazing country. By September 2020, 35,000 deaths were reported. Needless to say, things looked grim.
Then, as more and more countries succumbed to its deadly throes, we began to wonder if we’d even survive what had become by now a pandemic, much less travel again.
And now as we drove towards our destination, each lost in deep thoughts, one thing returned incessantly but joyously to my mind: We were back. We had weathered the long uncertain wait, and, we were back.
I was euphoric, yes…but, behind the euphoria there still existed a particular unease and concern that this crisis had left its mark. Perhaps, it wasn’t even over!
For now we travelled silently through the unfamiliar verdant landscape, just north of Rome. Our intention was to explore the less known area of Lazio. It is known as the land of the butteri, the legendary cowboys or horsemen who still today work the land as they have for centuries, and breed cattle throughout the rugged coastal region, not only of the Maremma, which is southern Tuscany, but also in northern Lazio— from the coast to the plains. At one time they used to drive the cows to Rome to be slaughtered. https://www.travelandleisure.com/culture-design/italian-butteri
Not many tourists and visitors to this part of Italy know that beyond the bountiful vineyards, beautiful countryside and famous hot spots between Florence and Rome, a vibrant cowboy culture has existed for thousands of years.
As a matter of fact, not many people who come to Lazio even travel outside of Rome. She is the magnet!
Who would come to Italy and not visit the splendour that is Rome? But, just outside of its circumscribed areas there are beautiful characteristic hill towns known as the Colli Romani that offer visitors fabulous food, spectacular views, fresh fine air and some well-known fine wines such as Frascati. Most make for the softly undulating hills of Tuscany to the north, or the majestic intoxicating Amalfi coast to the south. Few wander past this into the more rugged, inland areas of Lazio.
Lazio, is oftentimes overlooked because of its more beauteous neighbours. Its Maremma region, however, which includes much of south-western Tuscany, has an allure all of its own.
Now, as we crossed the verdant landscape, we noticed more and more signs indicating many lakes along the way. This area it seems, is dotted with lakes, volcanic craters, which today form great pools of blue; to the north of the capital lie some of the most beautiful, including Lake Bracciano, to which we were now headed.
I struggled to remember who of the great Italian poets of the post-Risorgimento wrote about this area. My husband remembers. It was Giosué Carducci, the poet that loved the Maremma.
A quick “google”ing finds the verse Professor Chandler so loved to recite to us in third year lit class:
pace dicono al cuor le tue colline
con le nebbie sfumanti e il verde piano
ridente ne le pioggie mattutine…
These words so perfectly describe what our own eyes were now contemplating.
the hills speak to your heart of peace with their fading mists and verdant plains all the while laughing in the morning rains …
As we cross Lazio, we glimpse picturesque mediaeval towns. Occasionally, coming over the soft hills appears a local on horseback riding down a steep, dusty path. As the road parallels his trail we follow him with our eyes to the bank of a lake.
We gain the panoramic road that allows us to circumnavigate the basin that is the Lago di Bracciano. The lake is only a quarter of the size of Lago di Como, but has a shoreline just as lovely, banked by many characteristic towns. Groupings of sand coloured buildings seem to jut into the lake. From our viewpoint, the different shades of blues of the sky and water, seem to merge together and dissolve into the horizon, a postcard picture delightfully framed by pale, shadowy hills.
Evening begins to descend. It is mid September after all. At this time last year we mostly sat glumly in front of the television screen flitting back and forth between the constant doomsday buzz of newscasters giving us alarmingly rising Covid statistics and the hypnotic control of Netflix series that we binged on.
Now, as we approach our destination, our apprehensions slide away and we emerge from a restraining chrysalis. The chateau looks heavenly, sitting in the middle of an expansive spa and thermal park. It is the Grand Hotel Terme di Stigliano, https://www.termedistigliano.it that sits in a secluded but scenic area just by the shores of the Lago di Bracciano. The residence boasts a long history claiming in its brochures to have been built on the remains of ancient Roman temples and offering hospitality to travellers since the 18th century.
Thermal baths –a great invention of the ancient Romans – were in fact, not only a place of well-being, but also where meetings were held, and appointments kept. The hot springs were accessible to everyone and even today, all over northern Lazio, this tradition is still alive; the baths can be accessed freely, where it is possible to enjoy all the benefits of these special waters.
Once settled in our small but charming room, I venture outside for a brief walk around the property. Although it is now dark my eye immediately spots a little minuscule church just to the right of the main terrace and entrance. I find the large wooden doors are bolted shut. I make myself a mental note to visit again in the morning.I head back now to prepare for what I anticipate will be a delightful dinner al fresco on the terrace.
The next morning brings a bright but hazy light. I step out onto the terrace off our room and am surprised that at such an early hour people are already up and headed for what I surmise are the mud baths and thermal waters. In the opaque, gauzy light of this particular morning, the white-robed figures slowly ascending the modest incline on the path that leads to the baths look humorously, and rather eerily, like aliens being beckoned back to their spaceship. Before my imagination loses control I turn back to my room and prepare for a brisk walk around the grounds.
The little church I had visited the night before is now open. It is a welcoming and quaint chapel with a few pleasant frescoes on the walls and ceilings. I consider how the least significant of artistic endeavours on the walls of churches in Italy are still glorious examples of artisanship in this country.
A walk around the wooded grounds and then a quick jaunt to the nearby city of Bracciano fill the morning. The town lies northwest of Rome, but this town is overshadowed somewhat by its more famous volcanic lake which is the eighth largest lake in Italy. It boasts the well preserved mediaeval Castello Orsini-Odescalchi. It is large and imposing but we are short of time and can’t visit inside. Too bad; it seems that this is where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes hosted their wedding reception. I’m curious, of course, but I maintain indifference and pretend in front of my husband that such frivolities don’t affect me. Argh!!
The evening promises to be a mild late summer idyll. The wide terrace is arranged with tables dressed in white linen and fine cutlery. Thankfully there are no lit candles; this would simply be too much romance for my husband. God forbid. Rather, the evening is made bright by a wholesome and amiable moon.
The meal is delectable, as we expected it to be, but perhaps it is simply the euphoria we feel for being in Italy again.
We thought, for a moment, to have lost her forever.
“Viva l’Italia che resiste”