A region of rolling hills topped with pretty churches and dotted with vineyards and olive groves, Fiuggi provides a perfect base from which to explore famous Italian cities, says ANGUS MCDONALD.
View of the old town.
IT HAD been a long, sweltering day by the time we left for Fiuggi. It was five o'clock and we were wilting after six hours traipsing around the Vatican. With feet sore from pounding the polished marble floors and necks stiff from staring at the magnificent ceilings, we boarded the bus with
weary relief. Rome is without a doubt one of the great cities of the world, but with the temperature hovering around 35 degrees, it could have been Delhi in midsummer.
And so, after about half an hour on the highway, the rolling hills in the distance were a welcome sight. Soon we were amongst those hills and, just an hour and twenty minutes out of Rome, we arrived at what was to be our home for the next four nights. A cool breeze was blowing through the trees as we checked into the Hotel Silva Splendid at Fiuggi.
We exhausted the sights of modern Fiuggi the next morning, with visits to the town's two spas. The place is famous for its mineral water, which apparently has great healing properties for kidney stones.
Pleasant and affordable
But for those lucky enough not to be burdened with this particular affliction, Fiuggi is a pleasant, highly affordable base from which to explore the surrounding area. Not only is it within striking distance of Rome, Florence and Naples, it is also at the heart of Lazio, a region of rolling hills topped with pretty churches and cross hatched with vineyards and olive groves.
We picked up our guide the next morning. Sylvia was obviously multilingual and much in demand by groups from different parts, because she often dropped French or German words into her commentary without realising it.
But she made up for it with her enthusiasm for the region's history, which stretched back a good five centuries before the arrival of the Romans. As if to prove the point, we stopped at the acropolis of Arpino, which dated to the 7th Century B.C. Its walls are known as Cyclops walls, named after the mythical one-eyed giant because of the massive stone blocks with which they are constructed. They are so well made that they still stretch for three kilometres, without room to insert so much as a razor blade between the stones. Its builders hadn't figured out how to make an arch - the technical breakthrough that helped the Romans build an empire - but their pentagonal gate still stands as rock solid as the day it was put up.
From the Cyclops walls we made our way to the Ciclope restaurant nearby, whose owners believe in truly gigantic portions, then took time for a quick snooze amongst the olive trees before heading for the Abbey of Casamari.
Founded by the Benedictines in the 10th Century, Casamari was taken over by the Cistercians in the 13th. The perfectly proportioned church, cloisters, chapter hall and refectory still bore the austere elegance of the order, but monk numbers are down from 100 to 20. The only one we saw was in the abbey's shop, happily dispensing wine, grappa, jam and chocolate, all manufactured in-house.
Further down the valley lay the magnificent Abbey of Montecassino, rebuilt after being reduced to rubble during World War Two and one of the most important monuments in the Christian world. In the following days we took in a handful of other towns, all delightful hilltop mazes of cobbled streets and stone walls ablaze with geraniums, where at any moment you were liable to come across some remarkable remnant of the Romans, or relic of a saint, or reminder of a local who went on to become pope and change the world.
We spent a final afternoon wandering through the postcard-perfect streets of Fiuggi's old town. Then, our little holiday over, we were ready to launch ourselves on Rome again.
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