Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 21, 2017

© Photo courtesy Philippe Erhard

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I Prescribe a Trip to... The Sabine Hills

Hike Italy's mountains north of Rome with an MD from Manitoba

Climbing steadily under a menacing sky, Heather and I struggled among loose rocks on a steep trail along a deep valley. “Why is this called the Sabine Hills?” Heather asked. “I don’t see hills, I see mountains.”

At times we were at the edge of a cliff, the summit hiding in the darkening clouds. “At least it’s not raining,” I said. “It would be tricky if wet.”

The Sabine Hills, just one hour north of Rome, is an undiscovered area of Italy, even for the Romans. We had left our beautiful bed and breakfast, Locanda Bellarmino (locandabellarmino.com), and the narrow cobblestone streets of Contigliano, our first hilltop village, that morning. White, yellow, blue, purple and pink flowers dotted the forest, brightening our progression.

Our guidebook noted that the gate coming up was “a vicious barbed-wire, branch and string affair;” an intriguing description and a good introduction to the many Italian “gates” we encountered along the way.

They were all unique, sometimes defying description. Posts pointed in all directions, and the fences were made of wires, strings and sometimes pieces of clothe. They all had an unusual opening system. This one was easy to figure out: the posts were almost horizontal so we climbed over. Not that vicious after all.

The view at the top reminded us of Switzerland, with open pastures, grazing cows and fields of flowers. It was the perfect place to lie down on a sunny day, but we were forced to eat our lunch standing under the illusory protection of a tree while it rained.

Suddenly, we saw two large white dogs running toward us. This is it; we escaped the barbed wire and long climb along a precipice only to be attacked by mean dogs. We had no idea where they came from and watched helplessly as they got closer. We quickly realized that they were more interested in our food.

When the rain finally stopped, it got warmer quickly. The sun came out, dried everything, and we lay down in the grass to enjoy the view of forest-covered mountains dotted with farms overlooking open pastures and stone houses. We tried to finish our lunch. The size of it made me wonder if Viviana, the owner of our B&B, thought we might get lost and wander the countryside for days.

Our descent was slow and gentle, but became steeper as the trail disappeared. The abundant and reassuring markings on the trees brought us down quickly. Suddenly, the dark forest opened to a sunny field, a fence and a stone house: Francesca’s place.

We immediately felt like we’re visiting a friend, a sentiment we experienced every night of the trip. Francesca welcomed us to the Casa d’Artista (casadartista.it) with a bottle of wine, and introduced us to her two dogs and some of her 12 cats. We sat outside, enjoying the sun and the company of a British couple hiking like us. In the evening, over a delightful meal, we listened to some of her life story in a mixture of Italian and English.

Climb to the top

“Don’t forget to send me a postcard,” Francesca shouted at the gate. “For my collection!” “Of course we will,” we yelled back. We left our new friend and followed a path overgrown with knee high grass full of dew. We hiked through the forest along a pleasant, but rocky trail and then suddenly, at a turn, Cottanello appeared in front of us.

The hilltop village was so inspiring after the shade and monotony of the forest so we sat down to admire it. It felt like we could jump across the valley to reach the village in one giant step.

Rows of houses circled a church steeple, the highest point, with forests and hills in the background. It looked minuscule from our viewpoint, but Cottanello was bigger than expected.

We bought our lunch at a small food store, said “Ciao!” to three elderly men seated on a bench who were watching us with interest and then left the village via a thigh-burning trail that used to be the town’s entranceway in Roman times. I had difficulty imagining loaded carts going up or down the steep road.

When we reached the bottom of the valley, we spread out on the grass to eat our mortadella sandwiches. We didn’t see any more cows — but we did see horses disguised as Swiss cows with bells around their necks.

That day we learned a local hiking law: getting to a village required a steep, but rewarding, climb up. Casperia, our destination for the day, was no exception.

We entered the flowery village through an arch and arrived at a sophisticated palazzotto called La Torretta (latorrettabandb.com). Our large room overlooked the village’s roofs and the valley.

The village was a picture of paradise. Bright geraniums illuminated the austere façade of the stone houses. Cobblestone streets weaved under archways past vaulted wooden doors, colourful windowsills and flashy linen flapping in the wind.

From the terrace, our eyes flew over the immensity of the scenery. A small road from the village connected lonely farms, passing flocks of sheep, slowly climbing a field dominated by forest-covered hills.

Lost in the woods

Heather had been fighting a worsening cold and decided to take advantage of the available ride with the luggage and take a day of rest. When I left, she was waiting for the driver and trying to translate the front page of an exciting newspaper article: Berlusconi has been charged with fraud.

But the world news and even Berlusconi don’t affect the fortified village of Roccantica. It seemed more animated than the previous ones and the usual three elders on a bench were watching my arrival.

A frail, elderly woman walked slowly up a narrow twisting street, using a cane and holding a bag. Her presence conveyed a feeling of serenity and eternity — a melodious medieval adagio. Suddenly, the tempo changed. A young man walked up to her and started a joyful conversation in that lively Italian way.

The trail followed a dirt road, and climbed gently and steadily up the Valle de Galantina. The village disappeared as I reached a pass and started my descent. According to my guidebook, I shouldn’t worry about the lack of signs in this part of the trail, and I didn’t — until I reached a paved road that didn’t fit the description in the guide.

I was lost.

Too confident, I must have missed a turn. I studied the map and it looked like I might be able to rejoin the trail by turning left. I was a bit nervous about adventuring in unmarked territory, but I eventually got back on track after passing a clear, babbling stream. The forest opened up to a flowery meadow, a perfect spot to eat my lunch — and lie down in the middle of white and yellow flowers to enjoy the peace, sun and scenery.

I climbed again and past an attractive stone building called Osteria Faducchi before arriving at a pass where the next valley was visible. The trail dropped suddenly and was described as “an adventurous way down.” The challenge was not so much the precipitous slopes, but identifying the trail.

Cows had created their own path, one more travelled and obvious than ours, and the faded markings were not easy to find. Several times, I was unsure of where to go. I’d stop, look around and climb again to find the previous mark, then scout around until I finally spotted the next one. It was a time consuming exercise that I had to repeat several times. I wouldn’t want to be there in the evening — or rainy conditions.

I arrived to see Heather sitting in the sun, reading and feeling much better. We were at Il Fienile di Orazio (fienilediorazio.it), an isolated biological farm. Even the small village of Misciani was invisible from here.

Mauro made a fire in the dining room and proudly presented his homemade salami and wine. We were treated to another beautiful meal with pasta followed by pork and lamb chops. Mauro’s wife, who teaches at a university twice a week in Rome, came later to help.

A cultural experience

On day four, we were back to our old routine: going up and down. The day went so fast that we were almost surprised to arrive at Le Mole sul Farfa (lemolesulfarfa.com).

“The swimming pool is open,” Elizabeth said, as she welcomed us to the B&B. Stephano, her husband, made arrangements for the next day; we had to visit his Villa Romana and his olive plantation.

Our “cultural day” began like any other: a steep hill down then the usual climb up, this time to Castelnuovo di Farfa. A lady, who was watching us from a window at the entrance of the village, gestured for us to go up the street to an archway where she would meet us. Margharita was proud to take us to her apartment and her small family museum of farm articles used by her ancestors.

When we arrived at the Benedictine Abbey of Farfa (abbaziadifarfa.com), our timing was perfect for a tour of its cloisters and archeological museum. Then we visited Stephano’s Villa Romana, a stone shepherd’s dwelling that changed his life.

Under it, he discovered an arched opening, obstructed by centuries of refuse and manure. Intrigued, he started an 11-month cleaning with the help of volunteers from around the world. He discovered tunnels leading to multiple rooms, and a unique oil producing and storing system.

His hard work was rewarded in a true Italian fashion. Elizabeth arrived as a volunteer from Belgium and they fell in love. They married and are now raising their first bambino.

Stephano’s enthusiasm was contagious as he took us through his almost 2000-year-old olive plantation. Three donkeys, in charge of cutting the grass, welcomed us. We walked around olive trees bent by age and disease. Their trunks were sometimes hollow in the middle, the result of drastic “surgical resection” of fungus diseases over the years. Despite their geriatric appearance, they are still alive and productive.

We climbed a chamomile field and saw Castelnuovo on the other side of the valley and further away the Abbey of Farfa. Sheep were grazing peacefully on isolated farms. The bucolic and harmonious view has likely remained the same for centuries.

We were a bit nostalgic to leave such an enchanting place that felt like home, but Rome and its intriguing streets were waiting for us. On our last night in the beautiful B&B, we went online to browse On Foot Holidays’ website, a British agency that organizes self-guiding treks in Europe.

“Where will we go next?”

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