Right on our door step - this Sunday's jaunt to Ariccia took 45 minutes, okay according to TomTom (the GPS system) it should have only taken 33 but then good old Tom doesn't always take into consideration that a whole lot of Romans are leaving the heat of the city on a Sunday morning. But the point is that within an hour's drive of the apartment there are wonderful towns to head to for a look-around, a meal - often a local specialty, a nice regional wine and a pleasant stroll.
The area is built on the remnants of a volcano which means the ground is fertile and it's been an agricultural area since people first settled in the area. Two of the craters form lakes - Albano and Nemi - which are a source of recreation for modern Romans as well as natural reservoirs for the surrounding communities.
The great Roman families of the Renaissance built summer palaces on the volcanic slopes of the area to escape the summer heat, stench and malaria of the swampy crowded city and enjoy the cool breezes of the hillsides. And of course the farms and forests around them provided produce, poultry, meat and game for their tables.
Ariccia was the summer stronghold of the Chigi papacy and the Palazzo - renovated to designs by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Alexander VII - was the summer home of the Chigi famly until they turned it over to the city in 1988. The Piazza and Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta in front of the Palazzo was also designed by the great Neapolitan born creator of much of what we see in Rome today.
Palazzo and Chiesa face each other across what once was a piazza and is now the main road into town. The fountains are capped with the familiar Chigi family crest. Bernini's church was modeled on the Pantheon. He had been instructed by Alexander to make it a "Pantheon Marian". The colonnades on either side, which once housed Papal offices, are now a bar and trattoria.
Behind the main altar is a fresco of the event that gives the church its name: the Assumption of the Virgin as painted by Jacques Cortois a Burgundian artist. The main decoration is the stucco work by Bernini's faithful disciple Antonio Raggi that adorns the dome. He also created the striking Evangelists stucco work for Bernini at San Tomaso di Villanova in Castel Gandolfo. And just in case there is any doubt who paid for the building of the church - there's that familiar Chigi crest again.
Church has always been theatre but in this case a church on Ariccia's Corso Garibaldi has been turned into a theatre. Town centre was almost empty on Sunday afternoon - but I discovered all the action was the other side of the Piazza - mind you it was kind of nice to have the place almost to ourselves. In the hot summer sun that bougainvillea was almost blinding in its intensity.
And it seems that each town in Castelli has its own specialties - food or wines. Frascati and Velettri are known for their wines; Nemi as I mentioned a few weeks ago is the strawberry capital of the region; and Ariccia is the home of porchetta. In the Piazza alone there are three take-aways serving only this local specialty. A boneless pork loin is rolled, stuff with herbs and slow roasted over a wood fire. Then it is sliced and served - most often cold - with various simple additions. Porcine heaven!
Corso Garibaldi ends at a belvedere overlooking the fertile farm lands of the region and it was there that we settled in for lunch at Spazio Art'è, an enoteca that was featured, so the owners proudly showed us, in a recent edition of La Cucina Italiana. The service was friendly and when I mentioned I had to be gluten-free they sprang into action showing what I could and couldn't have. So my anti-pasti was a sauted mixture of zucchini, arugula and ciccoria (chickory); followed by - what else? - Porchetta. The large plate of roast pork, enough that I took some home for dinner the next night, was served with prunes, pine nuts and a drizzle of balsamic reduction. Dolci was a tangy lemon semi-fredo which was a refreshing end to a very satisfying lunch. The meal was washed down with a very nice white "Vertus" from the region.
Though it would be nice to go back and see a bit more of the Palazzo - we took an hour long guided tour of the main rooms of the Piano Nobile, many of which were used by Lucchino Visconti in The Leopard. There were a few other areas that we had left unexplored and look definitely worth the visit. And another plate of porchetta wouldn't be so bad either.
13 luglio - San Dario