Nature runs riot and creates a magical, sometimes mystical, atmosphere. And when nature becomes inspiration, works of art are born; those woods where eyes and heart are opened, where you can feel the desire to lose and then find yourself, a bit like what happened to Alice in Wonderland.
Let’s take a look at Lazio’s fairytale woods where you might even encounter some elves…
We begin with Treja Park, east of Lake Bracciano, an enchanted forest that grows between Mazzano Romano and Calcata, less than 50 km from Rome. The nature reserve is a pot-pourri of slopes, hills and cliffs created by the ancient Sabatino and Vicano volcanoes that influenced the geological features of the area with the Bracciano and Vico lakes: the eruptions covered the rocks, while the weather and the slow-flowing surface waters carved the valleys.
The Falisci and Etruscan temples stand out from this natural backdrop along with the ruins of medieval churches and old dirt roads that open out on to the Treja River waterfalls. Next we come to the Monte Gelato waterfall, a thunderous show that has captured the imagination of film makers since the ‘50s: from Rossellini’s “The Flowers of St. Francis” to Zeffirelli’s “Sparrow”, from “Wanted”, the spaghetti western with Giuliano Gemma, to Orson Welles in the adventurous “Treasure Island” and in “Don Quixote”, passing by the unforgettable Franco and Ciccio in “Two Mafiamen in the Far West” and the commedia all’italiana film by and with Nino Manfredi, “Between Miracles”.
But let’s get back to the narrow gorge where the Treja flows, curiously, in the opposite direction to the sea through majestic specimens of poplars, elms, alders, willows and black elderberry. This is a small tree with blackish purple fruits with which jams are made and which blooms in May and June with large canopies of white flowers used in aromatic pancakes and in an ancient recipe for vinegar. Roman women used elder ashes to dye their hair blond while the wood was used to build whistles and flutes for sambucistrie, the musicians portrayed on Attic vases, and triangular harps called sambukè.
And then there is Via Amerina! Land and water routes created an important network that allowed Rome, for about seven centuries, to control the Mediterranean basin. With fortified villages, mysterious castles and cemeteries, the Via Amerina has wound through the Treja valley since the third century BC. Its name derived from the ancient city of Ameria, where the first section of the road ends.
Under the shade of trees and ruins, porcupines, wild boar and buzzards roam and, who knows, maybe some elves with pointy ears … try to catch them!
Let’s move a little further north to the ancient beech forest in the Cimini mountains and, as if by magic, we find ourselves in the fantasy world of Alice in Wonderland, surrounded by large old trees that rise between boulders covered with moss. A spectacular picture that only nature could paint, so sublime that it was named a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2017.
Gigantic beech trees stand proudly 50-metres tall, the diameter of their trunk measuring over one metre. They have a two-centuries-old stories to whisper in the silence of the forest. A fabulous path that meanders slowly, on foot, horseback or mountain bike, in Soriano nel Cimino, about 80 km from Rome.
Follow the White Rabbit to reach the summit of Mount Cimino and see the great masses of volcanic rock that have remained there, dormant, after the eruptions a million years ago. Today they are a challenge for daredevils that go bouldering. A particular Mecca for those who love this type of climbing is the Sasso Naticarello, also known as the Sasso Menicante, a trembling rock mentioned even by Pliny the Elder in his “Naturalis Historia”, a huge “egg” 8 metres long and 6 wide, for a height of 3 metres and a weight of about 250 tonnes, balanced on a rocky ledge at the edge of a beech forest.
Who would have imagined that the dreaded “silva Ciminia”, that gloomy place, sacred and impassable for the ancient Romans, so much so that they built temples dedicated to Jupiter Cimino, would be trodden by the cameras of famous films such as Monicelli’s “The Marquis of Grillo” and Richard Fleischer’s “Yado”, and for the 2019 TV series “The Name of the Rose”?
On the subject of mysteries, we must move on to the Sacred Grove of Bomarzo where the puzzles are many!
Fantastic and grotesque sculptures designed and scattered throughout a wooded area with no apparent logic by the architect Pirro Ligorio, the creator of the fountains of Villa d’Este in Tivoli, and by Vicino Orsini in mid-16th century.
In an undulated landscape surrounded by wild vegetation, the large boulders left behind by earthquakes have taken on a life of their own, artfully carved to create an original Monster Park, very different from the elegant formal gardens in vogue at the time.
Illogical and at times scary, the Sacred Grove is a maze of symbols, often huge, which generate mixed feelings that fade from nightmares to amazement. This crazy encounter of art, literature and nature was inspired by the chivalrous poems where “sacred” means “bewitched”, just like this place.
Enigmatic inscriptions referring to Ariosto and Petrarch, constructions that seem to be in a precarious balance, huge monstrous masks and mysterious mythological animals come to confuse, mixing and overlapping symbols hidden in every niche, and inspiring eclectic artists such as Salvador Dalì.
Perhaps there is no hidden meaning, perhaps there is no “right answer”. Is that what is being suggested by the inscription “Sol per sfogare il core” (just to ease the heart)?
Still stunned and enveloped by doubts, we cannot resist the temptation to visit the Etruscan Pyramid of Bomarzo, less than 5 km from the Sacred Grove. A far more ancient mystery, a real truncated pyramid of unknown origin in the heart of Tuscia.
On a small terrace overlooking the Fosso Castello valley, we can delight in an excellent view over the hamlet of Chia and the castle where Pier Paolo Pasolini lived. Here, between high cliffs of peperino rock, there lies a huge stone, about 16 metres high, into which various steps leading to an alter were carved.
Some believe it to be a 7th century BC Etruscan work while others talk of a “mythical” prehistoric civilization that allegedly lived in Viterbo Teverina as early as 4000 BC, the Rinaldones, also mentioned in the Old Testament due to their extraordinary size and their ability to dig into stone, building their homes and their tombs in the cliffs. For the Rinaldones it may have been a platform for observing the stars, while for the Etruscans it might have been a sanctuary, but it is undeniably a sacrificial site, as evidenced by the presence of drains.
It underwent several changes over the centuries, especially in the Middle Ages, but an aura of mystery continues to flutter about this monument.
Let’s not linger but continue on to the Sasseto Forest! They call it Snow White’s forest and it is located at the foot of the Torre Alfina castle, one of the most beautiful towns in Italy.
At Acquapendente, in the heart of the Monte Rufeno Nature Reserve, the overwhelming beauty of the monumental Sasseto forest allowed it to be selected as one of the “20 most enchanting places in Italy” by Swide magazine.
Oaks, beech trees and holly with dishevelled secular branches, boulders wrapped by green moss and ruffled ferns that surround the paths, while through the twisted and lumpy branches you can catch glimpses of the battlements of the Monaldeschi castle, the ancient water mill, the Fosso Subissone waterfall, in the Aquilonaccio area, and the tomb of Marquis Cahen.
Here is the story of a man who, at the end of 19th century, loved this wild place so much that he chose to make it his final resting place. It is the story of Edoardo Cahen, the marquis who started the Italian branch of a family of Belgian bankers of Jewish origin. He bought a large estate in Torre Alfina that included the castle, part of the village and the underlying wilderness that was impenetrable at the time. He created a maze of trails in this monumental forest in perfect harmony with nature and a small mausoleum in neo-Gothic style for himself, hidden among the plants of this enchanted forest.
In these 50 hectares you can regenerate your soul, become a child once again and, with your nose to the sky, say: WOW!
Are you ready for the silence, the howling of the wind blowing through your hair? Are you ready to stop time, to get lost and then find yourself again?