Lying half-way between the Alpine border with Switzerland and the southern shore of Calabria this small hilltop town in northern Lazio is just a very small dot on the map that no-one would ever happen upon unless it was your intended destination. Not only is it half-way north to south but it’s also half-way from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic coastlines and, in fact, less than 20 miles away as the crow flies is the officially measured center of the Italian peninsula, commemorated with a stone marking the spot in a dense forest that requires a one mile hike to reach. For those interested, the exact spot in the photos below is just outside Narni in southern Umbria.
Arriving from Narni, as we did, is not a bad way to approach Casperia because your very first sight of the town is against the majestic backdrop of the Monti Sabini (top photo). The whole aspect of Casperia is west facing with expansive views across the Tiber valley towards the mountain ridges of Monte Soratte on the outskirts of Rome.
To the east the Monti Sabini present a formidable barrier with several peaks rising quickly to 4,000 feet so even though Rieti looks very close on the map you have to traverse the high mountain pass of Valico di Fontecerro to get there.
However, Casperia’s isolated position on the map belies its convenience and accessibility, especially from Rome. The autostrada del sole from Florence to Rome is reachable in 20 minutes making Rome barely more than an hour’s drive away (and Florence perhaps 2.5 hours on a good day) and therein lies the secret to the recent resurgence of this beautiful town.
But this doesn’t fully explain why Casperia has been so well restored and seems to be on the cusp of really flourishing because there are lots of neglected villages that are just as close to major population centers that have been allowed to deteriorate and depopulate to such an extent that many of them are destined to fade away completely, especially given Italy's disturbing demographic trend line.
We weren’t in town long enough to discover how it all gathered momentum but the natural beauty of its setting coupled with the seeming prosperity of the surrounding olive oil industry has probably contributed to making Casperia a long term survivor. More importantly perhaps, the recent rise of home-working, though not as pronounced in Italy as in other countries, makes this a perfect spot for Romans wishing to escape the heat, traffic and tourism that plague Rome in the summer months.
And this was borne out by a conversation we had at dinner with Paolo, a Friuli native transplanted to Rome who had purchased one of the remarkably cheap and fully restored properties in the centro storico. As a writer, producer and director Paolo also exemplifies the growing artistic dimension of Casperia these days, drawing Italians and foreigners alike from far and wide. There is even an Academy in town that is a joint venture between the fashion house Fendi and Sartoria Massoli to train the next generation in the art of haute couture dressmaking.
Casperia has a lot in common with Pisciotta that we wrote about here but as it doesn’t seem to have many hotels tourists are still outnumbered by residents, which is no bad thing if you’re a tourist yourself. And even though it has been the setting for various television programs, not being at the seaside has probably saved Casperia from the tour buses that plague other beautiful hilltop towns in Italy like Santa Maria di Castellabate.
Strangely Casperia doesn’t really have an old part and a new part; there is only the ancient centro storico and below it a small car park with a few useful shops and a pizza restaurant, but no newer town per se. This arrangement however contributes to the unspoiled nature of its setting and the small centro storico is a real jewel. It’s completely pedestrianised, at least three quarters refurbished and the cobblestone alleyways are in good condition, both well lit at night and wide enough to let plenty of sunshine in during the day.
Most of these alleyways are very attractive and glancing through windows as we walked around the town it seems that the restoration and refurbishment process for the whole town is quite well advanced and has been carried out with some real style and quality. I’ve been to more ancient hilltop towns in Italy than I can count and too many of them are very grim in parts with an excess of abandoned and dilapidated buildings separated by unpleasantly gloomy and very narrow alleyways; not quite dead but clearly dying. You can see that Casperia is markedly different from these as soon as you step inside the town.
This is a classic medieval town built originally from the 10th to 13th centuries but first mentioned over a thousand years earlier in Roman times by the poet Virgil when it was known by the name of Aspra Sabina. If not quite a fortress, it’s certainly well protected by a high wall with only two entrances, one facing Rome and the other facing Rieti and both named accordingly.
It was sufficiently well constructed and maintained to withstand an attack by the famed and extremely capable condottiero, Federico da Montefeltro, in 1461. Hard to tell in whose employment Federico was at that time because he changed sides frequently as successful condottieri were prone to do.
Looking at the various markings on the buildings it would appear that some of the present structures date from the 16th century but the general appearance and layout of the town are certainly medieval in character and the Piazza Umberto I situated just inside the Porta Romana was designed as a classic killing zone to trap any invaders by virtue of a second smaller gate (photo right) above the piazza restricting easy access into the town proper once the main gate was breached.
In early July 1849 after the fall of Rome to the French during the unsuccessful First Italian War of Independence, Garibaldi led his retreating troops through these hills, stopping at Poggio Mirteto and continuing north right past Casperia on his way from Tivoli to Terni. It was a difficult route along mule tracks suitable only for horses and pack animals but eluding the French was the main goal. Though he may have failed in Rome, by crossing the Apennines and eventually reaching San Marino, Garibaldi sealed his reputation as one of the truly great guerilla leaders and escaped to fight and triumph a decade later.
Well before reaching Casperia from any direction it’s clear from the surrounding countryside that olive oil is the main agricultural product of the whole Sabina region.
Unusually for central Italy there are hardly any vines to be seen; instead the olive reigns supreme here with more than 1,000 farms cultivating about 2.5 million trees in a large area stretching from just north of Casperia to within a few miles of Rome.
Some of these trees are truly ancient with one in particular at Canneto Sabino being well over 2,000 years old according to the Sabina DOP consortium, with carbon testing data to back up their claim. It’s certainly a huge and magnificent tree, still vigorous and producing olives.
If you’re staying in the centro storico then the best place for both dinner and to watch the sun go down is the aforementioned Piazza Umberto where Osteria Vigna (above) has as good a location as you’ll find anywhere. The quality of the food amply justifies its beautiful setting and as it’s open for morning coffee, lunch and dinner, as well as drinks in between, it’s quickly apparent that this is where many of the locals like to mingle at various times of the day. In fact at dinner and then at breakfast the next morning it seemed that just about everyone else in the restaurant knew each other.
Often in Italy the antipasti and primi piatti menus are the most interesting with dishes that are more imaginative than the secondi which tend to be simply prepared meat dishes, so we typically order more of the former.
I came away from Osteria Vigna with no less than three dishes to make at home, the first one being a hot antipasto of melted pecorino topped with sun-dried tomatoes, second a primo piatto of the local hand-made pasta, stringozzi, tossed with leek, pecorino and almonds and finally another antipasto, this time uncooked, combining raw julienned zucchine with pecorino fresco, black pepper, olive oil and lemon. (Shown in the three photos above in the order described here).
All of them were excellent, very reasonably priced and based on simple fresh ingredients, none of which had traveled very far. They were complemented by a refreshing Malvasia from the Cantina Le Macchie vineyards at Castelfranco just over the mountains to the north-east. This is as local as wine gets in the northern Sabina hills given the dearth of vineyards around Casperia itself. (Cantina Le Macchie is a member of the CERVIM organization, a self-described association of ‘heroic viticulturists’ who make wine from grapes grown at high altitudes or on impossibly steep slopes).
The following evening we enjoyed a pizza at L’Asprese just a few yards outside the Porta Reatina on the other side of town. Lovers of thin crust croccante pizza will be happy here but not those who like the traditional gommoso style made famous in Naples. We like both; the thinner version being much easier to cook correctly and L’Asprese did a fine job.
The final place to mention is the bar in the Piazza Municipio towards the top of town called appropriately Al Solito Posto (above photos) because if I was a resident of this charming town this would also be my usual spot for a drink. It’s in a lovely piazza with lots of atmosphere and there was still a good crowd at midnight. Not sure if they do food or not but they have a good selection of drinks and the music was still playing when we left so the nearby residents must be a tolerant bunch.
One final point in Casperia's favor, not that it needs further praise from me, is that being situated at an elevation of 1,300 feet there is a pleasant cooling that arrives in the late evening, even in August, that is a welcome difference to everywhere else at sea level like our town of Lucca. After 9 years in Italy I have come to believe that this is the perfect altitude at which to live in Italy.