I've just returned from three days in Italy, researching The Man from Pomegranate Street. I wanted to see what the Sabine hills would have been like in mid-September, the time of year when Titus died. I also wanted to see Lake Alba, where Titus's brother Domitian built an imperial villa. Domitian's villa was exactly where the papal palace is now at a town called Castel Gandolfo about ten miles southeast of Rome.
Having booked an EasyJet flight on impulse I set out from home early on the morning of Tuesday 16 September. Lisa Tucci is an Italian-American audioguide producer and blogger. I first met her after I sent an email raving about her wonderful audioguide to ancient Ostia. We subsequently met in London and when I told her I hoped to explore the Sabine Hills, she generously gave up a whole day to organize it.
My flight is on time and when I arrive at Ciampino Airport at 10.30am on Tuesday morning, there she is in her red Honda Civic. Sitting patiently in the back seat is Lisa's dog Trevor, named after Trevi, where she found him. He is so quiet that she often smuggles him on planes in her carry-on luggage!
We set straight off along the Via Salaria, the old salt road which led from the salt fields of Ostia up to the centre of Italy. After ten or fifteen minutes, we stop for a coffee at Il Glicine (Hyacinth) Bar & Osteria in Settebagni. This might have been near the spot where Titus got a fever in September of AD 81. Titus died a few days later - on 13 September AD 81 - at his family's rustic villa near Reate (modern Rieti).
It is a perfect autumn day. Sunny and mild with a few friendly clouds in the blue sky. We are following the route Titus took to get from Rome to his Sabine villa. According to Suetonius, Titus died at first stopping place out of Rome. Nobody knows quite where this was, though it may have been Eretum, where the Via Salaria met the Via Nomentana. Unfortunately, nobody knows where Eretum was either. Never mind. This is good enough. The countryside here is still quite flat, with plane trees lining the road and the blue Sabine hills in the distance up ahead.
As we continue along the Via Salaria, the road begins to climb. We see vineyards and hazelnut trees and my ears pop. Soon we reach Monteleone Sabina, which has impressive remains of a Roman amphitheatre. We briefly investigate these ruins, and let Trevor have a little sniff. Then Lisa points out an old Franciscan monastery on the top of a hill. The monastery has been converted to apartments, and a friend of hers occupies one of them. Claire Nelson is a sculptress who works in bronze and bronze-look resin. An expat British woman, she is going to put us in touch with some guides to the Sabine Hills at a lunchtime meeting. The dusty track to her house leads up through silver-grey olive trees. When we arrive, we are welcomed by some of Claire's dogs. LikeLisa, she can't bear to see an abandoned canine.
Claire greets us and gets in the back seat, next to Trevor, and soon we reach the Sabine town of Poggio Moiano, about 50 km northwest of Rome. The Ristorante Maria Fontana specialises in local seasonal produce. As we enter, we see slices of courgette and of aubergine laid out on tables to dry in the sunshine. This is all part of the preparation. Then the vegetables are brushed with olive oil and grilled. Susan Micocci and her husband Bruno arrive a few minutes after we were seated. Susan is a friend of Claire's and guide of the area. This restaurant was her choice. She is an expat New Yorker who married the delightful Bruno and has been in Italy ever since. She offers cooking courses, hiking tours and culture tours of the region, all in English or Italian. (You can find out more here) below: Bruno and Claire the sculptress with the owner of the restaurant.
We order antipasti to start and enjoy big plates of prosciuttio, salami, cheese, olives and a bowl of delicious chopped liver. Our grilled vegetables include aubergine and pumpkin! Yum. For main dish we have freshly made pasta or grilled veal steak. There is fresh crusty bread and either red wine or mineral water.
Over lunch, Susan tells me lots of wonderful facts about the Sabine Hills. She says that she and Bruno will take us up to Rieti and then to the Baths of Vespasian and the Villa of Titus. I go to the ladies room to wash my hands, and am so excited that I come running out to hear more and crash into the owner of the restaurant, who is also moving fast. We embrace for a moment in tears of laughter. It is like a scene from a slapstick comedy. Luckily he isn't carrying any plates of food!
After lunch we set off for Rieti in our two cars. Susan takes me in her car, so she can explain things, while Bruno goes with Lisa and Claire. Suddenly Susan realises her brakes aren't working! We stop by the ruined marble gate of a Sabine villa and Bruno comes to have a look. He takes over driving and we make our way carefully to a service station. Bruno decides the brakes will hold a little longer, so we continued cautiously on to Rieti.
At Rieti, Susan takes us to the Roman Bridge (only a small remnant) and explains how the Romans made brick vaults as foundations for the houses here. This area was prone to flooding in Roman times. Rieti was then known as Reate, after Rea Silva, the mother of Romulus and Remus. It's mainly medieval now, so we hurry on to the Terme di Vespasiano, the Baths of Vespasian. These baths are in beautiful green hills at a place called Cotilia, which used to be Cutiliae. The nearby area is famous for chestnuts, truffles and farro, a type of grain we call 'spelt'. It's also famous for its mineral waters.
On the main road, across from the modern Terme di Cotilia, is a public fountain. We stop so that we can taste the water. It is magnificent: the coldest, fizziest, eggiest water I've ever had! I can tell by the eggy taste that it's sulphur water. right: Susan and I at Lake Paternus
On we drive, into the late afternoon sunlight to Lago Paterno, a deep, beautiful and mysterious lake. Susan tells us that the Greeks who used to live here performed human sacrifices! The Flavian villa is on the hillside overlooking this lake. There are plans to start excavating it soon. This is the villa where both Vespasian and Titus died. Suetonius: 'He died in the same farmhouse as his father, on the Ides of September... aged forty-two.'
It is getting late now, and the sun is sinking, so we say goodbye to the wonderful Susan and Bruno. Susan gives me literature about the region and two DVDs. What generosity! Lisa and I drop Claire back at her monastery in Monteleone, where we watch the sun set and have a cup of PG Tips tea. Then Lisa drives me towards Lake Alba where I have booked two nights at the lakeside Hotel Castelgandolfo. As we leave Rome we see a huge orange moon rising on the eastern horizon and when I check into my room at the Hotel Castelgandolfo (which I highly recommend) I see the same moon, now higher and cooler, floating above its reflection on Lake Alba.
(You can see more & bigger photos on my public Facebook photo page)