“An island up a hill” – that’s how Roberto, a hotel-owner in Sabina, described the Italian region to me. It’s a neat, pretty way of summarising why the area is so little-known, even to Italian tourists.
Sabina’s in Lazio, the large province that encapsulates Rome. It’s north of Rome, but not as far north as Umbria or Tuscany, and west of Abruzzo. It’s a rugged land of constant hills and peaks, with no airports and no autoroutes – hence the ‘island’ description, and a rather isolated feel. The one factor that keeps Sabina firmly anchored to the rest of Italy also doubles as one of its key appeals: by train, it’s scarcely more than half an hour to Termini, Rome’s central station.
That station’s at Fara Sabina, which marks the end of On Foot Holidays’ walking holiday in Sabina. The British company, a hiking specialist that we represent, is just about the only UK operator clued up on Sabina. Its seven-day, self-guided route snakes southwards across the Sabine Hills, staying at a different hotel each night (with two at the final place, Le Mole Sul Farfa) and taking in the very best scenery. During our week’s walking, my cousin Georgia and I trotted through hilltowns to rival any in Umbria, across alpine meadows that fuel Sound of Music fantasies, and up and down cool, dense forests to sudden, stunning viewpoints or outcrops. Every day was different, and every day was enjoyable.
Most of On Foot’s walkers are, I later learn, professional types who take poles, use GPS and can probably do a bearing on their compass with one arm and an eye closed. Meanwhile, Georgia and I make do with a dodgy iPhone compass app and our ability to spot On Foot’s own ‘waymarks’ – painted swishes of red and white which indicate the correct path to follow. Looking for the markers is enormous fun, requiring a combination of expert eyesight (me) and common sense (Georgia). In some cases they’ve faded in the sun or been moved by pesky cows, but there’s always another one soon enough to provide reassurance. After a few hours of this, the peculiar sensation of suddenly being without waymarks is akin to not having a phone in London: you feel depressingly (as well as literally) lost…
All On Foot’s trips have a concentration on food, and this one is no different. Picked partly for their high standards of cooking, the guesthouses and agriturismi don’t disappoint when it comes to dinner time. Across our week’s wanderings, Georgia and I eat ravioli in the finest ricotta sauce imaginable, homemade fig jam (at Il Fienile di Orazio, left), delectable potato pies and impossibly good offal. We drink locally-made wine and an abundance of heady spirits. We chomp greedily on picnic lunches of fine ham, mature cheese and crunchy ciabatta. Pears taste ten times as good as at home. Even the tap water seems delicious. Days become a gradual countdown to dinner time, and evenings just one long, satisfied sigh. We vow to try and recreate these dishes back in our Herne Hill and Islington abodes, knowing secretly that we probably won’t.
And throughout all of these peregrinations, we encounter scarcely a single tourist – and this in May, in a gloriously sunny May, in Italy, that most popular of countries for holidaymakers. At Le Mole sul Farfa, we catch up with another pair of On Foot clients – equally satisfied, equally well-fed. In the region’s most postcard-friendly town, Casperia, home to Roberto’s B&B, La Torretta, we meet an elderly couple slowly driving from Pisa to Rome: they came via the Amalfi Coast, and the Eternal City beckons next. But theirs is not a common fly-drive route and, in general, foreign visitors appear to unwittingly forsake Sabina. More fool them.
It all leaves me with mixed emotions: like all tourists onto a secret, I want to both crow about it and keep quiet; to tell everyone how good it is, but also to preserve the quietude and virgin feel of the place. Hoteliers like Roberto are split, too – they like that theirs is an unspoilt, traditional land, but, then again, they’d also like some more business.
They deserve it too, for their excellent hotels, and for the majesty of their region as a whole. So, with heavy heart, I implore anyone reading this: go to Sabina. Go to Sabina. It really is fabulous.