It was a dark day in February when we ventured from Rome onto the Salaria road going North. This route, the road of the salt of the ancient Romans, takes you to the Adriatic sea on the east coast of Italy. The Salaria cuts directly over the passes through the mountains of Abruzzo and through the heart of the Sabina region. These are not the high peaks of the Abruzzo yet, but the terrain is rugged and rocky.
Almost every one of these hilltops is topped by a castle or a small town. The air is cold but crisp. The landscape is stunning — lakes and small creeks, and mountains covered with dense forests. The roads are clean and the absence of traffic in this season makes the trip very enjoyable. The scenery is rendered even more dramatic by the dark clouds overhead.
Longone Sabino is the town where my mother was from. It spans long over the ridge of a high hill separated from the rest of the land by two deep valleys. Ideal for protection, it was easy to defend in Medieval times when the law was in the hands of the community you lived within. I didn’t remember how narrow Main Street was: If you extend your arms you can touch both sides. It crosses the full length of the town, from the Piazzetta, the small square — the town meeting point — up to the other extremity of the hill called “Capoterra,” the top of the world.
Today, Longone is almost uninhabited, but I spent many summers in this town when I was a teen, and Longone was home for a community of a few hundred. Like a frontier town, the neighborhood was counting on the work of each individual for the survival of all. I enter these narrow streets and I go back in time. I close my eyes and all those moments flash through my mind in a second, like a lightning slide show. I can see my aunt Clarice and my uncle Domenico, my cousins, and my friends walking this street. I remember the smell of the wood burning fireplaces, the taste of the bread and the other wonderful foods. I could write an entire book on the simple life in those times, all revolving around the seasons and the work in the fields.
At the end of the summer, after months in the open, it was traumatic to go back to school in the city. I was anxiously waiting to return to Longone at the end of September for an event that took all year to prepare: the Holiday of The Patron Saints. That night, a long procession, in complete darkness, wound for miles from Longone to a small church out of town. At the same time, in a mixture of Christian and pagan traditions the “Foconi,” the bonfires, were lit. Hundreds of them would light up all the hills that surround the town — a magnificent display and an unforgettable sight.
Later that night in the main square, the “Pantasima,” the phantom, will be burned. The entire town will dance around a pagan representation of evil. The dancing figure, made out of canes and paper, will be set ablaze to scare away the threats to the farming life and to exorcise the demons of the long, cold winter to come.
Soon, we are going to utilize another sense, one that never forgets: Taste! In Stipes, the restaurant “Il Tartufo” (The Truffle) proposes dishes to us that seem cooked for the Princes of another time, yet at prices a commoner can afford.