To the north-east of Rome, about an hour's drive out of the city, off the beaten tourist track, is an area of exceptional natural beauty, archaeological importance, artistic interest and religious mysticism.
This is where St Benedict came in the sixth century and set up the monastery of S. Cosimato near Vicovaro-Mandela. This is where Horace, the Roman poet, built his villa. It was here that Donizetti and his wife once stayed, where Garibaldi's son, Ricciotti, built the Villa Garibaldi (now a museum), and where you will find golden eagles, curved-horned cattle, mountains, lakes and spectacular views.
So where to begin? Take the motorway from Rome to Pescara and come off at the exit for Vicovaro-Mandela. Turn right and almost immediately you will you will see the monastery of S. Cosimato, founded by St Benedict in the first years of the sixth century, now largely rebuilt. Ring the bell at the main door, and ask for Padre Claudio. He will direct you to a small gate, leading to a series of dizzy steps down the face of the cliff, past little chapels and hermitages, and eventually into the tunnel carved through the soft tufa which carried the Aqua Claudia, the aqueduct built by the emperor Claudius.
Continue one km along the Tiburtina and up a steep ramp-like road into Vicovaro, passing on foot under the soaring walls of the recently-restored Palazzo Cenci Bolognetti, into the central piazza, where there is a lively market on Saturdays. At one end stands the huge baroque church of S. Pietro and at the other a gothic renaissance jewel, the 15th-century Tempietto of S. Giacomo, whose arched portal is decorated with statues reminiscent of northern cathedrals.
Drive back towards S. Cosimato, and turn left to Licenza and other villages. After a km, turn left again to Roccagiovine and on along the tortuous road to the 16th-century Ninfeo degli Orsini waterfall. Here you will find a road leading to the remains of the villa of the Roman poet, Horace. In spite of centuries of insensitive excavations, the site remains most evocative. If you want more on Horace drive on through chestnut woods, rejoin the main road and continue left to Licenza, where you can you visit the Museo Oraziano in the castle at the top of the village.
On past Licenza turn left to Civitella for the superb panorama, golden eagles nest and Monte Pellecchia (m. 1368). If you like walking drive on to Pericle, about another 5 kms along the Licinese (5 kms), where there is an energetic walk to two lakes, the Lagustelli, famed for their wild life.
The road then climbs steadily for 12 kms to Orvinio (830 m), a handsome little town, where Vincenzo Manenti (1600-74) the painter was born. His works can be seen in the monasteries at Subiaco and Farfa and in the church of S. Maria dei Raccomandati in Orvinio itself.
Taking the road to Vallinfreda and Riofreddo you wind along for some 12 kms through high pastures, with splendid curved-horned cattle and clusters of beehives. Vallinfreda (m. 847) has spectacular views over the plain below. If you have time it is worth making a quick detour to the exceptionally picturesque village of Vivaro.
A further 6.5 kms brings you to Riofreddo, where Gaetano Donizetti once stayed; his wife, Virginia Vasselli, was from the village. Here you can also see the interesting Museo delle Culture "Villa Garibaldi", with Garibaldi family letters and mementoes, together with implements used in traditional crafts.
Back on the Tiburtina, head right towards Arsoli, famous for its Castello Massimo. In the centre of the town, turn towards Cervara Romana. The road climbs steeply for some 9 kms, but persevere, because Cervara, at 1038 m, is the second highest comune in Lazio, with views to match.
Down and back through Arsoli, after 5 kms, is Roviano, whose Palazzo Baronale houses the fascinating Museo della Civilt Contadina, with exhibits illustrating all aspects of rural life.
Head down to the Tiburtina again and back onto the A24 which will take you back to Rome.
Photo. Tempietto of S. Giacomo at Vicovaro.