There are spectacular panoramas at Guadagnolo (1,218 m), the highest village in Lazio. The narrow road up may not look particularly promising, but as you climb it leads past a series of villages and small towns Saracinesco, Sambuci, Pisoniano and Capranica before reaching Guadagnolo, and you can stop off at Palestrina on the way down.
To get to Guadagnolo take the third exit off the A24 motorway from Rome to Pescara (signposted Vicovaro-Mandela) and turn left onto Via Tiburtina. After about 300 m turn right over the level crossing towards Sambuci. Immediately after the level crossing there is a fork; to the left is Saracinesco (908 m), with some 170 inhabitants the smallest comune (municipality) in Lazio. If you have time, drive into the cul-de-sac village as the views are wonderful and it is a good starting point for some excellent walks.
Look out for the women of fabled beauty for which the village was once famous. Several of the villages in the area claim to have produced extraordinarily lovely girls, apparently in demand in Rome as artists models at the turn of the 19th century when Via Margutta was full of artists. The story holds that at some time in the Middle Ages a band of Saracen marauders penetrated into these hills, settled in what is now Saracinesco (hence its name), bred with the locals and began a line of exotic dark looks which much appealed to the bohemians of Rome. The celebrated fresco of the Battle of Ostia (846) in the Vaticans Stanza dellIncendio di Borgo, in which Pope Leo IV (with the features of Pope Leo X) sees off Saracen raiders, shows exactly the type.
The other option is to go right at the fork after the level crossing, and you will soon see Sambuci on the left. This village has a prosperous air, with well-maintained and brightly coloured houses and the rustic castle imposing and benign. Although not high enough to offer special views, Sambuci is picturesque and a good place to have a coffee break.
At the next fork after Sambuci turn right towards Ciciliano and Pisoniano rather than left towards Cerreto Laziale and Gerano. Ciciliano too is picturesque and crowned with a castle. It is here that the views start. Now on to Pisoniano.
Pisoniano was a centre for canapa (hemp) cultivation and weaving, with production continuing up to the 1950s; in the town centre you will find the Museo della Canapa with a most interesting display of equipment involved in all stages of the working of the fibre.
About one kilometre beyond Pisoniano make a sharp turn right towards Capranica (signposted Capranica Prenestina to distinguish it from Capranica on Via Cassia). Now climbing steeply and passing through moss-carpeted woods of hornbeam, oak and beech, after about a further 1.5 km stop at the little chapel of S. Rita on the corner of the road. The stream flowing under the road is delightful and looks as if it could have come straight from the most expensively created rock garden. Soon Capranica (915 m) appears ahead, unmistakeably marked by the grandiose cupola of the church of S. Maria Maddalena, dating to 1520. Very handsome and most surprising in a village of this size, it was supposedly built to a design by a pupil of Michelangelo or even by Bramante. The church is not always open but walk up to see it nonetheless, as the town is attractive. The office of the comune is housed in Palazzo Barberini, in whose recesses also lurks a post office, a good contender for the most picturesquely-situated in Lazio.
The road to Guadagnolo leads from the square and it is literally the high point of the outing. Continue on up, above the tree-line, past the turning to the Santuario della Mentorella and up to the hideous statue of the Redeemer at the very top. From here the view in every direction is astounding. To the north and east, you can see fold upon fold of mountains into the depths of Abruzzo; to the south and west you can take in the Roman countryside as far as the sea. If you are looking for plain cooking, there is also a very respectable trattoria called Da Peppe.
Coming back down from Guadagnolo, take the sharp turning to the right leading to the Santuario della Mentorella and the charming grotto of S. Benedetto, set on vertiginous cliffs and incorporated into a monastery of Polish brothers, beloved of the late Pope John Paul II.
Back in Capranica going back down the same road take the road to the right marked Rome, past the attractive village of Castel di S. Pietro Romano and into Palestrina. Here, on a hilltop dominating the whole plain of Lazio and down a descending series of terraces, are the ruins of the sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, which date to between the first and second century BC, although the original sanctuary was much older. Today, looking down at the hideous sprawl of the modern town below, it is difficult to appreciate that Palestrina was a sophisticated trading city of great wealth, with links all over the Mediterranean.
The Barberini family appreciated the position and built a palace, which today hosts the Museo Nazionale Archeologico Prenestino, right on top of the sanctuary ruins. There is one floor of statuary (second century BC-second century AD) and a second floor of mosaics (note the coloured mosaic of the gryphons with a most beautiful geometric design at its centre dating from 2 BC). There are also bronze pieces from the fourth century BC onwards and grave markers. The third floor is devoted to an interesting large model of the sanctuary, and the spectacular and huge mosaic of the Nile in flood, which in itself makes the trip worthwhile. Created by Alexandrian artists around the end of the second century/beginning of first century BC, it follows the course of the Nile from the highlands of Ethiopia to the mouth, depicting landscapes, real and fantastical animals, boats, hunting scenes, carousing in bowers, palaces, temples and more. This is another highlight of the trip and one of the most beautiful things in Lazio.
l Museo della Canapa, Via S. Maria 27, Pisoniano, tel. 062184189, 0774411316 (ring in advance for opening times).
l Trattoria Da Peppe, Piazza Dante Alighieri 10, Guadagnalo, tel. 0695471875. Mon closed.
l Museo Nazionale Archeologico Prenestino, Piazza della Cortina, Palestrina, tel. 069538100.