The Via Ceri winds through pine woods, dells, hillocks and hummocks for some 8 km off Via Aurelia about 32 km north of Rome. Road signs all the way along make sure that the traveller cannot go wrong.
Suddenly the little mediaeval borgo of Ceri rears up ahead, impossible to miss, set high on top of a romantically-castellated tufa rock. There are few parking places at the summit of the village so it is advisable to use the large car park at the bottom of the hill. Proceed on foot, under the imposing gate, up the narrow gorge cut deep through the tufa, under buildings arching across the road, into the minute borgo, then past the strategically-positioned bar and out into the picturesque main square.
There are fine panoramas over the surrounding countryside from various vantage points, but to one side of the main square, directly in front of the only alimentari, is the chief reason for coming here: the church of S. Felice II Papa (reigned 483-492 AD). The vaguely 18th-century exterior does not promise much but the inside is wonderful, completely frescoed in the 12th century. Today only one wall of these paintings survives but they are so vivid in colour and so full of detailed, lively action that they are a delight. The arrangement is in panels, each depicting an individual episode, mostly from the Old Testament but also from the life of S. Silvestro and other miscellaneous events with explanatory captions in Latin.
The artist clearly had a liking for the monitory effect of serpents they appear all over the place. Look for St George and the dragon (bottom far left), the expulsion from the garden of Eden (top near the middle) and the crossing of the Red Sea (far right). There are also late 15th-century frescoes in the church, notably a crucifixion scene, behind the first pillar to the right, the fine baldacchino dating from 1484 in the little chapel on the far right, the relics of S. Felice II high up on the left side of the nave and, not least, two expanses of very fine cosmatesque floor, in the nave and in front of the apse.
In the little village there are two trattorie, both with terraces offering splendid vistas over the countryside and cucina casareccia.
Now travel on past Ceri for about 1 km, through stands of reeds and holm-oaks, past a vineyard to a T-junction. Turn left here (in the direction of the Via Casetta Mattei) and follow the road for about 1 km and then turn right onto Via Casetta Mattei, which is clearly signposted. This road winds uphill and down dale through rolling agricultural country exuding rural prosperity and peace, through the hamlet of I Terzi to a crossroads. Drive straight across onto Via Tragliatella, on through Tragliatella and Ponton dElce, across Via Casale di S. Angelo and onto the Bracciano road. Turn right and after 2.5 km, passing the Anguillara/Trevignano turning, go right again towards Fregene and Via Aurelia.
After 1.5 km, the next destination appears on the left the enchanting borgo of S. Maria di Galeria. First comes an enormous square farmyard with six handsome lime trees circling a fountain, and in one corner, completely engulfed by an enormous wisteria with a trunk like an oak, is a trattoria, again offering robust cooking. A second spacious yard leads off the first; in this stands the church of S. Maria di Celsano, much in demand for weddings, with interesting 17th-century paintings but usually only open on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings.
Drive back onto the main road, turn left and, after about 200 m, take a track through an iron gate to the right, between two large pines with the number 691 on them as a makeshift road sign. The path leads through a narrow cutting shaded by holm-oaks and, after a few hundred metres, to the silvery gate of a farmhouse on the left. From here proceed on foot, as the track deteriorates rapidly. Take the right fork, go up a slope and then on down, past the sign monumento naturale di Galeria.
Ahead, rising out of the trees, appear the ruins of a tower and then ramparts and walls; the impression is of a small-scale Lazio version of Mayan temple ruins emerging from the jungles of Mexico. Follow the narrow path through a thicket of brambles; at the fork (about 30 m into the brambles) go left, up past a colossal fig-tree with a trunk worthy of any jungle giant, under two gates and into a magical deserted town.
This once wealthy place, founded by the Etruscans, prospered for many centuries but its last inhabitants, succumbing to malaria, finally abandoned the site at the beginning of the 19th century. The impressionable may find the site spooky, and certainly those who suffer from vertigo should avoid the precipice on the far side of the town. But the mysteriousness of the roofless rooms, the old church tower and the gloomy cellars, all under a thick canopy of holm-oaks, impart a fascinating if slightly disturbing frisson. The gardens of Ninfa (near Sermoneta in the province of Latina) must have been rather like this before the green-fingered members of the Caetani family transformed them from an overgrown wilderness into the romantic informal garden so beloved of horticulturalists.
This outing will only take half a day. Those feeling energetic can continue towards Via Aurelia and the beaches of Fregene and Maccarese, or proceed to the Etruscan sites of Cerveteri.
Ceri. Trattoria Sora Lella, tel. 0699207248. Closed Wed. Trattoria La Rocca, tel. 0699207206. Closed Thurs.
S. Maria di Galeria. Trattoria Claudio, tel. 063046001. Closed Tues.
To get to Via Ceri take the Via Aurelia out of Rome to km 32, turn right at the to Ceri/Bracciano signpost, and after about 300 m turn left towards Ceri.