At a stones throw from the concrete ring of the Gran Raccordo Anulare, wedged between Via Nomentana and Via Salaria in north-east Rome, is an oasis of lush fields, dusky woods and gentle hills on which flocks of plump sheep graze lazily. The nature reserve of Marcigliana is a peaceful world of dazzling pastoral beauty, still virtually undiscovered by Rome residents.

One of 14 nature reserves in and around Rome, Marcigliana is administrated by Roma Natura, which has entrusted the management of all internal activities and special events to the agricultural co-operative of Tor S. Giovanni. The headquarters of the co-operative, which was established in 1992 and takes its name from one of the mediaeval towers in the reserve, are situated within the 4,600-ha expanse of unblemished countryside of the park. Here, farmers and breeders enjoy the delights of rural life while promoting initiatives favouring a balance between production and the safeguarding of the areas natural resources.

Inside the park, the countryside has remained all but unchanged for hundreds of years; so entering this haven of rustic charm is like stepping into a time warp. There are ancient stone troughs inhabited by croaking frogs, there are mediaeval towers like archaic silos, and above all there is quietness. The nature path, flanked by poplars and sturdy Turkey oaks, takes visitors through the fields, orchards and woods of the reserve. At weekends a guide will point out the different species of birds, the trees, the fox and rabbit trails, and the porcupine quills scattered in the grass. Farm animals also live in the Marcigliana; horses, cows, sheep, geese and a rare breed of Sardinian donkey.

The true country lover might prefer to wander off the beaten track and discover rickety wooden bridges, a penduline tits nest dangling from a willow tree, and bushes weighed down with crimson berries. One solitary dog-walker, clad in Barbour jacket and rubber boots, said: I come here as often as I can. The air is clean and the setting is beautiful. If youre lucky you can see fallow deer here, but only when its dark. And listen, he added, raising a forefinger, no noise. Its impossible to believe you could be in the centre of Rome within 30 minutes.

At the entrance to the park stands the Casa del Parco, a large, lemon-coloured farmhouse hosting an information point and a photographic exhibition illustrating the activities of everyday local life, dating back to the last decades of the 19th century. In the same building is a permanent exhibition about the ancient city of Crustumerium, which was built on ground overlooking the river Tiber between the 10th and 9th centuries BC. Excavations carried out by Romes archaeological authorities at the site have brought to light a vast necropolis with amphorae, vases and other burial paraphernalia. Visitors can see reproductions of the original artefacts placed in the spots where they were first found.

The Casa del Parco is one of many farmhouses in the reserve, of which the Casale della Marcigliana is probably the most astounding. Built during the middle ages on the ruins of an ancient Roman villa, it was the property of the wealthy abbey of Farfa before being passed through a number of aristocratic families, including the Barberini

and the Gabrielli.

The Casale della Cesarina, another mediaeval structure, is set at the end of Via Cesarina and today houses a farm and a dairy which sells various kinds of cheap and delicious cheese. Part of our milk goes to the Centrale del Latte, the rest is used for our products, explained the woman behind the counter. Everything apart from the buffalo

mozzarella is produced here. In front of the dairy is a sprawling courtyard, dotted with colourful flower pots and fat cats waiting for a scrap of

caciotta; round the back a herd of cows and a dozen fluffy calves ruminate contentedly.

Other rural delicacies can be sampled at tastings of olive oil, honeys, chunks of pecorino, which usually take place in the spring and autumn. There are also workshops for schoolchildren, including olive picking, visits to the necropolis of Crustumerium and lessons in map reading and using a compass. During workshops, consisting of three day-trips, which take place in the autumn, at the end of the winter and just before the summer, children witness the sowing, flowering and harvesting of corn. Other events organised by the Tor S. Giovanni co-operative include markets and fairs featuring all kinds of demonstrations, from how to make cheese and grow vegetables to how to shear a sheep, skills that very few of the capitals citizens can claim to be acquainted with.

The entrance to the Marcigliana nature reserve

is in Via di Tor S. Giovanni 301.

For information tel. 0687122260, www.romanatura.roma.it.

Picture: Farm animals as well as wild fauna inhabit the unblemished countryside of the park.