The first warm day of the year has always been special. For as long as I can remember it has been marked in my calendar with a doodle of a big, bold, yellow sun. I don’t mean the calendric beginning of spring, no, no. I am talking about the very first day of the year that feels and smells like spring. The first day you can wear a dress or a skirt without tights, or even open-toed shoes. When the sun doesn’t just light the sky but feels warm and prickly on your face. When, after the dreary grey of winter, it awakens something in your soul that has been slumbering for months.
As that day arrives on a Saturday in mid-February, much earlier here in Rome than anywhere else, I decide to get out of the city. I believe in ushering in the new season by travelling to a new place.
I invite two of my close friends to join me, a smart choice because Teo, who grew up here and knows every corner of the Provincia di Roma, immediately suggests “Let’s go to the Castelli Romani!”
The Castelli Romani are a cluster of towns south of Rome that are known for their regional cuisine and, more importantly, for their vineyards. Here, most wines in Lazio are grown, produced, and bottled.
We pick Ariccia for the day, a town about 25 km south. It is set upon a mountain and overlooks the entire area all the way to the Mediterranean coast. It is connected to Rome and the other Castelli by the massive Ponte di Ariccia, and we decide to park in its shade and to take the old cable car up to the center of the town.
In its center lies a small piazza and, further down the road, a massive terrace. The view is spectacular, as it can only be in a place like this: we can see the sea in the distance, glistening in the first warm sunlight of the year, while the cool wind whips our hair and scarves around. Behind us lie the hills that slowly rise into mountains.
As we wander through the crooked cobblestone streets, Teo tells me about the importance of Ariccia in ancient times and how it had been a worthy opponent to the city of Rome as the center of the Roman empire. Hard to believe when I compare the two cities now.
But for such a comparably small town, Ariccia lacks neither history nor artistry. Pope Alexander VII for example resided here for many years, commissioning none other than the famous architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini to construct the impressive church Santa Maria Assunta on the town’s main square.
After our little tour, we finally sit down for lunch in a Fraschetta.
The menu is short and simple and we order a little bit of everything, of course. This is by far my favorite way to explore a new place – the food culture in Italy is and has always been closely connected to its people, its history, and its land. Just like the other Castelli, Ariccia offers a cuisine that is very similar to the traditional Roman cuisine. It is, however, best-known for its porchetta, a fatty pork roast that has been refined with a variety of spices and roasted so slowly that it melts in your mouth like gelato. Teo boldly orders us two bottles of another traditional treat of the Castelli: Romanella, a slightly sparkly, young red wine so sinfully sweet it almost makes me question if I have room for dessert. Almost.
As we return home that day, slowly dragging our tired feet back to the car, I ask the boys excitedly “Where are we going next?”. They just look at me in disbelief and groan in unison “On a diet!”