Unexpected and ancient, rustic and alluring
FARNESE, Italy - Sometimes, when you feel like you’ve traveled as far from home as you can possibly go, you reach a moment when things start to seem less like a vacation and more like a trust fall.
This is the sense that crept over me as I turned the key in my rented white Fiat, coasted out the gate of the stone farmhouse where I was staying, and turned onto a dirt road to follow the Last Brigand.
There were seven of us in two cars, a little caravan along an unmarked red ocher road. Ahead, the Last Brigand led the way with his hunting dog in the passenger seat. His car kicked up relentless clouds of dust. “È una strada rotta,’’ the Last Brigand had said - a broken road - and he wasn’t kidding. Where were we headed? Our wheels balanced on one edge of the road, then the other, avoiding the rain-washed crags through the middle.
And then we were there: a grassy turnout, a barbed-wire gate, and a velvet green hill.
The small peak before us looked empty, peaceful. When we scrambled to the top, we found a different story: broken stone walls; caves hollowed roughly out of volcanic rock. Once this hilltop had been a fortress of the Etruscans, the mysterious ancient civilization that rivaled the power of Rome to the south. Settlers here built houses outward, jealously guarding their peak and the spring erupting from its foot. Then they vanished.
The Last Brigand clambered the hills like a goat, pointing out which leaves were edible and the pool where the wild boars drink. The place had yet more history to reveal: Centuries later, medieval Italian settlers had rebuilt the village with a square castle tower whose walls now stood jagged against the gray sky. We stepped within the outlines of a small church, still traced in stone blocks along the ground.
The Last Brigand crouched again. He reached into a thicket, and pulled out a long purple-green stalk: wild asparagus. Then another, and another. We all started hunting, and by the end the ruined village had yielded a souvenir, and it was lunch.
I had not meant to go on vacation with the Last Brigand. I thought I was spending a week in a country house. It was magnificent, and because it belonged to a friend of a friend, it was free. There would even be a caretaker, a local man named Giulio Castri.
The house was in northern Lazio, a corner of Italy that not only had I never visited, but also nobody I talked to had ever visited, even though it’s only 90 minutes from Rome. Five hundred years ago, this land was contested by powerful aristocratic families; by the 19th century it was ruled by the “briganti,’’ lone-wolf armed bandits who roamed from town to town on horseback, collecting protection money from shepherds, crossing the countryside on secret trails.
Today, it’s a rural land of pastures and hedgerows and small forests, leading from volcanic lakes to the sea. The bandits’ trails are no longer secret; a national park opened recently, the Paths of the Brigands, connecting one forest to the next.
Our house stood on a hillside just outside Farnese, a town that shares its name with one of the most powerful clans of the Italian Renaissance. The tiny streets here piled onto each other in an almost dizzyingly tight network, weaving through tiny piazzas and under archways, opening suddenly onto a cliff or a cafe. The feeling was almost magical. We were the only visitors.
We never found Farnese mentioned in a guidebook, and the whole region had that lost-in-time quality. In the most popular town in the area, the magnficient cliffside redoubt of Pitigliano, the narrow medieval side streets were nearly empty of tourists. We stopped at one store and bought hand-rolled pasta called pici; we stopped at the butcher, who had plenty of time to advise us exactly what kind of wild boar we should use for a pasta sauce.
Like Pitigliano, the neighboring hill towns were built from “tufo,’’ the soft volcanic stone of the region, and the effect as we approached each one was extraordinary, as though a settlement had almost organically excreted itself from the rock. Sorano had a huge fortress rising from the middle like a ship’s prow. Sovana was a tiny medieval strip linking a castle and a thousand-year-old cathedral. They seemed almost mystical in their remove.
The experience felt enchanted, but a little lost - where were we, exactly? North of us was Tuscany, with its famous circuit of churches and museums. To the east was Umbria, with its hilltowns and vineyards. South of us was Rome. This, though, was a place apart.
Maybe it was fortuitous that a guide would present himself. We had only been there for a day when I started to get the feeling that Castri, the white-bearded man who had showed us around the property, was something more than a caretaker. We’d found an animal skull set carefully on a rock wall outside the farmhouse - it had sinister curling teeth, a long narrow head. The next time I saw Castri, I asked him what it was.
“Ah,’’ he said, brightening. “Un cinghiale.’’ A wild boar. I asked him how it had gotten there. He mimed a shotgun blast.
Castri, besides being a caretaker and a handyman, was a wild boar hunter. He was also a mushroom hunter. But his passion was tracking the boar that roamed the nearby fields. Castri showed us their tracks, how they root through hedgerows and dig up the ground. The boar whose head sat on the wall had run across the property next to the guest house.
I asked him if he had eaten the boar. Yes, he told me: As sausage.
The next day, a little vacuum-sealed packet of homemade wild boar sausage appeared on our kitchen table: part boar, part pork, flavored with red wine that gave it a deep, throaty quality. We sliced it and ate it with pecorino cheese made from the milk of nearby sheep.
There were seven of us from Boston staying at the house near Farnese, and for a week, we toured the area. One day we drove 45 minutes to the clifftop city of Orvieto, with its fantasy of a Renaissance cathedral. Another day we roamed through the “vie cave,’’ a network of ancient roads carved into the volcanic stone like chutes. When we were around the property, we might run into Castri and he’d tell us stories: how the brigand Tiburzi had roamed the land, or how the unlabeled black liquor we had tried drinking the night before had been handmade, as an experiment, by the house’s owner.
Across the road, Castri had built himself a traditional shepherd’s hut with a high, conical straw roof like an immense scarecrow’s hat. It had a fire pit inside, a little cache for storing beer, and an actual calendar of the brigands. My Italian was rusty but I could speak enough to accuse him of being a brigand himself. Again, he smiled.
“The Last Brigand,’’ he said, “that’s me.’’
The impression only grew stronger as time went on. In 60 years Castri had almost never left the area around Farnese. Once, leading us by car through a nearby forest, Castri suddenly stopped his car and talked for 10 minutes with a man on horseback. A day later he told us: The man on the horse was a great friend of his, and he owned an inn. Did we want to have dinner? For 25 euros each, he and his wife would make a full farmhouse dinner for us, local cheeses, local wine.
To reach the inn, we once more put ourselves in the trust of the Last Brigand, who took us on some unrepeatable back-road path. The horseman’s inn was an agriturismo, a popular type of accommodation in Italy that mixes farmhouse and B&B. Only one family of guests was there, and they ate with us: a Genoese couple and their 12-year-old son. Paolo, the horseman, pulled out a huge iron contraption, laid slices of bread in it, carefully spread the coals out in his huge flat fireplace, and toasted the bread till its edges smoked. Our dinner started with an array of crostini built on these slices (one spread with “lardo,’’ gossamer-thin slices of seasoned pig fat), moved to huge ravioli, and then boar stew.
On any other night, the remarkable food would have been the star of the show, but tonight the celebrity was Castri, regaling the group in raucous impossible-to-follow Italian, telling tales of the brigands, his hunting trips, the unusual name of his pig. When we left, we’d been there for more than four hours.
That night we fell into bed, exhausted and not really ready to leave for Rome the next morning. At 7:30, when we put our bags into our tiny cars, the Last Brigand was already up, waving us off. We pointed down the hill, back onto roads that we could navigate with maps. He closed the gate and vanished back into his world, and we vanished into ours.
Stephen Heuser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.