Close to Mount Soratte, the Italian mountain ridge in the province of Rome, you’ll find a small natural treasure: the picturesque town of Sant’Oreste, my hometown. Inhabited by about 4,000 people, the village of Sant’Oreste is a pearl of tradition dating back to before the great Roman Empire. But what makes my hometown so unique? Let’s find out.
In 1937, the fascist leader Benito Mussolini ordered the construction of several tunnels inside Mount Soratte due to its proximity to the capital Rome. They served as a refuge from the bombing raids for the highest offices of the Italian Army and were built under the pretence of being factories for weapons. It was one of Europe’s largest military ventures!
During the years of the Cold War, they were transformed into anti-atomic bunkers. According to legend, a chest full of gold that amounted to billions of dollars was hidden in the galleries. To date, this chest has never been found.
The place where the bunkers are located is now a tourist destination for people coming from all over Europe. On special occasions, guided tours of the galleries are organised. You should definitely go on a tour, which offers a complete re-creation of the historic times. German commanders and officers walk beside you; old cars parade through the streets, military aircrafts circle above your heads; you can even drive a tank with a commander. The purpose of the elaborate tour is to perfectly evoke the wartime atmosphere: it is like taking a trip into the past.
Mountain Soratte Natural Reserve
Mentioned in the pages of many authors of the ancient and modern age, the Mountain Soratte has been for a long time called the ‘Holy Mountain’ because of the many spiritual rituals like ceremonies to the Sun God that took place in ancient times. But the presence of a monastery built on the top has inspired many stories too. Dante, a famous Italian poet of the fifteenth century said that Pope Sylvester I was able to miraculously heal in the monastery. Poets like Byron, Goethe and many others saw the beautiful mountain as something magical and special.
Today, the Holy Mountain is officially part of the Natural Reserve of Mountain Soratte.
The Mountain stands as an island over the valley of the Tiber River, and it’s amazing to think how, in ancient times, it was an island in the sea. The geomorphological composition of the mountain is indicative of the karst phenomenon, which means that water creates a process of erosion that leads to the formation of caves with the most varied shapes and sizes. This offers a show of columns, stalactites and stalagmites of various colours, depending on their mineral composition. The biggest caves are known as Meri, cavities a few hundred meters deep which are connected to each other. These are some of the largest underground areas of central Italy!
The Reserve provides visitors with the opportunity to walk along many nature trails.
Head to the ‘Percorso Vita’ (Life Path) and enjoy a long walk in the middle of nature; you will walk along a natural tunnel created by trees, in the fresh comfortable mountain air. Admire the abundance of flora of the mountain, and don’t attempt to memorise some names; it will be almost impossible, Mount Soratte is home to hundreds of different plant species! Spring is without any doubt the best season to enjoy the splendour of Mount Soratte’s fauna and flora. Visiting the mountain in winter however also has its advantages. When temperatures are very low, the snow can completely cover the vegetation and the various trails seem to become part of a pure white and enchanted world. You’ll feel like you are living in a fairy tale. It’s a real wonder of nature!
If you love the outdoors, why not trying caving or astronomy? The 10 August is commonly known as the ‘night of the stars’ and a local guide will take you to the top of the peak, where you can admire the stars while lying on the grass. A professor will illustrate the cosmos’ composition based on the notes of a violin or a guitar. It is just beautiful!
Religion, festivities & celebrations
In Sant’Oreste, religion is a strong hallmark. This is visible by the presence of many churches perched on the ‘Holy Mountain’. The churches are known as ‘Eremi’ (monastery); they were once inhabited by monks and also housed legendary wandering figures, characters then recognised as saints. This makes the atmosphere that surrounds these buildings even more magical.
Among the major monasteries, along the mountain trails, you can easily reach the churches of St Romana and of St Silvestro, but perhaps one of the most notable structures remains the sanctuary of ‘Santa Maria delle Grazie’, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It is today the destination of many pilgrims who visit the church on the second Sunday after Easter every year, a day of great celebration for the village, when a long procession moves towards the sanctuary, singing songs to the Virgin.
A lot of legends have been handed down through the centuries. Many of them see once again religious figures as the protagonist, while other beliefs tell of mythical characters.
‘Abatuozzo’, the mythical creature with which the town’s elders have often terrified children, tell of a mixed friar and dwarf, very skimpy and stocky, all dressed in red. It has always been portrayed as a fearsome creature, because of its many sudden appearances. The elders’ stories state that it would usually appear in houses behind the fire, which explodes into a demonic laugh, and then disappears back into nothing. This would really scare the little children and many inhabitants. In fact, there are those who swear to still see it today.
Many festivities and celebrations retain a typically religious trait too and, without any doubt, the feast of the ‘Madonna di Maggio’ (celebrated on the last Sunday in May each year) has made Sant’Oreste unique and well known among all the neighbouring towns. Actually, preparations start a months earlier, when women, children, and even the elderly begin to decorate every corner of the town with papier-mâché flowers, coloured lights, strings of fresh flowers, sacred effigies, banners made of fabrics and bright materials and paintings made by elementary school children.
On the festival day, a long religious procession takes place and in the background, a group of children play religious music while others dance in medieval clothing during the day. But the real show is once again on the mountain, because the sacred mountain completely burns, thanks to the lights placed along its paths. At the mountain’s peak, there are wonderful multi-coloured fireworks – fire is a symbol of purification for the soul. Everybody participates, including religious and civil authorities from each bordering town.
There are also other festivals with no religious characteristics, like Festa dei Vicoli, which means Alley’s Feast – a celebration where also the most unknown and unusual streets of the town are decorated, songs are sung and music fills the atmosphere. Visitors can have a look at the many antique markets set up everywhere, while the squares of the town are prepared for large banquets and the embers are always on!
Mentionable is also the ‘Festa dei Giovani” (Youth Festival), an event that takes place during the last week of August. In the largest square of the town, the youth organization of Sant’Oreste builds a large ‘village’ made of wood and palm trees; preparations go on for months. You can eat, drink and have fun, and at night the square is transformed into a large open-air disco!
Do you want to learn another language?
Let’s go to Sant’Oreste and buy a vocabulary book of the Santorestese language.
No, it’s not a joke. This dialect is impressive. Because of its geographical isolation (it’s the only town situated on the slopes of the mountain) the town has preserved the archaic linguistic traits of ‘Santorestese’. What are you waiting for, go ahead and learn your first words!
Local food, delicious tastes
The Italian cuisine is renowned throughout the world. It’s a simple blend of sophisticated but intense flavours has been exported all over the globe. Sant’Oreste knows this, but what sets it apart is that in my hometown it’s possible to find the perfect synthesis of Italian good taste and the authenticity of the simple, traditional dishes. It’s no surprise that people visiting the Italian peninsula remain speechless when they sit down to enjoy a meal.
Some of our dishes contain ancient traditions of Sant’Oreste, since they are the result of recipes that are decades and decades old. The ingredients used are very cheap and easy to find, because they were already used many years ago. You will be totally amazed by how simple and ordinary ingredients give birth to very unique and special creations. You have to try ’tisichelle’ (a circular shaped, soft and thick cookie) and ‘conferzini’ (biscuits with a rectangular shape, quite hard and crunchy, with anise and hazelnuts inside). These are typical Christmas sweets made with ingredients such as eggs, butter, sugar, nuts and wine.
Another typical Santorestese dish is the ‘Panemmolle’ (wet bread) with chickpeas – made by spreading boiled beans on bread, so that they become a soup. Ask the elders of Sant’Oreste, they will be glad to give you a quick demonstration!
An Oasis of Peace
Sant’Oreste is a unique place: let’s take the long road that leads up to it and you will see that everything will be a nice prize for your senses.
How many times have you needed to go away from the noisy and stressful city life and escape to a quiet and relaxing place, almost distant and isolated from the rest of the world?
Sant’Oreste is just what you are looking for, it’s that oasis of peace in which you might want to stay without, having to come back home.
You will be totally involved in a magical place, and once you will be gone, you’ll can not do but return again.. Everything you’ll find by walking through its streets, it will be a pleasant surprise.
Author: Laura Danieli
“Part of an article published in the Cape Chameleon newspaper in Cape Town”