From the imposing heights of the Forca d’Acero pass, more than 4500 feet above sea level, set between the provinces of Frosinone and L’Aquila and straddling the borders of the Lazio and Abruzzi regions, one has a commanding view over the vast Valle di Comino, almost entirely encircled by mountains. For centuries, these mountains protected the area, making it almost inaccessible and somehow cloistered among a series of sinkholes, towers and medieval forts (Campoli Appennino, Vicalvi, Alvito, S. Donato and Picinisco), where farmers and shepherds eked out their lives.
Even further in the distance, one can just see Arpino, hometown to Cicero, as well as Monte Cairo and the other hills overlooking the industrious mid-valley area of the Liri; and these ridges in turn overlook the Sora area with its road and railway branches that lead both towards the area around Frosinone, and the mountainous area of Marsica fucense. Further still, one glimpses the pass which from the ancient Samnite settlement of Atina leads through the mountains and out of sight to the area around Cassino, lying below the ‘founding’ Abbey of Montecassino, from where western civilisation expanded through the work of St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe.
Until little less than a century ago, the road from Cassino to Atina was not easy to travel, but this did not prevent those doing their Grand Tour, such as Lord Craven, from admiring the Valle di Comino, or even settling for long periods in remote corners of the valley, where they found sources of inspiration: like the famous English writer D.H.Lawrence, who set his novel The Lost Girl in Picinisco. Today, however, there are “real” roadways, and the stretch of road between the areas of Cassino and Comino is facilitated by the Sora-Cassino freeway that, by connecting the sea in Formia to the mountains of Avezzano, creates a key link between the Tirrenian and Adriatic coasts.
Not far from Forca d’Acero, in a valley within a valley, that of Canneto, in the area of Settefrati, a black Madonna has been revered for centuries, with pilgrims arriving from various regions. In even more ancient times, there was another cult there, that of the goddess Mefiti, inextricably linked with water. Water, together with the mountains, is an essential element, not only of the countryside and the food chain, but also of the economy of the territory encompassed by the “Lag on the Latium side of the Abruzzo National Park” (Gal Versante Laziale del PNA).
While water is a typical feature of the picturesque scenery in the gorges of the Lacerno and Melfa river, or the lakes of Posta Fibreno (natural reserve) and Cardito (Vallerotonda), it has also given work to the “valley dwellers” for centuries, sustaining noteworthy industrial productivity. In fact, the paper and wool mills of the Sora-Isola-Arpino triangle, fuelled by the power obtained from exploiting the Fibreno and Liri rivers, held a prominent position in European industry during the 18th and 19th centuries, and their memory is today protected in the scientific texts of industrial archaeology, and in the wool and paper museums.
But water, we know, is life. And thanks to this force, the people of these areas were considered true ancient “civilisations”. Not only the Samnite settlement of Atina, which for decades held out against the armies of the eternal city, Rome, and which according to legend, was founded by the god Saturn, but also Veroli, for example, with its majestic Roman walls. And in the area of Veroli, we can also find the Abbey of Casamari, symbol of Cistercian industriousness.
In the territory overseen by the Gal Versante Laziale del PNA, industriousness can be witnessed in general in an economy which, although using different skills and certainly a smaller labour force than in the past, is still based on artisan crafts, on the direct use of harvested wood (Colle S. Magno and Monte San Giovanni Campano), on the harvesting of mushrooms, chestnuts (the famous Terelle variety) and truffles (in Campoli Appennino both the black and white varieties can be found), on olive-growing and the numerous mills, as well as on viticulture: for example, the Cabernet which was introduced in the second half of the 19th century, and is produced in the vineyards scattered throughout the areas of Atina, Gallinaro and Alvito, today boasts the doc label and is exported throughout the world.
In these lands, on the borders between Lazio and Abruzzo, plans for the Abruzzo National Park (today known as the Parco nazionale d'Abruzzo, Lazio e Molise) were drawn up in 1922 and then the park was immediately inaugurated: the first protected area in Italy, it introduced the concept of sustainable development. Here, contact with nature is direct and awe-inspiring. It is not uncommon, in fact, particularly at night, to run into the Marsican brown bear, the symbol par excellence of the park, of which there are also numerous ‘footprints’ in ancient tales and legends. Portrayed in a sixteenth century chronicle while grappling with a man deep inside “Fossa Maiura”, a sinkhole of karstic origin in the area of Alvito, local traditions tell of a bear that sometimes follows the mountain players from Picinisco and San Biagio Saracinisco, and sometimes dances in the company of the inhabitants of Vallerotonda.
The Park, as we know, also means tourism. And to attract tourists, a motorway had been considered way back in the 1920s, to connect Rome to Naples, with an exit in Cassino, thus establishing an ideal itinerary that would seamlessly interweave the outstanding aspects of the area, ie art, faith and nature. Nearly half a century passed before a modern highway was actually built which, by linking the “three Italies”, finally arrived close to the area of the Gal Versante Laziale del PNA.
However, there were already “highways” in the area, which passed through mountains and had been followed since ancient times, but which had a different name and different objectives. These were the tratturi or mountain tracks. Today, they are almost entirely inaccessible, but their memory lives on in the character, vitality and dynamism of the people who once used them. The huge flocks of sheep that were led to winter pastures on the fertile plain of the Tavoliere in Puglia, from the harshest areas of the Valle di Comino and Abruzzo, certainly no longer exist. Both sheep and shepherds can be counted today with no fear of falling asleep.
There is more permanency today, but the work of a shepherd or farmer, which is still marked by traditional customs and, to some extent, tools, continues and is also enhanced by means of adequate marketing. Typical products such as cheese and ricotta, truffles, farro (hulled wheat), cannellini beans, olive oil and wine, as well as nougat, can be tasted in small shops as well as in comfortable accommodation facilities, restaurants, and farmhouses which allow us to (re)discover the authenticity of another era, together with a wealth of local tales and traditions. All this is also thanks to the incentives given by the Gal Versante Laziale del PNA.
Here, in the territory of the Gal Versante Laziale del PNA, memory is protected.
by Lorenzo Arnone Sipari