Setting off at a mighty clip from Zagarolo, I stuck to the main road and thus saw the buttresses and arches of Palestrina only in the distance. Now further from Rome, the highways are much less crowded and perfectly pleasant to walk on for the most part – so the bus can wait.
This is Cave – one small town that happens to be on the main road itself.
I stopped to explore its vertiginous terraces. It was extremely silent and typical of Italian mountain towns: cobbled crack-alleys festooned with clothes hung out to dry between the ancient stonework, the distant murmuring of a television, and an ageing population. Plant pots and rat-traps lay outside centuries-old stable doors whose rusting bolts become be the only lynchpin holding planking to frame. Ramparts pile one on top the other, epoch upon epoch – some overgrown with weeds, others soaring up to support homes which jutted out from the foliage of the steep hillside into the sky.
Each dizzying thoroughfare and narrow stairway gave way to another breathtaking view over rooftops of moulting terracotta, where weeds rose up to clutch at the walls of derelict houses, as if fighting to pull the whole town back to the valley floor. The only voices I heard were of old women leaning from dilapidated upstairs window frames to pick up a mobile phone signal – their eyes gazing out into the distance.
A little way on, I came across the rare sight of a youngish man (forties) – helping his parents in an olive grove. When I stopped to photograph the family at work, Alessandro and his parents wouldn’t let me continue without asking me what I was up to and where I was going. Quickly, they up-turned a crate, set out four glasses and uncorked a glass flagon of pink liquid – their home-made wine.
Apparently olives have to be soaked in brine for about a month before you can really put them in your mouth – although this particular verity were destined for the oil press. The family explained to me that, in previous seasons, they had been helped by Romanians during the harvest but – alas – the Romanians have all gone to Germany.
As I headed on, weighed down with an extra bottle of the family’s wine and a ration of their cheese and prosciutto, I brooded darkly on the bright, credit-driven, smash-and-grab world of fiat gentrification. Alessandro – who, I assume, was not be tempted from his elderly parents’ farmstead by the false promises of city life – is the kind of noble, straightforward fellow for whom I fear there is no temporal reward and, frankly, civilisation is pretty screwed until there is.
Mind you, it occurred to me that there is no particular temporal punishment for people like that either – so long as you don’t mind a solitary life in the hills.
I set up camp near to Piglio.
This morning, I set off again at 7:00. The highway snaked through a wide valley, a low mist shrouding the surrounding fields. Looking up, there are signs of a great sparsity looming in the mountains ahead: A lonely fort here; the grey smudge and solitary spire of a village there. Gradually, the incline steepens as we press on into the forested range which divides the Italy of budget-airline gastro-breaks from the Italy of beach-beds, bachelor parties and booze cruises.
We are entering the ‘dark zone.’