From a brilliant, blue sky, the sun warmed the damp stone of the buildings in the historic center of Formia. The forecast called for a high temperature of only 16ºC, but the thermometer on my bike computer read 23ºC as I pedalled north from town on the Via Appia. The walls lining the road on either side of the ancient consular road yielded to open countryside as I left the city limits. On my left, I passed the iconic tomb of Formia’s most famous native son, Cicero. Beyond the tomb, acres of olive groves spilled down the slopes from the town of Itri, my destination last Saturday.
Around here, the famous Gaeta olives are also called olive itrane, because in fact, most Gaeta olives are grown in and around Itri, the next town north of both Gaeta and Formia on the Via Appia. Lying as it does on three of the most scenic routes into the hills surrounding the southern Pontine Plain, I had ridden through Itri countless times. And each time I promised myself that I would visit the historic center and its intriguing castle. The castle dominates the three valleys that stretch away from the town, attracting curious tourists as it once had attracted brigands, pirates, and barbarian hordes.
But because I live here (like the New Yorker who had never visited the Statue of Liberty), I always told myself “later. Today I need to…” Well, this might be my last chance, so I turned left and climbed the steep hill into the medieval center at the top of the hill. I had to stop to ask directions about two-thirds up, and it was too steep to start again, so I pushed my bike for the last few hundred meters.
Itri has a clean, authentic and remarkably well-preserved historic center. There are no tourist restaurants or souvenir shops, just buildings where people live. The few who use cars keep them in one of the three piazze on the edge of the quarter, just outside the walls. The view from the piazza at the top of the hill afforded a unique view of the valley leading back toward Formia – and of the large quarry sitting against the hill. I had never realized that the quarry was there, because the processing plant hides the large scar from viewers passing on the train or the Via Appia.
With the help of some nearly invisible signs and directions from locals, I found my way to the castle gate. The schedule on the bulletin board noted that it should have been closed for lunch, but the gate was open. I slipped inside the large courtyard and admired the view, and the excellent work that had been done to patch up the stonework and masonry. I also notice the large Aperto sign on the door to the interior, so I went into the keep.
A marble plaque informed me that the castle had been willed to the city of Itri by the last heir of the Jallonghi family, which had owned the place for almost two hundred years. That was in 1979. Successive town administrations had worked on the place, until it was reopened to the public in 2003. The interior was bare, but it had been restored in brick, plaster and masonry to its original shape. The stairs to the battlements were safe. The place was spotless.
This castle commands everything around it. I could see far down all three valleys, to the spine of the Aurunci Mountains and the waters of the Gulf of Gaeta. No surprise that the old town was so well preserved: not much could have gotten to it until modern times.
The ride back to the Via Appia terrified me as I carefully coasted, because I had to brake so hard to control my speed that I feared skidding. The brakes held and so did the pavement. Soon I was flying down the Via Appia on my way to Formia.
Formia has other little wonders. In my own neighbourhood at the top of the Via del Castellone is a gate in the wall that is more than a gate. Inside is a completely functional Roman cistern, the terminus for the aqueduct that carried mountain spring water to the city in ancient times. Today’s analog would be the city water tower. The Romans’ fame for engineering extended to all areas: road building, military machinery, architecture, and even hydraulics. Their municipal water systems are copied today, with modern materials. Formia still has delicious, cool water, from artesian wells in the mountains above the town, not from the local rivers.
Back in town, I parked the bike in the flat, changed, and walked to the Tempo Prezioso literary café, for my daily dose of WiFi-powered internet support. It felt good to have finally visited Itri for its own sake, instead of passing through yet again.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,