A trip to Roccantica and a walk to the Eremo di San Leonardo is a fine idea for a day out in the Sabine Hills. Take a picnic because bars and restaurants are thin on the ground, though there’s no shortage of beautiful views, churches and relics to admire.
If you’ve arrived by car, park near the Chiesa di San Valentino, which is the start of the walk to the Eremo or hermitage.
To visit the village, simply keep walking upwards along the cobbled pathways.
Eventually you will emerge at a vantage point with spectacular views across the surrounding hills and valleys.
The village contains numerous churches from different periods as well as a mediaeval castle. Arcane symbols are everywhere – presumably religious.
Roccantica was defended by a triple circle of walls, still visible today, stemming from a square tower that served as defence and a lookout. The buttresses in the first circle of walls are clearly visible, while the second contains Roccantica’s three gates, namely Porta dell’Arco, Porta Nuova and Porta Reatina.
The number of festivals staged in Roccantica is out of all proportion to its tiny size and population of just 550. The traditional Medioevo in festa festival in August is an annual re-enactment (with food and wine, of course) of Roccantica’s most significant historical event. This occurred in 1059 when Pope Nicholas II, pursued by the allied troops of Benedict X, took refuge in the village. The locals defended Pope Nicholas II heroically until Robert of Altavilla and his troops arrived to save the day. The defence took a heavy toll on the village, however, and only twelve Roccolani survived.
Pope Nicholas honoured the bravery of the local people by issued a Papal Bull making Roccantica his fiefdom. This honour was upheld by other Popes, who granted the Roccolani special taxes exemptions, immunities and dispensations through the centuries.
The Sagra della Polenta grigliata (grilled polenta] is held in winter and the Sagra del Frittello (broccoli tips fried in batter) is celebrated in March.
The woodland walk to the hermitage and back takes just over an hour. Take the track to the left of the Chiesa di San Valentino bell tower, continue to a small clearing and then follow the San Leonardo sign on a red arrow. The path to the hermitage is clearly marked along the way by signs and red paint mark on the rocks.
Eventually you will come to limestone walls on your left and the ruined hermitage. The walls were once decorated by 15th century frescoes depicting St Leonard and St Catherine of Alessandria painted by Jacopo da Roccantica, although these have now all but disappeared.
It’s impossible not to reflect on the bleak and lonely lives the hermits must have led in their eyrie above the wooded ravine.
The limestone crags around the hermitage attract many free climbing enthusiasts.
On your way back to Roccantica, you can detour via the remains of an ancient water mill on the valley bottom.