Less than an hour north of Rome, Sabina is an area not yet discovered by tourists. The scenic Sabine Hills, covered with olive groves, are dotted with medieval hill towns, monasteries, castles, and wineries. If you want to get off the tourist track and experience rural Italy, Sabina is a great place to do it.
Visiting the Sabine Hills
Sabina is in the Rieti province of Lazio, the region surrounding Rome. While you can visit the area on a day trip from Rome, if you have a car it’s a great place to spend a few days immersing yourself in history, enjoying local foods and wine, hiking, taking a day trip into Rome, or just relaxing and participating in local life.
We visited the Sabine Hills with our friends Guido and Sally who run Convivio Rome Cooking School, offering half day to 5 day cooking classes, olive oil tours and winery visits.
Guido says: With history beginning 2,600 years ago and its unspoiled landscape dotted with ancient medieval villages and monasteries, the Rieti Province, part of the Lazio region directly north of Rome, is an exciting destination for the independent traveler. Part of its charm is due to the lack of mass tourism which you often encounter in other Italian areas. Authenticity is what the Rieti Province is all about.
The way the Sabine Hills are still today, very rural and unspoiled, is almost miraculous, despite its vicinity with a big city like Rome. The landscape of Sabina is quintessentially Italian, with its rolling hills covered by olive groves and fruit orchards and dotted with medieval hilltop villages and castles. Because of the olive trees and other evergreen Mediterranean plants, the Sabine hills are very green, all year round. A visit to one of the many hilltop villages in the area, will reveal beautiful views over valleys and mountains in the far distance.
On our visit to the Sabine Hills, we could definitely see that this was true. It was amazing that our short train ride from Rome could bring us to such a beautiful area that sees very few tourists. Guido and Sally met us at the Fara Sabina station, a 39 minute ride from Rome’s Tiburtina station with trains departing almost every 15 minutes. We explored the area, stopping in several small towns.
Top Places to Go in the Sabine Hills
Written by Guido Santi of Convivio Rome:
Visiting villages in Sabina will be an experience in itself. Medieval villages like Toffia, Fara Sabina, Farfa, Bocchignano or Montopoli have impressive defensive walls, beautifully decorated renaissance palaces and ancient churches. A maze of picturesque alleyways, archways and little piazzas will welcome the visitor, almost resembling a movie set. Impressive medieval castles can be seen in Rocca Sinibalda (Castello Cesarini, 1084 AD) and in Frasso Sabino (Castello Sforza, 955 AD). Those passionate about hiking will find ancient trails to explore, walking through green valleys, woods and cultivated land.
- Toffia: One of the earliest villages in the region, Toffia has a spectacular position on top of a stone cliff. It has 3 ancient churches and a great variety of early renaissance palazzi with colorful frescoes. The historic village center has been restored carefully over the past few years and it preserves its untouched medieval structure. Toffia has an interesting home-museum (Museo Maria Petrucci) where furniture and farming tools from 100 years ago are displayed.
- Farfa: The monastic village of Farfa, in the Sabine Hills, dates back to the 6th Century AD. As a monastery, it was granted independence from Rome by Charlemagne in person. Its medieval church and cloister are ancient architectural gems and the surrounding village is picturesque and well kept, with rows of craft shops. There is also a linen factory which utilizes 100 year old looms and produces the finest fabrics.
- Castelnuovo di Farfa: Once owned by the monastery, this walled castle village was built to defend the monks from potential enemy attacks. The Palazzo Salustri-Galli has beautiful gardens which are a fine example of 16th century renaissance landscape architecture. Castelnuovo has an interesting Olive Oil museum housed inside an old olive mill, which also displays contemporary art on the olive oil theme. The village’s small streets are lined with flowers, adding to the ambiance, and there’s an interesting display of old farming tools in a courtyard.
- Fara Sabina Archaeological Museum: The early inhabitants were the Sabines, a highly civilized population that thrived in this region, east of the River Tiber. The Sabines left some truly refined art from 600 BC, including gold jewellery, Greek-inspired pottery and bronze chariots. Most of these precious items are today found in Fara Sabina Archaeological Museum. The Romans took over the Rieti province and the Sabine Hills in 290 BC.
- Monteleone Sabino (Trebula Mutuesca): This village was once a prosperous ancient Roman town. Archaeological excavations have been carried out recently to reveal ruins of the Roman Forum, a stunning theater, an amphitheater and temples. Just opposite from the archaeological area is Santa Vittoria, a 1000 year old stone church with fine medieval frescoes. The surroundings are magnificent.
Olive Oil, Wine, and Local Foods
Sabina is famous for its extra virgin olive oil, the very first in Italy to receive the DOP denomination (Protected Designation of Origin). Olive oil has been produced here for millennia (there is an olive tree that’s 2000 years old) and is known for being light and flavorful at the same time. The area is also well known for pecorino and ricotta cheese produced from local sheep, olives, salami and of course guanciale (cured pork cheek), necessary for any amatriciana or carbonara sauce.
We had a good and inexpensive lunch at Trattoria da Lupi in Farfa, trying the local cured meats, cheese, sausage, trout, and pasta.
Wine has been produced for millennia and greatly appreciated in ancient Rome. The Tiber River, which eventually reaches the Capital, provides the perfect soil composition for wine making. Today, a small number of boutique wineries have emerged, thanks to the passion and creativity of their owners. Some grapes that are grown here may be unusual, but they are the result of a process which involves reviving ancient traditional Italian varieties.
Visit local wineries and taste wine with Wine Tours Rome. Wine tours can be done as a day trip from Rome or when you’re staying in the area. Or take a walk through an olive grove and learn about the olive oil making process on an Olive Oil Tour.
Convivio Rome Cooking Classes and Holidays
Half day or one day classes can be done as a day trip from Rome. You’ll be picked up and dropped off at the Fara Sabina train station, which is on the local rail line that starts at the Rome airport and stops at Trastevere and Tiburtina stations in Rome. After your hands-on cooking class, you’ll eat lunch accompanied by local wine. If you’re taking the full day class, your trip will also include a visit to the monastic village of Farfa.
If you come for a 3 or 5 day cooking holiday, you’ll stay right in the medieval center of Toffia, giving you the chance to really experience village life. You’ll have breakfast at the local cafe, taste local wines, tour an olive grove, and of course have great meals.
Chef Guido Santi is an eighth generation Roman who has a passion for cooking traditional Italian cuisine and for local, fresh, organic food and wine. As an active member of Slow Food, he supports and promotes local farmers and the zero kilometers philosophy. Guido runs Convivio Rome with his Australian wife Sally, offering cooking classes, culinary holidays and olive oil tours in the medieval hilltop village of Toffia.
Taking a cooking class or tour with Convivio Rome gives you the chance to experience a part of Italy different from the usual tourist destinations and to do something unique on your Rome vacation. For more, follow Convivio Rome on Facebook.