TOFFIA NIGHT STORIES – a selection
I arrive at night – it seems like it’s very late, but really it’s only 10pm. Someone picks me up at the Fara Sabina train station and drives me through pitch-blackness on windy roads that seem very narrow. They promise sensational landscapes and I wish I could see. The driver speaks little English, but is trying. He is nice, friendly; his driving style is very moderate. I recall the crazy traffic I have experienced in downtown Rome and smaller towns on a trip to Southern Italy years ago. He isn’t that kind of driver, and I’m grateful for it. We come down a mellow slope and a town appears high up on a rock to our left, much like a fortress. It consists of dark yellow lights, mellow, sleepy, not the neon blue streetlights I am used to. I can make out buildings, vaguely. It seems like everything is clustered together. Almost like a Native American pueblo in New Mexico. The driver points to this accumulation of lights and explains, that the windows that are lit right up there – he waves his pointing finger – are the ones where I will be staying. There are really only 2 windows lit, so it’s easy to make it out. I can see a balcony on each of the windows, barely visible. Wow! I will be facing the cliff, the abyss, wow.
The road takes a sharp left and the town disappears out of our view. Up a hill again, steep – we must be approaching the town from the other end. Then, suddenly a sort of plaza appears right in front of us, which we cross, slowly. I don’t remember anyone being there, it seemed deserted. We head toward a lit gate – blue-purplish, very much in contrast to the sleepy yellow city lights I had seen from afar. I expect this is the end of the trip, but much to my surprise we drive through the gate – to enter into a sort of canyon – a very narrow road with stonewalls shooting up to the left and right. This must be medieval Toffia. It’s obvious this has not been designed for cars, and it almost seems like a miracle we are not scraping the walls. Then a tiny plaza, and I expect again that this had to be the end of the trip. And yet, we continue, up again, a steep slope, just as narrow. A Catholic shrine embedded in a stonewall to the left – obviously Maria, holding a light, small bouquets of flowers next to her. My heart jumps – Italy, just as I know it from Tuscany. I’m instantly reminded of Cortona, a hilltop town I visited many years ago, during a solo spring trip to Italy. I loved it there, and took many photos, only to realize later that my camera hadn’t been transporting the film, and that all my Cortona photos had been shot on one single frame. I had no time to reshoot, and essentially all photos were captured only in my memory. Over the years they have blurred, but I remember the essence: it was a most beautiful charming town. Toffia might be similar, yet likely much smaller than Cortona.
After this slope we finally stop right in front of a broad staircase that leads up to a majestic stone building. I remember reading that it had been a church originally. Now it is a theater, and the residency is housed in quarters adjacent to it.
I enter a spacey hallway, then a room to the right. My two suitcases are hauled up a narrow wooden staircase into a large attic – where I’ll be sharing sleeping space with 3 other artists. One of them is already asleep. I drop my things and descend back down. I step out the balcony, the one I had seen from the car. I can see a part of the clustered yellow town to the left. Underneath me total darkness, and the faint sound of a stream, dogs barking, far away, then closer, coming from the canyon. Ahead a soft-shaped mountain, and the road that we came on, small, barely visible in the darkness. Details will need to wait until daylight.
There is a time in September when the village dogs put up a spectacle every night. They seem to communicate all across town and way beyond. Sometimes it starts late at night, midnight or later. One dog starts and it becomes like a barking jam session, each of them trying to outdo – or rather “outbark” – the others. It’s deafening at times, and nerve-wrecking, and there are a few nights when we have to close the windows because we can’t sleep. Then, for a few days in a row there is particularly one dog that barks all night, without interruption. It always sounds like it is being tortured in some ways, beaten. Its bark is shrill, aggravated and sounds desperate at the same time, disturbing even to me who doesn’t like dogs. I start wondering how come its vocal cords don’t give in, how come it doesn’t get hoarse and lose its voice. In a way I hope it will lose its voice soon, as I don’t want to listen to this relentless barking any more. Sometimes it continues even through the day, or at least part of the day. I don’t know exactly where it’s coming from, but definitely from down under, meaning from the canyon. People have gardens down there, and some keep dogs in pens, often times chained. It could also be the small farmer straight down from us, the one with the sign that says “picadero”, although it seems hard to imagine that someone would endure this terrible noise and not attend to the problem in some ways. It’s more likely the dog is on its own. This continues on for 4 or 5 nights and days in a row, then it stops. It seems like the dog isn’t there any longer, has been moved, or maybe died. I am definitely grateful nights are quiet again.
My first night outing
It takes several days until I explore Toffia at night for the first time. I’ve been out a lot during the day – at first exploring the town. It seems incomprehensible. Small streets, or maybe I should call them alleys, wind themselves through town, much like veins. Turning left and right, yet smaller ones splitting off, leading up and down stairs and steep slopes. Sometimes I end up at a gate on the far end, and another one on the other side, much below the main gate. I can’t figure out the town’s geography for days. I walk the same streets many times – up and down – they seem new every time – always different. Especially one lower street seems mysterious. I discover it one day by accident, and love it, because it leans against the rock, with one side natural rock wall. Then I can’t find it for days. I walk down several slopes from the street that I assume to run parallel – sort of above it – but no luck. And then I suddenly end up there by sheer accident – and again can’t remember how I got there. It seems like magic – sometimes it’s there and other times it just seems to have vanished. I can’t help thinking of the Harry Potter stories.
I start taking hikes on gravel roads and trails, always with Toffia towering high above me. I pass through lush, beautiful landscapes consisting mostly of olive groves, some patches of forest. Manicured, but breathtakingly beautiful. Neat, well taken care of, obviously much appreciated. No corporate mega farming. Luckily the lands are too steep, too fragmented, too crooked for that. Undulating hills, soft, many shades of greens. Much to my surprise no burned grass, although it’s late September. Water doesn’t seem to be an issue here.
My first night stroll veils me in tranquility. It had been raining slightly earlier and no one is out. The town seems to have gone into hibernation. Complete silence, except the dogs in the valley, barking, always barking. It seems like a trance. I walk, without concept or destination at first – and then I suddenly understand the town. At first it seems like there are 3 main sections, an upper one and a lower one, and the mysterious street that’s there only sometimes. However, I finally unveil the mystery – it connects to the lower town section at the far town gate. So that leaves 2 main parts of town.
I’m taken by the yellow lights, even more now. I discover that there are 2 different kinds of yellow. An orange one, very warm in the upper part of town, and a slightly colder one in the lower part. They mix at the theater square, with the orange lights leading down the slope where Maria’s shrine is embedded in the wall, and from there into the upper part of town – and the colder yellow ones leading up the street that goes to the church and then on into the lower part of town. I walk for hours, passing the same areas repeatedly, until I feel that I comprehend the town – yet wondering if the geography that applies now will be the same the next day.
Regardlessly, this is when I decide to go out with tripod and camera to photograph Toffia at night.
The shooting star
We are sitting at a table at the Toffia bar, with panoramic view into the wide valley that embraces Toffia. The sun has just set and the sky is red, indicating good weather for the next day – according to old almanacs as some say, others say it’s a seafarer’s rule. I have come to the conclusion that most of the times it’s true, not only in Toffia, but generally worldwide. Suddenly someone points toward the red horizon and exclaims, “There is a shooting star”. We all turn our gaze, and then one bursts into laughter, and we all follow suit. Yes, someone says, catching her breath, an airplane shooting star, to touch ground at Fiumicino Airport in Rome within the next 15 minutes – we all laugh again. A second shooting star turns up on the horizon, also heading towards Rome. As the old saying goes, all roads lead to Rome – it seems like the same is true for the “shooting stars” in the sky. From then on we just call them shooting stars. Some of them even shoot upward – coming from Rome.
The night chat
It takes me 3 nights to shoot the upper part of town. I keep passing a group of chatting women, at least twice each time – as well as on my way back into town through the lower gate, coming back from hikes right before sunset. They sit in chairs outside their houses, elderly, chatting with each other. 3 women mostly, sometimes accompanied by one man. I say “Bonna Serra” each time, and each of them responds, religiously, like a canon, the same way every time I pass. They smile, but I know that they are likely confused about me passing by so many times, often equipped with camera and tripod. One time, returning from a hike, entering town through the lower gate, I hear their chatting as soon as I walk up the steep street toward the theater square. When I pass them I can’t help laughing – it suddenly seems funny, absurd almost – that they would be sitting there, always in the same place, same constellation, always responding my greetings in the same way, one of them always nodding her head with a big smile toward me. I expect them to laugh as well, but they don’t, which seems even more absurd. I had hoped the laughter in my voice would break the ice between us, but it doesn’t. They just repeat my greetings, the same way they always do, almost stoic.
I am on my way home from a day hike to another small town. The sun is setting and darkness approaches faster than I had expected. So I fall into a light jog. I am exhausted and hungry, but I realize that I need to hurry if I want to get back home before night falls. Running down a slope I stop as the little bag that contains my camera is bouncing against my body and it bothers me. I want to find a way to secure it so it stays close to my body. I attend to the little bag when I suddenly hear something racing down the edge of the road, which leads up steep to a garden or field. It’s almost like a huge thing is dropping down from above, just a few meters down the road from me. It has legs and runs, a huge plumb animal. I’m expecting the worst. A humongous dog, the hell hound in person. I am paralyzed from fear. I can’t move. Except for my brainwaves, which move faster than ever. I see myself being torn to pieces; I feel the pain of sharp teeth penetrating my flesh, tearing it out, indescribable pain, blood everywhere, then fainting. The thing hits the road, runs down it for a few steps only, and races back up the slope that it had come from. This is when it dawns on me that this is a wild boar, not a dog. It doesn’t relieve my horror though. Had I been just a little faster, had I not stopped to adjust the little bag, I would have run right into the boar, or it into me. I shudder at the thought of this, knowing that boars are not to be tempered with. I stand for a little while, listening, but everything is quiet up there in the brush above the road. I move on, a bit shaken.
Smells of food – the family fight
One night I am on my way a little earlier in the night. The town is filled with different kinds of smells of food, drifting out of windows. Dinner time, obviously. It’s pleasant, but makes me hungry.
From one house I hear what sounds like a fight between a woman and a man. Suddenly a window flies open, on the upper floor and something gets tossed out. I can’t see it and am glad I had just turned into a side street instead of walking by there. I might have been hit. It sounds like glass or porcelain being smashed against the opposite wall, or the street, I can’t tell. The window bangs shut again, and some sort of shades smash down, also with a bang. The fight continues on a lesser level, and then slowly dies. I stand frozen, then walk on.
Two hunters and a boar
I am on my way home from Fara Sabina. It’s 5:30pm when I leave the little town, and I know I need to move fast to get home before darkness sets in. It’s mid October now and I have noticed that it has been getting dark a little earlier every day. 4 weeks ago when I came here, I would not have had to worry about sunset until 7:30 or even 8:00pm, now it’s more like 7 pm or even a little before that. However, I stop briefly on an open area at the edges of Fara Sabina, where I have a view of a naked hillside that has an abandoned monastery on it, and I little trail leading to it. I walk onto the plain, open area, just to get a better view of the hill and the church or monastery. I hear something rustling behind me and turn around – just in time to see a man in camouflage with a gun across his shoulder approach from the bushes – a shaggy cocker spaniel dog at his legs. He smiles at me, well aware that he had startled me. I smile back and nod a hello, then take a deep breath. A hunter, I had been worried about that, as I had been hearing shots early in the morning and around dusk, especially on weekends. Also I had noticed a lot of spent cartridges next to the trail on my way to Fara Sabina earlier. I can’t help thinking about the story another artist told me about his friend’s wife who was shot and killed walking down her own walkway in rural Connecticut. I know that these incidences are rather frequent during hunting season in the US – and it’s probably not any different here in rural Italy.
Nonetheless I start on the trail toward the monastery, but turn around soon, as I feel like I should rather make sure to get on my way toward home. The shortcut trail down to the main road leads through the forest. I start singing, hoping that it would protect me from hunters as well as from their prey – presumably boars. I don’t really know what to sing, go through all kinds of tunes, from variations of German folk songs to US country, Bruce Springsteen, the Doors, John Denver – all of it heavily rendered my own way, since I’m not the most talented musician and I also don’t know the lyrics very well. The singing makes me walk in a bouncy, but rather fast pace. It gives me new energy, which comes in handy of course. As I bounce down a steep path in long strides, I see another hunter approach, gun shouldered, camouflage outfit, dog at his side – just like the first one. He is obviously on his way up to find a good spot to lurk for his prey. I stop singing only when I have reached him, to say “Bonna Serra”. He responds and motions to himself, waving his hand, saying something in Italian. I don’t understand the words but I know he is saying not to worry about him; he is harmless, despite his gun and outfit. Did I look like I was scared? I thought I had been very confident, approaching him fast and with singing. I try to ask him what he is trying to hunt. We gesture back and forth and agree on wild boars, after I have attempted a pig’s grunting sound. He doesn’t quite comprehend that one, though, maybe I’m doing it wrong, or maybe boars don’t grunt at all. Yet in the end it does seem like this is what he is out for after all. Yikes, I think, so those guys – meaning the boars – are out now, half feeling sorry for them, as they might be killed by a gun, half worrying about myself. I have to admit I do have some respect for boars. I don’t want to encounter one again. I walk on as fast as I can, singing again. When I reach the road I see the hunter’s car parked in an alcove at the start of this trail. I’ve seen hunter’s cars before, on Sunday morning hikes especially. Always a jeep/land rover type of car – really just a smaller version of the characteristic American outbacker – always military green, grey or brown, always parked somewhere in a hidden or unexpected spot. I have learnt that I need to be alert when I see these cars, as they indicate a hunter in the vicinity. I ponder whether I should dare going down the other shortcut that leads to Toffia, or rather walk along the car road. There is no jeep parked near the abandoned abbey across the street, but the hunter could be parked on the other end of the trail, coming up instead of down. I decide to try the shortcut, but once I have left the decaying abbey behind (there are a lot of abandoned abbeys and monasteries in this part of Italy) and reach the steep trail that goes down into the forest, I hear something snorting in the bushes right where the trail turns off into the forest. So that’s a boar after all. I did get the sound wrong. They don’t grunt, they snort. I decide not to chance another boar encounter, since I have already had a scary one exactly a week ago. So I turn on my heels, head back up the trail toward the abbey and get on the road. That turns out to have its challenges too, though. I end up having to jump across the side rail twice, once for the big blue bus that takes up more than half of the road’s width, and the second time for a rather big car. Walking on the curvy road has never seemed super save, and seems even less so now that it’s dusking. Yet I haven’t encountered any crazy drivers here, so I hope I won’t run into one now. I make it save, and once I’m close to Toffia, I take photos of the town up on its rock, illuminated in the late evening sun. The light is waning, though and takes away some of Toffia’s magic. I regret my attempt down the shortcut trail. Had I gone on the road right away, I would have caught Toffia about 10 minutes earlier, which would have made all the difference. Yet, I would never have found out how boars snort.
By the time I arrive home it’s almost dark, although it’s only 6:15pm. The sun is setting sooner by the day. ×
TOFFIA HISTORY – A SUMMARY
Toffia sits on top of a rock that is geologically different from most other hills in its vicinity – it is a harder kind of rock. Legend has it that it split off from a hill on the other side of the stream in ancient times and was somehow placed in its present location, possibly through glacial activity or other geomorphological movement.
The name Toffia might be derived from “tophium” which was used in Latin to describe hard rocks.
Another theory traces the name back to Theophilus, possibly the founder of Toffia.
Archeological findings – such as spearheads and pottery shards found in fields, bones of domestic animals such as sheep and cattle – suggest that the Toffia area was inhabited or at least frequented by humans as early as 1000 – 2000 BC. These early inhabitants were likely farmers, herders and hunters, keeping domestic animals as well as hunting for wild boar. During the 1st and 2nd century AD (late Roman Era) there were small farmsteads scattered throughout the valley, centered around Roman villas. One such villa was named Marianus or Marinianus, which gave name to an area beneath Toffia, and is still used today. However, due to dire economic situation the small farmers were no longer able to support themselves from their tiny plots of land, and were forced to migrate to Rome or work for rich landlords as serfs/farmhands. Rich landowners took over large portions of land to form Estates that relied on fiefdom.
The town of Toffia originated as a small fortified settlement with a castle or fort and buildings/living quarters surrounding it. It was the result of a lifestyle change of the entire Sabina Area. Up until the 9th century people lived scattered throughout the valley, tending farmsteads. However, invading and raiding Saracens forced the population to draw together. As a result 52 hilltop towns were founded within the Sabina region between 900 and 1500 AD. Most of the land was owned by Fara Abbey, which had become strong and politically influential under Langobardian and then Franken rule. (Charlemagne took Farfa Abbey under his protection). However, due to the threats of Saracen invasion Farfa Abbey ceded some of its land to aristocratic families, in return for creating fortified hilltop towns to protect land and population from marauding Saracens. These families became increasingly wealthy and gained importance and political power, both in church and civil government. Their families were large and some family members entered into religious services as well, which insured them influence in both sectors.
The original town of Toffia extended between Piazza Lauretana – the theater square – and the monumental church Santa Maria Nuova, which used to be the castle. This castle might have been built upon the ruins of a Roman temple, however there is no evidence. Piazza Lauretana was the main square. The marble “counter top” on piazza Lauretana was used for money transaction – reportedly the coins were tested for their sound against the flat smooth stone. Toffia’s first church was located on Piazza Lauretana, now tugged in between buildings, barely visible. It consists of a simple square nave and is held in a somber, clean style. It is still on use and offers mess service several times a week.
There were military quarters or barracks outside the core of the little town, in an exposed location now a neighborhood called La Rocca. The town was protected by a fortified stonewall. Its main gate was on the long staircase that leads down from Santa Maria Nuova (then the castle/fort). Beyond were gardens and fields.
The Orsini and the Colonna emerged as powerful families and were in constant feud with each other. The Colonna family occupied the castle and used it as a palace. The fight between the two families became fierce enough that the vicar bishop Saint Wolf of Sabina visited Toffia in 1344 and attempted reconciliation between the two parties, but was ambushed by partisans.
Around 1500 the Colonna Palace was turned into a church (Santa Maria Nuova). A part of the original structure was cut off, as it extended too far over the cliff. The foundation of this section can still be seen from the street below. A campanile was added, in the Renaissance style of the School of Michelangelo. Other architectural changes might have taken place – it is likely that the fort had an open courtyard, which was closed to house the church nave.
In 1560 the Orsini ceded their main palace to the City of Toffia. It became the town hall.
As Toffia’s population grew, new buildings were added outside the original town wall and in the 15th century a second town wall was added. This wall exists to the present day. There used to be towers along the wall, most of which are not there any longer, or have fallen into disrepair. Yet their foundations can be seen in between the outermost buildings. One of the streets added is Via Casaline, which consisted of small one-storey houses occupied by common people. In the other direction Toffia grew beyond Piazza Lauretana, and today’s main street and main gate were added. Another gate was added further down near the stream, at the end of a long descending street. The military section at La Rocca was also turned into housing.
The church of San Lorenzo lies outside Toffia’s town wall. It dates back to the 7th century, possibly earlier, and might be built on the foundations of a Roman temple as well. The building might have gone through even more phases, from Roman to Pagan to Christian worship houses. The Pagan temple is said to have been dedicated to God Janus. The façade of the church bears several stones that have obviously been taken from Roman ruins, as they show portions of relief sculptures and ornamental elements. A large square stone block dates back to the first century AD and its faint engravings suggest that it might have been a chessboard. Legends also say that it might be a symbolic depiction of San Lorenzo’s death, as he was burnt on an iron grill.
San Lorenzo was its own entity and not part of Toffia. Its cemetery was established in the 19th century. In the Middle Ages the church was surrounded by smaller buildings, such as administration buildings belonging to the church, possibly a parish. There was no designated cemetery during the Middle Ages, although some graves were found inside as well as scattered around San Lorenzo. There are tunnels and chambers underneath the church and cemetery – remains from the earlier structures that predated the church (Pagan and Roman temples).
Salaria Road passes by at the foot of the hill Toffia sits upon. It is the shortest of the Roman Roads and leads across Italy. As its name indicates it was a “salt road”, used for transport of sea salt from the Adriatic Sea to the central parts of Italy and to Rome. There used to be tombs along Via Salaria during Roman times. ×