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From Sgurgola to Gorga: on hiking, alliterations and onomatopoeia

In November I completed my explorations of the towns of the Eastern Lepini mountains: after Morolo, Patrica and Supino, I finally hiked from the curiously-named town of Sgurgola to the elusive and secluded town of Gorga.

I could not fail to note the alliteration and perhaps that onomatopoeic root of these two toponyms which suggests the incessant sound of gurgling waters, carving their way and vanishing into the limestone abysses of the Lepini range.

“From Sgurgola to Gorga” I murmured as I hiked, savouring the guttural repetition echoing against my palate, rolling my r’s unnaturally and wondering whether the etymologies of these two places have a common origin.

The Eastern Lepini, of which you will read extensively in my blog, are not as well known as their Western counterpart, where the climb to Monte Semprevisa is almost a rite of passage for most hikers in Lazio.

On a weekday you will undoubtedly have the entire mountain range to yourself but even on weekends, other than the popular Sentiero di Dante that I wrote about in a summer edition of Wanted in Rome, it is highly unlikely that you will share your trail with any other hominids (although I cannot vouch for the absence of a local bigfoot in all honesty!) and this is something that makes this secondary mountain range so appealing to me despite the modest altitude.

That modest altitude is, however, a blessing given the elevation gain since most of the towns of the Eastern Lepini are located just above the Sacco Valley and any observer will notice the sheer precipitousness that separates them from the flatt-ish ridge that culminates in four peaks above 1400 metres with the highest being the Monte Malaina which will be the focus of a future blog post.

Sgurgola, for example, is located at a mere 386 metres and this makes for a steep initial climb regardless of what your destination is.

My goal that day was to reach the small town of Gorga on the other side of the mountain in a loop that also included the statue of the Virgin at Rava Santa Maria (980 metres a.s.l.) but especially the San Leonardo hermitage. This makes for an ambitious and long, but diverse, loop which is well worth the effort.

Sgurgola seen from San Leonardo

The trail begins just above Sgurgola, past the primary school, and it ascends in a steep zigzag through the woods, passing by the remains of the old “calecara” where lime and gypsum would be extracted in the old days and after about an hour, leaving the trail that continues along the ridge to Fonte dell’Acero, reaches the San Leonardo spring, a mere hundred metres from the hermitage.

The hermitage is located in a stunning position, overlooking Sgurgola and the valley below, and much to my surprise I find its doors open.

The hermitage of San Leonardo

The first evidence of its existence dates back to 1216 and it became a small monastery under the order of San Damiano (an order established by the hermit Pope Celestine V) in 1294, housing only two monks during its brief history. By the early 15th century it was abandoned and converted to a chapel presided by the monastery of Saint Anthony in Ferentino, also originally a celestinian monastery. In later times the hermitage had become a barn until the Bishop of Anagni in 1750 chose a new custodian to manage its extensive properties: friar Pietrangelo Spoletino. This brief revival was short lived and the monastery was once more abandoned and its property ceded to private individuals.

The interior of the hermitage

Within, the chapel is bare - I find no traces of frescoes, just a rustic statue of the saint, Saint Leonard of Nobalt, and a few candles. The view from the desolate picnic area is stunning; it embraces the Simbruini mountains with the westernmost buttress of Monte Scalambra.

The scant ruins of Santa Secondina

I return to the trail and as I am always drawn to minor details I find a vague reference to the ruins of another hermitage, that of Santa Secondina. The newly placed trail signs warn the hiker that the trail is exposed and challenging and, indeed, it is a thin sliver that carves its way through the steep woods and circles around the modest peak of Cima del Monte. On the northernmost part of the trail, where it reaches a rocky limestone plateau, are the remains of Santa Secondina - no more than a few foundation stones, the shape of a small chapel and what was likely a small cistern, a local martyr from the town of Anagni, who, according to local tradition, hid here to escape persecution under the reign of Decius. This legend is beautifully depicted among the famous frescoes of the extraordinary crypt of Anagni’s Cathedral: a topic deserving of one or more posts!

Now the trail ascends the ridge and for the first time Gorga emerges in splendid isolation surrounded by its mountain scenery. Pastures and a few farms and several untarred paths serve as a buffer zone between the woods and the small village and after 20 minutes I reach Gorga for the first time in my life.

As many other mountain villages, it’s a quiet place on a weekday and its medieval core wraps itself around a small acropolis crowned by Palazzo Doria Pamphili (the current town hall) and a church dedicated to the ever-present Archangel Michael. On its southern side, high cliffs provided an unassailable position for the city’s mediaeval inhabitants. Opposite the acropolis, is another height occupied by the town’s observatory: certainly a great location given the absence of significant light pollution. The town’s history reveals its close connection with Anagni and later with the monastery of Villamagna, which I will discuss in a separate short article. After the destruction of Villamagna at the end of the 14th century, Gorga was a fiefdom of the Conti di Ceccano and as of 1659 it was purchased by the Doria-Pamphilj.

I wander around the town and exchange a short chat with the locals in the only bar which is unexpectedly open and admire the Fontana della Pastorella, a beautifully crafted fountain with a fake grotto crowned by the statue of a younger shepherd girl and her two goats. The statue is the work of the regional artist Ernesto Biondi who at the turn of the 19th century achieved international and national recognition.

Fontana della Pastorella in Gorga

Gorga is a silent place with just under 700 registered residents and a single tarred road connects this place with the rest of the world. Beyond Gorga, the mountains rise to the main peak, Monte San Marino, surrounded by some of the most fascinating karstic landscapes of the region, only partly explored and exemplified by the abyss of the Campo di Caccia cave which has been discovered to be 610 metres deep!

I return to the foot of Cima del Monte and take the trail through the Valle Forana which leads me to the statue of the Virgin that from a height of 1000 metres overlooks Sgurgola and the Sacco Valley. The narrow Forana Valley reveals signs of its ancient agricultural history and as the trail leaves Gorga behind, the oak woods on its western side and the beech woods on its eastern side, take over and swallow the fields and pastures. A few private, but open shelters, including the beautiful stone shelter of Rifugio Valle Forana, provide a further encouragement for my future plan to walk the multi-day trail of the Alta Via of the Lepini Mountains, and I suddenly emerge on the trail that follows the ridge south to Rifugio Santa Maria, a recently restored and comfortable mountain shelter. A difficult and dangerous short trail leads to the foot of the cliff, where signs of devoted pilgrims from times gone by are difficult to discern on the rocks, and I return to the shelter to climb up to the statue of the Virgin, perched on a rocky crag at just under 1000 metres, my highest point of the day. From here, with a little extra time and more daylight, it is not unreasonable to add a climb to Monte Filaro (estimate an additional 45-60 minutes return) and from there to continue to Sprone Maraoni (an additional four kilometres return).

However, I choose to linger and take in the sight of the Sacco Valley and the distant peaks of the Simbruini, Cantari and Ernici mountains, and then walk back to the intersection, leaving the trail through Valle Forana on my left and descending to the San Leonardo Spring and from there to Sgurgola. Before my hike is done, however, I take a right turn, just before the spot where the trail from the lime kiln meets the tarred road in Sgurgola and take the short path to the church of Saint Nicholas.

The Madonnina overlooking Sgurgola

The trail and church have been recently restored and though little is known about this building it is unsurprisingly closely associated with a nearby spring and cave where the remains of hydraulic works are visible. Built on two levels, with a lower church or crypt providing the foundations of the nearby church, it is a 13th century building perhaps serving as a monastery or hermitage given its isolated location. I am inevitably drawn to the cave which I explore until I get to a narrow steep descent for which a rope and perhaps a companion would both be beneficial; reports about an underground pond only serve to feed my curiosity and to stir up my adrenaline!

Santa Maria in Viano

I spend the dying hours of the day exploring the nearby Badia di Santa Maria del Viano, now surrounded by the modern cemetery, which is yet another monastic complex (a Cistercian abbey) partly destroyed and reconverted in the Napoleonic era but whose church is still standing and serves as the cemetery church. Built in 1257 and looked after by a hermit from 1477 it still displays a fresco of Christ Pantocrator (Creator of all) in his traditional hieratic pose which owes much to the art of Byzantium. Curiously enough, though difficult to approach, the walls of the old abbey are hidden behind the more recent funerary monuments and are largely overgrown with brambles and ivy.

The Christ Pantocrator above the entrance

Sgurgola’s centre has little to offer and the remains of the castle, now in private hands, are unapproachable. For a while, the Caetani family held sway over the town which had an illustrious inhabitant by the name of Arnaldo da Villanova, a Catalan ascetic who was among many things a physician and an astrologer for Pope Boniface VIII, who wrote his apocalyptic treatise De mysterium cymbalorum ecclesiae and who was persecuted before and after his death (1312/13) by the Inquisition. The feud was then ceded to the Colonna who held it until the 1800s and Sgurgola’s expansion began and led to the disappearance of its mediaeval heritage and unappealing, as so often in Lazio, concrete and chaotic urban planning. If you explore the centre from the elegant clocktower that rests upon the city gate you will spot several, at times faded, works of street art which are dedicated to illustrious composers and artists. There is, however, a vibrant cultural life with festivals and events and I am hopeful that a recent event known as Arcanum Sculca, which was held in November and centred on folktales, storytelling and local food, will be renewed next year!

The castle and clocktower in Sgurgola

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