Rieti finds itself spread around the Via Salaria, the old Roman ‘Salt’ road, on a low hill, north east of the eternal city; though the original town dates to nearly 3000 years ago, and started life as the Iron Age Rea.
Today it is a medium sized town of nearly 50,000 people and is capital of the Sabina province of the Lazio region. The link to Sabina recalls the role of the Sabine women in peace-making between the Sabines and the Romans.
The history through the Roman era is not well recorded in archaeology, but the city was subject of substantial discord throughout the ages, being sacked by virtually everybody from the Barbarians forward with designs what has become Italian territory.
When you arrive in Rieti, one main entrance point for the walker is the Porta Romana at the bottom of the Via Roma which leads you firstly to the famous original Roman bridge (Ponta Romana) with, in Spring, the clear waters of the Velino river flowing rapidly downstream from the distant snow-capped peaks of the Apennines.
If you view life only from the perspective of the large ducks, about 20 of whom live on each side of the bridge, you could be fooled into believing that the river is becalmed as the ducks remain relatively motionless in the flow, waiting for the arrival of a morsel or two, proving once again the advantages of paddling hard underneath the surface.
We are reminded that Rieti is a city of churches so begin our search by strolling up the via Roma towards the centre of the old city. About half way up on the right is an old roman arch church portal above which is a small
rose window. Entering the door one finds not a place of worship but a magical small bookshop, converted as have so many churches in Rieti.
This church was St Peters, but now, as well as the more standard quality books, it promotes Rieti with books for all ages concerning the joys of the local environment – many of which have been composed by the local author Rita Giovanelli. Though I should also note that for the lovers of children’ books I espied copies of the ‘Pop up’ version of The Little Prince.
Not finding a bar, we arrived in the square (Vittorio Emanuele II of course) to be effectively enclosed by the buildings and palaces of a medieval cum renaissance town. Several of the buildings advertised their role in government and authority through the Italian and European flags plus occasional regional or local flags. In the middle of the square stands a fountain without identification, apparently known as the Fontana dei Delfini, comprising a central font with 4 torsos in different states of repair.
Just outside the square to the right stands the elegant facade of the Post and Telegraph office. The two buildings in front represented the City Hall and possibly the Provincial Headquarters, as the Governor’s Palace stood opposite behind to our left. On the left between the government buildings stood the classical Grand Albergo of Quattro Stagioni with its stylish coffee bar, soon occupied by your story teller to enjoy a ‘caffè lungo’ and croissant before investigating the cathedral lust down the street to the left.
It was at this point that looking down the streets from near the fountain, I had a strange sensation that this well-structured ‘ideal’ town square was just a stage from an Italian movie, as it appeared that there was nothing else of import behind the facades. One other point of note to reinforce my visual dream, was the apparent disregard by the city fathers for the needs of tourists for regular relief. Yet, maybe such a despoilment would damage the otherwise exceptional image that the square grants.
To view the cathedral one has to seek behind the Hotel as only the Papal Palace is obvious from the square. As in many older churches from about the 11th century, it was apparent that the campanile, the bell tower, had originally been a separate construction from the cathedral and was joined in a later renovation.
On entering the cathedral, I was immediately calmed, the peace emanating from this wonderful place of worship is most impressive. There were only a few people visiting, and there was no noise. Few of the outstanding features can be effectively described. The naves on either side of the central nave led to chapels dedicated as would be expected to Santa Barbara, the crucifixion, St John and, among others, of course, San Rocco.
I noted that the statue of San Rocco was without his customary dog who must have been in town buying the bread at the time. Fortunately, one of the other four images of San Rocco in the chapel had the faithful hound at his master’s right foot to remind the faithful of the importance of the role of the dog in expulsion of the plague.
The cathedral is blessed with two pipe organs, on either side of the altar on the upper level. At the side, stairs lead down to the renovated crypt that runs across the width of the church underneath the altar. On the left hand of the altar one can find a moment to pray before a slow walk to the back for one last view towards the apse and then venturing once more into the unreal world.
Of course, there is much more to see in the old city for those who wander behind the stage facade. In addition, there are some buildings, such as the domed theatre that can only be admired from afar. Finally, for those who seek the unusual, please find the plaque marking where Enrico Caruso rested for 45 days.
Standing on the bridge watching the Velino flow past is a fine way to finish your first visit to Rieti.