With this article, we conclude our three-part series on Treasures of the Roman Countryside. In past instalments, we talked about the villages of Anguillara Sabazia, the “Atlantis of Italy”, and Bracciano, best known for its epic castle where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were wed.
Today, we’re moving from the lake to the mountains in that same scenic part of Lazio north of Rome, where we highlight the village of Tolfa. If you’ve heard of Tolfa, it’s probably because of its world-class leather products, but there’s much more to Tolfa than that.
Tolfa: A Little Place with Lots to See
For being such a small place, Tolfa sure seems to have a lot to offer visitors. Nestled into the slopes of the Monti di Tolfa (Tolfa Mountains), the hamlet welcomes you with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
In addition to the fabulous vistas, Tolfa enchants visitors with its narrow alluring alleys, pretty piazzas, and buildings from bygone eras. The architecture here is a pleasing mix of Medieval and Renaissance influences, with well-preserved structures like Palazzo Panetti, the village’s most impressive Renaissance building, and Palazzaccio, which was originally constructed as the Palazzo dei Priori, the town hall.
Tolfa’s Cultural Centre (Polo Culturale) is housed in the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Sughera. Sughera means “cork” in Italian, as in the bark of a cork tree from which the corks for wine bottles are made. The sanctuary was constructed in the 16th century, inspired by a vision of the Madonna and Child standing in front of a cork tree. Today, the complex contains the Civic Archeological Museum, the Municipal Library, and community archives.
While the charm of the village is captivating, the Fortress of Tolfa is not to be missed. Also called the Rocca di Tolfa or Frangipane Castle, the fortress is the archeological star of the Tolfa show. Originally constructed in the 9th Century and destroyed by French troops during the Napoleonic occupation, the remains of the old citadel rise above the terra cotta roofs of the town. The uphill climb to get to there, passing private gardens as the landscape widens around you, is perhaps as lovely as the views from the summit. On the way, you will encounter another sanctuary, the church of the Madonna della Rocca, protector and symbol of Tolfa.
The Tolfa Mountains cover almost 200,000 acres. The lush forests and extensive plains provide habitat to a great many plants and animals. In addition to already being an area of major ornithological interest in Italy, Tolfa has been declared a protected area for birds, so it’s ideal if you love birdwatching. If you prefer something more active, there are lots of trails, perfect for hiking and biking.
Renaissance Economic Stardom Thanks to Alum
While the views and the natural beauty around Tolfa are the main draw these days, the village’s past is one of impressive economic significance.
Tolfa gained sudden importance during the Renaissance, when alunite was discovered in the surrounding area in 1461. Alunite is the source of alum, an essential substance in the textile industry that was so vital to the Renaissance. Until the discovery of alunite in Tolfa, trade in alum was exclusively controlled by Ottoman Turks through Venice. The arrival of alunite mining in Tolfa abruptly shifted the monopoly from the Turks to the papacy and the Medici family of Florence, into whose hands the Pope entrusted its distribution. Alum drove the local economy until the Early Modern Italian period, not to mention making a fortune for the Catholic Church and the Medici.
Alum also plays a key role in leather tanning, which became a hallmark of Tolfa. The village is still known for its top-quality leather goods, particularly its signature handbag that recalls the satchels of cowherds from times gone by.
If you are not in the market for leather goods, nessun problema. With its lush landscape and rolling hills, Tolfa offers a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of Rome and a taste of Italian life from times gone by.
Whether you are staying in Rome or coming to the port of Civitavecchia by cruise ship, DriverInRome would be pleased to show you Italy’s amazing countryside and its quaint villages. Please contact us for standard as well as custom itineraries.