The scent of wild sage and thyme permeates the crisp mountain air, and the view from the rugged slopes of the Monti Aurunci Natural Park above the coastal town of Scauri is simply breathtaking. Rolando surveys his home town below and turns to me with an expression of pride. Rolando is part of a young generation working to build appreciation of this stretch of the coast and mountains in the south of Italy's Lazio region. He is our guide for this week of full immersion in the nature, history and culture of the Riviera di Ulisse Regional Park, a land deeply embedded in the geography of Ulysses’ tales. The Riviera extends along the coast of the Gulf of Gaeta and includes the protected areas and regional parks of Gaeta, Formia, Minturno e Sperlonga. At every turn we can appreciate the unique Mediterranean landscape and evidence of the rich classical past – the Sanctuary of the Split Mountain, ancient roman cisterns, spas and temples, the once sumptuous villas of Tiberius and Mamurra – all within a stone’s throw of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the element that unifies these fascinating archaeological sites.
Like Ulysses, Rolando has travelled far and wide and returned home full of ideas and enthusiasm. Chief amongst these is his determination to excite the interest of tourists and locals alike in the wealth of resources that this area has to offer. “You can explore this area by bike, kayak, trekking, but the next fascinating cultural gem is always just around the corner.” Rolando goes on to explain that the area hasn’t been highly enough valued in general. “There are many historical reasons, some of which can be traced back centuries, when this area used to be known as nobody’s land”.
But that is changing thanks to initiatives such as the Destimed project, which is addressing the tourism challenges facing the Mediterranean by fostering ecotourism alternatives and supporting conservation of the region's incredible biodiversity. “And of course we have the best food and wine in Italy” adds Rolando. He should know – he graduated from the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo in Italy, the first University in the world that focuses on food from a holistic perspective.
He is convinced that the superlative products of the area teamed with the beauty and variety of the landscape are a winning combination for sustainable tourism. And we cannot help but agree with him. But above all, it is the local people that Rolando introduces us to who are the major players in the success of this venture: the restaurant owners, the mozzarella makers, the shepherds with whom we spend an afternoon in their mountain refuge, the local guides and park rangers, the fishers who cook us lunch on their boat. For those who seek to experience the genuine beauty and rhythms of this land, rather than the chaos and mindlessness of mass tourism, exploration of the Riviera di Ulisse is the perfect choice.