San Martino al Cimino, a quiet hilltop village near Viterbo, is famous for its chestnuts which are honored each October in a sagra or food festival, now in its 25th year. It’s a chance to savor the local gastronomic specialties and meet artisans selling jewellery, leather, textiles at booths scattered around the main piazza , a natural shopping center or mall.
The town was the summer getaway of Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, sister–in-law (and reputed mistress) of Pope Innocent X Pamphili. She held the purse strings of the Vatican, appointed cardinals, negotiated with foreign ambassadors and was considered the most powerful woman in 17th century Rome. To escape the plague devastating Rome in 1656, Donna Olympia retired to San Martino and had the village redesigned into an oval made up of individual town houses, an early example of town planning.
She also had the magnificent abbey church built and acted as benefactor to poor girls who needed a dowry. But wealth and power did not protect her from the plague and today her tomb can be seen set into the floor of the church apse.
The town has several excellent restaurants offering special menus for the occasion and in the huge former stables of Donna Olimpia’s palace, trestle tables are set up and a 5 course lunch (at 20 euro) is served to hundreds of visitors.
Local dishes served during the sagra include zuppa di ceci e castagne (chickpea and chestnut soup), porcini mushrooms, polenta, sausages, grilled meats and suckling pig (maialino), all followed by roast chestnuts and biscotti.