The Castelli Romani: Rome’s Hill Towns
On our way to the Castelli Romani, you may choose to stop at one of the many exceptional archeological sites along the Via Appia (like the Baths of Caracalla, Cecilia Metella’s tomb, the Park of the Aqueducts, or the Villa of the Quintili).
The nearest hill town, Castel Gandolfo, is about an hour away from Rome. Renown for the Papal Palace where the Pontiff traditionally retires in the summer, the small town offers an incredible view of Lake Albano.
Ancient Romans loved this area for its lakes that cooled sizzling summers temperatures. In fact, the Emperor Domitian could not resist building a palace here, the Albanum (literally “near Alba Longa” in Latin). A little under two centuries later, the Emperor Septimius Severus stationed the Second Parthian Legion here and Albanum underwent radical changes to accommodate the troops… A huge water tank and catacombs have survived from this era. And, after that, as the Empire decayed, a small hill-town, called Albano, was born.
The towns of Nemi and Genzano overlook another lake in immediate vicinity, the Lago di Nemi. Nemi and the surrounding area are famous for fragoline, traditionally small wild strawberries (which are now cultivated in hothouses). Nemi’s lake has long tantalized archeologists: over the centuries, locals told stories about giant, elaborately decorated phantasm ships. Occasionally fishermen dragged pieces of semi-precious metal or marble to the surface, corroborating the legends that circulated. After lengthy research and investigation, two ancient Roman ships were found. To resurrect them from their watery grave, Lake Nemi was partially drained in the early 1900s. The nearly intact boats dated to the Emperor Caligula’s era and were sumptuously inlaid with marble, gems, and precious metal. They were also fit out with incredible plumbing and luxurious baths, making them the celebrity yachts of almost 2000 years ago. They were displayed in a museum, which was built near the lake for the occasion. Tragically, however, the museum (together with its contents) caught fire at the end of World War II. Some say that retreating German troops burned the museum as a form of retaliation; others state that local criminals set fire to it to cash in on the ruined metal, which could be sold at high prices at the end of the war. Whatever the case, some of the ancient material was salvage and, after years of restoration, the museum (with limited content) has been reopened to the public.
Visitors interested in hiking should consider the Via Triumphalis. Huge sections of this ancient Roman road are intact and lead to the top of an extinct volcano called Monte Cavo, known to ancient Romans as Mons Latiaris (where the members of the ancient Latin league met for religious and political events). Following the entire ancient road constitutes an hour-long stroll. There are also easy-to-reach access points, which shorten the walk to 15 / 20 minutes. At the top of the hill, a panorama opens over the two lakes of the Castelli Romani (Nemi and Albano). On clear days, the Mediterranean Sea sparkles in the distance.
For the culinarily curious, food and wine abound. Several vintners offer wine-tastings on their property. (Nothing like sipping a glass of Malvasia under a wisteria bower or in an ex-convent from the 1600s!) The town Frascati is famous for its panini di porchetta (a type of ham sandwich), which begs for a local glass of white wine and should sate the most carnivorous member of any group! Meanwhile different chefs have decided to leave the hustle and bustle of Rome, transfer to the calmer Castelli area, and concentrate on quality cooking with local or regional ingredients and recipes. Discover the hedonistic joys of the Castelli!
Comments: it is best to plan on a full-day (i.e. about eight hours).
Special permission is required to access the archeological areas (monumental water tank and catacombs) in Albano. Please see “the costs” section for more information regarding reservation fees for special entrances.
Different vintners have different fees for wine-tastings. Generally speaking, a short visit, several glasses of wine and local specialties (such as bruschetta or other finger food) is euro 25 a person. For more information, please inquire!