Touring the Roman Hills
photos and text by Giuseppina Marcolini of Delicious Italy
If you want to be more Roman than the average tourist to the Eternal City, then consider a day or two in the Roman hills or Colli Albani. Located to the southeast of the capital, they are the destination for the classic Spring day out or gita fuoriporta which has been popular as long as Rome has existed.
In fact, ever since the period of ancient Rome, the aristocracy would build their elegant country villas here. During the medieval era, important feudal families turned these villas into fortified buildings, or castles – hence the name we still use today Castelli Romani.
Although noted for these historical and noble villas, the zone is perhaps better known these days for the wine and typical tavernas called raschette. Of course, you can’t forget the porchetta of Ariccia or roasted pork sandwich. This alone is a reason to make the trip. And we haven’t even mentioned the volcanoes!
The easiest way to reach the Roman hills is by following the signs for the Appia Nuova Road which runs parallel to the famous Appian Way. Passing Ciampino Airport, the road leads directly to Castel Gandolfo, a small village on the shores of Lake Albano which is the larger and deeper of the lakes. Nemi is relatively tiny, but no less interesting.
Both lakes are fed only by underground springs and water bearing strata. Amazingly, the ancient Romans built a tunnel between both to act as an artificial gauge to control the water level after rains. It is perhaps the oldest and most magnificent work of hydraulic engineering in antiquity.
In 1608, the Vatican choose Castel Gandolfo as an official Papal residence and since then all Popes have stayed here during the summer months to avoid the heat of the capital. Bernini designed the fountain and the Church of Saint Thomas we still see today.
If you go there for lunch, head to a local trattoria and try a plate of spaghetti (or bucatini all’amatriciana and fried lattarini (these are tasty little fish from the lake) accompanied with Colli Albani DOC wine.
Albano Laziale is the next town or castelli. According to mythology, this is where the famous battle between the Orazi brothers (on behalf of Rome) and the brothers Curiazi (on behalf of Albalonga or ancient Albano) took place. Their huge tomb can still be seen as can the immense ancient roman ruins such as the amphitheater and the intact Roman cistern – which is still working! There are also ruins of a Roman villa and camp of the Second Partica Legion. The zone boasts one of the most important catacombs of southern Lazio called San Senatore noted for its precious frescoes.
Now to Ariccia for that pork sandwich, but first do visit the Palazzo Ducale of Villa Chigi, or at least a wing of it, which is a unique example of an unaltered Baroque residence unchanged in its setting and original furnishings. It is a living document of the splendor of one of the largest Italian papal families who bought the town in 1661. Villa Chigi is also a prestigious costume film location.
Almost adjacent to Arricia, just across the viaduct over the valley, is Genzano. It is well known for the annual Infiorata Flower Blossom festival in June, held on the first Sunday after Corpus Christi Day since 1778. For the event, the long straight road which climbs to the Santa Maria della Cima Church is covered with artistic mosaics made with millions of flowers. Genzano is also famous for its bread which is recognized as a IGP or “Geographically Protected Indication.” It is tasty, with an extra crispy brown crust and lovely soft bread inside — perfect for bruschetta toast and the essential bread for that famous porchetta sandwich.
Perhaps the most picturesque corner of the Roman Hills is the tiny village of Nemi, perched over the small volcanic Lake of Diana, known as the Mirror of Diana. The Ancient Romans believed that Diana, the Goddess of hunting, lived in the nearby oak forest. The typical product of Nemi is the strawberry. Go there on the first Sunday of June for the dedicated festival.
If you love wine, then the final two destinations are essential. From Nemi look for the Via dei Laghi – Lake Road. Heading back towards Rome, the first stop is Marino where the annual Wine Festival is held on the first Sunday of October. What makes this wine festival so different from other related wine feasts is the moment when the main fountain in town flows the local white wine instead of water. Anybody can fill their glass. One year the municipal authorities switched the tubes by mistake and the wine flowed into the residents’ homes rather than the fountain!
Turn off the Via dei Laghi and follow the directions for Frascati. The preeminent town of the Castelli Romani is famous for its Ville Tuscolane which are 12 sumptuous villas that belonged to the Roman aristocracy between the 16th-17th centuries. The most important is the Villa Aldrobandini also known as Villa Belvedere. The classical and baroque styles of the villa are especially expressed in the gardens and spectacular fountains. The water effects remind us of the zone of relaxation of the ancient Roman villas called ninfeo.
Frascati is also important for the archaeological site of ancient Tusculum, a hill town which boasts some impressive ruins. Food lovers should seek out the local wine which has been gaining in popularity in recent years, as well as the pupazze or doll-shaped cakes. Looking like gingerbread men, or rather gingerbread women, they have three breasts: two for milk and one for the wine.
All roads lead to Rome, but follow the Via Tuscolana!
How to reach the Castelli Romani
The area of Roman hills can easily be reached by train from Termini, the central station of Rome or by bus from Anagnina Metro station.
If traveling by car you can arrive at the Castelli from different directions by taking the Raccordo Annulare or Rome Ring Road. The via Appia Nuova goes through Albano Lazial , Ariccia, Genzano and Velletri. The Via dei Laghi lakes road links Ciampino airport to Marino, Nemi and onwards to Velletri. The Via Tuscolana leads to Frascati.
The closest airport is Ciampino only about 20 minutes from central Rome and has private and public transport connections. Fiumicino airport is about 50 minutes away and is connected by local train to Termini Railway station.
Giuseppina Marcolini has been involved in the tourism trade for almost 20 years, from contributing to Italian trade magazines and cooperating with tourism management research companies, to the organization of food-related events. In 2000 she co-founded Delicious Italy, an independent guide to the food, culture and history of every Italian region – from Piedmont to Venice & Veneto, to Tuscany, Rome and Sicily.