Where the Romans Come to Play
With abundant forest, good food and strong wine, the Castelli Romani have long drawn visitors looking to relax.
Just behind the house where I grew up, on the outskirts of Rome, is a hill. It’s scrubby, with short, coarse grass and tangles of impenetrable blackberry and rosehip bushes. My brother and I would go up there on expeditions as kids, hiking through a dense chestnut-tree forest and using our sticks to beat through the undergrowth. Kicking away at the top layer of dry leaves and spiky chestnut husks revealed a lush, dark-chocolate-colored soil and a bounty of treasures: porcupine quills, hazelnuts and shiny-black shards of obsidian. Occasionally we would come across tiny pieces of ancient artifacts — a bowed carafe handle, for example, or the edge of a plate. On one trip we even found a small copper coin, its Latin inscriptions only appearing once the mud and rust had been scrubbed off. The hill, we were told, had once been the site of a Roman city.
Indeed, the Colli Albani — a pocket of volcanic hills 20 kilometers southeast of Rome — have been inhabited for millennia. Roman emperors used to travel to the area to drink wine, feast on wild boar, and visit their temples and villas. During the turbulent medieval times, noble families built fortresses perched high on the hills with sweeping views of the plains below, and small urban centers flourished around them. The area continued to grow in importance during the Renaissance, when the Roman aristocracy built country homes and grandiose town palazzi.
Today, several villages and towns — collectively known as the Castelli Romani — sit nestled between the hills or perched on their summits, overlooking forests of oak and chestnut, crater lakes, and rolling vineyards. The Castelli remain a popular getaway destination for modern-day Romans, who come to higher altitudes to escape Rome’s unbearable summer heat and sit for long hours in the many osterie, drinking the straw-colored Frascati wine and tucking into platefuls of homemade pasta.
Growing up here meant that our lives were spread across several towns. We went to school next door to a 1,000-year-old Byzantine-Greek monastery in Grottaferrata, and we met our friends for a walk and a gelato in Frascati. We would drive with our parents to buy local wine from one town, and then take a shortcut through the forest to get fresh bread and prosciutto from another.
Although only separated by a few kilometers of windy roads, the Castelli all boast very distinct characters, which — this being Italy, after all — are expressed most through their local food and wine. The towns of Genzano and Lariano, for example, have their own types of bread: Genzano’s loaf is famous for sturdy crust and fluffy, elastic texture, and traditionally was prepared at home and taken to a public wood oven for baking. Il Pane di Lariano, in contract, is made with whole-wheat flour and sourdough starter, which gives it a denser consistency and a lightly golden crust. Ariccia — an ancient town which hosts several Baroque palaces and is accessed over a high, double-arched bridge that looks like the ancient aqueducts — is famous for its porchetta, a spit-roasted pig stuffed with pepper and rosemary, usually served cold between two thick slices of fluffy bread. And in occasion of Marino’s grape festival, white wine flows out of the town’s fountain for an entire day.
Several of these towns have been around since the Latini settled here as early as 1,000 B.C. For centuries, their cultural and spiritual heartland sat atop current-day Monte Cavo, where a temple overlooked the vast plains where Rome now lies. Broad sections of the Via Sacra, the original road which was later paved with volcanic-rock flagstones by the Romans, are still visible and incredibly well preserved. Deep ruts run down the sides, left by centuries of horse-drawn-carriages hauling offerings of cheese, milk and fruits up the steep mountain flanks.
After defeating the Latini in 338 B.C., the Romans made the Colli Albani their playground. In the first century A.D., Emperor Caligula had several large boats built on Lake Nemi, which lies at the bottom of a volcanic crater. The marble statues, mosaics and bathhouses found aboard suggest that they were used as “pleasure ships,” where the Roman nobility indulged in wild parties. The ships were recovered in the 1930s, after Benito Mussolini ordered that the lake be drained through an ancient Roman conduit. Two model ships (the originals were destroyed in a fire at the end of World War II) are now held in the eerily expansive, fascist-style Museo delle Navi on the shores of the lake. Close by, hidden behind a bamboo grove, lie the remains of an ancient temple to Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting, birthing and fertility.
Perched on the side of the crater as if about to fall off, a crop of fading pink, orange and gray houses sits overlooking the lake. Tucked away in Nemi town, with its rickety, flower-hung balconies and labyrinth of narrow lanes, are several impressive medieval buildings and churches. But Nemi is most known for its tiny wild strawberries, which have been celebrated since ancient Roman times. Today, the small berries are served in every corner shop and trattoria, either sprinkled with sugar, baked into tarts, or as a syrupy, sweet liquor.
Last summer, like almost every summer, I went back to the Castelli to visit my family. On some mornings my mum and I would walk up that same hill at the back of the house to pick blackberries. I noticed, as if seeing them for the first time, the sections of crumbling walls and the hollows in the earth where Roman houses may once have stood. In the afternoons, we drove to Lago Albano — which at 168 meters is Italy’s deepest crater lake — to relax on its grassy shores and swim in its cool waters. From there you can see the peak of the sacred Monte Cavo. On the other side, the town of Castel Gandolfo and the 17th-century palace which for centuries has served as the Pope’s summer residence now occupy what was once the villa of Roman Emperor Domiziano, built close to 2,000 years ago.
One evening in Frascati, sitting at my favorite bar for an aperitivo of bitter Campari and olives, I watched stylishly dressed Italians reverse onto the street for their evening passeggiata. Women in tight jeans and stilettos hobbled down the street cradling enormous gelati. Elderly men sat at corner bars, gesticulating wildly and balancing cigarettes between their fingers. Osterie set up wooden tables along the pavements, piling them with plates of cheese and cured meats, bread baskets, and carafes of local wine.
After being away for almost a decade, I no longer took these small pleasures for granted. Watching these quintessentially Italian scenes unfold before me, I reflected on the Castelli’s long history and how for centuries people had been coming to seek the peace and quiet of these hills. The Italian in me, though, knew that therealdraw lay in the forests’ wild mushrooms, their little red strawberries, and the sweet grapes that grow on the lower slopes and turn into wine. It may have been over 2,000 years since the Latini settled here, but, in Italy, some things never change.