Rome’s Castelli Romani provides great one-day ventures into rural Italian life

ARICCIA, Italy — You don’t have to venture far from Rome to experience incredible vistas and true Italian country life. All you need is a cheap bus or train ticket and a day to kill. Then you can eat suckling pork, view crystal-clear lakes atop forest paths and taste some of Italy’s best little-known wines.

It’s called Castelli Romani. It’s a series of 14 small towns, most sporting castles (thus, the “castelli” in the title) and perched on hillsides or cliffs among the picturesque Alban Hills southeast of Rome. Less than an hour from the city, they were once used as defenses against a long lineup of foreign invaders but now offer some of the best views in Italy.

Here are my experiences in six Castelli Romani towns that make great day trips from Rome with a car or public transportation available:

6 Castelli Romani Towns

1. Ariccia

Porchetta is the sizzling, suckling pig that is slow roasted for four hours and then served in homemade bread or wrapped in paper to pick at with your hands. The porchetta in Ariccia is the best in Italy. As I strolled down a street toward its spectacular cliffside vista, nearly every store had an entire pig, roasted brown-maroon, lying prone on a slab. They were carved from the rear forward so the head is still eerily attached.

I walked up one street on a hill lined with porchetta-themed restaurants with outdoor seating and barkers outside luring in patrons with menus and descriptions of sizzling pork. I thought I smelled a hint of porchetta perfume on one of them.

Castelli Romani Towns: Mixed antipasti at Gasperone in Ariccia
Mixed antipasti at Gasperone in Ariccia

In two recent visits I ate enough to last me through lunch the next day. The servings are massive. I went to a highly recommended restaurant called Gasperone. It’s on a narrow, curved street that’s lined chock-a-block with porchetta restaurants. I ordered the mixed antipasti which usually is just a mix of finger food. At Gasperone, they nearly needed a gurney to bring it all out. The lineup: porchetta, bufala mozzarella, ricotta buffala, three different kinds of sausage (including horse), pancetta (bacon), cheese-stuffed sausage, prosciutto, salami, bruschetta with sausage and bruschetta with spinach. A big basket of fresh homemade Italian bread, the kind with the hard crust and spongy insides, made mini nice sandwiches.

Castelli Romani Towns: Home-made pasta in Ariccia
Home-made pasta in Ariccia

It’s considered uncool not to order a first dish, called a “primo piatto,” at these places. It’s also uncool to eat pasta when you feel ready to explode. But I ordered the pappardelle (wide, flat noodles) with cinghiale (wild boar).

How to get there:

Take the Rome Metro subway’s A Line east all the way to the end at the Anignina stop. Exit the station and take the COTRAL bus which leaves for Ariccia every 30-40 minutes. The 2.50-euro ride takes about 40 minutes. Get off at Largo Savelli. Buy a round-trip ticket as tickets may not be available in Ariccia.

Castelli Romani Towns: Emperor Caligula once had yachts here on Lake Nemi southeast of Rome
Emperor Caligula once had yachts here on Lake Nemi southeast of Rome

2. Nemi

Lake Nemi is a volcanic lake 30 kilometers across and borders the east side of Ariccia. The charming town of Nemi sits atop a cliff with unbelievable views of the crystal-clear lake below. I walked halfway down the tree-lined sidewalk toward the lake. It has enchanted Romans since the Roman Empire. In fact, Emperor Caligula (37-41 AD) built a large, expensive barge with elaborate yachts. When his enemies offed him on Rome’s Palatine Hill, the boats were sunk. Benito Mussolini salvaged them but a fire destroyed them in 1944. The hulls, however, survived and can be seen in the Museo delle Nevi Romane.

Castelli Romani Towns: Strawberry products from the town of Nemi
Strawberry products

The town wraps around the cliff and looks like a gingerbread village. Maybe it’s the proliferation of strawberries that gives it such a sweet feel. Nemi is famous for having arguably the sweetest strawberries in Europe. Nearly every store had strawberries in some form: strawberry liqueur, strawberrycello, strawberry tarts, strawberry jams, strawberry creams, strawberry grappa, strawberry bread. I had a strawberry “tortine,” or tart, a tiny little droplet of cream topped with little pieces of strawberry in a little bitty pie crust.

How to get there:

Again, go to the Anignina stop. Take the COTRAL bus to Genzano di Roma then change buses to Nemi. They leave about every 30 minutes but watch out. The last return bus from Nemi to Genzano leaves in early evening.

Castelli Romani Towns: Strawberry tortine
Strawberry tortine in the town of Nemi

3. Genzano di Roma

If you go to Nemi, be sure to hang around Genzano di Roma first. It is famous for its bread which, legend has it, the clean air drifting in from the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea makes especially flavourful. Many stores have big wood-fire ovens that produce big, black, hard-crusted loaves of warm bread.

During the Roman Empire, wealthy Roman citizens lived here for the cooler altitude and healthier air. The castle was built in 1235. Today, it is a bustling, commercial town where cafes are packed with local gossip and locals walk around with loaves of bread in their arms.

Every June, Genzano’s Via Italo Belardi is covered with flowers in an annual festival called Infiorata. Women wear traditional clothing and locals spend days ahead of time building elaborate flower formations.

How to get there:

COTRAL buses go direct from the Anignina stop.

4. Castel Gandolfo

This is where Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) went to relax. It’s on the shores of Lake Gandolfo, and the pope’s summer residence can be seen anywhere along the lake. Castel Gondolfo is a 17th century castle complete with a helipad. Pope John Paul II held audiences here in July and August.

Unlike St. Peter’s, you can’t enter. Just marvel at it from Piazza della Liberta. Walk around the cute medieval town. Wander down the paved pathway to great vistas of the lake below. Then realize something: It’s good to be pope.

How to get there:

Direct trains leave Rome’s Termini station. The trip takes less than an hour and be alert: The Gandolfo station is not clearly marked.

Castelli Romani Towns: Lake Albano
Lake Albano can be seen from Castel Gandolfo, summer getaway for the late pope John Paul II

5. Rocca di Papa

Named for Pope Eugene III, who lived here, it lost its castle to French troops in 1541 and the city center was bombed to rubble in World War II. Rocca di Papa has a roasted chestnut festival in October and is the home of the Parco Regionale dei Castelli Romani, one of the prettiest parks in Rome’s region of Lazio. It is charming, quaint and void of tourists who only go to the park.

How to get there:

At Anagnina, take the bus marked “Rocca di Papa via Via dei Laghi.” There are four on weekdays, three on Saturdays and two on Sundays. Get off at Via dei Laghi and walk 20 minutes to Rocca di Papa.

Castelli Romani Towns: Rocca di Papa
Rocca di Papa, named after a pope who lived there, gets very few tourists but is worth a visit

6. Frascati

This is one of my favorite places in Lazio for a picnic. It is a fast, direct train ride only 12 miles from Rome and, next to Ariccia, has the best porchetta in Italy. Its large piazza is lined with fast-food porchetta stands and they all serve the famous, fresh, crisp Frascati white wine perfect for a lunch in the nearby park.

Frascati is more famous for the villas that popes, cardinals and Roman nobles started building in the 16th century. Hike up the hill to Villa Aldobrandini where one are on the grounds is lined with giant statues of Roman gods.

How to get there:

Direct trains leave from Termini every 30 minutes.

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About John Henderson

Website: http://www.johnhendersontravel.com

John Henderson worked nearly 40 years as a sportswriter, the last 24 with The Denver Post, including eight as a traveling food columnist. Worked since 1984 as a free-lance travel writer. Traveled to 98 countries and retired to Rome in January 2014. Originally from Eugene, Ore., and also worked in Kent, Wash., and Las Vegas. Graduate of the University of Oregon in 1978. Check out my blog, Dog-Eared Passport. Twitter @JohnHendeRome

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One Response

  1. Avatar for John Henderson

    Jordan

    Lovely guide here. Sometimes the best parts of trips aren’t going to the big and impressive locations, but getting to see how the locals truly live. Thanks for sharing this!

    Reply

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