Visit the Alban Hills, Frascati Wine Region, and the Summer Home of the Popes near Rome
Castelli Romani is the romantically named scattering of wine-producing towns set in the volcanic landscape of the Colli Albani, the Alban Hills, 20 km southeast of Rome and very near Ciampino airport. Today, a couple of the craters are filled with water, making up the lakes of Albano and Nemi, but fear not, adventure seekers, the earth here is still seismically active. The area, seen on our map inside the circle, is largely made up of the Parco Regionale dei Castelli Romani, the green shown on the map signifying the protected areas of the park.
Inhabited since the time of the Latini (a tribe that included early inhabitants of Rome as well as those of the smaller region Latium, which includes the Castelli Romani). The rich volcanic soils attracted Romans as well, and signs of these cultures are all over the territory.
Today the area is a pleasant and popular retreat from the heat that builds up in central Rome. The summer home of the Popes is here at a town on the southwestern side of Lago Albano called Castel Gandolfo. Recently retired Pope Benedict will spend some time here.
The place tourists commonly go for an escape of Rome's summer heat is Frascati, the best known of the Castelli Romani towns. In summer tables line squares, carafes of Frascati wine are set out, and folks enjoy a pleasant lunch.
Among locals, the Porchetta di Ariccia is as famous as the Frascati DOC wine. A flower and honey cookie formed into the shape of a three-breasted woman called la Pupazza Frascatana is also unique to the region. The extra breast dispenses Frascati wine instead of milk, just so you know.
Map of the Castelli Romani
The area inside the circle is the general area of the Colli Albani and the Parco Regionale dei Castelli Romani. The green areas are protected areas. If you zoom into the Castelli Romani zone, you will begin to see the dashed lines indicating the hiking trails in these green areas.
The dominant peak is marked on the map as Monte Cavo, sometimes called Monte Albano. It's an old Volcano. It's been a sacred mountain since the days of the Italic people. A popular trek starts at the Bar La Baita (marked on the map) at the intersection of SS217 and SS218 and follows the Via Sacra up to the peak of Monte Cavo which offers great views (and a section of extraordinarily preserved Roman road) Then a trail leads down to the town of Rocca di Papa. The walk is described in Rome the Second Time: 15 Itineraries That Don't Go to the Coliseum.
Select Castelli Romani Towns and Villages to Visit
The towns below are marked on the map and are accessable by train from Rome Termini station by taking the FR4: Roma Termini - Ciampino - Frascati/Albano Laziale/ Velletri trains.
Frascati, the wine town, is the most popular and one of the top day trips from Rome. In summer, it embodies the laid-back wine culture of Rome, with numerous cantine setting out long tables and providing bottles and carafes of wine to the paying populace. Known for its mostly 16th century villas and especially for Villa Aldobrandini, which dominates the town, the slow hedonism will soon take over and you'll feel refreshed with that far neinte or do-nothing spirit. The evening passegiata is a must.
A wine tour you might consider is De-Wine: Wines of the Castelli Romani, summer residence of the Popes (book direct). The tour will give you a good idea of the Frascati DOC wine region.
Grottaferrata, between Frascati and Marino features the Exarchic Greek Abbey of St. Mary of Grottaferrata and its famous library, where Leonardo's Codex Atlanticus was conserved (in the Laboratorio di Restauro, the restoration workshop). The fair, Fiera di Grottaferrata shows off the traditional crafts and foods of the area in spring. The monastery has a facebook page. Also interesting is the Catacombs ad Decimum. Great pictures here.
Marino has a number of interesting churches to visit as well as a Mithraeum (Via Scalinata della Stazione 8) featuring a 2nd century BC fresco depicting the God Mithras slaying a bull. Discovered in 1963 by workers enlarging a cellar, the Mithraeum was built inside a pre-existing cellar. Don't miss a meal at the family run Al Cantuccio in the heart of town. on the 2nd Sunday of October Marino hosts the Sagra della Ciambella al mosto, celebrating a 17th century recipe for "doughnuts" made from the wine must that is a carefully guarded secret of Marino families. This follows the grape festival on the first weekend in October.
Castel Gandolfo, a town of about 8000 residents and very popular with religious tourists and Da Vinci code wanderers, overlooks Lake Albano and is the traditional summer residence of the Pope. It takes its name from the castle built by Genoese Gandolfi family. A short video by Rome Reports tells the interesting history of Castel Gandolfo, especially during the war years when the Pontifical Palace of Castel Gandolfo became a refuge for thousands of persecuted Jews. Friday morning is market day. Have a coffee in one of the cafes around the Piazza Liberta. Have a bite to eat at Arte e Vino on Corso della Repubblica 49, and be sure to check out the grottoes filled with old tools and artifacts linked by caves under the restaurant and street. Or try the atmospheric Ristorante La Gardenia with a terrace overlooking the lake. Stay at the highly rated Castel Gandolfo four-star hotel with panoramic view.
Although not on the train line, Nemi is a fine place to settle into, especially in spring. Nemi's strawberries are famous. Smaller than the commercial, tasteless variety, these are grown in the volcanic soils of Lake Nemi, just below the village.
But the Nemi's lake isn't just a pretty, volcanic lake. Called "Speculum Dianae" or the "Mirror of Diana" since Roman times, the fertility cults of the time led expectant mothers to bathe in the lake to ensure a healthy childbirth. Evidently, the lake's high levels of Magnesium are good for mothers (Fertile History of Nemi).
There is another secret to Nemi. Roman emperor Caligula had two giant boats built for the lake. Mussolini called upon Guido Ucelli to empty the lake and dredge up the remains of the boats, then built a museum for them. Unfortunately during the war, retreating Germans, it is said, set fire to the boats. The museum holds artifacts and some rebuilt pieces from these luxurious ships.
You may wish to stay in Nemi; it has a many shops selling a wide variety of salumi and versions of the porchetta made famous by its neighbor Ariccia. There is also an art gallery inside the grottoes and caverns built under the village. Hotels in Nemi and vicinity (book direct).
If you have a car and wish to spend a while exploring the Castelli Romani, you may prefer to rent a vacation home or apartment in Rome Province (book direct).
The rich, volcanic soils of the Colli Albani attracted many to this area in antiquity. Today, the wine region is marked by a considerable number of DOC areas: Colli Albani DOC, Colli Lanuvini DOC, Frascati DOC, Marino DOC, Montecompatri-Colonna DOC, Velletri DOC and Zagarolo DOC.
Celebrated Local Foods
There are many typical products in this area, including the aforementioned porchetta di Ariccia, the bread and mushrooms of Lariano, the chestnuts of Rocca di Papa, the strawberries of Nemi, and the wine of Frascati.
Have a great time exploring the Castelli Romani!