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Holidays From Rome

Maggio is a freelance writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area

It was a Sunday afternoon in June, and I had a full day in Castel Gandolfo to shake off jet lag before I settled down for an extended stay in this enchanting village, one of a dozen or so medieval towns that dot the Alban Hills south of Rome.

The day was milk warm, the sky was cloudless, and I was enchanted by whiffs of jasmine and the purr of a Bernini fountain as I walked through the nearly deserted piazza. From a terrace on the north side of town, I took in the beauty and breezes of Lake Albano, a steep-walled pool caught in an ancient volcanic crater. Looking to the northwest, I could make out the city limits of Rome about 15 miles away, and my thoughts turned to the throngs of harried sightseers running on Eternal City overload at this time of year. Too bad they didn’t know how easy it was to escape.

Just hop a bus or train from downtown Rome and in less than an hour you’re in the Alban Hills. Tourists are measured by the handful here, not the busload (except on summer Sundays, when pilgrims seek the pope’s blessing at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo). Here you can breathe in fresh country air, decompress in tranquil expanses of oak and chestnut forests or relax in the sun at the edge of a lake. There are museums, too, and ruins and festivals.

I’d been to Castel Gandolfo before, but never long enough to explore the area. I am an editor for English-language publications of the Vatican Observatory, which is headquartered here, and work mostly by computer from the U.S. This time I’d be on site for a month, with time to explore.

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Collectively known as the Castelli Romani (Roman castles), the hill towns sprang up around fortified outposts of Rome’s leading, and often feuding, families in the Middle Ages.

Castel Gandolfo

Ever since 1596, when the Gandolfi family’s citadel fell into the possession of the Holy See because of an unpaid debt, popes have been retreating to Castel Gandolfo for their annual R&R.;

Today, the town’s tightly packed historic center is a medley of shops, restaurants and old stone dwellings strung out like beads along the lip of the Lake Albano crater. The buildings, confined by geography into a band only three blocks wide, get progressively older, going from south to north, until they stop at the papal palace.

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Except for its entrance--an imposing piece of 18th century woodworking topped by a marble pontifical shield--the castle is unpretentious and quite plain, the color of pale mustard. The only indication that it belongs to someone important is the carabiniere standing guard several yards away, in principle to defend Italy’s border with this annex of the sovereign Vatican state.

The palace and its adjacent gardens are not open to the public. On Sundays when the pope is in residence, usually from mid-July to early September, he greets pilgrims from a balcony facing the palace courtyard. Doors to the courtyard open around 11 a.m., and it’s first come, first served. About 500 people can get in.

One of the observatory’s telescopes can be seen above the roof of the palace. The Vatican has been supporting mainline astronomical research ever since Pope Gregory XIII called on the church’s scientist-priests to reform the calendar four centuries ago. The Vatican astronomers worked in Rome until light pollution forced them to move here in 1935. Today, they make observations at a telescope in Arizona.

There’s a bus from town to the lakefront, but I prefer the well-marked (and steep) walkway that starts from the south end of the piazza. There’s always the bus back.

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Genzano

Halfway into my stay at Castel Gandolfo last year, furious rain clouds blew into town. A howling wind picked up in the early morning hours, slamming unlatched shutters against brick walls and scattering clothes ripped from toppled drying racks left out overnight.

The storm had passed by the time I went out for breakfast that Sunday morning, but the wind was still gusting. The talk over coffee at Bar Carosi on the piazza turned to the flower festival that was to have started at daybreak over in Genzano.

Throughout most of the year, the Castelli Romani hill towns resonate with festivals, most of them celebrating the bounty pulled from the fertile volcanic soil, but Genzano’s Infiorata is unrivaled. Working with flower petals, leaves, pinecone seeds and even coffee grounds, artists deftly turn a street in the center of town into the illusion of a painted canvas.

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I ordered cappuccino and a sweet roll from Signora Carosi, who assured me that the Infiorata had not been canceled.

When my friends and I arrived in Genzano near noon, some of the artists were still chalking their designs onto the black paving stones of Via Italo Belardi. Others had begun to fill theirs in, and men with water tanks strapped to their backs walked among the displays, spraying them to keep the petals fresh and weighted down with moisture.

Excited crowds were building up along the sidewalks, which had been cordoned off with garlands of leaves, and we had to squeeze ourselves in line with a lot of scusi’s to see the artwork up close. By midafternoon, the entire length of the street was hidden under a dozen enormous floral renditions of religious and secular themes, from the martyrdom of St. Philip to the myth of Diana, each executed with exceptional detail.

We made our way to the top of the hill where the street and the display ended, and looked back down. The effect was extraordinary. Petals, leaves and seeds blurred. Was I looking at a painted canvas? A finely woven carpet? An intricate tapestry? I couldn’t tell.

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Genzano’s residents have been celebrating some form of the Infiorata for more than 200 years. It lasts only two days in June, starting on the Sunday when the church celebrates the feast of Corpus Christi (the actual holy day falls on the preceding Thursday). The Infiorata ends the following evening with the traditional destruction of the display under the feet of local children who run madly down the street when the word is given.

Nemi

On a warm and lazy afternoon, capped by a sky of such flawless crystalline blue that I felt if I threw a rock into the air the heavens might shatter, my friend, Melissa, joined me in exploring the medieval hamlet of Nemi. The tiny village overlooks an enigmatic crater lake of the same name. We hopped a bus in Castel Gandolfo for the 15-minute ride to Genzano, which overlooks Lake Nemi from the south, and then switched to a second bus, which carried us to Nemi on the opposite side of the lake, another 10 minutes away.

A clutch of dwellings dominated by the conspicuous cylindrical tower of its 9th century castle, Nemi sits on a spur of volcanic rock so precariously close to the crater’s edge that when I first caught sight of the town, I wondered if some mystical force hadn’t eternally checked its slide into the waters below. Could be. The woods clinging to the volcanic slopes were unspeakably sacred to the ancient Latins, who worshiped the goddess Diana there.

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In this part of Italy, Nemi is synonymous with strawberries, and it celebrates them throughout the month of June. Unfortunately, most of the festivities are held on the weekends, and when Melissa and I arrived on a Wednesday afternoon, Nemi was nearly deserted--almost eerily so. But the strange sensation of being the only folks in town was soon eclipsed, to my indescribable delight, by signs advertising fragoline--wild strawberries--tiny perfumed bundles of intense flavor and sweetness that are truly manna from the gods.

Melissa and I devoured our first bowl of wild strawberries at one of the few outdoor cafes that hadn’t closed for the midday break. We dawdled over espresso, and when 4 o’clock rolled around, the town was still empty. Where were all the people?

Palazzo Ruspoli, the castle around which the town grew, was closed for restoration, so we headed for the other side of the village and strolled through the public gardens. From the gardens’ promenade we had an extraordinary view of Lake Nemi.

I’m sure there’s some bland physics explanation for the way the angled rays of the late afternoon sun turned the surface of the water into a pool of twinkling silver, but I much prefer the Latins’ interpretation: They called the lake “Diana’s Mirror.”

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The optical illusion was mesmerizing, and I wondered if the Emperor Caligula, who they say was crazy, was under its spell. Back in the 1st century, he indulged his sensual eccentricities here by entertaining friends on two enormous, sumptuously decorated galleys--the largest measured more than 230 feet long--that he floated on the tiny lake. After Caligula was assassinated, his political enemies scuttled the boats, which remained entombed on the bottom until the early 1930s when Italian authorities succeeded in removing them--quite cleverly--by lowering the lake’s water level. They were again lost, this time for good, when German troops torched them during World War II. Today, the lakeside Museo delle Navi Romane (Museum of the Roman Ships) houses scale models and salvaged artifacts.

Melissa and I dawdled in Nemi’s gardens for about an hour, and by the time we returned to the main piazza, the missing townspeople were materializing, Brigadoon-like, for their passeggiata, the evening stroll.

On my last evening back in Castel Gandolfo I dined outdoors with friends at Ristorante Bucci, whose terrace seems suspended over Lake Albano. Beyond the lake I could see Monte Cavo, the center of the volcano that created the Alban Hills, and the home, according to the Latins, of the supreme god, Jupiter. I sat back with a glass of local wine in hand, took in the panorama one last time and thought . . .

Is this heaven, or what?

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GUIDEBOOK

Roman Castles

Getting there: I don’t recommend driving from Rome because parking is scarce and the towns are easily walked.

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COTRAL buses to Castelli Romani leave from Rome’s Anagnina terminal at the south end of the metro Linea A (red line). Trains depart frequently from Stazione Termini in downtown Rome. Local buses run between the hill towns.

Start your visit in Albano (also called Albano Laziale), where the regional tourism office (Azienda di Soggiorno) has maps, directions, festival schedules and area hotel listings. Telephone: 011-39-06-932-4082; fax 011-39-06-932-0040. The office is in the village center. The civic museum next door offers orientation programs with English audiotapes.

For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles, CA 90025; tel. (310) 820-0098, fax (310) 820-6357.


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