Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Day 22: Frascati

Yet another warm and sunny day......we continue to luck out with the weather....and today we are driving to the hill town of Palestrina--the Roman city of Preneste. Palestrina is about 30 km west of Frascati; to get there we have to drive up to Monte Porzio Cantone, down into the valley and then back up a hill to Palestrina.

Palestrina is well known in musical circles as the birthplace of Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina--the 16th century composer and creator of polyphonic harmony- but it is also one of the oldest towns in Italy and the site of one of the largest and most famous temples of the ancient world. The temple was the home of the very popular oracle named Fortuna Primagenia and many Romans made the trip from Rome on the Via Prenestina to consult her.

The temple had been lost and only was rediscovered when Palestrina was heavily bombed during World War II. The houses in the upper part of town were destroyed and the ruins of the ancient temple were uncovered. The temple complex was enormous; it covered the entire area of the present day town from the top of the hill to the valley floor. There were a series of large terraces and stairs that led up to where the oracle sat and it was richly decorated and could be seen for miles. In addition to the temple, the area was a summer resort and many wealthy and famous Romans--Cicero, Horace, Pliny - praised it in their writings. The emperors Augustus, Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian all had villas in the area.

Once Christianity took hold, the fortunes of the oracle took a turn for the worse and gradually the temple fell into disuse and people began living on the site and building houses. During the 17th century, wealthy and powerful Roman families, like the Colonnas and the Barberinis, moved here and the Barberinis built a large palazzo at the top of the hill incorporating pieces of the temple into the structure. Apparently, all the notable architects of the time--Bramante, Bernini, Palladio, Raphael--were familiar with the temple complex and incorporated features of the temple in their work.

We drive up to the top of the town Palestrina to the Barberini palace which now houses the very excellent museum containing many of the artifacts from the temple as well as explanations about the history and construction. The museum is quite wonderful---well arranged with plenty of light--and the primitive audioguide (walkman and cassette tape) is well done.

Entrance to the upper town

Palazzo Barberini (museum)

Artist's rendering of the temple complex with the Barberini Palace on top

No pictures are allowed in the museum but the statues, columns and other artifacts are well worth seeing. The most wonderful exhibit in the collection is a 2nd century B.C. mosaic depicting a map of Egypt and the Nile which includes scenes of people, buildings and animals in wonderful detail. (The picture below doesn't do justice to the mosaic; there is a bigger picture if you follow the link below to the museum exhibits).

There is a model of the temple complex which gives a good idea of the size and elaborateness of the building. Here is a link to pictures of exhibits in the museum.

The views from the terrace in front of the museum are wonderful and in ancient days, the temple was visible for miles around. After we finish in the museum, we sit in the sun and enjoy the views before heading down to the very attractive "centro storico". We stroll through the town, stopping to see the statue to Palestrina

in the main square, take a quick look at the duomo and its belltower and note the Roman columns embedded in the walls of the town buildings

do a little shopping and admire the street signs which look like mosaics.

We have a very nice lunch in the local hotel's dining room (the Coccia restaurant in the Hotel Stella)......polenta with cheese and lardo followed by gnocchi with beans, clams and mussels for me and Diana has a selection of antipasto from the buffet and the house specialty of fettuccine with a nice ragu.

After lunch, we drive back to the Colli Albani and take a driving tour of the highest and steepest town in the area--the very picturesque Rocca di Papa. The town is at about 2,500 feet and after driving up a very steep hill to the main square, the upper part of the town still towers above us.

View of the upper town of Rocca di Papa

The street patten is thankfully one way as we drive up almost to the top (on very narrow, windy streets) and quickly drop back down to the main square. Needless to say, the views over the hills are wonderful. We make a stop in Genzano di Roma to pick up some of their famous bread and then take the scenic route back to Frascati.

Bread from Genzano di Roma

At dinner time, we are tired and neither of us is too hungry so we decide to skip going out, eat some bread and cheese in the room and make it an early night.

Tomorrow we are off to Rome.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Day 21: Frascati

Another bright, sunny morning as we set off to explore the the Colli Albani (Alban Hills). Our first stop is the old Roman city of Tusculum which is on the top of the hill/mountain over Frascati. This site doesn't have too many identifiable buildings other than a fairly well preserved theater and most of it is behind a fence because of ongoing excavations. The setting is wonderful however....beautiful sweeping views over the green hills.....and very peaceful. There is a good network of hiking trails that cross the site and we see two walkers (one with a dog) while we are there.

Theater at Tusculum

View from Tusculum

View up from Tusculum

We spend most of the day driving through the countryside and admiring the scenery. The towns all seem to be very attractive and prosperous looking and the hills are for the most part rolling and gentle, making for very enjoyable driving. We drive around the larger of the two volcanic lakes in the area--Lake Albano--and descend to the lake shore to take a walk.

View over Lake Albano

From the shore of Lake Albano

On this Monday morning, there is not much activity but it looks like they are quite busy in the summer and on weekends.....there are many restaurants and places to rent boats. The water is amazingly clear. The town that overlooks this lake is Castel Gandolfo, where the Pope has his summer residence. There are other large villas with views over the lake and a very nice "centro storico" with a very narrow main street that we drive through.

For lunch, we head for Ariccia, which is known as the "home of porchetta". It isn't hard to find places to sample the speciality....there is one neighborhood that is essentially a dozen restaurants that all feature porchetta. We sit outside in the warm sun with a plate of the local speciality, a basket of great bread and some local white wine....very, very pleasant.

Porchetta Alley - Arricia

After lunch, we drive through town--Bernini designed a couple of churches here--before heading to the other (smaller) volcanic lake--Lake Nemi. The road to Lake Nemi takes us through Genzano di Roma--a town known for its bread--but at this time, all the bakeries are closed so we can't stop for a sample. The road then drops down to the lake front but there is almost no commercial development evident...we pass one trattoria and a sign for a bed and breakfast...but it is very peaceful and tranquil. We drive as far as we can around the lake but have to turn around when the road turns into a dirt track.

Lake Nemi

In addition to being known for its strawberries, Lake Nemi in Roman times was a favorite place of the Emperor Caligula and he built two large ships to take his guest on cruises. In fact, the ships were sunk over 2,000 years ago and and were retrieved from the bottom of the lake in the early 20th century. Mussolini built a large museum on the lakeshore to display them but the Germans--when they were retreating--set fire to the museum and little of the ships remain.

However, the museum is still open and has displays and explanations about the ships and how they were recovered. The ships were very large (almost three football fields long) and decorated very elaborately. There are scale models of the ships, displays of some of the pieces that escaped the fire and pictures that show what the naval archaeologists think the ships actually looked like. The museum itself is very impressive and the exhibits are well mounted and interesting. We have the place entirely to ourselves.

Museum of Roman Ships

Artist's rendering of Caligula's ship

Reconstruction of rudder of one of the ships

Scale model (1/5 the size) of the ship

Nails and other fasteners recovered from the lake

Reconstruction of the keel of one of the ships

The other half of the museum houses some of the finds from area archaeological digs but the holdings aren't anywhere as interesting as the exhibits about Caligula's ships.

Back in Frascati, I go out to explore more of the town. I walk around the very nice public gardens that used to be the grounds of the Villa Torlonia.

and admire a very nice sunset.

In doing some research for dinner, in the Italian restaurant guide Gambero Rosso, I find a listing for a wine bar with good selections of salumi, cheeses and bruschetta. The wine bar is called Vie dei Canti, which is the Italian translation of the title of the Bruce Chatwin book "Songlines". It is a located just on the edge of the "centro storico" in an old palazzo. We are the only customers but Chet Baker is playing in the background and the young owner seems very enthusiastic so we decide to stay. We have a very pleasant evening.....we get a tour of the wine cellar, enjoy an excellent red wine from the Alto Adige and have a very delicious assortment of cured meats from all over Italy, some interesting cheeses and a selection of tasty bruschetta.

The walk back to the hotel is very peaceful. Tomorrow we are planning to go to the hill town of Palestrina.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Day 20: Frascati

Following up on a suggestion made by our friend Maureen in Rome, we have an appointment to visit the Tenuta Pantano Borghese, an agriturismo and large farm located about 30 minutes from Frascati. After breakfast--surprisingly ordinary for such a classy hotel, we find the right road which climbs steeply to the next town of Monte Porzio Cantone and then descends sharply into the valley where the Via Casalina runs.

Tenuta Pantano Borghese

The farm is located behind a security gate and down a long road lined with plane trees. We meet the owners--Federico and Monica Cavazza and they take us on a tour of the property. There are 15 apartments (most of them recently refurbished and tastefully but simply furnished) and a large dining hall with a professional kitchen. In addition to taking in guests, the farm also hosts weddings and other large parties that Monica arranges. She tells us that she will be supervising a lunch for 150 people next week...as part of the inauguration of the fox hunting season (her husband is one the leaders of the local fox hunting group) which will be held on the property. In fact, she invites us to come--to watch the fox hunting but more to enjoy the homemade pasta.

In the back of the buildings--which are built on the foundation of an aqueduct that passed through the property--there are about 300 cows in pens. This is a working dairy farm although the owners are very critical of all the Italian and EU regulations which are constantly changing and making it difficult for them to farm. In fact, they will start marketing their milk directly because the current agricultural policy has been paying them not to produce and they want to keep the farm going as a working farm as well as an agriturismo.

Tenuta Pantano Borghese main building

Cows in pens in back of Tenuta Pantano Borghese

It turns out that Federico is a Borghese count and the farm has been in his family since the 1600's. Monica and Federico invite us for some coffee and cake and we hit it off very well. We have a very pleasant chat about the travel business, the difficulties connected with operating a farm, their experience with getting the business started as well as their family trip around New England and Quebec in a motor home last summer. After our tour of the apartments, Federico invites us to come with him to another horse club event--where many of the members of the fox hunting set get together for a show of the horses that are being used this year as well as demonstration of jumping and cross-country racing.

We follow him from Pantano Borghese to the horse club...which is located just inside the ring road that goes around Rome and just off the Appian Way. The setting is in a very green and bucolic area, almost within the city limits of Rome. In order to get to the stables, we actually have to drive for a short way on the Appian Way with the old stones in the roadway.

A wide view of the riding area

Riders galloping across the fields

The riders of the future

This is a glimpse into a piece of Italian life that we didn't even know existed....fox hunting was brought to Italy about 100 years ago. The people we see at this event are both Italians and foreigners--but from their dress, we could be somewhere in England. We watch the jumping and the riding for a while--many of the riders at this event are policemen and military--and then thank Federico and say goodbye. He urges us to come back to Pantano Borghese next week for the first fox hunt of the season.

We drive back to Frascati for lunch....the porchetta stands in the Piazza del Mercato are too inviting. On this overcast Sunday afternoon, Frascati is very lively....there is a monthly craft/antique sale that fills the main piazza and the streets of the "centro storico". There are four porchetta stands open but one of them is staffed by a natural salesmen who hawks his product aggessively and offers tastes to all who walk by. We order two sandwiches--delicious moist roast pig with savory spices in the middle and crispy skin on wonderful, fresh rosetta rolls--and eat them on a bench in the square.


After lunch, we drive back into Rome; it is Sunday afternoon and the traffic is quite light. My goal is to see the Via Appia Antica (Appian Way) and the memorial at the Ardeatine Caves (Fosse Ardeatine) where more than 300 Romans were massacred as a reprisal for a partisan bomb that killed 33 German soldiers in 1944. I drive straight down the Via Appia Nuova almost to the center of Rome, go past San Giovanni Laterano and down to the Circus Maximus. Along the west side of the Via Appia Nuova, it is still undeveloped for a long stretch and you can see the remains of Roman buildings in the fields. The Via Appia Antica is closed to car traffic until 4 pm (another half hour) so I try to negotiate the confusing Rome traffic patterns to get as close to some of the monuments as possible. After wandering around a residential neighborhood for a while, we find ourselves right along the wall near the Porta San Sebastiano and follow the traffic right onto the Appian Way (even though it is a bit before 4 pm.) The road at this point is lined with high walls and it hard to see anything. We pass the Ristorante Quo Vadis and soon come to the catacombs of St. Calisto....there are a lot of tour buses and a good number of tourists there. Continuing on, we reach the Via Ardeatine and the entrance to the memorial.

The memorial is set in old catacombs which are the actual caves where the Germans executed the Romans who were rounded up quickly--both political prisoners and people from the streets. Out of the 332 murdered, about 80 were Roman Jews, but the killings were specifically reprisals for the killing of the German soldiers and not necessarily part of the plan to exterminate Jews. The tunnels go back under the hill and there are plaques showing where the Germans set off bombs to seal off the caves to conceal the evidence of the murders. There is also a large cemetery covered with a thick concrete roof where the victims are buried and a small museum with exhibits and documentation about the event. There is one large statue commemorating the victims and the gate to the memorial is also a work of art dedicated to them.

Iron gate at entrance to Ardeatine memorial

Entrance to Ardeatine Cave

We continue down the Via Appia Antica for as long as we can---at this point, there are big estates with high walls but we can catch glimpses of beautiful gardens through the gates.

Garden of estate on Via Appia Antica

We head out of Rome on the new Via Appia but just before we leave the city, we make a detour to see what the Appia Antica looks like. We find the road next to the monument called Casal Rotondo, a large circular tomb. The setting could be out in the countryside but we are still within the city limits. There are bikers, joggers and walkers enjoying the late Sunday afternoon

--the sunset is quite beautiful

--and there is also a large flock of sheep coming out of the field next to the Casal Rotondo and crossing over the Via Appia Antica.

Back in Frascati, I make a exploratory trip into town to find a suitable restaurant for dinner. Most of the recommended restaurants in town are closed on Sunday evenings but I find plenty of attractive possibilities. The town is still full of day trippers and locals on their Sunday evening passeggiata and the porchetta stands are doing a good business.

We end up eating at a place recommended by the desk clerk called Aranua. When we arrive, the place is not too full, but after we order, the tables begin to fill up. We then see that this is another place where just about every table orders the house antipasto which is brought out of the kitchen on several plates. The food is quite good....strozzapreti with cacio, pepe and mushrooms for me and strozzapreti amatriciana for Diana. For secondi, Diana has the sliced steak...it comes very rare and is very good...and I have the "straccetti (rags)"---thin sliced pieces of piece served with lots of rucola. The waitress recommends the Nero d'Avola--a red wine from Sicily--which we enjoy very much.

By the time we make our way back to the hotel, the crowds have left and it is peaceful. Tomorrow, we explore the Colli Albani and the two volcanic lakes.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Day 19: Bacoli-Frascati

We have to move on today.....our time in Bacoli was sort of fractured because of the car incident but we did enjoy the area and would think about coming back in the future. The hotel is a bit quirky (especially the lighting) but--because the weather is so uncertain and cool--we don't get to take advantage of the wonderful balcony and roof terrace. The staff is very nice and helpful and it was fun to have the whole place to ourselves for the most part.

The weather today is sunny but a bit cool....certainly an improvement over the past few days. We decide to drive slowly up the coast into Lazio and on to Frascati, rather than getting on the autostrada and making it a fast trip. I am curious to explore the beach towns along the Campania and Lazio coast and it is always nice to check out new areas.

Bacoli to Frascati Map

For most of the ride up the Campania coast, the views of the sea are few and far between. We make a couple of jogs from the main road to the beach but the towns are sort of depressing....both because they are a bit rundown and because it is off season. We make good time through the various towns enroute--Castel Volturno, Mondragone and Baia Domizia--but the scenery between towns is mostly uninteresting....long views of flat farm lands with the mountains in the distance on one side and either scrub pine woods or empty beach establishments and campgrounds between the road and the sea on the other side.

What we do see in every town are numerous places that make and sell mozzarella di bufala.....this is certainly an important part of the region's economy. And a fair amount of uncollected garbage.

One instance of the uncollected garbage epidemic in Campania

The other puzzling thing that we notice--especially around Castel Volturno--is a large number of black men just standing on the side of the road--sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, not appearing to be going anywhere or doing anything. Are they day laborers looking for work? Farm workers with nothing to do out of season? It is a mystery.

There is a drastic change in the scenery the moment that we pass the Lazio regional border....the rugged mountains are suddenly extremely close to the waterfront and there are expansive views over the Mediterranean from the highway. In addition, the first big town that pass through--Formia--looks very attractive....not run down at all, with a fresh looking center and a long pleasant promenade along the water. The same thing holds true for Gaeta...although we don't actually make a tour of the "centro storico".

We make a stop in Sperlonga--I had clients stay there in August who liked it very much. And, in fact, it is a very pleasant town....a small centro storico on a bluff over the beach and very attractive resort area with a very nice sand beach. There is a promenade along the beach in town and then there are some hotels directly on the beach beyond the built up area.....one that we saw had a beautiful outdoor pool. We think it is probably the nicest beach town we have visited in Italy....and they advertise that they have been awarded the "Bandiera Blu" which recognizes the towns with the cleanest water.

Beach at Sperlonga facing north

Beach at Sperlonga looking south toward the town.

As we continue along our way, the road leaves the coastline for a while but at Terracina, we are back in sight of the water. Now we are looking for lunch....I would like to find a porchetta truck or a place that sells the Campanian specialty "panuozzo". We drive through Terracina--another very pleasant beach town with a nice downtown, a long promenade along the waterfront and nice beaches. We don't find the food that we are looking for so we continue on toward the San Felice Circeo area...which is a resort and park area dominated by a high bluff, a long beach and some exclusive resorts. On the road out of Terracina, I see a sign advertising "panuozzo" so we stop and go into the pizzeria/delicatessen. At first, they say that they don't have any but the proprietor relents and makes up the sandwich for us....freshly baked warm pizza with lots of prosciutto and mozzarella cheese inside.

As soon as we reach San Felice Circeo, we stop by the waterfront, open the car windows and enjoy our lunch. The "panuozzo" doesn't disappoint.


This resort is more upscale than Sperlonga....it has a long pretty beach, an exclusive little beach town (with two yacht brokers), a nice harbor, a national park with hiking trails and, for good measure, an attractive "centro storico" high above the water.

Beach at San Felice Circeo

The next beaches we come to are the nicest of all.....a completely undeveloped strip of sand on a barrier island off Sabaudia, separated from the road by dunes. There is a large lagoon between the barrier island and the mainland that looks very pretty and suitable for boating and fishing.

Beach at Sabaudia

Even the town of Sabaudia---which was built by Mussolini as a new town--looks inviting. All these towns are convenient and understandably popular with Romans for their summer holidays but virtually unknown to American visitors.

Now we leave the coast and find the Via Appia (the same Appian Way that begins in Rome) and drive up its absolutely straight path from the sea to Velletri--where the Alban Hills begin. Lots of agriculture and long flat vistas.....but we are making good time towards Frascati.

Once we hit Velletri, the road climbs into the Colli Albani which reach almost to the southern city limits of Rome. The drive along the Via dei Laghi (there are two volcanic lakes in the Colli--Nemi and Albano) reveals no trace of any lakes because the roadside is heavily wooded for almost the entire trip. There are a number of large restaurants along the road and we see at least two big parties being held as we drive past.

We arrive in Frascati about 4 pm.....the main square is very crowded on this sunny and pleasant Saturday afternoon.....and make one wrong turn enroute to the hotel--which gives us an unplanned introductory tour of Frascati's "centro storico". We finally extricate ourselves, note that we had misinterpreted the direction meant by a downward pointing arrow on the hotel sign and find the Hotel Flora located a few hundred meters down from the main square.

The hotel is in a very attractive villa

that is very stylish and very modern---sliding glass doors to the lobby, electronic keys, an elevator, and wireless high-speed internet access (finally). Our large room has a separate sitting area, a large marble bathroom with a (very strange) glass door, a big, comfortable bed and lots of light.

We unpack and spend some time getting used to all the creature comforts and then we make a quick tour of the town. It's a five minute walk from the hotel to the town's main piazza. There is a large villa high over the main square--the Villa Aldobrandini--and a wide promenade with an overlook that gives you a broad vista over the city of Rome, to the hills north of Rome, and the mountains to the east towards Abruzzo. From the main square that has traffic routed around it, you can walk into the historic center with nice piazzas...one in front of the Duomo and--a few blocks away--one that is front of the market and has four porchetta stands lined up around it. There are small, pedestrian only streets with shops all through the center, which is mostly level; however, once you leave the center there are serious hills...some going up and some going down...and a number of places that give you panoramic views over the valley.

On our first walk around we find the large duomo

a church with a 13th century belltower

and a bakery that bakes giant loaves of bread in wood burning ovens

with the wood for the oven stacked outside.

Frascati seems like it will be a nice place to stay.

We have dinner at Cacciani, one of the most famous restaurants in Frascati. It is a very handsome, professional and well organized place. And the food is very good also.....we share an antipasto plate which has fabulous salami, prosciutto and parmigiano-reggiano. Diana has spaghetti cacio e pepe and then pollo alla romana and I have pasta with oxtail ragu and a fritto misto of vegetables--all are good but not earthshattering. The wine is a white from Marino and very refreshing. The check comes to over Euro 100.00 which is a bit pricey for what we have.....but we do enjoy the evening.

It is a short, easy walk (downhill) to the hotel on this somewhat chilly evening. Tomorrow we have an appointment to visit an agriturismo nearby and then we plan to explore the Via Appia.