Some of Rome's best-hidden secrets are tucked away in the villages of the surrounding Lazio region. The Roman countryside, known as the Campagna Romana, graces the canvases of most 18th- and 19th-century Italian landscape artists. Seeing and breathing the spirit of this landscape in what the Romans call a scampagnata -- literally, an escape into the countryside -- is part of appreciating the Eternal City.
Renting a car is recommended: Of the three towns mentioned here, public transportation provides comfortable door-to-door service only to Ostia Antica. Buses and trains make their way to the other towns mentioned, but not as efficiently.
Keep in mind that Italians are quite devoted to their lunch hour. As a result, many churches, museums and historical sites usually close around 1 or 1:30 p.m. and may not reopen until 3:30 or 4. One of the best ways to avoid the inevitable traffic on highways heading back to Rome is to hit the road just as the Italian lunch hour is ending (around 4 p.m.). Since Italians tend to make their outings on Sundays, a visit to a nearby town on any other day can often ensure little traffic and few crowds.
Ostia Antica: Mini-Pompeii in a Day
Halfway through my explorations of Ostia Antica, the vast arena of Roman ruins that sprawls over 10,000 acres among the meadows between the Tiber River and the Tyrrhenian Sea, the labyrinth began to wear me down. My feet hurt, my head was starting to throb, and I needed a compass. Yet Italian women in high heels were sprinting past me like gazelles. What was the secret of their boundless energy?
I finally figured out where they were going -- a bar, the answer to many Italian problems. In the midst of the ruins, a cafe welcomes the weary with modern-day refreshments. Following the clink of cappuccino saucers, I found the sustenance I needed -- plus a small posse of tired Italians with the same idea. After a 20-minute pausa, I was ready to tackle more sites, notable for either historical quirkiness or preserved beauty.
If the Roman Forum looks too crowded and Pompeii seems like a trek, consider Ostia Antica, which offers equally impressive ancient ruins just 15 miles from the capital.
Some ruins can be frustrating -- it's difficult to conceptualize what was once there. But Ostia Antica, a 35-minute drive from Rome, is an exception. Enough of its ruins still stand in substantial form to give a good indication of the town's glory days. Although a tour guide certainly helps (and is available upon request), I found that an imagination and a guidebook were all I needed to be swept away to the past.
Founded in the 4th century B.C., Ostia Antica was once an influential and affluent port town serving as a military colony that kept watch over seaborne invasions. Declining trade and changing tides of the river prompted the port's downfall, and malaria eventually swept away the population of approximately 100,000 in the 5th century A.D.
Over the last century, efforts to dust off and dig through the accumulated silt and sand led to the unveiling of some of the most finely preserved ruins in Italy. Many of the skeletons of the ancient town's buildings -- three-story houses, garden apartments, specialty food shops, taverns, patrician homes -- still stand.
Off the Decumanus Maximus, the main street made of stones the size of elephant's feet that stretches more than a mile, the former Baths of Neptune's mosaic shines as the restorative grounds where sometimes as many as 300 townspeople gathered to wash. Hidden beneath the arches of a spacious portico, a marble counter of a bar reveals that a quick drink or a light lunch is not just a modern habit.
Built during Emperor Hadrian's reign in the 2nd century A.D., the Via delle Terme del Mitra, near the garden of private apartments, hides my favorite of Ostia Antica's treasures. Beneath painted vaults and crumbling columns of the nearby section of baths, a glorious statue of Mithras killing a bull stands alone, spotlighted by sunlight that streams through a skylight.
Another trick that kept me going was climbing to rooftops. Seeing the big picture does wonders when the tiny details of mosaic floors, frescoed alleyways and terra-cotta fragments have left you cross-eyed.
After three hours, hunger got the best of me. A hefty plate of pasta and grilled vegetables at a nearby restaurant, Il Monumento, restored my spirits and brought feeling back to my feet.
Although Italians have always told me that Ostia's beaches were unappealing, I thought they were exaggerating until I saw the murky waters and black sand for myself. The beaches definitely discourage swimming, and the crowded boardwalks (especially during summer) reminded me of Coney Island on the Fourth of July. For those seeking aquatic adventure, a boat service on the Tiber shuttles visitors on round-trip river rides from Rome's historic center to Ostia Antica.
Directions: Ostia Antica is 15 miles west of Rome, about a 35-minute drive. By car, take the Grande Raccordo Annulare to Exit 28 and follow signs to Ostia Antica/Scavi. By train, take the B Metro to the Magliana stop/Ostiense station and then a local train to Ostia Antica. For information and reservations on boat service from Rome, call 011-39-06-56-3040-94; round-trip tickets are $26.50.
Ostia Antica, Viale dei Romagnoli, 717, telephone 011-39-06-328-10 (Monday-Friday) or 011-39-06-69205-0205 (Saturday and Sunday), www.ostia-antica.org. Admission is $4.40, guided tours $4.65.
Subiaco: Hermit's Hideaway
It's a long, winding drive from Rome to the hills of Subiaco, but it's worth it for the chance to meet Father John.
With watery blue eyes, bushy eyebrows and an infectious snicker, the 40-year resident of the ancient San Benedetto Monastery literally led me by the hand through his home like a grandfather exploring an attic. His tour was a cross between a religious experience and stand-up comedy. Be sure to accept his offer if he spots you. If he's not around, ring the bell at the front door and ask for him (it's not hard to track him down, since he's one of only five monks living at the monastery).
The verdant, remote hills of Subiaco, 48 miles southeast of Rome, are a respite from the capital's urban madness. Hugged by the narrow gorges of the Simbruini Mountains, the town is home to two of Lazio's most beautiful monasteries: San Benedetto and Santa Scolastica. You can tour them both, although the only downside of visiting Santa Scolastica is that Father John won't be your guide (he rarely leaves the premises of his home on the upper hill).
During the 5th century, after fleeing his Roman studies, Saint Benedict is believed to have lived alone for three years in the holy grotto of San Benedetto, where he launched Christian monasticism. His spiritual retreat led to the birth of 13 monasteries of the Benedictine order in Subiaco, of which now only San Benedetto and its sister monastery, Santa Scolastica, are still active.
Carved into a mountainside that overlooks a natural preserve, the San Benedetto Monastery consists of a holy grotto lined with marble from Nero's villa, a chapel with a stentorian organ and two layers of 13th- and 14th-century underground rooms that resemble an M.C. Escher drawing of endless staircases.
"It was here that San Benedetto spent several yearssssss," whispered Father John in English, accentuating the last consonant like a hissing snake. "He removed himssselffff from a world of vicesssss and women." He winked, and his puffy hand squeezed mine.
Father John's devotion to the Benedictine order renders an unforgettable tour of the peaceful sanctuary. In the monastery's chapel, he pointed out the three scenes in which the Devil ("Look at that rasssscal!"), whom Benedict is fabled to have wrestled to the ground, pops up in frescoes. As for the two portraits of Saint Francis, depicted without his halo; art historians believe he visited the monastery before being declared a saint.
If you're feeling athletic, you can take a steep walk above the monastery to a hamlet where Benedictines now flock during their retreats. It was also from here that a monk named Romanus transferred food by pulley to the saint when he lived in the grotto ("Nice chap, wasn't he?" remarked Father John). Otherwise, a 15-minute walk (or two-minute drive) downhill will lead you to Santa Scolastica, the larger of the two monasteries.
Scholars believe Saint Scolastica was the twin sister of Saint Benedict, but they doubt she ever visited Subiaco. She closed herself into a nearby convent during the 6th century, but consulted her brother during annual clandestine encounters halfway between their living quarters.
Although the monastery is named after a woman, there are no nuns in sight. Much like San Benedetto, Santa Scolastica consists of courtyards, cloisters and porticos constructed from the 6th to the 18th centuries. An 18th-century church built within the walls of a 13th-century cloister morphs neoclassicism with the Renaissance in a peculiar crossbreeding of styles. "Not even the monks like it," confessed the tour guide of the spartan space in which they pray. Upon gentle request, the community organist might perform a private recital of a Bach fugue on the church's impressive organ.
For bibliophiles, Santa Scolastica is worth a pilgrimage, as it was here that the first book in Italy was published.
Since each monastery requires at least an hour to visit, arrive early to see both before they close for the morning. Then have lunch at the Santa Scolastica refectory. When I visited, the cook served a homemade pasta called strozzapreti, which means "choke the priest." Ask Mr. Lino, the restaurant's greeter who usually hangs out in the parking lot, what's on the menu and he might put in a special request for you.
The nearby Parco Naturale Regionale dei Monti Simbruini offers lovely spring and summer strolls. In winter, Subiaco's bunny slope, Monte Livata, offers soothing if not particularly challenging skiing.
Directions: The monasteries are 48 miles southeast of Rome and three miles
from the historic center of Subiaco, about an hour's drive from Rome. It's best to go by car: Take the A24
Roma-L'Aquila, exit Vicovaro-Mandela. Public transportation isn't great, but you can take the B line on the
Roman Metropolitan to the Ponte Mammolo stop.
Monastery of San Benedetto: PP. Benedettini -- Monastero S. Speco, Subiaco, 011-39-0774-85-039, www.benedettini-subiaco.it (site is in Italian, though). Free admission, but a $5 to $10 per person donation is suggested. Tours are available in English.
Monastery of Santa Scolastica: PP. Benedettini -- Monastero S. Speco, Subiaco, 011-39-0774-82-421, www.benedettini-subiaco.it (in Italian). Free admission, but a $5 to $10 donation is suggested. Tours are available in English by request.
Lunch at the Refectory: A three-course meal is about $11, four-course $14.50 (wine included).
Castel Gandolfo and Nemi:
Sundays in Italy consist of three things: church, lunch and a very slow walk. One of my favorite spots to partake in this triptych of commotion is Castel Gandolfo, a lakeside town just a 45-minute drive from Rome.
A beautiful 17th-century church in the town's tiny main square offers Sunday services. And if you visit in summer, you may catch a glimpse of Pope John Paul II: This is where the 82-year-old pontiff vacations. During summer months, he will often bless the public in the main square from the balcony of his summer palace and read his Sunday homily.
After inhaling fresh holy air, the next activity high on the list of Italians is the Sunday Meal. Castel Gandolfo has some lovely restaurants perched 1,400 feet above the volcanic Lake Albano, with gorgeous views and tempting smells. I've often made the mistake of not making reservations, which can lead to stomach pains and a watering mouth while I waited to be seated.
Castel Gandolfo is divided into two sections: above the lake and around the lake. The more picturesque of the two is the historic center above, whose one town square consists of the apostolic palace, a bank, a bar, a souvenir shop and a post office. A cobblestoned main street lined with boutiques and specialty shops leads pilgrims to the site of the papal palace. At night, the only sounds echoing off the walls of the village's main square are the trickling of water from its 1661 Bernini fountain and the tolling of its church bells.
The Gandolfi family, from whom the village gained its name, built a castle in the town during the 12th century. After the town fell under the dominion of the Vatican in 1608, the papal palace that stands today was constructed on the ruins of the original castle in the 17th century by Carlo Maderno. (Unfortunately, the palace, neighboring gardens and papal villas are not open to the public.) In the 1930s, the Vatican Observatory, initially founded by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 and located behind St. Peter's Basilica, was transferred to Castel Gandolfo's apostolic palace, complete with a modern observatory dome. It is now home to many Nobel laureate scientists and has a fellow research center in Arizona.
Once you've completed the two primary activities -- which should take up at least four or five hours, with an emphasis on the Meal -- it's time for a stroll, or passeggiata. Remember to proceed with caution when sauntering, because Italians insist that walking too fast leads to indigestion.
Most Italians like to get in their cars and drive down to the lake, then amble around the mysterious dark blue waters that never seem to ripple. (You could walk down to the lake, but it's a steep trek back up to the center -- and a sure bet for indigestion.) Surrounded by thick woods, the lake occupies the crater of a prehistoric volcano. Water activities, from swimming to paddleboating, can be topped off with a snack or a drink at any of the bars and restaurants scattered around the lake.
Or you could take your passeggiata in Nemi, a charming historic hamlet above a smaller volcanic lake a 15-minute drive from Castel Gandolfo. Famous for its waters the color of volcanic ash, this lake was once known as the Mirror of Diana, named after the nearby temple of Diana the Huntress (its measly ruins lie in the woodlands).
A sip of Nemi's famous fragolino liqueur (conserved in jars of strawberries and sold in almost every shop in town) will put any visitor in a gastronomical swoon. It will also be the perfect end to your saunter, as it often sets the stage for the secret fourth activity of a typical Italian Sunday: the Nap.
Directions: Castel Gandolfo is 22 miles southeastof Rome, about a 45-minute drive. Take the Grande Raccordo Annulare to Exit Via Appia Nuova and follow signs for Marino and then Castel Gandolfo. Trains leave from Rome's Termini Station every hour and take approximately 45 minutes; see www.fs-on-line.com for ticket and schedule information.
Attractions: For information on the pope's summer vacation schedule and general audiences at Castel Gandolfo, call the Vatican's Prefettura della Casa Pontificia, 011-39-06-698-848-57 (English spoken). For a Sunday Mass schedule at the Church of San Tommaso da Villanova, call the Parish in Castel Gandolfo, 011-39-06-935-9191.
Sheila H. Pierce is a writer based in Rome.