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Destination: Italy

Holidays From Rome

Day-tripping in the towns where the pope and other urbanites escape the doldrums

July 26, 1998|ELIZABETH J. MAGGIO | Maggio is a freelance writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy — 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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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