By: David Farley
Millions of tourists flock to Rome every year to trample the city’s famed seven hills, but just outside, others are waiting to be climbed. Dotting the landscape between Rome and Tuscany, the medieval hill towns of northern Lazio – the region surrounding the Eternal City – afford the requisite quiet cobbled alleyways, intimate piazzas, and rustic restaurants. But they also offer something scarcely found – authenticity. Unencumbered by modern tourism, there are no souvenir shops, tour buses, or English-language menus.
Easily accessible but often overlooked, the following five towns lie within 75 miles of the Italian capital, but seem centuries away. These are places where little has changed since Roman emperors, popes, and poets visited to flee the tumult of city life and bask amidst the olive trees and umbrella pine-dotted landscape; where the local cuisine – like wild boar-topped polenta, pasta sprinkled with mushrooms from the local forest, and chickpea and chestnut soup – is still prepared the way it has always been. About half of Lazio’s population lives in Rome, leaving the vast countryside – stretching from Tuscany and Umbria to the north, Abruzzo to the east, Campania to the south, and the Tyrrenean Sea to the west – to the locals and the adventuresome traveler. All roads may lead to Rome, but with a weak dollar and a strong euro, it’s never been a better time to take those same roads out of the Eternal City, where restaurant and hotel prices plummet (a 4-star hotel in a hill town is half the price of the equivalent in Rome, for example).
The best way to get a feel for this area is to spend some real time here. Using Civita Castellana as a base for 2 to 3 nights, followed by a few days’ stay in Tivoli, you can access everything the region has to offer. Or, if you like to keep moving, spend a night in each of the five towns. Either way, because of the hilly landscape and infrequent buses, the best way to do that is to rent a car and do the driving yourself.
So get your photo taken with a gladiator in front of the Coliseum, admire the Sistine Chapel, and throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain (to ensure your return); then head for the heavens – and by that we mean the high hill towns outside of Rome.
Civita di Bagnoregio
Lying north of Rome near the border of Lazio and Umbria, Civita di Bagnoregio rests atop a tall peak. Connected to the world by only a narrow pedestrian bridge, this small town wasn’t always such an enjoyable place to visit.
After devastating earthquakes, the first in 1695, crumbling cliffs forced residents to flee the “dying city” and move to more secure ground. The area sat relatively deserted for centuries, but over the past 10 years, with construction underway to stabilize its foundation, Civita has attracted a small group of about 30 denizens (mostly artists and a few restaurateurs), who have moved into the houses made of golden-hued volcanic tufo stone and begun to resurrect the village.
Visitors to Civita will find notable attractions like a 12th-century church situated on the sand-covered Square of St. Donato (in June, the square becomes a track for a hilarious wild donkey race), and shoulder-high walls that are the remains of the house of St. Bonaventure, one of St. Francis of Assisi’s closest confidants. But these are just backdrops for one of Italy’s better-preserved (at least for now) villages. People come to Civita to get acquainted with small-town Italian life, wander the narrow alleys, gawk at the perfectly preserved Romanesque gate, and sample the fantastic restaurants.
For a town with such a tiny population, Civita’s restaurants offer extraordinary fare. Boccadoro (see Where to Eat), for example, serves fantastic Slow Food preparations (rabbit cooked with mustard sauce and herbs and homemade pasta with a mouth-watering pistachio pesto) on a leafy patio. Nearby, Trattoria Antico Forno’s red-and-white-checkered tableclothed tables are perfect for chef/owner Franco Sala’s rustic pasta preparations. “Everyone comes here for the truffles,” he says, of his rightly famous piciarelli with truffles.
Sala also runs the town’s only hotel. Civita B&B (see Where to Stay) has three basic, but comfortable rooms that overlook the main square. (The place fills up fast, so it’s a good idea to book in advance.)
Calcata – a bewitching village 30 miles north of Rome – sits on a 150-foot-high, 2-acre, liver-shaped rock that was once assumed (like Civita) to be crumbling. Since the late 1960s, when the original inhabitants packed up and moved a half-mile away to a newly built (and presumably safer) village called Calcata Nuova, this tightly packed jumble of stone houses has been attracting hippies and artists, mediums and musicians. Recently, they successfully lobbied to have the town’s order of eviction rescinded. Today, a steady stream of Roman day-trippers come here to wander the labyrinth of narrow streets made of chunky rock from the nearby Treja River; pay a visit to the 16th-century church that once held one of Christianity’s weirdest relics (the foreskin of Jesus, which was stolen in the 1980s); and sit in the marble-bench-lined piazza and experience the anomaly of a town populated entirely by artistic transplants from all over the world – some of whom happen to be well-known: Paolo Portoghesi, the famed architect and former director of the Venice Biennale; sculptor Costantino Morosin; and Prince Stefano Massimo, a member of one of Europe’s oldest aristocratic families.
Well-known or not, the new residents of Calcata have made the town one of the most intriguing destinations in Italy. Three Etruscan-style thrones created by Morosin sit on the main square, Portoghesi redesigned the small castle (sadly only open for exhibitions), and other artistic residents sell their wares at shops and art galleries throughout the village. At the Bazaar dei Sognatori, Deborah Borghi offers her colorful, hand-painted glassware and jewelry.
The atmosphere at restaurant Grotta dei Germogli (see Where to Eat) rivals owner Pancho Garrison’s inventive cooking. Favorites include fusilli in a coconut-based tomato sauce and tantalizing almond pesto over gnocchi in a sculpture- and mosaic-bedecked cave. Just off the square, La Latteria del Gato Nero (see Where to Eat) serves traditional northern Lazio-inspired dishes like sausage-and-rib-laced polenta, and penne with spicy basil-and-tomato pesto.
I Sensi della Terra (see Where to Stay) rents out no-frills, but comfortable rooms and apartments throughout the village for reasonable prices. For a smart – albeit quirky – splurge, visitors can rent out the top floor of Palazzo di Cristo (see Where to Stay), a diminutive 16th-century palace that was once home to the local archbishop. The suite features a 360-degree view of the village and valley from the terrace, a full kitchen, dark wood-beamed ceilings, and – the suite’s pièce de résistance – an oversized antique four-poster bed. The entertaining owner, Gianni Macchia, a 1970s Italian film star who painted the interior walls with geometrical portraits, is equally charming.
This municipality of 16,000, situated about 10 miles northeast of Calcata, has all the ingredients of a perfect Italian hill town: a dramatic perch on a long crag of volcanic rock, narrow cobblestone streets, and a 12th-century cathedral, making it the perfect base for tours of surrounding villages.
But the reasons to get acquainted with Civita Castellana run deeper than aesthetics. Originally inhabited by the Faliscans (a pre-Roman people whose culture was similar to the Etruscans), the town was razed by Roman troops in the 3rd century BC. The Faliscans were forced to move 4 miles away to an unprotected plain, where they built a walled town called Falerii Novi (the ruins of which are open to the public). Eventually, in the 10th century, they reclaimed the top of the hill. Thanks mostly to its geographical position – a day’s horse ride north of Rome on the ancient road Via Flaminia – Civita Castellana has attracted a steady flow of visitors since the 18th century. Some of the town’s overnighters were quite distinguished: Mozart, Goethe, and several popes have all stayed in Civita Castellana.
Over the centuries, Renaissance palaces were built – the most famous is Palazzo Montalto, which today houses the superb restaurant Le Stanze del Cardinale (the rooms of the cardinal; see Where to Eat), named for the palace’s former owner, Cardinal Felice Peretti (the man who would become Pope Sixtus V in 1585). The opulent atmosphere – 16th-century murals on the ceiling compete with 18th- and 19th-century paintings on the walls – is complemented by the offerings, such as the seafood pasta dishes like mussel-loaded spaghetti and gnocchi al cartoccio.
Not to be outdone, another pope, Alexander VI, hired famed Renaissance architect Antonio da Sangallo to build a fortified palace on the northwest part of the hill, known today as the Sangallo Fortress. The thick stone citadel, complete with a wide moat, now houses the fascinating Museo Archeologico dell’Agro Falisco (Forte Sangallo; 011-39-0761-513-735; free), dedicated to the Faliscan people. Entrance to the fortress and museum is free, but guests must be accompanied by a guide. The Greek-style pottery (complete with images of bacchanalian revelry) and sculptures of rotund gods and goddesses are fascinating remnants of a disappeared culture.
The town also boasts a stylish four-star hotel, the Palace Hotel Relais Falisco (see Where to Stay), which is housed in a reconstructed 17th-century palazzo and offers style and amenities to make anyone feel like a visiting dignitary. La Scuderia (see Where to Eat), a restaurant housed in a former horse stable (note the cobblestone floor), is a local favorite for its organic approach to regional fare. Fillet of pork with pine nuts and pears, and maltagliati (roughly translated as “badly cut”) – a huge bowl of soup filled with pasta, chickpeas, garlic, porcini mushrooms, and rosemary, is a standout.
There are off-the-beaten-path hill towns in northern Lazio and then there’s Nerola, which hardly feels like it’s on a path at all. Situated on a curvy, olive tree-flanked lane a few miles off the old Roman road Via Salaria (stretching northeast out of Rome), this tiny hamlet has yet to make it onto most maps (signs off the Via Salaria will guide you).
Which means when you find it, you’ll have the town and its residents all to yourself. The quiet streets, most of which are actually staircases due to the town’s high position, are a fun wander: colorful laundry strewn across the narrow alleys and a steady stream of delicious smells wafting from the windows give Nerola a quintessential, small-town Italian feel. The village’s main square, cozy Piazza Municipio – where locals gather to gossip and drink from the 19th-century fountain – is a good place to take a break after all the climbing.
Dominating the village is Orsini Castle. A longtime residence of the ancient aristocratic Orsini family, the castle features imposing 10th-century fortifications, glowing golden stones, a wooden drawbridge crossing a 10-foot-wide moat, and chess piece-like towers pointing heavenward – quintessentially medieval.
The castle was restored in the early 1980s and then transformed into the stellar 5-star Castello Orsini Hotel (see Where to Stay). Guests can stroll through banquet halls covered in medieval frescoes and 16th- and 17th-century paintings or step out onto the terrace for a striking view of the gently rolling countryside. The hotel’s “beauty farm” boasts an indoor pool, a thermal bath set in a cave, and plenty of massage options. If you’ve ever dreamed of having your own rook-like tower, ask if room number 19 is available. Non-guests who make a lunch or dinner reservation at the hotel’s restaurant, Antica Cucina (see Where to Eat), have privileges to peruse the grounds, but it might be too tempting to stay at the table: set in the castle’s ancient kitchen, the menu includes savory dishes like crepes with artichokes and beef fillet topped with red peppers.
For something with a bit less pomp, Trattoria da Celeste’s (see Where to Eat) no-frills atmosphere is the perfect venue for inexpensive (but tasty) Italian classics: grilled lamb and gnocchi with tomato sauce are a couple of the large-portioned dishes offered.
Just down the street from Celeste’s is the Vecchia Mola (Corso Umberto 1st; free), or old mill, which displays a collection of photographs of Nerola life from the early 19th century to the present. Agnese Silvi, the museum’s charismatic curator, sometimes personally takes visitors through Nerola’s history as a well-known olive oil-producing town.
For lovers of olive oil, a visit to Augusto Spagnoli’s orchard is a must. Located in a sub-region of northeastern Lazio called Sabina, growers there have been producing top-quality olive oil since ancient Roman times. Some of Spagnoli’s 10,000 trees date back 2,000 years. After watching the olive oil being produced, visitors can stop in his shop, enjoy a tasting, and pick up a few bottles of oil or some delicious olive pâté.
Located just 25 miles northeast of Rome, Tivoli’s role as a retreat for wealthy Romans began over 2,000 years ago when emperors and poets – Horace, Nero, Trajan, and Hadrian to name a few – began gravitating to the hill town (and its surrounding valley) for the area’s curative waters and clean air. This is the perfect place for a relaxing end to a tour of Lazio’s towns. Only Hadrian’s villa, Villa Adriana (Via di Villa Adriana; 011-39-0774-382-733; $7.50) remains, and the enormous complex is one of the most fascinating Roman sights in Italy. Set below hill-top Tivoli (about 3 miles away), half-ruined theaters, baths, and palaces from the 2nd century AD cover the grounds of the villa. Bring some bread and a block of the local pecorino – a crisp sheep’s milk cheese they’ve been making in the area for a few millennia – and picnic amidst the ruins and cypress trees.
Before heading up the hill toward Tivoli, spa-lovers should take a dip in the sulfurous hot springs of Terme di Roma (Located in the town Bagni di Tivoli, 5 miles from Tivoli; Via Tibertina Valeria 22; 011-39-0774-35-471; termediroma.com), four pools of supposedly curative waters that have been attracting emissaries, poets, and princes for thousands of years.
After relaxing at the pools in the valley, make the ascent to Tivoli. The chaos of traffic and exhaust fumes disappears once you arrive in the historic town center. Sleek restaurants and small shrines to the Virgin coexist in the twisting alleyways. The UNESCO-protected Villa d’Este (Piazza Trento 1; 011-39-0774-312-070; $12; villadestetivoli.info), a Renaissance palace built by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este in the mid-16th century, is a masterpiece by architect Alberto Galvani – both the building and the landscape. The palace’s interior frescoes with mythological themes could entertain for hours, but the fountain-laden garden is the real reason travelers flock to Villa d’Este. The ornate fountains, some of which are set in grottoes, feature unicorns and dragons, and are flanked by large marble columns and perfectly cultivated shrubs. More than 80 gallons of water – irrigated from the nearby Aniene river – flow through the villa’s fountains every second.
In the northeast section of Tivoli’s town center lie the remains of two ancient temples; in pre-Christian times, the town was dotted with similar shrines. The round Temple of Vesta and the rectangular Temple of Sibyl are both dominated by tall white-marble columns and look especially striking when lit at night. This part of town also offers some of Tivoli’s best restaurants. Maison Sibilla (see Where to Eat) has been open since 1730; today it serves top-notch fare like potato gnocchi and succulent lamb ribs. Around the corner, Vesta (see Where to Eat)is a minimalist-designed space, with soft white walls and red accents, offering upscale Italian dishes like ravioli stuffed with calamari and spinach-and-ricotta gnudi.
At the end of the day, one of the best places to retire is the 4-star Hotel Torre Sant’Angelo (see Where to Stay), a 6th-century monastery sitting on a hill above Tivoli. An equally enjoyable 4-star hotel is the centrally located boutique Hotel Sirene (see Where to Stay), which has 38 colorful rooms complete with Internet access and satellite TV (ask for a room with a view of the Temple of Sibyl).
Civita di Bagnoregio
Civita B&B (011-39-0761-760-016; rooms from $80; civitadiba gnoregio.it) has three no-frills but comfortable rooms look onto the main square.
Palazzo di Cristo: (011-39-338-172-5339; rooms from $240) Book the top-floor suite, which is rustic and charming and comes with a full-kitchen.
I Sensi della Terra: (011-39-0761-587-821; rates vary; isensidellaterra.it) This service offers inexpensive, comfortable rooms and apartments to suit most needs in locations throughout Calcata.
Palace Hotel Relais Falisco: (011-39-0761-598-432; rooms from $180; relaisfalisco.it) This 17th-century-palace-turned-luxury hotel keeps even the most sophisticated traveler happy.
Castello Orsini Hotel: (011-39-0774-683-272; rooms from $360; castelloorsini.it) An authentic medieval fortress with all the modern-day comforts you could ask for.
Hotel Torre Sant’Angelo: (Via Quintilio Varo; 011-39-0774-332-533; rooms from $200; hoteltorresangelo.it) A serene property located in the mountains above Tivoli.
Hotel Sirene: (Piazza Massimo 4; 011-39-0774-330-605; rooms from $200) The only hotel in the historic center also happens to be one of the most luxurious in Tivoli.
Civita di Bagnoregio
Boccadoro:(011-39-0761-780-775; entrées from $15; ilcrogiuolo.org/boccadoro) Emphasizing artisanal products and organic ingredients, Boccadoro offers a creative take on traditional dishes.
Trattoria Antico Forno: (011-39-0761-760-016; entrées from $19; civitadibagnoregio.it) Diners come for the truffles and fall in love with the cozy dining room.
Grotta dei Germogli: (011-39-761-588-003; entrées from $12; grottadeigermogli.org) This restaurant located in a cave is a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.
La Latteria del Gato Nero: (011-39-0761-588-015; entrées from $9) Serving up the cuisine of northern Lazio, this restaurant’s cozy interior may motivate you to order a second carafe of vino.
La Scuderia: (011-39-0761-516-798; entrées from $15) Housed in the former horse stable of the Duke of Civita, this family-run eatery is popular for standout dishes like pork with pine nuts and pears.
Le Stanze del Cardinale: (011-39-0761-517-364; entrées from $17) A seafood–focused menu and dining rooms filled with exciting artwork are the big attractions at Le Stanze, which is housed in the Palazzo Montalto.
Antica Cucina at the Castello Orsini: (011-39-0774-683-272; fixed-price menu $58; castelloorsini.it) A constantly changing menu of seasonal specials is not to be missed.
Trattoria da Celeste: (011-39-0774-683-006; entrées from $8) Enjoy traditional preparations like grilled lamb and cheese-and-spinach-stuffed ravioli.
Vesta: (Piazza delle Mola 17; 011-39-0774-333-786; entrées from $20) A little bit of New York in Tivoli, this chic eatery dishes up modern Italian fare.
Maison Sibilla: (Via Adriatica 5; 011-39-0774-335-638; entrées from $15; maisonsibilla.it) Centuries-old and still serving high-quality cuisine, this restaurant is a hit with locals and visitors.
Augusto Spagnoli: (Localitá Chiuso Grande; 1-liter bottle of olive oil, $12; 011-39-0774-644-047) Olive oil from Sabina, Nerola’s region, was the first to receive the quality label D.O.C., and Augusto Spagnoli’s oil is some of the best in the area. The small shop sells other speciality olive products as well as high grade oil.
Bazaar dei Sognatori: (Via della Scuola 3; 011-39-0761-587-070) This packed boutique is loaded with jewelry and colorfully decorated glassware – all made by the owner.
Civita di Bagnoregio
From Rome By car, take the A1 Autostrada toward Florence, exiting at Attigliano (just after the hill town of Orte). Follow the signs for Bagnoregio. By public transportation, take the train from Rome’s Termini railway station to Orvieto, then switch to a COTRAL bus (outside Orvieto’s main railway station). Miles from Rome: 75
From Rome: By car, take the highway Cassia Bis, exiting at Sette Vene and turning right. Drive about 10 miles, passing through the village of Mazzano Romano before reaching Calcata. By public transportation, take the light rail at Rome’s Ferrovia Nord station (next to the Flaminio Metro station) to the Saxa Rubra bus terminal. Then switch to a COTRAL bus. Buy bus tickets at the snack bar. Miles from Rome: 25
From Civita di Bagnoregio: By car, take the A1 Autostrada south toward Rome. Exit at Civita Castellana, merging on the SS3 Via Flaminia. Follow the signs to Calcata.
From Rome: By car, take the A1 Autostrada north toward Florence, exiting at Civita Castellana. Alternately, take Via Flaminia (SS3) until you reach Civita Castellana. By train from Rome’s Flaminio/Ferrovia Nord station. By train or car, the journey takes about an hour. Miles from Rome: 35
From Calcata By car, drive east through Faleria and follow the signs to Civita Castellana. When you reach the SS3 Via Flaminia turn left (north). Civita Castellana is easily accessed from the A1 Motorway (exit at the Civita Castellana/Magliano Sabino exit and follow the signs).
From Rome: By car, take the Via Salaria (SS4), turning left at the sign for Nerola. The winding road will lead you straight to the hill town. By public transportation, take the train from Rome’s main railway station, Termini, getting off at Passo Corese and switching to a bus outside the railway station. Miles from Rome: 30
From Civita Castellana: By car, take the SS3 Via Flaminia north to the A1 Autostrada. Go south toward Rome for 18 miles on the SS4 Via Salaria. exit. Turn left (east) and follow signs to Nerola.
From Rome: By car, take highway A24, exiting at the signs for Tivoli. A slower option is Via Tiburtina (SS5). By bus, take the COTRAL from Rome’s Ponte Mammolo bus station. The journey takes 45 minutes. Miles from Rome: 25
From Nerola: By car, go southeast on Via Romana/SP28A. Turn right on SP54B to Via Roma/SS636. Stay south on SS636 and make a slight left on SP30A. Turn right on Via Quintilio Varo and left onto Viale Roma/SS5 into Tivoli. The 23-mile trip should take just under 40 minutes.