Lake Trasimeno: A Milestone on the Road of History Between Rome and Florence

Lake Trasimeno, Italy's Largest Lake
History, Beauty, Castles, Islands and Delicious Fresh Fish

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Lake Trasimeno sits relatively at the mid-point of the Italian peninsula, halfway between north and south as well as east and west. Just inside Umbria near the border with Tuscany and not far from Latium, it is truly surrounded by interesting places. The lake itself is stunning when viewed from a distance but is perhaps less interesting on close inspection. It is a historic site and one well worth viewing, if best from afar. Trasimeno is Italy's largest non-Alpine lake. Garda, Maggiore and Como are all bigger and very different, given their depth. Trasimeno is shallow, no more than 20 feet or so at its deepest point, with reed-filled marshes on many of its shores. The shallowness is not apparent to the first-time visitor, who will more likely see the lake as a giant mirror reflecting beautiful mountains on the north and east sides and giving way to rolling hills on the west and south.

Trasimeno lacks the glamorous resorts found on the Alpine lakes. The most common accommodations in the area are campgrounds. But the lake figures prominently in ancient history. Hannibal ambushed two of Rome's legions there in 217 BC. Over 15,000 legionnaires died in the conflagration. According to legend, the Roman commander should have known to avoid battle that day. The sacred chickens refused to eat their breakfast, a dead giveaway that Rome's prospects were not good. Two villages on the north shore, Sanguineto ("the place of blood") and Ossaia ("the place of bones") commemorate the events. Hannibal went on marauding around Italy for several more years before Rome finally defeated him at his home base in Africa.

There is a ruined medieval castle at Castiglione del Lago. You can take a boat out to Isola Maggiore, known for its lacemakers and for a legendary encounter between St. Francis and a fish. According to the story, in 1211, St. Francis threw back a pike given him by a local fisherman. The grateful fish followed St. Francis around the lake until the saint dispensed a special blessing. St. Francis and "Brother Fish" are commemorated in the island's church.

The north shore of the lake is home to two charming little towns, Tuoro and Passignano. Both have some historic buildings. Mainly they have spectacular views of the lake. To the east of Trasimeno there is no shortage of interesting sites to visit. Perugia - with its impressive churches, museums and palaces - is less than 20 miles from the lake. Just beyond is Assisi, home of St. Francis. This is Umbria's most famous and oft-visited hilltown. Despite the crowds, it is well worth a visit. Other delightful ancient towns are Bevagna, Spello, Montefalco and Trevi. South of Perugia, again not more than 20 miles, are two "must see" places for those interested in more hedonistic pursuits. Torgiano is the capital of the Lungarotti wine family and home of their celebrated inn and restaurant Le Tre Vasselle. A few miles further along is Deruta, the capital of the Italian ceramics industry since the Renaissance. Showrooms and bargains abound. Choose from the ample supply of items on hand or have them design a china pattern just for you.

The Alpine lakes of Italy are undeniably beautiful. Nothing is more luxurious and breathtaking than a lakeside lunch at the Villa d'Este on Lake Como. But Lake Trasimeno is the true heart of Italy, not only geographically but also historically and culturally. Spend time around Trasimeno and you will really know Italy.

by Sims Brannon, Los Angeles

Trasimeno: The Facts

To get there, take the A1 autostrada. From Rome, exit at Fabro. From Florence, exit at Valdichiana or Chiusi-Chianciano Terme. Excursion boats travel frequently from Passignano, Castiglione del Lago and Tuoro to Isola Maggiore. Castiglione del Lago, which still preserves many of its medieval walls, is the most interesting town to visit. Start from the castle and follow the long covered walkway to the town hall. A great place for a late-afternoon drink is Piazza Mazzini, where you'll find several cafes. Or have lunch outdoors under the trees overlooking the lake at the Miralago Hotel, also in Piazza Mazzini. Try the local fish specialties, including persico reale (tender perch), tinca, eel and deep-fried small fish. Closed Thursdays. Tel. 075-951-157 for reservations.

For summer swimming, the best beaches are just below Castiglione, near the fishing village of Torricella, at the lido in Tuoro and, best of all, on Isola Polvese, the largely uninhabited and impeccably landscaped island reached by boat from the tourist village of San Feliciano. Passignano is where you should go if you're looking for organized activities like sailing, windsurfing and diving.

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