Lago di Bolsena is Italy's largest lake formed in the crater of an extinct volcano. Before I tell you about this central Italian gem, let me say that lakes are really not my thing. When I hear "water, water everywhere," I naturally envision oceans. You know, the Pacific, the Atlantic.... I suppose I like the energy, power and movement that oceans transmit. I adore swimming in those crystal clear ocean coves where one can see the sea bottom twenty feet below as if it were at arm's length. I detest, and am leery of, those murky lake bottoms where I cannot even see my own feet, much less God knows what else down there. It is certainly no coincidence that Nessie lives in a lake and not in the sea. Maybe the clarity of Bolsena's water has endeared her to me, as far as lakes go anyway. I can see my feet (and anything else that might be in the environs) while swimming. The water of Bolsena is so clear, in fact, that it is completely safe to drink it. The local government has gone to great efforts to maintain the lake's natural purity; a technologically advanced purification system has eliminated the errors that might have been made before pollution-awareness was so developed. Luckily no industrial development mars Bolsena's shores, nor its views, and the gently sloping nature of the encircling land limits the amount of spill-off and soil erosion which could effect the water's transparency. The native fisherman still use the lake's water to make the local culinary specialty - a fish soup called sbrosia - a rarity to find.
The lake is 12 km. long and 14 km. wide, with a maximum depth of 151 meters. Thanks to its volcanic origins, a sightseeing drive around the entire perimeter is a delightful sight indeed. It is another one of the many jewels to be found in Latium, a region in which few Americans ever get beyond Rome. Swedes, Germans, Swiss and Italians from northern Italy have been sojourning on its shores for years because of its history, central location, beauty and extremely clear water, but its charm is that it still has not become an extremely popular tourist attraction. If you wish to avoid crowds, this is the place.
The most important town on the lake is called Bolsena (obviously). Like so much of Italy, it bears the signs of almost every important period of the Italian peninsula, going back as far as the Iron Age and progressing through the times of the martyrs, catacombs and miracles and on to the Middle Ages. The town lies on the lake's eastern shore, only 22 km. from Orvieto. In the 7th century BC, it was the site of a Villanovan settlement whose huts were built on stilts directly over the water, using reed platforms, hay roofs and cobbled floors. About four hundred years later it was settled by the Etruscans, after they fled from the Roman destruction of Velzna in 264 BC. Velzna eventually became Volsinii, a Latin name which has been transformed over the centuries into Bolsena. As you drive into town, you can't help noticing the more than 4 km. of Etruscan-Roman walls made out of tufa stone.
|The Rocca Monaldeschi della Cervara sits at the top of the hill, overlooking the medieval quarter of town. The castle was built between the 12th and 14th centuries. It has been completely renovated and since 1991 has housed the Museo Territoriale del Lago di Bolsena (Lake Bolsena Territorial Museum). The museum is well laid out; each of its three floors is dedicated to various aspects of Bolsena's history, ranging from its prehistoric volcanic origins to its Etruscan-Roman period. A walk along the ramparts of the castle offers a gorgeous view of the entire lake and should not be missed.|
From April to September, excursion boats depart Bolsena town headed for Bisentina and Martana, the islands in the lake. Both are privately owned and Martana is not open to the public, but Bisentina is an ex-summer residence of the Popes and has a large church on it. There are also seven small chapels built around the island. One of them contains some beautiful frescoes attributed to Benozzo Gozzoli or his school. The chapels were originally built to make it easier to get a plenary indulgence, by allowing Holy Year pilgrims to avoid going all the way to the Eternal City. Instead of having to visit each of the seven major churches in Rome to gain the indulgence, they could make a round of the chapels on Bisentina. Pope Leo X Medici had a particular penchant for the island as he had a hunting reserve there. Both islands are lush and green. The owners organize theatrical representations, wedding receptions, concerts and other cultural activities. Don't think that Bolsena is just for history and culture buffs. It is also ideal for swimming, sailing, relaxation and dining. One of my fondest memories is having a delicious meal of grilled coregone (a local fish from the lake) at one of the many unpretentious restaurants lined up along the shore. If you happen to find one that's serving sbrosia, consider it your lucky day.
by Michael Brouse, Rome
To get there from Rome on the scenic route, take the Cassia north towards Viterbo and then toward Orvieto. The fastest way from Rome or Florence is on the A1 autostrada. Exit at Orvieto.
Excursion boats to Bisentina leave from the dock at Bolsena at 10 a.m. or 4 p.m. There must be at least 12 people to take the one-hour trip, which includes a guided tour of the monastery on the island. For an English-language guide, call ahead to 0761-798-033.
Nearby places that deserve a visit are Orvieto, the hilltown of Pitigliano, and the fascinating Etruscan and papal city of Viterbo. Worthy of special mention is delightful Civita di Bagnoregio, a teensy medieval town that is slowly eroding and can now be reached only by a footbridge that stretches across a hilltop.
Museo Territoriale del Lago di Bolsena (tel. 0761-799-601) is open 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4-8 p.m.
Some fun local festivals are:
Bolsena Fish Festival: August 16
Montefiascone Wine Festival: August
Bolsena Flower Festival: June (Corpus Domini day)
In Montefiascone, Ristorante Dante is a good example of the simple kind of trattoria that serves excellent dishes all over Latium. This pretty little hilltown is the home of Est! Est! Est!, a renowned local white wine. Apparently, some centuries back a prince of the church sent his manservant ahead to find the place that had the best wine en route to Rome. The servant was to mark the spot with the word Est! (Latin for, "It is," or "It's here!"). So enthusiastic was the servant that he wrote the word three times, then drank so much of the wine that he expired right there in Montefiascone. Hopefully you'll consume a lot less of it than he did! For purchases, try Cantina Sociale di Montefiascone. Open weekdays.