Everyone knows that Frascati, Grottaferrata, Marino, Rocca di Papa, Genzano, Ariccia and Monteporzio are all great places from which to see the sites of Rome. But there are loads of fascinating things to see right in this area too. Start with the world-renowned Tusculum Villas, all built and rebuilt by the famed architects and artists whose work you admire in every piazza romana.
Ariccia: Palazzo and Parco Chigi
Erected between 1576 and 1590, the palace was restructured by G.L. Bernini and Fontana and is probably the only Baroque dwelling that still retains its original shape and furnishings. It also boasts a wonderful collection of works by Bernini, Maratti, Baciccio and others. Bernini also designed the park, whose fountains, walks, grottos and artificial ruins were admired by Goethe, Stendhal, D'Annunzio and other authors. The park is open May-September on Saturdays and Sundays, 10-12 and 4-6. Visits to parts of the palace are possible. For details, visit their web site. To get there by car: take the GRA to via Appia Nuova SS7 and drive 15 miles south.
Frascati: Villa Aldobrandini
The most famous of all the villas, it dominates the town center from its huge sloping garden. Begun in 1598 by Giacomo della Porta and completed 100 years later by Maderno and Fontana. One of the most extravagant villas anywhere, it also has some of the very best views of Rome. The park only is open every work day 9-1; permission required from the local tourist office, piazza Marconi 1 (at the foot of the garden); tel. 06/942-0331. To get there take the A1 autostrada, exit at Porzio Catone and drive 3 km to Frascati.
Frascati: Villa Torlonia
Almost every powerful patrician Roman family has owned this estate at one time or another, and it was one of John Singer Sargent's favorite places to paint. Maderno created the garden's famed waterworks and the villa's unique quadruple staircase. Tragically, the villa was totally destroyed by Allied bombs on September 8, 1943; the park is now Frascati's municipal park.
That Tusculum was founded by Telogonus, son of Ulysses and the sorceress Circe, is probably just an enticing legend. But it is certain that people lived in this ancient settlement as early as the 11th century BC. 400 years later it fell under the dominion of the Etruscans and then, for centuries, it was used as a holiday resort by upper-class Romans, until its prosperity came to abrupt end, in 1191, when it was razed to the ground by soldiers.
Today this archeological park is a magical alternative to the crowded Roman Forum or Pompeii. It consists of acres and acres of bucolic forests and fields, crisscrossed by paths and roads that lead - unexpectedly! - to a host of imposing monuments. Start out along Frascati's enchanting via dei Sepolcri, which is basically a dirt path interrupted occasionally by ancient paving. You will soon come to a stand of elm trees that miraculously survived the disease which virtually eliminated the species a few years back. This is the natural gate to a garden of hidden treasures: the Villa of Emperor Tiberius, the remains of an amphithetare, the spectacular Tusculum Theatre, a 2600-year-old cistern, and a set of ancient walls. Scattered amongst the majestic umbrella pines, chestnut forests and ilex stands, these silent ruins can be far more evocative because of their wonderful natural setting.
The Ad Decimum Catacombs outside Grottaferrata are as fascinating as any in the city of Rome. Dating back as far as the 3rd century, they are preserved quite well. Open for guided tours, October to March, 10-12:30 and 3-5:30; April to September, 10-12:30 and 4-6:30. Please contact The Latin Archeological Group, tel. 06-941-9665.
Other ancient monuments to be encountered along the Ancient Appian Way are:
The triple-tiered viaduct and bridge
The 2nd-century Cisternone (with a capacity of 10,000 cubic meters, it is still in function today)
The spectacular 15,000-seat amphitheatre
The tombs of the Horiatii and Curatii (two legendary sets of triplets who fought to determine whether Rome or Albalonga - the ancient name for Albano - would reign supreme)
Rocca di Papa
The Sacred Way, a path through the woods still almost entirely paved with the original stones
Ruins of the 1st-century circus
Ancient mithraeum with frescoes from the 2nd century
The Abbey of San Nilo was founded in 1004 by St. Nilus himself and completed a few years later by St. Bartholomew the Younger. In 1443, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere surrounded the monastery inside a circle of picturesque walls. It remains one of Italy's most important centers of Byzantine culture. Open 8:30-12 and 4:30-6 except Mondays.
The nearby Basilica of Santa Maria holds many wonderful 13th- and 14th-century Byzantine mosaics.
The Chiesa del Gesù boasts a façade designed by Pietro da Cortona and a surprise fake cupola (stand on the black marble circle to see the best perspective).
No lover of Caravaggio should miss the Hermitage of San Silvestro, a few kilometers from town. Built by monks in the mid-1400s, it contains a small temple that houses a nice group of paintings by Caraveggesque painters.
The Hermitage of San Michele Arcangelo is one of those humble caves hidden in the country, once inhabited by a devoted monk who painted frescoes on the wall and paved the floor with local marble.
The Collegiata of Santa Maria Maggiore began in the 8th century as a Byzantine worship house, erected using the spoils of local ancient ruins. It underwent many facelifts until 1675, when Carlo Fontana designed the façade we see today.
The church of Santa Maria della Rotonda gets its name and its round shape from the ancient Roman nymphaeum upon whose foundations it was originally built.
The church of San Tommaso and the fountain in front of it were designed by G.L. Bernini; the large dome was perhaps intended to recall St. Peter's Basilica and thus ward off any unwanted homesickness of the many Popes who have summered here. Inside there is a marble altar by Pietro da Cortona.
You can also go to the Alban Hills (another name for this area) on a food-and-wine-tasting mission. The Colli Albani towns produce some of Italy's most popular white wines, and almost anywhere you go you'll see signs indicating cantina, enoteca or osteria. Generally, these are modest places, frequented by locals during the week and, on weekends, by Romans enjoying a day in the country. It used to be the custom to bring your own food - perhaps a loaf of fresh crusty bread and some typical cold cuts such as coppiette di cavallo (smoked horse meat laced with chili pepper). The "city folk" would load up at the corner store, then eat and talk for hours, washing the delicacies down with liters of unbottled local vintages. Now you can also order fantastic meals combining the many specialties of Latium, which many consider to have the best cuisine in Italy. Do save time to enjoy the excellent wine and a meal or two, be it in an ancient osteria or at a simple outdoor trattoria on the shores of any of the region's many beautiful lakes.
(Thanks to InfoRoma for the following information)
The Castelli are easy enough to reach by public transport: the area is well connected by three railway lines (to Frascati, Albano and Velletri respectively) and by the excellent Cotral buses, which leave from the Anagnina bus station at the end of metro line A. A daily travelcard known as a B.I.R.G. (Biglietto Integrato Regionale Giornaliero) allows unlimited travel on both bus and train throughout the area, which falls into Zone B of the Latium travel system. The ticket also covers city Metro and buses.
The problem with the Cotral buses is that no official schedule is published, though times are posted on a board near the ticket office at the Anagnina interchange. The buses depart from numbered bays (known as marciapiedi) on the upper level; at each bay is a board with times of return buses from the farthest point of each line. On weekdays there is frequent service on all the lines serving this part of Latium, but beware of Sundays and holidays, when buses may be few and far between. They are also much less frequent in summer (mid-June to mid-September).
The trains leave from the part of the Stazione Termini which used to be a separate railway station, known as the Ferrovie Laziali: this is located on the Via Giolitti side. The tracks begin a fair way down the platform, so allow plenty of time to catch your train: it's further than you think! The line to Albano also serves Marino and Castel Gandolfo; the one to Velletri goes through Lanuvio. On the whole, however, buses are more convenient than trains - on the outward journey, at any rate - because they take you right up into the town, whereas the railway stations are in the valley and you have to walk up the hill.