We’ve spent hours in Rome, exploring the Coliseum, devouring fresh pasta in Trastevere, exploring the Jewish ghetto and climbing every step to every monument and church.
This time around, we discovered a different side of the region– a side that’s not enclosed within its walls and not overrun with tourists slurping gelato that turns to melted slush in the brutal summer heat.
We discovered the villages. Tiny ancient spots perched on mountaintops or alongside lakes, peppered with cobblestone roads and hardly a tourist in sight. All are within an hour’s drive from Rome and, in my opinion, should be prioritised when visiting the eternal city. Just look for the sign “centro storico” (historic centre) and you can’t go wrong.
We were also fortunate to be house-sitting in Sacrofano, a beautiful town only sixteen miles from Rome and previously unknown to us. With no crowds or touristy spots, Sacrofano provided us with everything we needed – good coffee shops and restaurants, great gelato, supermarkets, local shops, beautiful views and a nearby train station to the city. From our home base there, we braved the Italian drivers, took to the roads and found places we didn’t know existed.
Here are our seven wonders of Rome’s countryside (in no particular order):
1. Calcata (32 miles from Rome) – I fell in love with Calcata at first sight. A tiny village, perched on a rocky outcrop and home to artists and creative folk from Italy and beyond, it’s a tiny treasure. Peppered with ancient stone houses and crooked winding alleyways, it’s very much off the beaten track. We spent a couple of mornings strolling the silent maze of cobblestone streets, gazing at views over the valley, sipping tea in La Sala (that offers more than 100 varieties of tea) and returned for dinner in the outdoor piazza where we were almost the only people sipping wine under a starry sky. In the shadow of the hilltop village, we found some great hiking, along paths that meander through the famous Via Francigena (a 1,000 mile route that winds through England, France, Switzerland and Italy).
OUR TIP: Have coffee in the quirky Rock Café, where photos of Jim Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix and Lennon adorn the walls.
2. Castel Gandolfo (15 miles from Rome) – This gorgeous town is considered one of Italy’s most scenic and until 2016 was the summer residence of the Pope till 2016. The entrance into town takes you up sloping promenades overlooking a sparkling blue lake (Lake Albano) where canoeists and kayakers train, and Italians have their summer homes. The town’s paved piazza is surrounded by outdoor cafes, vibrant flower displays, tiny shops, and an enormous building which used to be the Pope’s residence and is now a museum.
OUR TIP: Dine in one of the restaurants perched on the side of the cliff with a stunning view of the lake.
3. Villa Adriana (18 miles from Rome) – It’s not a village or town but we avoided the crowds and congested streets of neighbouring Tivoli for this gorgeous spot on the outskirts. One of the most fascinating ruins I’ve seen, Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa) is spread over three kilometres with a vast array of buildings, pools, baths and fountains. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is so vast that you always feel alone in the landscaped grounds and there’s a mysticism that you only find in such ancient sites.
OUR TIP: Sit under a 600-year-old olive tree and look around. Nothing more.
4. Nepi (30 miles from Rome) – The first thing that struck me about Nepi was the castle. Sitting on top of a hill, this 16th century structure which was once owned by the Borgia family is surrounded by two deep canyons. A waterfall flows over the edge and a walkway circles the charming town where you can gaze into the countryside. There’s a lively buzz (mostly at mealtimes) but it is mostly serene and dotted with palaces, churches and cafes.
OUR TIP: Check if there’s a performance in the ancient open-air amphitheatre.
5. Sutri (32 miles from Rome) – Sutri has a little of everything – fascinating history in its cave tombs and amphitheatre dating back to the first century, great hiking around the perimeter and a colourful, pretty town. The central cobblestone piazza is surrounded with outdoor restaurants and small shops, and a stone fountain spurts water in the square below an ancient bell tower. We had two experiences of Sutri – the first ¬treated us to a wonderful fungi truffle pasta; the second to a couple of hours of good hiking.
OUR TIP: Park at the bottom of the hill, hike along the trail and end up in the town for lunch.
6. Lake Bracciano (20 miles from Rome) – This gorgeous freshwater lake has a perimeter of nineteen miles which, to our delight, has hardly been developed. There are three small towns – Bracciano (with a stunning 15th century castle and slanting cobblestone roads), Anguillara (a tiny spot on the lake) and Trevignano with its treelined walk, small town and multiple lakeside restaurants. Since Lake Bracciano is only twenty minutes from the sea, it seems to be a quieter, less touristy spot for Romans seeking weekend getaways.
OUR TIP: Stop in Anguillara for gelato.
7. San Oreste (36 miles from Rome) – At the foot of Mount Soratte, San Oreste is yet another charming little village that captivates. Festooned with multi-coloured flower-boxes, worn cobblestone roads, tiny churches and a handful of places to get a panini or steaming plate of fresh pasta, San Oreste offers gorgeous views across the valley all the way to Rome.
OUR TIP: Check out the bunker built into the rock for Mussolini during World War Two.
There are many more – Castelnuovo di Farfa (33 miles from Rome), Orte (48 miles), Mazzano Romano (30 miles), Fara in Sabina (31 miles), Magliano Sabina (44 miles), Montefiascone (71 miles) and anywhere in the Soratte Mountains or Sabine hills. All worth a visit and every one of them containing at least a couple of the following: a gelateria, a church or three, cobblestone roads, laundry hanging on a line, tiny central piazza, impossibly narrow roads and a pizzeria or two or three.
So rent a car, contend with Italian drivers, and hit the road. Leave behind the Seven Hills of Rome and lose yourself in villages where the only sounds you’ll hear are cicadas, birds and muffled footsteps on cobblestone alleys.