For the Roman emperor and the wealthy cardinal in the heyday of the Renaissance, the Castelli Romani (Roman Castles) exerted a powerful lure, and they still do. The Castelli aren't castles, but hill towns -- many of them with an ancient history and several producing well-regarded wines.
The ideal way to explore the hill towns is by car. But you can get a limited overview by taking one of the CoTral buses that leaves every 20 minutes from Rome's Anagnina stop on Metro Line A.
Marino, the closest to Rome (only 24km/15 miles away), is about 7km (4 1/3 miles) off Via Appia Nuova, quite near Ciampino Airport. Much of Marino's original charm has fallen victim to modern builders, but the town is still the place to go each October during the grape harvest. Check with the Rome tourist office for the actual dates, which vary from year to year. At that time, the town's fountains are switched from water to wine, and everyone drinks for free.
Rocca di Papa
The most attractive of the hill towns lies only some 9.5km (6 miles) from Marino. It's a lovely spot, on the slopes of Monte Cavo facing the Alban lakes. By car, the best route is 217 to the junction with 218, where you make a left turn. Before the intersection, you'll be high on a ridge above Lake Albano, where the views of the lake, the far woods, and the papal palace of Castel Gandolfo on the opposite mountain are superb.
Just before Rocca di Papa is the entrance to the toll road to Monte Cavo. A temple of Jove once stood on top of this mountain, and before that, the tribes of the area met with King Tarquin before Rome was a republic. At the top of the mountain is one of the most panoramic views in the hill towns, giving you a wide survey of the Alban Hills and the Castelli Romani. Down below, Rocca di Papa is a tangle of old streets and churches.
The Romans flock to Nemi (32km/20 miles from Rome) in droves, particularly from April to June, for the succulent strawberries grown here, acclaimed by some gourmets as Europe's finest. In May, there's a strawberry festival. To reach Nemi by bus, go to the Anagnini Metro stop in Rome. From here, take the CoTral bus heading for Genzano. At Genzano, change buses, taking the one marked NEMI. Service is about every 30 minutes during the day.
Nemi was also known to the ancients. A temple to the huntress Diana was erected on Lake Nemi, which was said to be her "looking glass." In A.D. 37, Caligula built luxurious barges to float on the lake. The boats, lavishly fitted with bronze and marble, were sunk during Claudius's reign (he succeeded the insane Caligula) and were entirely forgotten until Mussolini drained the lake in the 1930s. Then the barges were found and set up in a lakeside museum; they remained as a wonder of ancient Rome until the Nazis burned them during their retreat.
At the Roman Ship Museum (Museo delle Navi), Via di Diana 13 (tel. 06-39967900), you can see two scale models of the ships destroyed by the Nazis. The major artifacts on display are mainly copies; the originals now rest in world-class museums. The museum is open daily 9am to 5pm. Admission is 3€. To reach the museum, head from the center of Nemi toward the lake.
The 15th-century Palazzo Ruspoli, a private baronial estate, is the focal point of Nemi, but the town itself invites exploration -- particularly the alleyways the locals call streets and the houses with balconies jutting out over the slopes.
En Route to Castel Gandolfo
The road to Gandolfo leads through a few worth-a-visit towns on the way. Genzano, on the other side of Lake Nemi, has views of the countryside and a 17th-century palace that belonged to the Sforza-Cesarini.
Ariccia is an ancient town that sent representatives to meet with Tarquin the Proud on top of Monte Cavo 2,500 years ago. After many centuries of changing hands, especially between medieval and Renaissance families, it has taken on a suburban look. The palace in the middle of town is still private and belongs to the Chigi family.
Albano practically adjoins Castel Gandolfo. It has a long history; this is the reputed site of Alba Longa, the so-called mother city of Rome, but it's quite built-up and modern today. Trains going to Albano leave from Stazione Termini in Rome.
The summer residence of the pope, a 17th-century edifice designed by Carlo Maderno, stands practically on the foundations of another equally regal summer residence, the villa of Emperor Domitian. Unfortunately, the palace, the gardens, and the adjoining Villa Barberini can't be visited. You'll have to be content with a visit to Piazza della Libertà; its church, Chiesa di San Tomaso di Villanova; and a fountain by Bernini.
If you're here for lunch, as many are, your best bet is Antico Ristorante Pagnanelli, Via Gramsci 4 (tel. 06-9360004; www.pagnanelli.it), which serves both regional and pan-Italian dishes, with meals starting at 10€ and a high of 20€ for the fresh seafood dishes. The restaurant is open Wednesday through Monday from noon to 3pm and 7pm to midnight.
About 21km (13 miles) from Rome on Via Tuscolana and some 322m (1,056 ft.) above sea level, Frascati is one of the most beautiful hill towns. It's known for the wine to which it lends its name, as well as for its villas, which were restored after the severe destruction caused by World War II bombers. To get here, take one of the CoTral buses leaving from the Anagina stop of Metro Line A in Rome. From there, take the blue CoTral bus to Frascati. Again, the transportation situation in Italy is constantly in a state of flux, so check your route at the station.
Although Frascati wine is exported and served in many of Rome's restaurants and trattorie, tradition holds that it's best near the vineyards from which it came. Romans drive up on Sunday just to drink it.
Stand in the heart of Frascati, at Piazza Marconi, to see the most important of the estates: Villa Aldobrandini, Via Massaia. The finishing touches to this 16th-century villa were added by Maderno, who designed the facade of St. Peter's in Rome. You can visit only the gardens, but with its grottoes, yew hedges, statuary, and splashing fountains, it's a nice outing. The gardens are open Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm and 3 to 5pm (to 6pm in summer).
You also might want to visit the bombed-out Villa Torlonia, adjacent to Piazza Marconi. Its grounds have been converted into a public park whose chief treasure is the Theater of the Fountains, designed by Maderno.
If you have a car, you can continue about 5km (3 miles) past the Villa Aldobrandini to Tuscolo, an ancient spot with the ruins of an amphitheater dating from about the 1st century B.C. It offers what may be one of Italy's most panoramic views.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.