Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 26, 2021
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The roads that lead to Rome

Explore the Italian countryside that has lured emperors and urbanites for centuries

''All roads lead to Rome," goes the familiar saying, a catchphrase coined by the Caesars that still rings true today. Every year, millions of visitors arrive in the city to experience la dolce vita, the "sweet life" of Italy's age-old capital.

But few ever follow Rome's roads past the city limits, where the countryside overflows with uncrowded attractions and breathtaking scenery. Ancient ruins, hilltop towns, volcano lakes, vineyard estates and Mediterranean beaches are all reachable by rail or car in less time than it takes to visit the Vatican; so too are countless hotels and restaurants that offer the best regional cooking.

Whether you prefer a trip through the Alban Hills or a jaunt to Ostia's ruins and beaches, we've included 10 reasons to explore the area around the Eternal City. And though it's easy to get sidetracked, remember that it's hard to get lost; after all, the roads all lead to Rome.

The Place is in Ruins
Latium (or Lazio, in Italian) is the name of the central Italian region that includes Rome and the surrounding countryside, which ranges from the coast's wide beaches to rugged hills and placid farmland dotted with the remnants of enormous aqueducts. Now administered as five provinces, Latium is the heart of classical Roman civilization -- the place where a simple peasant society turned itself into the colossal power that still exerts an influence even 1500 years after its glory days.

Wherever you go, you're sure to stumble on some sort of relic: Latium is chock-a-block with archaeological sites dating from Roman times, making this cradle of world history a must for buffs of the dusty past. To see how the early Romans did it, visit the well-preserved ruins and artifacts of Lavinium, close to a large, untouristed beach at modern day Lavinio, 50 kilometres outside Rome.

Other places of interest include Montecassino, home to the first Benedictine abbey; Castel Gandolfo, the summer retreat of the popes; Bagnaia, the site of some of Italy's most famous formal gardens, and Tivoli, where the Emperor Hadrian built a grand villa that still stands.

Imperial Estates
Just 20 kilometres southeast of Rome, the Alban Hills are dormant volcanoes that jut up sharply from gentle farmland. Carpeted by thick forest, their peaks and ridges hide a chain of picturesque towns known collectively as the Castelli Romani, or Castles of Rome. They include 15 towns and villages, the best known of which are Albano Laziale, Castel Gandolfo, Frascati -- particularly famous for its food and wine -- Genzano, Lanuvio, Lariano, Monte Porzio Catone, Montecompatri and Nemi.

More mountain resorts than fortresses, the Castelli Romani have helped visitors beat Italy's heat or enjoy the fall breezes since the time of Julius Caesar. Today, switchbacks that seem made for Alfa Romeos climb steep hills dimpled by elegant villas that could have been built yesterday or in 50 BCE. And it remains possible to imitate the Emperor Caligula and quaff the excellent local wine while cursing the gods on the terrace overlooking the volcanic crater lake of Lago Nemi.

The area's larger towns offer shopping and dining comparable to Rome but at cheaper prices; the smaller hamlets are quintessentially Italian haunts. Grand hotels abound, but avoid older, long-term accommodations perched on cliffs.

Volcanoes A-Go-Go
Italy is Europe's best location for volcano lovers (or volcanologists, as they prefer being called when fleeing lava). Even the seven hills of Rome are of volcanic origin. Luckily for visiting non-professionals, Italy's fiercest volcanoes are in Sicily and Pompei, where a famous eruption, in 79CE, entombed the town. The volcanoes that formed the Alban Hills have been quiet for centuries, although they did release a spurt of poison gas that asphyxiated a herd of cows in the late 1990s.

At any rate, laziness has its rewards: the main volcano at Monte Cavo is covered with verdant, forested slopes perfect for hiking, and the two shining crater lakes of Lago Albano and Lago Nemi -- both less than an hour from Rome outside the hill towns of Genzano -- are filled with sailboats right through October. The locals are always happy to remind you that volcanoes make the best wine, because the vines thrive in soils rich in minerals left by eruptions.

The Real Dolce Vita
A sprawling centre in the Alban Hills, Genzano di Roma is a holiday haven for Romans that retains the charm and feel of a classic Marcello Mastroianni film. Go out any night after eight to see what happens when an entire Italian town goes for its evening walk! And, oh, the clothes, the countless sidewalk cafés, the meandering streets lined with shoe stores.

Only 30 kilometres from Rome, Genzano is filled with lush parks, period architecture and lavish hotels. Be sure to grab an espresso in the main square after dark, and watch the surrounding statuary's features flicker across the faces and expressions of the town's current inhabitants: the resemblance to today's generation is unmistakable.

Mountain Gem
One of the gems of the Castelli Romani area, the small town of Nemi clings to the lip of a dormant volcano; it overhangs a crater filled by a mirror-flat lake. The medieval cobbled streets that thread the virtually sheer inclines offer startling views of the drop to the volcano from between washing lines, crumbling walls and card-playing groups of elderly men. Thankfully, the main drag, or corso, is a little more level, but watch how your waiter pours the wine! The Emperor Caligula liked this place so much that he set a flotilla of ships on fire in the crater lake as a sacrifice.

Located 35 kilometres from Rome where the Tiber River meets the Mediterranean, Ostia Antica was ancient Rome's port but fell into decline by the fourth century CE. Today, this ruined city is one of the world's premiere archeological sites, showing off the brilliant sophistication of a civilization whose urban innovations anticipated inventions elsewhere by thousands of years.

Imposing coliseums, temples, palaces, public edifices, shopping centres and large apartment buildings are still evident across the 4000-hectare site, as is the city's complex drainage system -- an engineering achievement unequalled until the 19th century (one public lavatory alone contained 30 toilet cubicles).

Walk the deep ruts left by haul carts in Ostia's kilometre-long main thoroughfare, the Decumanus Maximus, or view the immense, intact mosaic at the Baths of Neptune, one of the world's great works of art. Beaches (try Castelfusano and Castelporziano), accommodations and eateries are all close by at the present-day city of Ostia, a busy satellite community of Rome.

You can easily reach Ostia from Rome by taking the Roma-Lido local train, which leaves every 15 minutes from the Ostiense train station next to the Piramide Metro stop.

Where Nero Fiddled
A laidback seaside resort 50 kilometres from Rome, Anzio was the landing point for Allied forces invading during World War II. The town's cemeteries contain large numbers of Canadian war dead, but today the emphasis is on sport fishing, sun worshipping and the ferries that ply the sea to remoter locales in the Pontine Islands.

Known as Antium in ancient times, vacationers have long favoured the area: the remains of Roman villas are still conspicuous along the seashore, although the ruins of the Emperor Nero's estate (which he fled to with his fiddle while Rome burned) have not yet been found. Many famous works of art have been pulled from the rubble of local Roman villas buried in beach sand -- the Louvre's Borghese Gladiator and the Vatican's Apollo Belvedere were both discovered here.

Vineyard Estates
Imagine an October without frost where the wild flowers linger, complementing a fresh wine brought from the cellar to your own white-washed room. Then think of a gray day November, when the fog hanging over the grape vines is lifted by the blaze of a stone fireplace, the smell of roasting chestnuts and the wafting bouquet of a robust red wine served in a plush 18th-century room. If it sounds at all appealing, you're not alone: Italy's wineries are now catering to the increasing demand for inn-style stays.

You might try Villa Germaine (tel: 011-39-6-930-3275;, about 45 minutes away from the city near the hill-town of Ariccia. Established by a countess, it contains large formal gardens,

spacious rooms decorated in Provencal and French Louis XIV style, along with a requisite vineyard for strolling and an entire grotto filled with bottles of wine. Organic wines and olive oil, pressed on the premises, are also available.

A Festive Mood
Everyone knows Italians love to celebrate, and the towns of the Castelli Romani are particularly famous for their revels, which are staggered over the seasons. Local harvest and wine festivals are held in rural areas throughout the fall months. Spring is the time for strawberry festivals, a great fixture in a region where the plant grows from every cranny.

June is the month the town of Genzano holds its spectacular Infiorata. The length of the town's main avenue of Via Berardi is completely covered by a carpet created with millions of flower petals, all meticulously assembled into giant, multicoloured, traditional religious portraits and scenes. However, times change, and fashion designers like Fendi and Missoni now contribute show-stopping pieces to what the brochures inelegantly call "gigantic floral pictorial representations." Whatever you call them, it's a display you have to see to believe.

Sun and Sand
Despite the Mediterranean's sometimes murky water, Romans love their coast's wide, white-sand beaches. Public transportation to the coast, and the beaches themselves, get crowded until late in September (don't go on weekends). In the built-up areas closer to Rome, beach-club concessions monopolize the sand; free municipal beaches are usually more down-at-heel and susceptible to litter. The best beach clubs have attractive cabanas, restaurants and beach facilities for which you can pay by the day, week, or month. The Kursaal Club (36 Lungomare Lutazio Catulo; tel: 011-39-6-5647-0171) in Ostia is one often recommended by locals; it can be reached by bus 06 from Ostia's Lido Station.

The only beach in the immediate Rome area that approximates the wide open spaces North Americans are used to is Castelporziano, six kilometres from Ostia, which has sand dunes, pines and even involves a bit of a wilderness trek from the nearest road. To reach it, catch bus 061 at the Cristoforo Colombo stop at the end of the Roma-Lido local train line.

Thirty-five kilometres northwest of the capital is the villa colony of Fregene, where beach clubs make sure the sand is swept and clean. It can be reached on local train FM5, which leaves from the Ostiense train station, next to the Piramide metro stop, in Rome.

Further afield to the south is Sperlonga, a pretty town with unpolluted waters and elaborate natural grottos. Finally, travel an hour south of Rome and you will find the summer town of Terracina, home to one of the biggest beaches on the coast and famous for its fish-based cuisine. Both Sperlonga and Terracina can be reached via Rome's central train station.

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