When visiting Rome, Italy, travelers should follow the example of emperors and popes and see some of the surrounding countryside. Fuori parta (beyond the gate), as Ancient Romans noted, lie great treasures. The area surrounding Rome, the region of Lazio, is one of the most beautiful areas of Italy in its own right, and those who travel beyond Rome’s city gates will surely be in for a special treat.
To the east of Rome (about a half hour by train) lies Ostia Antica, a site that is considered to be “the Pompeii of Rome.” Once the ancient site of Rome’s port, this area lost its importance when the course of the Tiber River changed, leaving it (some 2,000 years later) a sandy, muddy wasteland.
Founded in the 4th century BC, today it is little more than a site for excavated ruins. Travelers exploring Ostia Antica, however, can gain a better understanding of what life was like in ancient times by exploring the excavations and accompanying museum.
Among the items worth exploring at the site are the mosaic floors with Neptune and the sea goddess Amphitrite at the Terme di Nattuna (Baths of Neptune), the theater built by Agrippa (original creator of the Pantheon in Rome), and the Mithraeum, in which the balconies and walls of this building are decorated with symbols from the Cult of Mithras religion. Close to the ruins of Ostia Antica is the Medieval city of Castello della Rovere, which began in 1483.
Another spot worth journeying to on a day trip from Rome is Tivoli. In ancient times, Tivoli was the place where emperors went to escape the heat and misery of Roman life in the summer. Large palaces and villas were created, but by the Middle Ages, this area had largely been abandoned. It was rediscovered by the elite of the Catholic Church, those cardinals and popes with abundant wealth, who revived the area by building anew.
Today, Tivoli is a beautiful and vibrant area with stunning views and cascading waterfalls. Two jewels remain from ancient times, the Temple of Vesta and the ruins of the Sanctuary of the Sibyl. Most travelers who make the journey from Rome (via bus or train), however, come to see the Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa) or the Villa d’Este’s fabled gardens.
Villa Adriana/Hadrian’s Villa
One of the most accomplished of the Ancient Roman emperors, Hadrian rose to power in 1178 AD, and began a construction boom in Rome (and elsewhere) that was unrivaled. His villa at Tivoli was a masterpiece created by local artisans, which incorporated ideas from Hadrian’s world travels. He much admired Hellenistic (Greek) culture. His vast estate in Tivoli was a conglomerate of baths, theaters, libraries, temples, open-air gymnasiums, and guest pavilions. The most famous element at the Villa Adriana is the Canopus, an artificial pool created to emulate a canal on the Nile. Those exploring the villa would do well, when visiting, to rent the audio tour (along with it, you will receive a complimentary map to help guide your tour of the area).
At Tivoli’s center lies the Villa d’Este, built by a cardinal in the 16th century. While the villa itself isn’t much to see today, the main reason for visiting this special spot are its gardens. To create these beautiful water gardens, the Aniene River was diverted, and the result is breathtaking. The gardens of the Villa d’Este are a masterpiece, with sun and shade, water and stone all working together to create a truly unforgettable experience. Perhaps the most romantic time to visit the gardens is on a summer evening, when the floodlit fountains work their magic.
Contrary to what their name might imply, the castelli are not castles, but rather charming towns and villages scattered throughout the Alban Hills, which (of course) aren’t really “hills,” but instead remnants of extinct volcanic activity.
These picturesque towns today are surrounded by olive groves, woods full of chestnut trees, and lovely vineyards, with accompanying wine cellars. Among those towns worth exploring are Frescati, with its Villa Aldonbrandini; Castelgandolfo, where the Pope summers (Villa Pontifica); Ariccia, with the beautiful Palazzo Chigi; and Nemi, the smallest but most beautiful of them all.
Whether one travels amongst the hill towns of the Castelli Romani or takes in the stunning villas of Tivoli or takes a step back in time at Ostia Antica, it’s clear that little more than an hour outside Rome (and often less), there is a beautiful Italian countryside worth exploring. Rome is a hard city to leave, but a day trip outside the city is well worth the time away.