Chatting with Manu: hikes, history and explorations in and around Rome
I've spent the past year exploring every inch of Florence's city limits, so I thought it would be fun to check in with my friend and colleague Emanuela Angelini (aka "Manu"), who has been doing the same from her home in Rome. How is the capital city for urban trekking? And what's there to see and do in the region of Lazio? She and I have been friends and colleagues for 20 years and have led countless tours together, so we've been staying in close contact during the pandemic. If you'd like to listen to my interview with her about the walks in Rome, click on over to the podcast tab and have a listen (we didn't get to the walks farther out in Lazio since otherwise the podcast would have been way too long!!).
THE COMUNE DI ROMA
I was surprised to find that the city limits of Rome are huge! It's ten times the size of Florence, which makes sense since it has a much bigger population: Rome City Limits: 1,285 km2 (~500 sq mi) for a population of just under 3 million
Florence City Limits: 102 km2 (~40 sq mi) for a population of ~350,000
The historical center of Rome (within the ancient city walls) is only 14 km2 (5 sq mi) but that still offers lots of urban exploration! (photos are mine or Manu's)
Manu begins her city walks in the colorful Trastevere (= on the other side of the Tiber River) neighborhood, where she lives. It's a jumble of narrow streets and alleyways with a multicultural flair since historically it was inhabited by immigrants to the city. Now it's a popular place to hang out at night as there are many bars and restaurants with tables out on the street.
From there you can walk up the Janiculum Hill, which offers sweeping views over the city as well as some history to keep your mind busy. Although it's the second-tallest hill in Rome, the Janiculum is not considered one of the Seven Hills of Rome since it's outside of the ancient city. In Roman times it was fitted out with water mills fed by an aqueduct, for grinding grain. The hill was also the site of a battle in 1849 between Garibaldi's revolutionary forces and French troops, who were trying to restore the power of the Pope over the newly created (and very short-lived) Roman Republic. There's a monument to Garibaldi as well as statues of 84 patriots who died in the fighting.. On the wall you can read the text of the Republic's Constitution, which was ahead of its time in its separation of Church and State.
Return back down and head to the imposing Castel Sant'Angelo. It served as a fortress during the Renaissance but was originally the mausoleum of Roman Emperor Hadrian!
Continue walking and pass through the Piazza del Popolo, with its Egyptian obelisk from the era of Ramses II, then head over to the famous Trevi fountain sculpted by Bernini.
Stop in the Campo de'Fiori to peruse the stalls, or pick up a piece of Rome's famous "pizza bianca" at the bakery called, simply enough, "forno." :-)
See how much you can cover on foot!
WALK THE APPIAN WAY and see the AQUEDUCT PARK
Once called "the Queen of Roads," this historic cobbled road was one of the first and most important in ancient Rome. It connected Rome to Brindisi, in southeastern Italy, and was named after Appius Claudius, the Roman consul who began the first section as a military road to the south in 312 BC (though it took them something like 200 years to actually get there!).
You pass a number of tombs and mausoleums as you go, and you can marvel at the ingenious techniques used to create this perfect road.
There's also an aqueduct park where you can see 7 pieces of different aqueducts. You can even see the ruins of the Circus of Maxentius, the 4th century AD fairground that's in better shape than the Circus Maximus in the city center.
BIKE PATH ALONG THE TIBER If you want a city adventure on two wheels, there's a 35-km (22 mi) bike path that follows the entire length of the Tiber River through the city. It's nearly all flat so you don't have to work TOO hard! :-)
THE VILLA PAMPHILI At 187 hectares (460 acres), this is the largest public park in Rome. It’s located on the Janiculum hill and has beautiful gardens that were built in the 17th c. for the wealthy Pamphili family. In 1644 Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili was elected Pope (Innocent X) so they expanded their holdings even more. Lucky for us the park is now open to the public!
It's a vast area with soaring cypress and pine trees, and includes several lakes and gardens.
THE PINETA di OSTIA and BEACHES The City Limits also include the strip of coastline around Ostia, so you can take a quick trip to a sandy beach or take a stroll under the pines ("pineta" means pine forest).
When everything opens up again, you can also visit the amazing and extensive ruins of Ostia Antica, the former sea port of ancient Rome!
AROUND THE REGION OF LAZIO
Lazio is smaller than Tuscany but has more people: Region of Lazio: 17,242 km2 (6,657 sq mi), pop. (2019) 5,864,321 Region of Tuscany: 22,985 km2 (8,875 sq mi), pop. (2019) 3,722,729
Let's go explore a few of the places you can get to for an easy day-trip (all photos but one provided by Manu!):
NEMI and ALBANO LAKES Just 30 km (19 mi) southeast of Rome are the twin volcanic-lakes of Nemi and Albano. The town of Nemi is a jewel perched at the top of a hill overlooking the lake, and the nearby woods were once home to a spectacular temple complex dedicated to the goddess Diana in Roman times. You can read more about it here.
The lake was also once home to two gigantic pleasure barges built by Emperor Caligula around 40 AD. They were scuttled after his assassination and sat on the bottom for 2,000 years before they were finally excavated by Mussolini -- only to burn in a fire a few decades later! Read more on this fascinating story here.
Even closer to the city (20 km/12 mi), Albano lake is the deepest in Lazio at 170 m (560 ft). You can enjoy a walk around the lake and then visit the nearby town of Castel Gandolfo, summer residence of the Pope!
THE SABINE HILLS, TERMINILLO, and RIETI
Head north of Rome and you enter the verdant rolling hills of the Sabina (named after the Sabines, an Italic people who fought with Rome in the early days of the Republic). Make a stop at the adorable village of Casperia, below.
Continue north to Monte Terminillo, a massif in the Reatini Mountains (part of the Abruzzo Apennine range), which rises to 2,217 m (7,274 ft). I's about 100 km (60 mi) from Rome and 20 km (12 mi) from the hilltop village of Rieti, whose origins go back to the Iron Age (~800 BC). The rich agricultural plain below it was once a large lake that was drained by the Romans, and the area grew quite rich as it dominated the old "salt road" (Via Salaria) linking Rome to the Adriatic coast through the Apennines.
BRACCIANO and MARTIGNANO LAKES 32 km (20 mi) northwest of Rome is Bracciano Lake, the second largest lake in the region (after Lake Bolsena). It's another volcanic lake and also serves as a drinking water reservoir for Rome, so it's under strict control and is therefore one of the cleanest lakes in Italy! There are lots of nice walks you can take around the lake.
You can also visit the picturesque village of Trevignano Romano, below, or check out the nearby Martignano Lake.
One fascinating historical finding near Bracciano: archaeologists have found the remains of a Neolithic settlement from 5700 BC! While nearly all remains from that time are from hunter-gatherer societies, this one was quite advanced. They had "domesticated animals and plants, ceramic pots, polished stone tools. They kept sheep and goats; they brought pigs and cows with them too, and two breeds of dog, and they planted a wide variety of crops—wheat and barley —and collected others in the woods... They ate grains, vegetables, and also lots of fruit – apples, plums, raspberries, strawberries.... They cultivated flax to make linen. They planted opium poppies." Read more about the amazing "La Marmotta" discovery here.
THE ETRUSCAN NECROPOLIS OF CERVETERI
Just south of Bracciano is a sprawling burial complex from Etruscan times, where hundreds of tombs were dug into the earth and covered with domed roofs, now covered with grass and greenery. You can wander freely and go into many of them, most of which are carved into mini-homes complete with rooms, beds, and pillars!
And finally, head south for some beach time at the delightful seaside town of Sperlonga. It's a bit farther away, half-way between Rome and Naples, and was where Emperor Tiberius decided to build a lavish villa including a large grotto. Read more about that here!
Thanks for joining Manu and I for this virtual journey. There's so much to see in Italy, we hope we'll see you out on tour again some day soon!
Ciao, alla prossima! (bye and see you next time)
And as always, if you want to keep my pen in ink and my microphone juiced, feel free to "tip your guide" :-)