In the centre of Italy, marking the transition from north to south, is Lazio. Although the official name in English is Latium, most Brits call the region by its Italian name, Lazio. This is probably because of the fame of the Rome-based football team Lazio FC (or, as the Italians put it, SS Lazio. SS stands for società sportiva or sports company). Lazio has a good stretch of coastline along the Tyrrhenian Sea and borders Toscana, Umbria, Le Marche (briefly), Abruzzo, Molise and Campania. A well connected, region, then, as is fitting for the seat of the country's capital city.
Understandably, Lazio is dominated by Rome. As well as being a magnet for tourists from all over the world, the eternal city is home to over half of the region's population. This is a place you absolutely have to see - but Lazio has more to offer besides Roma.
The lush landscape of the north of the region has much in common with that of neighbouring Tuscany, while the south of Lazio is more arid and stark, as it moves towards Campania. In terms of attitude and lifestyle, too, Lazio is where the richer, more business-like north of Italy merges with the poorer, more laid-back south.
The Pontine Islands
Off Lazio are the islands of Ponza, Zannone, Palmarola and Gavi. These make up the western group of Pontine Islands (or Isole Ponziane). With Ventotene and Santo Stefano, the islands further east, they form the Pontine Archipelago.
What to see and do in Lazio
Enjoy the mountains, hills and lakes
The Apennine mountain range comes down the east side of the region and much of the rest of Lazio is made up of hills. The Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga, one of Italy's largest national parks, spreads into Lazio from Abruzzo and is a fabulous place for communing with nature and/or getting into some outdoor sports.
Sabina, the Sabine hills around Rieti (see below), is a beautiful area of unspoilt, green countryside that is not often visited by tourists. Lovely for walking or pottering about by car.
Several extinct volcanos in Lazio have filled with water and become lakes:
- Lake Bracciano is the reservoir for Rome and excellent for swimming, sailing, windsurfing, canoeing and other water activities.
- Lake Vico, in the Cimini hills/mountains, has a huge beech forest and a nature reserve. A peaceful place, good for swimming and fishing.
- Lake Bolsena, with its pure, clean water, is lovely for swimming and sailing. There are two islands in it, one of which tourists are allowed to visit.
- Lake Albano is in the Albani hills south of Rome. Overlooking it is the little town of Castel Gandolfo, where the Pope has his summer residence.
- Lake Nemi is also in the Colli Albani. This is stunning, ancient country and the lake is famous for the ships built by the Roman emperor Caligula in the first century AD. Quite why he chose to sail them in such a small, shallow lake is not known but they were impressive. Under instruction from Mussolini, engineers drained the lake and carried out a successful salvage operation but, sadly, the ships were destroyed by a fire in 1944.
The Parco Nazionale del Circeo, on the coast between Anzio and Terracina, is a marvellously varied nature reserve and a great area for hiking and biking.
Enjoy the sea
Of all the Italian coastal regions, I would choose Lazio among the last for a beach-based holiday, mainly because I like quiet, natural beaches, and proximity to Rome means that most of Lazio's beach resorts are a bit too busy, organised and happening for my personal taste. However, if you're wanting a day out from a differently-focused holiday, there are many nice beaches in Lazio where you can relax and enjoy the sea for a day or two.
The best beaches are in the south of the region, on the stretch between San Felice Circeo and Gaeta, including Terracina and Sperlonga.
Take a ferry to the Pontine Islands
Depending on the season, you can catch a ferry or hydrofoil from several ports in Lazio, the main ones being Formia and Anzio. The largest island of the group is Ponza, which is particularly known as an excellent place for scuba diving. Only Ponza and Ventotene are inhabited but you can make excursions on to some of the others too. This is highly recommended for nature-lovers.
Italy's capital is one of the world's greatest tourist attractions. It would take weeks to see everything the eternal city has to offer and do it justice but, on the other hand, there is so much to see and experience in the relatively small area of the centre that you can get a good idea of the place and have a lot of fun even in a brief visit to Rome.
Some of the obvious things you have to see are:
- the colosseum/coliseum (il colosseo), scene of gladiatorial fights and other Roman entertainments
- the Roman forum (il foro romano)
- the Trevi fountain (la fontana di Trevi)
- the Pantheon, originally a Roman temple but later converted into a Catholic church
- Piazza Navona, with another famous fountain
- Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish steps
but there is loads more too. Rome is so heavily steeped in ancient history that you don't have to make much effort to seek out monuments that have been there since Before Christ; they are all around you.
If your experience of Italy has been in, for example, Lombardia or Toscana, you may be surprised how run-down Rome seems, compared to the towns and cities of the north. When I first went to Roma, I was living in Milano and I found it strange that the capital was so scruffy after what I was used to. However, once you've adjusted to the different rhythms, attitudes and lifestyle, you'll find a lot to enjoy in Rome. It really is an extraordinary place and somewhere everybody needs to see.
The public transport is Rome is good, including an underground system. I wouldn't recommend driving around the city; it's scary enough trying to cross the road on foot!
Visit the Vatican
Vatican City is the smallest independent state in the world, although to the visitor it feels like part of Rome and you can just walk into it without crossing any visible borders. If you are a Roman Catholic, I imagine a visit to the headquarters of the Holy See would have additional significance. As an Anglican, I was moved by its beauty and its layer upon layer of historical and spiritual resonances.
Whatever else it may be too, the Vatican is a treasure trove of art and architecture. St Peter's Basilica, the prominent dome of the Rome skyline, is probably the biggest Christian church in the world (yes, the biggest church is in the smallest state) and an astonishing feat of architectural engineering and artistic decoration.
Amongst the many other fantastic museums and galleries, the Sistine Chapel, with its ceiling famously painted by Michelangelo, is one to prioritise.
Explore the smaller cities and towns
Viterbo was once a powerful city. During the Middle Ages, it was the chosen seat of a succession of popes who were having trouble asserting their authority in Rome. Today, Viterbo's influence has waned but the buildings are remarkably well preserved and the old town is surrounded by lava-stone walls that have been there getting on for a thousand years. Nearby is the Terme dei Papi (Spa of the Popes), where you can indulge in a pampering treatment. If you bring your bathing suit and a towel, you can also swim in the thermal pool there.
Tarquinia has an impressive Etruscan necropolis and a good museum. There is also a beach where you can relax after your sightseeing.
Anzio is a fishing port, best known for being the site of the Allied landings in the Second World War.
Terracina and Sperlonga are both pretty towns with lots of history and archaeology to offer, as well as good beaches.
Eating and drinking in Lazio
Traditional Lazian cuisine is straightforward and frugal. The most common meats in the region are lamb and pork, and very little of the animal is wasted - you'll find tripe, tongue and brains on the menu in many places. And they can all be delicious, so don't be put off by squeamishness.
Artichokes (carciofi) are the vegetable speciality of Lazio. They are often served whole, either fried or braised, but also appear in ravioli, risotto and omelettes.
Pasta is mostly spaghetti but also bucatini, which are basically tubular spaghetti. It comes with simple but effective sauces such as carbonara, amatriciana - or even the plain but amazingly flavoursome olio e aglio (oil and garlic, with added chili spice).
The local cheese is good: pecorino romano, made from sheep's milk. The soft and popular ricotta is also produced in the region.
The best known wine from Lazio is Frascati.
Recommended reading from and set in Rome
Alberto Moravia, from Rome, was one of the most admired and influential Italian writers of the twentieth century. He wrote about moral and political hypocrisy, sex and the meaning of life. Among his most famous books are Il Conformista (The Conformist), La Romana (The Woman of Rome) and Gli Indifferenti (The Time of Indifference).
Although not originally from Rome, Dacia Maraini has lived in the city for a long time. She was Moravia's partner for over twenty years.
Maraini is one of the leading Italian writers, exploring women's issues and social problems in her novels. Among the most popular of her books is Voci (Voices), set in Rome.
Books by non-Italian writers
OK, well, an obvious one is Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, which I enjoyed as a gripping, speedy thriller.
A deeper book (though just as easy to read), which really got me thinking about Catholicism and what it might be like to be pope is Morris West's The Shoes of the Fisherman.
For more information about Lazio...
Buy a local map for travelling around Lazio. In terms of a guide book, it's easy to find a guide to Rome but it's more difficult to find a guide to the rest of Lazio. Something you might like to do is download the Rome and Lazio chapter from the Lonely Planet's Italy guidebook.
It's the same with websites. I can't find one in English dedicated to Lazio. However, you may find these sites about Rome useful: