Travel: Rome - All roads lead from Rome

Jumping in fountains used to be one possibility. But there are other, more legal ways of escaping the stifling summer heat of the Italian capital. By Martin Buckley
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ROME IN summer: the streets are stifling, urine stains on the baked pavements burnished like black marble. Tourists stagger from one cultural marvel to the next, unable to think about anything but iced water. Even the Romans go slightly mad; in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, Anita Ekberg famously frolicked in the Trevi fountain. This tradition was assiduously maintained by bikinied Romane until, two years ago, someone dived off the arm of a sculpture at the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, and broke it. The authorities placed a ban on bathing in Roman fountains, with on-the- spot fines of pounds 400.

Then the traditional Roman stroppiness asserted itself, and the populace protested. "What's it got to do with some bureaucrat," a Roman friend asked me, "if somebody wants to take a dip in a fountain when the city centre is like an oven? Anyway, can you imagine an Italian policeman asking a girl in a bikini frolicking in a fountain to desist? He's more likely to ask for her phone number."

Happily, an alternative to fountain-frolicking does exist. All roads lead to Rome, but they also lead out of it. For centuries, Romans have escaped into the cool beyond the city walls. And so can you.

To the south, hot weekends see scooters and small Fiats pouring down the Via Appia to the volcanic Albini Hills, where the frascati grapes grow. Frascati itself is an unpretentious little town, rather overwhelmed by the enormous 16th-century palace looming in its centre, the Villa Aldobrandini. In the modest cantinas around the Piazza del Mercato, you can join the locals drinking glasses of cheap but excellent Frascati wine.

Stretching south of Frascati is a chain of small towns with medieval centres, all built on the rims of volcanic craters. The best-known of these towns is Castogandolfo, where the popes have their summer residence. The papal palace sports two domes for telescopes - ironic if you consider the papal relationship with Galileo, whom they locked up for peering at the stars. If an astronomically inclined pope were today to tilt a telescope downwards he would spy a narrow beach of black volcanic sand crammed with gently basting Roman flesh, while in the water of the Lago Albano wind- surfers show all the legendary prudence and self-discipline of Italian car drivers, slicing at high speed past the heads of hapless bathers.

To the north, an hour by train or car (up the Via Cassia) brings you to Lake Bracciano, another of the lakes-in-a-crater that pepper central Italy. Much bigger than Lago Albano, Bracciano has medieval shoreside towns, beaches, and restaurants specialising in lake-caught pike and bream. We chose one in Bagni, built out on a pier over the lake. At 10 on a balmy Friday night it was still filling with well-dressed Romans who had driven out for the weekend. When our ineptness in Italian caused us to order the wrong starters, the charming proprietor presented us with seafood salads and Camparis, gratis.

A train ride east into the Tiburtini Hills brings you to Tivoli, a summer resort since Roman times - and, I am told, the most popular day-trip out of Rome for foreign tourists. Tivoli is not one of Italy's finest ancient towns, but features a phantasmagoria of fountains built in the 16th century by Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, a son of Lucrezia Borgia. On a terraced hillside, the Cardinal made hundreds of fountains splutter, gurgle and spout - water in motion as the ultimate expression of conspicuous and effortless wealth. There was once a great staircase of fountains, and even a hydraulically operated water organ. The organ pipes are long silent, but most of the fountains remain. It is one of the world's stateliest pleasure dromes.

Finally, if you are flying out of Rome in the afternoon, you could spend the morning to the west of the city visiting Ostia Antica, Rome's first port. Close to Fiumicino airport and the seashore, Ostia was ancient Rome's principal port. But, by the 4th century, the River Tiber was silting up and the swampy land around Ostia bred malarial mosquitoes. The port, which had received coloured marbles from throughout the Empire to face Rome's great buildings, slid into oblivion.

In the 18th century, Ostia was rediscovered, a huge complex of intact buildings that offers intimate insights into daily Roman life - you wander through a town of neat redbrick buildings marvelling at the orderliness of the Roman vision. Ostia is wafted by onshore breezes and shaded by a thousand cypress and umbrella pines. Largely ignored by tourists, it is a quiet and meditative way to end a trip to bustling Rome.

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