Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Day on Lake Albano

Wednesday 17 September 2008

I am woken by a strange, soft, clanging sound and open my eyes. I am in the Hotel Castelgandolfo, on tranquil Lake Albano, about 16 miles southeast of Rome. I throw open the curtains to see a beautiful dawn over the lake. The bells have stopped. Are they from a church? Soon they start again - hesitant, almost apologetic - and I hear the sound of a train. There it is, down below. The gentle clanging is the sound of the barrier coming down. I am struck by how quiet it is here. Apart from a distant barking dog and the bell of the level crossing, I can't hear a thing. Is it something to do with the acoustics of the lake?

At about 7.20 the sun appears over Mount Albano. The light comes straight through the window and into my eyes. I dress quickly and go downstairs. Breakfast is already laid out in the little dining room. I devour some cheese and plain yogurt and wash it down with a delicious espresso made by Eddie. Lorenzo the manager is there. I explain that I want to see remains of Domitian's villa which are inside the Papal Palace. He shakes his head sadly and says that nobody is allowed in. The only way the public can see inside is if they 'make a mess'. At first I think he means you can only have access if builders are there. Then he says: 'They make a mess on Wednesday and Sunday mornings.' A-ha! He means a Mass!

I grab my camera and notebook and go outside to explore. It is a beautiful, cool morning, with a pure blue sky. Deserted cobbled streets lead me to the Piazza della Libertà with its fountain. Here is the Bernini church of St Thomas of Villanova. And there is the Papal Palace, with two colourful Swiss guards standing in the entryway. This is the Pope's summer residence, which was built in the 17th century. It is built exactly on the site of Domitian's palace, which was designed by Rabirius, who also built Domitian's palace on the Palatine Hill. Somewhere inside the Papal Palace are Roman remains, including a bust of Polyphemus which was found in the nymphaeum of the villa's gardens. But unless I attend Mass, I can't go inside.* And unfortunately there is no Mass today. The Pope is off to Rome.

(On the following day I get a quick glimpse of the papal car going off to Rome again, and I leave a padded envelope with the Swiss guards. Inside is a letter addressed to 'Dear Holy Father', requesting access at some time in the future. I have included a signed copy of The Thieves of Ostia and the DVD. I have a brief mental image of important clerics coming in to see the Pope one morning, but he is deep in my book and waves them away impatiently...)

On this morning, I wander around Castel Gandolfo, admiring the view of the lake on one side and the plain and Tyrrhenian sea on the other. I walk down the hill towards the lake and see free ranging pigs and donkeys. It is the most glorious day - soft sunlight, perfect temperature, merest breeze - but with that touch of poignancy that comes in the autumn, when you know that summer is over and winter is coming. At the level crossing for the train station, a footpath called Via della Stazione zig-zags back up to the town. I check my watch and hurry back up: I am due to meet a geoarchaeologist at 10.30.

Antonia Arnoldus is a Dutch scholar who lives across the lake from Castel Gandolfo at a village called Rocca di Papa, the Pope's Rock. Antonia is a member of the Ostia website and she helped advise me when the production company of the TV series decided to set The Fugitive from Corinth in Italy rather than Greece. She told me about the sanctuary of Diana at Lake Nemi and also about grottoes and caves in this area.

When I booked my flights last week, I sent Antonia an email offering to take her to dinner. She generously offered to take me around the lake and said I could buy her lunch instead. I said Yes!

And here is Antonia, bang on the dot of 10.30. We get in her car and off we go. She points out her satellite tracking system and says she will give me a printout at the end of the day to show exactly where we have been.

As we skirt the northern edge of the Lake Albano, Antonia tells me that this is a volcanic region. Apparently there was one massive eruption 70,000 years ago and then another few eruptions roughly 40,000 years after that. The second set of eruptions created three crater lakes. Lake Albano, Lake Nemi and another lake. The third lake is now dry but Nemi is still here with ruins of a Temple of Diana and a Boat Museum commemorating Caligula's pleasure barges. We will go there for lunch.

At Palazzolo, we park near an ancient Roman tomb and walk on a green path through chestnut and oak woods. Antonia points out one small plant which is called 'pungitopo' in Italian. This means 'pricks the mouse'. You would put the leaves on top of meat to keep the mice off. As we pass through green dappled shade I notice again that the woods are absolutely silent. 'They've killed everything,' says Antonia. 'Everything except the wild boar.' 'Even the birds?' I ask. 'Yes, they love to eat little birds.' She shows me an impressive cave and later mossy rocks and ferns which betray a spring coming out of the mountain. 'When the springs get hot on Mount Vesuvius,' says Antonia, 'they get hot here, too. There is a geological connection which we don't entirely understand.' 'Plate tectonics?' I ask, trying to show off my knowledge. Antonia gives a wry smile. 'Like plate tectonics, but on a micro level.'

We come back through the silent green woods, glimpsing the blue water of the lake below us through the trees.

Back in the car, we drive a short distance to a 17th century mansion which is now a restaurant and hotel for luxurious wedding parties. A handsome Italian called Sandro shows us around. The Villa del Cardinale dates to 1629 and is called after the cardinal who built it. It is built on the site of a Roman villa belonging to a member of the Scipio family. That was his tomb we saw back in the woods.

The cool, tile-floored villa has stunning views of the lake. Sandro shows us some frescoes of the area as it would have looked four hundred years ago. We see the bridal suite and the banqueting rooms. In one dining room is a painting of Ovid writing a poem on a wax tablet. Underneath, the inscription reads:
Militat omnes amans, et habet sua castra eundo;
Attice, crede mihi, militat omnes amans...

This verse is slightly adapted from Ovid's Amores I.ix. Here is my attempt at a translation:

Every lover is a soldier, and has his camp wherever he goes;
Atticus, believe me, every lover is a soldier.

Near Palazzolo, where the Villa del Cardinale is located, is an area for horses. Antonia says they like the flat ground here because it has never been ploughed and is firm under their feet. She brings out a map she had brought to give me and shows me how the volcanoes occurred.

As we drive to Nemi, Antonia tells me about triple Diana. This goddess has three manifestations: the virgin huntress, the goddess of childbirth and also goddess of the moon. She has a temple down on the shore of Lake Nemi, a ‘very feminine lake’, whereas Jupiter’s temple was atop Mount Alba, overlooking the whole area as far as Rome.

When the full moon sets in the west you can sometimes see a triple moon: the moon in the sky, its reflection in the sea and its reflection in Lake Nemi. Before visiting the remains of Diana's temple, we go to lunch in the beautiful little town of Nemi at a restaurant called ‘Specchio di Diana’, which means ‘Diana’s Mirror’. The lake below us is small and round, and it does look like a mirror. We dine on antipasti and finish with the speciality of the region: vanilla ice cream with tiny wild strawberries. This leads to a discussion of ancient ice cream. Did they have it? We think so. Antonia mentions grattachecca, which is like granita but much coarser. This is grated ice with sweet fruit syrup drizzled on top. I have something like lemon grattachecca in my eleventh book, The Sirens of Surrentum.

After lunch we drive down to the site of Diana's Temple. Antonia actually excavated this site. Today there is very little to see, but devotees have erected a modern altar, with sticks of incense and dried flowers and other little offerings. There is even a notebook for you to write down your prayers or praise of the goddess. I make an entry of my own. Near the temple site is a fountain, of course. We stop to try the water. 'Yes,' says Antonia with satisfaction, 'That has the slightly sharp taste of volcanic water.'

Two pleasure barges belonging to Caligula were found at the bottom of Lake Nemi. They were exposed in the 1920's, when the lake was partially drained, and their remains are now housed in the MVSEO DELLE NAVI ROMANE not far from the Temple of Diana. You can see the reproduction keel of one, to give you an idea of how massive they were.

Julius Caesar had a lakeside villa at Nemi, and part of the modern road here has been stripped away to reveal the Roman road beneath. The Sacred Way or Via Sacra, led up from the Via Appia and all the way to the top of Mount Albano, now called Monte Cavo. Here, at the Temple of Jupiter, were yearly rites called the Feriae Latinae. These pagan rites continued well into the Christian era. We stop to admire the ancient road, parts of it in the dappled woods. Antonia says: 'Chestnut woods have a special kind of shade I would recognize anywhere.'

We drive up to the top of Monte Cavo. Only a few stones from great Jupiter's temple still remain. Most of the summit is given over to telecom discs and ugly aerials.

As we drive back to Lake Albano, Antonia shares her one rule of driving in Italy: 'Don't bump into anyone.'

On the way back into Castel Gandolfo - coming from the south this time - we stop to admire the amphitheatre. According to my sources, Domitian built one here along with a circus for chariot races. He loved his races, and tried to introduce two new factions, the golds and the purples. But they never caught on.

Our final mission is to see the 'emissario' of Lake Albano. Here is another fascinating story, told by Livy . Around 400 BC, the Romans were beseiging a town called Veii in Etruria, about 30 miles northwest of here, on the other side of Rome. An old man prophesied that the Romans would never conquer Veii unless Lake Albano was drained. The soldiers laughed. But back at Lake Albano, the water level began to rise. And rise. And rise. It was mid-summer and elsewhere rivers and creeks were drying out. Desperate to know what they had done wrong, the Romans sent an embassy to Delphi to enquire of the Sybil. And what was her answer? Sacrifice a dozen virgins on midsummer's eve? Sent a white bull into the sea? No. The Pythia's advice was very practical. 'Cut a channel in the mountain and drain off the water.' The old prophet and the Delphic oracle were in agreement. A channel was duly cut. The excess water drained away and the Romans conquered Veii. And here is the very channel - or 'emissario' as it is known - behind a little metal door in a stone wall. A huge arch with a tunnel carved into the living rock. 'Just like the engraving of Piranesi!' cries Antonia, who has never seen this before.

With dangling vine tendrils and strange glowing dragonflies, this is an atmospheric place. But there is no time to linger. The sun is low in the west and I have promised Antonia a well-deserved beer by the lakeside.

P.S. You can read the results of my research in Roman Mystery XVII, The Man from Pomegranate Street...

* Antonia later fixed it for us to get a private tour of Domitian's villa. My account of it is HERE.

The Roman Mysteries books are perfect for children aged 9+ especially those studying Romans as a topic.


  1. Anonymous7:19 PM

    Dear Caroline Lawrence
    Hello,first of all! My name is Marie-Laure Corben. I am 10 yrs old.
    I have a couple of questions for you
    1. Who is your favourite character apart from Flavia ?
    2. How did you get the idea of the Roman Mysteries?
    3.Do you like the TV series of the books ?
    4. Are you a bookworm like me ?
    5. May I have your autograph ?
    6.Please could you reply ?
    Yours, very sincerely,
    Marie-Laure Corben
    Your Truly and honestly No.1 fan!!
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  2. Anonymous4:51 PM

    Salve, Marie-Laure!

    Check out my FAQS page for the answers to your questions or email me on!

    Vale. (farewell)