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Most tourists are so busy “oohing and aahing” at the Eternal City’s infinite list of must-see landmarks that they feel there is little time left to explore the surrounding area. Allow us to present Castel Gandolfo in what is known as the Castelli Romani territory. This charming town less than an hour’s train ride from Roma Termini is situated on the vulcanic Lake Albano and, frankly, is quite magical.
From the Capital of the Latin League to a Papal Retreat
As if Castel Gandolfo’s Medieval history weren’t enough to impress us, come to find out, popular belief is that it dates to the year 1200 BC when it was called Alba Longa and was founded by Ascanius, son of the Trojan hero, Aenus. It was the capital of the Latin League (ancient Italic peoples) until it was conquered by Rome in the seventh century BC. In Rome’s Republican era between the second and first century BC, the area became a retreat for Rome’s wealthy and was the perfect spot for their luxurious villas.
Fast forward about twelve hundred years to the Middle Ages when the Gandolfi nobles from Liguria built the castle and enriched the village. By the 1600s, Castel Gandolfo became a Papal retreat and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (as in, St. Peter’s Square) was commissioned to build the church of San Tommaso and the fountain in the town’s main square. In 1929, the castle was officially returned to the Vatican.
Some of Rome’s most notorious emperors had their summer residences here including Nero, Caligula, and Domitian. Sometime between the years of 81 and 96 AD, Emperor Domitian built a grand villa between Lake Albano and Via Appia. Domitian spent the vast majority of the year at this massive fifty-five-hectare property. Over the centuries, the villa was basically taken apart piece by piece and its precious marble and other materials were utilized for other villas and palaces. Reconstructions prove that Domitian’s cryptoporticus (a covered corridor) was the grandest of all of antiquity at an astounding 300 meters long. Some of the ruins from the villa can still be seen in the gardens of the Papal Villa as well as inside where some archaeological pieces are displayed.
More to See
In the main square, in addition to Bernini’s fountain, you can also see the Apostolic Palace (also called the Papal Palace) designed by Maduro which is where the Pope stays when he visits with the exception of Pope Francis who has made a few visits but has never stayed overnight). The Town Hall and the Church of Saint Thomas (1661) are also here. Don’t miss the terrace right next to the Apostolic Palace for a stunning view of the lake and surrounding landscape.
The Apostolic (Papal) Palace, the Papal Villas (Villa Pontificia) and their gardens, and the ancient observatory (known as the Specola Vaticana) can all be visited. We have provided a link here to help speed up the process as it can be quite confusing.
Weather permitting, make sure and allow time to stroll around Lake Albano and its many cafes, restaurants, and shops. From May through September, both lakes Albano and nearby Nemi are open for swimming and various water sports. The Castelli Romani area is also very popular among hikers and cyclists and the Via Francigena also passes through here. Summer festivals abound, including a very famous peach festival in July.
So take a one-day detour from chaotic Rome and visit Castel Gandolfo, one of Italy’s Most Beautiful Villages. You will be so glad you did!