The stuff of fairytales

The stuff of fairytales

They don't call Italy the bel paese, or beautiful country, for nothing.

Spectacular monuments, awe-inspiring natural landscapes and a scintillating history that rivals those of any nation in the world make this country one of the most visually and atmospherically inspiring places on earth.

While many tourists flock to Italy for inspiration, where do the Italians go?

For those who live in or near Rome, Castelli Romani, a short distance away, is a favourite getaway.

A cluster of 13 fairytale towns dotting the volcanic area that makes up the Alban Hills in the Lazio region, Castelli Romani (which translates as Roman Castles) is so idyllic, even the Pope retreats here in summer.

A view fit for the Pope

With a name that appears to have been plucked straight from a fantasy novel, Castel Gandolfo is one of the most popular villages in Castelli Romani.

The town is most famous for being the location of the Pope's summer residence, a spacious 17th-century compound on a steep hill that can be glimpsed from the outside.

Two previous Popes breathed their last at Castel Gandolfo, which occupies the former site of the summer home of Domitian, emperor of ancient Rome from AD 81 to 86.

But for most visitors to Castel Gandolfo, it is the area surrounding the Pope's summer residence that is of greater interest.

The town overlooks Lake Albano, whose turquoise waters and hilly, forested shores can make even the most jaded of city dwellers slack-jawed.

Following the lakeside trail leads you all around the body of water and into the forest. Afterwards, a cappuccino in the charming hilltop town centre is a must.

Although tiny, Castel Gandolfo is a popular place to get married, and I saw two couples decked out in wedding finery making their way across the cobblestone square.

Singapore brides may dream of getting married in Bali or Paris, but for the Italians, Castel Gandolfo is the place to be.

Strawberry fields forever

Towns just don't get any sweeter than Nemi.

The village is renowned for its strawberriestiny taste explosions that are a fraction of the size of commercially grown ones and wonderfully sweet.

In the town centre, strawberry-themed decorations smile down from balconies adorned with fresh blooms.

The town also holds an annual strawberry festival in June, where the freshest strawberries go on sale, and visitors with a sweet tooth will have ample opportunities to overdose on all manner of treats that would turn Strawberry Shortcake herself green with envy.

Wandering around Nemi, it is hard to avoid the crates of fresh strawberries displayed enticingly in front of stores, or ignore the allure of the various kinds of ice cream and confectionery on offer, from strawberry liquor to strawberry pies.

The strawberry tart I sampled was unforgettable.

The town centre might be diminutive, but it still has room for the Ruspoli Castle, which overlooks Lake Nemi, an expanse of azure water that lies in a volcanic crater.

There is nothing quite so representative of la dolce vita as wolfing down a strawberry gelato while gazing out over the lake.

Let the good times roll

If there is one town in Castelli Romani that should win a prize for most popular nighttime hangout, it is Ariccia.

Spread out over steep slopes that will have you braking your car in alarm, the town is a popular attraction for Italians from Rome, Ostia and Fiumicino.

Every Italian town and city has its own culinary speciality, and Ariccia's is porchetta, roast pork cooked in a heady concoction of herbs.

Restaurants line the streets, clinging to slopes so steep it must have been a feat of engineering to make the floors of the eateries level.

At Dar Burino, a restaurant that for some strange reason is the darling of 20- and 30-something Roman locals, the risque decor belies the hearty meals on offer.

Cartoons of copulating couples hang on the walls, and even the banister you place your hand on looks a little suspicious.

Come with a rowdy, jovial crowd and the wait staff might even take out the restaurant's "star" prop - a 1m-long wooden phallus - as the perfect accompaniment to your group photos.

Don't let the naughty decor distract you from the food, though.

The generous antipasti platters that come with set meals will have you salivating before your first course of pasta arrives.

This article was first published on April 14, 2015.
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