Rome Travel Guide

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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bicycling in Rome's Countryside: Circling Lago di Bracciano for Fun and Food

Peggy and John Preissing enjoying a gelato
on the boardwalk at Anguillara.

RST does not bicycle. So we asked John Preissing, whose bicycle has seen most of Rome’s streets and much of its hinterland, to write something for us on the sport as it is practiced in Rome and environs. In this post, John joins his wife, Peggy, and daughter Kathleen on an excursion around Lago di Bracciano, perhaps best known for its eel population. Both veterans of the Peace Corps, John and Peggy have lived in Rome (Garbatella) for three years. Peggy teaches first grade at Ambrit, an international school in Rome with a diverse student body. Kathleen has just finished her sophomore year at the Rome-based John Cabot University, located in Trastevere. John works at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, where his specialty is the improvement of agriculture research and extension programs in developing countries. He’s written on bicycling—and local eateries—for Pedals and Forks.

Biking in and around Rome can be a serious undertaking, or as one friend has described it, foolhardy. Tragic accidents in Rome between bikes and cars occur with unfortunate frequency. Two women were killed in separate incidents over the past year. The BiciRoma bike club is a strong advocate for bikers’ rights and for improving the access and safety of bicyclists around Rome. Its President, Fausto Bonafaccia, is a tireless backer. According to him, Rome’s elected officials are only slowly coming around to the traffic, health, and energy arguments in favor of biking as opposed to seeing bikers as a nuisance. I should add that Rome’s transportation department (ATAC) has recently refocused its mission on mobility, not car transportation, and now operates the city’s free bike sharing program.

Bracciano  - the town, the castle, the lake
Once you gather your courage to ride around Rome on a bicycle it’s amazing how quickly the city opens up. In fact, one game we play is to see how long it takes someone during normal traffic to get from point A to point B in the city. Almost always the bike wins. Other than the indifferent Dutch and stylish Italians, everyone wears helmets and I would always recommend it. Additionally, a reflector on your bike, a light in the front, and something bright would be good to wear. But I do mean for this posting to be about biking and not about preparations or the fear of biking. A recent trip we took to Lago di Bracciano-- a large volcanic lake about 35 km (22 miles) northwest of the city-- highlights how lovely it is to ride in and around Rome.

The best way to get to Lago di Bracciano is via the regional train to Viterbo, taking it from the Ostiense train station. Buy a ticket for yourself and one your bike (either 3.50 Euros or the same price as your passage, whichever is cheaper). Buy your return tickets, too, because it can be hard to find a tabbacheria (the stores with a big “T” out front) near the trains in Bracciano. Regional trains, like the one to Bracciano, accept bikes every day of the week and the trains are supposed to have one carriage with bike racks. However, some trains don’t have the carriage so the bikes are in the corridors. The ride takes about 45 minutes, passing through the most intense urban and upscale suburban neighborhoods before reaching the town of Bracciano—also, of course, the name of the lake.

The town has one of the loveliest castles in the vicinity of Rome and really must be visited, either before or after the bike ride.

Getting to the lake from the station takes 10 minutes, all downhill. (There will be an uphill, but that’s for later.) An ideal place to start is at the Bracciano lakeside, heading east (counterclockwise). The lake is 36 kilometers (22.4 miles) in circumference. It is a favorite for Romans escaping the heat and the crowded beaches of the coast. In some ways, the lake’s shore culture is more blue collar than some of the seaside towns. The small lakeside town of the Bracciano lido has a string of restaurants, campgrounds, kayak rentals, and a skimpy beach of crushed rocks. It is lovely to sit out on the lakeside restaurants, but for most riders this is a place to start, not stop.

Anguillara, seen from the road to Trevignano.

An ideal thing about riding around Bracciano is that it is a relatively short ride with just two or three hills to challenge the rider. And, invariably each hill is followed by a delight. The first stretch takes about 30 minutes to reach Anguillara. This 10 km (6 mile) portion has some great vistas - and, oddly, a national air force museum - until it descends to the seaside town of Anguillara, made famous by films directed by Fellini and Rossellini. It’s easy to see how Anguillara attracted Fellini, with its beautiful boardwalk and town leaning heavily towards the sea. We always stop here and enjoy the first gelato of the day. The Il Gabbiano provides great gelato artigianale (homemade) with the standard flavors but an unbeatable view.
Eels decorate an Anguillara fountain.

Historically, Anguillara was known for its fishing and, of course, eels. In spite of the actual presence of eels (eel is anguilla in Italian), historians say the town’s name is from the angle at which it juts out into the lake. Today, a number of restaurants and small resorts crowd the lakeside.

Rather than just leaving town, I’d recommend riding (more likely walking if you are like me) to the top of the town to see the outstanding views from the courtyard of the Church of Assunta. Up above the lake, Anguillara has a less spectacular residential area; many people commute from there to Rome.

Descending again, continue towards Trevignano, about 15 km (9 miles), or roughly an hour along the coastal road. There are stupendous views back towards Anguillara. About 5 km before arriving in Trevignano, a bike path emerges on the right side of the road, away from the lake. It is just in time, as the road narrows and traffic picks up. Just before entering town, pass by the piccolo San Bernadino church, built in 1452 to commemorate where the saint-in-the-making preached. The last time we passed by it was being set up for a wedding.

Squid (calamari), a favorite of Kathleen
Preissing.  Trevignano, with the
lake in the background.
 Trevignano’s downtown is the most picturesque of the three cities along the lake. With a population of 5,000 it hosts summer events, scores of restaurants, and boutique shops that are nestled in the ancient town. Trevignano also offers free bikes for use while in town and parking on the outskirts to ease traffic. We always make two stops when we are there: first to the open water-fountain troughs, similar to Rome’s nasoni, but much bigger; and second to Casina Bianca, at the far end of town and our favorite restaurant on the lake. Try the fried calamari antipasto.

After relaxing over white wine and a pasta dish it is hard to get motivated for the final 10 km leg back to Bracciano, especially since the route includes the second largest ascent of the ride. Nonetheless, passing by the small hilltop restaurant and viewpoint of Mont Rocca Romana makes it worthwhile. Upon returning to the lakeside of Bracciano, water or beverage of choice is available at the many seaside locales.

I began this post by noting that the downhill ride from the actual center of Bracciano to the lake was a breeze. It definitely is not a breeze going back up, and most people walk their bikes part of the way. Give it a try and return to the station for the afternoon trip back to the Ostiense station in Rome. For those with remaining time (and energy), consider a visit to the Odescalchi Castle (ca.1475) in Bracciano. It looms over the city and has connections to Popes, soldiers, statesmen, and celebrities (Martin Scorsese and Isabella Rossellini, and more recently Tom Cruise and Katy Holmes, were married in there). The castle itself is worth another post.

John Preissing

A PS from Dianne - An early post of ours mentions the water from Lago di Bracciano arriving via aqueduct (Acqua Paola) in Rome to much fanfare in the early 17th century, only to be declared really lousy.  And another features a photo of a building on the outskirts of Rome with yet another eel trap.

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