The city is undeniably beautiful and enchanting — but it’s also very pricey, with crowds of tourists, crazy traffic and a frantic pace.
But there is a very different side to this region as I discovered on a trip to Bolsena, a town which sits midway between Rome in the north and Tuscany’s Florence in the south.
Navigating our hire car out of Florence was easy and heading towards Umbria, Tuscany and into Lazio the roads became quieter and the countryside more lush.
We passed several amazing towns sitting precariously on hilltops, built in the 8th Century BC by the Etruscans, who were the forerunners to the Romans, to keep them safe from attack.
The journey itself was beautiful. And four hours after landing we arrived in Bolsena — one of the historic towns around Lake Bolsena, the largest volcanic lake in Europe. Before exploring we headed to our villa Casa Francigena, set high above the town among olive groves and farmland. It was everything we needed. It caters for two, is a walk into the town, has its own private pool and stunning views of the lake.
The owners Maria and Massimo welcomed us with prosecco, homemade cherry tart, a fridge full of Italian goodies and a bottle of olive oil from their farm.
Finding properties for two that tick all the boxes isn’t easy but this was perfect. It had all mod cons, a big comfy bed and beautiful decoration, together with patio doors across the entire front of the building overlooking the small pool and the Lake beyond.
The walk into town is 20 minutes along small roads and you need a torch in the dark — but after dinner in Bolsena I realised the exercise was essential. Lake Bolsena is an amazing place to watch the sunset. It is so vast you feel like you’re actually at the seaside. Kids play in the sand and eat ice creams while parents relax on rented sun loungers.
I was pleasantly surprised by the prices — eight euros (£7) for a pint of Peroni and a glass of white wine, plus the nibbles of crisps and crackers that seemed to come with every drink we ordered.
The wine, Est Est Est, is produced in the area. The locals are proud of their produce. Even in a small town like Bolsena, with fewer than 4,000 inhabitants, we counted five shops specialising in local wine, olive oil, cheese and meats.
It’s the same in the restaurants which are scattered throughout the old town, which is made up of steep lanes that weave through houses and where locals sit outside and chat. These lanes open up into breathtaking piazzas with bars and pizzerias.
Restaurant Trattoria Da Picchietto has been run by the same family for decades and prides itself on sourcing local ingredients. I discovered this fact via Google Translate on my phone.
Bolsena is so pleasantly untouched by tourism from the UK that many people don’t speak English, but everybody seemed to love my shocking attempts at Italian.
We had an amazing meal of local boar with homemade fettuccine that melted in the mouth, while my partner Chris had white fish from the Lake. This along with wine, starters and pudding – and the bill was still under 50 euros (£44).
While Bolensa’s charms were hard to resist, we drove to one of the hot springs which this volcanic region is famous for — the locals use them for regular relaxation and restorative health benefits and at Il Bagnaccio we were the only tourists there.
It isn’t a posh day spa but for five euros (£4) you can spend the day splashing about in five pools of water with increasing temperatures that are fed by thermal hot springs. My skin felt super soft afterwards.
It would have been a 30-minute drive back to our Casa if we hadn’t stopped off at some of the other places that surround the lake, including Montefiascone, Marta and the amazing village of Grotte di Castro.
It dates back to the 8th Century when the old town was destroyed in battle. Grotte di Castro translates as Castrum Caves because, for a while, the locals had to live in caves. Each of the lake-side towns is rich in history and Bolsena is no exception.
The lake itself was formed following a volcanic eruption and the old town’s medieval fortress dates back to 1156.
For five euros (£4) you can look inside and there are stunning views from the towers. Your entry ticket also gets you into the local museum and aquarium in the dungeon.
In the footsteps of the fortress is Enoteca Aenos — something much more modern. This wine bar does tastings from the selection stored in their cellar carved into the volcanic rock.
There are scores of vineyards in the area but this a perfect way to find your favourite wine. Knowledgeable owner Anna asked what kind of wine we liked and then had a variety from different vineyards waiting for us in the beautiful cellar the next day.
After choosing an amazing red we sat on the steps that convert into a seating area for drinkers and ate local cheese from a rustic wooden plate.
It was wonderful to simply take in the beauty of this medieval town where time seems to have stood still — I just hope it remains like this for our next visit.
GETTING THERE: British Airways flies three times a day to Florence from both London City Airport and Gatwick, and from Manchester. From £63 one way. See britishairways.com.
STAYING THERE: Seven nights’ self-catering at Casa Francigena with Vintage Travel starts from £798 in total. Flights and car hire can be arranged by Vintage on request. For more information call 01954 261431 or visit vintagetravel.co.uk.
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