Story by Barbara Angelakis
photos by Manos Angelakis
The archetypal hero of the Odyssey, Ulysses, in Homer’s epic morality tale of folly and adventure; wisdom and foolishness; loyalty and betrayal; purportedly journeyed along the Tyrrhenian Sea, off the coast of Lazio, southeast of Rome. In Homer’s day, the waters between Greece and Italy were fraught with danger and who knew what hidden horrors awaited the adventurer willing to leave the safety of home for uncharted seas and lands. According to Homer, Ulysses found monsters, giants, and bewitching creatures galore in these waters; while on our “odyssey” we found a region filled with lovely seaside hotels, beautiful sand beaches, stunning vistas, and ancient ruins that can be explored without hoards of sightseers blocking our access or cannibalistic giants hurling rocks at us. Food from the sea, fresh as can be, and a warm friendly reception from its inhabitants make this a go-to area when visiting either Rome or Naples.
Our journey southeast of Rome centered mainly between the ancient Appian Way - the longest Roman road dating to 312 BC - and the sea, where we visited both seaside and mountaintop towns such as Formia, Gaeta, Minturno, Sperlonga, Sermoneta, Ninfa, Sabaudia, Terracina, and Norma. Rome is the largest city in the Region of Lazio and by far the most well known, but all of Lazio has a rich history that spans millennia and there are fascinating ancient and modern sights to explore once you leave Rome and head for the surrounding countryside.
By the way, for World War II buffs, the town of Latina, second largest town in the Region of Lazio, has a museum - Piana delle Orme - of rare ordinance salvaged from the fighting at Anzio, such as a Curtis P40 (Kittyhawk) and an amphibious M4 Sherman DD (also known as Donald Duck). For information visit www.pianadelleorme.it
Long a playground for both ancient and modern-day Italians, one of the many highlights of our journey was a visit to the Tiberius Villa along the Sperlonga coast. Tiberius was the second Emperor of Rome and his villa was one of opulence and indulgence where his every whim was carried out. There is little left, except the foundation walls of the villa itself, but Tiberius was a great fan of Ulysses and in a large natural cave on the site by the sea, he had built a theater for general bacchanalia and for staged performances of Ulysses’ journey. Huge statues of Cyclops the one-eyed giant, Circe the temptress, and Scylla the six-headed she-dog, along with life-size depictions of Ulysses and his men that once were set in and around the cave, have been partially restored and can be seen in the adjourning museum. The statues are Hellenistic (created by sculptors from Rhodes) and date from the 2nd-century BC. In Hesiod's Theogony we find that Circe bore to Odysseus three sons: Agrius, Latinus (after whom the area was supposedly named), and Telegonus who ruled over the Tyrsenoi, i.e. the Etruscans.
Afterwards we stopped for lunch at the beautiful Virgilio Grand seaside hotel. An infinite variety of seafood, fresh from the sea, and local specialties, fresh from the garden, greeted us in a spread fit for Tiberius himself. www.virgiliograndhotel.it
In Gaeta (world famous for its olive production), we visited Montagna Spaccata where local legend has it that the mountain split in half during Christ’s Crucifixion and a large fallen rock got lodged in the crevice over the sea without falling into the water. In 1434 a small chapel called The Sanctuary of Santa Trinita, was built over the rock commemorating the miracle at this holy place. On the walk down to the chapel between the two halves of the mountain on stairs cut into the stone, there is a hand print hollowed out of the rock face which was said to be that of a non-believer in the miracle of the split. Legend has it that when this doubting Thomas descended the stairs, his hand touched the rock which melted leaving his imprint forever deeply etched in the stone and instantly creating a miracle he could not deny.
That night we stayed in Formia, at the Grand Hotel Miramare www.grandealbergomiramare.it and dined at Osteria Chinappi on several different wonderful home-style thin crust pizzas along with buffalo mozzarella and seafood specialties of the area.
This is one of the few regions where black buffalo are raised for their milk that is used to make the buffalo mozzarella, coveted throughout the world. Buffalo mozzarella from this area will carry the DDP seal of authenticity. We visited Maina della Torre, a buffalo farm, just a short distance from the Appian Way and sampled both their mozzarella and ricotta in different stages of aging, along with smoked meats made from buffalo meat.
The ancient Roman town of Minturno still has the remnants of the agora (marketplace) and amphitheater. Italians, so used to living with thousands of years of history, have incorporated the ancient stones into their living quarters so that today from the ruins of the amphitheater it’s not unusual to see one of its current occupants watering plants or hanging laundry out to dry. Also in Minturno, we visited the Roman Cistern which has recently been rediscovered and opened to the public. Natural spring waters filled the huge brick underground vault with fresh water sufficient to maintain the city’s inhabitants even under siege. Eons ago, the spring dried up and the vault filled with debris. Now cleaned out and restored with fresh water and a floating wooden walkway, it presents a fascinating tourist attraction. Another site not to be missed is the Antiquarium (Museum) housing a vast array of sculptures and artifacts found in the city and its surrounding areas. We did not visit the new town of Minturno, built miles away on a hilltop, far from the malaria mosquitoes that decimated the old town.
Our next stop was Ninfa and a walk-through the amazing Oasi Gardens. The abandoned medieval village of Ninfa was converted into a lush garden-park meandering around natural streams and waterfalls, by the noble Caetani family in 1921. Remains of some of the original buildings add an attractive backdrop for the great variety of fauna and flora that is lovingly tended by the foundation established to maintain the garden for all posterity.
Our hotel for the next few nights was the modern Hotel Oasi di Kufra, right on the wide golden sand beach in Sabaudia, another small seaside town. The ocean-view rooms were large and comfortable with all modern amenities including individual heating and air-conditioning controls, en-suite safe deposit box, TV, radio and mini-bar. The English speaking staff was extremely cordial and accommodating and they had for us the most wonderful cappuccino, small hard rolls, fresh cheese and pastries for our breakfast. www.oasidikufra.it
Dinner was at the mountaintop village of Norma and our driver is to be commended for his ability to negotiate in the dark the series of hairpin turns that took us to Villa del Cardinale Hotel with its outstanding Restaurant Il Seminario. A large selection of local specialties were offered which included a superb soup of porcini mushrooms, chestnuts and while beans served from an immense hollowed out bread; platters of fresh roasted vegetables, local cheeses including buffalo mozzarella, jams made out of aromatic honey, olives cured in-house, prosciutto di Bassiana and carpaccio of beef. And for the pièce de résistance, the chef had roasted a succulent piglet for the occasion. www.villadelcardinale.com
We split our visit to Rome and Lazio between a big city and tiny villages; ancient ruins and modern resort hotels; between golden sand beaches and hilltop towns; bounty of the sea and harvest of the land in toothsome dishes and local wines. But with so much to see and do I can only hope that the coins I tossed with my right hand over my left shoulder into the Fountana di Trevi will work to return us to this magical land.
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