The saying goes that the Italian South begins with the first petrol station below Rome, and certainly there’s a radically different feel here. Green wooded hills give way to flat marshy land and harsh unyielding mountains that possess a poor, almost desperate, look in places – most travellers skate straight through en route to Naples. But the coast merits a more unhurried route south – its resorts, especially Terracina and Sperlonga, are fine places to take it easy after the rigours of the capital. And the Pontine islands, a couple of hours offshore, are – out of high season, at least – among Italy’s undiscovered treasures. Inland, too, there are rewarding points to head for: the day-trip towns of the Castelli Romani; the peaceful retreat of Subiaco, set amid glorious scenery; and Cassino and its nearby abbey of Montecassino, where some of the fiercest fighting of World War II took place.
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Around 15km northeast of Palestrina, SUBIACO is beautifully set around a hill topped by the Rocca Abbazia castle, and close to Monte Liviato – one of Lazio’s premier ski resorts. Purpose-built for workmen on Nero’s grand villa (very meagre traces of which survive), Subiaco became the contemplative base of St Benedict in the fifth century. The hermit dwelt in a mountain cave here for three years, before leaving to found the monastery at Montecassino, but his legacy continues today in the shape of two monastic complexes just outside town. There’s nothing much to the town centre – the bets bit is arguably the riverside, where there’s a crumbling medieval bridge over the fast-flowing Aniene, footpaths, and even the chance to go canoeing.
The southern Lazio coast
The southern Lazio coast
The Lazio coast to the south of Rome is a more attractive proposition than the northern stretches. Its towns have a bit more charm, the water is cleaner, and in the further reaches, beyond the flats of the Pontine Marshes and Monte Circeo, the shoreline begins to pucker into cliffs and coves that hint gently at the glories of Campania – all good either for day-trips and overnight outings from the city, or for a pleasingly wayward route to Naples.
TERRACINA is an immediately likeable little town, divided between a tumbledown old quarter high on the hill and a lively newer area by the sea. During classical times, it was an important staging-post on the Appian Way, which meets the ocean here; nowadays it’s primarily a seaside resort with good, ample beaches and frequent connections with the other points of interest, including daily ferries and hydrofoils to Ponza. Apart from the scrubby oval of sand fringing the centre, Terracina’s beaches stretch west pretty much indefinitely from the main harbour and are large enough to be uncrowded.
The coast south of Terracina is probably Lazio’s prettiest stretch, the cliff punctured by tiny beaches signposted enticingly from the road. SPERLONGA, built high on a rocky promontory, is a fashionable spot for Roman and Neapolitan families, its whitewashed houses, arched alleys and stepped narrow streets almost Moorish in feel. Both the old upper town and modern lower district are almost given over entirely to tourists during summer, but it’s still a pleasant place, and cars are not allowed into the old centre. There are beaches either side of Sperlonga’s headland, and although a lot of space is private, it’s never too difficult to find a decent spot.
The Pontine islands
The Pontine islands
Scattered across the sea between Rome and Naples, the Pontine islands are relatively unknown to foreign travellers. Volcanic in origin, only two are inhabited – the small island of Ventontene and its larger neighbour Ponza. The latter bustles with Italian tourists, especially Romans, between mid-June and the end of August, but at any other time, it’s yours for the asking.
The group’s main island, PONZA, is only 8km long and 2km across at its widest point. Beautiful Ponza Town is heaped around the bay in a series of neat, pastel-coloured pyramids, its flat-roofed houses radiating out from the pink semicircle that curls around the fishing harbour. It makes a marvellous place to rest up for a few days, having so far escaped the clutches of designer boutiques and souvenir shops. Although the island lacks specific sights, Ponza is great for aimless wanderings; in the early evening, locals parade along the yellow-painted Municipio arcade of shops and cafés. For lazing and swimming, there’s a small, clean cove in the town.