Travel guide to Castelli Romani: Hidden gems in the hills southeast of Rome

don’t want to turn this blog into a travel guide. This blog is about experiences, not information. But I have to switch gears this once. I have recently been touring an area outside Rome that I just can’t keep to myself any longer. It has been around for 2,000 years, inhabited by emperors and popes, ogled at by Romans and savvy Europeans. But very few Americans ever get out of Rome to marvel at this extraordinary area.

It’s called Castelli Romani. It’s a series of 14 small towns, most sporting castles (thus, the “castelli” in the title) and perched on hillsides or cliffs among the picturesque Alban Hills southeast of Rome. Less than an hour from the city, they were once used as defenses against a Pac-12 lineup of foreign invaders but now offer some of the best views in Italy.
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Saldi: Italy’s twice-annual sales near another sad end

Saldi is one of the magical Italian words few outside Italy know. But it makes Italians sprint up streets as if racing for a gold medal in the Olympic marathon. In a way, saldi represents a marathon. Saldi is Italian for “sales.” Italy has two every year. The exact dates vary by store but the months do not. The winter saldi begins the first week in January and ends in early February. The summer saldi starts the first week in July and ends …

… about Tuesday.
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Rome in August is when Romans flee and Rome is your own personal trattoria

But in Rome, one month is hugely underrated: August. I recently ripped Rome in July. It’s hot, crowded, touristy. Everyone is sweating. An empty bus seat is a rumor. However, when I turned my calendar page from Il Vittoriano to Piazza Navona, Rome changed. Half of it emptied. I’m actually sitting on buses. I’m sitting on the subway. I’m no longer twisting my body in yoga positions to avoid roller bags and gypsies’ lightning-fast hands. I’m walking down the middle of streets downtown not worried about runaway Fiats passing idling cars stuck in traffic.
Rome, in August, is fabulous.
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Reeling Rio de Janeiro still dancing to a samba beat

I love Rio.

I love its pulse. I love its vibrancy. I love its toughness. I love its softness. I love its skyline, its beaches, its weather. I even love its food. This is my third time in Rio and it’s like no other city. Besides having the most beautiful urban beach in the world, Rio de Janeiro seems to be always in rhythm. Music is everywhere. I don’t like music much, yet I can feel the locals, called, not ironically, Cariocas, constantly swaying to a distant beat. Rio is Havana with a democracy. Samba. Bossa Nova. Cariocas seem too mellowed out from constant sun, gentle waves and music to worry about pollution, corruption and crime. Every lyric of “The Girl from Ipanema” still runs through my brain on a 24-hour loop. No song outside The Beach Boys’ in Southern California better represents an area than “The Girl from Ipanema” represents Rio de Janeiro. A beautiful girl in a string bikini walking to the beach without a care in the world. To me, Rio is still that beautiful girl.
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Night 2 of Rome beer crawl reveals far reach of vastly upgraded beer scene

Night 2 of my Rome beer bar crawl needed a one-day delay. It turns out, Italy’s stronger artisanal beers carry a bigger wallop than I thought. I nursed a rare Rome hangover from Night 1 until I crawled out of bed at 9 a.m. The Excedrin I popped like Baci chocolates had about that much effect against the suffocating humidity and low-90s temperatures of a Rome heat wave that has gone way too long.

But Sunday night my thirst had returned. Rome’s weather does that to you. My second five birrerias were in my south end of Rome — one stumbling distance from my home — and went through the teeming mass of students, trendy Romans and bohemians in the twisty alleys that is Trastevere.
So before I hop a flight to Rio, here is the look of Night 2 on Rome’s burgeoning artisanal beer scene.
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Rome’s beer boom part of fastest growing beer nation in the world: Italy

Beer in Rome? Yes, there is some. There’s a lot, actually. Thanks to Agostino Arioli and Teo Musso, two Northern Italians tired of Italy’s backwater beer scene, beer bars in Rome have exploded. Eight years ago, Italy had only 70 craft breweries. Today it has 650. Rome has more than three dozen craft beer bars, known as birrerias, and just as many “bottle shops” selling nothing but bottled beer. “Nowadays, after the U.S., I think the most interesting, exciting craft beer scene is Italy,” said Arioli, who founded Birrificio Italiano, one of the top craft beer breweries in the country, in 1996.
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Arco degli Acetari a slice of Rome preserved from Middle Ages

At the end of Pellegrino is an inconspicuous archway. When I walked through I felt like I walked onto a set of a Shakespearean theater. The square was ringed by two-story orange apartments. The view of each one was nearly blocked by small trees, ferns and planters on the iron-trussed balconies. A two-wheeled cart, the kind you might see in a Renaissance festival, sat next to a front door. The cobblestone pavement led to little windy staircases. The square even has a name: the Arco degli Acetari, named for the dealers of acetato, the mineral water that came from a spring north of Rome during the Middle Ages. These houses have essentially not changed since the Middle Ages, from the 5th to 15th century AD.
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Tyrrhenian Sea hard to spell but hard to beat for beaches in steaming Rome

About 60 miles south of Rome, past the pope’s residence of Castel Gandolfo and apartment house ghetto that is Latina, lies a town where the Tyrrhenian mirrors the Caribbean. It’s where the Tyrrhenian is so clear you see fish swirling around your ankles as you wade endlessly into the gentle blue-green surf. It’s where the sand is the color of gold dust, where the sun is so huge as it sets on the horizon, you feel you can swim to the end of the earth.
[caption id="attachment_1767" align="alignright" width="1024"]
Mussolini turned the malaria-infested marshland south of Rome into beach towns such as Sabaudia. Mussolini turned the malaria-infested marshland south of Rome into beach towns such as Sabaudia.[/caption]

The town of Sabaudia was developed in the 1930s by Benito Mussolini and his band of beach fascists. In one of the positives Mussolini did while in power, he drained the malaria-infested marshland south of Rome and developed industry and communities. One of those was Sabaudia. While Mussolini’s little achievement was overshadowed somewhat by befriending Adolf Hitler, Sabaudia today is one of the nicest beach towns in Italy. Many of the rich and famous come to Sabaudia to work on their tans and drink cool white wine in the shade. Francesco Totti, A.S. Roma’s soccer hero, owns a house here and is often seen playing beach soccer with random children.

I walked along the beach that is long and wide with nary a rock in sight. A huge rock outcropping at one end reminded me of Diamond Head at the end of Waikiki Beach.

UNO. DUE. TRE STRIKES you’re out — way out — in baseball in Italy

I had not seen a baseball game since the 2013 World Series. I’d gone nearly two years without even a popup. For a guy who played the game for 10 years and covered the major leagues as a journalist for seven, I felt in need of a baseball fix. I wanted to smell popcorn in the concession stands, pine tar around the batting cage. Baseball has smells no other sport has. Unlike most sports, these smells are pleasant.

So I go to the Italian Baseball League’s All-Star Game in Bologna. This city smack dab in the middle of Italy is the capital of Emilia-Romagna, the region best known for the greatest cuisine in Italy. It is known for culotello ham cured for 36 months and Parmigianno cheese the locals eat like giant gum drops. It is not known for hulking first basemen or 95 mph fastballs. But Italy does have its pockets of interest. Bologna is one of them. I learn fast after my train from the city center drops me off in the southwest part of town. I was three kilometers from Stadio Gianni Falchi. I wonder if anyone knows what the hell Falchi is, let alone where it is. I walk into a Tabacchi shop and ask to call a taxi. The man behind the counter not only knows where the stadium is, he knows the all-star game is in town.
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In the steambath that is Rome in July, mornings on my terrace are paradise

Yes, Rome in July is awful as I wrote last week However, in the mornings it is tolerable. On my terrace, it is spectacular. On my terrace is when Rome becomes the city of my dreams. It’s where I feel like this isn’t 2015. It’s 15 AD and I’m a member of the Roman Senate, sitting above the city in obscene luxury, lounging above the great unwashed. I keep looking around for curvy peasant women in togas to feed me grapes. Alas, I feed myself cereal and eggs.
My terrace has become my sanctuary, my home in my home. It’s where I write in the mornings and entertain in the evenings.
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