Herbal perfume drifts up from the ground, released from scrubby leaves by my every footfall. A warm breeze rattles the thick bayleaves dangling overhead, framing peek-a-boo views of a grand, dilapidated chapel. Meanwhile, to my left, egrets and black cormorants wheel round a pale gold cliff that plunges into brilliant blue water. I’m strolling round what’s been described as the most beautiful island on any lake in the world: Isola Bisentina, on Lake Bolsena. It’s the ‘plug’ of a prehistoric volcano – a hardened column of molten rock left standing after a final eruption, lingering for millennia after every other bit of the volcano has vanished.
Gazing across the glittering water beside me, to the gentle green slopes beyond it, it’s hard to imagine the prehistoric violence of this place. A million years ago, this scene was a maze of volcanic cones constantly spurting lava. They chucked out so much stuff they emptied the ground beneath them, creating a vast underground hollow that collapsed with a deafening whump to form a gigantic crater. Natural springs slowly filled that crater to make Lake Bolsena – the cleanest lake in Europe. (You can drink from it.) For all its present-day serenity, reminders of the lake’s explosive past are everywhere – in the million tiny filaments of black volcanic glass that make the beaches, and in the stupendous fertility of the surrounding hills, teeming now with fruit and flowers.
Set in an unspoilt, gently undulating stretch of countryside at the meeting point of Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria, it’s no surprise that Lake Bolsena has quietly bloomed in popularity over the last couple of decades. Just seventy miles from Rome, and offering considerably better swimming than the coast near the capital, the lake has long been a summer bolthole for hot and bothered Romans. But increasing numbers of northern Europeans come here now too – drawn by the peace, the rural beauty, and the overwhelming friendliness of the lakeside towns.
Only three settlements occupy Lake Bolsena’s thirty-mile shoreline, the biggest and arguably the loveliest being Bolsena itself. It's a town of palpable contentment – well-maintained, litterless, crime-free. For the benefit of just four thousand inhabitants, a fairytale castle rises above a tangle of medieval lanes, proud Renaissance houses gaze across friendly squares, and tree-lined boulevards lead down to clean beaches. For visitors, a handful of low-rise hotels dot Bolsena’s waterside, the long spaces between them enlivened by flowerbeds, white balustrades, and inviting outdoor cafés.
Like everywhere else in this area, the Etruscans got here first. They christened their little bit of paradise ‘Velzna’, which Roman mouths mangled into ‘Volsinii’ and subsequent centuries into ‘Bolsena’. 2,500-year-old Etruscan tombs pepper the hills above Bolsena, but Roman remains are more abundant. The Romans drove their main highway running north to the Alps, the Via Cassia, straight through little Bolsena – and made a holiday resort of the place even then.
I take a stroll round an excavated section of Roman ‘Volsinii’ in a pretty meadow lying just above the medieval part of town. There’s a forum, a ruined basilica, and two private houses adorned with frescos and mosaics. It’s a tranquil, almost bucolic archaeological site – ringed by olive groves framing pretty views of the lake’s electric blue. Fallen columns lie watched over by the timeless black silhouettes of cypress trees, and capitals litter the scrub grass. I crouch to trace my fingers over a tiny palm branch carved into one of the forum’s paving stones. An early Christian would have carved this esoteric graffito, subversively signalling his or her new-fangled religion to fellow secret converts.
Leaving the excavations, I wander further up the hillside and crash around in farmers’ fields, following some of the giant-cobblestoned Roman roads that rattle off into the undergrowth in perfectly straight lines. These are the long-forgotten streets of the ancient city, arranged in a grid and all oriented north-south or east-west. Lying in their midst, completely unsignposted, are the remains of a small amphitheatre – built around the same time as the Colosseum in Rome. Most visitors to Bolsena never learn of its existence, and many locals couldn’t tell you how to find it.
But I do find it. Tall lumps of ancient concrete and diamond-pattern brickwork sitting undisturbed on the edge of a field. The rest is completely concealed beneath trees, surrounding a flat oval arena now covered in long grasses. Thus the bowl shape of the amphitheatre is perfectly retained, but rendered in vegetation. A casual peek under the skirt of branches reveals the dirt-submerged slope of seating, with bits of stone poking through the soil. Wild pink cyclamen are growing quietly in the shade here, precisely where spectators once sat. I imagine the relaxed, confident people of Volsinii lapping up some clownish spectacle or murderous contest in this place, none of them thinking that in two thousand years’ time someone would be wandering over the half-buried ruins of the venue, marvelling at its antiquity and at the impossibly archaic lives of those who used it.
Bolsena’s position on the old Roman Via Cassia, plus its home-grown martyr St. Cristina, ensured that many centuries of Rome-bound pilgrims made a stopover here, swelling the town and its importance. A local miracle boosted things considerably in 1263, and still provides the excuse for Bolsena’s most colourful annual festival – the Infiorata, held every year in early summer. The medieval streets are lined with a million flower petals fashioned into elaborate pictures and patterns, then a lively procession transports sacred relics over the pretty carpet and transforms it to damp mush.
It’s wonderful to watch. From early morning the whole town is on the streets, kneeling on the cobbles sketching outlines, hefting boxes of petals separated into piles of colour, and patiently putting the soft blobs into place. By mid-afternoon, bright swathes of pictures are already visible around the feet of the happy labourers – huge ambitious portraits of Christ, biblical scenes, cherubs, intricate floral patterns painstakingly repeated over hundreds of yards. Out-of-town visitors start drifting in, gasping and angling cameras, squeezing sweatily past the locals who work in an escalating, ecstatic panic down on the ground.
And then at 6pm, with the very last petal thrust into place, solemn chaos begins up in Piazza Santa Cristina. Ragged-edged groups of worthies teem out of the church into a thick crowd and try to commence the procession. No one takes charge, no one quite knows what’s going on, and there’s a lot of stopping and starting. A clutch of priests gaze round in their sunglasses for guidance. Pious matrons with lace headgear inch hesitantly forward in short skirts and steep heels. A gigantic wooden cross sways worryingly above bright, embroidered banners. Then a marching band starts a fumbling tune, and everything lurches forward. For two hours the dense, messy parade shuffles round the town, churning flower petal pictures into abstracts underfoot.
The day after the Infiorata, with Bolsena calm again and swept clean of all petals, I climb on a bike and set out for Capodimonte fifteen miles away on the opposite side of the lake. These days the Roman Via Cassia is a modestly busy A-road flanked by pretty countryside. I turn off it after a couple of miles, and follow a series of tiny roads skirting the western shore. There are few homes here – just small fields of crops vividly green against the deep brown soil and the cobalt blue water. Olive trees wave their friendly silver leaves as I pass, and I smile at the occasional picnicker and swimmer enjoying the sun.
Before the final whiz down toward Capodimonte, I must climb a single massive hill. Now just a smooth green dome dotted with bales of hay, Monte Bisenzio was the site of an Etruscan town 25 centuries ago. They’ve pulled some wonderful Etruscan artefacts out of the ground here, I know – a bronze cart, a pair of sandals, even a rudimentary set of dentures. Slogging up the hill on foot, pushing my bike, I spot a young deer sprinting across the hilltop and into the woods. I think of all the wildlife that quietly lives around the lake, and remember the black-and-white-striped porcupine quills I’ve often picked up on the edges of fields.
Freewheeling at giddy speed down towards Capodimonte, Bisentina Island looms close to the shore and I snatch admiring glances at its single grand church poking through the trees – the ageing dome a patchwork of rusty greys, the walls a weathered patina of pinks and oranges. ‘The most beautiful island on any lake in the world.’ Yes, but what of the lake itself? Surely among the world’s most beautiful? In Capodimonte, I sprawl on a bench with an ice cream, admiring the town’s colourful pile of medieval homes rising on a little promontory. Modest yachts ply in and out of a tidy marina, and I hear the shouts of children larking around on the nearby sand. Far across the water, golden now in the late afternoon light, little Bolsena casts up its jaunty roofs and pinnacles. A fairytale town, on a magical lake.
LE NAIADI PARK HOTEL
Viale Cadorna, 95, Bolsena
+39 0761 799017 / 796315
This modern, family-run hotel enjoys a prime position beside Bolsena’s main beach. It’s a quiet, leafy location, and the hotel has a relaxed, al fresco atmosphere. Rooms are smart and cheery, and some have balconies. There are two pools, and a large, elegant dining room.
Double rooms from €60
CONVENT OF SANTA MARIA DEL GIGLIO
Via Madonna del Giglio 49, Bolsena
+39 0761 799066
By renting out very simple rooms at rock-bottom prices, this 17th century convent pays for the upkeep of its cloistered, frescoed premises. Set amidst vineyards and olive groves on a hillside with lake views, Bolsena and its beaches are a pleasant walk away. Guests can pay a small supplement to use the kitchen and dining room.
Double rooms from €37
Via Cassia (SS2), km 119,800, Localita Valleponte SNC
+39 334 312 2943 / +39 334 216 3231
Enjoying magnificent views over the lake, this lovely renovated farmhouse sits amidst vineyards, olive groves and fruit orchards from which the kindly Norwegian owners make wine, oil and other produce for their guests. Inside, ten en suite rooms (each with balcony or patio) are decorated in a romantic Italian style enlivened with nice modern touches.
Double room from €100
Via Cassia, eastern lakeside
+39 0761 799538
This old stone farmhouse with beautifully converted outbuildings sits in 10 hectares of fruit orchards about 4km south of Bolsena. Accommodation is in 8 apartments, each with 1, 2 or 3 bedrooms. There’s a large restaurant with a vaulted ceiling, and a 150m path leads through kiwi groves to a private beach.
Double room from €57
THE YELLOW HOUSE
+39 0761-780925 / +39 340 5043468
This lovely secluded farmhouse in wine-making countryside just a few miles from Bolsena enjoys beautiful views. It’s set in ten acres of private land, and can accommodate up to fourteen people. Facilities include a 15-metre pool and an outdoor pizza oven.
HOTEL URBANO V
Corso Cavour 107, Montefiascone
+39 0761 831094
Welcoming and undeniably elegant, this renovated palazzo on a steep street in Montefiascone has spacious and very comfortable rooms. Antiques and ancient artefacts are dotted about reception and bar areas. There’s a vaulted dining room, and an assortment of lovely sun terraces – one offering breathtaking panoramic views all the way to Umbria.
Double room from €80
LIDO CAMPING VILLAGE
Via Cassia, eastern lakeside
+39 0761 799258 / 797048
This large and very orderly campsite offers every facility on a private stretch of beach 1km south of Bolsena. An attractive lakeside footpath takes you into town in fifteen minutes. There’s a pool, bar, restaurant, supermarket, disco, cinema, games room, and tennis courts. Apartments, bungalow and mobile homes are also available on site.
Camping from €17, apartments from €48
Viale Cadorna 10, Bolsena
+39 0761 799096
With a terrace looking west across the lake, La Sirenetta commands the best spot in Bolsena for watching the sunset. The food is simple but very good – and inexpensive enough to enjoy lots of courses. Try the seafood or asparagus risotto, the roasted coregone (white lakefish), and don’t miss the cipolline balsamiche (sweet onions pickled in balsamic vinegar).
Meal for two about €35
Viale A. Diaz 48, Bolsena
+39 0761 799801
Undoubtedly Bolsena’s finest restaurant, set on a quiet, leafy spot beside the water and surrounded by flowery patios. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed, and the food is stupendous. Special taster menus allow you to sample all sorts of creative things deftly done with fish and seafood. Look out for a show-stopping linguine with lobster and cherry tomatoes.
Meal for two about €60
Corso Cavour 56, Bolsena
+39 0761 798979
A snug little den in the heart of Bolsena’s medieval lanes, with good food at rock-bottom prices. The pizzas are a marvel - delicious, crisp, and painfully filling. Far bigger than the giant plates, they lollop comically over the edges and drape across the tablecloths. The place is always well-attended, so they’re obviously getting something right!
Meal for two about €25
LA CARROZZA D’ORO
Lungolago 95, Montefiascone
+39 0761 823157
Far out of the centre of town, you’ll enjoy the dramatic route you have to take to reach this restaurant – steeply descending from Montefiascone through pretty farmland to a quiet stretch of lakeshore. In a cool tiled dining room, a friendly English-speaking hostess and her staff serve amazing fish and seafood.
Meal for two about €40
Via Dante Alighieri 3, Montefiascone
+39 0761 826137
When you tire of the lake area’s excellent seafood, this cosy family-run restaurant is the place to come; it specialises in succulent meats roasted slowly over an open fire. Sited just a short distance from Montefiascone’s spectacular belvedere, you can stroll along and enjoy one of the best views of the lake before or after dinner.
Meal for two about €40
BASILICA OF SANTA CRISTINA
Built slowly over several centuries, Bolsena’s main church has a pretty frontage of pale stone decorated with delicate carvings. Inside, you can descend into eerie, 3rd-century Roman catacombs. Hundreds of horizontal niches for bodies, stacked vertically along branching corridors, have been carved underground into soft volcanic rock. Some of the lower tombs remain sealed with mortar, traces of frescoed portraits and inscriptions still poignantly visible upon them.
CAPODIMONTE & MARTA
By day or at night, Bolsena’s medieval streets are an intensely atmospheric place to wander. The narrow cobbled lanes wind up steps and under archways, emerging at a 13th-century castle which crowns the town. Tiny shops, private homes, cafés and artists’ studios add colour and interest en route. Make sure you climb up the little Via delle Piaggie – a long, secret-seeming passageway which runs straight through a strange chapel and includes various Etruscan and Roman features.
The lake’s largest island has long provided a peaceful escape – for the Etruscans fleeing the Romans, for locals hiding from Saracen invaders in the Dark Ages, for medieval monks seeking retreat from the material world, and for Renaissance popes seeking relief from the heat and politics of Rome. It’s an exquisite, garden-of-Eden-like place teeming with unusual wildlife. Boat trips with guided tours run regularly in the summer.
The excavations of Roman-era Bolsena lie in a field a short distance from the castle. It’s a quiet and pretty place to wander – olive trees ring its periphery and there’s no excess of archaeological bumf to slow your wanderings down with too much reading. A paved forum features palæo-Christian graffiti, and two ancient villas sport frescos, mosaics and marble floors. Fallen columns prettily litter the grass.
These two neighbouring towns on the southwest side of the lake are well worth a day’s exploration – and you can walk along a deserted stretch of shoreline to get from one to the other. Both have a clutch of quiet, intriguing medieval lanes, plus a modest church or two. Capodimonte has by far the better beach – a long stretch of sand beside inviting water. But Marta has arguably the better choice of restaurants.