BY THE WATERS OF LAKE BOLSENA.
Italy - Lazio
Exploring the choice pearls of an Italian paradise by camper van.
Small towns and villages steeped in history, art and delicious flavours: overlooking the waters of Lake Bolsena, near Viterbo, is a little paradise that repays slow, quality tourism.
With its ancient beauty, Europe's largest volcanic basin has always seduced travellers. The picturesque villages overlooking the lake are like the pages of a book, where at every step the visitor discovers events, tales and legends that have written the history of this part of the Lazio region. It is a wonderful natural environment just waiting to be enjoyed, in open-air activities or simple relaxation. The easiest way of doing this is to drive around the lake and explore its towns and villages, the many little pearls of what French composer Hector Berlioz defined as “a charming Eden”, one by one.
The lake takes its name from its main town, standing on the ruins of the Etruscan Volsinii, the massive walls of which are still visible, which then became a Roman "municipium” in view of its strategic site on the Via Cassia. The pretty, bustling little port of Bolsena is the right place to stop after visiting the old town itself, dominated by the Monaldeschi della Cervara Castle which dates from 1295, when the area was ruled by Orvieto and various fortresses were erected around the lake. A climb up to the castle is rewarded with a closer look at the well preserved old town, fine views of the lake and the chance to inspect craft workshops; to learn more, there is a museum inside the old fortress itself. The various sections offer a fascinating journey through time, from the geological formation of the zone by way of the first human settlements, dating from protohistory, to the splendour of the Etruscan-Roman era. There is also an entire section dedicated to the lake's biology, with aquaria reproducing the environment and displaying the main fish and amphibian species.
The Basilica of Santa Cristina has an aura of age and mysticism. It consists of three different, linked churches, built over the ancient necropolis where the town's patron saint was buried, which make up one of northern Lazio's most fascinating religious architectural complexes, with their superimposed periods and styles. The three-nave interior contains fine bas-reliefs, paintings and sculptures, as well as pagan and early Christian remains discovered during the various restoration works. Conserved in a glass case, the "Miracle" chapel houses the blood-stained stones of the ancient altar that bear witness to the Eucharistic Miracle, which made Bolsena world-famous in 1263. Tradition has it that a priest's faith in the doctrine of transubstantiation, meaning the presence of Christ in the consecrated blood and wine, was wavering. As he celebrated Mass, the hosts began to bleed, leaving inedible marks on the stones and also staining the altar cloth, or "corporal", which was taken to Orvieto, where Pope Nicholas IV ordered the erection of the splendid Cathedral in 1290 to house it.
Another story dear to the Bolsena tradition is that of Saint Cristina, one of the most important figures in Christian hagiography: martyred by her father Urban because she refused to worship the pagan gods, after horrific tortures from which she miraculously emerged unscathed she was finally pierced by an arrow. Her relics are preserved in the Basilica, in the cave of Saint Christina, accessed through the fascinating early Christian catacombs, her original burial place discovered during excavations in 1880. The festival of the Mysteries of Saint Cristina is celebrated to recall her martyrdom on the night of 23 July.
The little Venice of the lake: Marta
One of the loveliest places in the entire area is the old town of Marta. Surrounding by its old walls, it still has all its ancient beauty, with its quiet, narrow streets, archways, flights of steps and narrow alleys which seem to take us back to a different age.
The town is dominated by the clock tower - all that is left of the old castle built by Pope Urban IV in 1260 - and its nerve centre is Piazza Umberto I, with the Town Hall, Palazzo Tarquini Savelli and Palazzo Sforza Ciotti with the crest of the Farnese family over the main doorway, recalling the close link to the powerful clan who dominated these lands in the XV Century. Nearby is the Church of Santissimo Crocifisso, dating from the XVI Century: inside, it conserves the remains of a fascinating, once large cycle of frescoes about the Day of Judgement, which can be dated to the same century.
But perhaps the loveliest part of Marta is the fascinating fishermen's quarter, the mainstay of the town's economy for centuries. This is reflected by the heaps of nets and the colourful boats - flat-bottomed with a distinctive triangular shape, derived from the Etruscans - which provide a beautiful frame for the view of the lake with its islands. In 1929 a protective breakwater was built, and now the north wind no longer floods homes with lake water, forcing the inhabitants to get around by boat; this regular occurrence won the town its nickname of the little Venice of the lake.
Capodimonte, favourite residence of the Farnese
Overlooking the south-west corner of the lake is Capodimonte, also dominated by an ancient fortress: the XIV Century Rocca Farnese, designed by the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. The massive octagonal building soon became the favourite home of the Farnese family, where they entertained artists, popes and sovereigns, making Capodimonte an important hub of the political life of the time.
Here, it is certainly worth visiting the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, decorated with marvellous stucco work and an arch attributed to Vignola, and Palazzo Borghese –summer residence of Prince Marcantonio Borghese – now the Town Hall.
In historic times there were two gateways onto Piazza della Rocca, but today there is only the small, charming Porticella, which frames the view of Monte Bisenzo, site of the Etruscan town Vesentium, mentioned by Pliny the Older as one of the largest and most prosperous in southern Etruria. On the summit of the Bisenzo promontory, accessed by a short, easy walk from the lakeside road (although it is hard to find room to park a camper here), a well laid path leads to one of the finest Etruscan columbarium-tombs so far discovered.
It is also well worth visiting the Capidimonte Museo della Navigazione delle Acque Interne [Inland Waterways Museum], which displays the prehistoric canoe discovered on the island of Bisentina on 1989, and tells the story of traditional craft in central Italy. Now we have only to move on to the port of Capodimonte, the starting point of boat trips to the islands of Martana and Bisentina. In the summer months, the fittest visitors will also be able to visit them by kayak: the Capodimonte-island of Martana-island of Bisentina-return loop is about thirteen kilometres long.
Martana and Bisentina, the islands of legends
The island of Martana
The obviously volcanic island of Martana is dominated by the ruins of the old monastery of Santo Stefano. Its harsh, wild appearance gives it a distinctive beauty, heightened by the many legends that have grown up around the historic events that occurred there. It was here that Saint Cristina was martyred, and here that her body was buried after it was moved from the Bolsena catacombs to protect it from the raiding Visigoths and Lombards.
It was returned to the mainland, around the year One Thousand, by Matilda of Canossa, who built the basilica dedicated to the Saint to conserve the sacred relics. Amalasunta, the enlightened, cultured Queen of the Goths, daughter of King Theodoric, was also killed on this island by her husband Theodatus, who kept her imprisoned here. There are many ghost and mystery stories related to this place, but one seems to be grounded in reality: it is said that the underground tunnel from the island to the southern shores of the lake, used by Amalasunta, was actually an old road which once connected the island to the mainland when the water level was lower. Recent underwater explorations have confirmed this fact.
The island of Bisentina
The island of Bisentina
This island is actually claimed to contain the gateway to Agarthi, the kingdom at the centre of the earth which is home to an ancient, highly sophisticated civilisation. More realistically the lush, green island, inhabited since Etruscan times, is attractively dotted with the remains of several churches, some of them unfortunately in a state of serious disrepair.
Amongst them are the splendid Church of Santi Giacomo e Cristoforo, its dome, by Vignola, clearly visible from a boat on the lake, and the Church of Santa Caterina, known as the Rocchina due to its similarity to the castle, or "rocca", of Capodimonte, by the same architect.
Naturally, no tour of Lake Bolsena would be complete without a stop at one of the little local restaurants to savour the lake's excellent European whitefish (delicious in "martana" sauce).
Another small treasure from these waters, which is sure to encourage every visitor to make a return visit to this corner of paradise.
CAMPER STOPPING POINTS
There are many possible stopping points around Lake Bolsena:
Guadetto camper park (Via della Chiusa, tel. 0761 798972 or 328 2790397), by the lake, a few hundred metres from the town centre.
Lido Camping Village (Via Cassia Km 111, tel. 0761 799258, www.lidocampingvillage.it, open from 23 April to 30 Septmeber).
Cantina Sociale di Montefiascone equipped parking area (Via dei Grilli 2, tel. 0761 826148 o 327 8618533, www.cantinamontefiascone.it). Open round the clock all year, free access. Well lit and with water, electricity and wastewater pumpout, it is accessed striaght from the Via Cassia is is only five hundred metres from the old town.
Kornos camper park (tel. 320 0762580 o 328 5712561, lakeside between Marta and Montefiascone). Some points of the access road are narrow and unpaved.
Da Enzo camper park at Pajeto (two kilometres after the town when arriving from Viterbo), tel. 0761 871359 or 339 6454920.
Camping Perla del Lago (Viale Regina Margherita, tel. and fax 0761 873128, perladellago.it)
Agricampeggio Lagovillage (Viale Regina Margherita, tel. 340 2268646, www.lagovillage.it)