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CULTURE

Life in Italy: ‘Why I left Rome for a small lakeside village and never looked back’

Author Judith Harris gave up life in central Rome for the enchanting village of Trevignano Romano. Here she tells The Local why small borghi like hers are so popular with Italy's foreign residents.

Life in Italy: 'Why I left Rome for a small lakeside village and never looked back'
Trevignano Romano, on the shore of Lake Bracciano. Photo: Giampiero Marricchi

Having lived for thirty-four years a few steps from Piazza Venezia in the heart of Rome, I was happy as a clam to stroll past the Pantheon every day, to see all the museum openings and to jog at 6am in Piazza Navona.

And then I discovered that extraordinary institution, the borgo, which translates into hamlet, usually meaning medieval. 

One autumn an American guidebook assigned me to devise driving tours outside of Rome proper. Requiring a long lead time for publication, I had to deliver the text by Christmas. The wintry days were cold and rainy, producing the sort of dull grey misery that makes you want to stay in bed until spring. It was no easy matter to rhapsodize about a tourist venue when you can barely see beyond the swishing windshield wipers.

And then, twenty-five miles north of Rome, I came upon Trevignano Romano, a village overlooking Lake Bracciano. The fog lifted, and with it my spirits.

No place struck me as comely as this one-time fishing village, whose medieval center — its borgo — was entered through an ancient gate, which survive at today's entrance. Beautifully maintained, clean, I could see traces in windows and walls of what it was like when constructed below a fortress, its ruins overlooking the town.

I am not alone: even before the Covid-19 crisis prompted a considerable number of lifelong city dwellers to begin looking for homes far from downtown, the borgo was already being rediscovered by Italians as well as by foreign home buyers and tourists too.

READ ALSO: Could Italy's abandoned villages be revived after the coronavirus crisis?

Of Trevigano's 6,000 inhabitants, 1,000 are foreigners from the USA, UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Romania, New Zealand, Finland, Germany and elsewhere.Shortly afterward I purchased an apartment that lay only a few steps away from the borgo. That was thirty years ago, and I have never looked back. 

Within a short drive is the  historic castle at Bracciano, which once belonged to the powerful Orsini family. All around are ancient Etruscan and Roman ruins, and the town vaunts its own delightful museum of Etruscan artifacts found locally. It is part of a vast regional park.

A summer evening in Trevignano Romano. Photo courtesy of Judith Harris

Daily life is enchanting in such small towns. Its 16th-century church, affrescoed, it is believed, by Giulio Romano, actually shows a scene of the lake with farmers and boats. Every summer there is a fashion show whose models are women with disabilities. At Ferragosto celebration in mid-August, children compete in a lake fishing contest. Summer concerts and dog shows take place close to the little harbor. Lectures are on offer in the town hall, including a number this writer has organized. A boat circles the lake regularly, carrying tourists.

Restaurants offer traditional dishes made with fish from the lake itself. There is even a local, mouth-watering pizza specialty topped with anchovies and onions. Needless to say, restaurant and cafe life is lively, and there is a biweekly craft market.

This cosmopolitan town has much to teach.

The first lesson is to encourage helpfulness to others, as in its center where dogs learn, among other things, to rescue people drowning. Second is to think of the disabled, who participate in lessons in the archery center. Third is that good administration is vital; this administration is motivated by genuine love and respect for the town rather than by any political alliance.

Next is to foster care for the cultural heritage, which means maintenance of its Etruscan museum and the new construction of stairs leading uphill to the ruins of its medieval fortress that overlooks the town. To foster care for the environment means daily, carefully divided recycling.

On the personal level it is clear that small-town life encourages consideration for one's neighbor; for instance, the man who drives the elderly when they are unable to do so. 

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While those of us living in Trevignano will say, again and again, that the village is exceptional, it is not.

Photographs of Italy’s 300 historic towns with under 15,000 residents can be seen in the regularly updated book, I Borghi più belli d'Italia, which has sold almost half a million copies since the first edition in 2003.Throughout all of Italy its ancient borghi are being rediscovered, including for tourist excursions by hikers. Within the borghi are surprises; the town of Nicotera, near Naples, inspired a writer to promote the healthy Mediterranean diet, now popular worldwide, and now vaunting a museum dedicated to it.

Visitors interested in seeing these Italian borghi, and in hiking in nature parks, can contact the Associazione Italiana Guida Ambientale Escursionistiche, an association created in 1992 to promote walking tours. See their website here (in English).The towns photographed for the book are chosen by a committee of that name, on the basis of architecture, cuisine, history, panorama, culture.

About the author: Veteran freelance journalist Judith Harris is an honors graduate of Northwestern University. Her articles have appeared in Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters News Agency, ArtNews, Current World Archeology and elsewhere. She is the author of Pompeii Awakened, A Story of Rediscovery; The Monster in the Closet, a Bumpy Ride down the Genealogical Trail and Evelina, A Victorian Heroine in Venice. Learn more on her website.

About the book: Reflections from a Roman Lake: Trevignano Romano, a biography of an adoptive home, is an intimate and joyful portrait of an Italian village, whose history dates back some eight thousand years.

The village, an hour's drive north of Rome, lies on the northern shore of Lake Bracciano, whose clean and clear, deep waters fill the craters of several extinct volcanoes. The story told is about the people who have lived there as well as about the village itself, from its Etruscan origins to today's prize-winning town. The book can be purchased in Trevignano itself, on Amazon.co.uk and, after Dec. 22, on Amazon.com.

Member comments

  1. I believe this lake and town are on or near the medieval pilgrimage path, the Via Francigena, which goes all the way to St. Peter’s in Rome.

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STUDYING IN ITALY

Rome vs Milan: Which is the best Italian city for students?

Both Italian cities are home to excellent universities but they're different in many ways. So which one is best to live in as a student?

Rome vs Milan: Which is the best Italian city for students?

Italy is a great country for students, with accessible universities and some of the top schools in the world. Milan’s Politecnico and the Sapienza University of Rome, for example, are ranked among the top 100 in Europe.

A recent QS Best Student Cities ranking meanwhile named Milan and Rome as the best cities in Italy for students to live in.

But which is better, really, and why?

Of course, it depends on what you’re looking for. “Milan is a more organised city regarding the services, cleaner and open-minded, but Rome is pure magic. So it depends on your opportunities in both cities and your personality and what you can tolerate”, Sammer Salah, a 30-year-old Egyptian citizen who has lived in several Italian cities over the last four years, tells The Local.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Why Milan is a much better city to live in than Rome

The dichotomy between the organised city versus the “city with soul” is similar to known feuds between New York versus LA, Sao Paulo versus Rio de Janeiro or, as a Brit might jokingly say, “London versus anywhere Northern”, comes up often in conversations with immigrants in Italy.

What sets Milan apart?

Milan is known for being Italy’s central financial hub and the home of the Italian high fashion industry. Located in the north of the country, it’s also very well connected (by plane, train, or road) to other European countries.

Italy’s best rated university, the Politecnico di Milano.

It can also be a fun and friendly city, with many international residents, lots of cultural events and busy city life.

It’s home to Italy’s best university, the Politecnico di Milano, and surrounded by lovely towns, lakes and close to the mountains.

REVEALED: What studying in Italy is really like and what you should expect

“Milan is generally a younger city. Both have a lot of universities, but Milan has a few large universities that also cater internationally. You also have a lot more young professionals in Milan because it’s where all the industry is”, says Carlos Diaz, who is from the United States and has lived in both Italian cities.

What sets Rome apart?

Rome is, of course, Italy’s capital and one of the most historical cities in the world. Some students say it has a more relaxed atmosphere when compared to busy Milano and the Italian city also gets praise for its cultural importance and beauty.

The capital is also well connected to other Italian cities and you can easily find cheap flights to many European destinations. Even though it doesn’t near other countries like Milan (Rome is located almost in the middle of Italy), it is closer to the sea – and to the famous Italian beach destinations in the south.

READ ALSO: Five things to know before you apply for an Italian student visa

“Milan is more organised when it comes to offices, traffic, people in general, but Rome has so much more soul, the people, sunsets, the eternal city, the vibe”, writes fashion editor Margherita, who added: “In my 20s, I would have chosen Milan for sure, in my 30s, Rome”.

What about the cost of living?

When it comes to the cost of living, Milan is, in general, more expensive than Rome. It has a reputation for being pricey, especially compared to other Italian cities – including the capital.

Rent can also set you back quite a bit.

A one-bedroom apartment in Milan’s city centre costs, according to Numbeo’s cost of living database, an average of around €1,240, which is 29 percent higher than Rome.

But on the other hand the infrastructure is fantastic, and Milan has one of the best public transport systems in Italy.

READ ALSO: Ten things to expect when renting an apartment in Italy

Overall you’d need a monthly income of €3,442 in Milan to maintain the same standard of living that you’d have on €3,000 in Rome, according to Numbeo.

While most things are more expensive in Milan, as salaries tend to be higher, local purchasing power in the northern city is also higher than in Rome.

The QS Ranking

The QS ranking uses the opinions of current international students in cities with more than 250,000 people and home to at least two universities featured in the QS World ranking.

They evaluate a series of indicators relating to university rankings, student mix, “desirability”, which includes questions like what are the pollution levels and how safe is the city, employer activity, affordability and “student voice”, with questions like what proportion of students continue to live in the city after graduation.

Milan and Rome did well in the survey, but Milan ranked higher in the top 50 best student cities while the Italian capital was among the top 100.

See more in The Local’s studying in Italy section.

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