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. 


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 and, after Dec. 22, on

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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La Bella Vita: Italian trains, book fairs and perfecting your pizza order

From seeing Italy by rail to ordering pizza like a true Neapolitan, our new weekly newsletter La Bella Vita offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like an Italian.

La Bella Vita: Italian trains, book fairs and perfecting your pizza order

La Bella Vita is our regular look at the real culture of Italy – from language to cuisine, manners to art. This new newsletter will be published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to newsletter preferences in ‘My Account’ or follow the instructions in the newsletter box below.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really not a big fan of dubbing: the ubiquitous Italian film voiceover which gives famous Hollywood actors voices nothing like their own and leaves their lips moving out of sync with their speech. Some people say they like dubbing as it gives them a chance to practise Italian listening skills, others say they’d rather watch Italian-made films for that purpose. Personally I think it renders films unwatchable even if you speak Italian well, since the effect is so distracting and unsettling.

Either way, you don’t get much choice at the cinema. Almost all foreign-language films are still dubbed in Italy – a practice which began in the early 20th century amid widespread illiteracy and was enthusiastically embraced by Fascist propagandists in the 1930s. It’s not clear why these voiceovers are still so popular in Italy today, but if you’re anything like me you may be pleased to know that there are, at least sometimes, alternatives. We looked at where and how you can watch films in English or other languages in Italy:

Is there a way to see films without dubbing in Italy? 

If you prefer the written word, Italy has myriad book fairs, and literary festivals held annually all over the country. They’re not always well known outside of the country, because most of these events focus on Italian writers and require good knowledge of Italian, though some feature at least a few talks in English.

There are dozens of festivals taking place up and down Italy this year. We’ve put together a small selection of the best fairs and festivals to attend in Italy in 2023 (and beyond).

Eight of Italy’s best book fairs and literary festivals in 2023

The picturesque town of Tuscania, Lazio. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

If you’re planning a trip to Rome this year, or if you live in Rome and fancy a weekend adventure this spring, the surrounding region of Lazio is absolutely brimming with fascinating places to visit just a short drive or train journey from the city.

Lazio is overlooked by most visitors in favour of its northern neighbours Tuscany and Umbria – which means many places here are often lesser known and unlikely to be crowded. We couldn’t fit all of our favourite spots onto one list, so we’ve concentrated on the northern and western areas, but please feel free to add any of your own suggestions in the comments section at the bottom of this article.

14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

Train travel is a scenic, safe and usually speedy option for hopping between major cities in Italy, particularly in the north and centre of the country. If you’re planning to use Italy’s rail network on your next trip, here’s a guide to the routes, tickets, companies, costs and everything else you’ll need to know to make sure your journey goes smoothly.

Everything you need to know about train travel in Italy

And everyone knows how to order a pizza… right? In Italy you might find this can be a slightly more complex process than expected, particularly if you venture far from the tourist trail.

Do you know your rossa from your bianca? What about the different types of impasto? Then there’s the toppings loved in Italy – but not so much elsewhere. Here are a few things to be aware of if you want to navigate the pizzeria menu like you’ve lived in Naples all your life.

Five tips for ordering pizza in Italy

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Is there an aspect of the Italian way of life you’d like to see us write more about on The Local? Please email me at [email protected]