We talked all summer about going to the beach near Rome, but from the end of June to the end of August, we had only two free weekends, and we never got there. Last Friday afternoon, after two days of rain in Rome, we drove south to Sabaudia. Although Sabaudia is supposedly an hour from Rome, it took us nearly two hours because of the weather and rush-hour traffic.
I grew up on the Pacific Ocean, and I’m always happiest at the shore. I get lost in the rhythm and roar of the waves, the smell of saltwater, and the sparkle of 100,000 diamonds dancing on the sea. Give me a few shells to collect, and I’m a happy puppy! And so it was at the beach in Sabaudia.
We arrived at our hotel (Hotel le Dune), which was so close to the sea that it was practically IN it, and promptly went for a walk on the beach. The beach at Sabaudia is long (about 12 miles) with beautiful, fine sand; lots of seashells; and the blue Tyrrhenian Sea, which is unusually clean in Sabaudia. Our room looked out on the ocean, and we opened a half bottle of prosecco and watched the sun set. Glorious!
Sabaudia is one of several towns built by Benito Mussolini (Il Duce) on the reclaimed, previously mosquito-infested Pontine Marshes. According to Wiki, Mussolini did this “so that the fascist regime could demonstrate the draining of the marshland, as well as provide housing communities for the increasing urban populations of Italy’s large cities.” Sabaudia was completed in 1934 and doesn’t look like any Italian city that I’ve seen so far, with its straight, wide streets laid out in a grid. Mussolini’s efforts left central Italy with several new beach towns and beautiful, verdant farmland filled in autumn with grapes and zucchini. A huge mosaic at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Annunciation in Sabaudia, depicts Mussolini gathering wheat (which he actually did).
On Saturday we hit the beach early, sunbathed, and swam in the warm sea. To the south, Monte Circeo juts into the sea. Although it’s only 1,775 feet high, it dominates the landscape from the Sabaudia shoreline, as well as from the cities that lie south of the mountain in the Gulf of Gaeta.
On the south side of the promontory lies the town of San Felice Circeo, which became our favorite hangout. San Felice Circeo includes a small hill town and a more modern port area, which we didn’t see. We went to the old town for dinner at Trattoria il Grottino on Friday evening, and we gaped as we entered the main town square—the little town looked just like a movie set! It was still beautiful when we saw it again on Sunday, but at night, it was magical.
Trattoria il Grottino specializes in fresh seafood, which is not surprising given San Felice Circeo’s proximity to the sea. Some of Michael’s colleagues recommended the restaurant. Thank you! We dined on some of the best seafood that we’ve had in Italy: mussels in black pepper sauce were sweet (the mussels) and tangy (the delicious sauce), and we made short work of a huge bowl of them (I wanted more!); pasta with seafood was excellent; and filetto di sogliola alla mugnaia (filet of sole meuniere) was perfectly cooked and tasted like it was right out of the sea. Happiness!
In fact we were so happy that we returned to Trattoria il Grottino for lunch on Sunday and had the mussels again. I also had sole again and wanted it alla mugnaia, but the waiter wouldn’t let me—I had to have it grilled, which was also good but not so good as Friday’s dish. Michael had a lovely white fish, but I can’t remember the name.
Before we ate lunch on Sunday, we drove partway up Monte Circeo and were rewarded with beautiful views of the sea. On the way back down the hill, we spotted the San Felice Circeo cemetery and wandered through it for a half hour or so. I find cemeteries fascinating and especially love the enormous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where Jim Morrison, Colette, and Chopin, among thousands of others, are buried. Perched on a hillside overlooking the sea, the cemetery in San Felice Circeo is charming, fascinating, and peaceful. Instead of burying people in the ground, caskets are simply laid one on top of the other and cemented together—a sort of hotel or condominium for the dead, if you will. Ladders are scattered throughout the cemetery to allow the caretakers (and family perhaps?) to reach the upper levels. Low-watt lights and pictures of the dead adorn the ends of the caskets, and flowers are everywhere—most of them artificial. The cemetery has a small chapel, and announcements of memorial services for the dead are posted next to the cemetery’s front gate.
After the cemetery we went strolled through San Felice Circeo, ending up in a lovely city park overlooking the sea. Speedboats were zooming along the shore, and we eventually realized that we were watching a race. It turns out that we were watching the First Grand Prix of San Felice Circeo, a two-DAY endurance boat race. It was great fun until we got hungry and retreated to Trattoria il Grattino for lunch.
On our way out of town, we stopped at Il Gelatone for gelato (coffee for me), again because of a recommendation by a colleague of Michael’s. Perfetto! Just like the rest of the weekend!