Blissed-out on Lake Bolsena

by Fleur.Kinson

Other Italian lakes may be more famous, but little-known Lake Bolsena in northern Lazio is an unspoilt paradise, with fertile countryside, friendly people, ancient ruins and charming medieval towns

A warm breeze rattles the bayleaves dangling overhead, framing peek-a-boo views of a grand, dilapidated chapel. To my left, black cormorants wheel squealing round a pale gold cliff that plunges into bright blue water. I’m standing on 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, it’s hard to imagine the prehistoric violence of this place. A million years ago, this scene was a maze of volcanic cones 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 and made Lake Bolsena – the cleanest lake in Europe. (You can drink 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 fill the beaches, and in the stupendous fertility of the surrounding hills, teeming now with fruit and flowers.

Set in an unspoilt, 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 decade or two. Just 70 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 friendliness of the lakeside towns.

Only three settlements occupy Lake Bolsena’s 30-mile shoreline, the largest and loveliest being Bolsena itself. It’s a town of palpable contentment – well-maintained, litterless, crime-free. For the benefit of just 4,000 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 round here, the Etruscans got it going. They christened their little bit of paradise ‘Velzna’, which Roman mouths mangled into ‘Volsinii’ and subsequent centuries into ‘Bolsena’. The hills above Bolsena are peppered with 2,500-year-old Etruscan tombs, but Roman remains are more abundant. In a pretty meadow just above the medieval core of Bolsena, excavations of Roman Volsinii include its forum, a basilica, and private houses adorned with frescos and mosaics. It’s a tranquil, almost bucolic archaeological site – ringed by olive groves backed by the lake’s electric blue. Fallen columns lie watched over by the timeless black silhouettes of cypress trees, and capitals litter the scrub grass. Blissed-out with sunshine, 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 made this esoteric graffito, subversively signalling his or her new-fangled religion to secret fellow converts.

Leaving the excavations, I wander up the hillside and crash around in farmers’ fields, pursuing giant-cobblestoned Roman roads that rattle off into the undergrowth in perfectly straight lines – the long-forgotten streets of the ancient city. Lying in their midst, completely unsignposted, are the remains of a small amphitheatre, built about the time of the Colosseum. Exposed lumps of ancient concrete, the rest concealed beneath trees surrounding a flat oval arena covered in long grasses. A peek under the branches reveals dirt-submerged slopes of stone, and wild pink cyclamen turning their faces where spectators once sat.

Bolsena’s position on old roads to Rome, plus its home-grown martyr St. Cristina, ensured that centuries of pilgrims stopped here. A local miracle further boosted its religious cachet in 1263, and still provides the excuse for Bolsena’s most colourful annual festival: the ‘Infiorata’, held every year in early summer. Medieval streets are lined with a million flower petals fashioned into elaborate pictures and patterns, then a colourful procession transports sacred relics over the pretty carpet and transforms it to damp mush.

From early morning the whole town is on the streets, kneeling on 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. 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 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 headwear 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 town, churning flower petal pictures into abstracts underfoot.

The next day, Bolsena swept clean of petals, I cycle toward peaceful Capodimonte on the opposite side of the lake, down tiny roads skirting the western shore. There are no houses – just small fields of crops vividly green against the chocolate soil. Olive trees wave their silver leaves as I pass, and I smile at the occasional picnicker and swimmer enjoying the sun. A stray café or campsite only makes me marvel how undeveloped and unspoilt this lovely stretch is. But I marvel the same about the entire lake, of course.



Where to stay

Convento of Santa Maria del Giglio
By renting out very simple rooms at rock-bottom prices, this 17th-century convent pays for the upkeep of its cloistered, frescoed premises. It's 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. Rooms from €25.

Casa Reminiscenza
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, 10 en suite rooms (each with balcony or patio) are decorated in a romantic Italian style enlivened with nice modern touches. Double rooms from €100.

Lido Camping Village
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 15 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. Pitches from €17.

Where to eat

La Sirenetta (Viale Cadorna 10, Bolsena)
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.

La Pineta (Viale A Diaz  48, Bolsena)
Undoubtedly Bolsena’s finest restaurant, set on a quiet, leafy spot beside the water and surrounded by flowers and pretty 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.

La Tavernetta (Corso Cavour 56, Bolsena)
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.

Getting there

British Airways, easyJet, bmi baby and Alitalia all fly to Rome. From there, take the train to Ovieto (half an hour from the lake).





Fleur Kinson is a freelance journalist based in Oxford. A big Europhile, she particularly loves watching the continent spool past the window of a train. Fleur holds several degrees in English Linguistics, and used to work for the Oxford English Dictionary. She is the author of a guidebook to Lake Bolsena in Lazio ( ). Favourite places include Oxford, Scandinavia (especially Finland), Italy, Crete, Bavaria and Switzerland.