It is never easy to describe a place, and we know that pictures often say more than many words. For the Circeo National Park it is even more difficult because even photographs, as beautiful and evocative as they may be, are not able to tell all the history, mythological and literary suggestions, nature and culture that this stretch of coastline, located in the province of Latina, holds. Let us begin by saying that, unique for many reasons that we will go on to recount in these pages, the park was established in 1934, the first coastal park in Italy and the first to have included an island in the protected territory (in 1979). Its establishment prevented the ancient Terracina forest (once extended as far as Cisterna) from being totally deforested as a result of the radical land reclamation operations carried out in the Pontine countryside in the 1930s. In spite of its small size (about 9,000 hectares), the Circeo Park is an oasis that includes places of extraordinary beauty and astonishes with the multiplicity of environments. Let's discover them together.
A park for everyone (but really everyone)
The park includes: a promontory (Mount Circeo), which represents the most characteristic landscape element; a fantastic and intact 22-kilometer-long dune cordon with maximum heights of up to 27 meters; four coastal lakes (Lake Fogliano, Lake dei Monaci, Lake Caprolace, Lake Paola); more than 3,000 hectares of lowland forest (the Selva di Circeo) protected by Unesco; and an island (Zannone), which geographically belongs to the Ponziane Islands Archipelago. In addition, there are some villages, ancient towers and the archaeological area of Villa Domitian. So much variety makes the park a multifaceted destination, with visiting points that are further multiplied if one adds the possibility of participating in the many educational activities offered by the park authority or tasting the area's many food and wine specialties. The Circeo Park also has a very valuable peculiarity that should be emphasized: being in the plains, it can be accessed in many areas even by people with sensory, cognitive and motor disabilities. A park that aims to be truly for everyone, in short, easy to reach (it is one hour from Rome and two from Naples) and ideal to experience in all seasons of the year
Where to start
But let's go in order and try to figure out which visiting routes to follow. Let's say right away that the park is perfect to tour by bike, but it can also be explored on foot, on horseback, by canoe, and by sailboat, and it has many entrances-we have chosen a few. First is the Park Visitor Center-Museum, which is located in Sabaudia at 188 Carlo Alberto Street: the complex includes the Museum (which orients visitors to the tour and provides information), a screening room, a library and an outdoor area that is also interpretive of the history of its territory. Another ideal starting point for an excursion is Cerasella, located in the heart of the forest: this is an equipped area where there is a wildlife enclosure with deer and wild boar. Another interesting access is to the north of the park where there is the Borgo di Fogliano, consisting of a complex of buildings built in the late 18th century: in addition to an environmental education laboratory on wetlands and an ornithological museum, there is a botanical garden that has a path for the blind (can be visited by reservation).
Inside the park: the forest
Let us now delve into the park to describe the five environments that characterize it. Let's start with the Selva di Circe, or forest, which is characterized by a very rich and varied ecosystem, including the characteristic "pools," marshy areas of great ecological value that arise from accumulation of rainwater and groundwater outcrops (in 1977, the forest was declared a Biosphere Reserve under the UNESCO-sponsored MAB Program). The forest can be visited via a network of footpaths and partly bicycle paths that stretches 21 kilometers and also extends to the headland traversed by spectacular viewing trails. The trails are of various levels, from the easiest, which can be walked even with children, to those for experts, well-marked according to the CAI standard (the park authority is upgrading the entire network) and freely passable. Through this network one can reach places of great interest, such as the historic center of San Felice Circeo, the 16th-century coastal fortifications of Torre Paola and Torre Fico, or the Napoleonic outpost of the "Batteria" at the foot of the promontory, directly on the sea.
The promontory of Circeo
According to Homer, it is the place where the sorceress Circe turned her prisoners into pigs: the Circeo, the ancient island Eea, land of myths, landing place of Saracens, refuge of the Templars, feud of the Caetani nobles and papal stronghold. This territory, 50,000 years ago, was different from today and the sea level was lower. The caves that line the promontory, once all accessible by land, were inhabited by primitive tribes (a Neanderthal skull was found in Guattari cave), hyenas and bears. The quickest way to see it is to drive the road from San Felice al Circeo to the Crocette or Punta Rossa: the views are unique, with the sea surrounding the promontory and the view sweeping over the Gulf of Gaeta and the Ponziane islands. Those who want to admire both sides at the same time, however, can hike up from Torre di Paola to Picco di Circe 541 meters), a hike for experts that can also be tackled through the information on the Park Authority website.
Another peculiarity of the park is the long coastal dune that stretches from Sabaudia to Capo Portiere and that in some places toward the headland reaches almost 30 meters in height. In spring it explodes in a riot of colors and blooms, from yellow cistus to orchids, from the Hottentots fig to juniper, from myrtle to lentisk, with plant species that have adapted to survive in an environment made difficult by wind, drought, and saltiness. The dune is an environment in perpetual movement, and it is the plants that grow on it, called pioneers, that are the only ones whose roots can manage to "stop it" and make livable an environment that would otherwise be a desert. Seagulls, rabbits, lizards and beetles are also everywhere and have elected it as their habitat, and the numerous wooden walkways that run along the dune serve precisely to preserve it from the trampling of those heading to the beach in front and to keep the environment as intact as possible.
Seen from the top of the promontory, the four coastal lakes (di Paola, dei Monaci, di Fogliano and di Caprolace) are an unforgettable sight: the lakes are actually coastal ponds of not very deep water (about two meters) connected to the sea through a series of channels that ensure water exchange. These bodies of water and the adjacent marshy areas give home, mainly in spring and autumn, to more than 260 different species of birds, which find rest and nourishment here during their long migrations between Africa and northern Europe, such as grey herons, black-winged stilts, storks and flamingos, but also marsh harriers, mallards, cormorants and many others. Sightings are possible almost everywhere, but particularly in the "Hellpools" between Caprolace and Sabaudia, along the Sacramento Road and also on Lake Fogliano: at the Borgo, in the Cicerchia locality, there are also some observation huts. The wetlands also give hospitality to many other animals (such as rare lake tortoises) and it is not uncommon to come across buffalo grazing surrounded by birds.
The island of Zannone
Zannone geographically is part of the Ponziane Islands archipelago. In addition to being the closest to the coast, it is the only one formed by a wide variety of rocks including some metamorphic ones that are by far the oldest in Italy. The island, only 102 hectares in size, is uninhabited and rich in vegetation: a stopover point for migratory birds and nesting site for gulls and shearwaters, it encloses a unique and delicate ecosystem, protected by a jagged coastline with only one landing place, that of Varo, a place where it is possible to disembark. From the landing place, a path starts through the woods to a lookout with views of Ponza and Palmarola, continuing downhill to the lighthouse or uphill to Monte Pellegrino. Also on the trail are the remains of Benedictine monastery that became a Cistercian abbey in 1246, but there are no reception points or services and it is best to arrive in organized form, with water and appropriate footwear.
Between past and present
Millennia of myths and history intertwine in the Circeo area, making it an evocative archaeological park to be visited unhurriedly, to rediscover the epic charm of the past. Going up from the locality Le Crocette one can encounter the famous 3rd-century B.C. Cyclopean Walls, huge megalithic blocks mounted without the use of mortar. The first, smaller circle surrounds the Acropolis on the plateau of the promontory; the second circle is more extensive and is located below, incorporated into the foundations of the historic center of San Felice. Of particular historical interest then is the area around Lake Paola, a location once beloved by Roman centurions, wealthy patricians and even emperors. Lying on the shores of the lake are the remains of the Villa of Domitian (1st century A.D.), the most interesting of the park's archaeological areas, an imperial domus with a bathhouse and grandiose cisterns that were the fulcrum of a complex water system. Not far away is the incredible work of Roman engineering constituted by the Paola canal-port.
Sleep, taste and buy
It is in the deep south of Lazio, in the lands of Latina, that the Circeo National Park, one of the oldest protected natural areas in Italy, stretches out. For a stay in the pearl of the park, Sabaudia, there is the Le Palme hotel, located a short walk from the center, with 33 rooms, including five family rooms, with an exclusive restaurant service that draws on Mediterranean flavors. Also in Sabaudia is the Le Dune hotel, at the foot of the characteristic dune, with 78 rooms but also a series of cottages for those who prefer a freer and more informal stay. An elegant four-star hotel with comfortable rooms with breathtaking views of the promontory or the sea, the Maga Circe hotel in San Felice Circeo offers a large outdoor terrace, a veranda for business meetings and a large hall for receptions. For gourmets there are the L'Argonauta restaurant in San Felice Circeo, with its beautiful terrace overlooking the sea, where fish is the protagonist of most of the dishes accompanied by wines from the well-stocked cellar, the Rendez Vous restaurant in Sabaudia, where squid and shrimp skewers are served, scampi cream risotto, linguine allo scoglio, turbot fillet with potatoes, fried and grilled fish, and Il Grottino restaurant, located in the historic center of San Felice Circeo, where fish dishes and good wine are joined by pizzas. For shopping, there is Cantina Sant'Andrea in Sabaudia where you can buy the best wines of the Latium lands, from Circeo DOC white to Moscato di Terracina DOC to Circeo DOC sparkling white, but also the Ganci winery in Borgo Grappa, between Sabaudia and Latina, nestled in the fertile plains between the capital and the sea, where bottled wines such as Greco Bianco IGP del Lazio and Cabernet Sauvignon IGP del Lazio, and bulk wines including Malvasia, Merlot and Trebbiano are available. The Ganci winery participates in "Cantine Aperte" and "Calici di Stelle," initiatives to introduce enthusiasts and the curious to the activities, products and traditions that have made the winery's history.
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