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As small and sweet as the wild strawberries that crowd its hillsides, 410-acre Lake Nemi is a hidden jewel tucked away in the Alban Hills. Treasured for thousands of years and revered as sacred, it is a little lake with a big history. Today the Lazio region lake, known as Lago di Nemi in Italian, draws visitors from Rome and across the world to enjoy its clean water and fertile hillsides.
Lake Nemi is a volcanic lake fed primarily by rainwater and underground springs. It is the wintering site for a variety of waterfowl including the double-crested cormorant, tufted duck and water nightingale. Whitefish, kingfish and pike can all be found in the lake, and fishermen have been fishing the lake for millennia. In fact, the area's fishermen may be responsible for discovering one of Lake Nemi's most important treasures.
The lake was the site of two sunken Roman ships built by the Emperor Caligula. Occasionally fishermen would snag something beside fish in their nets, finding treasures from the deep. It wasn't until the Renaissance, however, that an earnest effort began to discover what was at the bottom of Lake Nemi. Under the patronage of Cardinal Colonna, Leon Battista Alberti brought swimmers from Genoa and used a floating platform to try to winch up the sunken ships. He was only able to bring up fragments and pieces of lead pipe. The next attempt was made in 1535 by Francesco De Marchi who may be responsible for the first diving suit.
It was almost 300 years before another serious attempt was made to recover the Nemi Ships during which time they suffered damage from scavengers and decay. During the 1800's, pieces of the ships including mosaic flooring, terra cotta pipe and bronze animal heads were brought to the surface, but the ships themselves couldn't be raised. In 1895 after the re-discovery of the second ship, Felice Barnabe, the Director General of the Italian Department of Antiquity and Fine Art, confirmed the authenticity of the two ships but stopped the recovery attempts.
It was decided after the Italian Navy surveyed the ships that damage from decay and pillaging had made them too fragile to raise. Instead, the decision was made to lower water levels on Lake Nemi to expose the ships. After much deliberation and decades of waiting, it was decided that a Pre-Roman tunnel could be used to carry the water as it was pumped out of the lake. Over the next few years water levels on the lake dropped almost 66 feet, slowly exposing what was left of the two ships. Possibly ceremonial, the ships were amazingly ornate with indoor plumbing, copper clad roof tiles and a variety of sculpture. They were designed to be used only on Lake Nemi. After thousands of years underwater, what was left of the ships was preserved and moved to a museum where unfortunately they were destroyed by fire just a few years later during World War II. Today, plans to reconstruct the ships are underway.
The Nemi Ships aren't the only treasures at Lake Nemi. The lake and the village of Nemi on its shore are part of the Castelli Romani, a group of villages in the hills near Rome. Nemi is entirely within the Parco Naturale Castelli Romani. Established in 1984, the 22,506-acre regional park includes oak and chestnut groves, plus flowers, strawberries and mushrooms that grow in the region's rich volcanic soil. Nemi is the smallest and considered by some to be the most unspoiled of all the Castelli Romani villages.
Lake Nemi is 19 miles south of Rome, making it an easy day trip to the Eternal City. There are a variety of holiday villas around the lake, and accommodations include farm holidays and vacation rentals. Visitors to the lake can spend the morning mushroom hunting or berry picking depending on the season, or exploring the area's rich history and temple ruins. Dinner of fresh fish with the region's crisp white wine served at a lakeside restaurant is the perfect end to the day. With its beautiful water, fertile soils and lush forest clad hillsides, Lake Nemi is a sparkling Italian gem.
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