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Held in the volcanic crater like a jewel in its setting, 28,032-acre Lake Bolsena sparkles in central Italy. Over hundreds of thousands of years the crater's walls have softened gradually, eroding to flat beaches and gently rolling hills holding medieval fishing villages. The rich volcanic soil supports hillsides patch-worked with vineyards, olive groves and wheat fields. Clean, clear water filled with fish set against the beautiful pastoral backdrop of the Alto Lazio region of Italy combine with a history as old as time itself to form the perfect tourist destination. Fortunately for visitors, however, one of the only things that Lake Bolsena doesn't have is a lot of tourists. Still relatively undiscovered, the lake shines like a gem just waiting to be enjoyed.
Lake Bolsena, or Lago di Bolsena in Italian, is a volcanic crater lake that formed approximately 370,000 years ago when the volcano's caldera collapsed into a deep aquifer. Part of the Vulsini Volcanic Complex, the volcano, according to Roman records, was last active in 104 BC. The Romans called the lake "Lacus Volsinii," and it is the largest volcanic lake in Italy. The two islands, Bisentina and Martana, in the southern half of the lake were formed by underwater eruptions.
Like most crater lakes, Lago di Bolsena is an elliptical-shaped lake stretching 8.1 miles long and 6.8 miles wide with a maximum depth of 500 feet. The lake is in the northern part of the Province of Virterbo, not too far from Tuscany. It receives most of its water from the aquifer and also from rainfall and runoff. The only outflow from Lake Bolsena is the Marta River at the southern end of the lake, east of the Village of Marta. The Marta River flows on into the Tirreno Sea.
Settlers around the lake have been regulating water levels since before the time of the Etruscans, and today, a sluice gate helps regulate levels. Lake Bolsena fills very slowly and has an extremely long water residence time. It takes almost 121 years for the lake's water to completely turn over, so great care must be taken to ensure contaminants don't pollute the lake. The villages around the lake have worked to minimize runoff from agriculture and to make sure no effluent makes its way into the lake. As a result, Lake Bolsena is a clean, clear lake with good water quality.
Many of the villages around Lake Bolsena, particularly the port village of Marta, are fishing villages. There are pike, perch, eel, royal bass, largemouth bass, pumpkinseed and catfish in the lake, any of which could be caught in the morning and served on a plate at one of the area's many restaurants for dinner. Anglers need a permit to fish and can find guides and boats for hire on the shore of the lake. Lake Bolsena is large enough to support fishing boats, motor boats, water skiers, sail boats and even wind surfers. Several services offer lake tours, and there is a ferry to both of the islands.
At 42 acres, Bisenta is the larger of the two islands in Lago di Bolsena. The ferry from Capodimonte takes visitors to the island to explore the evergreen oak groves, monuments, Italian gardens, and churches. The island was settled by the Etruscans, conquered by the Romans, burned and settled again. Its architecture shows layers of the civilizations that came before. Cresent-shaped Martana is 25 acres and was said to have guarded the relics of St. Catherine. The island is privately owned and not available for tours.
Several villages and lakeside communities ring Lake Bolsena, including the agrarian Grotto di Castro or "Castro's Caves" Village and the Village of Bolsena. Originally an Etruscan village, Bolsena was conquered by the Romans and eventually settled by the Christians, each group flattening the village before they built again. Villages offer volcanic sand beaches for swimming and sunbathing, cafes and restaurants, self-catering holiday villas and vacation rentals, plus hotels and bed and breakfast accommodations. Opportunities for Agritourism exist in the hills surrounding the lake. With a history extending back 2,500 years to the time of the Etruscans, several ruins and museums celebrating the area's history are scattered around Lago di Bolsena.
A few miles north of Lake Bolsena, the Riserva Naturale di Monte Rufeno is a 7,413-acre reserve near Acquapendente. The reserve has trails for walking, hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding and abundant wildlife. Part of the reserve includes the Francigena Way. The ancient route was a pilgrim trail through Bolsena from Siena to Rome.
Each Village around Lago di Bolsena has its own history and flavor. With the museums, restaurants, cafes and Agritourism, visitors to the lake are sure to find something to delight them. Add the clean, clear water, abundant fish and fantastic boating, and Lake Bolsena shines like a a treasure waiting to be discovered.
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