Hidden Jams: Medieval Viterbo in Lazio, Italy

Viterbo is located in Central Italy, around 105 km north of Rome. This medieval walled hill-town is also an administrative center of Provincia di Viterbo. Various local finds suggest the place has ancient, though probably rather unpretentious, origins. This area was in the center of the Etruscan civilization, which traces are dotted all around the countryside. 

It was in the Middle Ages, however, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, that Viterbo attained real importance. While the city of Rome struggled through chaos and feuding, Viterbo became a favorite refuge for embattled popes.

It may seem surprising now, but there was a time when Viterbo was larger and more successful than Rome, and much of its fine architecture, such as the Papal Palace, dates to this era. Later, the town faded in importance (its population today is approximately the same as it was then). Prior to the unification of Italy, Viterbo formed part of the Papal States. Now it sits quietly in an area usually overlooked by foreign tourists.

What to Do in Viterbo

See the sights. The main attraction of Viterbo is the town's medieval architecture: the remains of its grand Papal Palace (Palazzo dei Papi) and the humbler medieval lanes. Other individual sights of interest include a couple of museums, the town Cathedral and a selection of other palazzi and churches. 

Step back into the Middle Ages. Thanks to the town's lack of development since its heyday in the Middle Ages, it is now famed for one of the best-preserved medieval centres in Italy, popular with film crews in search of authentic atmosphere. A pleasant half-hour can be spent wandering the medieval lanes of San Pellegrino, a historical area of unaltered stone houses with the original external staircases, little lanes, squares and towers. Viterbo is also a popular destination for antique hunters, with antique fairs and little shops along the medieval lanes.

Visit thermal springs. Just outside Viterbo are the natural hot springs of Bullicame, known since the ancient times. Nowadays, there is a thermal spa complex on the site, called Terme dei Papi (Spa of the Popes). A range of treatments is offered, or you can pay a charge simply to use the facilities and bathe in the waters, which emerge at over 40 degrees (bring swimsuits and towels).

An adventurous and atmospheric alternative, if you have a car, is to visit the hot sulphurous pools at Bagnaccio, which sit in the middle of the countryside. Drive along the Via Cassia Nord towards Montefiascone, and after about three miles take the turning towards Marta. A short way down this road take a left turning down a rough road by a Roman ruin. Along this unsurfaced road you'll find the pools where you can bathe, apparently maintained by volunteers.

Local Events

Viterbo is famous for the trasporto della Macchina di Santa Rosa, a procession which takes place on the evening of 3rd September, to commemorate the relocation of the body of Saint Rosa from the Church of Santa Maria del Poggio to the church of San Damiano (the Sanctuary of Santa Rosa). The Macchina di Santa Rosa is a gigantic structure, nearly 30 metres high, which is carried through the streets by a large team of strong local men. Contests are held to select designs for the Macchina, which is replaced every five years. The porters who bear the Macchina are organised in an association, the Sodalizio dei Facchini di Santa Rosa, which has its own little museum.

Other town events include a May flower festival: San Pellegrino in fiore, and a Baroque festival taking place in September and October.

How to Visit Viterbo

Viterbo makes a good excursion from Rome. The slow but interesting train ride gives visitors plenty of time to enjoy a day out from the capital - possibly with a side-trip to Bracciano thrown in.

For visitors who already know Italy's tourist areas, who want an off-the-beaten-track experience, or who have a special interest in the area's Etruscan history, Viterbo makes a good base for a longer stay. Hiring a car will facilitate sightseeing in this rural area, although there are also public transport options.

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