Viterbo, capital city of the province (population 72,000) deserves an unhurried visit to appreciate the perfectly preserved medieval quarter, city walls, fountains and piazza and the palazzo where the papal court held the first conclave in the 13th century. The surroundings are blessed with hot springs, Renaissance palazzo and gardens, lakes and hill towns rich in history, festivals and traditions. The area’s excellent wines, olive oil and other products are celebrated at festivals throughout the year.
The connoisseur’s visit should include a walk through the medieval quarter of S. Pellegrino; so perfect is this architectural ensemble that it is often used as a movie set.
Anglo-Saxons ask to see the church in Piazza del Gesù which was the scene of the murder of Henry, Duke of Cornwall, and cousin of King Edward I. He was killed in 1272 by Guy and Simon de Montfort to revenge the murder of their father.
Portuguese visitors to Viterbo always make a stop at the black and white striped cathedral S. Lorenzo which dates from the 12th century with 16th century and post-war touch-ups. Here they admire the magnificent cosmatesque floors and the tomb of Pope John XXI, the only Portuguese pope who died when the floor of his room collapsed.
Medieval history comes alive when one stands near S. Maria Nuova with its outdoor pulpit where St. Thomas Aquinas preached to the crowds and inside the papal palace when one glances up to the “new” roof. The original one was removed in the 1200’s during the first conclave in Viterbo to elect a new pope.
The cardinals were locked (cum clave, hence the word conclave) inside the palace next the roof was removed to help speed up the election of the new pope and then in desperation the cardinals’ food (and wine) supply was reduced. It was 33 months before Gregory X was finally elected as the new pope.
To fully understand the spirit of Viterbo one must participate in the feast on September 3rd in honor of the city’s patron, S. Rosa whose statue crowns the entrance to the city at Porta Romana. In most of Italy, feasts commemorate the antique rivalry between sections of a city, as in Siena’s Palio and Pisa’s Gioco del Ponte.
The feast of S. Rosa instead, finds the populace united to cheer on the local heroes, the facchini or Porters of S. Rosa, as they perform their superhuman task of transporting the 30-meter high illuminated tower honouring the saint, through the city’s darkened streets. A visit to the museum in S. Pellegrino gives an idea of the task the facchini have proudly performed since the first macchina/tower was transported in 1258.
The procession route along the Corso is also the scene of the evening passeggiata when the young people from the entire province crowd around the fountain in Piazza delle Erbe while their elders take an aperitif in the historic (1493) Caffè Schenardi.
An inexpensive way to travel to Viterbo from Rome is by train from either Roma Nord station (Piazzale Flaminio) or St. Peter’s. The former route is perfect for railway fans who like slow travel since the old-fashioned train passes through a series of picturesque towns including Civita Castellana, Fabrica di Roma, Vignanello, Soriano and Bagnaia before finally arriving to Viterbo’s Roma Nord station. The train from St. Peter’s (or Ostiense station) plies between the capital and northern suburbs such as Olgiata, Cesano and Bracciano before heading further north to Viterbo. Both trains use the BIRG ticket system: the 12 euro daily ticket gives passengers full use of the regional transport system including Rome’s metro and buses.