We start our Via Francigena here. And we chose to spend 2 nights in this historic city before the pilgrimage walk. From Firenze, we took the fast train to Tiburtina where we changed trains for the well-preserved, medieval city of Viterbo. Now, I’ve got to say our group was fantastic with the 10-minute change of trains. Luggage and all, we hopped out of the fast train, took the escalator, moved to another binario (platform), dragged and lifted our big bags onto the regional train bound for Viterbo. Very efficient! Our suitcases were even piled so neatly on the luggage racks! We all felt accomplished (and a tad wasted) by the time we claimed our seats on the train.
Viterbo welcomed us with a heavy downpour. Soaked, we made our way to Relais Paradosso Hotel in the historic center. The rooms reminded us of our Kasbah in Morocco. The noise our suitcases made, dragged on the cobblestoned alleys reminded the entire neighborhood that guests were coming. Somehow we knew we were the only pilgrims in town. Obviously, Italy has not promoted its Via Francigena with the same intensity as Spain promotes its Camino de Santiago de Compostela. But there were other tourists, likely on day trips from Rome, wandering the little, quaint streets, squares and alleys of Viterbo. Yet even then, there were no crowds in Piazza San Lorenzo, Chiesa da Gesu, Piazza Plebiscito, Quartiere de Pellegrino nor in the Chiesa and Casa of Santa Rosa da Viterbo.
Viterbo has a very interesting history. As the Papal Seat for 24 years from 1257, the longest conclave happened here. The Pallazzo dei Papi di Viterbo was witness to a nerve wracking meeting of cardinals who labored for nearly 3 years to elect a Pope. Labored, and undernourished, as the cardinals were fed with only water and bread in the last year. Imagine the persuasions, negotiations and perhaps horse-trading deals cut during this momentous conclave. The Papal Palace shares the square with the Cattedrale da San Lorenzo. Simple interiors, an impressive Gothic bell tower and lovely tiled flooring. If you’re lucky, you can snap photos of the aisle with sunlight streaming through the columns. I wasn’t, but I’ve seen and admired such stunning photos. Then there’s the annual feast day of St. Rose of Viterbo where locals carry her illuminated image piled high up atop a tower carried by 100 men along the narrow streets of Viterbo up till the Cattedrale.
We visited as many churches, cloisters and chapels we found in Viterbo. I like that real candles are lit before the many altars inside each church. I also like that one hears psalms sang in a few. Outside of the Basilica San Francesco, we found a pulpit. Tells us how priests then preached outside to their flock back in those days. Off some corner not too far from this church were trattorias and bars. In one, a bicycle had wheels adorned with wine corks. Quite a statement, if you ask me. 😀
Best of all, I love the exterior staircases called profferli. It’s an architectural style unique to Viterbo. One finds many in the lovely Quartierre de Pellegrinos. The same site where Fiat stages a parade of its cars driving in and out of arched alleyways and lanes. The style lends romance to the otherwise cold stones and brass statues and fountains littered all around Viterbo. Surely, a lone wanderer here would find himself busy just strolling around. Not much by way of people-watching, but there are many reminders of a glorious past.
The modern side of Viterbo expresses itself in the shops, gelaterias with many odd flavors, and the Smart cars and Fiats whizzing past and squeezing into the tiniest spaces for parking. Two to 3 inches, I’d say. And yes, I’m talking about the gap between the parked car and the ancient wall. As for the dining outlets, we’ve had truly good meals paired with real good vino. Only problem is the price. Quite pricey, compared with the good dinners we’ve had in Firenze. I wondered if the steaks were anything like Tuscany’s Chianina beef, so I asked. I couldn’t have guessed they were Argentinian beef steaks. Imported stuff, hence the higher price. Or so I guessed. For our next meal in Viterbo, we tried this osteria adorned with flowers. Very pretty. And I had my best Vongole with Bottarga here. Stuck my fork on another plate to try another seafood pasta dish and found it equally good. Well, I really have no reason to complain. So I’d quit whining.
The temps were low in Viterbo. We wrapped ourselves good especially at night. It’s a shame we failed to have coffee or gelato in this fancy deli cum gelateria called Schenardi. I’ve read somewhere one never leaves Viterbo without checking out this place. A mistake, I’m sure. A big mistake. But then again, that leaves one excuse to go visit Viterbo again sometime. Plus there’s the 400 year old Ristorante Tre Re. Hmmmm.
We visited some churches – the Chiesa de San Giovanni Battista’s frescoes are so beautiful – and a garden with a lovely fountain in Viterbo. The latter was right beside and actually belonged to the hotel we stayed in. Lovely. I wished they served coffee and snacks here. Perhaps they do, but in summer. (Another excuse to head back) Seriously, Viterbo deserves a repeat. I don’t think we’ve explored its medieval quarter enough. Perhaps if I stayed longer, I can befriend a local to let me in in one of those medieval stone houses. Or drive to Villa Lante or the thermal springs, which we never had the chance to do. Or even visit the mysterious Civita de Bagnoreggio, nicknamed the “disappearing village on a hill”, aptly called so because some parts have been lost to erosion.
Before leaving Viterbo, we made sure we planted our feet together and took a photo. Those are pre-Camino feet, before the blisters and the swelling. And in case you’re wondering how we looked upon arrival in wet, stormy Viterbo….. here’s one. All ready for Via Francigena!