Viterbo

by Alexandra

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(astrological fertility statue in the Museo Colle del Duomo)

I was determined to get out of Rome for a day during my free time before starting work, but the options were overwhelming. Florence? Naples? Somewhere nearby like Ostia Antica or Tivoli? But in the end I chose Viterbo, a town in northern Lazio. It’s a longer train journey than Florence or Naples – about two hours – but it seemed like a good day trip, as I could comfortably see the centre in a way that I couldn’t in a bigger city.

Ideally, I’d have gone with someone. I haven’t made up my mind on how I feel about travelling alone. I suppose it depends on my mood, where I’m going, how long for etc, but it’d be nice to have a friend (ideally with a car) to take me to Viterbo. I’ll have to go back one day for the famous thermal baths, which weren’t really an option when I went – alone, car-less and swimwear-less.

Viterbo was such a change from Rome. It just felt much more northern, somehow. Of course it is north of Rome, but not by much. It’s a rather grey, beautiful medieval town of narrow streets and hills. At first I was disappointed by how small it seemed, but that was before I discovered the area around Piazza San Lorenzo and was won over. Although I like the idea of small towns, I quickly grow impatient and start pining for a city to get lost in. Viterbo’s a good size, though – small enough that it’s reasonably easy to find your way round, but still with a lot to explore.

In the morning I walked round in circles and tried to find churches with unlocked doors. One of the few was the Chiesa di Santa Rosa, where the mummified saint is on display, surrounded by photos young Italians. It’s a strange contrast, the rather grotesque sight of the saint next to all these young faces. I wish I’d been in Viterbo on September the 3rd:

On September 3, the eve of the feast of St. Rose, the people of Viterbo follow the transportation of La Macchina (the Machine of St. Rose” ) a massive 28 metre high tower, illuminated with 3,000 tiny electric lights and 880 candles, and topped off with a statue of her, which is carried for 1,200 metres through the darkened streets of the old medieval town on the backs of around 100 volunteers called “facchini.” (Wikipedia)

Before checking my facts, I’d been under the misapprehension that they put her actual body in the macchina, instead of a statue!

In the Museo Colle del Duomo, which I visited without any expectations, I was delighted to find a collection of reliquiaries. I adore reliquaries. Any museum with a good collection (the Imperial Treasury in Vienna springs to mind) is likely to make me very happy indeed. There were also some fascinating sculptures scattered haphazardly in the garden, including the one pictured and a frieze with the charming description “vegetal tickling decorations devoured by monstrous beings”. I can’t think of a more pleasing combination of words.

I went on a tour of the Duomo and the Palazzo dei Papi, which is quite out of character. I hate tours. I hate tour groups. The segways of Rome deserve a rant post of their own. But Viterbo was refreshingly unclogged by tour groups, and there weren’t even that many tourists. I chose to go on the Duomo/Palazzo tour because it was the only way to see certain rooms, and I thought it would be good Italian practice. The very friendly tour guide seemed to appreciate my efforts to listen, even though there was lots I didn’t understand. Still, descending into the cold, dark depths of the palazzo and visiting the room where they elected popes, tuning in and out of the explanation in Italian, was an interesting experience.

The highlight of Viterbo for me was Piazza San Lorenzo itself, virtually deserted in the early afternoon apart from the occasional priest, lost tourist or small dog. As much as I love piazzas full of cafes and bars which act as the social heart of a town, there’s something to be said for places like Piazza San Lorenzo which serve no functional purpose for the majority of the town’s people but offer tranquility and a glimpse into the past. It’s certainly the most medieval place I’ve ever been. I sat on a step facing the palazzo and did some writing while waiting for the museum to open, sometimes pausing just to appreciate the silence. When you’re in Rome, sometimes it’s hard to imagine that there’s anywhere you can escape from the noise of traffic.

I also enjoyed the spectacle of some sort of military/carabineri parade in Piazza del Plebiscito, which involved patriotic singing and camp marching. I have a weakness for uniforms anyway, and with hats like this…

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I spent a long time waiting at Porta Romana station, listening to repetitive and unhelpful announcements about an incident somewhere along the line which meant a delay. At the station there’s the usual sign telling you not to cross the tracks, but it seems like at the smaller stations you have no choice but to cross the tracks if you want to reach the other platform. A group of girls were flagrantly disregarding the warnings by sitting on the railway lines until they were told off by a policeman.

The train arrived late, and stopped for a long time at a station on the way, with no explanation. I had the top level of the carriage to myself and started to feel paranoid that everyone else knew something I didn’t, so I kept peering downstairs to check that I wasn’t the only person on the train. But it finally started moving again, and I was quite happy – shoes off, feet up on the seat, notebook in my lap and some leisurely writing while the countryside flashed past and the sun set. Somehow we made up the time on the way, and were only delayed by 10 minutes. That never happens in England – if you’re delayed by 30 minutes, you stay delayed by 30 minutes.

I’ve just finished reading Italian Ways by Tim Parks, which I’d really recommend to anyone who likes trains or is interested in travelling round Italy. My trip to Viterbo wasn’t quite as adventurous as his 11 hour journey from Rome to Palermo or his attempts to reach Otranto, but one day…

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