“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” – Gustave Flaubert
What does a park full of monsters, a dying city, a volcanic lake, and the Giubileo della Misericordia (Jubilee Year of Mercy Rome) all have in common? Viterbo – Day Trip Outside Rome – of course!
Ever wonder what lies just outside the walls of Rome and its surroundings? Heading due north on the Auto Strada A1, there is a wonderland of fun, adventure, culture, and history awaiting exploration. A rental car (the cost of a European rental car is quite reasonable), a map (or a cell phone with a data plan to access European road maps, or TomTom in your European rental car), the love of the open road (and a bit of courage, Italians like to drive fast), and one full day away from Rome is all you need. This day trip outside of Rome can be a welcome retreat from the bustling streets of the ancient city. Depending on your time constraints, your day trip outside of Rome can become a weekend trip in the blink of an eye.
Parco Dei Mostri – Bomarzo
Our trip begins in Bomarzo, a village in Lazio at the foot of Mount Cimino, home to a rather peculiar park – Parco Dei Mostri, also known as the Villa of Marvels, the Sacred Wood, or the Park of Monsters. Prince Vicino Orsini, architect Pirro Ligorio, and sculptor Simone Moschino designed The Park of Monsters of Bomarzo in 1552.
The park is unique in its kind; its varying names stem from the many larger-than-life sculptures embedded in the bedrock, which populate the wooded landscape. Stone engraved figures of monsters, dragons, mythological subjects, exotic animals, a crooked house, temples, obelisks, seats, and fountains emerge from every corner of the park. The subjects are placed without rhyme or reason; it’s just a labyrinth of inspiration, as though a child imagined the design.
After years of decay, the Villa of Marvels of Bomarzo was brought back to life due to the curiosity of artists, musicians, writers, poets, film directors, and intellectuals. Claude Lorrain, Jean Cocteau, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Salvador Dali, Manuel Mujica Láinez, Mario Praz and Maurizio Calvesi, to name a few, became so intrigued with the Villa of Marvels that they renewed interest in its bewildering architecture through writing, art, music, and film. While the Bettini family, in the 1970’s, fostered a renewed source of revenue and restoration.
Walking through the maze of the Sacred Wood of Bomarzo is truly a pleasure. It’s a great day away for the enjoyment of the entire family. Keep in mind, pets are not allowed (except the stray cats that seem to call the Sacred Wood home). Also, while the ground are easily accessed by seniors, the park is not wheelchair accessible. I strongly suggest you go in the spring or autumn, or perhaps the summer to escape the heat!
Civita di Bagnoregio – the City That’s Dying
Back on the road, in less than one hour from the Park of Monsters of Bomarzo, you’ll arrive to city of Civita di Bagnoregio. This is the second stop on our Viterbo – Day Trip Outside Rome tour. This city is often referred to as “il paese che more” (the city that’s dying). Why? We’ll get back to that in a moment.
Like out of a fairytale, Civita di Bagnoregio is perched high on a mountain top, hidden in the sky. The Etruscans founded the city more than 2,500 years ago and is the birthplace of Saint Bonaventure. By the 16th century Civita was in decay, and due to a major earthquake at the end of the 17th century, the bishop, municipal government, and large part of the population was forced to move to its neighboring, and sturdier suburb, Bagnoregio.
Civita is known for its striking position atop a plateau of friable volcanic tuff overlooking the Tiber river valley and is in constant danger of destruction as the edges of the plateau collapse due to erosion, leaving the buildings to crumble as their underlying support falls away – thus, you have “the city that’s dying”. In the recent years steel rods have been placed throughout the city to help reinforce and diminish further erosion. Nonetheless, due to its history, Civita is becoming “island like”, connected only to Bagnoregio below by a long (under 1 kilometer) bridge. In fact, the town has been placed on the World Monuments Fund’s 2006 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites.
What most people don’t know, unless you chat with the locals, is that the revitalization of Civita came about due to Americans discovering the potential of this city in the 1960s. If fact, our old guidebooks from the same decade describe the dying city as decayed and all but abandoned. Instead, now thanks to foreign investment, the city has reacquired its medieval charm. there are quaint restaurants and shops offering local fare around every corner. Renovated apartments have breathtaking views. Charming Bed and Breakfasts are strewn throughout the town. The piazza is adorned with an original medieval church, and tucked away on a hidden street you’ll find a private chapel, carved out of an Etruscan cave.
Lago di Bolsena – Lake Bolsena
As we continue on our Viterbo – Day Trip Outside Rome trip, a half hour west of Civita di Bagnoregio, you’ll run right into Lago Bolsena – Lake Bolsena. Lake Bolsena is a crater lake, the largest volcanic lake in Europe, which has been dormant since 104 BC. It’s situated in the province of Viterbo, surrounded by breathtaking views, lush green hills, and olive groves facing picturesque old towns centers, like Bolsena, Montefiascone, Marta, Capodimonte, Valentano, Gradoli and Grotte di Castro.
Not that you need an excuse to eat in Italy, but this region boats century old recipes sure to warm your belly and your heart in the cold winter months. One of my favorites is una Zuppa di Ceci e Castagne (chickpeas, or garbanzos, and chestnut soup). It’s a typical recipe in the Tuscia region of Italy. It is particularly popular throughout Lake Bolsena and the south of Umbria and Tuscany (where I’m from!). Ceci are used in abundance in local recipes due to economical and nutritional value.
Want to try your hand at this ancient recipe? Start with these measurements:
- 300 grams of chickpeas (fresh, the ones you need to soak and boil)
- 30 grams of ham fat (I prefer guanciale).
- 300 grams of boiled chestnuts, chopped
- 4 peeled tomatoes
- 1 liter of broth
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 sprigs of rosemary
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 bay leaf
The chickpeas need to soak for 24 hours, and then drain them. Boil the water (the beans should be covered by approximately 3 inches of water). Reduce to a slow simmer, and cook until the beans are tender, which should be around 1 and half hours.
In the meantime, chop together the garlic, rosemary (leaves only) and fat of the ham. At this point, drain the chickpeas and blend half, setting aside a few tablespoons of the cooking water. Add the olive oil to a pan and slowly sauté the garlic, rosemary, and ham fat for 1 to 2 minutes. Then add the chickpeas (both blended and whole). Add a pinch of salt (or more depending on your preference) and still for 1 to 2 minutes. Then add the reserved tablespoons of water and the chopped chestnuts. Continue the sauté for another 5 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and the bay leaf. After a few minutes add the broth, stirring well, and let the mixture simmer for 10 minutes over low heat. Serve warm and buon appetito!
Montefiascone – Est, Est, Est, di Montefiascone
On our way back to Rome, we make our last stop in Montefiascone. This is a town made famous for its papal presence, and wine. In the 13th and 14th century, as a Papal possession, Montefiascone flourished. Its castle often served as a Papal residency. During the Avignon Papacy, it was the main residence of the Papal legate Cardinal Albornoz. Rocca die Papi, the papal residency, sits at the highest point of the city and provides a breathtaking view of Lago Bolsena.
While the papal legacy is in its past, Montefiascone is still well known for its wine, Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone (also known as just Est! Est!! Est!!!) Since 1966 they have cultivated a white Trebbiano and Malvasia, and has been afforded the classification of Denomination di origin controllata (DOC). It is the largest production of wines in the Tuscia region. The unusual name of the wine region dates back to a 12th-century.
The tale recounts of a German Bishop traveling to the Vatican for a meeting with the Pope. The Bishop sent a clergy member ahead of him to survey the villages along the route for the best wines. When the quality of the wine impressed him, the ‘wine scout’ wrote, ‘Est’ (Latin for ‘It is’) on the inn doors or walls. This way, as the Bishop followed behind him on the trail he would have known in advance where to make a stop. At a Montefiascone inn, the wine was so good that the clergy member wrote Est! Est!! Est!!! on the door. Thus indicating that the wine was very very very good! And this brings us to the end of our Viterbo – Day Trip Outside Rome trip itinerary!
Viterbo – Day Trip Outside Rome
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