Why we continue to hug the big-name cities when many have become no more than tourist ‘dives’ is anyone’s guess. If you’ve found yourself doing this lately, then it’s time to take a sideways leap, and reach out for easy-to-reach, affordable, scenic spots that are just a stone’s throw from the world’s major centres. And the walled city of Viterbo is one of the best.
Just over 2 hours north of Rome on a fast train, and for a ticket which can be bought on a whim for so little it’s not worth counting, Viterbo is the highly scenic capital of the region of the same name. It rose to fame in the 13th century when it was the pope’s city, but today the winding streets of the old town are as laid back as it can get. In fact, if you want to go people-watching, you’ll have to head to the cobbled high street for the late afternoon passeggiata to find the crowds!
The city drips in Romanesque arcades, stately homes and palaces but is also incredibly intimate with its pocket-handkerchief parks and fountains around every corner. Viterbo is also the home of ‘opera school’, and if you time it right, your daily walks will be to the tune of master-class students from around the world vying for minor parts alongside the greats at the concerts given for the city’s entertainment. Be sure to watch out for posters and pick up a ticket for these energetic outdoor performances.
Viterbo offers seriously delicious breads, and you have only to follow your nose to seek out the basement bakeries that are dotted around town. Rustic country loaves and thin, crisp, oily focaccia are the old town’s hallmarks. Don’t be afraid to point to individual slices that take your fancy (some are more browned than others) – the baker will only love you all more for expressing such a serious interest!
While Viterbo’s shops are a pricey mix of artisan and designer (check out streets running off Piazza Della Morte), the thrifty can have a budget ball at the open-air street market on Saturday mornings in Piazza San Faustino. Rummage like the best of them in the huge cartons of sale clothing, pick up some napery in gorgeous Italian fabrics and shop for fresh produce for next to nothing to see you through the week ahead.
On your way home, order a short black at any one of dozens of glitzy espresso bars – but unless you want to pay more than you should, drink your coffee standing up (the prices soar if you ask for a table!). When lunchtime rolls around, head to a takeaway for a slice of the region’s famous Pizza con Patate (potato-topped pizza) and toast your good fortune at finding Viterbo with a cool limoncello.
Viterbo is a must-see destination (and escape) from the rush of Rome. If you can’t manage a few nights there, be sure to take a day trip – and plenty of photos!