Viterbo is a city that will surprise you with its medieval beauty and its interesting history. The city of about 67,000 residents lies north of Rome at an altitude of 350 meters above sea level, where the northern slope of the Cimini mountains descend to a large plain towards the sea to the west, and the Tiber Valley to the east.
It has many alluring lanes its medieval quarter, lovely to wander by day and also in the evening with the suffused light and romantic air. There are several great museums, beautiful churches and pretty piazzas to enjoy. But the city of Viterbo is indelibly linked to the popes which remains its historical claim to fame. It is called "La Citta' dei Papi" - the city of Popes and its biggest attraction is, not surprisingly, the Papal Palace.
Viterbo became the capital of Catholicism in 1257 when Pope Alexander IV moved the papal court to the city to avoid civil unrest in Rome. Pope Clement liked the tranquility of the Papal Palace there and maintained the papacy in Viterbo. When he died, an oddity of church history ensured with longest papal conclave ever, lasting nearly three years. The tradition of closed conclaves was already established, so the College of Cardinals was locked in the Palazzo dei Papi to choose a successor. Not able to reach agreement, the proceedings dragged on. And on. And on. The city finally stopped sending in food and water in an effort to drive them to a decision. When even that didn't bring results, townspeople climbed on the roof and started dismantling it. Finally, in September, 1271, they elected Pope Gregory X (who then enacted changes to the election process). By the way, the word "conclave" comes from the Latin "cum clave" meaning "with a key".
The papacy moved from Viterbo in 1274, then in 1309 moved to Avignon, France. But Viterbo is still the "city of popes" regardless of where the Curia goes! There are hot springs here called the Terme dei Papi, a noted thermal spa that has been popular since the Roman age. With its thermal waters, there are several spas and open-air hot springs around Viterbo.
The city is laid back and yet has a touch of class in its monuments and museums. Explore and enjoy a city that has a lot to offer yet doesn't attract hoards of tourists. While you're wandering, be sure to stop in and enjoy a drink in the elegant historic Caffe Schenardi, a real treat and a step back in time.
Viterbo lies in the heart of the ancient Etruscan region, and all over the area you'll find indelible and interesting remnants of that civilization, along with Roman remains. The county was called Tuscia and is strewn with Roman and Etruscan finds, like necropolis, streets, bridges and ancient thermal spas; ampitheatres (Sutri, Ferento); villas (Calvisiana, Varroniana) There are signs of a glorious past visible everywhere in towns like Tarquinia, Tuscania, Vulci, Cerveteri, Veio, Faleri, Sutri, and Ferento. Visit some of the excavations, which brings back to life ancient ruins and treasures. The opulent Villa Lante is a must. Nearby is the famous Monster Park at Bomarzo and the "impossible" town of Civita di Bagnoregio perched on its mesa, set among the odd and unusual canyonlands.
Through the centuries, Viterbo remained the economic center of the vast region including the area from the Maremma to the Mounts Cimini. Without the Popes, the city fell into the hands of various lords and descended in status to a city of secondary importance, but its fall from "prestige" hasn't diminished its charm.
Some noteworthy monuments...
- The Palazzo Comunale that houses a series of XVI-century and Baroque frescoes by Tarquinio Ligustri, Bartolomeo Cavarozzi and others.
- The lovely Gothic church of St Maria della Salute, which has a rich portal.
- The Romanesque Church del Gesù (XI century). Here the sons of Simon de Monfort stabbed to death Prince Henry of Cornwall, son of King Richard I of England.
- The Palazzo Farnese (XIV-XV century), where Alessandro Farnese, future Pope Paulus III, lived in his youth along with his pretty sister, Giulia Farnese.
- The Rocca (castle).
- The Romanesque churches of St Maria Nuova (XII century), St Sisto (second half of the IX century), and St Giovanni in Zoccoli (XI century).
- The Palazzo degli Alessandri in the old district, a typical Medieval patrician house.
- The Fontana Grande, built in 1206.
- The Gothic church of St Francesco, preserving the sepulcher of Pope Adrian V, who died in Viterbo on August 17, 1276. It is considered the first monument by Arnolfo di Cambio.
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Explore nearby towns
The lovely town of Vitorchiano grips a bluff at the foot of the Cimini mountains, near Viterbo and 90 km from Rome.
Soriano rises from a mountain setting among the abundant chestnut forests of northern Lazio.
Vetralla is in an area known as Etruria, a land of ancient origins which skirts the border of Lazio and Tuscany.