An Affordable Italian Charmer

07-Nov-2014

I like this.

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By Steenie Harvey, International Living,

Medieval walled towns are plentiful in Italy, but Viterbo is something special. If the name is new to you, it’s in upper Lazio, a relatively undiscovered area between Rome and Tuscany known as Tuscia. It has the magic of history, a weekly outdoor market, and it’s also a spa town—Dante mentioned its thermal waters in the Divine Comedy. And maybe because the population of 65,000 includes university students, prices are realistically affordable. You can rent a furnished one-bedroom apartment here from $475 monthly.
With surrounding landscapes that rival Tuscany’s, it’s odd that Viterbo isn’t overwhelmed with tourists. Along with olive groves, poppy meadows, and vineyards, numerous Etruscan necropoli (cemeteries) are in the area. Tarquinia’s Etruscan tomb paintings are a World Heritage Site, and only 30 miles away. Down the hill is the Mediterranean and the sands of Lido di Tarquinia. And Rome itself is only a 65-mile drive from Viterbo. Train fares are just under $7 each way.
Viterbo’s showpiece is the Palazzo dei Papi, or Papal Palace. After a falling out with Rome and some nasty outbreaks of plague, a number of 13th century Popes took up residence here. In those days, electing a new Pope was an unhurried affair, but the election of 1268 broke all known records—it lasted 33 months. The weary citizens eventually decided to feed the cardinals only bread and water. To help hurry proceedings along, they also removed the roof of their meeting place.
A world of piazzas, porticoes, cobbles, courtyards, and covered passageways, Viterbo’s San Pellegrino neighborhood transports you back to the Middle Ages. Some houses have profferli—outside staircases that were a feature of medieval architecture. As it’s so wonderfully preserved, it’s a favorite with moviemakers. Some scenes from Franco Zeffireli’s Romeo and Juliet were filmed here, and Orson Welles used one chapel for the murder of Desdemona in Othello.
In Victorian times, Viterbo was called la città delle belle donne e belle fontane—the town of beautiful women and beautiful fountains. I didn’t look closely at the women, but the fountains are a treat. At one time, there were 99, and though some have disappeared, fountain-tracking is a great way to explore.
I have a passion for bizarre places, so the 13th century fountain on the macabre-sounding ‘Place of Death’ was a must. I’d hoped for gushings from skeletons, not lion heads, but Piazza della Morte is a lovely spot to linger over an espresso. In the Middle Ages, paupers and the abandoned dead were buried by a religious brotherhood called the Compagnia della Morte. Funeral processions started out from this piazza, hence the name.
The quarter adjacent to San Pellegrino is Pianoscarano. At its wine festival in late September, free wine spouts from the 14th century fountain. It replaced an older fountain that got destroyed shortly after the retinue of a French cardinal washed their master’s ‘pretty little dog’ in it. When a woman objected—it was the neighborhood’s only source of drinking water—she was hacked down with a sword. (It resulted in a full-scale riot that left a number of townsfolk dead. Ten more went to the gallows and a further 50 got imprisoned. Things aren’t quite so dramatic these days…)
You’ll find plenty of enticing restaurants in both quarters. I saw places with full-size pizzas on menus for as little as $5 to $6. Trattoria Antica Taverna is a carnivore’s dream, and excellent value—a two-course steak lunch costs only $15. Or, for a gorgeous garden and classic dishes such as fettucine with porcini mushrooms, try Muccallegra.
Another treat is that Viterbo lies in a mineral-rich thermal area. The Terme dei Papi delivers a posh spa experience, but locals emulate their Etruscan and Roman ancestors and head for the free hot pools at Bullicame.
If you’re looking to buy in Italy, those 65 miles between Viterbo and Rome make a huge difference to prices. For example, a 537-square-foot apartment in Salario, a leafy residential Roman district, will set you back around $483,000. It’s not quite as costly as the historic center, but still costly enough. To rent in that neighborhood, $1,300 to $1,400 monthly for a furnished apartment with around 700 square feet of living space is the norm.
By comparison, an 860-square-foot apartment in Viterbo’s center is $121,000. And $815 monthly delivers a very elegantly furnished apartment with bags of space—1,290 square feet. Viterbo or Rome? For me, it would be Viterbo. It has everything except high prices and tourists—and who wants those?


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