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A Week in Northern Lazio

Cheryl Alexander

Many people bypass this part of Italy on their way to Tuscany, Umbria, Venizia or Como. But a week in this region will surprise and delight; not to mention steals your heart. If you are a lover of Italy, don't miss this special area. And I promise you will return, as I have so many times.

Arrival

Fly into Rome and take the little airport train to the Central Terminal in Rome. It costs about 8 euro and is a three-minute walk from baggage claim in terminal C, where you will arrive if you were on an international flight. Once in the Central Terminal, purchase a ticket to Orvieto, another 7 or 8 euro and only an hour and 10 minute trip. You'll be on a train to Florence, and they leave very regularly. Just watch for the Orvieto station about an hour into your trip.

Orvieto

Once in Orvieto you have a couple of choices. If you have opted to stay in the surrounding country, you'll need to rent a car. There is an Avis office just a few blocks from the train station. Reserve your car ahead of time through AutoEurope.

If you have decided to stay in Orvieto, just walk across the street to the funicular, pay your 80 cents and you'll be at the top of this interesting hill town in no time. There are many lovely hotels, B & B's and apartments to rent there. Check the Slow Travel links or directly go to Orvieto's own website for hotel listings. Orvieto is one of the most beautiful, uncluttered hill towns you'll find anywhere in Italy. The people take great pride in their city and its history and are always glad to share it with visitors. It has an enormous, impressive cathedral with spectacular frescos in one of its chapels, painted by Signorelli. It is thought that Michelangelo's inspiration for the Sistine Chapel came from this work. Orvieto has two market days for fresh food and dry goods.

Bagnoregio

Let's say you have decided to stay in the country this visit. Choose Bagnoregio, which is only a 20-minute drive from the train in Orvieto. (Since Orvieto is on the A-1 route, this is another reason to base yourself here. The central location gives you options in just about any direction for visiting other regions, when you are ready to leave this one.) Upon entering it actually seems rather plain, but once you have walked it's narrow streets and explored the historic center, you will see its beauty. Standing on the southern edge of Bagnoregio one finds oneself looking down over the most green, most lush agricultural valley one will ever see, with sweeping views forever.

To the east you will be stunned to notice another city on a hill, connected by a long, upward slanting footbridge, made of cement and high off the ground. This is the original city of Bagnoregio, Civita or the Dying City, as it's known. It's at least 3000 years old, but some say closer to 4000. Much older than its sister city, which is a mere 1200 years or so!

Civita is built on very soft earth, called tufa, which has been eroding over the centuries. Its population abandoned it when there was an earthquake several hundred years ago, but people have been returning over the last 50 years and now they number about 30. Several years ago someone opened a charming little (3 rooms) B & B with a small restaurant in the main piazza near the old church. There are two authentic cantinas where you can have wine and bruschetta made in the fireplace, for about 5 euro. One of them is located in the old olive oil mill which has all of the ancient equipment used to mill the olives, still intact. This was back when they used a donkey to turn the stone, and is inside a cave. The antiquity here is overwhelming.

What haven't been mentioned are the views from this hilltop wonder. Views all the way to the Umbrian Mountains. One of the best photo opportunities anywhere, it is easy to spend a half day here, just roaming around exploring all the nooks and crannies, stopping for a mid-day meal.

You've chosen to stay in a country house or villa, rather than in town at the B & B, Romantica Pucci or in an apartment in the historical center. Of course if you enjoy staying in town, and like the freedom of an apartment, check with the owners of the local (and only) supermercado, Marcella and Giancarlo. They are almost always in the market when it's open and happy to show the property. They also have a lovely house with pool about 10 minutes outside of town, in the small village of Vetriolo. There are many vacation rentals in the surrounding area, just minutes from Bagnoregio and easy to find on the Internet.

Your basic food shopping can be done in Bagnoregio at the small shops around town. There are several fruit/vegetable shops, an alimentary or the supermercado for cheeses, a pasta shop, a meat shop, and several bakeries. (One very good bakery on the main street into town.) Of course there are many bars and several pizza/bars. But really only two restaurants, one of which is only open for lunches. The other, Hosteria del Ponte has not just great food, but also an incredible view of Civita and the valley. Remember to shop between 8:30 and 12:30, or 4:30 and 7:30; shops do not re-open on Thursdays, after the morning times and everything is closed on Sundays. You can't even get a carton of milk, unless you want to travel 40 minutes.
And Monday mornings the farmer's market comes to town. Basically this is their Wallmart. Fresh foods of all kinds, linens, shoes, underwear, hardware, everything. This is also where the locals do much of their socializing, so it's a great place to mingle and meet your neighbors.

Speaking of neighbors, the people of this country area are some of the most friendly, accommodating Italians you will ever meet. They live very modest lifestyles by our standards and seem content with what they have. They exhibit genuine warmth, especially if travelers are interested in their culture and attempt the language, whatever level the skill.

Things to Do and See in the Area

OK, now you have your base of Bangoregio, you've stocked the kitchen, and you are ready to see what else the area has to offer. Take a drive (20-25 minutes southwest) out to Lago di Bolsena, one of the largest lakes in Italy and because of its volcanic structure, also known to be the cleanest lake in Italy. Its ecology works extremely well and people have been careful to keep it intact, even though there are water sports and the beaches are well used. The lake is so large in circumference that it supports about 5 little towns following the shoreline around it. Bolsena itself has an interesting history and there is a charming walk up to its fortress on top, which has been made into a splendid museum, and the historic center. Again, there are magnificent views from the top. The neighborhoods in this historic center are as perfect as a movie set. Every wall has pots of blooming, colorful flowers and it is pristine and very quiet. The little lakeshore town of Marta hosts a good fish restaurant called San Egidio, easy to find, just ask anyone in town, and it has great prices, good service, as well as very different fare from most other eateries in the area.

Montefiascone is another old town to explore. This is where you will find a special wine called EST! EST! EST! There's a great legend that goes with it and also spawned an annual festival in the town, but you'll have to discover that for yourselves.

Lubriano, just a 5-minute drive north from Bagnoregio, is too small to contain much, though it's tiny historic center is charming. It has a couple of great restaurants. The newest is built into the side of the hill in the caves located there. With a lovely view of the old Civita, it is a good basic Pizzeria. The second eatery is small, but has more complicated dishes, and has a small terrace for outside summer dining. Both can be reached by the main street. Lubriano also sports an impressive theatre of the arts. These are serious actors who draw big crowds from the local area.

To get the feel of a larger city, with all that a city has to offer, you may want to spend a day in Viterbo, just 40 minutes to the south. It is very industrialized from the outside, but once you get into the older parts of the city, you will find many very good museums and historical sites. This is also where the famous Papei di Terme is located. It is a 600-year-old spa, built by one of the popes to take advantage of the hot and warm mineral springs in the area. It has an oversized shallow Olympic pool where hundreds of locals spend hours "taking the waters" and socializing with friends or family.

Into a bit of fantasy? Take a picnic out to Bomarzo and spend the afternoon wandering around this strange but beautiful park. Usually there aren't more than half a dozen others roaming the grounds, so it's a very peaceful place. It is many acres of wooded and grassy terrain built as a monument for a nobleman's wife. He has enormous mythological stone statues carved and placed throughout the park. Very pagan, archetypical figures that dwarf humans in their size. A very different experience from the cathedrals and museums one is used to in Italy.

Interested in Etruscan history? Don't miss the little hill towns of Sorano, Sovana and Pitigliano. These are in an area, about 45 minutes or so northwest of Bagnorgio, that was once heavily populated by the Etruscans and the Villanovans before them. Both of these civilizations were wiped out, or assimilated, by the Romans, but they left a wealth of their history behind. They were brilliant artisans working with glass, bronze, and stone. There are small museums in the area, but the best and most extensive is in Tarquinia, a topic for later. What is most amazing about the above mentioned three villages is their placement and the hidden highway that the people used millennia ago to herd their sheep, communicate with one another and protect themselves. If you enjoy hiking this is one of the best places for a long hike with inclines and protection from the sun from tall tufa cliffs and foliage.

Because the area is made of the porous earth called tufa these people were also big into using the natural caves formed here, for a variety of practicalities. Walking the path, you'll discover some of those things.

Sovana, the tiniest of towns, just about one block long, has some of the finest local artists this traveler has noted. Reproductions of the beautiful pottery the Etruscans are famous for and a shop full of magnificent weavings. Historically, the cathedral is of import, since it dates back to the 12th century and seems to have been, at least partially built by the Sienese. For such a small village, this is a place very rich with history.

The very best look into Etruscan history in this area is Tarquinia. There they have converted a large palace into an historic site and museum, documenting these ancient people's fascinating past. Tarquinia is located another 35 minutes west of Pitigliano. There is also an amazing archeological site there that was discovered in the 1920's, which deserves a good look. For a nominal fee one can wander this field of underground tombs, where the tombs have been preserved as they were found. Some have the remnants of the original frescoes on the walls.

If you just have to be near the ocean, Tarquinia is a port city and you can visit the sea here, too. It's a city that offers a lot. By now, though you have wandered about an hour and a half from your base, so you may want to think about heading back in time for dinner. Since restaurants don't open until at least 7:30, you should have plenty of time.

Northern Lazio has many other wonderful, undiscovered towns and villages. If you are particularly interested in archeology, these are definitely places for you to explore: Viterbo, Tuscania, Celleno, Gradoli, Sutri, Nepi, and Castiglione in Teverna. For hanging around quaint places, trying new eateries and getting great photos try Acquapendente, Civitella de'Agliano, Graffignano, Veiano, and Bagniaia. These last towns are known for their agriculture, especially wines and olive oil. Great for tasting adventures. If you'd like to be near water at some point in your journey, Mantalto di Castro is at the sea, and as mentioned earlier Tarquinia is quite near it as well. Capidomonte is another quaint village worth visiting on the lake at Bolsena.

Some of the agricultural goods found in this area besides excellent wine and exquisite olive oil, are chestnuts, kiwi, sheep and cow cheeses, pork (porchetta), the sweetest vine/tree-ripened fruits, the freshest vegetables of all kinds seasonally, of course), lamb, beef and wild boar. All locally grown or raised.

Visit Northern Lazio

So, by now this traveler hopes your interest has been not just piqued but motivated to visit this wonderful area, so rich with the best that Italy has to offer.


Cheryl is a frequent traveler to Italy. She runs Italian Excursion, small group tours and excursions in northern Lazio.

© Cheryl Alexander, 2004

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