Offbeat Summer Travel in Italy
In Italy, summer is the time of year when the city residents evacuate the urban areas to find refuge in the cool mountain air, or with a refreshing swim in the sea. During July and August especially, Rome is devoid of Romans, and in the historical center the only folks speaking Italian are probably from Albania or Romania (like those guys dressed up as Gladiators in front of the coliseum).
Many Italians own second homes in the popular vacation towns, or at least have a favorite place that they return to year after year. As an expat, I think it’s more fun to go exploring different locations. And since Italy is so compact with interesting destinations, you rarely have to get on an airplane to find something new and exciting.
So this week, our little group of mischievous expat bloggers (COSI: Crazy Observations by Stranieri in Italy) has made some suggestions for offbeat summer travel in Italy. Not the usual recommendations, but moving down the list a bit to the sites and towns where the average tourist rarely treads.
Very close to Rome is the area referred to as “Tuscia.” It’s not an “official” region of Italy, but historically it’s the area where the Etruscans once lived, right at the crossroads of modern day Lazio, Umbria, and Tuscany, roughly coinciding with the province of Viterbo.
Everyone is always searching for the next “undiscovered” area of Italy. With its proximity to Rome, it’s hard to believe that Tuscia has remained such a well-kept secret. But for those who want more from their visit to the capital than the standard tourist itinerary, a side-trip into Tuscia might be just the thing.
Tuscia is also the integral part of the “Franciscan Road,” the ancient religious itinerary through which the pilgrims entered the city of Rome. It had to be performed on foot and usually with a group, carrying the insignia of the pilgrimage, which was the Key of Saint Peter.
In fact, with the announcement of this year’s special Jubilee, this trail will likely be full of “pellegrini” by the first week of December.
Tuscia offers a diversity of travel destinations. No matter if you’re a history buff, a foodie, an art lover, or someone who just appreciates the transcendent beauty of the Italian countryside, Tuscia has something for everyone. Let’s look at a few of the highlights…
The Papal Palace of Viterbo
The Palazzo dei Papi was built between 1255 and 1266, and then completed in 1267 with the addition of the elegant loggiato in the gothic style, which was incorporated to lighten up the original military look.
This location marks the beginning of the now traditional way in which popes are chosen, the so-called conclave. In 1268 after the death of Pope Clemens IV, the eighteen voting cardinals gathered in Viterbo to elect the new pope. After months of unsuccessful deliberations, it was suggested that the group be sequestered in this palace until a new pope was agreed upon. To inspire them further, they reduced their rations to bread and water. Then in a last desperate act, they removed the roof (scoperchiamento) to allow the Holy Spirit to enter the chambers and guide the cardinals in their decision. (Just when you think that religion can’t get any stranger…)
Near the coast of Lazio on a hill east of Tarquinia lies the famous and suggestive Etruscan Necropolis of Monterozzi. It has been called “the first chapter in the history of Italian painting” by the Italian archeologist, Massimo Pallottino.
The necropolis has a total of about 6,000 graves, and about 200 of them are decorated with colorful frescos, which date from the seventh to the second century B.C. A real marvel of ancient art, still well-preserved, and it was justly acknowledged as a Human Heritage site by UNESCO in 2004.
The Monsters of Bomarzo
“The Monsters’ Park” was built in 1552 by Vicino Orsini “only to vent my heart’s feelings” after the death of his wife Giulia Farnese. The natural rocks of the terrain were transformed into dreamy, grotesque sculptures: Sphinxes and Ermes, protectors of the city and travelers. There are giants that recall mythical heroes throughout the ages: Proteus, Hercules, and the Winged Victory. It’s a dramatic walking trail populated by the supernatural and cryptic; poignant with knightly allusions where good and evil battle in an enchanted forest under a magic spell.
This park has been a source of inspiration for several artists like Dalì, Afro, De Koonig. One stroll around the grounds and you’ll see why.
This evocative little hamlet rises from the Valley of the Calanchi and sits precariously atop a crumbling perch. Mostly likely, you’ve seen the pictures. It can only be reached by way of a pedestrian bridge, and from a distance recalls scenes from Harry Potter or some other such fantasy.
Not many people actually live here—at last count, only six residents. But its charm only increases with the constant erosion of the hill and the surrounding valley, leading to the slow but inevitable disappearance of il paese che muore or, “the dying city.” Come and see it before it’s gone!
St. Patrick’s Well of Orvieto
There are many, many reasons to visit Orvieto, and Il Pozzo di San Patrizio is certainly one of them. “Saint Patrick’s Well” was built together with water cisterns by order of Pope Clemens VII in 1527 to assure the town’s autonomy in case of invasion. The well is almost 62 meters (203 feet) deep and 13.4 meters (44 feet) wide. Two opposite gates give access to two “scale a chiocciola” (snail-shaped stairs); one to descend, one to climb, each with 248 steps.
Descend to the bottom and make a wish!
I’ve been to Tuscia myself on several occasions, and I always seem to find something new to discover. However, not all of these destinations are easily reached by train. If you want to see Bomarzo and Bagnoregio, for example, renting a car for the day might be your best bet.
Check out the posts by friends in our #COSItaly group for more suggestions on offbeat summer travel in Italy and beyond. And if you want to avoid making a “brutta figura,” make sure to check out our video on “How to be a good little tourist in Italy,” which gives advice and tips on proper manners while visiting the bel paese.
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The Unwilling Expat: 5 Easy Steps for Becoming a Good Tourist in Italy
Englishman in Italy: Tips for the Intrepid Tourist