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Fairy-Tale Villages Where Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio Meet

This edition of our series on marvelous Medieval places in Italy focuses on central Italy, at a spot where mystery, ancient history, and three legendary provinces — Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio — converge.


This zone is often referred to as “the Etruscan countryside” because of its history in ancient times when it was inhabited by the mystical Etruscans. This advanced civilization established hilltop villages throughout the region well over two thousand years ago, long before Rome would rise to dominate the ancient world. Amazingly, these villages still stand today, after evolving through many epochs to finally acquire the Medieval trappings for which they are now known.


Tuscany and Umbria have achieved global fame for their splendid terrain, those undulating landscapes embellished with vineyards, hilltop hamlets, farmhouses, tall cypress, and golden fields of grain you see on postcards. While Lazio also contains these fabulous features, its topographical merits tend to be outshone by its most popular destination and the star of the Italian tourism show: Rome.


At the meeting point of Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio, we also find beautiful Lake Bolsena, which is the geographic hub of the villages we’re highlighting in this issue. Located 125 km (about 75 miles) from The Eternal City, and about 80 km (50 miles) from the port of Civitavecchia, Lake Bolsena is set in an area of great natural beauty with a fascinating past. Fortunately, the enchantment of hundreds (even thousands) of years past can be yet experienced in these Medieval gems surrounding Lake Bolsena: Pitigliano, Orvieto, Civita di Bagnoregio, Viterbo, Tuscania, and Montefiascone.


These villages occupy four corners around Lake Bolsena in a neat polygon, with the exception of Montefiascone, which sits directly on the lake.


As with our previous edition, Six Marvelous Medieval Places in Tuscany, we begin with the bigger places and work our way down to the smaller ones.


VITERBO

If you are a fan of architecture, you will love Viterbo. One of the best-preserved Medieval sites in central Italy, its numerous points of interest encompass many centuries and styles. In the 12th and 13th Centuries, Viterbo was a popular hangout for the Popes. Palazzo dei Papi (Palace of the Popes) is a handsome edifice that bears witness to this era. Although Viterbo is a city and the capital of the province bearing its name, it has a definite village vibe. With less than 70,000 inhabitants, the town is compact and very pleasant to explore on foot.


Viterbo’s claim to fame in modern times is the macchina di Santa Rosa. “Macchina” means “machine” in Italian but this machine is more like a float from Carnevale, except in the form of an intricately-decorated tower a hundred feet tall. The macchina — weighing in at 5,000 pounds — is carried on the shoulders of a hundred local men through the streets of Viterbo on September 3rd of every year to honour the city’s patron saint. Watch this video to get a sense of the enthralling spectacle (and see if you can keep from squealing with amazement!).  


ORVIETO

We should probably put “bigger” in quotes when referring to Orvieto. With a population of 20,000, it is a small city but barely more than a village by modern standards. In the view of this writer, Orvieto feels bigger than Viterbo, perhaps because of the grandeur of its monuments. The cathedral is a truly splendid work of Gothic and Romanesque architecture, quite similar to Siena’s magnificent duomo, replete with shimmering mosaics on the facade. Many regard Orvieto’s cathedral as one of the most beautiful churches in Italy, perhaps even in the world.


Orvieto is also a place of very ancient history; its story goes back three thousand years! Add to this some very unusual points of interest — namely, St. Patrick’s Well (a massive well encircled by a double-helix staircase dating back to Renaissance times) and the underground city — and you have a destination with something for everyone.


MONTEFIASCONE

Besides being a quaint village, Montefiascone serves up panoramic vistas of Lake Bolsena. The lake is very peaceful and scenic, great for nature lovers or for tourists who need some open space and a breath of fresh air. Despite being tiny, Montefiascone has a big story to tell. In Medieval times, it occupied a strategic position along the pilgrimage route of the Via Francigena. Montefiascone is also known for its white wine, Est! Est!! Est!!!, and the charming legend that gave the wine its name.


TUSCANIA

Located about thirty minutes from the port of Civitavecchia, Tuscania is a bit of an open-air Etruscan museum. The covers of sarcophagi, with their classic reclining figures, decorate both public spaces and the many lookout points. The simple Etruscan fountain in Parco Torre di Lavello is the object of much photographic enthusiasm.


Without a doubt, the yummiest piece of architectural eye candy in Tuscania is the Basilica of San Pietro (Saint Peter). This splendid Romanesque church rises in the distance on a hill outside Tuscania (this hillside is pictured in the featured image of this newsletter). Very striking in its simplicity and sporting an elegant rose window, the basilica dates back to somewhere between the 8th and 11th Centuries. (As far as this author is concerned, the Basilica of San Pietro in Tuscania is one of the most magical structures in one of the most magical places in all of Italy.)  


PITIGLIANO

Deemed one of the borghi più belli d’Italia — the most beautiful villages in Italy — by an association set up to promote the charm and cultural value of these small places, Pitigliano is a place that may make your jaw drop. The hamlet emerges from the plateau like a crazy urban sculpture, a cityscape literally carved out of the porous tuff. The village cuts a particularly fine figure when it is illuminated and viewed from a distance after dark. 


Within the hamlet, the typical winding streets create a delightful Medieval environment but one feature stands out as truly unique: the Medici aqueduct. Commissioned by the powerful Medici family of Florence in the 17th Century, it was the first aqueduct constructed in the Maremma (the southern part of Tuscany) and is still in excellent condition.


CIVITA DI BAGNOREGIO

If you’re familiar with Italy’s “Dying City” — that’s Civita di Bagnoregio. While the nickname might not sound so appealing, the hamlet is right out of a fairy tale. Perched atop a rocky spur, the city hovers above an enchanting landscape. 


Its recent boom as a tourist destination might be payback for all the misery the village has suffered over the centuries. Between erosion, landslides, earthquakes, floods, and the exodus of most of its citizens, Bagnoregio was reduced to pretty much a ghost town until its Medieval beauty, virtually untouched by time, and the novelty of the long footbridge that is a visitor's only way to reach the village, pulled it back from the precipice of extinction. 


With a mere eleven inhabitants (according to the Italian Ministero della Cultura), its position as the tiniest place on our list is indubitable. The village is minuscule but you will have no problem losing yourself in the charm of this place frozen in time, one of many scattered across the continually captivating country of Italy.



Live the fairy tale! DriverInRome would be pleased to escort you from Rome to any number of marvelous Medieval places. Please contact us for standard and customized itineraries as well as package tours.




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