Inside the Walls of Viterbo

As of today, we have less than a week left in Viterbo. We leave bright and early Saturday morning to head to Switzerland for the vacation portion of our journey.

From our first day here, when Henry and I tiptoed around the streets surrounding our guest house, I’ve made it my goal to explore as much of Viterbo (inside the walls, at least) as I can.

First, some history so you can understand that “inside the walls” part. A city has stood here in some form or another for more than 2,000 years, starting with the Etruscans. Eventually the Romans took over (as the Romans were apt to do) and built one of their famous roads through the area because of regional hot springs. The city was a stop along the Via Francigena pilgrimage route, and the pope lived here for a while in the 12th century. Due to a variety of battles and rivalries, the city powers constructed walls from the region’s volcanic stone between the 11th and 13th centuries — some of which still stand, while others have been patched together over the centuries. There’s more Viterbo outside the walls than in these days, but the heart of the city is inside.

(This is a veeeeery brief history. A more elaborate one is here.)

I’ve gotten to study the city’s historical architecture in my drawing class, in which we spend hours sketching alongside small history and art lessons from our professor. I still can’t quite get the angles on a fountain right (though I’m getting better!), but I’ve learned how to look closely at that fountain for hints of history and symbolism.

Modern in-the-walls Viterbo maintains much of its historical character. The maze-like cobblestone streets weave around piazzas, fountains, churches, and tall stone towers. The city’s medieval quarter, San Pelligrino, is so well-preserved it’s sometimes used as a movie set.

My photography class also has been a great way to study the city. We spent one day just shooting architecture — this is one of the surviving towers built by medieval rival families trying to out-build each other. When one family bested another in some way, they got to knock down part of their enemy’s tower.

This city has a particular love of its past — the official map we were given upon arrival leaves out the names of modern fountains and sculptures — but it’s not entirely stuck in it. Viterbo is lively, bustling even, packed with shops, cafes, and restaurants. It’s rare to walk more than a few blocks without stumbling upon a tiny caffeteria. And there are always people hanging out around those caffeterie. Viterbo is a city where people go out, whether it’s to grab a coffee or a gelato, have a leisurely dinner on a piazza, or stroll around with their adorable dog. (There are SO MANY dogs here.)

My entire photography class fawned over this sweet pup, who was waiting with her dad for her mom to come out of Mass in the cathedral. For about 20 minutes she was the most famous dog in all Viterbo.

The abundance of small businesses is a testament to the Viterbese commitment to community life — spending time and money in town. My hometown of Moscow, which has little less than half Viterbo’s population, has one independent bookshop (Viterbo has at least eight inside the walls) and one ice cream shop (Viterbo has like 50 … and that’s only a mild exaggeration). We have exactly zero places to buy clothes, while Viterbo has a street dedicated to everything from luxury designers to shops for hipster teenagers, plus clothing stores dotted around the city. I used to think Moscow’s three downtown coffee shops were overkill, but that would be laughably sparse here.

It would be impossible to thoroughly experience Viterbo in a few years, let alone six weeks, but we’ve dug in to what we can.

We’ve gotten to know our neighborhood best, and I’ve made a point of trying to become a regular at multiple places. Our apartment is just inside the walls, tucked into a tiny street between Porta Romana and Porta della Verita (two of the doors leading to the outside).

We mostly stick to our neighborhood produce market, macelleria (butcher shop), and latteria (cheese shop). We also have places to buy bread, miscellaneous supplies, and fresh pasta. I picked one caffeteria (Cafe San Sisto) as my go-to for quick breakfasts before class — the classic Italian breakfast is a cornetto (a croissant filled with custard, Nutella, or jam) and espresso (or in my case, black tea in a cute little ceramic pot). We haven’t 100% dedicated ourselves to a pizza shop, because there are three awesome by-the-slice places within a five-minute walk.

And, oh yes, there’s gelato. Two of the absolute best gelaterie in Viterbo are in our neighborhood. (I’ll do a full post on gelato later, I promise.)

We had gelato at one of my favorite shops for my birthday, of course.

The local friends we’ve made through USAC have helped us discover other neat spots in the city, as have my fellow students.

We’ve also found some interesting places by continuing our dedication to exploring. I’ve kept notes on our map of the city, marking places we’ve stopped and noting where we haven’t checked out. Last weekend, Henry and I went to Valley Faul, once the path of a river, now mostly a parking lot with a graffiti-scarred modern statue (there are plenty of imperfections in Viterbo, but that’s a post for another day). Today, the family and I walked out to Piazza Fontan di Piano, the one fountain we’d yet to visit.

Henry with the foot of the giant statue in Valley Faul, a copy of “Awakening” by Seward Johnson.

When I look at my map, I’m proud of how much we’ve experienced but aware of how much more I could learn if we stayed here longer. I’ve been feeling more ready to go home lately — but it’s still going to be hard to leave on Saturday.

One of things I’ve loved best about living in North Idaho my whole life is the depth of knowledge I have about my home. But I can no longer say I’ve lived in Idaho my whole life. Viterbo is my home now, too, and I have no doubt we’ll be back someday to get to know it better.

After all, we have at least 40 gelaterie left to try.

My map of Viterbo.

One thought on “Inside the Walls of Viterbo

  1. Tara,

    Your post made my eyes mist and my heart happy. I’ve so enjoyed reading your blog about Italy. It’s the one country that I would really like to visit and in some ways, I now feel like I have thanks to you and the lovely way you write.

    I hope one day to meet you in person and hug you tight.

    Peace to you,


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