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Friday, June 22, 2012

Beating the heat and crowds travelling to Rome’s countryside

Halfway between Rome and Florence subsist the terrain that was once the chosen summer getaways for Medieval and Renaissance Cardinals and Popes, as well as the heartland of the pre-Roman civilization known as the Etruscans (by which the name Tuscany derives).

The area of Northern Lazio that borders with Tuscany, defined politically as the Province of Viterbo, is where the traditional conclave began and the custom of locking up the Cardinals after papal history’s longest election process that lasted 33 months.  The voting has now moved to the Sistine Chapel, along with 20,000 tourists per day.  Hence the suggestion to make Rome’s countryside your summer getaway as well.

Roughly 40 miles north of Rome or 100 miles south of Florence, and even closer to the Civitavecchia port, several sites in the Viterbo province offer refuge from the heat and crowds at the more popular destinations where one can wait hours this time of year to see the statue of David or the Coliseum.   The grandeur of the cities of Rome and Florence can be found, more authentically, perched on hilltops surrounded by volcanic crater lakes and mountains, built on pre-Roman walls and adorned with medieval castles and Renaissance villas. 

Among the most famous sites in the area is the Farnese Villa and garden at Caprarola.  The Farnese was a noble family from the region with one member who became among the most important Popes of the Counter Reformation.  He built a palace in Rome too, now home of the French embassy and thus inaccessible to the public.  Inside the villa in Caprarola are fine Renaissance frescoes by the contemporaries of Raphael and Michelangelo.

Breaking away from the Renaissance tradition of precise and orderly architecture and garden design, Duke Vicino Orsini built likely the world’s first amusement park at Bomarzo in the 16th Century.  His “Sacred Grove” is now a spectacle of nature that amazes kids and adults alike.
Rick Steves made the area famous after suggesting the small medieval village of Civita, not far from the birthplace of St. Bonaventure.  However Mary Jane Cryan, yet another Buffalo native that has made Italy her home, is a leading scholar on the region and has published several scholarly guide books on the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance sites in the area and deeper connections between central Italy and the rest of the world.  She is the author of Etruria, and Travels to Tuscany and Northern Lazio. As an added incentive to tours of the area based on her insightful research she opens her restored 18th Century palace in the Medieval city of Vetralla for a typical Italian lunch either beside her stone fireplace or on her terrace surrounded by a quintessential Italian landscape of rolling hills, this allowing visitors not only to explore historic grandeur, but live it in modern ways.

Consider a day trip or an overnight in Northern Lazio, a short road trip outside Rome's city walls en route to Florence and Tuscany, bypassing a roadside Roman theater with no waiting line...and discover the roots of Rome at Etruscan archaeological sites. An ideal alternative for cruise ship arrivals at the Civitavecchia port, rather than the treck to Rome with all the other members of your ship, are the grande castles, palaces and parks once belonging to heads of the Papal state to be found in the Viterbo province.

Day trip tours on seaside routes through bucolic landscapes of olive and chestnut trees can include visiting the Etruscan necropolis of Tarquinia with the oldest testimony of Italian fresco painting dating back to the 5th Century B.C., or an excusion to any of the artistic parks and villas in the region such as Villa Lante, Farnese or Bomarzo.

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