It’s a truism in travel writing that the best places are the hardest to get to. But on a recent visit to Tuscia, in northern Lazio where it snuggles up to Tuscany and Umbria, I realized that sometimes the best places are the ones everyone skips in their rush to get to the famous.
To be clear, Tuscia is not part of Tuscany, despite their confusing (to North American ears) similar names. But it shares many characteristics with this much more famous and touristy region: rolling landscapes, farm hotels, historic mansions, wine production and excellent cuisine. Antonello Mancini Caterini, the current owner of Santa Cristina Castle, in fact describes its region to potential visitors as “the south of Tuscany.” “It’s a similar vibe,” he says, “but with fewer people.” And you can see Tuscany.
Caterini’s Napoleonic castle is lovely, with beautiful grounds and collections of artefacts – his great-grandfather was a horseman and part of the Pope’s National Guard when the Catholic Church was headquartered in the regional capital of Viterbo rather than the Vatican. Horseback riding is always practiced in the family and it is one of the main activities practiced by the guests.
While staying there, I was struck by the difference between staying on the grounds (in a cozy caretaker’s house) of a real castle, one that is still occupied by the aristocratic family that has lived there since the 18th century, and the one that has been transformed into a luxury hotel by Rosewood or COMO (no complaints!). This one is actually classed as an agriturismo, these lovely unique Italian farmhouses, no frills but full of charm. “It’s rustic and quirky. We had the idea of preserving the spirit of the place”, says Caterini. “This is not a five star hotel but a place with a soul, and that soul needs to be preserved.”
When he converted the castle into a tourist product – it was no longer supporting itself as a potato farm – in 1997, such a thing was unheard of. But Caterini saw that it would provide the revenue from the restorations and offer him a chance to share his legacy – and sometimes his irreverent sense of decorative humor – with the world.
Today, he is one of many owners of historic palaces and castles that now welcome visitors. It’s an informal network, but one of the main players is Francesco Cozza Caposavi, the owner of Vesconte in Bolsena, which it has doubled in size since my first visit, always with the same attention to design and detail. His bet to save his family’s residence through tourism had clearly paid off.
He also set out to create an alliance of like-minded owners. tourism professionals and local politicians from all over Tuscia to voluntarily promote the destination – what he says is a “true authentic offer, with places rich in history and the passion of the individuals who brought them back to life”. He continues: “This union of intentions has allowed the development of a sensitive and experiential tourism, shortening the distances from one place to another. [It’s a] slow tourism, made up of unique stages that come together in the same historical and cultural journey.
Because this is Italy, the area is dense and lively, rich in layers of that living history, not to mention palaces and castles. Take the village of Sutri, for example, one of the most important Etruscan towns — it dates from the year 728 — and once an important center for the Church. It’s the kind of place that has restaurants like The Sfera d’Oro, a trattoria known for its excellent duck and the kind of place that doesn’t have English menus because mass tourism hasn’t arrived.
Sutri is important now because its mayor is Vittorio Sgarbi, an influential Italian art critic and historian, cultural commentator and politician. He decided to use art to put the place on the international cultural map, doing things like naming Andrea Bocelli an honorary citizen and creating a wonderful museum in the village. Doebbing Palace, an old disused episcopal palace. The final exhibit was surprisingly provocative, starting with the gorgeous oversized photo of two women kissing behind the ticket window.
One of the artists in this exhibition is Giovanni di Carpegna Falconieri, a Roman nobleman who also bought back a palace near Vetralla that had belonged to his family centuries ago. He restored his old studio in Palazzo Franciosoni and decides to open it to the public with the visit of its rooms rich in works by the masters of the Italian Renaissance, alongside his contemporary works.
When he restored the frescoes he discovered a few curiosities, including one which depicts a bear and an elephant when these animals were not present in 16th century Italy (but present in world histories) and another which shows an androgynous person and a self-indulgent satyr, which would surely have been covered in a more religious time. Worth visiting to hear his comments on these.
Also happened when the region was the seat of the Catholic Church: The Popes had their favorite thermal baths, among the forty in the region. Still in operation today and now known as Term dei Papa, the baths, especially the large outdoor pool, still have a history-steeped grandeur (and of course far fewer crowds than their famous Tuscan counterparts). Their source was mentioned by Dante Alighieri in the Divine Comedy and quoted by Michelangelo in his sonnets. Inside the facility there are thermal water and mud treatment rooms and a steam cave. The place accepts wonderful prescriptions from Italian doctors for week-long spa treatments, but it’s also a splendid place to spend a lazy afternoon.
My visit also led, like almost all visits to Italy, to some outstanding restaurants. In Bolsena, Ristocantina Gio occupies an ancient medieval cellar, which was largely excavated over 2,000 years ago by the Etruscans. Young local chef Giorgio Bufalari has recently returned from Michelin-starred kitchens around the world to turn it into a foodie destination.
More contemporary in style, the restaurant Il Caminetto serves excellent pasta in a prime location by Lake Bolsena (the largest volcanic lake in Europe). Cozza Caposavi, who also acted as my guide in the area, pointed out that the place seemed to be in Capri. But unlike this popular island, we rolled up for a Sunday lunch and were seated straight away, despite not having a reservation.
It was a similar story in the historic homes we visited that afternoon, especially Villa Farnese at Caprarola, a grand pentagonal mansion that “some say is the best house in central Italy,” according to my informal guide, Natalia Pignatelli di Montecalvo, amateur art historian and wife of the late Prince of San Severo Guido d’Aquino by Caramanico. It is a wonderful place to visit, which was established in 1504 by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who would become Pope Paul III. The family was said to be in such fierce competition with another aristocratic family that they watched the craftsmen inside until they completed every sumptuous Renaissance detail. The staircase, which was designed in such a way as to allow horses to climb it, is studied in art history lessons.
“If it was Rome,” Montecalvo says, “there would be a two-hour line to see it.” Here, and in the neighboring formal gardens of Villa Lante in Bagnaia, there was hardly anyone except a handful of locals enjoying a Sunday afternoon in the sun.
Montecalvo and his son, Filippo d’Aquino di Caramanico, renovated their own family’s country house – once a garrison of the Knights of Malta – and transformed it into an elegant and intimate holiday home. The four bedrooms and living areas of their Commenda dei Cavalieri dell’Ordine di Malta are full of family heirlooms, old books and, as Caramanico nonchalantly points out, a rug that once belonged to the pope. Their property also has the oldest chapel in Tuscia, built in 1212, when the place was a monastery.
Speaking (loosely) of religious traditions, Tuscia is also home to one of Italy’s most incredible festivals. September 4 is the day of the patron saint of Viterbo, a city that has one of the largest and best preserved medieval centers in the world. It is celebrated with a procession the day before.
Santa Rosa is commemorated by a 98-foot tall statue – taller than any building in the Old City – called a machine, adorned with some 800 burning candles and carried on the shoulders of 100 men from a end of the medieval center to the other, a long road of almost a mile. The machine is replaced every few years and redesigned by a prominent architect, in this case Raffaele Ascenzi.
Residents line the streets to enjoy the Macchina de Santa Rosa, while journalists and guests invited by the municipality gather at a party to watch it from the second-floor windows of the local government offices, which are housed in – you guessed it – another historic palace.