It’s true 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 rubs shoulders with Tuscany and Umbria, I realized that sometimes the best places are the ones that everyone passes over in their rush to get to the famous.
To be clear, Tuscia is not part of Tuscany, despite the confusing (to North American ears) similar names. But it shares many characteristics with this far more famous—and touristy—area: rolling landscapes, farmhouse hotels, historic homes, wine production and fine dining. Antonello Mancini Caterini, the current owner of Castello di Santa Cristina, actually describes his area to prospective visitors as “southern Tuscany. “It’s a similar atmosphere,” he says, “but with fewer people.” And you can see Tuscany.
Catherine’s Napoleonic castle is magnificent, with beautiful grounds and collections of artefacts – his great-grandfather was an equestrian and member of the Pope’s national guard at a time when the Catholic church was based in the regional capital of Viterbo rather than the Vatican. Horseback riding runs in the family and is one of the main activities sought after by visitors.
Staying there, I was struck by the difference between staying in the grounds (in a comfortable caretaker’s cottage) of a real castle, still inhabited by the aristocratic family that has lived in it since the 18th century, and one that has been converted into a luxury hotel since Rosewood or COMO (nothing wrong with them!). This is actually classified as an agriturismo, those uniquely wonderful Italian farmhouse accommodations that are low-key but high on charm. “It’s rustic and original. We had the idea to preserve the spirit of the place”, says Katerini. “It’s not a five-star hotel, but a place with a soul, and that soul needs to be preserved.”
When he turned the castle into a tourist product—no longer supporting itself as a potato farm—in 1997, it was unprecedented. But Caterini saw that it would provide the income for the restorations and offer him an opportunity to share his heritage—and his occasionally irreverent sense of decorative humor—with the world.
Now he is one of the 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 Vesmile, the owner of Vesconte in Bolsena, which has doubled in size since my first visit, with the same eye for design and detail. His bet to save his family’s homestead through tourism had clearly paid off.
He also set out to create an alliance of like-minded homeowners. tourism professionals and local politicians across Tussia to volunteer to promote the destination – what it says is a “real authentic offering, with places rich in history and the passion of the people who made them reborn”. And he continues, “This union of intentions has allowed the development of a sensitive and true experiential tourism, shortening the distances between one place and another. [It’s a] slow tourism, consisting of unique stages that are united in a single historical-cultural path”.
Because this is Italy, the area is dense and vibrant, richly layered with that living history, not to mention palaces and castles. Take for example the village of Sutri, one of the most important Etruscan cities – dating back to the year 728 – and once an important center for the Church. It’s the kind of place that has restaurants like La Sfera d’Oro, a trattoria known for its excellent duck, and the kind that doesn’t have an English menu because international tourism hasn’t arrived.
Sutri is important now because its mayor is Vittorio Sgarbi, a powerful Italian art critic and historian, cultural commentator and politician. He began to use art to put the place on the international cultural map, making moves such as naming Andrea Bocelli an honorary citizen and creating a stunning museum in the village’s Palazzo Doebbing, a dilapidated former bishop’s palace. The final exhibition was surprisingly provocative, starting with the wonderful, oversized photograph of two women embracing behind the ticket counter.
One of the artists in that exhibition is Giovanni di Carpegna Falconieri, a Roman nobleman who also bought a palace in nearby Vetralla that had belonged to his family centuries ago. He restored his studio once in the Palazzo Franciosoni and decided to open it to the public with visits to the rich rooms of works by the masters of the Italian Renaissance alongside his contemporary works.
When he was restoring the frescoes, he discovered some curious ones, such as one depicting a bear and an elephant, even though these animals did not exist in 16th-century Italy (but did exist in stories of the world) and another showing both an androgynous person and a satyr who enjoys himself, which would certainly have been covered in more religious times. It’s worth a visit to hear his comments on them.
It was also when the area was the seat of the Catholic church: Popes had their preferred spas, among the 40 or so in the area. Still in operation today and now known as the Terme dei Papa, the baths, particularly the large outdoor pool, still have a grandeur that is steeped in history (and of course far less crowded than their famous Tuscan counterparts). Their source was mentioned by Dante Alighieri in the Divine Comedy and mentioned by Michelangelo in his sonnets. Inside the facility, there are thermal water and mud treatment rooms and a steam cave. The place accepts these wonderful recipes of the Italian doctors for weekly thermal treatments, but it is also a great place to spend a relaxing afternoon.
My tour also led, like almost all tours in Italy, to excellent restaurants. In Bolsena, Ristocantina Gio occupies an old medieval cellar, which was largely excavated more than 2,000 years ago by the Etruscans. Young local chef Giorgio Bufalari recently returned from Michelin-starred kitchens around the world to turn it into a gourmet destination.
More contemporary in style, the restaurant at Il Caminetto serves excellent pasta in a prime location next to Lake Bolsena (the largest volcanic lake in Europe). Vesmile, who also served as my guide throughout the area, remarked that the place feels like being in Capri. But unlike this popular island, we popped in for a Sunday lunch and were seated straight away, even though we didn’t have a reservation.
It was a similar story in the historic houses we visited that afternoon, particularly the Villa Farnese in Caprarola, a large pentagonal mansion that “some say is the best house in central Italy,” according to my informal guide, Natalia Pignatelli di Montecalvo . art historian and wife of the late Prince of San Severo Guido d’Aquino di Caramanico. It is a beautiful place to visit as it was started in 1504 by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who would become Pope Paul III. It is said that the family was in such fierce competition with another aristocratic family that they watched the craftsmen inside until every luxurious Renaissance detail was finished. The staircase, which was designed to allow horses to climb it, is studied in art history classes.
“If this was in Rome,” says Montecalvo, “there would be a two-hour line to see it.” Here, and in the nearby formal gardens of Villa Lante in Bagnaia, there was hardly anyone except a few locals enjoying a Sunday afternoon in the sun.
Montecalvo and her son, Filippo d’Aquino di Caramanico, renovated their own family’s country house – once a garrison for the Knights of Malta – and turned it into an elegant, intimate country house. The Commenda dei Cavalieri dell’Ordine di Malta’s three bedrooms and living areas are filled with family heirlooms, antique books and, as Caramanico casually points out, a carpet that once belonged to the Pope. Their property also has the oldest chapel in Tuskia, built in 1212, when the place was a monastery.
Speaking (loosely) of religious traditions, Tuscia also hosts one of the most incredible festivals in Italy. September 4th is the patron saint of Viterbo, a city that happens to have one of the largest and best preserved medieval centers in the world. It is celebrated with a procession the night before.
Santa Rosa is honored with a 98-foot-tall statue – taller than any building in the old town – called the Machine, adorned with around 800 burning candles and carried on the shoulders of 100 men from one end of the medieval center to the other, a route that has nearly a mile long. The machine is replaced every few years and redesigned by a prominent architect, in this case Raffaele Ascenzi.
Residents line the streets to enter the Macchina di Santa Rosa, while journalists and guests invited by the municipality gather in 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.