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The Slow Life in Viterbo: Lessons from a Medieval City

“The more I slowed down, the more I became a part of the city.”

When I moved to Viterbo, life became slower overnight.

I was encouraged to embrace a completely different way of living than what I knew as an American. A new lifestyle of shopping at morning markets and getting my bread from the Antico Panificio Pianoscarano, a stalwart since 1930, and sipping my espresso at the local bar. Viterbo is a living postcard of the medieval era, and the modern day city holds onto many elements from this time period. Memorabilia from its time as a conclave for the Catholic church and maps of the Via Francigena, the pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome, are found throughout Viterbo. History is not only present, but in your face; the city embraces its roots around every corner. To integrate myself with such a culture, I learned to slow down, get a little lost and immerse myself in the daily life of its people.

I moved to Viterbo without knowing much about it. I knew it was a university town near Rome, surrounded by rolling hills. But over the 10 months that I lived there, I became intimately acquainted with the capital of Tuscia, an often overlooked area north of Rome

A slow two hour train ride from the country’s capital, Viterbo is quaint and not touristy: the isolation was difficult at times, but it gave me no choice but to both embrace the Italian language and the local customs.

The small (or mid-size, depending on your perspective) city, which tops out at under 70,000 inhabitants, has large walls that encircle the downtown, and I quickly learned that it was much more common to say “Let’s meet at Porta Romana” than any specific street address. The porte (doors), looming with their intricate stone designs, break up the 30-meter-tall, towering walls and lead into the city. Between the 11th and 12th century, these walls were built, surrounding the city to protect it from enemies and indicating the wealth of the medieval town. 

Ten months later, these doors are my geographical points of reference…and I still don’t know the names of any of the streets.

The architecture and city planning (or perhaps lack of planning) forced me to embrace exploring my own backyard. I thought I would never learn my way around these angled streets, turning left and right so abruptly. But over time, as I became integrated into the community of the city through friendships, work and art classes, I found myself learning the neighborhoods and discovering how each neighborhood contributed to the character of the city and to my social and professional life.

The piazzas–Piazza Plebiscito, Palazzo dei Papi and Piazza della Morte–are where the slow life, la vita lenta, is on display. People meet at the bars or congregate on the benches or steps and chat for hours. Each square has its own go-to spot for whiling away the afternoon. In Piazza della Morte, BiBì serves pastries with a Tuscian flare, like the local hazelnut cake or the maritozzo, a doughy brioche filled with whipped cream whose roots trace back to ancient Rome. 

For a gelato, always go to Duomo, with fresh flavors like pistachio made daily and with names like schiaffo dei papi (slap of the pope), a classic fior di latte or cream flavor filled with local hazelnuts and rich chocolate. The name is a nod to the city’s rich papal history: Viterbo was the home of eight popes in the 12th century. Legend has it that it once took the church over 18 months to decide the next pope, so the townsfolk removed the roof of the church in the hopes that exposing the cardinals to the finicky Viterbo weather would speed up the process. 

In the main piazza, Piazza Plebisicito, Bar Centrale makes for the perfect people-watching and eavesdropping. I learned so much Italian from sitting in that piazza, nursing my spritz or espresso, and listening to the ever-present hum of the locals. 

Viterbo is known for a unique cuisine. The hilltop city borrows pasta dishes from Rome and relies on Pecorino Romano, but as it’s only 50 kilometers from the sea, some fish dishes have also made their way into the repertoire. The landscape, lush and hilly, makes Viterbo a truffle haven. In all, the restaurants–and the wonderful hospitality–is not to be missed. La Chimera was the first restaurant I went to, and the one that became my spot. The restaurant is in an older building downtown, and you’re surrounded by stone arches as you eat their famous tagliatelle with funghi porcini, a long, flat pasta with mushroom. I’m always served by the same man, who takes his time to chat with each table. The staff is quick to suggest the perfect wine, and seasonality and classics are at the forefront. Be sure not to miss the orecchiette pasta with prawns, my personal favorite. Monastero, the town’s crowning pizza joint, serves up a unique Viterbo style of the dish. If you’re feeling extra hungry, join the locals and order the double pizza, which is exactly as it sounds: an oblong shape that takes up two dishes. Right outside Piazza della Morte, La Vecchia Viterbo e i suoi Sapori sells local products and the Tuscia Porchetta, roast pork enhanced with truffle and pecorino. And for a taste of the sea, Il Gargolo is the best for seafood; their grilled octopus over a potato puree strikes the perfect balance between Italian home cooking and bold flavors.

Living in an old city forces one to be patient. All of the shops are closed from one to four in the afternoon, and on Sunday, most are shuttered. At first, I couldn’t get the hang of this new schedule, but over time I found that I traded convenience for quality, both in food and products and in conversation. I planned my shopping around the markets and bakeries, and instead rested during siesta alongside my neighbors. 

Though Viterbo is a city, it’s intimate: families here have known each other for a long time. It was often astoundingly obvious that I was the outsider, and many times my macchiato was interrupted by a “Di dove sei?” (“Where are you from?”)–always asked with curiosity, never out of rudeness. 

These conversations encouraged me to be less shy, and as my Italian got better so did the quality of these interactions. I met people who invited me to local sacra, often food-focused festivals, in the neighboring villages. I had insightful conversations about politics and food–equally heated topics for Italians. I hadn’t expected to be the one striking up conversations at the bar, but in Viterbo I was learning that the slow pace of life not only allowed for lingering at the banco, but encouraged it. 

The more I slowed down, the more I became a part of the city. The barista knew my order, and the boutique owners didn’t hesitate to give me recommendations, for example, for their favorite thermal baths out of the many natural hot springs that are found across the Tuscia landscape. I found that living in Viterbo changed how I traveled. I of course made time for museums in other cities, but I spent even more of it looking for the local bakeries and bars, and chatting with the residents.

This walled city became my respite, the place I looked forward to when I returned from travels around Italy and the world. It is ever quiet, peaceful and reliable. Viterbo encouraged me to be appreciative of the little things and to embrace la vita lenta, the slow life. At first I thought that living in a walled, quiet city would make me feel isolated. Instead, I found a vibrant community of Viterbesi, overflowing with pride and character.

Bomarzo garden

Palazzo Farnese, Tuscia. By @car__lotta

Duomo

Piazza del Plebisicito

La Chimera

Il Monastero

La Vecchia Viterbo e i suoi Sapori

Il Gargolo