Within Castle Walls, Vitorchiano Italy
a travel essay by Leah Cano
In the darkness, I woke up to a loud, rumbling like a huge boulder rolling down a hill destroying anything in its path. I held my breath. My heart beat rapidly . The rumbling continued, louder now, but hollow. It was an echo, as though enclosed within thick walls.
Then, I remembered. In fact, I was enclosed within walls, fortress walls over 800 years old, I had been told. The gradual patter, then downpouring of rain confirmed that it had been the sound of thunder, distant now, which was new to me, here in the two rooms I occupied just within the walls of this medieval fortress.
Vitorchiano is a charming hillside town in the Lazio region of Italy between the towns of Orte and Viterbo, about an hour north of Rome. In making my plans to come here, attempting to locate it on a very elaborate map of Italy, I was told by my host that she would be very surprised if it was on any map, elaborate or otherwise. I must admit this piece of information intrigued me all the more.
The photos I viewed of Vitorchiano drew me in with its medieval dwellings carved high into the crevices of mountains. Formed of peperino stone, the walls having been worn away by years of erosion, the deep gullies created served as the natural barrier surrounding the original town to discourage invasion from neighboring hostile armies. It was magnificent in its natural beauty and seemed to me, sublimely mysterious. In a word, I was hooked.
The quiet, picturesque natural beauty that awaited me upon my arrival was not a disappointment. In sharp contrast to the usual, harried, more crowded tourist venues of Rome and Florence, Vitorchiano has an unhurried, personable feel to it. From it’s narrow, ancient and winding alleys adorned with flowering planters, and meandering cats, to its small businesses selling fresh produce, meats, cheeses, and breads as well as a few shops specializing in clothing and housewares, there seems to be time to actually meet the locals, who are friendly and curious about visitors.
The main square just outside the fortress is Piazzale Umberto which is dotted with small establishments including a pharmacy, a cafe, a bank, a gas station and a stationery store. There is also a small park overlooking the surrounding gullies below at the entrance to the town. The bus stop, situated near the gas station, takes passengers ,to Viterbo, neighboring city to the southwest. Once an enemy of Vitorchiano, it is half an hour away with an old, historical district including an Etruscan museum, churches, theatre, and a university.
Viterbo also has a bustling, small city atmosphere with a modern department store mall, a train station and a few internet points not available in Vitorchiano. At the center of Vitorchiano’s Piazzale Umberto stands a huge monument that seems quite out of place, a statue that is unmistakably from the area of Easter Island. It is a tribute to the people of Vitorchiano for their help in preserving the ancient rock carving tradition both peoples shared. Vitorchiano, once renown as a quarry and rock carving, artisan town, used the bedrock of peperino stone upon which their city was built, to design elaborate stone adornments in their houses.
When the inhabitants of Easter Island realized in the late 1980’s that the preservation of their rock carving tradition, also using peperino rock, was in danger of disappearing due to mortality among the aging artisans and lack of interest by others to conserve the art, they sent an appeal out to the world for help in preserving this ancient tradition. Apparently, the artisans of Vitorchiano answered the call and gathered with the people of Easter Island who traveled the long way to Italy, to teach the tradition to others so that the shared ancient tradition would not die.
The visit culminated with the installation of the monument by the Maoris of Easter Island in appreciation of their fellow Italian artisans. It is dated January 29th of 1990. On the wall at the entrance to the burgh of Vitorchiano, is the war memorial most Italian towns have constructed in their main squares to pay homage to their war dead. It consists of an impressive fountain, a soldier on one side, and angel on the other, to honor those who died in the first and second world wars and those in between.
As I stood in front of the fountain, I contemplated how the people of these little towns may have sacrificed generations of the same families who gave their lives in defense of their country. As you continue under the archway into the entrance of the fortress, you will come upon the Piazza Roma where the municipal building is housed along with its towering clock, Torre del Comune. If I needed to know what time that rumbling sound woke me mid-dream that night, I would only have had to wait a few minutes for this tower clock to tell me.
None of Vitorchiano’s inhabitants need carry a watch while they are within hearing distance of the town as it rings every fifteen minutes with a strong, deep stroke for each hour and a smaller, higher pitched ring for every quarter hour. Consequently, I found myself leaving my watch behind, becoming less and less dependent on it as I explored the town.
Vitorchiano is not always about the past, about castles and ancient natural defenses. Located not far from Piazza Roma is the ancient Monastery of Saint Agnes dating back to 1366, which has been restored and transformed into the Locanda di Sant’Agnese a modern, hotel and spa which offers eighteen rooms, meeting rooms, terraces, and roof gardens with views of Vitorchiano. The Locanda also offers “La Rosa Blu” restaurant and a “Beauty Farm” spa which includes manicures, pedicures, massage, Turkish baths and other treatments for relaxation. It is a four-star hotel. Their rates are from 70 to 115 EURO depending on the season. Their website is: www.locandasantagnese.com
Another place to stay which is less centrally located, about a 10 minute drive from the old part of town is the Piccolo Opera. It is a small former pilgrimage hotel with small comfortable rooms, private baths and a restaurant offering simple Italian fare. Nearby is a pizzeria, grocery store and café. Their rates are from 40 to 60 EURO. Telephone: 0761-370032 ; FAX: 0761-371032. Their website is firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are fortunate enough to visit Vitorchiano during the first weekend of August, you may be able to witness the “Festa di Cavatelli”, a traditional pasta of Vitorchiano made of fennel and tomato. Participants are served a full course meal with this traditional dish for 4 Euro.
There is also an abundance of music provided by local entertainers, enhancing the celebration and festive mood which lasts the entire day, I am told. The small studio that I called my home for my short stay in Vitorchiano allowed me to appreciate the wonders of nature, in all her resilience and beauty at a very personal level. As I gazed out my window, overlooking the dramatic depth of the gullies below for the last time before my departure, I was amazed that a person like myself, standing at the threshold of a new, modern century, would find myself in awe of the strength I had become witness to, within these ancient walls of peperino, inside this impenetrable fortress which would undoubtedly remain standing many years after I was gone.
----by Lean Cano. This article first appeared in
Leah Cano is a writer and teacher living in Laguna Beach, California. Her work has appeared in Transitions Abroad, MAMM magazine, and the Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor’s Soul anthology. She inaugurated the Centro Pokkoli writer's retreat in October 2005.