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Filled with medieval villages, necropoli, and beautiful forests… the Tuscia region of Italy makes for an easy escape from the hustle and bustle of Rome. The region constitutes multiple areas that were historically under Etruscan influence. The name ‘Tuscia’ is derived from the ancient name of ‘Etruria,’ which arose following the Roman conquest. Today, the area essentially consists of the Viterbese province, though it used to be much larger. The hidden gems of Tuscia are not near as well-known as the major Italian tourist sites. Of course, this makes them all the more wonderful.
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Bomarzo is a comune in the lower valley of the Tiber, just under 70 kilometers from Rome. Bomarzo is most famous for its Parco dei Mostri (Park of the Monsters) aka the Sacro Bosco (Sacred Grove). When I saw all photos of these grotesque carvings and statues, I knew I had to visit. Really, I wanted to try to get in some good yoga shots. Sadly, the day I visited, there were quite a few people. Some days, I’m just not fully comfortable setting up my tripod and contorting myself for all to see. Still, the park is wonderfully disturbing and enchanting all at the same time.
Located just below the Orsini castle, the park was commissioned and built in the 16th century. Scattered throughout the forest are eerie and whimsical statues, some free-standing and some carved into the famous Tufo rock that is naturally abundant in the region.
Pier Francesco Orsini commissioned the park. He’d wanted the gardens as a method of coping with his grief when his wife died. The bizarre statues are scattered randomly throughout the gardens, sol per sfogare il Core (‘just to set the heart free’) – an inscription on one of the park’s obelisks.
The park’s most iconic statue depicts Orcus, with its mouth agape. Above it, the inscription Ogni pensiero vola, translating to ‘all thoughts fly,’ or, ‘all thoughts abandon, ye who enter here.’ If you enter the ‘hell mouth’ and whisper, anyone standing outside will be able to hear your secrets due to the acoustics of the inner mouth.
civita di bagnoreggio
Civita di Bagnoregio is roughly 120 kilometers north of Rome. Known as La città che muore (“The Dying Town”), Civita di Bagnoregio is like an island unto itself. The only access to the village is via footbridge from a neighboring town. The village does not allow cars, and you must pay a fee to enter (€5).
La città che muore sits on a mesa of fragile volcanic tuff. Due to the effects of erosion, it is in a perpetual state of danger and destruction. The perimeter of the plateau collapses, causing the buildings on the edge of the city to collapse as their underlying support crumbles to the ground below.
The village was founded by the Etruscans over 2,500 years ago. It is also the birthplace of Saint Bonaventure, whose childhood home has since fallen off the edge of the cliff – thanks, erosion!
Due to its recent revival as a tourist destination, the mayor of Civita di Bagnoregio implemented the small entrance fee to visit the dying city. Not only did this increase its publicity and appearance on the tourist radar, but it also allowed the 12 human permanent residents to forego communal taxes. Hopefully the associated fees will contribute to the rebuilding and restructuring of this beautiful village, so that people can continue to take in its beauty. Fun fact: in January 2020, CNN noted that the town had more feline residents than humans – cat lovers take note!
Bolsena is located approximately 120 kilometers north of Rome. It is a comune on the edge of the eastern shore of the beautiful Lago di Bolsena (Lake Bolsena).
Lago di Bolsena is a crater lake of volcanic and tectonic origin. The last known volcanic activity of the nearby Vulsini volcano hasn’t occurred since 104 BC, since remaining dormant. The lake is supplied entirely from the aquifer, rainfall and runoff, with one outlet at the southern end. Don’t worry, they have sewage treatment plants in place.
The lake has two islands, Isola Bisentina and Isola Martana. Both were created by the underwater eruptions following the collapse that created the depression. In Raphael’s scuola in the Vatican Stanze, a famed fresco depicts the creation of the lake.
Though not quite as enchanting as the other places mentioned on this list, I had to include Oriolo Romano simply due to the amount of time I spent here (their supermarket was open even during the Italian riposo, which is when I got off work and usually wanted lunch). Oriolo Romano is a slightly grittier town, beautiful nonetheless.
Palazzo Altieri di Oriolo is one of the town’s main attractions. It has frescoes with stories of the Old Testament and landscapes of Altieri’s former fiefs. Also worth checking out is the Fontana delle Picche, a central fountain designed by Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola.
Parco della Mola is only a few kilometers away from the main village. La Mola has perfect hiking trails, a natural thermal water bath and a tiny lake complete with its own waterfall.
Monterano Antica is Tuscia’s very own ghost town. Along with Civita di Bagnoregio, this place is more ‘on the radar’ than other towns listed in this post. Still, you can expect a fraction of the tourists in comparison to the sites in Rome and Tuscany.
Located on a tufaceous hill just over 40 kilometers north of Rome, Monterano is renowned for the ruins of its deserted village. Somewhat better-known than other places on this list, quite a few films have featured Monterano as a backdrop for its relinquished beauty.
In the last years of the 1700’s, French troops entered Rome, temporarily ending the pope’s secular power and establishing the Roman Republic. They maintained power by military occupation of the territory until 1799. The sacking and burning of Monterano resulted from popular uprisings of rural communities hostile to the new order established by the French revolutionary militias. The remaining townspeople were forced to abandon the already partially ruined site and take refuge in the nearby centers (in particular in the adjacent Canale site), where over time the inhabited area of Canale Monterano developed.
Traversing the valley sits a beautifully preserved aqueduct. Its imposing double arch structure made my jaw drop, it looked like something out of a movie. Which, is likely, since this ghost town has actually been featured in a number of films for its haunting and relinquished beauty.
The church of San Bonaventura was what drew me here. The church and its adjoining convent were built in the late 1670’s by order of the Altieri family. Its impressive architecture was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini! The overgrowth on the structure, coupled with the faded colors of the crumbling marble, made for a sobering visit.
Ancient Etruscan tombs and the many necropoli that decorate the region give Tarquinia its claim to fame. UNESCO declared Tarquinia, once an epicenter of ancient Etruscan and Roman life, a World Heritage Site in 2004. Actually, Tarquinia was the first World Heritage Site to have a signage QR Code that allows you to get information on attractions and services right on your smartphone.
Located 100 kilometers north of Rome, Tarquinia is also easily accessible from Civitavecchia, a port city – typically where the cruise ships will dock if you are going to the eternal city.
An archaeological dream, Tarquinia boasts beautiful wall paintings and tumulus tombs with chambers carved into the rocks. These scenes are virtually unrivaled elsewhere in the Etruscan world and give tremendous insight into the secret lives of Etruscans, which was rarely documented. The paintings show dances, weddings, eroticism, mythical creatures, and large banquets, as well as the occasional demon escorting the dead to their journey into the unknown. You know, the usual. Scenes of the afterlife were common as well as the processions of magistrates and other symbols of the rank of the eminent members of the families buried there.
Some of the most famous tombs include the Tomb of the Bulls, Tomb of the Augurs and the Tomb of the Leopards.
While Tarquinia may be more well known than other hidden gems in Tuscia included, you’ll still have to deal with far less people than at some of Rome’s more popular day trips.
I had to save Barbarano for last. I spent a month here to kick off my grand adventure through Europe. Barbarano Romano is a village of only 1,000 residents about 50 kilometers north of Rome.
The village is set upon a volcanic rise of tufaceous rock, and still partially surrounded by the city walls. At the entrance of the main church of S. Maria Assunta there is an original marble plaque from 1280. It was surreal to be surrounded by such ancient original buildings and to have imagined what life might’ve been like in those times. Barbarano surely worked my imagination.
While there is admittedly not much to do (literally not even a restaurant), the village is incredibly beautiful and also at the center of a protected regional area, the Marturanum Regional Park, famous for its plethora of Etruscan necropoli. Still, if you find yourself looking for a reprieve from the stresses of daily life, my Airbnb was idyllic. Nina’s Guest House is the perfect landing spot to explore Barbarano and the other hidden gems in Tuscia.
curious as to how Andre and I were able to live in gorgeous Barbarano for a month? Come work for VIPKID!
In Rome and heading elsewhere in Europe? Skip the plane, hop on the Nightjet instead – the famed overnight train from Rome to Vienna