The history of the popes in the Province of Viterbo dates back long before the transformation of the city into the “City of the Popes”. A true adventure through the centuries, the one experienced by Tuscia, which has seen the territory populated by numerous civilizations, starting from the Etruscan civilization, the traces of which, even today, enrich it with anecdotes and mysteries that we can discover by traveling through its splendid villages.
The Papal Palace of Viterbo, the Papal Fortress of Montefiascone, the Orsini Castle of Soriano… there are numerous historical buildings that mark the passage of many popes in the Province of Viterbo, and equally numerous are the sacred sites, such as the Cathedral of the Holy Sepulchre in Acquapendente, that make Tuscia a unique territory to explore. Others, instead, are the villages that have simply hosted popes, like Vetralla, from where Pope Eugene III is said to have proclaimed the Second Crusade on December 1, 1145.
The city of popes
Our journey to discover the history of the popes in Tuscia can only begin in Viterbo. The capital of the province, thanks to its central location, represents a perfect starting point. Our stay could begin at one of the thermal facilities that make the city famous, such as the Hotel Salus Terme, ideal for experiencing firsthand the benefits of those waters that the popes themselves, like Nicholas V, chose to cure their ailments and regenerate. The large hotel, located just outside the city gates and far enough from local traffic, will allow us to easily reach the Papal Palace, the papal residence from 1257 to 1281.
Right within these walls, now perfectly restored and preserved, no fewer than eight popes were hosted, and it is here that the first and longest conclave in history took place, the one from 1268 to 1271, lasting a staggering 1006 days. The incredible duration, caused by the disagreements among the cardinals about who should be the next pope, led the citizens of Viterbo to frustration, to the point of deciding to remove the roof of the palace and leaving the churchmen in the cold until they reached the end of the election. Even today, during the election of each new pope, this anecdote is often remembered by the media.
The visit to the Papal Palace will also provide an excellent opportunity to stroll and closely observe the San Pellegrino district, the largest medieval district in Europe. Right here, within the district that the pilgrims of the Via Francigena visited Viterbo to proceed to the Holy City, we will encounter typical taverns and historical shops, where arts and crafts of the past come to life today thanks to artists like Daniela Lai and Cinzia Chiulli. Their workshops of painting and ceramics are now true attractions for tourists who want to learn more about the fascinating local history.
THE LAKE OF BOLSENA, SUMMER RESIDENCE OF THE POPES
The renowned tranquil beauty of Lake Bolsena, the largest volcanic lake in all of Europe, did not fail to captivate the popes in past centuries. Testifying to this love for the local environment is the magnificent Papal Fortress of Montefiascone, which still stands today. Built by Pope Innocent III and subsequently modified, expanded, and renovated multiple times, the fortress served as the political hub of the Church State in Tuscia and, of course, also as a splendid summer residence for numerous popes due to its privileged position. For this reason, the villages around the lake grew and prospered for a long period, strengthening economically and becoming more closely tied to sacred traditions.
Today, we can admire the devotion of the local population through a multitude of events, celebrations, performances, and churches of significant artistic value. In the beautiful town of Valentano, situated on the hills overlooking the lake, we can visit places like the Church of Santa Maria, the Church of Santa Croce, and the Madonna del Monte, all rich in history and adorned with marvelous frescoes.
In Gradoli, another village steeped in traditions located on the shores of Lake Bolsena, we can delight in visiting the Churches of San Pietro in Vinculis, San Vittore, and San Magno. Not to be missed, if our visit takes place during Easter, is the famous “Pranzo del Purgatorio” (Lunch of Purgatory), a tradition rooted in Christianity that has been held in Gradoli since the 1500s, where we can savor typical local dishes.
Another essential visit will be to the Bisentina Island, an ancient papal possession that was conquered by Pope Urban IV and subsequently exchanged hands several times with the Church State. Today, the island is open for visits and easily reachable from the precious village of Capodimonte. This small and charming village is a gem of the entire Viterbo province due to its beauty. Here, historical buildings like the Farnese Fortress and a long, green lakeside promenade await our exploration, which could prove to be extremely pleasant and rejuvenating.
THE NORTHERN EXTREME OF TUSCIA, BETWEEN LEGENDS AND SACREDNESS
Our journey to explore the sacred tradition of the Viterbo area cannot exclude a visit to the beautiful Acquapendente, aptly known as the “Jerusalem of Tuscia.” The city, once powerful due to its location as a major crossroads on the Via Francigena and on the border between the significant territories of Rome, Siena, and Spoleto.
It is precisely in the territory of this medieval city that armies of emperors and popes clashed multiple times in the past, and it is here that the people rose against the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, according to popular tradition, after a miraculous omen: the blossoming of a cherry tree that had been dry for years. Victorious, the people of Acquapendente expressed their gratitude to the Madonna with a festival, still commemorated today with the traditional “Festa dei Pugnaloni” on the third Sunday of May.
Our visit to this wonderful and historic city cannot omit an entrance to the Co-Cathedral of the Holy Sepulchre. It is precisely this reproduction of the burial place of Jesus that allowed Acquapendente to earn the title of the “Jerusalem of Tuscia.” According to local stories, it was Queen Matilda of Westphalia, the mother of Emperor Otto I, who had the grand church built in the 10th century. Today, we can admire its marvelous interiors and closely observe the place where one of the stones of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is preserved, according to tradition soaked in the blood of the Son of God.