I recently travelled to Viterbo, aiming to visit some famous villas nearby. I didn’t really know much about the town, apart from the fact that it is ancient and quite pretty. After stepping out of the regional train, I walked up to the Porta Romana gates, and that was the first time I saw her: Santa Rosa, standing above the pink doorway into the town.
I passed the central square of Viterbo and wandered around some of the main sights before I found a small store called La Vecchia Viterbo, where I enjoyed a warm and delicious roasted pork roll while the owner told me the story of Rose, the town’s beloved saint.
She was a young girl, born into a poor Viterbo farming family around 1233, he said. She was a devoted Christian from a very early age and performed several miracles as a child, turning bread into roses and returning a broken water pitcher to its original intact state. Later she also helped a blind child see and converted a “heretic” woman to Christianity.
She died young, and her body was initially buried in a small church, Santa Maria in Poggio. But as a cult around her started building up, she was moved to the monastery of San Damiano, now known as the Church of Saint Rose. A big ceremony has emerged in the town to remember the moment her body was moved, which now involves 100 strong men carrying an illuminated 28-metre-tall tower or “machine” along the same route on Sept. 3. It looks like a fantastic event and I would love to come back and see it! Here are some small models of the machines, which change every few years, on display in the local museum:
After hearing all these interesting stories about Saint Rose, I decided I would go and visit her myself. I headed to the church where she now lies, and spotted this shrine to her at the bottom of the hill. There is quite a steep incline up to the church, and I wonder what a strain it must be for the men carrying her machine up there.
Inside the church, I stopped at the chapel where her corpse lies in a lavish golden casket. It’s quite a grisly sight and you are not allowed to take photos. I then visited the “house of Saint Rose” which is next door to the church. There is a sweet rose garden outside and indoors it is covered in votive offerings.
There are plenty of things to see in Viterbo above and beyond the sights connected to Saint Rose. For a while it was the seat of popes, so you can go and see the Papal Palace. This is where what could be considered the first “conclave” took place, the word deriving from “con chiave” or “with key”. The cardinals took so long to pick a pope one time in Viterbo that the town’s magistrates locked them in and even removed the roof of the palace to try to speed up a decision. They finally elected Pope Gregory X in 1271 after three years of discussions– the longest papal election in the history of the Catholic Church.
There are also many pretty fountains, and several wonderful churches to visit. I particularly liked Santa Maria Nuova, which wasn’t very badly damaged during World War Two bombings, unlike a lot of the town. It has a beautiful cloister, and sits on the site of an old pagan temple.
Viterbo is also a great place for eating. Aside from the porchetta sandwiches, I also tried some wonderful biscuits at the Pasticceria Catanese, on Via Roma. I had a delicious meal at l’Altro Gusto on Via delle Maestre, which certainly gets listed as a “gem”– because it was actually covered in diamonds and gems.
I think Viterbo could be a good place to spend a romantic day out, especially in the spring months when the roses are blooming. I also think it would be a great cultural experience to take part in the festival of Saint Rose on September 3- maybe I’ll come back.