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Viterbo – Archaeology versus aircraft

March 27, 2010

By Guy Dinmore

Published: March 27 2010

Skyline in Viterbo, Italy
Medieval towers dominate the skyline in Viterbo, Italy

Steam billows from the sulphurous hot springs of Le Masse di San Sisto and the conversation among languid bathers turns to politics and Silvio Berlusconi’s latest embarrassments as well as the more pressing matter of how best to prepare a wild fennel and tomato pasta.

With the sun setting over what might be the ruins of a nearby Roman temple, which no one has had the inclination to excavate, Mario Bracci, an architect who teaches archaeology, reflects on the deep and mostly unknown history of an undeveloped area that its conservative inhabitants, renowned for their inertia, would rather like to stay that way.

We are only 80km north of Rome, just outside the medieval walled city of Viterbo, but the Italian capital might as well be a lifetime away. Strolling over an unusually flat expanse of lawn, Bracci expounds on his theory of how this spot might have been the piazza of a vast Roman city at the crossroads of two ancient highways.

Only a few traces are left: the presumed temple, perhaps dedicated to a water god; bits of an ancient aqueduct and a frigidarium; and the cold stream-fed pool where bathers using the hot-springs (of which Bracci is the custodian) invigorate themselves between steamy immersions.

A map of Italy

Bracci expects the secrets of his hidden city to remain that way but he also has a vision for the future of Viterbo: to breathe life back into what was once the centre of medieval Europe. It served at times as a papal city but is now largely a forgotten backwater except for its surrounding volcanic lakes.

The springs inspired Dante’s vision of the gateway to hell and they might have cured Michelangelo of his kidney stones. Pilgrims walking along the Via Francigena, linking Canterbury in south-east England to Rome for more than 12 centuries, passed through Viterbo, easing their pains in its gushing volcanic waters. But that was before the coming of highways and railways robbed the city of its strategic location mid-way between Florence and Rome.

True, busloads of Romans do come to Viterbo for the waters and to admire one of Italy’s best preserved medieval jewels, chosen by Orson Welles for his 1952 film Othello, and the city famous for its “beautiful women and beautiful fountains”. Nonetheless Viterbo remains off the map for most foreign visitors.

“What they could do,” Bracci says with a sweep of his arm “is create a cluster, a park linking all the hot springs and archaeological sites.”

Such a “pole of pools”, stretching several miles and linked by paths and cycleways, would attract a critical mass of visitors, both to his low-key cultural association that manages Le Masse di San Sisto, charging bathers just €20 a year, and to the more upmarket hotel complex at Papal Springs, which asks a similar amount for one day.

That vision of ecologically sustainable tourism, however, runs into one rather big problem – a controversial plan to build Rome’s third airport right in the middle. The scheme has been around for years and always enjoys a fillip near election time. This time, Giulio Marini, Viterbo’s business-minded mayor, is confident it will take off, perhaps by 2015 or 2020.

In his frescoed palace offices, Marini describes a future Viterbo with an airport, a high-speed train link to Rome and an east-west highway to the Mediterranean port of Civitavecchia, 50km away, where nearly 2m visitors arrive each year on ferries and cruise ships.

Such developments, he hopes, could transform the city within Viterbo’s 5km of fortified walls, which has a capacity for 30,000 residents but has only about 6,000, not including the many Romans with holiday homes. A few remaining ruins still bear testimony to heavy US air raids in 1944 aimed at the railway lines running to Rome.

Viterbo’s story tracks that of many Italian cities: an exodus starting in the 1970s from undeveloped and cramped historic centres, where parking is a nightmare, to bigger homes with gardens and garages outside.

Giancarlo Materazzo, who runs the Kasa property agency, says that to emulate Tuscany Viterbo needs an injection of foreign property owners to install a sense of value that the city deserves but lacks.

Indeed, part of Viterbo’s problem – at least in the eyes of its entrepreneurs if not its conservative-minded burghers – is that the city is in “uncool” Lazio, the region that also embraces Rome, rather than trendy Tuscany just to the north.

“Tuscany created a brand with great territorial marketing,” says Domenico Merlani, local president of the Confindustria business association over dinner. Others around the table argue that culturally Viterbo is closer to Tuscany in food and dialect than to Rome. Tuscany even makes some of its wine from Lazio grapes, they say, as another bottle of fine Grechetto white arrives. “We are in a sea of our own, a land of no one,” comments one diner with a mix of pride and regret. “Perhaps it is our closed mentality.”

What this means for property hunters, however, is that a home in the medieval San Pellegrino quarter, famous for its grey flecked peperino volcanic stone and external ornate stairways leading to the first floor, costs a maximum of €3,000 a square metre, many times cheaper than in Rome or Tuscany.

Viterbo’s skyline is dominated by soaring medieval towers, symbols of prestige and bastions of defence for the wealthy of centuries past. One is for sale in Via Ottusa, 20 metres high with walls a metre thick and currently being restored. Three smallish rooms are perched on top of each other with a terrace at the top, yielding views to the east across red-tiled and yellow-mossed rooftops to volcanic hills with beech-forested slopes and a glinting sea to the west. An adjoining living room, kitchen and bathroom make for a total of 120 sq metres with an asking price of about €300,000 after restoration.

Nearby is Caffe Schenardi, famous in Italy as a haunt of politicians and originally built in the 15th century but now restored to its 1800s splendour with neoclassical marble floors and gilt mirrors.

Le Masse di San Sisto hot springs
The sulphurous hot springs of Le Masse di San Sisto

Garibaldi went there, as did Mussolini and later Welles. But rather in keeping with Viterbo’s hesitancy over the value of its extraordinary heritage the site was also a McDonald’s for two years.

For those unfit for tower-living, Materazzo also offers an unrestored farmhouse on three floors, partly carved into a volcanic bluff, with a garden of mimosa, just one minute’s drive from the city walls. A working bread oven and what looks like an Etruscan tomb stand outside. It has been on the market for a year at €200,000.

Materazzo reckons prices have fallen 10 per cent in the past two or three years. Only a handful of his clients are foreign. Manuel Panzera, who runs the Italian Heartland property agency with his Australian wife Cathy in nearby Tuscania, estimates prices have come down 20 per cent.

“It is a very slow market,” he says, describing it as more of a puncture rather than the abrupt bursting of the property bubble seen in Spain.

Mary Jane Cryan, an Irish writer on the history and culture of the area, was drawn to the nearby town of Vetralla 15 years ago, having lived in Rome since 1965.

“The area is being discovered by people who like Italy as it was 30 or 40 years ago, those who are smart enough not to waste their money in Tuscany,” she says. “For the price of a garage in Rome you get a house and garden.”

She wonders, however, whether the planned airport might “ruin” Viterbo, believing – like Bracci – that the future lies in sustainable tourism. But given what she calls the “papal mindset” of landowners resistant to change, perhaps the airport, highways and high-speed trains will remain a mayor’s dream.

Guy Dinmore is the FT’s Rome correspondent

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