After a night in Sorrento and a day in Pompeii, we traveled to Soriano Nel Cimino, our favorite base in Italy.
As a quaint little charmer with a lot of history, the town not only gave us – and gives us, because we have a timeshare there – the chance to experience Italian life, but also to explore the province of Viterbo in central Italy. It helps that our room is in an old castle! Moreover, it allows us to revisit Rome and Florence in one trip.
Soriano is one of my favorite places in Italy. Here are the reasons.
1. It’s an idyllic little Italian town
Imagine a city dominated by one of the highest peaks of the Monti Cimini range. Amazing! At the bottom of the valley, before having dinner in the excellent restaurants around (we found one where we were to return a second night), you can stroll around the Fontana Vecchia (“Old Fountain”), built in the 15th century , and the Porta Romana, a replica of the Porta Pia in Rome. You will be surprised to find three beautiful places of worship for its 8,000 inhabitants: the little novel Church of San Giorgio, built in the 11th century; the Church of Sant’Eutizio, built in the 15th century; and the Cathedral of San Nicola of Baribuilt in the 18th century.
One afternoon we wanted to get the best vantage point for an iconic image. When we found it, we realized we hadn’t brought our tripod with us. Fortunately, a nice old man passed by. He spoke no English but understood our dilemma and gladly took our picture. We then peeked at pretty Italian homes and gardens, found winding cobbled lanes on rolling hills, and spotted one of the tiny sidewalk gas stations Italy is known for. The town’s flowers reminded us that it was still spring, and the small fruit and vegetable shops, as well as the small grocery stores and bakers, gave us a good insight into life in Italy. We even discovered a small restaurant (only four seats) behind one of the shops and loved their homemade meatballs and spaghetti. And, of course, local ice cream was easy to find afterwards.
Pro tip: It would be good to time your visit during the Sagra delle Castagne, or the Chestnut Festival, for which Soriano is known. It takes place from the end of September to the beginning of October.
2. It has a long and checkered history
At the highest point of the city stands the Orsini Castle. Built by Orso Orsini in the 13th century, the castle was the summer residence of Pope Nicholas III, Orsini’s uncle. It became a high security building until the 1990s and is now run by the University of Viterbo as a tourist attraction.
After imagining the past splendor of the courtyard and great hall of the Chateau d’Orsini, as well as touring its dark prison cells, we navigated a small circular stone staircase worthy of one. From the top of the castle, we saw the history of the city spreading outward.
The history of Soriano nel Cimino goes back to the Etruscans, a pre-Roman civilization first mentioned by Roman historian Livy – who wrote that in 443 BC the Etruscans were “easily defeated” by Roman invaders. The area, especially near the nearby town of Bomarzo, is full of Etruscan inscriptions, tombs, and medieval ruins connected by trails on a 4-hour hike.
3. You can sleep in a castle
We stayed in a castle called Catalani Palace, part of our timeshare network of 300 resorts worldwide. It is a small 14th century chateau of marvelous architectural design and delightful decor that blends Renaissance style with Roman elements. To get there, we could take one of two winding paved paths running from parallel streets to the top of the small hill where the castle is located.
Our room was an amazing studio with original wall paintings, large antique furniture and period decor. It was conveniently located right next to reception and the well appointed bar. We even had a small kitchen where we prepared breakfast in the morning and cocktails some evenings. (We dined our first evening at an a la carte restaurant serving delicious Italian specialties and other European dishes.) The sauna and heated pool soothed us in anticipation of our night’s rest. But it was the excellent customer service from the highly experienced staff that we appreciated the most.
4. It’s An Ideal Base For Exploring Viterbo
Soriano is also an ideal base for exploring the province of Viterbo, which, being so close to Rome, is an ideal place to see the profound influence on Italian life that the Roman Catholic Church has always had and will continue to have. Here are three whimsical old-world towns worth visiting, along with the provincial capital, Viterbo, once the papal seat.
City of Bagnoregio
City of Bagnoregio is 120 km north of Rome and 45 minutes from Soriano. Its striking position will surprise you: at the top of a small plateau of volcanic tuff overlooking the Tiber valley. Its edges began to fall off (and continue to fall off) when a major earthquake occurred at the end of the 17th century. As the rate of erosion accelerated two centuries later, it became the spectacle of an island hill, leaving the buildings on its edges to crumble.
Its population is now just 12 in winter (about 100 in summer), but it is so wonderful to explore because its relative isolation has left its non-edge architecture untouched. In 2006, it was placed on the World Monuments Fund’s Watch List of the World’s 100 Most Endangered Sites.
Civita and Bagnoregio were part of the same city until the bishop and the municipal government moved to the village in the valley after the earthquake.
Montefiascone lies around Lake Bolsena, a caldera (or large volcanic crater) that formed in the volcanic complex of Vulsini. 80 km north of Rome and 30 minutes from Soriano, the city has many campsites and bed and breakfasts. But its crowning glory is the Cathedral of Montefiascone, also known as the Basilica of Santa Margherita, which has the fourth largest dome in Italy, behind the Pantheon, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Duomo in Florence. It looked like the whole church was under the dome.
The third city we visited was Caprarola, just 50 km northwest of Rome and 25 minutes from Soriano, also located in the chain of volcanic hills of Cimini. I wanted to see the massive pentagon shaped Villa Farnese (not to be confused with Palazzo Farnese in Rome). The Renaissance villa was planned in 1530 to be a fortress to protect Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, but construction was halted when he was elected Pope in 1534 as Paul III. His grandson commissioned the construction of an estate on the completed pentagonal base.
Villa Farnese dominates the whole town, and everything has been rearranged so that the main road leads directly to it. Each room is filled with oversized murals and I was pleasantly surprised to find the Philippines (identified as Philipina) featured on the Asian map in the world map room. The maps were painted in the 1570s and depict cartographers’ understanding of the Earth at the time.
The capital, Viterbo, is 80 km north of Rome and 20 minutes from Soriano. Its historic center is surrounded by medieval walls, still intact, with ancient gates as entrances. They were built in the 11th and 12th centuries. In the 14th century Viterbo became a papal seat and part of the Papal States. In fact, four popes were elected in Viterbo. But when a foreigner was elected, the townspeople invaded the Palace of the Popes as the longest conclave in history was held. Two cardinals were arrested. After this incident, the popes began to avoid Viterbo and the city faded into the background.
5. Florence and Rome are easily accessible
Keep the best for last. Because Soriano is only 8 miles from the A1 motorway, right in the middle between Rome and Florence, it was convenient to visit the two must-see cities in Italy. Rome is only one hour by train and Florence two hours by car. While it’s always fun to see the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Vatican, and the Spanish Steps, there are still plenty of squares and attractions to discover. And although we’ve been to Florence’s Accademia, Duomo, Santa Croce and Leather School, we still have the Uffizi, Palazzo and Ponte Vecchio, vineyards and much more to explore.
We hope to return to Italy when we resume our flights. We missed our room at Palazzo Catalani and there are always new things to discover in Viterbo. Plus, it really is the best starting point for revisiting Rome and Florence in one trip.