The historic city of Viterbo is one of Italy’s lesser-known gems. A gruelling two-hour train ride out of Rome takes you to this stunning city and all its glory. Its papal history and patriotic celebrations are truly something to behold, such as the Transportation of The Macchina di Santa Rosa – a UNESCO-recognised event included on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
As well as the procession of the patron saint herself, and the parades of the proud cadets of the various military schools in Viterbo, each week provides a new experience and fresh insight into the heart and history of this beautiful city.
This is the first in a series of five specified articles regarding some of the things to see, do, or avoid, based on my own experiences in and around Viterbo.
The Transportation of the Macchina di Santa Rosa, 3rd September
Perhaps the most famous celebration in Viterbo (and possibly even bigger than Christmas) is the night when over 100 Facchini – a group of volunteer strong men born in Viterbo and trained for this occasion – carry a huge monument, over 30 metres tall and weighing over 5 tonnes, through the darkened streets of the old town.
As the crowds gathered around the Porta Romana, one of the many of gateways into the old town and the starting point for the transportation, a sense of excitement began to brood in the crowded streets.
The sun had set and the ochre street lights illuminated the bustling bodies as they scrambled to get a good position. A cry of “E viva Santa Rosa!” would often be heard amongst the din to which nearby patrons would shout “E viva!” in reply.
Hours had passed since I first planted my feet in the spot where I’d view the passing feat when finally a cheer rumbled from beyond my view down the street. The Facchini had arrived – donned in their white uniforms with red cummerbunds – and were taking position.
After a few inaudible speeches and cheers the street lights were extinguished to raucous applause and we were left waiting in energised darkness. Then it began.
Viterbese Pride and Pageantry
Parades of costumed and uniformed trumpeters lead the way before the main attraction rousing the hearts and pride of the Viterbese people.
Carried on the shoulders of the strong Facchini the Macchina stormed past at an alarming pace, illuminated with hundreds of burning candles which lit up the darkened streets like gargantuan celestial Christmas tree. Along with much of the crowd I rushed in behind and followed the monument through the city.
The atmosphere was one of both excitement and impatience as people rudely elbowed past as though fighting for the best spot in the house, or seemingly squeezed themselves through gaps that even an octopus would reconsider. I was quite happy to follow the masses and soak up as much culture as possible, but I had no interest in fighting off the crowds. So I hung back.
A walk which normally took me ten minutes now took three hours on this festive night as we watched the Macchina stop at every main square within the city walls. Speeches were made, prayers were said, and praise was given. By the time we reached the final stop I was ready for my bed.
Long Day, Short Tempers
A tradition which has been held for over 700 years in Viterbo, I was fortunate enough to experience this annual event. However, it was not without cost. In order to be in a prime viewing spot you must mark your territory early. Several hours early, in fact!
After six hours of sitting on a stone step I regretted not bringing a cushion. Many of the seasoned locals had planted themselves with provisions and stools.
As the day rolled on some locals even became vocally aggressive towards authorities who wished to move them on, or towards other people who deigned to use the blocked street as a thoroughfare, cutting awkwardly through the seated sentinels as though they were trespassing through someone’s house. And heaven forbid anyone who dared to claim someone else’s spot!
Understandably hours of waiting in the heat can make a person antsy, so I decided to do as the Viterbese do and hold my own whenever someone tried to inch in front. Thankfully, persistence paid off and the view was worth it.
Needless to say, it was a fantastic thing to behold and experience. But would I wait for another six hours in one spot just to see it close up? I think next time I’ll settle for a balcony view.
The Macchina as it is carried through the darkened streets of Viterbo and the Facchini awaiting their duties (circa 2016). Photos by Steph.
Featured image; view of the Papal Palace in Viterbo (circa 2016). Photo by Steph.