Calcata Vecchia is one of several hilltop towns in Tuscia, the region of northern Lazio that you can find perched on an almost unreachable crag of volcanic tufa rock. With its Medieval buildings and winding cobbled streets – not to mention its more recent creative community – it makes for a great place to explore if you feel like traveling back in time for a day. Thankfully, it’s easily reached on a day trip from Rome and can be even more easily reached from the nearby city of Viterbo.
Since I have been there recently – and truly loved spending time there – I thought I’d let you know about the places you really must visit while there; but not before sharing a bit about its history and legends!
The History Of Calcata Vecchia
The area in which Calcata Vecchia can be found was historically known as the Agro Falisco – a part of the Tuscia region inhabited by an ancient Italic tribe called the Falisci. Though the Falisci spoke a language that was very close to Latin, their location on Etruscan territory led to their allegiance to the Etruscans against the expanding power of Rome.
Although Calcata Vecchia looks very much like it was founded in the Middle Ages, and was in fact first mentioned in the 8th century AD, the history of the village goes back to antiquity – to the time of the Falisci. These people inhabited many of the huge tufa crags that dot this landscape, building walls atop the unclimbable cliffs to provide even more defense against possible intruders.
These defensive settlements, alongside the abundance of nature to be found along the Treja River (today a nature reserve, Regional Park Valle Del Treja), meant that this was an ideal place for the ancient Falisci to live and thrive. Many artifacts relating to the Falisci have been found in archeological digs along the Treja Valley, including funerary objects and votive tablets.
Fast-forward to the 13th century, and the bluff of Calcata Vecchia is still being used as a town, thanks mainly to its defensive credentials. This was a turbulent time in Italy, and throughout Europe, so having a stronghold such as this was essential not just for ordinary citizens, but also for powerful families. One such family was the Anguillara; in the 1200s, the family built themselves a castle in the center of Calcata Vecchia.
The town continued to be inhabited for centuries, and a place of pilgrimage (more on that later!). But by the 20th century, it had fallen into decline. In the 1930s, the historic center of the fortified town was deemed by the Italian government to be unfit for people to live in. The ancient buildings were too old, there were issues with erosion from the tufa rock, and the location was too inconvenient for the local residents to live a modern life. The town’s population were moved to a new town that was built nearby: Calcata Nuova.
However, this isn’t where the history of Calcata Vecchia ends. In the 1960s, the town was rediscovered by a creative community of artists and hippies. They squatted in the remaining Medieval houses. Eventually, the government allowed them to purchase the properties, and the now sizeable community of creative individuals began to restore the town to its former glory, bringing life back to its old Medieval streets.
Today in this sleepy, bohemian settlement, you’ll find artists’ studios and cafes, brightly coloured doors and windows, overflowing flowers and even a few cats wandering around. It makes for a wonderful place to escape from the city for a day or so.
The Strange Legend Of The Holy Prepuce
The village is interesting enough by itself, but Calcata Vecchia actually has one particular tale attached to it that makes it even more intriguing. Legend has it that, in 1527, a German mercenary who had been a part of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor’s sacking of Rome, looted the Basilica of San Giovanni.
He took a jeweled reliquary (a box containing the relics of a holy person). Little did he know that the box contained what was believed to be the Holy Prepuce, aka the foreskin of Jesus Christ.
The soldier was eventually arrested and imprisoned in Calcata Vecchia. It’s reported that he hid the reliquary that contained the Holy Prepuce in the cell in which he was being kept prisoner. The reliquary was rediscovered 30 years later in 1557; it was put into the local church and celebrated on the 1st January every year with a big procession through the town.
Pilgrims came from far and wide to see the Holy Prepuce; the Catholic Church even offered 10 years’ indulgence (absolving of past sins) for their visit.
However, over the years multiple claimants for being in possession of the Holy Prepuce have popped up across Europe. This led to the Church in 1900 to forbid anybody to ever speak about the Holy Prepuce – the punishment for doing so was excommunication.
And then, in 1983, the parish priest of Calcata Vecchia, Dario Magnoni, announced that it had vanished, saying, “Sacrilegious thieves have taken it from my home.” Apparently, he kept the Holy Prepuce in a shoebox at the back of his wardrobe. Locals have different theories about its disappearance, ranging from a money grab to a conspiratorial cover-up by the Vatican.
Make sure to read my post The Best Hidden Gems In Tuscia.
What To See And Do In Calcata Vecchia
When you visit the town of Calcata Vecchia, you’ll soon realize that it’s a small settlement. There’s only one way in, a modern bridge leading up the side of the tufa cliffs to a single gate built into the old defensive walls.
Exploring the charming town is a must, and though it can be easily done within half an hour, this will give you a better understanding as to what the village is about. You’ll pass by open-air bars, discover rambling old alleyways, see colorful potted flowers and soak up the creative atmosphere of the town.
One of the best parts of wandering around Calcata Vecchia are the multiple viewpoints that you can find dotted around town. Being situated high up on the tufa cliffs, the village boasts some incredible views from small terraces. You’ll be able to look out and see the Treja River flowing below, and see how the bluff merges into the green forests that stretch into the distance.
Check out Piazza Umberto I
All of the main action in town is centered around the main square, Piazza Umberto I. This is the heart of Calcata Vecchia. The cobbled square is home to some interesting sculptures, namely a collection of three thrones in the ancient style – contemporary creatives carved from volcanic rock. This is the work of Constantino Morosin, a Venetian sculptor who moved to the creative town in the 1980s. You can see more of his works around the village.
It’s also in the piazza where you’ll find the town’s church: Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Gesù (the Church of the Most Holy Name of Jesus). Dating back to 1400, the rustic building was restored towards the end of the 18th century, but it remains a somewhat dilapidated yet charming building. It’s not always open, but if it is it’s worth a peek inside.
Admire the Palazzo Baronale
This 13th-century building has overseen much of the village’s history, and still stands to this day, having been recently renovated by a local architect. Today, the former baronial palace acts as a visitor center for Calcata Vecchia. It’s a good place to head for some more in-depth information about the town.
Visit one or all the artists’ workshops
The artists that came to Calcata Vecchia in the 1960s have continued to breathe new life into the town. Still many tourists come to see the creative flair of the old and new inhabitants of the town. There are many long-term residents who have had successful creative careers, and who have set up their own workshops in the town.
One of these is Paolo Portoghesi, an architect who designed the mosque in Rome’s Parioli district, and who oversaw the restoration of the Palazzo Baronale.
There are numerous galleries and studios to be found throughout the town – some of which are tucked away in historic caves that make full use of the old spaces and unique geography of the town. For example, Grotta Sonora is a workshop focused around sound that is situated in an ancient Etruscan-era cave.
Because of these creative outlets, you can spend some of your time in Calcata Vecchia browsing and maybe even purchasing a few artistic items for a souvenir. There are even a handful of vintage clothing stores to check out, too.
Check out the Museo della Civiltà Contadina
Translated to Museum of Rural Life, this museum – set in the charming deconsecrated Church of San Giovanni Decollato – is situated near the Piazza Umberto I. Inside, visitors can enjoy a look at the life of those who lived in Calcata Vecchia and the wider Viterbo region, with many items and artifacts on display from throughout centuries of history. The museum may be small, but it’s well kept and there’s plenty to look at. It’s also free to enter.
Go to the Room of the 201 Teas
Italy may be better known for coffee in general, but in Calcata Vecchia there’s a place for tea-lovers, too. Called La Sala dei 201 Thè in Italian, as the name indicates this venue for beverages boasts over 200 types of varieties of tea to sample.
Though it’s a charming tea room inside, there’s also an outdoor terrace with beautiful, sweeping views over the surrounding landscape to soak up. If you don’t feel like a cup of tea – with or without cake – don’t worry: the tea rooms also serve wine and light bites to eat (think olives and cheese served in teacups).
Pop inside Opera Bosco
Opera Bosco, also known as the Museum of Art and Nature, is the work of two local artists who founded the museum in 1996. The creative space is spread out across two acres of the forests that grow below Calcata Vecchia. The beautiful open-air museum showcases pieces of art that have been made from the natural materials that can be found in the surrounding woodlands.
The area of Opera Bosco is surprisingly large, so it can take a few hours to fully explore the open-air gallery on foot. Tours can be arranged, and take place on Sunday mornings (run by the founding artists themselves). In order to get there, it’s a short drive from Calcata Vecchia, but in no time you’ll be enveloped by the verdant forest itself.
Go to the Regional Park Valle Del Treja
In order to get even further into the nature that lies on the doorstep of Calcata Vecchia, it’s a simple matter of entering the nature reserve of the Treja Valley. This lush, green landscape features numerous hiking trails that can be embarked upon; some are just 20 minutes, while others are more in-depth routes for keen walkers.
Along the banks of the winding River Treja, you can find waterfalls to stop off at and admire. You may even pass by old shrines and ruins from many centuries ago; the Acropolis of ancient Narce, and the Sanctuary of Monte-Li Santi Le Rote, for example.
For more information about the park, click here.
Practical Information For Visiting Calcata Vecchia
How to get there from Rome / Viterbo
The best way to reach Calcata Vecchia from Rome is by car – that’s what I did. The trip takes just under an hour, and it’s a straightforward route to follow.
It’s also possible to take a light train service from Via Flaminia in Rome to Saxa Rubra. From there you then take a bus to Calcata Vecchia. It’s best to ask the driver if the bus is going in the direction of Calcata Vecchia. The bus itself stops outside the village and costs and a ticket is actually fairly cheap. This trip in total takes just over an hour.
Alternatively, you could opt to take the train from Rome to Viterbo. This runs from Roma Ostiense station, and reaches Viterbo in around two hours. From Viterbo, you’ll then need to hire a car.
If you’re based in Viterbo itself, the best way to get there is to self-drive. It takes just under an hour. Note that whether you’re driving from Rome or from Viterbo, there’s a limited amount of parking at Calcata Vecchia. However, there is a large car park near to the newer town of Calcata Nuova, and then a pedestrian route that easily connects the two. It’s also a great panoramic walk that allows you to get a first glimpse of the old town!
Don’t forget to read my post The Best Things To Do In Viterbo.
To take the hassle out of trying to reach Calcata Vecchia by public transport, and if you don’t feel like driving yourself, there’s always the possibility of booking yourself onto a guided tour. Most tours will pick you up from your accommodation (or from a meeting point), and then head off for the day.
Note that most tours, such as this tour to Bomarzo Caprarola & Calcata, will include stops at a range of attractions in the region – with other villages and sights along the way – not just Calcata Vecchia.
Head over to my post A Complete Guide To Civita Di Bagnoregio.
For more places to visit in Tuscia, check out my posts:
- A Short Guide To Orvieto
- A Guide To Bomarzo Parco Dei Mostri
- A Quick Guide To Soriano Nel Cimino
- A Short Guide To Tarquinia
- A Guide To Villa Lante, Bagnaia
- A Guide To Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola
- A Useful Guide To Celleno Borgo Fantasma