Oriolo Romano: You like popes? They’re all here

Piazza Claudia is a gathering place for locals.

In the year and a half we’ve done TraveLazio, we may not have found a quieter town than Oriolo Romano, a village of 3,800 people near Lake Bracciano.

When our train pulled into town an hour north of Rome on a sunny, 75-degree spring day, hardly anyone was on the streets. A few locals sat in the shade of coffee bars.

Even the Palazzo Altieri, the town’s landmark, looked dull and dead. But further exploration revealed a palace with a terrific history of the papacy next to a beautiful park and a piazza with a gorgeous, elegant but not stuffy restaurant featuring local fare.

We were the only tourists in town. We were the restaurant’s lone customer. The town was founded in 1562 when Marquis Giorgio III Santacroce wanted to deforest  the area to make a community in the late Renaissance Period. The Altieri family were part of the papal nobility and ruled the town for many years and produced one of the popes.

Palazzo Altieri was built in 1650.
Piazza Giorgio Santa Croce ex Piazza Umberto I.
Delle Belle is dedicated to prominent women aristocrats in Rome.
Piazza Claudia from Piazza del Gesù.

Things to do

1 • Palazzo Altieri. It looks like nothing from the outside. Maybe a prison without the mysterious element of danger. It’s an ugly white cement building stretching the length of a city block on the city’s main street.

A big clock tower hovers over the entrance in Piazza del Gesù. But inside the massive walls is a treasure chest of gorgeous frescoes, landscapes and papal history. Built in 1650 on the commission of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Altieri, it was the residence of Pope Clement X (1670-76), born Emilio Bonaventura Altieri.

The palace includes two wings, each with rooms dedicated to themes such as the one with portraits of the nine Princes of Oriolo. The Delle Belle room has portraits of the most prominent aristocratic women in Rome and the Landscape Room has beautiful frescoes with vivid colors of shady rural scenes, lakes and forests.

The highlight is the Gallery of Popes, nine rooms covering 70 meters that contain portraits of all 266 popes, from the first, St. Peter,  to the current, Pope Francis.

Information: Piazza del Gesu 49,

Recent popes in the Gallery of Popes.
One of the woman aristocrats in Delle Belle.
The clock tower on Palazzo Altieri.

3 • Villa Santacroce Altieri. Right behind the palace is a huge garden of 20 acres (eight hectares) with a wide walking path that cuts through shady oak trees.
Designed by Giorgio Santacroce in the 16th century, the park features an Italian garden in its original design.

The park was originally a hunting ground but was bought in 1970 by an individual who donated it to the town in 2010. The park has grassy clearings, perfect for picnics, and park benches for peaceful reading. Birds chirped. Leaves rustled. No one else was there.

Villa Santacroce Altieri covers 20 acres.
Walking path in Villa Santacroce Altieri.

3 • Festivals Oriolo Romano isn’t too small to have festivals. It has a music festival every July in Villa Santacroce Altieri. This year’s is July 19-21 and will feature the Romanian band, The 3 Jumps. From Sept. 15-Oct. 30 will be the town’s annual porcini mushroom festival featuring music, street performers and numerous dishes with the porcini mushrooms prevalent in the area.

Pope Clemente X

Emilio Bonaventura Altieri was born in 1590 in Rome, the son of Vittoria Delfin and Lorenzo Altieri, all members of the papal nobility.Clement created the principality of Oriolo and assigned it to Gaspare Albertoni, who married Emilio’s niece.

Clement’s reign as pope was short, from 1670-1676. He gave financial aid to Poland in its fight against Turkish invaders. He himself fought with King Louis XIV of France and his ambitions in Europe, creating tension between France and the papacy.

He died from gout in 1676. A monument in his memory is in St. Peter’s Square.

The portrait of Pope Innocent X has a prominent place in the palace’s Altieri family room.
Pope Clemente X (Wikipedia)

Where is it:

40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Rome.

Trains leave hourly from Rome’s St. Peter’s station to Oriolo Romano. The hour-long journey is €3-4.

For more information:

Where to eat:

La Locanda dell’Orsa Maggiore, Piazza Umberto I, 14, 39-347-732-5481, noon-2:30 p.m., 7-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; noon-2:30 p.m., 7-10:30 p.m. Friday; noon-3 pm., 7-10:30 p.m. Saturday; noon-3 pm., 7.10 p.m. Sunday.

Anchoring the piazza for decades, “The Great Bear” has nice red tablecloth settings under a white canopy on the spacious piazza. Features fresh pasta dishes with unique twists starting at €12.

How authentic? There is no English menu. Try the paccheri con polpo, crema di pistacchio e pomodori confit (wide, short tubular pasta with octopus chunks and tomatoes in a pistachio sauce).
Lunch for two, including wine, was €36.

Paccheri pasta with octopus and tomato confit in a pistachio sauce at La Locanda dell’Orsa Maggiore.
Appetiser with ricotta, cherry tomatoes with liquorice scent.