I recently discovered the charming organization I Borghi Più Belli dell’Italia, which formed in 2001 to promote the hundreds of small Italian towns at risk of depopulation and decline because they are not on the commercial and travel A-list. The foundation states its goal as “to guarantee – through protection, restoration, promotion and utilization – the preservation of a great heritage of monuments and memories that would otherwise be irretrievably lost.”
Umbria is particularly rich of just these kinds of small towns (indeed, Umbria is the region which has the most towns listed…even more than her historic rival Tuscany), and the fact that many of these villages are faltering economically because they have been unable to attract industry and tourism is a not only a shame but also a huge loss for the local history and culture.
Perusing I Borghi’s list of Umbrian towns, I realized there were many I’d never visited myself (though three of my favorite spots in Umbria—Montefalco, Bevagna, and Spello—are all included) despite having lived in this region for almost 20 years. So, I have officially set a personal goal to visit them all this year which, given my median to do list turn around time since my two sons were born, I foresee I will actually accomplish within the year 2018. Late 2018.
I started a few days ago by stopping by the sleepy yet charming hill town of Bettona (I had decided to go in alphabetical order, so I should have visited Arrone first…but Arrone is more of a drive and I only had a morning free so it was Bettona. I’ll get back to Arrone sometime before 2018. My scientific methodology is already all shot to hell.) which, as it turns out, is the perfect place to begin as it is the quintessential Umbrian village. A piazza, a church, a small museum, a view, some picturesque alleyways…nothing “important” to see, but just a lovely hour or two of slowly paced wandering.
Once you’ve wound your way up the hill on which Bettona perches—passing the town walls on the way, parts of which are made of large sandstone blocks dating to the Etruscan period–you can park your car right in the main piazza (!!) to begin your visit. Take an outdoor table at one of the two bars in town to enjoy a cappuccino (the owner will stiff you slightly…take it in stride) while you admire the bell tower of Santa Maria Maggiore which dominates the space, flanked by the austere town hall and the 14th century stone Palazzetto del Podestà.
From here, stroll past the bell tower to the Oratory of S. Andrea—poke your head in to see the fabulous carved wooden roses on the coffered ceiling—and, at the end of the steet, the city gate Porta V. Emanuele.
Double back to the main piazza, pass the requisite central fountain and the church of San Crispolto, patron saint of Bettona, and continue on to one of the hidden jewels of the town: Piazza IV Novembre. Grab one of the benches along the railing on the far side of the tree-covered square and gaze across the Umbrian valley to the towns of Assisi, Spello, and Perugia. This is one of the most enchanting views around, so kick back for a few minutes and enjoy it.
When you’re ready to stretch your legs, spend the next half hour wandering through the narrow streets and alleyways of the town. The stone houses with their flowering window boxes, wooden shutters, and forged iron gates are captivating with their simplicity and charm. I guarantee that by the end of your walk, you’ll be sizing up the houses with “for sale” signs out front and fantasizing about acquiring a little Umbrian pied-à-terre and easing into village life.
Your final stop should be the quaint Municipal Museum, housed in the stately Palazzo Biancalana in the main piazza. My favorite room is upstairs in the painting collection…smack in the middle of the gallery, counter to the current fad of drive-thru museum going, they have plunked down two of the comfiest leather sofas I’ve ever had the pleasure to take for a test drive. So settle yourself in and admire Perugino’s etheral Madonna della Misericordia at your leisure.
A quiet town, a meandering walk, a drink in the piazza, a park bench with a view. This, my friends, is Umbria.
Bettona is known locally as host to one of the best sagre of the summer–La Sagra dell’Oca Arrosto—where thousands gather at long tables filling the piazza to feast on roast goose and trimmings. If you happen to be around the first week of August, come witness this sleepy village come alive with crowds, food, and music. Otherwise, the aptly named Osteria dell’Oca (they have a goose thing in Bettona) right in the main piazza is a solid choice for traditional Umbrian cooking. Don’t be put off by the entrance—the interior is quite charming and they have outdoor seating in the summer. If you’d rather opt for a quiet picnic in the vicinity, check here for a suggestion.