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The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Citerna

The other night at the dinner table I noticed that my husband had picked out all the carrots from his Peas –n- Carrots and left them on his plate.  When I asked him why, he told me he doesn’t like cooked carrots.  Which gave me pause, because I’ve known him since 1986 and, though I haven’t kept a log or anything, my rough estimate is that I have prepared Peas-n-Carrots more or less four thousand times over the past 24 years (I like peas.  And I like carrots.  And I think the green and orange look pretty together on the plate.  And I like any phrase that involves substituting ‘n’ for ‘and’, because it seems kind of anachronistic and Rockwellian, like E-Z and Quik.) and this little detail about him not liking cooked carrots has never, ever come out in casual conversation.  Which just goes to show you…you think you know everything about something, and then it turns out you know nothing.

Which is the same earth-shattering—though somewhat uncatchy—conclusion I came to the other day when I discovered Citerna.  Despite living in Umbria since 1993, this little button of a town—one of the villages listed with The Most Beautiful Villages in Umbria—was completely under my radar.  Now, remember the high school analogy that served so well for Bevagna?  Okay, Citerna is still in her Sophomore year.  She is about to get her braces off, has taken up jogging, is mustering the courage to get her hair layered and highlighted, and has been trying to talk her cousin from LA into taking her shopping the next time she’s in Des Moines so she can get a little style makeover.  Junior year is just around the corner and look out, because Sandra Dee is about to put on the disco pants.

Citerna surrounded by the soft hills of the Tuscan-Umbria border. So romantic that I start understanding why everything in town is dedicated to innamorati. Photo by Adam Whone.

I discovered Citerna by accident, in an serendipitous sort of way since I am on the Cs on my quest to visit all the villages listed in I Borghi Più Belli d’Italia.  I went on a truffle hunt last week (Wait…hold the phone, you say.  Truffle hunt?!?  I want to hear about the truffle hunt.  Well, pipe down.  That blog post is coming.), and our meeting spot with the guide was Citerna’s pretty piazza which looks out over the Upper Tiber Valley.  You can tell this town sits right on the border between Tuscany and Umbria, as the landscape is much more reminiscent of Tuscany’s soft, rolling hills than the more dramatic and rugged peaks you find further south into Umbria.

A piazza with a view....

The piazza is also home to pretty much the only businesses in town:  a bar, grocery store, restaurant, and—oddly—tiny silversmith.  Grab an outdoor caffe table and enjoy the view across the piazza for awhile before you head off to explore the rest of town.  Citerna is a one-street village, so once you leave the piazza head down the main Corso Garibaldi toward Porta Romana.  You’ll pass the City Hall on your right in the recently restored former Franciscan convent, which  sits above the medieval cisterns–currently under restoration (remember this phrase…you’ll be hearing it again.  As I said, Citerna is going through a complete makeover.).  The name of the town probably derives from the word cisterna, and the town sits above a complex network of channels, vaults, and tanks used for collecting and storing rainwater.  Citerna’s claim to cultural fame is a prestigious annual collective photography exhibition each spring, and the warren of restored underground rooms will be used in the future as a unique exhibition space to house this show.

The warren of underground vaults and cisterns is currently "having work done". Photo by Carlo Franchi.

When you get to the city gate, pass through and make a sharp right.  One of the most delightful details of the town is the vaulted passageway which circles much of the town at the base of the fortified city wall—part of which is known as the Via degli Innamorati, or Sweethearts’ Way.  From these medieval walkways you can peer through the arched openings onto some of the prettiest views over the Tuscan (to the west) and Umbrian (to the east) countryside around.  When you’ve had your eyeful, climb back up the gently sloping Corso Garibaldi, noticing the brick walkway which crosses the street about halfway up which was once used by the noble Vitelli family to access their private theater (Teatro Bontempelli –currently under restoration) from their family palazzo across the street without having to bother with socializing with the plebs.  They must not have been so awful, however, as their Palazzo Prosperi-Vitelli is home to a fabulously carved 16th century fireplace, again dedicated to Innamorati.

One of the most romantic strolls in Umbria...along the fittingly named Via degli Innamorati

When the folks from Citerna weren’t getting it on, they managed to find time to fill their main Chiesa di San Francesco (currently under restoration) with frescoes by Signorelli, paintings by Raffaellino del Colle, and a graceful terracotta Madonna and Child recently attributed to Donatello (currently under restoration).  Continue on with a brief visit to Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo, home to some della Robbia and lots of gloom.

She really is "getting some work done". After the restoration, this work by Donatello will be on display in Florence's Pitti Palace before coming home to Citerna.

Finish your visit by climbing to the highest point in town, at the far end of the Corso.  Here stand the ghostly remains of Citerna’s castle, bombarded by the Germans during World War II:  stark stone walls, a brick tower, and a large window suspended in space framing a romantic Tuscan landscape (innamorati, indeed).  Citerna knows which of their monuments will become more attractive with restoration, and which are heartbreakingly poignant left just the way they are.

Some broken things aren't meant to be fixed. Photo by Carlo Franchi.

Many of these photos were taken by Assisi photographer Carlo Franchi, whom I thank for letting me use them here.  To see more of his work, visit www.franchicarlo.net.

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