Brigolante Guest Apartments

Postcards from Umbria: San Pietro in Valle

Tucked away on the slopes of Mount Solenne in the Valnerina lies one of the best kept secrets in the region:  San Pietro in Valle.  This former Benedictine abbey—now a four star historical residence—was established in 710 on the site of a Syrian hermitage (One fun curiosity: among the stone fragments mounted on the interior walls, look for the bass relief of a monk with Asian facial features.  Legend holds that this is a rendering of one of the two Syrians who founded the original hermitage in the 6th century.) and was home to abbots for the next 800 years.

The outside of the abbey is breathtaking; the church and cloister are surrounded by thickly wooded fields and look out over the steep river gorge and the gradually receding mountain peaks along the horizon.

Directly across the valley from the abbey sits the walled fortress town of Umbriano, completely abandoned since 1950.  Founded in 890 to defend the abbey from advancing Saracens, popular tradition holds it to be the first city of Umbria.

Though locals hold that the citadel of Umbriano was the first Umbrian town, in truth it lies across the river from the ancient Umbrian territory, in the land once ruled by the Sabines. But it’s a good story, and a fascinating ghost town to explore.

Guided tours take visitors through the interior of the church, covered in frescoes from the 12th and 13th century (note the portrait of the Three Wise Men, one of whom apparently had second thoughts), and filled with stone work including an Etruscan altar, an 8th century Lombard high altar, and a Roman sarcophagus holding the remains of Duke Faraoldo II of Spoleto, the abbey’s founder.

The frescoes inside the church have recently been restored and are a fine example of the leap from Byzantine to the more natural Umbrian school.

My favorite detail:  the original altar (now to the left of the central Lombard altar), with its semi-circular corridor which passes behind the tiny nave.  Symbolizing the purification of the spirit, it begins with the wide opening level with the floor, and gradually rises to end in a tiny doorway a step above floor-level at the other end.  I’m not sure if my spirit was actually purified, but having to squeeze my bulk through the final aperture sure made me ponder how often I commit the cardinal sin of gluttony.

One of my favorite corners of Umbria is the dramatic and wild Valnerina, where craggy mountain peaks loom, tiny creche-like hamlets perch precariously on cliffs, and the serene Nera River meanders its way through the valley.

The abbey is open to visitors October through March Saturday and Sunday only (10-12:30/2:30-4) and April though September every day (10-1/3-6).  The church is not well lit, so be sure to choose a sunny day to visit otherwise you will not be able to see the frescoes well.

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Brigolante Guest Apartments

Via Costa di Trex, 31 | 06081 Assisi (PG) | Italy

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