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The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Bevagna

I am quickly coming to realize that this little quest of mine to visit all the Umbrian villages listed by I Borghi Più Belli dell’Italia (to see how the whole crazy idea came to be, read here) is a total win-win (-win) situation.  I either get to visit a town I don’t know well and discover its charm (win-Bettona) or have an excuse to spend half a day in a town I already know and love (win-Bevagna) …or finally make it to a town I have only heard about but never actually seen (win-Arrone.  No, I haven’t made it to Arrone yet, but it will be a win when I do.  I just know it.)

Right now is the perfect window in time to visit Bevagna, I town I already know and love, and this is why:  remember that girl in high school who was nice and everything but nobody really paid much attention to her Freshman and Sophomore years, but suddenly and inexplicably Junior year all the cute guys suddenly seemed to discover her and she completely flowered under the attention but was still very approachable and just wandered around bewildered by her sudden luck but by Senior year had dumped her friends and fallen in with the popular crowd and become one of those stuck up bitches who always have the right jeans and spend all their time in the bathroom combing their hair and talking smack?  Well, Bevagna is in her Junior year.

I remember ten years ago I had to beg people to visit Bevagna.  “It’s lovely, it has a Roman mosaic in this lady’s garage, it has the prettiest piazza around, it’s flat (a big selling point in a region where the vast majority of towns are built on a 60 degree slope),” I would say.  Now I have guests who pop out of their car upon arrival and announce that they want to visit Assisi, Perugia, and Bevagna.  Which can mean only one thing: Rick Steves.  But, hey, if it took the biggest jock in school to get the rest of the class to sit up and pay attention, I certainly can’t begrudge him.  Now the town has dusted herself off, prettied herself up, organized herself a bit better, and welcomes her new admirers with a friendly, if slightly baffled, smile.  She’s known all along what a gem of a town she is.

If you can, begin your visit by entering the city through the southern city gate, over a small bridge spanning the Clitunno River…to the left you can still see the public fountain where women once came to do their wash.

The bridge over the rushing Clitunno River at the southern gate is a perfect starting point.

Once you have crossed the river, stop for a morning cappuccino at one of the outdoor tables in this sleepy piazza (One reason you know Bevagna hasn’t yet sold its soul to the popular crowd:  this is a town that still completely shuts down at 1 pm.  You need to get there first thing in the morning or you’ll find the place deserted and the all shutters closed half an hour after you start poking around.  I was there at 1 pm and it was as if the wizard behind the curtain suddenly threw a big switch at exactly 1:10 and the town shut off.) and watch the locals come and go.

From there, walk one block to Piazza Silvestri, Bevagna’s pride and joy.  And rightly so—this delightful little piazza is home to two of Umbria’s loveliest Romanesque churches: the small, serious, hewn stone San Silvestro (take a peek at the crypt under the raised presbytery, typical of 12th century churches) and the larger, lighter, soaring San Michele Archangelo.

The interior of the church of San Silvestro uses columns with Egyptian-style papyrus leaves on their capitals--a bit of an historical mystery.

San Michele Archangelo--if you look closely at the stone work around the central door you can see clusters of grapes growing on vines. Bevagna is smack in the middle of historic wine country.

Begin your peramble down Corso Matteotti, where you can see Bevagna’s delightful Junior year mix of hipster sidewalk cafés, small historic workshops, artsy antique stores, and commercial establishments of the variety which serve real residents: butcher, baker, candlestick maker (or, more precisely, beauty salon)– glaringly missing from the more touristed hill towns in Umbria, tragically. (Another reason you know Bevagna hasn’t yet sold its soul to the popular crowd: they still have the completely charming and almost extinct Small Town Unofficial Municipal Council sitting in ancient wooden folding chairs along the Corso, holding forth loudly and passionately about sports, politics, and any passing female under the age of 82.)

Bevagna's Small Town Unofficial Municipal Council meetings are held on the Corso every day from dawn to dusk, excluding meal times. And the seating is assigned.

About halfway up the Corso, stop in at the Museo di Bevagna to get two tickets: one will get you into the museum itself, the Roman mosaic, and the Francesco Torti Theater.  A guide from the museum escorts you to the second two, so you can first take a quick look at the museum.  The staircase is lined with remnants of stone tablets and random pieces of sculpture mortared right into the stucco…a fetching show of creativity which apparently exhausted the artistic vein of the museum architects, as what follows is a pretty anonymous series of square white rooms with not much to engage a visitor artistically.

It's not a good sign when the most interesting thing in the museum is the stairwell. That said, the archaeological collection is currently closed to the public, so maybe there's still hope.

When you come back downstairs, your guide will walk you the two blocks to the marine-themed mosaic (now in a neat well-lit room with a raised walkway and explanatory tablets.  When I first visited years ago, it was the floor of someone’s garage with a big iron padlock on the door, the key to which the nice lady across the street would toss into your hand from her second floor window, with the admonition to remember to turn off the light when you were done and leave the key in the door…she’d come down later and get it.  Ah, that was Bevagna her Freshman year.)  Afterwards, follow your guide for a peek into the pretty little 19th century Torti Theater, with its red velvet seats, gilded boxes, and richly decorated ceiling.

Bevagna's surprise gilded lily of a theater.

Whew, lunchtime.  Now’s when you really realize Bevagna is edging into her Senior year, as the town is chock-full of great places to eat.  For a casual, hip atmosphere try La Bottega di Assù on Corso Matteotti, which is part bistrot/part bookstore/part art boutique all crammed into a space the size of my bedroom.  For something more upscale, but worth every penny, dine at one of Umbria’s hottest restaurants right now: Redibis.  Offering nouveau-Umbrian cuisine in a section of Bevagna’s restored Roman amphitheater, this unforgettable restaurant is on every foodie’s A-list. Otherwise, for traditional Umbrian cuisine head to Piazza Garibaldi, lined on both sides with the outdoor tables of the trattorias which have popped up like mushrooms over the past few years.

Spend a little time after lunch wandering the backstreets of Bevagna, making sure not to miss the curving Vicolo del Amphiteatro, tree-lined Piazza Garibaldi with its medieval city gate (Porta Cannara) and bricked-in facade of a Roman temple, and quiet cloister of the Dominican convent (now converted into a hotel).  At 3:00 (or 2:30. or 3:30.  It changes month by month.) head back to the Museo di Bevagna for your second ticket, the one which will get you entrance into a number of historically accurate workshops where artisans demonstrate their crafts using methods and tools from the middle ages.  I prefer by far to see these workshops during Bevagna’s wonderful medieval festival–Il Mercato delle Gaite–in June, but if you can’t make it then this is a good substitute.  To hear more about these amazing workshops, see here.

Once you’ve seen the mestieri, your visit is done.  Stay for just a few more minutes to have a relaxing glass of wine (you are in the heart of Sagrantino country) at La Bottega di Piazza Onofri on Corso Matteotti, and toast to Bevagna.  You had the amazing luck to meet her during her magical Junior year moment—here’s to hoping it stretches out for years and she remains forever lovely and warm, just as she is now.

A pretty view over Bevagna from the Santuario della Madonna delle Grazie outside of town.

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