Browsing category: Off the beaten path in Umbria, Rebecca's Ruminations, Things to do and see in Umbria

The Future Surrounded by the Past: Spoleto’s Palazzo Collicola

Never was a room painted happier than this Sol Lewitt work. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)

Spoleto is a mecca for history buffs, the city a mash-up of architectural epochs from the Umbrii through the middle-ages. Strolling through town, you are as likely to have your eye caught by the austere Roman Arch of Drusus as the whimsical 17th century Mascherone Fountain.

But you know what? History, schmistory. Sometimes I get a hankering to see what’s coming next, not what came before, and Spoleto has a unique window into the future, as well. The excellent Palazzo Collicola Arti Visive contemporary art museum, completely renovated in 2010 (and, luckily, with a brand-new website, as the previous version was both graphically stunning and completely impenetrabile), is one of several collections of contemporary art in otherwise artistically stodgy Umbria, and perhaps its best.

Go on, blow on these Calders. You know you want to. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)

The permanent collection (Museo Carandente) on the ground floor houses fifteen rooms of modern and contemporary painting and sculpture, heavy on the Calder (I blew on a couple of mobile sculptures to see them spin and no alarms went off, so go right ahead. You didn’t hear it from me, though.), including scale models and period photographs of his monumental Teodolapio sculpture from 1962, which sits in front of the Spoleto train station, and the Sol Lewitt (I challenge you to stand in the Rainbow Room and not get a silly grin on your face. Try it.).

Unfortunately, the collection is light on explanatory notes; there are few posted in the individual gallery rooms and the map upon entering is a simple postcard with a floor plan. They would be doing themselves a service to invest in more complete descriptions (posted, printed, and in audioguides) so visitors would have a better historical and cultural context for the works. In the meantime, I can just talk at you like a normal person and tell you that it’s a lovely collection—the perfect size for a visit that doesn’t lead to art overdose and happily juxtaposed with the stately Renaissance palazzo with its original cotto floors and painted vaulted ceilings.

Leoncillo's massive ceramics are lovely and unsettling (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)

I was especially charmed by Calder’s lighthearted tiny wire people twisted from champagne cork cages (Yes, I can hear you saying, “But I coulda done that!” Well, chump, you didn’t. Which is why you are now paying €6 to see those who did.) and the beautifully disturbing (or disturbingly beautiful) Leoncilla ceramic works.

The ornate piano nobile upstairs is used to house temporary exhibition–primarily through the summer months–for a real look into the future of art. And don’t miss the works in the courtyard, which are easy to overlook—though the crazy graffiti-art-on-existential-high Santiago Morilla mural is an eye-catcher.

Whoa. This Santiago Morilla will stop you in your tracks. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)

From this maelstrom of color and forms, it’s a bit soothing to step back into the historic stone streets of Spoleto and drink in its past. But a quick, bubbly sip of the future can be had in this stately city, as well. So, drink up.

Looking for more contemporary art in Umbria? Here are some suggestions from Arttrav: Contemporary Art in Umbria


One Stop Wine Hop: Orvieto’s Enoteca Regionale

The enoteca is housed in the restored cellars of the convent, and charmingly decorated with works by Orvieto's historic Michelangeli workshop. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)

If you think the closest you’re going to get to heaven in Orvieto is gazing at the Signorelli frescoes in the magnificent Duomo’s San Brizio Chapel, keep walking uphill.

Yep, up the Corso, across the Piazza della Repubblica, and through a series of steep, narrow alleyways (if an older gent stops you with a “Psst, Signorina, do you want to see my Etruscan cave?” go ahead and take a look. He really does have an Etruscan cave under his floor.) until you finally reach the highest point on the dramatic cliff which has been home to Orvieto for the better part of humanity.

Take a peek in the Palazzo del Gusto's pretty cloister, but for the good stuff head downstairs to the cellars. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)

Here you will find the former convent of San Giovanni, which is now the headquarters of the “Palazzo del Gusto”, an umbrella enogastronomic and cultural association which hosts a series of workshops, courses, and thematic dinners and tastings aimed at promoting traditional cuisine, Slow Food, and local wines.

The entry to the Enoteca holds examples of local crafts...the approach to celebrating local products isn't limited to just food and wine. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)

Head downstairs to the restored cellars (the architectural history of which runs from the Etruscan era through the Middle Ages) underneath the convent, where you can take a guided tour of the “Enoteca Regionale”, a regional wine library which holds more than 120 different labels of the best DOCG, DOC, and IGT wines in Umbria.

The tasting rooms are tucked under medieval vaults and over Etruscan caves. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)

Different “packages” are available for wine tastings, or you can splurge for a prepaid “wine card” to sample up to 16 different wines from automatic dispensers. Between the dispensers and the handy information-laden touch-screens, you can almost throw together a DIY visit, but try to nab Graziella, Lucia, or Francesca, three walking local wine and food encyclopedias who have been involved in the Enoteca Regionale through its conception and expansion. Their passion for the gastronomic history and culture of the region is contagious, as they give a lively context to each wine, elevating it from the Enoteca’s evocative underground cellar to exalted heights.

For more information or to reserve a tasting, take a look at the Palazzo del Gusto‘s terrific website.


What Lies Below: The Orvieto Underground

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

Cities–like people–have a face they show the world and a hidden, intimate side, where the scars of time and trials are revealed to those who have the patience and sensitivity to look past the surface and discover all the fascinating complexity beneath.

In Orvieto, this metaphor comes to life in a poignantly literal way. This stately town—proud of its outstanding Cathedral, crisp Orvieto Classico wine, and general cosmopolitan vibe—dominates the surrounding undulating countryside from atop the dramatic volcanic stone outcropping it has inhabited on and off since the time of the Etruscans. But to really get a feel for Orvieto and its millenia-long history, more than wander its streets and piazze you need to head underground to visit its caves—more than 1,200 of which honeycomb the cliff below the historic center.

Almost all of these man-made underground caverns and passageways are private property and not open to the public, but the Orvieto Underground tour takes small groups to visit the two which are owned by the city. I had been hearing about this subterranean tour for years and had been curious to check it out, being especially partial to exploring the quirky side of Umbria and unearthing offbeat museums and tours like these. And Orvieto Underground didn’t disappoint.

One of the largest caverns has been used over the centuries as an olive oil mill.

During the hour-long visit, we saw the very first underground tunnelings by the Etruscans in search of water roughly seven centuries before Christ. The precisely cut rectangular wells (with incorporated hand and foot-holds for climbing in and out) and peaked cavern ceilings resembling rooftops (probably remnants of pagan temples) are testimony to the engineering skill and aesthetic sensibility of this still somewhat mysterious people.

After defeating the Etruscans, the Romans sacked the town and Velzna—as the Etruscans called their city–was abandoned until the early middle ages, when the next signs of human life appear underground, as well. As Orvieto began to rebuild at the strategic top of the cliff, its citizens once again found themselved digging out the soft rock beneath their homes in search of water, temperature-controlled storage (the caves maintain an average 12-13° C), and—most picturesquely—pigeon cotes. The walls of these square rooms are pocked by orderly, square pigeon holes and have a small window for the birds to fly in and out during the day. Thus began a tradition of roast pigeon in Orvieto, which you will still find on most menus today.

The pigeons raised in these cotes kept Orvieto fed for centuries.

In the late middle-ages, as the city began to stabilize and prosper, these underground caverns were expanded and converted to also house workshops for the local ceramic production (cooling cisterns and the remains of a kiln can still be found) and quarries to excavate the soft stone to mix as cement (which continued into the early 20th century). One of the biggest caverns was most recently used as an olive oil press, and the massive millstones and presses still on view make it easy to imagine the room crowded with pickers and workers pressing out one of Umbria’s most prized product each fall.

The final cavern of the tour was used as a WWII bomb shelter.

The final cavern of the tour brings visitors to modern Italy, as the bare room ringed with a low bench hewed from the stone was used as a bomb shelter during WWII. Orvieto proper was declared an Open City, thus spared from the most destructive raids, but the valley below was crisscrossed with rail- and road-ways and often the target of both the Allies and retreating Germans. I can’t fathom what it must have been like to sit for hours in the blackness of a cave meters below the ground, hearing the muffled sounds of explosions and the quiet rattle of tiny stones dislodging from the ceiling and walls…hoping desperately that the rock would hold.

Though the digging of further tunnels under modern Orvieto has been banned for years, almost all the palazzi in the center of town still use their private, undergound caverns–in most cases as a cantina—left for them by centuries—if not millenia—of previous inhabitants. Walking through Orvieto now, I know that the facades lining the streets are just the town’s game face…the true soul of the town lies in its secret labyrinth below.

A view over the surrounding countryside from the Orvieto Underground caves.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.


Olive Oil in Umbria: Past, Present, Future

Museum of Olive Oil Culture in Trevi. Umbria (Copyright Marzia Keller)

Museum of Olive Oil Culture in Trevi. Umbria (Copyright Marzia Keller)

Remember when you’d just have a cup of coffee? You didn’t bother yourself with its country of origin and how many times it had been roasted. You just sloshed it boiling hot from the Mr. Coffee and sucked it down along with all the chemicals leaching out of the styrofoam cup it was in.

Remember when you’d just eat a tomato? You didn’t ask yourself about its carbon footprint or whether it was heirloom or hothouse. You just sliced it onto your iceberg lettuce, drowned the whole cabash in Thousand Island, and got on with it.

Remember when you’d just drink some wine? You didn’t hold forth on varietals and terroirs and Super-thises and thats. You just unscrewed that cap on the old Lancer’s bottle and poured with gravitas into two chunky cut-glass goblets and felt very sophisticated.

Before I start sounding like Andy Rooney, let me just be clear that I hold no particular nostalgia for those times. I am a foodie (though I lean less towards murmuring about tannins and undertones over a mellow glass of Sagrantino and more towards a loud, “Damn, that’s crazy good! Pass that bottle back over here a minute.”) and this growing culture of caring about where our food comes from and what it tastes like is just fine with me. I do, however, watch with amusement as wave after wave of ingredients that were once somewhat quotidien show up on the fickle foodie radar to get exalted, examined, and ultimately abandoned for the Next Big Thing by hungry hipsters.

Right now it’s all about olive oil, folks. Friends whom I know for a fact were dressing their salads with generic supermarket corn oil just minutes ago are suddenly armchair experts on cold-pressing and mono-cultures and phytonutrients. Olive oil tastings andgastronomic tours to the mills are all the rage, and travellers seem to be packing less wine and more olive oil in their suitcases for the trip home.

Traditional olive oil dispenser, Trevi, Umbria (Copyright Marzia Keller)

Traditional olive oil dispenser, Trevi, Umbria (Copyright Marzia Keller)


Anyone who loves Umbria as I do couldn’t be anything but thrilled at this trend;  olive cultivation and oil production is one of the most fundamental threads running through the historic and economic fabric of this region. And no better place to understand just how important this 2,000 year old culture is than the delightful hilltop town of Trevi.

Museum of Olive Oil Culture

Trevi is a charmer of a village even for wanderers who have no particular interest in olive oil…but for those who do, you’ve hit paydirt. Your first stop should be the small but excellent Museum of Olive Oil Culture in the museum complex of San Francesco (if you stop first at the tourist info office in the main Piazza Mazzini, you can pick up a map and free audio guide of the town).  An ecclectic mix of archival photographs, historic farm and mill implements, horticultural explanations–and heart-warmingly old-timey displays like scale models of the town and surrounding hillsides and a life-size diorama of an 18th century mill and kitchen, just the fact that an entire museum dedicated to the culture and history of olive oil exists (and a well-curated one, at that) is testimony to how fundamental this fruit is to the entire region.  They offer an audio-guide in English (included in the price of your ticket) which is a must to really enjoy the displays.

Olives from Umbria ready for pressing by olive oil tours

Olives from Umbria ready for pressing by olive oil tours

Olive Oil Mills

From here the next logical step is to visit an olive oil mill itself and taste what is often referred to as this region’s “liquid gold”. The impressively organized Olive Oil Road lists mills open to the public in each of the five subzones in Umbria; Trevi is included in the Assisi-Spoleto area and I used the listings to visit two local mills. At the first I was greeted by Central Casting’s “Italian Grandmother”, complete with thick specs, flowered housecoat, and carpet slippers…who was mortified to find a visitor on the day they were cleaning out the mill and apologized profusely that I had caught them with things in disorder. She did ask me in for tea and cookies, but I pressed on to the nearby Frantoio Gaudenzi.

As soon as I stepped into their pretty new mill and shop (they’ve been producing oil for 50 years, but recently built a new press along the Via Flaminia in the valley below Trevi), the pungent odor of freshly pressed oil hit me in a wave–setting off the Pavlov slobber common in any olive-oil enthusiast. Stefano, grandson of the founder, showed me the shining modern presses working the heaping mounds of freshly harvested olives (they are pressed within hours of picking) into the bright green, cloudy-thick new oil filling the vats. The Gaudenzis, like many mills, make a variety of olive oils: their basic oil, their higher-end regionally specific oil, an organic variety, and—my favorite—“Fifth Moon”, an oil made exclusively from olives harvested within the fifth moon of the flowering (meaning the month of October).  Dribbled over a piece of local, unsalted bread, the fruity smell and flavour of this intriguing oil made me lick my foodie chops.

Freshly pressed olive oil from Umbria by olive oil tours

Freshly pressed olive oil from Umbria by olive oil tours

I came away from my visit to Trevi with a feeling of having somehow connected the past to the present to the future. The Roman terracotta urns in the olive museum, the mills churning out oil under the bright October sky, the third generation producer passionately exploring new blends and techniques. Over two thousand years of history condensed into the thin, bright stream of oil soaking my bread and warming my heart.

There are lots of olive oil soaked events in Umbria in the fall and winter–for a complete list, check the  program at Frantoi Aperti. Also, I highly recommend the olive oil food tours offered by Dicovering Umbria!


Art in the Olive Groves: Madonna delle Lacrime

I brake for Renaissance portals. (Copyright Marzia Keller)

I brake for Renaissance portals. (Copyright Marzia Keller)

There was a family who lived down the block from me when I was growing up that had a passel of kids. I don’t recall how many, but definitely in the low double-digits. We would play together, and they were always just slightly unkempt…mismatched socks, hair needing a trim, ratty toys. The predictable signs of harried parents short on time and money. That said, I also remember how loved those kids were. Despite there being so many of them, I never got the sense that they were any less treasured than those of us with just a sibling or two who always had clean pants and extra milk money in our pockets.

This is kind of how it is with art in Italy. There’s just so damn much of it here that there aren’t the time and resources to take painstaking care of it all. That said, you do get a sense that Italy loves its treasures—despite much-discussed cases of mismanagement and graft—no less than any other country, even if it presents them with much less pomp and circumstance.

The sanctuary of Madonna delle Lacrime holds a surprise inside...

The sanctuary of Madonna delle Lacrime holds a surprise inside…

The lovely sanctuary of the Madonna delle Lacrime right outside of the center of Trevi is a perfect example of this. I stopped by mostly by chance, drawn to the pretty 15<sup>th</sup> century facade and elaborately carved Renaissance portal (by Giovanni di Giampietro di Venezia, I later learned) looming over the winding road which leads from the valley below Trevi up through the sprawling olive groves which surround it.

I stepped into the silent church, its lone visitor, and quickly skimmed the historical information near the door, recounting how the sanctuary had been constructed on the spot where, in 1485, an image of the Virgin (now forming the altarpiece) miraculously shed tears.

A detail from the elaborate stonework decorating the facade.

A detail from the elaborate stonework decorating the facade.

As I circled the church to take a look at the chapels and artwork, my echoing footsteps suddenly stopped in front of a large Adoration of the Magi fresco. Wait one darn minute. Could that really be? Right here, in this empty church in the middle of an olive grove with not even a caretaker keeping a watchful eye?!?

No way! Yes way.

No way! Yes way.

Yep, it was a magnificent Perugino, painted in 1521 and unmistakeable in its fairytale colors, Umbrian landscape background, and—most movingly—breathtakingly fine portraits. I stood for a minute in silent admiration until I was startled by the door of the church banging shut behind me. A slight woman in her eighties, weighed down by a number of shopping bags and a lethal-looking black handbag quickly shuffled past me, set down her load, and kneeled in front of the Perugino.

I backed quietly away, leaving this priceless treasure to those who love it best.

I love this silly picture of the Virgin's foot. It's rendered so haphazardly one just has to wonder if it was quitting time.

I love this silly picture of the Virgin’s foot. It’s rendered so haphazardly one just has to wonder if it was quitting time.


Man and Nature: the Ex-Railway Spoleto-Norcia Hike

A wonderful view from the ex-railway hike to the Valnerina below. (Copyright Marzia Keller)

A wonderful view from the ex-railway hike to the Valnerina below. (Copyright Marzia Keller)

There’s nothing I love more than a good hike, and there’s nothing I love morer than a good hike with a compelling backstory. Nature—especially the undulating green landscape of Umbria—soothes my soul, but what makes a walk memorable for me are the tiny stone hilltop hamlets and isolated abbeys and fortresses that most trails (many of which trace the routes of Roman and medieval passages) weave their way through. I chat with the elderly locals or, when I come upon a ghost village, explore the abandoned houses and miniature piazzas. I peek into leaf-strewn chapels in silent, empty abbeys or am surprised by intricate frescoes and stonework virtually forgotten by all but their caretakers. I discover Umbria—her land, her history, her people–in tiny crumbs, and savor each one.

Which is why I jumped at the chance to join a group hiking the former Spoleto-Norcia railway in the breathtaking Nera River Valley recently. I had been wanting to walk at least a portion of this 51 kilometer line since it had been retrofitted as a trail for hiking or biking a few years back, and when I heard that our group would be led by a pair of local guides I was thrilled. I threw a flashlight and a couple of sandwiches into my backpack and was ready to hit the trail.

And here it all begins...

And here it all begins…

The Spoleto-Norcia Railway

The rail line that ran between Spoleto through the Valnerina to the remote village of Norcia from 1926 to 1968 passes through some of the loveliest countryside in Umbria. From the tiny restored station in Spoleto (now used for railway-related exhibits), the trail skirts the now-empty stations in the villages of Caprareccia, Sant’Anatolia di Narco, Piedipaterno and Borgo Cerreto, passing over dizzying stone bridges and under narrow, ink-black tunnels along the route.

Caprareccia to Sant’Anatolia di Narco: Tunnels and Trestles

Our group began at the highest point of the trail in Caprareccia, skipping the first dozen kilometers of trail n. 20 from Spoleto to Caprareccia (which has some accessibility problems, to be resolved in 2012). We left half our cars in the small lot off the road (the other half of our vehicles we’d parked at our final destination earlier, as there is no public transport to get you back to the starting point), and stretched our legs towards the right to take a quick look at the overpass and the valley below Spoleto. Here is where we got our first lovely surprise of the day: one of our guides recounted how he “drove” the last train to make the Spoleto-Norcia run in 1968. His grandfather was the train’s engineer, and as a special treat he let his grandson take the commands (at the age of six) during the final journey.

The first tunnel is a doozy...but sooner or later there is a light at the end of it. (Copyright Marzia Keller)

The first tunnel is a doozy…but sooner or later there is a light at the end of it. (Copyright Marzia Keller)

We retraced our steps back through the parking area to the left, past the poignant abandoned station to the first baptism by fire along the trail: a 2 kilometer long tunnel (flashlights are a must to walk this route, as are decent footwear…the large stones under the tunnels are a killer for gymshoes), pitch black and with a few friendly bats just to complete the creepitude. Our guides kept us distracted from the never-ending darkness (about half an hour of walking) with historical anecdotes, including this: each morning two rail cars– each powered by a lone man working bicycle-style pedals–would leave, one from Spoleto and one from Norcia. When they met up halfway, they would give the all-clear and the train would begin its morning run.

When we finally came back into the light, we were treated to the breathtaking fall colors of the Valnerina, and continued our gently descending walk (this portion of the trail is about 12 kilometers), passing tiny empty houses once used by the families who worked on the line and a number of wonderfully scenic overpasses and spooky tunnels (two of which formed a 360° loop, completely blocking out any light. I discovered what the phrase “darkness pressing against my eyeballs” means.).

Tunnels and trestles through rolling's like hiking model train set. (Copyright Marzia Keller)

Tunnels and trestles through rolling hills…it’s like hiking model train set. (Copyright Marzia Keller)

Perhaps one of the most charming details along this portion of the hike is easily missed: a miniscule grassy platform along the trail in the middle of a thick wood. Villagers from the nearby hamlets of Grotti and Roccagelli would wake at dawn and, laden with baskets of eggs or produce and leading animals, follow a tiny path through the woods to board the train heading towards the markets in Spoleto or Norcia. This railway, quaint and picturesque to our eyes, was revolutionary for these isolated towns, where travel between them had been for centuries—if not millenia—solely by foot or donkey.

Castel San Felice  to Borgo Cerreto: The Nera River

The second half of our walk (we stopped for a picnic lunch at the delightful San Felice abbey, where the frieze on the facade commemorates the slaying of the valley’s dragon by San Felice and San Mauro, about half a kilometer from Sant’Anatolia) offered a completely different landscape…instead of admiring the Nera River Valley from the top down, we skirted the river itself.

The bubbling Nera River (Copyright Marzia Keller)

The bubbling Nera River (Copyright Marzia Keller)

Along the crystalline Nera, the trail runs under steep mountainsides on which tiny creche-looking stone villages perch precariously– this wild and rugged scenery is some of the most dramatic in Umbria.  It is an area both stunningly beautiful and foreboding, where the weather can go from sunny skies to black clouds in a matter of minutes, where the isolated hamlets and claustrophobia-inducing sheer rock walls remind you that centuries ago the inhabitants of these inpenetrable peaks held out against conversion to Christianity for long after the rest of the region, where stories of dragons and witches abound, and where—just to make the area a bit more hostile—each tiny town was locked in perennial warfare with the next one over.

The dramatic slopes above the Nera River, lair of dragons. (Copyright Marzia Keller)

The dramatic slopes above the Nera River, lair of dragons. (Copyright Marzia Keller)

But don’t let such flights of fancy divert you from enjoying the bucolic (and, blessedly, flat) scenery along the river banks. Pretty woods with blankets of cyclamen underfoot and the soft rushing sound of the water make it the more likely home of fairies and sprites than makers of dark magic. From the Abbey of San Felice, the railway trail runs right next to the highway 209; to avoid an hour of walking along noisy traffic, a better choice is to abandon the path for this stretch and instead take trail n. 12 (directly behind the abbey), which climbs the slopes above the river until reaching pretty Vallo di Nera, where it descends again to the river bank at Piedipaterno. From here the trail runs along the Nera on the bank opposite the road, so the traffic noise is much less distracting.

Though the walk itself is much less dramatic (there are no overpasses here, and just a smattering of short tunnels), the views of the rocky slopes above and the river bubbling in and out of sight are simply lovely. Our pace slowed as we began to feel the effects of almost 25 kilometers of walking, and we took advantage of the picnic spots and tiny bridges to stop and watch the river rush by, point out trout, and conjecture as to how refreshing a dip in that clear water must be on sweltering July afternoons. On this gorgeous October afternoon, my legs were tired but my spirit was renewed from a full day of quiet, green, and history.

Soothing for the soul (and maybe for the feet in hot weather!) (Copyright Marzia Keller)

Soothing for the soul (and maybe for the feet in hot weather!) (Copyright Marzia Keller)

A special heartfelt thanks to Armando Lanoce and Enzo Scoppetta from CAI Spoleto for sharing their beautiful Valnerina with us!

To hike the Ex-Ferrovia Spoleto-Norcia trail, use the CAI Monti di Spoleto e della Media Valnerina hiking map. Caprareccia-Borgo Cerreto can be done in one day (prearrange transit back to your starting point), or can easily be broken into two hikes at Sant’Anatolia di Narco.


A Day at the Office: Cheesemakers of Cascia

Just another day in the office for Francesco Rossi, sheep and goat herder and cheesemaker (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Just another day in the office for Francesco Rossi, sheep and goat herder and cheesemaker (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

I find it surprising—and somewhat heartening—that in this age where everyone seems to aspire to some sort of white-collar service sector desk job (those, of course, who don’t aspire to starring on a cable reality show), there are still people who make a conscious choice to get their hands (and boots) dirty.

Follow this sign (and the bleating of hundreds of sheep) to the good cheese. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Follow this sign (and the bleating of hundreds of sheep) to the good cheese. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Enter Rita Rossi and her brother Francesco from tiny Colforcella outside of Cascia, who found themselves the unexpected owners of three orphan lambs about ten years back. As they couldn’t keep up with the rest of the herd, a passing shepherd left them in their care along with cursory instructions as to how to raise them. Rita quickly found her passion, and involved Francesco in expanding their herd and adding goats. From their hilltop farm, they now raise about 150 sheep and half as many goats…taking them from their warm shed each morning to graze in the surrounding sloping fields of the Valnerina.

Try making small talk around the water cooler with this guy every day. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Try making small talk around the water cooler with this guy every day. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

From books and neighbors, the Rossis taught themselves the art of cheesemaking, quickly turning out products of such fine quality that they count some of the best restaurants in Umbria among their clients.  Demand is so high for their tangy and pungent wheels that they no longer sell aged cheese, as they can’t keep them around long enough to properly age them. They offer a variety of soft, fresh goat cheese and sheep cheese ranging from two days to a month old…some of which are flavored with the saffron threads they harvest from their field of crocuses (croci?).

Rita Rossi separates out saffron threads from her crocus field. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Rita Rossi separates out saffron threads from her crocus field. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

My visit to the Rossi farm, accompanied by a chef friend who had sung me their praises, only underlined the singularity of these brother-and-sister team’s choice of work: theirs is no showcase estate, but a real working farm complete with lots of hounds and lots of mud. That said, the bleating sheep coming up the lane against the background of the autumn colored woods, the field of tiny violet crocuses with their bright orange stigmas, and the serene smile lighting up Rita’s face as she shyly talks about her life are undeniably bucolic.

The view from your office ain't that bad, if you don't mind a little mud on your boots.

The view from your office ain’t that bad, if you don’t mind a little mud on your boots.

Our visit ended with a quick sampling of some of their cheeses: a strong soft goat caprino, a spreadable fresh sheep, and a semi-aged (about a month) casciotta (true to her word, the aging room was virtually empty…these wheels go like hotcakes). They were straightforward and left a clean taste in your mouth, with none of the insipid flavors or chemical aftertaste that comes with so many commercial cheeses made from milk from larger farms.

Made in the morning, by afternoon these cheeses are sold out. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Made in the morning, by afternoon these cheeses are sold out. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)


 Before slicing into a wheel of casciotta, Rita rinses the rind of brine and mold (the good kind of mold).

Before slicing into a wheel of casciotta, Rita rinses the rind of brine and mold (the good kind of mold).

Like the Rossi family, these cheeses had nothing fancy about them; simple, honest, and matter-of-factly excellent. Here’s to going back to the land, and from that land making something heavenly.

To taste some of these cheeses yourself, contact Rita through their website to arrange a visit or ask where their products are sold locally. You won’t be disappointed!

A huge thanks to chef Jennifer McIlvaine of Life…Italian Style for introducing me to the Rossi farm and snapping these wonderful pictures.


Assisi for Kids

I realize it’s been Itinerary Central over here for the past few weeks, but I’ve had these blog posts simmering in the pot for awhile now and am finally catching up with my editorial backlog. (That’s what we real writers call our half finished Word files. Editorial backlog.)

I happen to think that Umbria is a great destination for kids, for a number of reasons. And Assisi is a fun town for families to visit, with the help of a few caveats to keep in mind and pointers to guide your way.

Kids in Assisi

Some Caveats

There’s some bad news: Assisi (like almost all of Umbria’s towns) is a hill town. Which means there’s a bit of climbing to get between virtually any two points on your map…which can be trying for kids who are not great walkers, but definitely a chore for everyone on the hottest days of the summer.

Try to time your visit according to the season (avoiding long, steep stretches during the hottest hours of the day) and rally your flagging troops with promises of snacks and play time (suggestions for both below). Also, everyone should wear comfortable clothes and shoes (Folks, can we not tour our children around all day in beach flip flops or crocs?) that are also suitable for visiting the Basilica, if that’s on the itinerary.

Assisi is, strangely, largely open to traffic (aside from a number warrens of tiny picturesque alleyways, too narrow to fit cars through), so you’ll have to keep sharp for passing cars along most of the main streets. Even the central Piazza del Comune is criss-crossed by cars through the day, so for better (and greener) play places, see below.

Before You Come

A bit of preparation will go a long way toward helping your kids get the most out of a visit to Assisi, including–most importantly–a quick lesson on the life and person of Saint Francis. His compelling story (Involving some of Disney’s key plot points: spoiled, war-mongering offspring rebels against family to chart own destiny. Personal growth and historical greatness ensue.) is one that most kids find fascinating, and his love of animals, message of peace, and lack of a gory martyrdom make him a relatively innocuous and universal role model.

There are a number of excellent biographies of Saint Francis geared toward children (Including one authored by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Yeah, that one.), and parents can choose one which emphasizes different aspects of his life (the religious, the natural, the peaceful) depending upon their interests and tastes.

There is also a fun app called Gumshoe Tours Assisi which came out last summer, specifically for kids visiting Assisi. Full of games like I Spy, treasure hunts, and puzzles, the app gets kids interested in some of the town’s most famous monuments by integrating games and learning. Definitely worth downloading (for free).

Also, take a look at my Assisi itineraries (one, two, and three day) for a good general overview, tips like water fountains and shady spots, and more places to eat and shop.


The Basilica of Saint Francis

The Giotto frescoes in the Basilica’s upper church work exactly like religious art was supposed to back in the day: telling a story in comic book form to an overwhelmingly illiterate congregation.  If your kids have had an introduction to Francis’ life (you ordered a book, right?), they’ll enjoy recognizing many of the most salient events retold in the famous frescoed panels. Also, be aware that the friars are insistent about maintaining silence within the church, so it’s preferable to go over the fresco cycle before entering (using a guide book or app) rather than incur the wrath of the prowling brothers by hissing explanations inside the church.

The Temple of Minerva

This intact Roman temple facade in Assisi’s main Piazza del Comune is sure to interest older kids who have started studying Roman history (or younger ones who have watched Tom and Jerry cartoons). Not much to see on the inside, but the Corinthian columns and covered portico are a great backdrop for family photos.

The Basilica of Saint Clare

Flying buttresses!! What more need be said? Also, two fountains (one to the side of the church under the buttresses), a sprawling piazza with no cars (except around the local elementary school 1:00 p.m. pick up time), and a row of shady benches overlooking the valley. This is a good stop to make.

The Rocca Maggiore

This is the de facto playground for much of Assisi’s youth (residents get in for free), as its real stone towers, tunnels, ramparts, and parapets are a million times more fun than any tire-and-timber castle at the neighborhood park. Kids need to be careful of the worn stone steps that can be slippery, and the dark tunnel running under the length of the outer wall to the far tower can either be electrifying or terrifying, depending. But, all told, this is a great place for kids to take a break from the solemn church atmosphere and run off some steam. Also, there’s a grassy outer courtyard with a small refreshment stand (there’s no admission to the outer courtyard) where everyone can get a cold drink and relax for a bit.

L’Eremo delle Carceri

This Medieval hermitage halfway up the side of Mount Subasio is a good mix of culture and nature for everyone. The pretty stone monastery has a quirky, windy route through its chapel, rooms, and passages and the tiny doorways and stone slabs where the friars slept are a fascinating look at both how small folks were back then and how humbly the first Franciscans lived. On the far side of the monastery, the woods have a number of paths and trails through the surrounding area leading to little shrines and caves where Francis and his brothers would retreat to pray. A warning: these woods are a pilgrimage destination and visitors are expected to be quiet and respectful…so if you are looking for a place for a loud family game of hide-and-seek, this is not it.

 St. Francis’ wood

This is the perfect place for a little break after touring the Basilica. Literally steps from the entrance to the upper church, the Bosco di San Francesco is a recently reclaimed woodland with a gorgeous trail downhill to the valley floor at the bottom. Wherein lies the only problem: if you walk all the way down (it’s a couple of kilometers), you have to make the trek back up. That said, there is a bubbling brook flanked by a pretty (and flat) trail, occasional benches, and lots of woods for exploring at the bottom. A good compromise is simply starting there (there is a free parking lot at the bottom visitor’s center), and exploring the flat bit at the bottom and a bit of trail uphill.

La Porziuncola

This is fun because it’s a church in a church. The grandiose Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli hides the tiny Porziuncola chapel inside, which was the center of Francis’ second community of friars (the first is about 2 kilometers away in Rivotorto, where another grandiose church contains a tiny stone hut where Francis once lived and prayed).

Play places

Assisi is sadly bereft of great playgrounds. In years past, kids would play ball in the church piazzas, but they have been gradually paved over and declared off-limits for play over the past generation. There is a rather desolate, tiny play area with swings and a climbing structure outside the Porta Nuova city gate, which is okay in a pinch. Otherwise, the town park (called Regina Margherita on maps, but known to everyone locally as the Pincio) has just had a grand reopening after decades of neglect and abandon. There are no play structures, but the park itself is very green and pretty and a great place to run around or picnic.

Otherwise, the Bosco di San Francesco (see above) is good for running around (if you don’t pass through the bottom visitor center but instead cross the road and take the trail along the stream you won’t need to pay the entrance donation), the Rocca is perfect for the more adventurous (the outer courtyard is open to the public; to enter the castle itself you need to purchase a ticket), or, for calmer kids, the Eremo is good for stretching the legs in shady woods.

Of course, the mother of all outdoor play is on the top of Mount Subasio, where the vast grassy plain offers kilometers of traffic-free running around.


Laboratorio Artistico Alice

Address: Via San Francesco, 81
I can’t talk up the kids’ t-shirts Alice hand-paints enough…sunflowers, doggies, dinosaurs, poppies, whimsical scenes of Assisi.  If you give her a couple of days (and she’s not too busy), she’ll even personalize the back with your choice of name painted in a rainbow of colors.  A one-of-a-kind gift.  Aside from her handpainted tshirts, Alice has jewelry, photo albums, paintings and prints.  All in her lovely, whimsical style.


Address: Via Portica, 15/A
This shop is bursting with wooden toys and decorations…Pinocchio in all sizes and colors, mobiles, wall clocks, rocking horses.  Toys from another era yet somehow ageless.


Ok, yes. In a perfect world, we would feed our children three square meals and two healthy snacks a day, travel or no travel. Yeah, well. Guess what. This ain’t a perfect world. Here’s where you can score some pizza and ice cream.


Ristorante I Monaci

This  popular local favorite for pizza on Via Scallette, 10 is usually hopping with those looking for a simple meal at a fair price. They serve pasta and meat as well.

Pizza by the slice

The tiny pizza shop “Da Andrea” on the corner right across the street from the Church of San Rufino (there is a small wooden bench next to the door) has the best slices in Assisi.

Ice cream

There is, sadly, no great ice cream in Assisi. But there is convenient ice cream…i.e. Caffè San Francesco. After your visit to the Basilica, it’s time to give your brain and feet a rest at this landmark local cafè across the street. Try to grab the secret hidden table behind all the flowerpots on the corner for the best view in town, or enjoy the old-world style marble and scarlet decor inside.

Pastry shop

Bar Pasticcieria Sensi is about halfway down Corso Mazzini between the main piazza and Santa Chiara. Though not as showy as many other pastry shops around town, this is where the locals all flock to satisfy their sweet-tooth. They also have not great (but convenient) ice cream.



Visit Assisi in One, Two, or Three Days: Itineraries and Tips

Though I live only about six minutes from the historic center of Assisi, I find that I don’t write about my hometown very much. I tend to explore (and share) Umbria’s less famous villages and countryside, but there is no doubt that Saint Francis’ birthplace is one of the most beautiful spots in Umbria, if not all of Italy.


So I finally sat down and put together three itineraries: one, two, and three days of discovery of the picturesque, the poignant, and the–uh, another p word isn’t coming to me–town and environs. Take a look and plan your visit:

One Day in Assisi: A Complete Itinerary

This itinerary is a greatest hits compilation to help you discover Assisi’s most beautiful and iconic historical monuments and spiritual sites. Follow the directions to get a taste of the best of this unique town, and leave wanting to come back for more!

Two Days in Assisi: A Complete Itinerary

This itinerary will help you discover Assisi beyond the Basilica and historic center, including some of the more evocative Franciscan sites in the quiet countryside outside of town. Follow the directions to see and experience some of Assisi’s most famous monuments and most spiritual corners.

Three Days in Assisi: A Complete Itinerary

This itinerary will help you discover Assisi beyond the Basilica; use it to dodge the crowds of pilgrims which can flood the town in high season and find the quiet, picturesque backstreets, small trattorias where the locals eat, and off the beaten track gems (many of which you will have virtually to yourself). Follow the directions and know that you will leave after three days having seen and experienced the very best of this special place.


Need help planning your entire stay in Umbria? Here are two region-wide itineraries to help you out:

Seven Perfect Days: A One Week Itinerary for Umbria

A week long suggested itinerary for visiting Umbria which throws in the crème della crème of the region: art and history, towns and parks, food and drink, people and shopping.

Fourteen Perfect Days: A Two Week Itinerary for Umbria

A two week long suggested itinerary for visiting Umbria which throws in the crème della crème of the region: art and history, towns and parks, food and drink, people and shopping.




Three Days in Assisi: A Complete Itinerary

The 3-Day Itinerary – Overview

Day 1

Assisi is divided into two parts—the Lower (Parte de Sotto) and the Upper (Parte de Sopra). Though the distinction is purely semantic for most of the year, each May the town—home of peaceloving Saint Francis—sheds its normal spirit of brotherly love to spend three days (and nights) locked in intense competition as the two parts stage processions, scenes of medieval life, and concerts with period music as they vie for the honor of the Palio during the annual Calendimaggio festival. Today we’ll explore the Parte de Sotto (everything that lies between the Basilica of Saint Francis and the main—and officially “neutral”–Piazza del Comune).

Day 2

Your second day in Assisi we’ll discover the Parte de Sopra, which covers the area from the central Piazza del Comune and extends east. Make sure you have comfortable shoes, as there will be some steep climbs through the narrow streets marking the upper part of this famed hilltown, but the views will be worth a bit of huffing and puffing!

Day 3

Many of the more spiritual sites in Assisi are outside the historic center, either on the slopes of Mount Subasio above the town or in the Valley below. Your final day in Assisi will be spent with a slower pace, exploring the peaceful places in Assisi’s environs. The timing of this itinerary is only a recommendation, as much depends upon your method of transportation (public transportation and walking will take more time than driving or hiring a taxi) and how long you choose to linger at each site.

Day 1

La Basilica di San Francesco (The Basilica of Saint Francis)

Hours: Lower Basilica 6:45am-6:00pm/Upper Basilica 8:30am – 7:45pm

To begin your first day, start at the Piazza Giovanni Paolo II public parking lot (some locals still call it Piazza San Pietro). Here there is ample paid parking, one of the main bus stops for those taking the local bus from the Assisi train station (located in Santa Maria degli Angeli in the valley below; check schedule at the bus stop for times and purchase tickets at the bar in the train station for €1), and a taxi stand (€10 from the train station). From here, it’s a short uphill walk to the Basilica above.

The ties between Assisi and her most famous monument are so symbiotic that it’s difficult to discern where one begins and the other ends; to know one, you have to know the other. Despite its sprawling size, the Upper and Lower Churches can get crowded during peak hours, so to enjoy the fabulous Giotto school fresco cycle documenting the life of Saint Francis in relative peace, it pays to time your visit for early morning—in fact, if you’re an early riser I suggest you try to get there before the time listed here to beat the tour bus crowds.

Local’s Tip: To fully enjoy the Basilica’s rich art and history—and its two churches, crypt, and museum– you should visit armed with a good guidebook or rent an audioguide from the stand to the left of the entrance to the Upper Church (€6/one hour tour; open 9:30am-5:30pm).

From The Upper Church in the Basilica, simply cross the street to the first building; your next stop is right on the corner.

Caffè San Francesco

Address: Via San Francesco, 52

After your visit to the Basilica, it’s time to give your brain and feet a rest at this landmark local cafè. Try to grab the secret hidden table behind all the flowerpots on the corner for the best view in town, or enjoy the old-world style marble and scarlet decor inside while you sip your cappuccino.

From here don’t continue down the main Via di San Francesco, but instead turn right up the hill on Via Cardinale R. Merry Del Val. After a block, turn right on Vicolo Santa Santa Margherita.

Alleys of Vicolo S. Andrea

Just a block away from the bustling Basilica, the virtually empty twisting alleys and stairways of S. Andrea is a fun glimpse into medieval Assisi. Though quiet now, five hundred years ago this quarter was teeming with life, as homes, workshops, stalls, and markets crowded these narrow streets. Take a meandering walk (and snap some pictures) through this warren of narrow streets and staircases.

Follow Vicolo Santa Margherita to the end, then take the stairs to the left. Make a stop at tiny piazza in front of the Church of Santa Margheria (on the left at the top of the stairs), where you can enjoy the view of the Basilica of Saint Francis from above and catch your breath on the benches. From here, continue along Vicolo S. Andrea about a block until you reach the narrow Vicolo Inferiore S. Andrea on the left. Climb here, following as it curves left, then take Vicolo Superiore S. Andrea on the right. Follow it to the end, and follow the stairs down, returning to Vicolo S. Andrea below. Continue following the stairs on the left, which end at Via San Francesco.

Local’s Tip: Wondering what all that stuff is splattered everywhere on the pavement? Well, it’s wax. This area is often commandeered as a backdrop to stage medieval festivals and fairs, and the torches and candles used to light the alleys have stained the bricks and cobblestones below over the years.

Local’s Tip: Stop to get a drink and fill your water bottles at the small fountain at the bottom of the stairs which lead from Vicolo S. Andrea to Via San Francesco. The water is potable and the lionhead fountain charming.

Via San Francesco

One of Assisi’s main thouroughfares, this long road is lined with everything from the kitschiest of souvenir shops to Assisi’s civic museum.

Casa dei Maestri Comacini

At the base of the stairs, immediately cross Via San Francesco, you can take a good gander at the 13th century loggia and two-story extension to the right (dated 1477 on the coat of arms on the lower story) across the street.  The building was named for the compass and rose reliefs above the door and the window to its right, suggesting that it might have belonged to the master masons who traditionally came from Lake Como. One of the best preserved medieval facades in Assisi.

From here, continue up Via San Francesco to the right (away from the Basilica) for about a block.

Palazzo Vallemani: Pinacoteca Comunale and Museo della Memoria

Price: €3 (€8 combined with the Roman Forum and the Rocca Maggiore—recommended!)
Hours: 10am–1pm/2pm-6pm March-Oct and 10:30am-1pm/2pm-5pm Oct-March

This imposing palazzo houses Assisi’s largely uninspiring and uninspired municipal art gallery (though it is worth a quick peek) and the startlingly excellent Museum of Memory which documents the events which took place in Assisi in the final years of World War II. As told in the book and film “Assisi Underground”, those years were ones where citizens—lay and ordained, private and official—secretly collaborated to harbor and ultimately save more than 300 Jews and other war refugees. Moving and compelling, this small museum (opened in 2011) merits a visit.

Local’s Tip: At Palazzo Vallemani, purchase the €8 ticket which includes entrance to the Pinacoteca, Roman Forum, and the Rocca Maggiore. The second two sites are included in the Day 2 itinerary!

After exiting the palazzo, cross the street and continue up Via San Francesco for about a block.

Oratorio dei Pellegini and Monte Frumentario

Hours: 10am–12pm/4pm-6pm ; closed Sun

You will come first to the unassuming Oratorio dei Pellegrini, built by a group of pilgrims returning from Santiago di Compostella in the 1400s. Though the drab exterior is easily overlooked, it belies the rich frescoes of the Perugino school completely covering the interior.

On the next block, the uniform series of facades lining Via San Francesco is broken up by the delicate columns of Monte Frumentario’s portico. This 14th century building—originally a hospital—later housed a guild which lent wheat and other farm products to peasants in exchange for pawned goods.

Next door, the Oliviera Fountain, built in 1570, features a plaque fixing the fine for doing wash in the fountain at one “scudo”. Don’t drink the water here, but feel free to take some great pictures of this lovely public fountain.

After admiring the fountain, continue along Via San Francesco passing under the arch and continuing about a block. Here, turn left and climb the steep Via A. Luigi; then take the stairs to the right which end in front of the Church of Santo Stefano.

Church of Santo Stefano

Duration: 30 minutes
Hours: 8:30am–6:30pm Sept.-May/8:30am-8pm June, July, Aug

The tiny, simple stone Church of Santo Stefano is a stark contrast to the opulent Basilica, and its unadorned Romanesque interior and facade remind visitors that it is one of the oldest churches in Assisi.

Local’s Tip: As you continue your walk, take a moment to enjoy the view over the valley and Santo Stefano’s pretty church bells, said to have miraculously rung on the day of St. Francis’ death in 1226.

Take the staircase to the left of the door of the church, and follow it as it turns right around the corner of the church. Continue climbing until it turns left and ends on Via San Paolo. Walk the entire length of Via San Paolo (it becomes Via Metastasio) until it makes a sharp curve to the right and begins to descend, passing under the large medieval city gate of Porta San Giacomo.


Halfway along Via Metastasio, you will pass Ristorante Metastasio on your left. Though this restaurant is quite touristy (and eschewed by locals) and overpriced (€12 for a primo?!?), it does have the–not-insignificant–advantage of a view.

Address: Via Metastasio, 9
Phone: 075816525

Just steps before passing under the San Giacomo city gate, two simple but reliable old-style trattorias await to serve you lunch.  The first, Trattoria Al Vecchio Camino, is a no-frills family run restaurant with little ambience but traditional Umbrian dishes. Criticized by locals because of their lightening-speed service (Italians like to linger over their food), this is a good choice if you are really feeling the hunger pangs.

Address: Via San Giacomo, 7
Phone: 075812963

Practically under the arch of Porta San Giacomo, the Locanda del Podestà is a local favorite. Great price/quality ratio, solidly good traditional dishes, friendly staff, and just a touch more ambience than Al Vecchio Camino across the street—you can’t go wrong here. In fact, you may be tempted to come back for dinner.

Address: Via San Giacomo, 6/c
Phone: 075816553

Pass under the arch of Porta San Giacomo and continue straight to the end of the road, where you’ll find the gates to the cemetary.

Walk and Cemetary

It’s time to walk off that pasta, and luckily you’re just steps away from a lovely (and flat!) walk. Amble down the shady, cypress-lined road that leads from Porta San Giacomo and enjoy the views over the surrounding hills on the left. The road leads directly to the cemetary gates. Assisi has shops, restaurants, music and arts festivals, religious feast days, nattily dressed inhabitants, and many, many cell phones. But if you really want to see what makes this town tick, this is where you need to be.  Aside from being architecturally lovely in the way that old monumental European cemetaries so often are, here you will discover the town’s soul. Notice the names on the markers that repeat over and over, as generations live out their lives in this small town. See the carefully tended graves, as women return every week to freshen flowers and polish marble. Watch as they tenderly touch the portraits attached to the graves and quietly greet their loved ones. This—not the ornate Basilica—is where the real community is.

Retrace your steps, passing under Porta San Giacomo and immediately veering right down steep Via Cardinale R. Merry Del Val. At the corner in front of the Basilica, turn right again, descending the road and passing through the Piazza Inferiore di San Francesco. Pass under the the arch, following Via Frate Elia and continuing straight as it continues to descent (becoming Piaggia San Pietro). Cross the street (Via Borgo San Pietro) to the Church of San Pietro.

Church of San Pietro

Hours: 7:30am-7:00pm

The stately square facade (broken up by three massive and ornate rose windows) of San Pietro dominates this piazza, and the serene stone interior and fantastic dome are especially loved by residents here (this is an active parish church, as well).

Local’s Tip: Take a quick look at the underground foundations—the entrance is through the gate to the right of the facade. Often used as an exhibition space for art shows, the massive arches and pillars holding up the church above give you an idea of the sheer heft of this stone building.

From Piazza San Pietro, retrace your steps across the street back to Piaggia San Pietro. Instead of continuing along Piaggia San Pietro as it climbs to the left, turn right instead on Via del Fosso Cupo. Continue climbing this street (it becomes Via Fontebella) past the ornate Fonte Marcella on the left. Veer left on the steep Via E. Brizi at Piazza Garibaldi (you’ll see the Ristorante I Monaci on the left), and continue veering left on the even steeper Via Giotto. This road ends at Via Portica about a block up; continue climbing towards the right on Via Portica until it ends in the main Piazza del Comune. Then lean against the wall for a minute until your heart rate declines, turn around, and descend the entire length of Via Portica (it beomes Via A. Fortini and then Via San Francesco) until you find yourself in front of the Basilica once more.


You are probably pretty much art-and-history-ed out by this point, so it’s time for more frivolous pursuits (especially now that you don’t have to schlepp your purchases around with you for the rest of the day). The lion’s share of Assisi’s shops line the long walk from the main Piazza del Comune to the Basilica, so take a leisurely look along this route. There are a plethora of trashy trinket hawkers, but also a couple of gems. Here are a few to pause at:


Address: Via Portica, 15/A
This shop is bursting with wooden toys and decorations…Pinocchio in all sizes and colors, mobiles, wall clocks, rocking horses.  Toys from another era yet somehow ageless.

I Colori del Tempo

Address: Via Portica, 6/b
A wonderful, quirky shop with natural fiber clothing (mostly women and children) and accessories. Some euro-fashion that won’t break the bank.

StudioAssisi Via Fortini

Address: Via Fortini, 7
An eclectic collection of clothing, shoes, accessories, and home decor.

Arte Legno

Address: Via Fortini, 20
An entire shop dedicated almost exclusively to items carved for the richly veined local olive wood.

Laboratorio Artistico Alice

Address: Via San Francesco, 81
I can’t talk up the kids’ t-shirts Alice hand-paints enough…sunflowers, doggies, dinosaurs, poppies, whimsical scenes of Assisi.  If you give her a couple of days (and she’s not too busy), she’ll even personalize the back with your choice of name painted in a rainbow of colors.  A one-of-a-kind gift.  Aside from her handpainted tshirts, Alice has jewelry, photo albums, paintings and prints.  All in her lovely, whimsical style.

Il Tapiro

Address: Via San Francesco, 24
Mauro’s leather shop is a landmark in Assisi. He has a great selection of pretty sandals, purses and carrier bags, wallet, belts, and just about any other leather item you can imagine.


You are now standing back in front of San Francesco, and there are a few options for dinner. You can choose a table with a view at the Ristorante San Francesco (you were here for a cappuccino in their adjacent bar this morning). Their terrace windows face the facade of the Basilica, which is fetchingly lit up at night.

Otherwise, you can climb the hill of Via Cardinale Merry del Val a block back to Porta San Giacomo to try one of the restaurants suggested for lunch (or return to a particular favorite).

If you are hankering for pizza, head back up Via San Francesco, pass under the archway and after about a block on your right you will see the Teatro Metastasio (there is a small piazza in front). There is a staircase leading down from the piazza, and halfway down the flight of stairs to your left you’ll find the entrance to Ristorante I Monaci (you passed the downstairs entrance a few hours ago). They’re a popular local favorite for pizza, the place is usually hopping with those looking for a simple meal at a fair price. They serve pasta and meat as well.

Address: Via Scallette, 10
Phone: 075812512

Day 2

Piazza Matteotti and “Piazza Nova”

The area near Piazza Matteotti (known locally as Piazza Nova) is one of the most characteristic in Assisi, with its twisting alleys and geranium bedecked stone houses lining the narrow lanes. Where other quarters in Assisi seem half-abandoned, this neighborhood is still quite populated, and the locals sitting on their front stoops exchanging gossip and shelling peas only add to the old world charm.

Local’s Tip: The parking lot at Piazza Matteotti is a perfect place to leave your car (park on the lower level to keep it out of the sun) or, if you’re using public transportation, begin from the bus stop here. The local bus leaves from the Assisi train station (located in Santa Maria degli Angeli in the valley below; check schedule at the bus stop for times and purchase tickets at the bar in the train station for €1, as do taxis (€10 from the train station).

From Piazza Matteotti, cross Via Eremo delle Carceri to take a quick walk around the Via Dell’Anfiteatro Romano; the oval-shaped lane follows the outline of the Roman amphitheater which once dominated this area. From here, walk back across Via Eremo delle Carceri, and then go around the corner, using the crosswalk to cross the busy Via Umberto 1°, and enter the narrow Via del Comune Vecchio. Take the first left on Vicolo Bovi, and go about a block. Double back on yourself with the sharp right on Via Montecavallo, and then turn left (Via Montecavallo again). Follow this as it winds its way to Via Porta Perlici, turn left here (downhill) and continue to Piazza San Rufino. Veer right (downhill) onto Via San Rufino, which descends steeply until reaching Piazza del Comune.

Piazza del Comune and Archaeological Museum

Address: Roman Forum and Archaeological Museum (Via Portica, 2)
Price: €4 (or included in the €8 ticket purchased on Day 1 at Palazzo Vallemani)
Hours: 10:00am-1:00pm/2:30pm-6:00pm
Website: (in Italian)

After your meander through Assisi’s most intact medieval quarter, it’s time to take a break and admire the pretty Piazza del Comune. Grab a table at one of the outdoor caffes (try Bar Trovellesi under the portico near the fountain) and admire the 13th century municipal building lining one side of the piazza, the pretty fountain with its jetted lions, the soaring belltower, and—most importantly—the Temple of Minerva. From the 1st century BC, this is the most intact Roman temple facade in Italy. To put the Temple of Minerva into context, head to the entrance to Assisi’s Roman Forum and Archaeological Museum just a few meters down Via Portica on the far side of the Piazza. Here you’ll find a scale model reconstructing the layout of the Roman forum, the foundation of the Temple of Minerva, and three classical marble statues unearthed in Assisi, one of which represents Minerva herself.

From the exit of the Archaeological museum, turn right (downhill) and walk down Via Arco dei Priori until it ends at Via Sant’Antonio. Turn right and continue about a block until you reach Piazza del Vescovado with the Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore at the far end.

Piazza del Vescovado and Roman Domus

Price: Entrance is a flat €80 fee for groups of 2-15, so the individual ticket price is variable depending upon group size. (See the “Before you go” section above for more information.)
Hours: To reserve call the Infoline 199 151 123 Mon-Fri 9:00am -5:00pm

In the nineteenth century, excavations near the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Piazza del Vescovado uncovered the remains of a luxurious Roman villa. This domus, with its original mosaic floor, painted wall decorations, and a long section of richly decorated vault-covered portico, is a must-see for anyone passionate about Roman civilization. Next door, a second domus is currently being excavated and restored under the Palazzo Giampé.  This site, with its excellent frescoes and mosaic floors, is one of the most important and intact examples of a Roman domus on view in Italy.

From here, retrace your steps along Via Sant’Antonio, turning left on Via Arco dei Priori until you return to the Piazza del Comune. From here, turn right onto Corso Mazzini.

Il Corso

La Piazza and Il Corso is where all Assisi go to see and be seen. Unfortunately, Assisi’s main street has been taken over by shops and caffes catering primarily to the tourist trade, but if you’re looking for some traditional souvenirs to take home, you may want to stop in the stores here.

Local’s Tip: Assisi’s best bakery is “Bar Pasticcieria Sensi” about halfway down the corso on your right. Though not as showy as many other pastry shops around town, this is where the locals all flock to satisfy their sweet-tooth. If you have a taste for something savory, try the pan caciato (cheese bread with walnuts).


Unfortunately, there are no restaurants worth their salt along the Corso, so for lunch double back to the main Piazza. From here you have three great options, all within a few meters.

Trattoria degli Umbri

No frills traditional family-style trattoria with traditional Umbrian fare. It can get crowded in peak season and you may need a little patience with the slow service.

Address: Piazza del Comune, 2
Phone: 075/812455

Osteria Piazzetta delle Erbe

Modern twist on traditional cuisine and one of the few spots in Assisi with outdoor seating.

Address: Via San Gabriele dell’Addolorata, 15/A
Phone: 075/815352

Trattoria La Pallotta

A Slow Food restaurant, this historic family-owned spot is heavy on local dishes and ingredients.

Address: Via della Volta Pinta, 3
Phone: 075/812649

From any of these three restaurants, make your way back into the Piazza del Comune, then follow Corso Vannucci until it reaches Piazza Santa Chiara.

Local’s Tip: As you pass under the archway at the end of the Corso (where Piazza Santa Chiara begins) there is a water fountain in a niche in the wall to your left (at the base of the staircase). Stop for a quick drink here.

Chiesa di Santa Chiara (Church of Saint Claire)

Hours: 6:30am-12:00am/2:00pm-6:00pm

The pink and white striped facade of the church dedicated to Saint Claire shortly after her death in 1253 dominates this piazza, and the immense flying buttresses and intricate rose window only render it more dramatic. Don’t miss the San Damiano Crucifix inside (in the Oratorio del Crocifisso)…this is the one which spoke to Francis, commanding him to “go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin,” thus changing the course of history.

Local’s Tip: The stone benches along the overlook at the far side of Piazza Santa Chiara are a wonderful, shady place to rest for a minute and snap some fabulous photos of the Umbria Valley below.

From Piazza Santa Chiara, walk the length of the Corso back to Piazza del Comune. Circle right around the fountain, and take the steep pedestrian Via San Rufino di Piazza San Rufino. At Piazza San Rufino turn left into Via Porta Perlici and climb for about a block. On the left, take the stairs (there is an arrow indicating La Rocca Maggiore) as they climb, ending at the service road which leads to the entrance to the fortress.

Local’s Tip: If the climb uphill to the fortress is too rigorous, you can also get a taxi at the stand right in Piazza Santa Chiara. Taxis have access to the service road leading to the Rocca, but not normal traffic.

La Rocca Maggiore

Hours: 10:00am–7:00pm
Price:  €5 (or included in the €8 ticket purchased on Day 1 at Palazzo Vallemani)

The medieval fortress which sits above Assisi is one of its most fascinating, yet least visited, sites. This captivating warren of semi-restored tunnels, turrets, and courtyards is a thrill to explore for kids and grown-ups alike, and the heart-stopping climb up the far tower rewards you with one of the most amazing views over Assisi and the whole of the Umbrian valley below.

Descend the access road back to the staircase you took coming uphill. At the bottom of the stairs, turn right down Via Porta Perlici until you arrive in Piazza San Rufino.

Chiesa di Saint Rufino (Church of San Rufino)

Hours: 10:00am – 1:00pm/3:00pm-6:00pm
Price: €3 (for the Museum and Cript)

Assisi’s cathedral has been recently restored, so its twelfth century Romanesque facade and massive belltower are even more breathtaking. Don’t miss the small but excellent museum and crypt (in the piazza to the right of the facade), with its vaulted rooms and gracefully restored columns, it is perhaps the best collection of art and architecture in Assisi.

From Piazza San Rufino, climb the steep Via del Torrione which passes under the archway to the left of the base of the belltower. When you reach Piazza Matteotti (this is where you began your day), turn left passing in front of the parking lot entrance. Continue to the corner, then cross Via Eremo delle Carceri to the entrance to Nun Spa.

Local’s Tip: Ready for a snack? The tiny pizza shop “Da Andrea” on the corner right across the street from the Church of San Rufino (there is a small wooden bench next to the door) has the best slices in Assisi.

Nun Spa Museum

Address: Via Eremo delle Carceri, 1/a
Telephone: 0758155150
Price: from €45/person

If you splurge on one thing while in Assisi—or while in Italy, for that matter—make it this. When the luxury Nun Hotel and Spa (located in the restored former convent of Santa Caterina) opened their doors in 2010, they revealed what had been unearthed during construction work:  extensive remains of the amphitheater.  The bad news is that the ruins have been artfully incorporated into the chic spa, and are on view only for spa clients.  The good news is that the ruins have been artfully incorporated into the chic spa, and are on view only for spa clients.  So book yourself in for a few hours of hammam downtime and a massage to recover from your arduous day of touring, and chalk it up to culture.  They have an excellent juice bar (with a wonderful Umbrian wine selection) for a relaxing drink afterwards.


If you’ve had enough walking for one day (probable) and you are feeling too relaxed to head back into the Piazza, you can simply stop here at the Nun Relais’ restaurant. Elegant and understated (as is both the hotel and spa), the dishes are Umbrian with a nouveau vibe. They also have a “light” menu, if you are still in the healthy spa groove.

Otherwise, head back to the Piazza del Comune and choose one of the restaurants suggested for lunch (I especially like the outdoor tables in the evening at Osteria Piazzetta delle Erbe).

Day 3

The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

Hours: 6:15am – 12:50pm/2:30pm – 7:30 pm


To begin your first day at the Basilica, you can park in the free lot directly in front of the church. Otherwise, for those using public transportation, it’s a short (flat!) ten minute walk from the Assisi train station (located in Santa Maria degli Angeli) where all trains and buses arrive; just point yourself towards the soaring dome.

You can’t miss the imposing domed Basilica which dominates the valley below the historic center of Assisi in the neighboring town of Santa Maria degli Angeli; this church is probably the second busiest after the Basilica of Saint Francis. The church itself is remarkable perhaps only for its size (it’s the eighth largest church in the world), but inside it holds the tiny 11th century Porziuncola oratory, where Saint Francis and his followers worshipped. Saint Claire took her vows of poverty here, and Saint Francis asked to be brought here to die. Here you can also visit the Cappella del Transito, where Francis died, and the rose garden, where the miraculous roses which shed their thorns at the Saint’s touch still bloom.

If you are using public transport, you will have to take the local bus from the train station at Santa Maria degli Angeli to the Sanctuary at Rivotorto (check bus schedules at the bus stop right outside the station and buy tickets from the bar inside for €1…buy a return ticket, as well, if you are planning to take the bus back to Santa Maria degli Angeli for lunch). Otherwise, you can easily drive from the Basilica, passing in front of the train station and continuing for two kilometers straight on until you reach the large church on the left. There is also a taxi stand in front of the Basilica, and you can take a taxi (€10 from Santa Maria to Rivotorto).

Local’s Tip: Along the left flank of the Basilica (where the road passes), there is a lovely Renaissance fountain perfect for snapshots and to fill your water bottle.

The Sacro Tugurio (Rivotorto)

Hours: 8:00am – 12:00pm/2:30pm-7:00pm
Website: (Italian only)

Another example of a modest treasure enclosed in an ornate box, the sprawling Franciscan sanctuary in the neighboring village of Rivotorto contains the first home of Saint Francis and his disciples, the Sacro Tugurio (or sacred shed). Francis and his followers lived and worshipped in this rough stone hut from 1208-1211 and here began organizing what would become his order. In 1211, the group was granted use of the Porziuncola from the Benedictine Order, and the Sacro Tugurio was abandoned only to become a site of pilgrimage in the following centuries.

To return to Santa Maria degli Angeli for lunch, drive back the way you came. In front of the train station you will have to turn right at the traffic circle (the road you took coming is only open to buses going the opposite direction), but simply follow this road until the next traffic circle, turn left, and turn left again at the following traffic circle. Follow this road as it passes under the train tracks, and Da Elide is directly in front of you as you come up from the underpass on Via Patrono d’Italia. Otherwise, any local taxi driver will know this restaurant or the local bus (check bus times at the stop in Rivotorto) will leave you at the station and it’s about three blocks walking to the restaurant.

Lunch at Da Elide

Address: Via Patrono d’Italia, 48 Santa Maria degli Angeli

If you think that a restaurant near the train station is bad news, Da Elide is pleasant surprise. Just steps away from the Assisi train station (which is located in the valley in Santa Maria degli Angeli), this historic restaurant (and hotel) is a local favorite, known especially for their meat grilled over the wood coals and fresh egg pasta.

To reach the Hermitage by car, find your way back to Piazza Matteotti in Assisi (your beginning and ending point for Day 2). From here, turn right on Via Eremo delle Carceri (there is a brown arrow indicating the turn for Mount Subasio). After passing under the city gate, veer left and follow this road as it climbs up the mountain until you reach the Hermitage. Otherwise, the local bus runs from the train station in Santa Maria degli Angeli to Piazza Matteotti. From here, you can either get a taxi to the Hermitage (€15 or €20 directly from the train station) or—if you’re feeling athletic—walk the road up the mountain (you’ll be in good company; most pilgrims walk to the Hermitage). It’s about an hour uphill.

The Hermitage (L’Eremo delle Carceri)

Hours: 6:30am – 7:00pm

One of the most peaceful and evocative spiritual sites in Assisi, the Hermitage where Francis would often seclude himself in prayer and meditation is just off the beaten track enough to avoid the crowds of the Basilicas in Assisi and Santa Maria degli Angeli. Take time to wander both the building and the surrounding walking paths.

From the entrance to the Hermitage, continue climbing straight as the road climbs the remaining slope to the plain at the top of Mount Subasio. You can do this by car, taxi, or on foot.

Mount Subasio


Umbria is known as Italy’s “Green Heart”, and one indication of this is the numerous natural parks in this small region. Mount Subasio is one of these (the entire town of Assisi is included in the Park’s boundaries), and it would be a shame to miss out on the lovely fields at the softly rolling peak of this mountain…often full of wildflowers and grazing horses. You can take a drive through, or park you car and walk out onto the pastures.

Retrace your steps down the road which descends the slope of Mount Subasio, passing the Hermitage and stopping about 2/3rds of the way down at the Bar Ristorante Gli Eremi along the road on your left.

Caffè at Gli Eremi

Address: Via Eremo delle Carceri, 15
Phone: 075816286

You’ve earned a break after all this walking, so stop for awhile here for a snack and a cappuccino with a view (grab one of the picnic tables along the road).

From here, continue descending the road until you find yourself back in Piazza Matteotti. Take Viale Umberto 1 as it circles its way around the perimeter of the historic center. When you pass in front of the new cement multistorey Mojano parking long on the right, look sharp because Via San Damiano is the next left (there is a small brown arrow indicating San Damiano at the intersection, as well). You can also walk this same route (there are sidewalks along this busy road) or take a taxi (€15 from Piazza Matteotti).

The Sanctuary of San Damiano

Hours: 6:15am – 12:00am/2:00pm – 6:45pm

Your final stop today is actually where it all began. The sanctuary at San Damiano once held the famous crucifix (now in the Basilica of Saint Claire) which spoke to a praying Francis, commanding him to “go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin,” three times. Francis did just that…first interpreting the message as a call to restore the neglected San Damiano and Porziuncola chapels and later taking it to mean a tweaking of the Roman Catholic Church itself. In this vein, he founded the Franciscan Order and the Order of Saint Claire and—many hold—became one of the most influential figures in religious history, pioneering virtues of poverty, brotherhood, respect for animals and the environment.

Local’s Tip: If you are planning on using a taxi for this itinerary, consider hiring a driver for your whole day. Many drivers will take you from sanctuary to sanctuary (and also for a nice drive on the top of Mount Subasio) and wait while you visit each site for a set fee—often much less than what they would charge for each individual run. Call the Radiotaxi line at 073 813100 for information and prices.


You are in your final hours in Assisi, and have three days of restaurant suggestions to choose from for your “last supper”. Most won’t start serving before 7:30, but chances are you are already a bit behind schedule and won’t have long to wait. From San Damiano, you can easily head back to the historic center of Assisi for one of the suggestions there, or, if you’ve had enough wandering for one day, have a simple pasta or pizza meal just steps from the sanctuary.

Ristorante Paradiso

Address: Via Padre Antonio Giorgi 6
Phone: 075816064

Along the access road you took to reach San Damiano, a green gate on the left leads you to a parking lot. From here take the steep steps down to the charming restaurant/pizzeria which is immersed in a small wood and marks the site of an ancient Roman spring with baths. The food is simple and honest, the service quick, and the place is hopping with locals most nights.


Before You Go

Almost all the sites included in this  three day itinerary are open to the public with no advance reservations needed. There are, however, two exceptions:

Piazza del Vescovado and Roman Domus

It is in your best interest to join up with a group to visit the Domus, as entrance is a flat €80 fee for groups of 2-15, so the individual ticket price is variable depending upon the number of visitors. To do so, call the Infoline (199 151 123 Mon-Fri 9:00am -5:00pm) to be included in a group tour.

Nun Spa Museum

You will need to book in advance, as they have a limited number of hammam slots a day. You can do so by calling 0758155150 or through their website at, where you will also find a complete list of services and prices.


Transportation Tips

The itineraries for Day 1 and Day 2 are exclusively on foot (except for one step during Day 2, when a taxi is a possible alternative). The itinerary for Day 3 is best done by car, though it can also be done by a combination of public transportation (bus) and taxis.


Something Extra

Have some extra time? Here’s one thing to add to this itinerary:

Il Bosco di San Francesco (Saint Francis’ Woodland)

Hours: 10:00 am – 7:00 pm April to September;  10:00 am — 4:00 pm October to March  (the last visit must begin an hour before closing time). Weekends only in February. Closed Mondays, and the final two weeks of January.

Opened just two years ago, this gorgeously restored woodland just steps from the entrance to the Upper Basilica of Saint Francis is truly an homage to the saint’s love of nature. Three themed trails wind downhill towards the restored monastery and mill on the valley floor.


Staying longer (or shorter) in Assisi?