The late afternoon view from the Convento del Sacro Spreco
The thing about magic is that when you go looking for it, it doesn’t show. And then, when you’ve let your guard down, it sneaks up on you in the most unexpected places.
I went to Narni expecting magic. Perhaps even needing it a little bit. I had long heard the story of Narni being the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ mythical, magical land of Narnia—though, admittedly, the author never visited this dramatically positioned hill town himself. Overlooking the Nera River to the north (where the remains of the monumental Roman Ponte d’Augusto, so picturesque that a rendering of it by impressionist Corot now hangs in the Louvre, still make passersby draw breath) and the craggy peaks of the Valnerina to the west, Narni held the promise of bringing to life the enchantment and adventure that I so loved from Lewis’ epic, and that I had recently rediscovered in reading the novels to my sons.
The view of the Nera River valley, ca 1826.
Narni was lovely. It was. It has a fine historic center, a fetching pinacoteca with a Ghirlandaio and a Gozzoli, either of which worth the ticket price, and Narni Sotteranea, perhaps one of the most remarkable underground tours in Umbria. Plus, it had lots of lion imagery and a homegrown Lucy (the mummified saintly remains creepily displayed in the Duomo) and lush, striking countryside very much reminiscent of Lewis’ novels. But for some reason, it just didn’t click.
Perhaps part of that is the fault of Narni Scalo, a disheartening post-war industrial sprawl, complete with electro-carbon plant, which has gradually filled the valley below Narni itself (take a gander at Corot’s 1826 Le pont de Narni for an idea of paradise lost) and is the first sight to meet visitors. Perhaps part of that is the fault of my own inflated expectations for this unassuming, though attractive, town. Regardless, I left somewhat deflated and at a bit of a loss.
The cloister of the Franciscan convent in the fading light.
And then, magic. Instead of turning north towards home, I headed south on a whim in search of the Convento del Sacro Speco, a Franciscan site about 20 kilometers outside of Narni. I’m not sure why…I’m generally more of an art and architecture (with heavy doses of food and wine) kind of traveller, not a religion and spirituality sort of traveller, but this secluded sanctuary—founded in 1213 by Saint Francis but rebuilt in the 1400s—somehow compelled me, along with the legend of an ailing Francis once being soothed by an angel playing violin music here. The Saint often used a nearby cave to pray in solitude, and many of the friars who live here now do so according to the saint’s First Rule of silence and contemplation.
Parts of the sanctuary are closed to the public.
Not the friar–strongly resembling Disney’s badgeresque Tuck–who met me at the gate, and, taking my face in both hands, looked me kindly in the eyes and asked, “Daughter, why are you here? What are you looking for?” Which gave me pause, because I wasn’t quite sure of the answer myself. I stammered something inane about wanting to take a walk around the grounds, and he stepped back with a smile, easing my discomfort with a welcoming, “Stay as long as you like. This is your home.”
I didn’t stay as long as I would have liked. It was late afternoon and the sun was already low over the forested hills, but I slowly wandered through the miniature stone convent, with its tiny chapel and creche-like cloister. I paused for awhile in the inner courtyard to drink in the stunning view, from the village of Calvi perched on the mountains to the south, across the plain with its handkerchief-sized fields, woods, and stone farmhouses, to Narni to the north (and rued the fact that my camera doesn’t have a panoramic setting).
Climbing the path through the oak forest to the oratory at the top of the hill, the silence was broken only by songbirds and the sound of my own footsteps through the dry leaves. Through the glass doors of the oratory, the simple, rough chapel inside was evocative of the spirit of the Saint and so much more authentic than many of the more visited Franciscan sites in Umbria. I sat for a few minutes at the mouth of Francis’ cave—now sheltering an altar used for outdoor celebrations—and felt myself meld into the woods around, the darkening sky, the crisp evening air, the softly rustling leaves. My reverie was broken by the sound of the bells from the sanctuary below, calling visitors to Mass and me back to reality. As others headed towards the chapel, I made for the gate knowing that my spirit had been filled already and I had found, in this casual side-trip, what I had been seeking. Just a little bit of magic.
To visit the convent, set your navigator on the village of S. Urbano and follow the signs.
Opening hours are 9:30 – 20:00
Masses are Mon-Sat 11:00 ; Sunday and holidays 11:00 and 18:00
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
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.
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.
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)
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 www.discoveringumbria.it
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 www.discoveringumbria.it
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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…
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)
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 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)
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)
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)
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.
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)
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)
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)
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.
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)
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.
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.
Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi
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 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 (the download is free, but there are in-app fees to unlock…see comments below).
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.
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).
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: Piazza Chiesa Nuova (right beneath Piazza del Comune)
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.