Welcome to my late entry for the January edition of the Italy Blogging Roundtable! The theme this month is “Move”, and I look back on one of my favorite ways to move…hiking! So take a look at posts by Georgette Jupe, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table in this new year…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!
The older I get, the more zen I become. I used to be the kind of person who made plans and stuck to them…and then got all hot and bothered when plans changed. But I am finding more and more that things tend to work out in the end, and when the end is different than what you had envisioned at the beginning, it is usually a better end.
An excellent example: recently, I had made plans to visit the Mongiovino castle and sanctuary near Panicale, which I had been looking forward to since friends had taken a hike there and came back raving about the area weeks ago. I don’t tend to explore around Lake Trasimeno (I prefer the rugged Apennines and the tiny hamlets of the Valnerina) and the sanctuary is one of Umbria’s few excellent examples of Renaissance architecture, so I was looking forward to shaking up my usual routine and doing something a little different.
Well, it didn’t happen that way. For a series of reasons, the Mongiovino plan had to be abandoned and Monteluco near Spoleto was floated as an alternative. Sure, I said. Ok, I said. Whatever, I said.
It was the perfect day.
I had been meaning to visit Monteluco for years, but just never seemed to get around to it. One of the reasons may be that it’s so accessible—a quick walk from the center of stately Spoleto–that I always put it aside as a back-up plan when a more complicated day of hiking wouldn’t work. Which is exactly what ended up happening on Sunday.
Monteluco is an area which covers about 7,000 hectares of lush, holm oak-wooded mountain. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the hilltop on which Spoleto is perched, the two are joined by the the city’s iconic medieval aqueduct Ponte dei Torri, which dramatically spans the valley between the them like a bridge joining two islands. By crossing the bridge and following the hiking path number 1 uphill, you can scale the mountain from the bridge to the summit along the medieval aqueduct and past a series of hermitages and sanctuaries.
The name Monteluco comes from the Latin lucus, meaning a sacred grove dedicated to Jupiter. This historic Sacro Bosco still stands at the top of the mountain, where it has been forbidden to cut trees for at least four millenia. Though the ban was ostensibly established for religious reasons, there was also a more pragmatic explanation: the thick forest acted as a filter between the disease-laden air emanating from the stagnant swamp which covered the valley floor on the far side of Monteluco at one time and the populace of the city of Spoleto. Indeed, a marble stone still stands at the entrance to the sacred grove inscribed with the Lex luci spoletina in ancient Latin reiterating this ban (a copy—the original is in Spoleto’s Archaeological Museum).
The mountain’s sacred history continued through early Christianity as Monteluco became home to a colony of religious hermits—primarily Syrian–who used the natural caves and grottoes found on the flanks of the mountain and in the sacred grove itself as places of spiritual retreat and contemplation. One of these became San Giuliano, and the picturesquely crumbling Romanesque church (built in the 1200s over a pre-existing shrine from the 5th century and subsequently abandoned by the Benedictines in the 1500s) dedicated to his memory can be seen from the panoramic lookout in the Sacred Grove (it can also be reached by car from the valley; there is now a small restaurant/pizzeria at the site with one of the prettiest views over the Spoleto Valley.)
With the expansion of Christianity, Monteluco endured as a spiritual destination for monks from a number of religious orders who sought to live according to their vows of humility and poverty. Of these, Francis of Pavia (who died here in 1454), Bernardino of Siena, Bonaventure, and Anthony of Padova. The remains of the abandoned monastery and church dedicated to Saint Anthony can be found about halfway up the hiking trail, and his grotto is still intact in the Sacred Grove. The most famous of all religious sites on Monteluco, however, is the Convent of Saint Francis on the summit of the mountain.
In 1218, Francis was granted the small Saint Catherine Chapel adjacent to the Bosco Sacro by the colony of hermits, which he and his followers expanded into a small monastery and church over the following decades. The convent is still active, and Mass is often held in both the original church and the larger, more modern addition. Some of the older parts of the complex are open to visitors, including the tiny cells (one of which still holds the Saint’s stone bed), original frescoed chapel, and Saint Francis’ Well, the spot where legend holds that Francis was miraculously able to summon a flowing spring from the rock near the grotto where he was living at the time.
All of this I learned from my hiking companions as we climbed the switchback trail through the thick woods from the Ponti dei Torri, past the photogenic Monastero di Sant’Antonio ruins, and, finally, to the Sacred Grove and Monastero di San Francesco at the summit. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and parts of the trail seemed like a sporty version of Spoleto’s Corso as couples with children and seniors with dogs on leads took advantage of the first warm days of spring. We stopped often to take pictures and, as the trail began to climb in earnest toward the summit of the mountain, to catch our breath and take in the view.
Our prize was the overlook at the top…from here you can see the Umbrian Valley from Spoleto past Assisi, with a series of hilltowns dribbling down the mountainsides and a patchwork of olive groves, fields, and vineyards in the valley. Our prize was also an excellent lunch at one of the three seasonal hotels at the top and would have been a nap on inviting green which covers the summit, had it not been for the walk back down to town.
All told, not bad for a Plan B. Not bad at all.
A special thanks to my hiking buddy and all-round Umbria informant Armando Lanoce, who is always full of perfect Plan Bs and beautiful photos.
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable theme this month is “Five”, to celebrate our 5 years of gathering around the table for a virtual chat and drink. Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.
Dreamy Lake Trasimeno, located in Umbria but hugging the border of neighboring Tuscany, is the perfect destination for traveling families who need to strike that delicate holiday balance between water fun and sports (for the kids) and cuisine and culture (for the grown ups). The lake itself is ringed with family-friendly beaches and parks, a leisurely walking and biking trail, and casual restaurants and pizzerias. Further up in the surrounding hills, more active (and older) families can take advantage of a number of scenic walking trails, visit pretty Medieval lakeside villages, and sample some of the area’s excellent wine and olive oil.
Photo by Maurizio Zanetti via Flickr
For a special day in the Trasimeno area focused specifically on the kids, here are a few suggestions for the most fun-packed spots and activities guaranteed to keep the little ones occupied the adults relaxed:
Passignano sul Trasimeno
Perhaps the best kitted out beach for a day on the lake is this long stretch near Passignano. With a nice mix of sandy shore and grassy, shaded park, Sualzo has rental chairs and umbrellas, a playground, pool, restaurant, and refreshment stand. For the more active families, there is a beach volley ball court and canoes, paddle-boats, and bikes available for rental. You can also bring your own paddle boards, if you don’t have one and want to see what ones are the best go to https://simplysupboards.com/best-inflatable-paddleboard. On weekend evenings, the place gets hopping with a DJ or live music far into the wee hours. If you have your choice of where to stop for a day at the beach, this is probably your best bet.
Fishing Trips with the Cooperativo Pescatori di Trasimeno
With the beaches lining the lake, and the resort feel of the villages perched on its shores, it’s easy to forget that for hundreds—if not thousands—of years, the people of this area survived almost primarily by fishing. Though there are not that many fishermen left, those few who do continue to live off the water do so through the Lake Trasimeno Fishermen’s Cooperative, which is based in San Feliciano. For kids (and adults) who would like to try their hand at the traditional fishing techniques that the locals have used since time immemorial, the Cooperative organizes day trips on the water with a flat-bottomed wooden boat, an assortment of nets and lines, and a local expert to reveal where the fish are biting.
Photo by Roberto Taddeo via Flickr
Water Park: Parco Acquatico Tavernelle
This water park is perfect for a family looking for splish-splashy fun in the sun. With three pools (swimming, diving, and wading), a jacuzzi, three fabulous waterslides for the older kids, and a separate kiddie area for toddlers who need some pint-sized slides and shallow water, there are thrills for the whole family. You’ll need to bring your own suit and towel, but the pool has caps (required), goggles, and sundry other pool gear for purchase. You can rent an umbrella and loungers in the vast, grassy surrounding park, or grab a shady spot under some trees and spread out. There is an excellent self-service restaurant and refreshment stand, or you can bring your own picnic supplies.
Magione, Loc. Bacanella
Vroom, vroom! Sure, art and culture. Nature, too. But for a real treat for your motor-loving kids who need a break from all the bucolic sights around Lake Trasimeno, consider a day at the races. The Magione autodrome is a family-friendly sized facility hosting both auto (ranging from NASCAR to antique cars) and motorcycle races on its 2.5 kilometer circuit most weekends. It may not be the most educational day of your vacation, but chances are your kids will remember it as the most fun. For a race schedule (in Italian), check their website.
Honda Civics have a rich history in racing, particularly in touring car competitions. They have won numerous titles and championships in various global racing series, cementing their reputation as a reliable and high-performing racing car. Keep in mind that there are some Civic to steer clear models, as they were prone to premature transmission failure.
Photo by Coloriamoicieli via Instagram
Coloriamo i Cieli
Castiglione del Lago
For a few days spanning the end of April and the beginning of May, the skies around Castiglione become crowded with brightly colored kites, as kite enthusiasts from across the globe gather to fly their creations over Lake Trasimeno. Located at the former airport, the festival has workshops, entertainment, refreshments, games, and lots of booths were visitors can buy the most basic to the most elaborate kites of their own to try their hand at flying. Co-sponsored by a number of environmental organizations, the festival is thick with fun kid-friendly activities promoting conservation and recycling, art projects focused on local flora and fauna, and a number of nature walks, bikes, and horse-back rides.
Five Best Towns on Lake Trasimeno
Passignano sul Trasimeno
One of the most popular villages along the lakeshore, Passignano has a Medieval castle at its head and a pretty beach and park at its feet, both fun stops for traveling kids. Their “Palio delle Barche” festival in July, when locals in period dress race through town toting boats on their shoulders, is raucous and memorable.
Quiet San Feliciano harks back to the lake’s roots and a fishing culture and economy, and is one of the few spots along the shore where visitors can spot fishermen heading out in their traditional flat-bottomed wooden boats or hand-mending their nets.
This Medieval village perched on a hilltop south of the lake offers beautiful views over the lake and surrounding countryside, and an iconic “small Italian town” vibe of locals leisurely making their way between the town’s three historic piazze to shop, mingle, and gossip.
Tiny Montecolognola, near the more industrial town of Magione, is perched on the summit of an olive grove-covered hill, and has a pretty castle, a parish church decorated with frescoes spanning from the 14th to the 16th century, and gorgeous views over the lake.
Castiglione del Lago
Neatly laid out on a tongue of land sticking out into Lake Trasimeno, Castiglione’s beautiful views, picturesque castle, excellent restaurants and shops, and resort town vibe make it one of the more popular destinations for travellers to the lake.
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable takes on the theme of “sweet” this month! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michelle Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.
I have, of late, discovered the small nugget of joy that is birdwatching. To be honest, what I do can hardly be called by that name. I rarely correctly identify a species—indeed, I rarely see a bird if it’s not pointed out to me by a companion. I have a hard time maneuvering binoculars, and forget about photography. By the time I’ve chosen the right exposure and focus, the flock has long migrated to Africa.
Photo by Battitoriso via Wikimedia Commons
The Lake Alviano WWF Oasis
But the silence and pace are a welcome respite from my loud, fast life, so I find myself more and more frequently retreating for a few hours to one of the number of natural bird sanctuaries around Umbria. My favorite, the WWF Oasis of Alviano in the southern part of Umbria, was hit hard by a devastating flood two years ago and my heart broke when I heard about the incredible damage to the park and its infrastructure. So when they put out the call for volunteers to come and lend a hand rebuilding, I signed right up.
Photo by Il Cantore via Wikimedia Commons
The Alviano Oasis is one of the WWF’s largest, extending 900 hectares along the manmade Alviano Lake, formed with the 1960 damming of the Tiber River for a hydroelectric plant. The area had already been an established stop for thousands of migratory birds each year, but with the formation of the vast lake and surrounding wetland, the importance of the resulting ecosystem became such that in 1978 the area became a natural reserve and in 1990 was taken over by the WWF.
Photo by Ziegler175 via Wikimedia Commons
There are four kilometers of walkways and hiking paths circling the lake and marsh, broken up by bird blinds and towers. Here skilled (and, ahem, lucky) birders can spot over a hundred species, including brightly plumed kingfishers, great crested grebes, herons, cormorants, bitterns, and falcons. The area is also lush with aquatic plants and the amphibians that call them home.
Photo by Marco Ilari via Wikimedia Commons
Repairing the Damage
When I went to lend a hand on the first gorgeously sunny Sunday of spring last year, I was expecting scenes of destruction and despair. Instead, I found that though much of the park infrastructure had been badly damaged (the oasis also lost two of their three horses in the flood), reconstruction efforts were going well and spirits were high with both the staff there directing the work and the hearty group of volunteers and guys from fence company near me, who agreed to help in this.
We worked on clearing the paths, rebuilding walkways, cleaning out the blinds and towers, and repairing fencing. Ours was just one in months of volunteer weekends, and it was so heartening to see the mixed group of locals and lovers of the oasis from further afield working together to get this unique area in shape to be reopened for the 2013 season. There were dozens of volunteers involved from tourists, like me, to local gutter cleaning companies and forest rangers; we were truly a diverse group of bird lovers. Indeed, just a few weeks later the Alviano Oasis was able to open its gates to birding enthusiasts again (though there is still work to be done), just in time for the first spring migration.
Photo by Mediamenta via Wikimedia Commons
Visiting the Oasis
The Alviano Oasis is open to the public 10 am to sunset from September 1st to May 31st (best times for birding are October/November and April/May). The entrance to the Oasis is at Madonna del Porto (Guardea) along the Alviano Scalo-Baschi road. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 333/7576283.
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
I always have one long, excruciating moment of bitter regret when I hike.
It’s that moment after I drag myself out of bed on a cold, damp Sunday morning before the sun is up and, shivering, pull on my woollen socks and worn boots while trying not to wake anyone, pilfer through the fridge in search of something with which to make a sandwich (which I have invariably forgotten to do the night before), and head out the front door. It’s that moment after I get in the car, put the key in the ignition, and—in those last seconds before I start the engine—time slows and in my mind I watch myself getting back out of the car, retracing my steps into the dark house, peeling off my boots and socks, and slipping back under the covers while the bed is still warm. In that eternal flash of a moment, I think to myself, “Girl, what are you doing up at this hour?!?”
But my hand always overrides my head, I turn the key, and off I go.
There is beautiful hiking in Umbria; I have the good fortune to have a group of hiking buddies who have a vast knowledge of both the landscape and the history of this region, so spending a day in the hills with them is good for the legs and for the brain. A few months ago, we spent the morning on Mount Subasio following trail n. 52, skirting the newly-restored Roman aqueduct which transported water over a millenium ago between the tiny fortified hamlet of Collepino and the town of Spello, rich in Roman history and ruins, below.
Well-marked and not particularly rigorous (though the last half-kilometer push to Collepino takes the wind out of you), this lovely path through the sea of olive groves and the typical Mediterranean woods covering the slopes of Mount Subasio begins at the end—the 5 kilometer itinerary kicks off outside Spello’s medieval Porta Montanara.
From here, follow Via Poeta to the intersection, then turn right in Via Bulgarella following the directions to Collepino/Armenzano. After about 160 meters, you’ll pass a fountain on the left (Fonte della Bulgarella, from which the road takes its name. You may want to fill your water bottles here.); continue along this asphalted road for another 100 meters, then cross over and follow the path which descends to the right (trail n. 52).
The trail from this point on is easy to follow…you immediately see the Roman acqueduct as it runs along the trail to the left, and the stunning views over the Umbrian valley and the distant Appenines through the olive groves to the right. The path crosses two medieval bridges spanning the Chiona stream and has a series of park benches to stretch your legs and lay out a picnic which overlook the layered foothills of Mount Subasio and the Medieval “skyline” of Spello in the distance.
A little over four kilometers in, the path reaches the Fonte Molinaccio (the spring from which the Roman acqueduct took its water, which still runs with sweet, potable water). From here, you can either turn back to Spello or, for the more sprightly, continue climbing the asphalted road about 100 meters, taking the steep path on the left which climbs for another half-kilometer until it reaches the castle of Collepino (home to exactly one caffe and one restaurant…call ahead if you are interested in dining there).
There is easy parking near the starting point, the path is almost level until the last bit under Collepino, and it takes under two hours (one way), so this is an itinerary suitable for families or walkers who would like to enjoy some of the prettiest countryside in Umbria without too much physical strain. Spello is also home to a number of excellent restaurants and wine bars, which are just spoils for anyone who has made the early-morning hiking sacrifice. With, or without, regret.
These photos were taken by friend and walking buddy Lucia “Caracol” Olivi, who has walked–among other things–the Santiago trail.
On Tuesday, I began the tale of an outing with a new friend to a new place making new discoveries. It was a day so chock full all of the above that I couldn’t fit it into one blog post, so I’m going to pick up where we left off…
After climbing back down the trail from the Eremo di Santa Maria Giacobbe to Pale, we crossed the village and started up the opposite slope of Monte Serrone towards the historic Abbazia di Sassovivo. The climb was tough and the weather was taking a turn for the worse, but by this point we had put our trust in Paolo—he hadn’t let us down yet.
We were right to press on, as Sassovivo proved to be worth the climb (though it can also be reached by car, for those who are not inclined to hike…). Its air of otherwordly calm belies a grand history. This isolated complex, surrounded by acres of ancient holm oak wood, was once one of the most important and powerful Benedictine abbeys in central Italy, with a jurisdiction extending from Rome to the Marches. Founded by Benedictine hermits in 1070—on the site of a Longobard fortress, which in turn was erected on the site of an ancient Umbrian shrine– less than a century later the Abbey controlled a wide swath of central Italy, including almost 100 monasteries, around 40 churches, and seven hospitals.
Closed in part during the 1700s, the abbey’s holdings became property of the state in 1860 and was slowly abandoned until after the Second World War. It was restored between the 1970s and 1990s, and is now both an active monastic community and, fortunately for us, open to the public.
The monastery’s crown jewel is undoubtably its Romanesque cloister, encircled by arcades supported by delicate double columns, some fetchingly spiral-carved, and pretty mosaic detailing. Visitors can also see the monastery itself, with its Medieval frescoes and original dormitories, the outdoor loggia with fresco fragments from the 15th century, and the trails through the surrounding woods. We did all of that, and then were treated to the news that Paolo’s wife, Anna Lisa, was coming to pick us up. I think I may have fallen a little in love with Paolo right then.
I had a sandwich burning a hole in my backpack, but every time we mentioned a lunch stop, Paolo insisted we press on. By this time, it was early afternoon and we were all getting a little tetchy from sore feet and hunger; our trusty guide announced that we were all invited back to their olive mill to sample some bruschetta made with their own oil. How could we refuse?
And thus began the perfect end to an amazing day. Just as “una spaghettata” in Italian rarely means a meal of mere pasta, Paolo’s invitation for “una bruschetta” turned out to be a wonderful spread of fava paté, grilled sausages, and—yes—bruschetta. All dressed with their excellent olive oil, which was being pressed two meters from our table. We talked and laughed and relived our adventures and made plans for a next outing.
And I took a moment to feel grateful for this amazing region and its people…most of whom are not axe-murderers.
Something amazing happens when you start to write about a region like Umbria. A region, that is, populated by warm, welcoming people who have a long history and deep roots in their land. This amazing thing is that these people contact you and are like, “Hey, I’ve got something really special in my neighborhood I want to share with you!” Not because they have something to sell, or something to promote, or something to gain in any way. Just because they genuinely love their region, and want others to love it, as well.
Take, for example, the sweetest couple ever: Paolo and his wife Anna Lisa. Out of the blue, Paolo got in contact and invited us to hike an area near his home on the outskirts of Foligno. Just because, you know, there were a couple of pretty sites there he thought we should know about. And we decided that we would take the risk that Paolo was a crazy axe-murderer and meet up with him on a Sunday last fall.
Paolo was not an axe-murderer, but one of the friendliest, kindest people you’d ever want to meet. He enthusiastically led us along an itinerary in a little-known area of Umbria, introducing us to couple of places that I’d honestly never heard of with the shy pride of a kid unveiling his latest art project.
Paolo. Not an axe murderer.
We began at Belfiore, a hamlet outside of Foligno in the Altolina valley, leaving our car parked in a gravel lot and beginning our walk among the ubiquitous olive groves that cover these mountain slopes. Paolo was playing his cards close to his chest about what awaited us during our outing, and the first stretch of the trail was a pretty, but typical, olive grove hike. The kind you get inured to after twenty years of living here. Bucolic, schmucolic.
Then we arrived at our first lovely surprise of the day: the Menotre Falls. The climb began to skirt the Menotre River, and we came across a series of small, charming waterfalls, pretty wooden bridges, and wooded overlooks that had us gushing and snapping pictures. Paolo told us that the Cascate del Menotre (also known locally as the Cascatelle di Pale) are an oasis for families on hot, summer afternoons, and I could see why.
We continued uphill through the remains of a villa garden with traces of stone grottoes and carvings, passing the tiny village of Pale (and its poignant abandoned paper mill and canal system, with manual valves and weirs). Here the climb got tougher, and Paolo pointed out our destination perched high above us on the rocky cliff of Mount Pale: the Santa Maria Giacobbe Hermitage.
We puffed up the trail, stopping to place our heels in the indentation left by the Saint’s foot in the stone steps (according to legend) and the our fingers in the handhold worn in the rock wall by centuries of pilgrims climbing the same route. Our labors were rewarded by a visit to the hermitage, including its chapel covered in frescoes dating from the 14th to 17th centuries, the cistern holding waters said to have healing powers, and a moving collection of ex votos spanning more than a century.
We had caught our breath and were ready to head back down the hill, but Paolo had one more surprise for us on the cliffside. We climbed a few hundred more meters above the hermitage to a heart-stopping, palm-sweating perch in the rock, and he pointed out a number of small paleolithic markings (easily missed if you don’t know were to look) under the shelf, protected from the elements for thousands of years. I found myself almost more moved by these rough red lines than by the rich frescoes in the hermitage below. From the beginning of time, humans have felt the urge to leave some sign of their passage on this earth…from the earliest cave paintings through the history of art.
Our day didn’t finish here, but to discover what else Paolo had up his sleeve, stop back on Thursday! There are more surprises in store…
I’m competitive. It’s not a trait I’m particularly proud of, but that’s how it is. I like to be the strongest, fastest, brightest. I like my kids to be the strongest, fastest, brightest. I like my dogs to be the strongest, fastest, brightest. I like everything around me to sport bright blue ribbons and shiny trophies. Like I said, I have a bit of a competitive streak.
I’ve always been borderline smug in my conviction that Umbria is pretty much the best in everything: the art, the culture, the food, the scenery. It’s a winner of a region, which makes it easy to enthuse about and even more easy to live in. There have been two massive flies in my Chardonnay (or, more fittingly, Grechetto) over the years, however: the first is that Umbria is landlocked. No coastline, no sea air, no pristine beaches stretching for miles. That’s assumingly not going to resolve itself until the Big One comes to change the global topography, and I’ve settled with falling in love with Lake Trasimeno.
The second was that Umbria had no fantastic caves to visit (unlike our neighbor the Marches, who have the spectacular Frasassi caves), but I am happy to report that I can bump up my smug just a notch because I discovered that Umbria does, in fact, have fantastic caves to visit and they are just as spectacular as Frasassi. Take that, Marche.
The Grotta di Monte Cucco is located in the Monte Cucco Park, near the medieval town of Gubbio in the north of Umbria. The cave isn’t a new discovery (historic sources and graffiti inside the caverns date as far back as the 1500s), but has only been open to the public for the past few years.
Monte Cucco is perforated with numerous caves—the name “cucco” derives from an ancient word for pumpkin or something hollow—which together add up to more than 20 kilometers of natural cavities, passages, and drops. Some of these descend almost 1,000 meters to end in undergound waterways and springs, and most require expert spelunking skills. Fortunately, the biggest and most breathtaking caverns and passages—at an altitude of 1,400 above sea level near the crest of Mount Cucco and stretching for 800 meters into the mountains bowels—are also the most accessible and can be easily visited by anyone in decent physical shape.
I finally had a chance to visit the Grotta di Monte Cucco this week, and had been looking forward to it with such muppet-like enthusiasm that I was worried I would be somehow disappointed when we finally got there. That was not the case; Monte Cucco itself is a beautiful park—one of Umbria’s most lovely—and the climbing drive up to the mountain’s crest from Sigillo is an exercise in rubbernecking gorgeous rolling scenery and beech groves so bucolic you find yourself expecting fairies or elves to come popping out.
The road ends in a small parking lot at Pian di Monte, and from here you hike about half a kilometer to the Valcella meeting point for the cave visit. We met our guide, were given our hard hats, and continued the rest of the way down the trail (another 500 meters) together to the cave entrance. The grotta has a number of entrances, but the east entrance is used for the basic visit, for the more rigorous adventure course (which involves following along rope lines fixed to the sides of the cave with climbing gear and a spelunking guide—something I hope to do in the near future), and for the “traversata”, or crossing, course, which follows the cave through the mountain and exits through the north entrance.
The visit begins with a baptism by fire: a 27 meter drop navigated in a series of near-vertical staircases. If you can make it through that stretch, you’re good. It’s by far the most head-spinning point of the visit, which winds itself for the next hour or so through three massive caverns and a series of twisting connecting passages, all lit with floodlights so you get a sense of the soaring height and nooks and crannies along the way. The esthetics inside the caves are slightly different than what you may be used to; these caves are primarily hypogenic (formed by water rising up from below and dissolving the rock) rather than epigenic (formed by the action of surface waters descending into the ground and dissolving rock), which means that the cave-scape is much heavier on the stalagmites than the stalactites, and at times you get the feeling that you are touring a planet made of mounds of whipped cream and meringue.
Of course, there are the familiar charming names for calcium formations (don’t miss the turtle) and cathedral-like caverns, but I’ll leave those to you to discover. And I recommend that you stop by and discover the Grotta di Monte Cucco, surely the best cave around. Not that I’m being competitive or anything.
Though the visit doesn’t require any special spelunking skills (most of it is along metal walkways and staircases), you need to be in good shape and not suffer from fear of heights or claustrofobia. There’s a minimum age of ten years, and make sure you wear a jacket (the inside temperature is 6° year round) and sturdy hiking boots. For tour descriptions, prices, and times, see their website.
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 and immediately bough a new pair of comfortable hike boots. 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.
It’s that season when it feels like it has been raining for roughly, oh, seventeen years.
Why is Umbria Italy’s “green heart”? Well, because we get an incredible amount of precipitation during the winter, which usually (though we have been hit with drought in this crazy new global climate, as well) sees us through the summer. But, boy, can it be a bummer during January and February, when it starts feeling like we may never see the sun again.
In my California dreaming, I was reminded of a little guide to beach resort towns in Le Marche I wrote recently. Umbria is landlocked, so visitors who want to day trip to the seaside either need to head over the Appennine mountains to the east, or across Tuscany to the west. The Adriatic coast to the east is slightly closer, so most choose Le Marche for a quick jaunt.
Here are a few suggestions of seaside resorts close enough to day trip for those seeking the sun:
The other option (Tuscany) is doable for a day trip from Umbria, as well. I’ll be writing up a guide to some of my favorite Tuscan resort towns soon. But right now I need to go have some hot cocoa by the fire…
We continue the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have a some sunflower seeds, and join in on the conversation.
In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence. Robert Lynd
I am large. When I laugh, diners at neighboring tables look up. When I gesticulate, I take out all wine glasses and candles within a three foot range. When I cook, we are eating the leftovers for days. When I am happy or sad or angry, I’m all in; there are no shades of grey. I am often called by my Italian friends “un fuoco di paglia”–a fire fed with straw, quick to flare into bright, hot flames but just a quick to cool down, damaging nothing and leaving behind only traces of cool ash.
Perhaps because of this often oversized personality, I find I am drawn more and more to silence. I spend so much time cranking up the music, and revving the engine, and cracking my kneecaps on table legs, and swimming in—drowning in—rivers and rivers of words that sometimes what I crave is to turn down the volume for a few hours and be still. Be. Still.
Luckily, Umbria is filled with silent places so I rarely have to go far to find a still moment. Recently I discovered a new quiet place to head to when life (myself included) just gets too raucous: the Colfiorito marshland.
By far the smallest of Umbria’s seven regional parks, this postage stamp of a natural reserve is set in the rolling Colfiorito plateau above bustling Foligno in the valley below. The undulating Apennine plain was once covered in seven small lakes, but over the millenia most were drained by nature or man, leaving only one depression which continues to hold water all year round.
This has become the Colfiorito marshland, a tiny basin of standing water teeming with migratory birds and wildlife which take cover in marsh’s thick reeds and acquatic vegetation. Depending upon the season, the spot becomes a faunistic pit stop for a number of wetland fowl, including majestic grey and purple herons, bitterns, little bitterns, mallards, and shovelers. If you’re able to sit still long enough, you may also be treated to a visit by the area’s mammal life—fox, boar, or deer–as well.
My thirst for stillness over the past few years has led to an interest in birdwatching, which–along with a passion for opera and a craving for whole grains–is a sure sign that I have become either a fogie or a hipster, neither of which I find particularly heartening. But given that this turn of events has led a number of interesting new hobbies, I’m not going to lose much sleep over the larger meaning and just put on my Wayfarers, load up my iPod with some arias, throw some organic trail mix into my vintage courier bag, and go.
I’d been thinking a lot about the Colfiorito marshland recently since my previous favorite-place-to-be-quiet-birdwatch-and-generally-hang-out, the Alviano nature reserve in the south of the region near Lake Corbara, was damaged this past fall due to severe flooding that hit much of central Italy. Volunteers have been working to clean it up in time for the spring migration, but for the time being my thirst for stillness must be sated elsewhere.
And so I head up to the hills, winding along the serpentine Val di Chienti country highway to where the road skirts the wetland, past stands along the sides of the road hawking the local potatoes and lentils, lonely farmhouses, and a hell of a lot of cyclists. I pull off and head out on foot; the park has built a number of wooden walkways, pavilions, and bird blinds for passionate birders, though it’s nice just to take a quiet turn along the path which borders the marsh. I wander, taking frequent bench breaks to oversee the take-offs and landings, watch the sun set, and listen to the silence.
And be still.
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.