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.
Easter comes exceptionally late in 2014, which means it’s a great year to take off for the week and head to Umbria where spring is in full swing.
If you are planning an Easter visit, I wrote a few tips about what to expect regarding events and food related to this important holiday for About.com’s GoItaly this week.
Want more information on what to pig out on during your Easter break in Umbria? Say no more.
What’s the funnest part of Easter in Umbria? Read on.
Have any more tips for visiting Umbria at Eastertime? Leave a comment below!
Umbria is surprisingly dense with masterpieces of art and architecture, given its small size and relatively modest history (no Medici art patronage during the Renaissance here, as Umbria was part of the vast and stoic Papal State until the 1800s). It’s easy to spend a week or two criss-crossing this region taking in the churches, abbeys, monasteries, and civic museums without ever having to cross her borders to fill your days.
That said, the neighboring Le Marche has its own share of culture, much of it in quiet civic museums and echoing churches (though there are a few monumental exceptions). If you’re curious to head east during your stay in Umbria for the day and see what treasures this nearby region has to offer, take a look at this overview I wrote recently:
You can easily combine your day trip with a drive through the gorgeous Sibilline National Park, or a few hours at the beach along Le Marche’s Adriatic coast. But be sure to make it back to Umbria…we don’t want you to become too enthusiastic about our friendly neighbors!
The rock star popularity of newly-minted Pope Francis (in March of 2013) has led to a surge in interest in his namesakes’ life and an explosion in the number of visitors to Franciscan sites in Assisi–primarily the Basilica of Saint Francis–and across Umbria.
Though I love the Basilica for its sheer artistic and architectural heft, there are a number of sites scattered around Umbria where Francis lived and prayed that have the quieter, more contemplative vibe that marked the saint’s approach to spirituality and nature.
Whether you are drawn to the historical or the spiritual aspects of Francis’ life, there are a number of Franciscan sites which are both fascinating and poignant monuments to this Umbrian saint’s life and work. Take a look at my two articles below for an overview of Assisi’s Basilica and a Franciscan itinerary across Umbria. Pax et bonum.
It may look like I’ve abandoned you all, whiling away my days on the divan whilst imbibing on wine and chocolates.
Oh, yee of little faith. I’ve been here this whole time, just not here here.
I’ve been doing a bit of writing about Umbria and Italy for a number of other travel publications and sites, and as some of these articles may be of interest to folks planning a stay in Umbria or at Brigolante, I’m going to catch you up over the next few weeks.
I’ll begin with shopping.
Photo by G. Dall Orto
I wrote a Shopping Guide for Assisi post many moons ago, but some of the information there has changed in the meantime. So, recently I put together two new posts listing some of my favorite haunts to drop coin in Assisi and Perugia. You can read them here:
If you have any other favorite shops or suggestions, please leave a comment below!
In the long and proud tradition of two steps forward/one step back, one step forward/two steps back, and general non-linear progression, I am skipping from the Cs (I have Citerna in the works…great things to say about Citerna, folks) back to the As. Arrone is the first town on the list of The Most Beautiful Villages in Umbria and logically where I should have begun my quest to visit them all, but instead I got sidetracked by the Bs and then Citerna kind of fell in my lap, but here I am back at the beginning. As it turns out, I was so enamored with the Nera River Valley–home to Arrone–that I have a feeling I will soon be skipping to the last village on the list (Vallo di Nera) just for an excuse to go back again.
These rocky slopes have captivated travellers for centuries.
Know’st thou the mountain, and its cloudy bridge?
The mule can scarcely find the misty ridge;
In caverns dwells the dragon’s olden brood,
The frowning crag obstructs the raging flood.
Know’st thou it well?
(– J. W. Goethe, Mignon)
I dare you not to be charmed by Arrone. And I know you. You are going to take the dare.
The hilltop hamlet of Arrone, with the fortress portion known as La Terra and the more recent lower portion known as Santa Maria.
And you’re going to have a sinking feeling as you come out of the long tunnel behind Spoleto which leads you from the gentle rolling hills of northern and central Umbria to the wild and rugged scenery in the Nera River Park. You are going to suffer some serious self-doubt as you snake through the dramatic Valnerina along highway SS209 which skirts the crystalline Nera river and runs under steep mountainsides where tiny creche-looking stone villages perch precariously. 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 dragons and witches lurked in caves, and where—just to make the area a bit more hostile—each tiny town was locked in perennial warfare with the next one over.
You'll know you're here when you're here.
You may have a flash of hope and begin to feel cocky as you near Arrone, whose medieval central fortress on the peak of her rocky outcrop is ringed with buildings from the 1960s and1970s, a period which is to Italian architecture what the 1980s was to American fashion. But then you will park your car, grab a quick espresso at the Bar di Piazza alongside every retired guy in town, spend a moment watching the locals drive by and wave to each other, try to make out the faded lettering on the political posters plastered on the door of the Italian Free Hunting Union across the street (I’ll help you out. They say: Free Hunting is Our Reason to Live. They don’t mess around in Arrone.), and you will feel yourself beginning to weaken. You’ll step across the piazza and poke your nose into the church of Santa Maria, whose unadorned facade belies the lovely frescoes inside–some from Caravaggio’s school– and know that you are in big trouble.
No rush for morning coffee in Arrone.
And then you’ll start to climb the steep, winding road that leads from the lower—and more recent—portion of the historic center of town to the walled castle portion above, stopping often to catch both your breath and the view of the surrounding mountains. You will step through the arched gate of the castle, and know that your goose is cooked. You’ll be charmed.
The views only get more dramatic the higher you climb.
There is not one commercial establishment in the castle portion of Arrone. No stores, restaurants, bars, or Starbucks. There are simply tiny, winding pedestrian alleyways that end in quirky courtyards, dramatic views over the Valnerina from every parapet, a main street Via del Vicinato which ends under the civic clock tower, a tiny Gothic Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista (if you’re lucky, the door will be open and you can take a look at the lovely votive frescoes inside, commissioned by Arrone’s noble families over the centuries), octogonal stone bell tower (try to be there at noon when the bells are rung and the lone resident dog barks in time. He lives for the noon bells. You can tell.), and residents.
Arrone's main street which leads to the civic tower.
Yes, residents. I was amazed to find homes lived in, gardens tended, stoops swept, and heartening signs of renovation. At a time when tiny mountain villages are as endangered as the Panda, this incredibly inconvenient hamlet above a tiny town in an isolated river valley in the far corner of Umbria is surviving. Plucky folk.
Here's to Giovanni and Natalina, living a life in Arrone
It doesn’t take long to explore Arrone, but don’t leave this beautiful area just yet. Directly beneath the town, there is a pretty little park along this placid stretch of the Nera River, which is a perfect place to relax or set off on a rafting excursion. If you love to drive (I love to drive), you can continue past Arrone to Polino (Arrone’s historic arch-enemy. They were feisty back in the day.), where the view over the mountains is even more breathtaking, and up to the peak of Colle Bertone for a pretty walk or picnic. Beware of asking for restaurant recommendations from gathered groups of locals in the Bar di Piazza, lest long debates, convoluted directions, cellphone verifications that cousins’ trattorias are actually open for lunch, and conflicting last words delay you so long that you miss lunch. Take my word for it.
Tucked away on the slopes of Mount Solenne in the Valnerina lies one of the best kept secrets in the region: San Pietro in Valle. This former Benedictine abbey—now a four star historical residence—was established in 710 on the site of a Syrian hermitage (One fun curiosity: among the stone fragments mounted on the interior walls, look for the bass relief of a monk with Asian facial features. Legend holds that this is a rendering of one of the two Syrians who founded the original hermitage in the 6th century.) and was home to abbots for the next 800 years.
The outside of the abbey is breathtaking; the church and cloister are surrounded by thickly wooded fields and look out over the steep river gorge and the gradually receding mountain peaks along the horizon.
Directly across the valley from the abbey sits the walled fortress town of Umbriano, completely abandoned since 1950. Founded in 890 to defend the abbey from advancing Saracens, popular tradition holds it to be the first city of Umbria.
Though locals hold that the citadel of Umbriano was the first Umbrian town, in truth it lies across the river from the ancient Umbrian territory, in the land once ruled by the Sabines. But it’s a good story, and a fascinating ghost town to explore.
Guided tours take visitors through the interior of the church, covered in frescoes from the 12th and 13th century (note the portrait of the Three Wise Men, one of whom apparently had second thoughts), and filled with stone work including an Etruscan altar, an 8th century Lombard high altar, and a Roman sarcophagus holding the remains of Duke Faraoldo II of Spoleto, the abbey’s founder.
The frescoes inside the church have recently been restored and are a fine example of the leap from Byzantine to the more natural Umbrian school.
My favorite detail: the original altar (now to the left of the central Lombard altar), with its semi-circular corridor which passes behind the tiny nave. Symbolizing the purification of the spirit, it begins with the wide opening level with the floor, and gradually rises to end in a tiny doorway a step above floor-level at the other end. I’m not sure if my spirit was actually purified, but having to squeeze my bulk through the final aperture sure made me ponder how often I commit the cardinal sin of gluttony.
One of my favorite corners of Umbria is the dramatic and wild Valnerina, where craggy mountain peaks loom, tiny creche-like hamlets perch precariously on cliffs, and the serene Nera River meanders its way through the valley.
The abbey is open to visitors October through March Saturday and Sunday only (10-12:30/2:30-4) and April though September every day (10-1/3-6). The church is not well lit, so be sure to choose a sunny day to visit otherwise you will not be able to see the frescoes well.
I’ll admit it. I tend to wax lyrical about the Valnerina. The dramatic valley–where the crystalline Nera river runs under steep rocky slopes, upon which tiny creche-like stone villages perch precariously–lends itself to waxing. The scenery in this largely unsung regional park is wild and rugged, stunningly beautiful yet foreboding. The weather can go from sunny skies to black clouds in a matter of minutes, and the isolated villages and claustrophobia-inducing sheer rock walls remind you that millenia ago the inhabitants of these inpenetrable craggy peaks held out against conversion to Christianity long after the rest of the region.
A spring storm in the Valnerina near Meggiano, Umbria, Italy
I was waxing thus to an Umbrian friend awhile ago—a fellow passionate aficionado of the Valnerina–and telling him how I love the juxtaposition of the bucolic scenery with an unsettling underlying darkness (a David Lynch-esque feel, if you will), and he nodded knowingly and said, “And, of course, there’s that business about the dragon.” I nearly spit out my drink. What?!? What dragon?
It turns out–as so often happens–I am practically the last person in Umbria to find out about the dragon. Everyone knows the story of Mauro and his son Felice, two Syrian pilgrims who arrived in the Naarte region (from the ancient Nare or Naarco River, from which the modern Nera derives) roughly six centuries after Christ’s death to proselytize to the recalcitrant locals. As fate would have it, they were having a bit of trouble with a nearby dragon and, in what must have seemed like a serendipitous means of killing two birds with one stone, called on Mauro to prove his faith by taking care of business. No one knew precisely where the beast lived (his toxic breath kept them from getting too close), so Mauro set off at dawn with a reed walking stick and mason’s hammer to search the monster out. When he reached the general area where the locals had indicated the dragon might be found, the holy man stuck his stick in the ground for safe-keeping while he set about building a stone hut for shelter. The stick immediately sent out roots and shoots, and Mauro took it as a sign that God was covering his back in this dragon thing. He returned to his masonry work and after a short time caught the unmistakeable sulfuric odor of dragon-breath…if you’ve ever woken beside someone who dined on aglio, olio, peperoncino the night before, you know what I’m talking about.
San Mauro (and/or San Felice) slays the dragon from the facade of the church of San Felice di Narco
Though he feared his end was near, Mauro took his mason’s hammer and somehow managed to skirt the flames, avoid the sulfur, and overcome the height difference (accounts speak of a good 27 meters of dragon) to bonk the monster on the head. While the unconscious beast lay motionless on the ground, Mauro used his hammer to detach large pieces of rock from the cliff above, which continued falling on the dragon until it died (apparently of blood loss, as the river ran with dragon’s blood for three days and three nights). This begs the question as to why Mauro didn’t simply finish the job with the hammer rather than go to all the trouble to detach stones from the cliffside, but the ways of saints and screenwriters of horror movies are a mystery to mere mortals. Regardless, the locals needed no further proof of Mauro’s holiness and his God’s bad ass-edness, so they promptly converted. Mauro and Felice lived out their lives in prayer and service (Felice died in 535 AD and Mauro in 555 AD) in the Valnerina.
The lovely Romanesque San Felice di Narco
Some of the details of the story remain unclear. There may or may not have been an angel involved. The dragon may have actually been slain (dragons never seem to be killed, only slain) by Felice. There is a nurse who pops up now and then and seems to have died of fever with Felice. But the legend holds, and the area still bears testimony of it on the facade of the lovely Romansque Church of San Felice di Narco near Castel San Felice. If you look carefully at the freize under the intricately carved rose window, you will see a detail of depicting the slaying of the dragon (not to scale, please note) and inside the crypt the sarcophagus of the Saints Mauro and Felice. The nearby town of Sant’Anatolia and Church of Sant’Anatolia also pay homage to the two saints by adopting their surname.
Sant'Anatolia di Narco in the Valnerina
I was talking about this dragon story to another local friend in that cynical, sardonic tone that we hipsters use when discussing Self Help Gurus, the Easter Bunny, and Compassionate Conservativism, when he said, “Yes, and there’s that dragon bone in Città di Castello, of course.” More drink spitting ensued.
I discovered that the Valnerina wasn’t the only area in Umbria known for harboring fire-breathing winged reptiles. In the pretty upper Tiber Valley, a rolling countryside in the north of the region bordering on Tuscany, yet another dragon was slain (see?) by a travelling Christian missionary, Crescenziano (a Roman patrician known as Crescentino in Latin texts). Having given up his worldly goods to the poor, Crescenziano arrived in the area on horseback and was immediately put to task by the local pagans in dispatching their troublesome dragon. He killed the beast, converted the inhabitants, and was promptly martyred by the Romans for his trouble.
The iconography of San Crescenziano almost always depicts him on horseback in the act of killing the dragon.
Traces of this legend appear in a small bass-relief in the tiny country church of Pieve de’ Saddi, near Pietralunga (built on the spot where Crescenziano was martyred), and the coat of arms of Urbino’s cathedral—both of which depict Crescenziano on horseback impaling the dragon with a long spear. More convincing than this, however, is the 2.6 meter dragon rib bone, long conserved in the church of Pieve de’ Saddi until being moved to the cathedral in Città di Castello, where it is still stored, and a second rib bone, measuring 2.2 meters, kept in another tiny country church near Pieve de’ Saddi, San Pietro di Carpini. Scientists, skeptics, and spoilsports speak of the vast expanse of water which covered the area during the late Miocene and early Pliocene eras (That’s roughly 23-5 million years ago. I googled it.) which was home to vast numbers of water and land animals, some quite large, of which numerous remains have been found by paleontologists over the years.
The church at Pieve de' Saddi marking the spot where San Crescenziano was martyred.
Academics, historians, and spoilsports also speak of the symbolism and allegory attached to the role of the dragon in myths. Both Umbrian legends originate from areas where there is a waterway—once interspersed with standing pools of fetid water harboring disease– and the work of draining and reclaiming the land for agriculture and ridding the area of disease may be symbolized by the slaying of a toxic, deadly monster. Man’s triumph over the wildness of nature, so to speak. The dragon was also historically used to symbolize paganism, and the Christian slaying the beast protrays this innovative religion’s advance.
Leonardo da Vinci's famous rendering of a dragon battling a lion.
Whale bones. Malaria. Swamp reclamation. Religious wars. Sure, it all fits, but what fun is that? I’ll take the fairy tale version, and continue to wax lyrical about the Valnerina (and all of Umbria) and her dragon.
Umbria hosts over 20 music festivals each year, an astonishing number given this region’s tiny size and population (Ikea hasn’t even deemed it worthy of a store yet). Even more surprising, however, is the world-class quality of the music festival scene–belying the otherwise sleepy, provincial character of these bucolic rolling hills and medieval stone villages.
The height of the festival season is the summer, of course, as organizers take advantage of the warm evenings to hold concerts and events in the stunning piazze and gardens across the region, but good listening is to be had even in the dead of winter.
Here are some of the best annual music festivals, and why you should take the time to stop by for a listen:
Why: Umbria Jazz is the king of Umbria’s music festivals; a juggernaut of an international event which stretches over two weeks and attracts some of the biggest names in jazz (and beyond—I’ve seen R.E.M., Alicia Keys, and Eric Clapton here, as well). The lively feel in Perugia during UJ is irresistible—take a walk down the main Corso and pop in at one of the free outdoor concerts if you don’t want to spring for tickets at one of the headlining concerts. If you are driving into town for a mainstage event, give yourself plenty of time to park and get settled before the set starts—traffic is notoriously a gnarled mess the evenings of sold-out shows. I get to town early, take a fun stroll downtown, and then head to the venue (usually the Santa Giuliana stadium) about an hour ahead of time, where I buy a beer and sandwich from the stands inside, dine on the lawn, people-watch in leisure.
If you can’t make it to Perugia for Umbria Jazz, don’t despair. Umbria Jazz Winter is held every December in Orvieto, and Jazz Club Perugia’s season runs from November to March, featuring Italian and international musicians plunking out some of the best jazz around.
If you are curious about the Italian jazz scene, try Gubbio No Borders Italian Jazz Festival in August. These are the heppest cats in the Boot.
Festival dei Due Mondi
Why: If Umbria Jazz is the king of Umbria’s music festivals, the Spoleto Festival—as it is colloquially known—is the queen. UJ powers through with the sheer force of its size and star power, where the Spoleto Festival finesses the fine arts with grace and dignity, bringing the lovely city of Spoleto to life along with it. More of an arts than strictly a music festival, the program is rich with opera, classical music, dance, theater, and cinema events attracting both the biggest names in art and theater (Isabella Rossellini and Baryshnikov were guests this year) and promising young performers. If you are looking for an excuse to visit Spoleto (which, by the way, you don’t need. This stately hill town is worth a visit on its own.), this is a great one.
Where: the towns surrounding Lake Trasimeno
Why: I’m from Chicago, so nothing says “summer” to me like an outdoor blues show on a lake shore. Yes, I realize the venue, crowd, and lake are all about 1/100th of what I’m used to, but the vibe at Trasimeno Blues is regardless big fun (and, given that public drunken antics are rare and frowned upon in Italy, this is one great blues show that you won’t risk vomit-splattered shoes at.). The concerts are held at a number of locations around Lake Trasimeno, but I am especially partial to those at Castiglione del Lago’s romantic medieval fortress.
Trasimeno grooves all year long, so if you won’t be around in July try Bianco Rosso & Blues (concerts with dinner and wine tasting from local vintners) from August through October, or Soul Christmas during the month of December.
Sagra Musicale Umbra
Why: Location, location, location. Yes, the classical music at the Sagra Musicale Umbra is fabulous, but I would be a big fat liar if I didn’t admit that usually the main reason I attend these concerts is the venue. SMU’s events are often held in churches, abbeys, and palazzi generally closed to the public, and I have been known to sit through an entire harpsichord concerto (an instrument I can usually tollerate for a maximum of 12 minutes. 13, tops.) if it will get me into a mysterious monument I have passed a million times but never managed to find open—in fact, I did just that last year and finally saw the elegant Romanesque interior of Spello’s delightful 11th century San Claudio church. If you are picking through the program trying to decide on a concert, I suggest you give heavy weight to its location. The music may fade with time, but these heart-stopping historic halls certainly won’t.
Perugia’s Classical Music Foundation season program runs from October to May and equals the SMU in quality of music, if not eccentricity of venue. Concerts are held in Perugia’s Sala dei Notari, Morlacchi Theater, and San Pietro Basilica—three stunning settings, but not much cloak and dagger-ing has to go on to visit any of the three on your own.
Umbria Folk Festival
Why: If you’re wondering what else is out there on the contemporary Italian music scene besides winners of X-Factor and Tiziano Ferro, the Umbria Folk Festival is the perfect opportunity to find out. Many of these artists put a hipster spin on historic regional Italian musical traditions or instruments, so expect to hear echoes of the Tarantella and lots of guitar and accordian. Fun stuff (and many of the concerts are free).
Assisi Cambio Festival
Where: Palazzo di Assisi
Why: This nano-festival (last year Assisi Cambio Festival hosted a sum total of four concerts) is near and dear to my heart. One, because I think it is a shame and a scandal and a mystery that the powers that be in Assisi can’t pull their shit together enough to put on a decent music festival during the year (I mean, come on, Narni has a music festival. Narni. Really, people.). Two, because this little bon bon of a festival was the brainchild of a group of locals who decided to throw it together a few years ago, and they’ve done a damned fine job of keeping their momentum going. And three, because Palazzo (a hamlet right outside of Assisi) has a fetching little castle courtyard which is the perfect place to pop in for a concert on a summer night, and is exactly 43 meters from The. Best. Gelato. In. Assisi. So, to recap: Medieval castle courtyard, summer night, live jazz, best gelato. Need I say more?
Umbria World Fest (previously Canti e Discanti)
Why: I know there are a lot of Umbriaphiles out there who are feeling very blindsided by the left field choice of Umbria World Fest right now. Stay calm….I’ll walk you through it. Foligno often gets a bad rap, largely undeservedly. Located on the Umbrian plain, you won’t get any stunning views from this industrial town, but that doesn’t mean it lacks a pretty historic center which offers some of the best shopping, most authentic trattorias, and warmest people in the region. Foligno is Umbria’s friendly “Hi there, can I help ya?” Midwest to Perugia’s formal “Ahem, may I assist you?” East Coast, and is going through a cultural renaissance right now—of which this light-hearted arts festival is testimony. Last year I caught a Tarantella performance from a group of Pugliese musicians…there was much singing and dancing in the streets, despite the fact that 99% of the crowd couldn’t penetrate the thick Puglia dialect. Music is, after all, the universal language.
Festival delle Nazioni (Città di Castello in August/September): Classical music festival focusing on one guest country each year.
Preggio Music Festival (Preggio in July/August): If you’re hankering for opera, this is one of the few music festivals which feature it. (The other safe bet is Spoleto.)
Festival Pianistico (Spoleto in April): Classical music festival for piano.
Trasimeno Music Festival (Magione in June/July): This upscale classical music festival is the pet project of Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt and is held in the dramatic courtyard of Magione’s Castle of the Knights of Malta.
I have to fess up and admit that it took me years to finally work up the courage to check out what turned out to be one of my favorite festivals in Umbria.
My only other contact with anything resembling a medieval fair was the now defunct King Richard’s Faire outside Chicago, which is an event roughly 1/3 kitsch, 1/3 tacky, and 1/3 fat, badly dressed midwesterners (I feel I can say this with impunity, being myself a fat, badly dressed midwesterner). Actors wandered around the fairgrounds in costumes which can be described only as flower child 1980s Shakespearean, chitchatting in ye olde English, and selling “jars of mead” (Budweiser) and “sweet water” (Coke) from handbaskets. The food was whole turkey legs, eaten with one’s hands, and funnel cakes. The crafts were dried flower arrangements and toy swords. I loved it, to be fair. But I was 8, to be honest. When I was 8, the height of cuisine was chili-mac, the height of fine wine was Lancers (Grandma drank it), the height of music was K-Tel’s Disco Nights, and the height of culture was King Richard’s Faire.
So it was with much trepidation that I approached the Mercato delle Gaite in Bevagna, imagining obnoxious jesters, marauding costumed concessionary hawkers, and just simply too much bad taste for my grownup self to handle. Instead, this ten day long festival set in the 1300s is the antithesis to all of that, and a damned good time for both adults and kids, to boot.
One of the principal differences is that the annual event—founded in 1983–is not simply entertainment but instead a competition between the four traditional gaite, or quarters, of the town of Bevagna: San Giorgio, San Pietro, San Giovanni, and Santa Maria. Each quarter earns points primarily based on their historical accuracy during each of the four competitions held during the festival; continuous and quite rigorous accademic research goes on behind the scenes and the festival’s jury is largely made up of historians and experts on fourteenth century Italy. Like I said, there ain’t no ye olde English-esque stuff going on.
The coat of arms for San Giorgio
San Giovanni's coat of arms
San Pietro flies these colors
The crest of Santa Maria
Another difference between the two festivals is, of course, the venue. Bevagna is an absolute jewel in the Umbrian plain, listed among the most beautiful villages in Italy. The festival’s four competitions all take place in the lovely main piazza, and the medieval streets, buildings, and courtyards which surround it. A charming place to visit all year round, this town really shines when all decked out for their annual festival.
The most important difference is, of course, the events themselves, four in all, which make up the competition between the gaite—first among them the mestieri, or artisan workshops. Each quarter has the task of organizing two different workshops which use both the techniques and technology of the 1300s to actually produce wares—which makes the Mercato delle Gaite unique in a region where medieval festivals come a dime a dozen.
The bell foundry...one of the "mestieri"
Over the years some of the less successful workshops have been replaced, others enlarged (this slow but constant evolution means that the trades have become more elaborate and spectacular with time), and now all are marvelous and fascinating.
The immense replica silk thread making machine
From the silk workshop–which raises silkworms, unravels the cocoons, and spins fine thread on a manual wooden contraption which fills an entire room and looks as if it jumped right out of one of da Vinci’s sketchpads of marvelous machines—to the paper workshop—which produces fine handcrafted paper by pounding rags with an enormous pulper powered by a waterwheel—to the bell foundry—which casts bronze bells on commission from churches and historical societies all over Italy—each workshop is manned by artisans in period garb who explain their trade as practiced 700 years ago. There are ten mestieri in all (two are permanent and non-competing) open to the public every night from 9-12 pm and Saturday and Sunday from 5-7 pm and again from 9-12 pm.
The apothecary's workshop
As long as you are headed into town to see the workshops, plan to have dinner at one of the four taverne (outdoor restaurants) organized by each gaita. The second competition which takes place during the festival–and figures into calculating the victor–is gastronomic. Each quarter of the city researches recipes and ingredients used in fourteenth century cuisine and offers the public a chance to taste the fruits of this research by creating a menu exclusively made up of historical dishes. The fare is heavy on meat (especially game), spices (this year I had a spice lasagna which was fabulous), and egg pasta and bread. You won’t find tomatoes (no tomato sauce on your tagliatelle), potatoes (no gnocchi), corn (no polenta), or any other ingredients which were brought back from the New World 200 years after the time of the gaite.
A banquet with period food and costumes
After dinner and before making the rounds of the workshops, you can stop in the central Piazza Silvestri and watch a series of theatrical and musical events in costume, or the archery contest (the third of the four competitions during the festival). Especially interesting is the Notte Medievale, a dusk to dawn medieval festival-within-a-festival with a full night of art, music, dance, and food.
Archers from the four Gaite prepare to compete in the piazza
The highpoint of the festivities, and the origin of the name Mercato delle Gaite, is the medieval market which takes place during the afternoons of the final weekend. Each quarter organizes a working market, where locals play artists, artisans, tradespeople, and farmers displaying their wares—the competition consists in trying to create the most interesting, artistic, and historically accurate market square. The feel of these markets really is a step back in time…each teems with customers weaving their way through the market booths, the din of the tradespeople hawking their wares and the live animals protesting their confinement, the smell of fresh flowers and herbs, cheeses, and dried sausages, the colorful garb of the costumed sellers and their stalls heaped with wares.
A market scene
I suppose the one thing the Mercato delle Gaite and King Richard’s Faire have in common is that you will find yourself inevitably bringing something home from both…what you end up bringing away with you from Bevagna, however, will never be a source of buyer’s remorse.
These photos were reproduced with permission of the Associazione Mercato delle Gaite.