When I heard that there was an olive tree somewhere in Umbria purported to be 1,700 hundred years old—the oldest olive tree in the region, in fact—I knew what I was looking at. I was looking at a quest. I had to find it.
Is a quest really a quest when there's an explanatory plaque?
As it turns out, the tree—near Trevi in a little hamlet called Bovara—isn’t that hard to locate. Legend has it that the martyr Emiliano, the first bishop of Trevi, was tied to the tree and decapitated in the year 304…Emiliano became a saint, and the tree seems to have become immortal.
Still looking good at 1,700 years old
Despite late freezes which have killed off generations of trees in the surrounding grove over the centuries, l’Olivo di Santo Emiliano continues to flourish and produce fruit which the nearby Benedictine abbey uses to make their extra virgin oil.
The tree bears its catalogue number on the trunk
The trunk has become twisted and gnarled, the bark black with age, and the catalogue number painted on its side (the tree is listed in the regional register of protected flora) seems somehow insulting. But still some majesty—the kind that only something which has witnessed almost two millenia can claim—remains.
Yes, a quest is a quest if you feel like you come away with something ennobling.
The good news about walking and hiking in Umbria is that even if you get lost, you are bound to have such breathtakingly beautiful scenery to distract you that it won’t matter that much.
Who cares about the map when you are looking at this?
The bad news about walking and hiking in Umbria is that it is damned easy to get lost.
Some Guidelines for Walking and Hiking in Umbria
Umbria is a fabulous area to explore by foot, yet at the same time can sometimes be not that hiker-friendly. The region has been late to the game in organizing well marked-trails and accessible information regarding itineraries and routes, which is a shame since the undulating landscape, tiny stone hilltop hamlets, and abandoned country churches and fortresses lend themselves to some remarkable hikes.
Here is some general logistical information for walkers interested in discovering this captivating region. For specific hikes, please refer back to the Walking and Hiking in Umbria blog category, where I will be reproducing some itineraries and adding some of my own.
Guides for Walking and Hiking in Umbria
The offerings in English for printed guides discussing itineraries in Umbria are disappointing. Probably the best to date is Walking and Eating in Tuscany and Umbria by Lasdun and Davis, which has 26 walks in Tuscany and…um…a whopping 3 in Umbria. That said, the three they do list for Umbria are all pretty walks with clear information and recommendations for local restaurants.
Walking and Eating in Tuscany and, oh, right, Umbria
A second choice is Sunflower Book’s Umbria and the Marche (Landscapes) by Georg Henke. With its 8 driving itineraries, 37 walks, and two regions, this guide is kind of all over the place. It does, however, focus on the Valnerina and Monti Sibillini–two of the most breathtaking areas in Umbria if not all of Italy– and contains large-scale (1:50,000) topo walking maps and transport timetables for all the walks. Sunflower offers a free on-line update service.
Sunflower Books took a stab at it…but why can no one manage to publish a mono-regional guide?!?
There is also a more local–though exhaustive–printed guide which follows a medieval trail through the olive groves between Spoleto and Assisi with English text, maps, and photos: The Olive Grove Path (Il Sentiero degli Ulivi) by Enzo Cori and Fabrizio Cicio.
Alternatively, I can’t speak highly enough of Bill Thayer’s Website. Bill has walked about 2,000 km all over Umbria during his numerous travels here, and has documented his walks with diary entries and photos. In my opinion, there is no better resource for walking in Umbria than his juggernaut of a website.
In Italian, there are two very good walking guides:
A Piedi in Umbria by Stefano Ardito has over 100 itineraries and covers the region well. Unfortunately, the guide is very text-heavy with few maps and no photos, so your Italian has to be pretty good to get any use out of it.
Lots of info, but hard to follow if your Italian isn’t up to snuff.
L’Umbria per Strade e Sentieri by Giuseppe Bambini, on the other hand, is chock full of maps, photos, and easily decipherable bullet lists for each walk–even if your Italian is shaky it’s a great resource. The routes described are largely loops, so you can drive to your starting point, follow the walk, and end up back at your car. If this sounds too good to be true, it is. The guide was printed by a small local press, Editrice Minerva Assisi, and is almost impossible to find outside of the Zubboli bookshop in the main piazza in Assisi.
Charts, maps, graphics and simple language…even if your Italian isn’t fluent this can be helpful
Maps for Walking and Hiking in Umbria
Trail markings in Umbria are maintained by a sketchily organized conglomerate of volunteer groups, like the Italian Alpine Club, and local government agencies so tend to be spotty, at best. A good map is essential.
The two series of trail maps I like best are the Kompass maps (1:50,000 scale) and the C.A.I or Club Alpino Italiano maps (1:25,000 scale), which show trails, unpaved and paved roads. Both of these are readily available at bookstores or larger souvenir shops which carry guidebooks in Italy.
Walking and Hiking Trails in Umbria
Trail markings in Italy look like this:
Or, if you’re really lucky, this:
So, generally, two red stripes with a white stripe in the middle and the trail number. Painted on anything.
Trails in Italy look like this:
Or, if you’re really lucky, this:
As I said, chances are you are going to get lost at least once during your hike, so try to be philosophical about it. Remember, a truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery while on a detour. (Or at least not bicker with whomever was in charge of the map.)
Three quick cautionary words before you head off. Hunting is a popular and widely practiced sport in Umbria, so be aware when hiking in hunting season (September through January) and outside of the regional and national parks, where hunting is prohibited. Umbria is also home to quite a few sheep, and their guard dogs can be aggressive while on the clock–give them a wide berth. Finally, be careful walking through high grass or climbing loose rocks…there are vipers in the area which generally flee at the sound of approaching humans but are not too pleased to be accidentally tread upon.
It had been awhile since I had been to the main galleries in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia, and I had forgotton how beautifully done the 2006 restoration was. I was back this past weekend, and fell in love all over again.
Even if 14th-16th century religious art isn’t your thing (the bulk of the collection is concentrated around that period) the building itself is worth an amble through.
Putty colored walls, soft lighting, a warren of oddly shaped rooms and corridors, exposed original stone and brick architectural details…simply stunning, and strangely soothing at the same time.
My favorite room: the clocktower! Stand inside behind the enormous working clock four stories above the Corso and listen to the ticking which has marked the time in Perugia for more than 100 years.
The clocktower is now used as the museum's multimedia center.
It pains me to admit it, but the times, they are a-changin’, even here in Umbria.
When I arrived here in 1993, this is how you did your grocery shopping: You left your house early in the morning with a net bag, and first you headed to the outdoor market in the piazza where you picked up your greens, fruit, flowers, and the local gossip. Then you headed to the butcher’s for your meat, and the local gossip. Then the fish shop for your fish, and a side of gossip. Then the cheese shop, the fresh pasta shop, and the bakery…where you caught up on the gossip. Then, for your very last stop, you dropped by the little local family-owned store for sundries like toilet paper and raisins and any gossip you may have overlooked. And, if you were lucky, you got home by noon.
What the produce section once looked like.
Now you go to the Ipercoop superstore along the highway and in half an hour buy all of the above. And get your gossip off Facebook.
When I arrived here in 1993, this is how you saw a movie: You went to downtown Perugia (our provincial capital, aka The City), where the four movie houses were. You started at one end of the Corso and checked out the posters outside the Cinema Modernissimo but decided to have an aperitivo and a chat instead. Afterwards you headed to the Cinema Turreno to see what was showing there and before the show stopped into the Pizzeria Mediterranea for a quick margherita. Then, since you missed the beginning of the show, you ambled down the street to the 18th century Teatro Pavone where, on the nights they didn’t have a concert or play scheduled, they might show a movie. And on the way you popped into Pasticceria Sandri for a pastry, thus missing the starting time there as well. So you ended up at the Lilli, where you grabbed a quick espresso from the bar next door and settled in to watch whatever was on that night. And halfway through the movie you felt raindrops hitting your face and looked up in surprise, forgetting that they had that really cool 1940’s retractable roof which they would open on summer nights.
What the cinema once looked like.
Now you go to the Warner Village Multiplex along the highway, where they have 10 different movies going on pretty much every hour all day and night, and you eat popcorn and drink Coke.
In light of all this modernization, the opportunity to see how things used to be done seem more rare with every passing year. Another example is the corredo, or traditional trousseau, which was a collection of high quality household linen–including table linens, towels, bed linens, and quilts–which a young woman would assemble in her youth and as a bride would use as the cornerstone of her new household. The contents of what we in the midwest once called a “hope chest” were generally high-end handwoven cloth, expensive and acquired with care and patience over many years. Now, of course, the couple registers at a department store or, even more often, lives together for years before marrying and thus has already collected all the household linen they may need.
The demand for this type of superior quality cloth has declined in step with the decline of the traditional corredo, which is both a shame and what makes Brozzetti Laboratorio di Tesseratura a Mano (or weaving workshop) in Perugia so unique and so worth a visit.
Tucked away in the heart of Perugia.
The workshop is housed in a 13th century church.
Just some of the beautiful pieces coming off the antique looms.
Housed in the oldest Franciscan church in Perugia, la Chiesa di San Francesco delle Donne (1212), this artelier was founded in 1912 by the formidable Giuditta Brozzetti. One of the first modern female entrepenuers in Umbria, Brozzetti criss-crossed the region copying and conserving traditional motifs taken from decorations found on Etruscan tombs and pottery, details from medieval and renaissance cloth, and iconography from works of religious art from little known churches spread out across the region. Many of her original handmade sketches are remain on display, and these geometric and stylized designs are still incorporated into the workshop’s pieces.
The detail in the woven patterns is fascinating.
Today the Brozzetti family is in its fourth generation of craftswomen, who continue producing hand-woven fine jacquard cotton, linen, silk, and wool cloth on antique wooden manual looms, many dating from the 19th century.
One of the antique wooden looms still used by the weavers.
A visit their workshop is simply captivating…the loud click-clack of the looms working, the gentle light filtering through the enormous apse window, the stylized patterns of griffons, pomegranates, and twisting vines in all imaginable shades of color.
Marta, last of the Brozzetti family, working the loom.
In this a-changin’ world, it’s a rare gift sometimes to be able to peek through the window of time and get a glimpse and what we have, tragically, lost.
Photographs of Brozzetti Laboratorio di Tesseratura a Mano were used with permission by Marit Alanen: photographer, artist, writer, and traveller. “You drink too much, you cuss too much, and you have questionable morals…You’re everything I ever wanted in a friend.”
Sometimes blogging channels your inner philosopher and you wax poetic about the existential joy that seems to blossom effortlessly when you live in a place where every meal is an out-of-body experience, and sometimes blogging rhymes with slogging and you use the space for some nuts and bolts advice about What’s Going On. And let me tell you, after a week stuck in the house in rainy weather and two kids home sick with a stomach virus, I’m feeling pretty nutty…and yearning for some outdoor fun…so let’s talk rafting.
Wet and wild, or wild and wet. Depends.
We went rafting twice last summer with a group of friends, and I have to say the last time I had that much fun wearing skin-tight PVC attire I was definitely 20 years younger (and 20 pounds lighter). The best rafting in Umbria is on the Corna and Nera rivers in the south of the region; in fact, both the competing outfitters we used were along those waterways. Our group had kids as young as five and adults into their sixties, and everyone had a ball.
The first company we used was Rafting Umbria in a little town called Serravalle di Norcia along the Corna River. The downside of Rafting Umbria was the pretty spartan base camp; the changing rooms were tents (which were roughly the same temperature as the surface of the sun inside), there are no lockers to keep your personal belongings, so they are just kind of piled up on benches and on the floor, the showers are big plastic water containers on the roof of a camper with a hose attached. There is a picnic table where we had our packed lunch, but the ground is worn down to dirt and on the whole it’s just not that picturesque.
On the upside, however, the descent was fun, Fun, FUN! The river was calm enough to feel comfortable having little kids on the rafts, but you got enough rapids action to get a little wet and have a little fun. The group stopped a couple of times along the route at good swimming hole places (one with a fun cliff to jump off of) and at a freshwater spring along the bank of the river where you could drink. The guides were professional and affable and they take pictures along the route (and a short video) and burn a cd which you can purchase at the end of the day (€15). The length of river you descend is quite pretty, and at the end of the descent the staff had prepared some watermelon and water to pass the time while their shuttle vans took us back in shifts to the base camp. (Rates: 35 adult/25 kids under 14)
Some beautiful scenery along the descent
Our second experience was with Rafting Marmore out of Arrone near the Marmore waterfalls in the Terni Province. Here the base camp was great…they use the buildings in a public park, so real bathrooms with showers, changing rooms with benches and hooks, an equipment shed where they keep the wetsuits and rafts, and an absolutely lovely grassy park along the river to picnic lunch at and play around in before and after the descent.
The descent itself, however, just isn’t that exciting. This would be the perfect run for families with really young kids (or, perhaps, adults with physical limitations) or who have never been rafting before. The river is almost too calm, with little or no rapids, and there isn’t anything interesting enough along the route to justify stopping for. After the promise of a clean and organized base camp operation, we were disappointed by the rafting itself. The guides were professional, but a bit stand-off-ish, and the overall fun factor was unquestionably lower than our experience with Rafting Umbria. That said, you can easily work in a visit to both Arrone (a charming gem of a hilltop village) and the Marmore Waterfalls either before or after your run, which is a big plus. (Rates: 35 adults/30 kids under 16)
Getting back to the base
Both of these companies provide wetsuits (which are washed and disinfected after every use), life vests, safety helments, and all the tecnical equipment you need, plus a shuttle service back to base camp at the end of the descent.
Fun for adults and kids
For the more adventurous (and older) rafter, Rafting Marmore offers a challenging level four route which passes under the Marmore Waterfalls. It looks like loads of fun on their website…unfortunately, the minimum age requirement is 16 (maximum 55) so it will be quite a few years before we can try it out. But for travellers looking for a more vigorous, exciting, and certainly picturesque run, you can take a look here.
A more challenging descent for the 16+ age group
It takes a lot for me to squeeze my butt onto a minivan with eight other adults for the day. Big money, for example. Brandishing a loaded weapon often will do the trick. Or, if all else fails, the promise of a glass of wine. (more…)
I feel I am uniquely qualified to research and write an article about shopping in Assisi for two reasons:
- I absolutely abhor shopping.
- I only rarely go into the center of town.
Given these two details, is has to be something really special to lure me into a store in town, but luckily Assisi is full of lovely, offbeat little boutiques unique enough to tempt even the avid non-shopper.
Unfortunately, average run-of-the-mill souvenir hawkers specializing in what we affectionately call in our family “shitky-ditky” are both more numerous and more prominent near the monuments and churches, so at first glance it’s easy to miss my favorite specialty shops. If you are looking for pressboard crosses, friar salt and pepper shakers, or plastic replica medieval weapons, read no further…you can find all that without my help. But if you have your heart set on bringing something home to remember Assisi by which you won’t be able to find anyplace else on earth, you’ve come to the right place.
Food and Wine
Il Baccanale, Via del Comune Vecchio 2
I love this wine and gourmet shop….Luana (proprietor and friend) has a wonderful selection of both Umbrian and other Italian wines. She also stocks high end chocolate and coffee, top quality olive oil and pasta, and a whole range of jams, sauces, and condiments. She can help you with your selections and make up a gift basket to bring home with you.
Il Baccanale di Assisi
Farmer Shop, Via San Francesco 4a
This great mix between rustic stone vaulted space and minimalist design furnishing sells products from a local agricultural consortium…heirloom legumes, wild boar salami, hearty aged sheep cheese…but their big seller is their organic, unfiltered, unpasteurised, bottle refermented beers from the San Biagio estate…you can sample before you buy!
Farmershop Assisi's beer
Farmershop Assisi's Cheese
Alice Laboratorio Artistico, Via San Francesco 8I
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.
One of Alice's hand-painted t-shirts
My favorite tee that Alice makes
Franchi, Via Portica 15A
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.
Alice Laboratorio Artistico, Via San Francesco 8I
Aside from her handpainted tshirts, Alice has jewelry, photo albums, paintings and prints. All in her lovely, whimsical style.
A sample of Alice's charming wares
Claudio Carli Studio, Via San Rufino
Claudio Carli is a well-known local artist who works in both watercolor and oil…primarily scenes of Assisi and Umbria. I love his work (we have some hanging in our house) and even if you are not in the market for a work of art, I suggest you stop by his gallery and take a look.
An example of Claudio Carli's work
Artestampa, Via S Francesco, 10c
Handmade woodcut prints of the monuments and backstreets of Assisi. Much more charming than the ubiquitous posters.
This antique shop has mostly big ticket furniture and art, but there are a few small, packable (or shippable) items which are fabulous…primarily their antique prints and majolica tiles. Claudio, the proprietor, is affable and knowledgeable, and the space is chock full of beautiful, unique pieces.
A tragically hip gathering of local contemporary art—if you are looking for something beautifully offbeat, or perhaps offbeatly beautiful, stop in here and have a chat with Francesco, the loquacious and charming gallery curator.
Detail of a painting shown in Minigallery, Assisi
Assisi has two wonderful jewelry designers with shops: Artigianato del Gioiello on Via San Francesco and Il Forziere on Via San Gabrielle dell’Addolorata. They both make lovely gold and silver pieces worked around precious and semi-precious stones, and also sell commercial lines (though I like their own work better). If you would like something uniquely “Assisan” to remember your visit, consider a gold tau—symbol of redemption much loved by Saint Francis.
L'Artigianato del Gioiello, Assisi
Fashion and accessories
I Colori del Tempo, Via Portica 6/b
A tiny boutique is crammed with scarves, purses, hats, jewelry, and some clothes. Most of their stock is in silk, wool, or cotton and in lovely hues and eye-catching prints.
Il Tapiro, Via San Francesco
This leather workshop has hand-made purses, wallets, belts, and jackets…the shop is owned by Mauro, who is passionate about his products and will treat you right. Florence is the place to go for leather, but if you’re not going to make it there, this boutique is runs a close second place for price and quality.
Paper and Books
Zubboli, Piazza del Comune
One of my favorite stores in Assisi, for both the beautiful antique wooden and glass show cases and the leather-bound wares in them. This shop has gorgeous hand-bound photo albums and journals, florentine printed notepaper, fountain pens, and hard-to-find books about Assisi and Umbria.
Outside of town
Terra Umbra, Via Patrono d’Italia 10, Santa Maria degli Angeli
A wonderful gourmet shop for Umbrian specialties….cheese, cold cuts and cured pork, truffles, and olive oil.
Duda Dida, Via de Gasperi 9, Bastia Umbra
This is an amazing toy store…fabulous european educational toys, dolls and stuffed animals, science and art projects. Definitely worth the stop in an otherwise unexceptional town, or a perusal of the website for online shopping.
Duda Dida, Assisi
Margiò, Via Los Angeles 57, Santa Maria degli Angeli
A wonderful fresh pasta shop where you can get tagliatelle, cappelletti (with meat filling) and a number of different types of ravioli filled with the traditional spinach and ricotta to the more exotic truffle and sheep cheese made fresh daily.
Broccatelli or Brufani, Via Los Angeles 33 or 35, Santa Maria degli Angeli
These two cheese shops (oddly right next door to each other) have fabulous fresh local cheese, both cow and sheep.
If you really want to see how the Italians in rural Italy live, your best bet is to head to the nearest sagra.