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The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Arrone

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.


The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Bevagna

I am quickly coming to realize that this little quest of mine to visit all the Umbrian villages listed by I Borghi Più Belli dell’Italia (to see how the whole crazy idea came to be, read here) is a total win-win (-win) situation.  I either get to visit a town I don’t know well and discover its charm (win-Bettona) or have an excuse to spend half a day in a town I already know and love (win-Bevagna) …or finally make it to a town I have only heard about but never actually seen (win-Arrone.  No, I haven’t made it to Arrone yet, but it will be a win when I do.  I just know it.)

Right now is the perfect window in time to visit Bevagna, I town I already know and love, and this is why:  remember that girl in high school who was nice and everything but nobody really paid much attention to her Freshman and Sophomore years, but suddenly and inexplicably Junior year all the cute guys suddenly seemed to discover her and she completely flowered under the attention but was still very approachable and just wandered around bewildered by her sudden luck but by Senior year had dumped her friends and fallen in with the popular crowd and become one of those stuck up bitches who always have the right jeans and spend all their time in the bathroom combing their hair and talking smack?  Well, Bevagna is in her Junior year.

I remember ten years ago I had to beg people to visit Bevagna.  “It’s lovely, it has a Roman mosaic in this lady’s garage, it has the prettiest piazza around, it’s flat (a big selling point in a region where the vast majority of towns are built on a 60 degree slope),” I would say.  Now I have guests who pop out of their car upon arrival and announce that they want to visit Assisi, Perugia, and Bevagna.  Which can mean only one thing: Rick Steves.  But, hey, if it took the biggest jock in school to get the rest of the class to sit up and pay attention, I certainly can’t begrudge him.  Now the town has dusted herself off, prettied herself up, organized herself a bit better, and welcomes her new admirers with a friendly, if slightly baffled, smile.  She’s known all along what a gem of a town she is.

If you can, begin your visit by entering the city through the southern city gate, over a small bridge spanning the Clitunno River…to the left you can still see the public fountain where women once came to do their wash.

The bridge over the rushing Clitunno River at the southern gate is a perfect starting point.

Once you have crossed the river, stop for a morning cappuccino at one of the outdoor tables in this sleepy piazza (One reason you know Bevagna hasn’t yet sold its soul to the popular crowd:  this is a town that still completely shuts down at 1 pm.  You need to get there first thing in the morning or you’ll find the place deserted and the all shutters closed half an hour after you start poking around.  I was there at 1 pm and it was as if the wizard behind the curtain suddenly threw a big switch at exactly 1:10 and the town shut off.) and watch the locals come and go.

From there, walk one block to Piazza Silvestri, Bevagna’s pride and joy.  And rightly so—this delightful little piazza is home to two of Umbria’s loveliest Romanesque churches: the small, serious, hewn stone San Silvestro (take a peek at the crypt under the raised presbytery, typical of 12th century churches) and the larger, lighter, soaring San Michele Archangelo.

The interior of the church of San Silvestro uses columns with Egyptian-style papyrus leaves on their capitals--a bit of an historical mystery.

San Michele Archangelo--if you look closely at the stone work around the central door you can see clusters of grapes growing on vines. Bevagna is smack in the middle of historic wine country.

Begin your peramble down Corso Matteotti, where you can see Bevagna’s delightful Junior year mix of hipster sidewalk cafés, small historic workshops, artsy antique stores, and commercial establishments of the variety which serve real residents: butcher, baker, candlestick maker (or, more precisely, beauty salon)– glaringly missing from the more touristed hill towns in Umbria, tragically. (Another reason you know Bevagna hasn’t yet sold its soul to the popular crowd: they still have the completely charming and almost extinct Small Town Unofficial Municipal Council sitting in ancient wooden folding chairs along the Corso, holding forth loudly and passionately about sports, politics, and any passing female under the age of 82.)

Bevagna's Small Town Unofficial Municipal Council meetings are held on the Corso every day from dawn to dusk, excluding meal times. And the seating is assigned.

About halfway up the Corso, stop in at the Museo di Bevagna to get two tickets: one will get you into the museum itself, the Roman mosaic, and the Francesco Torti Theater.  A guide from the museum escorts you to the second two, so you can first take a quick look at the museum.  The staircase is lined with remnants of stone tablets and random pieces of sculpture mortared right into the stucco…a fetching show of creativity which apparently exhausted the artistic vein of the museum architects, as what follows is a pretty anonymous series of square white rooms with not much to engage a visitor artistically.

It's not a good sign when the most interesting thing in the museum is the stairwell. That said, the archaeological collection is currently closed to the public, so maybe there's still hope.

When you come back downstairs, your guide will walk you the two blocks to the marine-themed mosaic (now in a neat well-lit room with a raised walkway and explanatory tablets.  When I first visited years ago, it was the floor of someone’s garage with a big iron padlock on the door, the key to which the nice lady across the street would toss into your hand from her second floor window, with the admonition to remember to turn off the light when you were done and leave the key in the door…she’d come down later and get it.  Ah, that was Bevagna her Freshman year.)  Afterwards, follow your guide for a peek into the pretty little 19th century Torti Theater, with its red velvet seats, gilded boxes, and richly decorated ceiling.

Bevagna's surprise gilded lily of a theater.

Whew, lunchtime.  Now’s when you really realize Bevagna is edging into her Senior year, as the town is chock-full of great places to eat.  For a casual, hip atmosphere try La Bottega di Assù on Corso Matteotti, which is part bistrot/part bookstore/part art boutique all crammed into a space the size of my bedroom.  For something more upscale, but worth every penny, dine at one of Umbria’s hottest restaurants right now: Redibis.  Offering nouveau-Umbrian cuisine in a section of Bevagna’s restored Roman amphitheater, this unforgettable restaurant is on every foodie’s A-list. Otherwise, for traditional Umbrian cuisine head to Piazza Garibaldi, lined on both sides with the outdoor tables of the trattorias which have popped up like mushrooms over the past few years.

Spend a little time after lunch wandering the backstreets of Bevagna, making sure not to miss the curving Vicolo del Amphiteatro, tree-lined Piazza Garibaldi with its medieval city gate (Porta Cannara) and bricked-in facade of a Roman temple, and quiet cloister of the Dominican convent (now converted into a hotel).  At 3:00 (or 2:30. or 3:30.  It changes month by month.) head back to the Museo di Bevagna for your second ticket, the one which will get you entrance into a number of historically accurate workshops where artisans demonstrate their crafts using methods and tools from the middle ages.  I prefer by far to see these workshops during Bevagna’s wonderful medieval festival–Il Mercato delle Gaite–in June, but if you can’t make it then this is a good substitute.  To hear more about these amazing workshops, see here.

Once you’ve seen the mestieri, your visit is done.  Stay for just a few more minutes to have a relaxing glass of wine (you are in the heart of Sagrantino country) at La Bottega di Piazza Onofri on Corso Matteotti, and toast to Bevagna.  You had the amazing luck to meet her during her magical Junior year moment—here’s to hoping it stretches out for years and she remains forever lovely and warm, just as she is now.

A pretty view over Bevagna from the Santuario della Madonna delle Grazie outside of town.


The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Trevi

Trevi, as hilltowns go, is Umbria’s comfort food. Trevi doesn’t challenge your palate with exotic flavours and peculiar spices. Trevi doesn’t rock your world with molecular gastronomy and new-fangled raw food diets. Trevi has nothing to prove; she is understated, unpretentious, and secure in the knowledge that she’ll stick to your ribs and let you leave the table comfortably sated. Which is why, like with any comfort food, you’ll find yourself returning to Trevi over and over again.

Trying to snap a picture of Trevi without an olive tree getting in the way is like trying to snap a picture of an elephant without the trunk getting in the way.

It had been awhile since I headed to Trevi, which is one of the those towns in my geographical slush zone: too close to Assisi to count as a day trip but too far away to bop over for lunch. But I was hankering to get back to one of my pet blogging projects, and though Trevi isn’t the next on the list of The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria –I’m on the Cs, for those of you paying attention. And don’t give me that look. Yes, it’s taking me awhile to get through the list. Things have come up, people.—fall is Trevi’s season, it being one of the most important olive oil producing areas in the olive oil producing region of Umbria.

So, on a gloriously sunny autumn morning I found myself driving up through the groves blanketing the hills beneath Trevi at that magical hour when the mist is just lifting and the ghostly outlines of the teams of pickers, spreading nets beneath the olive trees and positioning their rickety wooden ladders against the branches, are beginning to emerge from the silver grey. Just as I rounded the last hairpin turn coming up from the valley, the town itself—dramatically dribbling down the sides of its steep hilltop like gravy over a heap of mashed potatoes—caught the first rosy-gold rays of sunlight and, despite the eight cranes hovering over the jumble of rooftops, the pure beauty of it made me catch my breath. And the thought came to me, as it so often does with our favorite comfort foods, “Damn. Why has it been so long?”

I love this old-timey effect. Plus, you can't see all the damned cranes.

Trevi starts its comfort food schtick with the most basic of amenities: a sprawling, free parking lot right at the top of the hill about fourteen feet from the main piazza. To anyone who has passed any time visiting hill towns in Umbria (and, by the way, if you do want to visit hill towns in Umbria, pretty much your only option is to have a vehicle), the deal breaker importance of free, easy, accessible parking is immediately clear. Let’s just say it gets the meal off on the right foot. I stuck my car in Piazza Garibaldi, and passed under the Porta del Lago city gate into the main Piazza Mazzini, which is so film-set ready it would be a clichè…if, of course, it wasn’t real. The accommodating ladies at the tourist information office (unfortunately open only Friday, Saturday, and Sunday…but I discovered that tapping politely on the glass door and smiling winningly might score you a resigned entrance) kitted me out with a MAP and a FREE AUDIO GUIDE of the town. To anyone who has passed any time visiting hill towns in Umbria, the deal breaker importance of friendly infopoint staff who can actually provide such novelties as maps and audio guides is immediately clear.

Just one of the amazing views from Trevi. Brace yourself. You're about to see a lot of 'em.

So, remember your great-aunt Mary Margaret who came over from County Kerry fifty years ago, but never lost her Gaelic brogue and sweet-yet-schoolmarmish cadence? Well, somehow the folks over at the Trevi tourism office tracked her down to do the voice on their audioguide. It was both surreal and soothing to wander through the tiny center with Mary Margaret murmuring in my ear about the Churches of Sant’Emiliano (largely unexceptional inside, but with three pretty Romanesque apses and a 15th century portal outside) and San Francesco (built in the 14th century on the site where Saint Francis admonished an ill-mannered donkey to cut the racket during his sermon, at which point the donkey knelt in silence until Francis had finished. Thus begging the question as to why that won’t work with my kids.) and the various palazzi and piazze.

You want chicken soup for the soul? Well, check these views out.

The audio guide lasts about an hour, but honestly I cherry-picked the explanations, preferring instead to wander the warren of lanes in the tiny center in contemplative silence. As I walked, my pace slowed and my pulse began to match the easy heartbeat of this quiet town. I popped into a couple of museums—the charming and well-done Olive Museum (what else, in the olive oil capital of Umbria?) and surpising Palazzo Lucarini Contemporary Art Museum (even Trevi shakes it up a bit…a little ginger in the oatmeal, so to speak.)—and roamed languidly through their empty, silent halls. I stopped to snap pictures of odd niches, carved doors, smiling artisans in dim workshops, and the views. Especially the views.

This is the view to the San Martino monastery outside of town (temporarily closed due to restoration work).

I came away from Trevi as soothed and settled as if I had just had a big, steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup. Maybe my mind wasn’t expanded, maybe I didn’t have any spiritual epiphanies or life-changing realizations, but sometimes that’s not really what I’m hungry for. Sometimes what I’m really craving is less a question of stomach and more a question of heart.

Ok, I'm done with the views. Maybe...

If you really are hungry while in Trevi, you’re in luck. There are two fabulous restaurants: La Vecchia Posta (Careful, their site plays music at you. Scared the bejeezus out of me.) in the postcard-perfect main piazza and La Taverna del Sette, which has a charming internal courtyard.

Did you love these pictures? Thanks, but they’re not mine. They were used with kind permission by the talented (and generous) photographer Marzia Keller, to whom I am forever grateful. Because my pictures suck.



The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Castiglione del Lago

Spring has arrived–in a teasing, come hither sort of way–and with it the unmistakeable signs of the change of season: a desire to get the hell out of the house, a bloomingly photogenic countryside, a waning of winter’s lethargy (affectionately known in our family as “an acute case of the lazy asses”), and bored, whining children off of school for two long weeks of spring break. All of which are the basic ingredients for mixing up a killer batch of Day Trip. And—given that my project of visiting The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria had been shelved during the last, ahem, six months—it seemed serendipitous that the next village on the list (in alphabetical order, which I have more or less been sticking to) has two of the key features any parent with kids under the age of twelve know will be an instant hit: a castle and a large body of water.

Castiglione del Lago on Lago Trasimeno

Two elements guaranteeing kid fun: a castle (foreground) and a lake (background).

So, having run out of duct tape and rope, I tossed my sons in the general direction of the back seat and headed to the village of Castiglione del Lago, which perches on a small promontory on the shores of placid Lake Trasimeno. (I’m joking. About the duct tape and rope, I mean. Castiglione really is on the shores of Lake Trasimeno.) I hadn’t visited its tiny historic center for years; truth be told, the area around the lake (and the lake itself) has never held much fascination for me and when I do head to that area it is almostly exclusively to eat. But I quickly realized I was in for two pleasant surprises:

1) Castiglione del Lago is actually quite lovely, in a lighthearted, resort town-y sort of way.

2) Kids give you a completely different perspective on what you are seeing. Like a monkey-cam.

View of Castiglione del Lago, Umbria

Some say that the promontory on which Castiglione sits was originally the fourth island in Lake Trasimeno, but over time blended into the shoreline. Huh. Well, I read it on the internet so it must be true. Photo by Andrian Michael via Wikimedia Commons.

Immediately upon passing under the largest of the three medieval gates along the town wall at the base of the Corso, my nine year old grasped my six year old’s hand tightly and said, “You have to hold my hand because we’re in the city now and bad people can come and take you.” To give you an idea of the size of Castiglione, let me just say that its expansion has been limited by the topographical confines of the promontory on which it rests, so it has remained the same 2 by 6 blocks for the last 900 years. And, though Wikipedia lists its official population at roughly 15,000—which includes all those who live in the quite extensive modern suburbs of the town along the plain below—my guess is that there can’t be many more than a couple hundred souls who actually dwell within the city walls. We weren’t exactly in Manhattan.

That said, the town was hopping as we had inadvertently stopped by on Wednesday during their weekly market, which was the usual mish-mash of small town Umbrian markets: vegetables, housedresses, rubber boots, flower pots, frying pans, camouflage jackets, and an amazingly well-stocked stand of dried and candied fruit. We got a big bag of mixed ginger, mango, coconut, and pineapple to fortify us for our visit. Thus armed, we set off toward the two notable monuments for which Castiglione is known.

Palazzo Ducale, Castiglione del Lago

My younger son was pleased to learn that this noble palace--commissioned by Duke Ascanio della Corgna and built by celebrated architect Vignola--once hosted his namesake, Leonardo da Vinci.

It took us a few minutes to wind our way through the vacationers and shoppers, past the market stalls and small shops and restaurants lining the main street, but in a short time we were in the circular Piazza Gramsci at the far end of town, which is dominated by the 16th century Palazzo Ducale, or Palazzo della Corgna. After a quick review of acceptable museum behavior, I took my sons inside and immediately undermined my own dictates by having a loud debate with the woman selling tickets as to why it is unfair that a “family” ticket (for two adults and two children) cannot be applied to a “family” of one adult and two children, so single parents end up having to pay two euros more entrance fee for three separate tickets.

I won.

We wandered through the stately halls with our noses in the air, enjoying the prefectly preserved late Renaissance frescoes still decorating the ceilings (my sons’ sniggers and hissed commentary, “Look! You can see their naked butts!” echoed in the largely empty rooms) until we we reached the covered walkway which was built to connect the palace to the imposing castle for which Castiglione is named: the Rocca del Leone.

Rocca del Leone, Castiglione del Lago

The long--and very narrow--walkway on the left connects Castiglione's two noteable monuments: Palazzo della Corgna and Rocca del Leone. Stop to check out the views over the lake along the walkway, and hope you don't meet a large German coming the other direction.

The pentagonal shaped Rocca has a tall triangular keep and four outer towers, all of which can be explored by walking the perimeter along the top of the castle wall. Not for parents faint of heart (the signs warning visitors to hold children by the hand are crazy talk for anyone with boys from 6 to 12), kids love the conqueror’s view over the lake and surrounding countryside. While gazing from one of the towers, my six year old wondered aloud what it would be like to fly. “Like Icarus!” my nine year said. “Who’s Icarus?” “A deity.” “What’s a deity?” “Remember those naked guys painted on the ceiling in the palazzo?” “Yes.” “Those are deities.” And before I could point out the difference between mythical figure and deity, they were off running along the parapet to check out the view from the next tower.

Rocca del Leone, Castiglione del Lago

In keeping with the universal danger/fun ratio, let's just say this is off the charts on both counts.

Having completed our exploration, we headed back down through the streets in search of some lunch. The market was packing up; the restaurants lining the Corso looked inviting (especially for anyone curious to try Lake Trasimeno’s local specialty: eel), but having checked off the “Castiglione” part of the town’s name, we decided to we wanted to visit the “Lago” part, as well, and picnic on the shores of the lake. Within minutes (really, anything is within minutes in Castiglione. Have I mentioned the town is 2 by 6 blocks?), we found ourselves in Piazza Mazzini, with its pretty tinkling fountain, Bar Centrale, aging dame of a grand hotel, and—most importantly—picnic supplies heaven.

Castiglione del Lago

When you dial Central Casting and request a Small Town Italian Main Piazza, this is what you get. Complete with porchetta truck parked next to the fountain.

In a tiny shop next to the clock tower, we were greeted by perhaps the friendliest shopkeepers in Umbria, who happily sliced up some local pecorino, salame, and prosciutto and made us three thick sandwiches on local flatbread (torta al testo)—having first basically fed my children lunch in free samples of charcuterie. Oh, and cookies. Oh, and one son changed his mind halfway through the sandwich assembly? No problem, Signora, he’s so cute we’ll just make him another. Oh, and they want juice? But this juice is too cold for them to drink on this hot day straight from the fridge so we’ll just run into the storeroom in the back and move about fifty boxes to come up with the one bottle of apple juice that is perfect drinking temperature. My kids worked it.

The picnic jackpot. Lots of local wine and liqueur, too, but I stuck with juice since I was en famille.

We meandered along the remaining two unexplored streets, lined with pretty flowerpot-decked facades, ancient wooden doors, and ivy-festooned garden walls and then drove down through the olive groves to the lakeshore beneath the town. Near the dock where ferries make their run between Castiglione and the lake’s pretty islets (our hopes to make a quick trip to Isola Maggiore after lunch was dashed by the news that ferries only run on the weekends in low season), we spread our picnic blanket and ate with the town at our back and Tuscany’s rolling countryside across the lake in front of us. Looking over the quiet waters, my son leaned against me and said (through a mouthful of biscotti), “This was nice, Mamma. We should do this more often.”

Yes, we should.

Castiglione del Lago


The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Citerna

The other night at the dinner table I noticed that my husband had picked out all the carrots from his Peas –n- Carrots and left them on his plate.  When I asked him why, he told me he doesn’t like cooked carrots.  Which gave me pause, because I’ve known him since 1986 and, though I haven’t kept a log or anything, my rough estimate is that I have prepared Peas-n-Carrots more or less four thousand times over the past 24 years (I like peas.  And I like carrots.  And I think the green and orange look pretty together on the plate.  And I like any phrase that involves substituting ‘n’ for ‘and’, because it seems kind of anachronistic and Rockwellian, like E-Z and Quik.) and this little detail about him not liking cooked carrots has never, ever come out in casual conversation.  Which just goes to show you…you think you know everything about something, and then it turns out you know nothing.

Which is the same earth-shattering—though somewhat uncatchy—conclusion I came to the other day when I discovered Citerna.  Despite living in Umbria since 1993, this little button of a town—one of the villages listed with The Most Beautiful Villages in Umbria—was completely under my radar.  Now, remember the high school analogy that served so well for Bevagna?  Okay, Citerna is still in her Sophomore year.  She is about to get her braces off, has taken up jogging, is mustering the courage to get her hair layered and highlighted, and has been trying to talk her cousin from LA into taking her shopping the next time she’s in Des Moines so she can get a little style makeover.  Junior year is just around the corner and look out, because Sandra Dee is about to put on the disco pants.

Citerna surrounded by the soft hills of the Tuscan-Umbria border. So romantic that I start understanding why everything in town is dedicated to innamorati. Photo by Adam Whone.

I discovered Citerna by accident, in an serendipitous sort of way since I am on the Cs on my quest to visit all the villages listed in I Borghi Più Belli d’Italia.  I went on a truffle hunt last week (Wait…hold the phone, you say.  Truffle hunt?!?  I want to hear about the truffle hunt.  Well, pipe down.  That blog post is coming.), and our meeting spot with the guide was Citerna’s pretty piazza which looks out over the Upper Tiber Valley.  You can tell this town sits right on the border between Tuscany and Umbria, as the landscape is much more reminiscent of Tuscany’s soft, rolling hills than the more dramatic and rugged peaks you find further south into Umbria.

A piazza with a view....

The piazza is also home to pretty much the only businesses in town:  a bar, grocery store, restaurant, and—oddly—tiny silversmith.  Grab an outdoor caffe table and enjoy the view across the piazza for awhile before you head off to explore the rest of town.  Citerna is a one-street village, so once you leave the piazza head down the main Corso Garibaldi toward Porta Romana.  You’ll pass the City Hall on your right in the recently restored former Franciscan convent, which  sits above the medieval cisterns–currently under restoration (remember this phrase…you’ll be hearing it again.  As I said, Citerna is going through a complete makeover.).  The name of the town probably derives from the word cisterna, and the town sits above a complex network of channels, vaults, and tanks used for collecting and storing rainwater.  Citerna’s claim to cultural fame is a prestigious annual collective photography exhibition each spring, and the warren of restored underground rooms will be used in the future as a unique exhibition space to house this show.

The warren of underground vaults and cisterns is currently "having work done". Photo by Carlo Franchi.

When you get to the city gate, pass through and make a sharp right.  One of the most delightful details of the town is the vaulted passageway which circles much of the town at the base of the fortified city wall—part of which is known as the Via degli Innamorati, or Sweethearts’ Way.  From these medieval walkways you can peer through the arched openings onto some of the prettiest views over the Tuscan (to the west) and Umbrian (to the east) countryside around.  When you’ve had your eyeful, climb back up the gently sloping Corso Garibaldi, noticing the brick walkway which crosses the street about halfway up which was once used by the noble Vitelli family to access their private theater (Teatro Bontempelli –currently under restoration) from their family palazzo across the street without having to bother with socializing with the plebs.  They must not have been so awful, however, as their Palazzo Prosperi-Vitelli is home to a fabulously carved 16th century fireplace, again dedicated to Innamorati.

One of the most romantic strolls in Umbria...along the fittingly named Via degli Innamorati

When the folks from Citerna weren’t getting it on, they managed to find time to fill their main Chiesa di San Francesco (currently under restoration) with frescoes by Signorelli, paintings by Raffaellino del Colle, and a graceful terracotta Madonna and Child recently attributed to Donatello (currently under restoration).  Continue on with a brief visit to Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo, home to some della Robbia and lots of gloom.

She really is "getting some work done". After the restoration, this work by Donatello will be on display in Florence's Pitti Palace before coming home to Citerna.

Finish your visit by climbing to the highest point in town, at the far end of the Corso.  Here stand the ghostly remains of Citerna’s castle, bombarded by the Germans during World War II:  stark stone walls, a brick tower, and a large window suspended in space framing a romantic Tuscan landscape (innamorati, indeed).  Citerna knows which of their monuments will become more attractive with restoration, and which are heartbreakingly poignant left just the way they are.

Some broken things aren't meant to be fixed. Photo by Carlo Franchi.

Many of these photos were taken by Assisi photographer Carlo Franchi, whom I thank for letting me use them here.  To see more of his work, visit


The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Bettona

I recently discovered the charming organization I Borghi Più Belli dell’Italia, which formed in 2001 to promote the hundreds of small Italian towns at risk of depopulation and decline because they are not on the commercial and travel A-list.  The foundation states its goal as “to guarantee – through protection, restoration, promotion and utilization – the preservation of a great heritage of monuments and memories that would otherwise be irretrievably lost.”

Umbria is particularly rich of just these kinds of small towns (indeed, Umbria is the region which has the most towns listed…even more than her historic rival Tuscany), and the fact that many of these villages are faltering economically because they have been unable to attract industry and tourism is a not only a shame but also a huge loss for the local history and culture.

Perusing I Borghi’s list of Umbrian towns, I realized there were many I’d never visited myself (though three of my favorite spots in Umbria—Montefalco, Bevagna, and Spello—are all included) despite having lived in this region for almost 20 years.  So, I have officially set a personal goal to visit them all this year which, given my median to do list turn around time since my two sons were born, I foresee I will actually accomplish within the year 2018.   Late 2018.

I started a few days ago by stopping by the sleepy yet charming hill town of Bettona (I had decided to go in alphabetical order, so I should have visited Arrone first…but Arrone is more of a drive and I only had a morning free so it was Bettona.  I’ll get back to Arrone sometime before 2018.  My scientific methodology is already all shot to hell.) which, as it turns out, is the perfect place to begin as it is the quintessential Umbrian village.  A piazza, a church, a small museum, a view, some picturesque alleyways…nothing “important” to see, but just a lovely hour or two of slowly paced wandering.

Bettona floats over the Umbrian valley

Once you’ve wound your way up the hill on which Bettona perches—passing the town walls on the way, parts of which are made of large sandstone blocks dating to the Etruscan period–you can park your car right in the main piazza (!!) to begin your visit.  Take an outdoor table at one of the two bars in town to enjoy a cappuccino (the owner will stiff you slightly…take it in stride) while you admire the bell tower of Santa Maria Maggiore which dominates the space, flanked by the austere town hall and the 14th century stone Palazzetto del Podestà.

Bettona's bell tower in the main piazza

From here, stroll past the bell tower to the Oratory of S. Andrea—poke your head in to see the fabulous carved wooden roses on the coffered ceiling—and, at the end of the steet, the city gate Porta V. Emanuele.

Double back to the main piazza, pass the requisite central fountain and the church of San Crispolto, patron saint of Bettona, and continue on to one of the hidden jewels of the town:  Piazza IV Novembre.  Grab one of the benches along the railing on the far side of the tree-covered square and gaze across the Umbrian valley to the towns of Assisi, Spello, and Perugia.  This is one of the most enchanting views around, so kick back for a few minutes and enjoy it.

A town with a view

When you’re ready to stretch your legs, spend the next half hour wandering through the narrow streets and alleyways of the town.  The stone houses with their flowering window boxes, wooden shutters, and forged iron gates are captivating with their simplicity and charm.  I guarantee that by the end of your walk, you’ll be sizing up the houses with “for sale” signs out front and fantasizing about acquiring a little Umbrian pied-à-terre and easing into village life.

Your final stop should be the quaint Municipal Museum, housed in the stately Palazzo Biancalana in the main piazza.  My favorite room is upstairs in the painting collection…smack in the middle of the gallery, counter to the current fad of drive-thru museum going, they have plunked down two of the comfiest leather sofas I’ve ever had the pleasure to take for a test drive.  So settle yourself in and admire Perugino’s etheral Madonna della Misericordia at your leisure.

I find my appreciation for art grows exponentially given a comfortable seat

A quiet town, a meandering walk, a drink in the piazza, a park bench with a view.  This, my friends, is Umbria.

Bettona is known locally as host to one of the best sagre of the summer–La Sagra dell’Oca Arrosto—where thousands gather at long tables filling the piazza to feast on roast goose and trimmings.  If you happen to be around the first week of August, come witness this sleepy village come alive with crowds, food, and music.  Otherwise, the aptly named Osteria dell’Oca (they have a goose thing in Bettona) right in the main piazza is a solid choice for traditional Umbrian cooking.  Don’t be put off by the entrance—the interior is quite charming and they have outdoor seating in the summer.  If you’d rather opt for a quiet picnic in the vicinity, check here for a suggestion.