Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.

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No Regrets: Hiking the Spello-Collepino Roman Aqueduct Trail

I always have one long, excruciating moment of bitter regret when I hike.

It’s that moment after I drag myself out of bed on a cold, damp Sunday morning before the sun is up and, shivering, pull on my woollen socks and worn boots while trying not to wake anyone, pilfer through the fridge in search of something with which to make a sandwich (which I have invariably forgotten to do the night before), and head out the front door. It’s that moment after I get in the car, put the key in the ignition, and—in those last seconds before I start the engine—time slows and in my mind I watch myself getting back out of the car, retracing my steps into the dark house, peeling off my boots and socks, and slipping back under the covers while the bed is still warm. In that eternal flash of a moment, I think to myself, “Girl, what are you doing up at this hour?!?”

But my hand always overrides my head, I turn the key, and off I go.

There is beautiful hiking in Umbria; I have the good fortune to have a group of hiking buddies who have a vast knowledge of both the landscape and the history of this region, so spending a day in the hills with them is good for the legs and for the brain. A few months ago, we spent the morning on Mount Subasio following trail n. 52, skirting the newly-restored Roman aqueduct which transported water over a millenium ago between the tiny fortified hamlet of Collepino and the town of Spello, rich in Roman history and ruins, below.

Well-marked and not particularly rigorous (though the last half-kilometer push to Collepino takes the wind out of you), this lovely path through the sea of olive groves and the typical Mediterranean woods covering the slopes of Mount Subasio begins at the end—the 5 kilometer itinerary kicks off outside Spello’s medieval Porta Montanara.

From here, follow Via Poeta to the intersection, then turn right in Via Bulgarella following the directions to Collepino/Armenzano. After about 160 meters, you’ll pass a fountain on the left (Fonte della Bulgarella, from which the road takes its name. You may want to fill your water bottles here.); continue along this asphalted road for another 100 meters, then cross over and follow the path which descends to the right (trail n. 52).

The trail from this point on is easy to follow…you immediately see the Roman acqueduct as it runs along the trail to the left, and the stunning views over the Umbrian valley and the distant Appenines through the olive groves to the right. The path crosses two medieval bridges spanning the Chiona stream and has a series of park benches to stretch your legs and lay out a picnic which overlook the layered foothills of Mount Subasio and the Medieval “skyline” of Spello in the distance.

A little over four kilometers in, the path reaches the Fonte Molinaccio (the spring from which the Roman acqueduct took its water, which still runs with sweet, potable water). From here, you can either turn back to Spello or, for the more sprightly, continue climbing the asphalted road about 100 meters, taking the steep path on the left which climbs for another half-kilometer until it reaches the castle of Collepino (home to exactly one caffe and one restaurant…call ahead if you are interested in dining there).

There is easy parking near the starting point, the path is almost level until the last bit under Collepino, and it takes under two hours (one way), so this is an itinerary suitable for families or walkers who would like to enjoy some of the prettiest countryside in Umbria without too much physical strain. Spello is also home to a number of excellent restaurants and wine bars, which are just spoils for anyone who has made the early-morning hiking sacrifice. With, or without, regret.

These photos were taken by friend and walking buddy Lucia “Caracol” Olivi, who has walked–among other things–the Santiago trail.

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Carnevale in Umbria

Semel in anno licet insanire! (Once a year you are allowed to go crazy!)

There are places in Italy where Carnevale is very much an adult affair. Venice, for example, with her elaborate Baroque costumes and gala balls. Viareggio, with her gargantuan paper mache floats (eye-popping for the little ones, but with satirical political and social themes that fly right over their heads). In Umbria, however, Carnevale is primarily for kids (with a few nostalgic adults thrown in here and there), focusing on costume parties, parades, and lots and lots of fried, sugary foods.

As I didn’t grow up with the tradition of Carnevale (in the US it is only celebrated with any real feeling in New Orleans), I have acquired a taste for it only over the past few years as a parent. Unfortunately, I’ve especially acquired a taste for the calorie-laden Carnevale fare, which takes the full forty days of penance before Easter (known as the Quaresima, which Carnevale ushers in) to work off.

For those who, like me, aren’t well-versed in the tradition, Carnevale is a month-ish long festival which culminates in the “Fat Days”–from the Thursday through the Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday. The festival was, as were many in the Middle Ages, coopted from pagan tradition by the Christians, and in many parts of Italy evolved into a swan song of bacchanalian and carnal overindulgence before the period of penitance and purifying deprivation before Easter.

In many parts of Italy—primarily Bergamo and Naples–there are traditional maschere, translated as masks, but intended to mean both the costume and accompanying character—with a specific personality and personal history–which have been codified over the centuries. One of the few which may be familiar to those outside of Italy is Arlecchino (Harlequin), who wears a black mask covering his eyes and a suit of multi-colored diamonds stitched together, and sports a stick and pouch attached to his belt. He is an opportunist, perennially penniless (his pouch is empty), and ready to serve anyone who is willing to pay his debts and foot the bill for his gluttonous habits. He is extremely agile in his movements, and a well-played Arlecchino skips around nimbly on the balls of his feet. There are dozens of such stock maschere, immediately recognizable to Italians.

Unfortunately, Umbria—along with most of the modern Italian regions of Romagna, Marche, and Lazio–spent the Middle Ages under the severe and heavy-hand of the Papal State, so while neighboring regions were living it up and developing strong Carnival traditions, the Umbrians were busy wearing hair shirts and building monasteries. That said, though late to the game, modern Umbria has embraced the fun whole-heartedly and adopted both the traditions and the maschere of other Italian regions.

The Food

Most Carnevale dishes are found throughout Italy during the weeks of the festivities in more or less the same forms, but rarely are they called by the same name in different regions. Here’s what to sample in Umbria:

Brighelle (aka Castagnole): My drug of choice. These walnut-sized fried bignet-like puffs are filled with custard or, my personal favorite, crema chantilly (what Italians call custard cut with whipped cream). Perfect to pop in your mouth, by the time you realize you’ve overdosed it’s too late. Good brighelle are crisp on the outside (with a light dusting of sugar), extremely light, and have a fresh—not too eggy—filling.

Struffoli: Umbria’s answer to the doughnut hole, struffoli are essentially fried balls of dough dribbled with honey and/or a red-colored liquor known as Alchermes. These are a little more of a committment to eat, as they are usually too large to toss down the gullet in one go, and involve some intense finger-licking afterwards. Like doughtnut holes, good ones are light on the inside and surrounded by a crisp fried layer. Bad struffoli (which abound) are dry as sand on the inside and engorged with frying oil on the outside.

Cicerchiata: Imagine if you were to make about a thousand mini-struffoli the size of chickpeas (ceci, from which the sweet derives its name), soak them in honey, and form them into a rectangular or bundt cake shape. Then, just to make them sweeter, you sprinkled the whole thing with those little colored sprinkles or silver dragées. My kids live for these.

Chiacchiere (aka frappe or cenci): Fried again (do you notice a theme?), these are irregularly cut strips of thinly rolled dough fried to a crisp and dusted with sugar or dribbled with honey and/or Alchermes. The name they are known as in most of Umbria (chit-chat) gives a sense of how light and fragile a good plate of chiacchiere should be.

The Fun

Again, Carnevale in Umbria is mostly about the young’uns (though many clubs and pubs have light-hearted costume parties the final weekend of the festivities).  You’ll see the piazzas filled with mini-Zorros and Cinderellas and sundry mammals and ballerinas, most of whom are sporting cans of silly string and shaving cream (I suggest you not wear your best coat) and bags of confetti (called coriandoli in Italian. Confetti in Italian means jordan almonds. That took me a long time to wrap my head around.). Most of the merry-making centers around a parade with floats and various types of entertainment involving balloon animals, face painting, and sing-alongs. Big fun for the twelve-and-under crowd and anyone who loves to people-watch. The best ones in the region are:

Sant’Eraclio: an otherwise completely un-noteworthy suburb of Foligno. But they put on a great Carnivale parade. It costs €5 to get in unless you are wearing a costume. (Each Sunday during Carnival)

Acquasparta: smaller than Sant’Eraclio, but still fun. And free. (Each Sunday during Carnival)

Todi: a bit more highbrow, Todi puts on a medieval-themed Carnivale in historic center’s lovely piazza. A good choice for the 12-and-above contingency.

Gubbio: one of my favorite towns in Umbria, any excuse is a good one to visit. Their Carnevale fete is heavy on the marching bands, which is always fun. (The last two Sundays of Carnival)

San Sisto: a suburb of Perugia holds one of the biggest Carnevale parades in the city, complete with struffoli and chiacchiere (which they call frappe) bake-off. That’s why I’d go. (Final two Sundays of Carnival, plus Fat Saturday–the bake-off–and Fat Tuesday)

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