Welcome to my late entry for the January edition of the Italy Blogging Roundtable! The theme this month is “Move”, and I look back on one of my favorite ways to move…hiking! So take a look at posts by Georgette Jupe, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table in this new year…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!
The older I get, the more zen I become. I used to be the kind of person who made plans and stuck to them…and then got all hot and bothered when plans changed. But I am finding more and more that things tend to work out in the end, and when the end is different than what you had envisioned at the beginning, it is usually a better end.
An excellent example: recently, I had made plans to visit the Mongiovino castle and sanctuary near Panicale, which I had been looking forward to since friends had taken a hike there and came back raving about the area weeks ago. I don’t tend to explore around Lake Trasimeno (I prefer the rugged Apennines and the tiny hamlets of the Valnerina) and the sanctuary is one of Umbria’s few excellent examples of Renaissance architecture, so I was looking forward to shaking up my usual routine and doing something a little different.
Well, it didn’t happen that way. For a series of reasons, the Mongiovino plan had to be abandoned and Monteluco near Spoleto was floated as an alternative. Sure, I said. Ok, I said. Whatever, I said.
It was the perfect day.
I had been meaning to visit Monteluco for years, but just never seemed to get around to it. One of the reasons may be that it’s so accessible—a quick walk from the center of stately Spoleto–that I always put it aside as a back-up plan when a more complicated day of hiking wouldn’t work. Which is exactly what ended up happening on Sunday.
Monteluco is an area which covers about 7,000 hectares of lush, holm oak-wooded mountain. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the hilltop on which Spoleto is perched, the two are joined by the the city’s iconic medieval aqueduct Ponte dei Torri, which dramatically spans the valley between the them like a bridge joining two islands. By crossing the bridge and following the hiking path number 1 uphill, you can scale the mountain from the bridge to the summit along the medieval aqueduct and past a series of hermitages and sanctuaries.
The name Monteluco comes from the Latin lucus, meaning a sacred grove dedicated to Jupiter. This historic Sacro Bosco still stands at the top of the mountain, where it has been forbidden to cut trees for at least four millenia. Though the ban was ostensibly established for religious reasons, there was also a more pragmatic explanation: the thick forest acted as a filter between the disease-laden air emanating from the stagnant swamp which covered the valley floor on the far side of Monteluco at one time and the populace of the city of Spoleto. Indeed, a marble stone still stands at the entrance to the sacred grove inscribed with the Lex luci spoletina in ancient Latin reiterating this ban (a copy—the original is in Spoleto’s Archaeological Museum).
The mountain’s sacred history continued through early Christianity as Monteluco became home to a colony of religious hermits—primarily Syrian–who used the natural caves and grottoes found on the flanks of the mountain and in the sacred grove itself as places of spiritual retreat and contemplation. One of these became San Giuliano, and the picturesquely crumbling Romanesque church (built in the 1200s over a pre-existing shrine from the 5th century and subsequently abandoned by the Benedictines in the 1500s) dedicated to his memory can be seen from the panoramic lookout in the Sacred Grove (it can also be reached by car from the valley; there is now a small restaurant/pizzeria at the site with one of the prettiest views over the Spoleto Valley.)
With the expansion of Christianity, Monteluco endured as a spiritual destination for monks from a number of religious orders who sought to live according to their vows of humility and poverty. Of these, Francis of Pavia (who died here in 1454), Bernardino of Siena, Bonaventure, and Anthony of Padova. The remains of the abandoned monastery and church dedicated to Saint Anthony can be found about halfway up the hiking trail, and his grotto is still intact in the Sacred Grove. The most famous of all religious sites on Monteluco, however, is the Convent of Saint Francis on the summit of the mountain.
In 1218, Francis was granted the small Saint Catherine Chapel adjacent to the Bosco Sacro by the colony of hermits, which he and his followers expanded into a small monastery and church over the following decades. The convent is still active, and Mass is often held in both the original church and the larger, more modern addition. Some of the older parts of the complex are open to visitors, including the tiny cells (one of which still holds the Saint’s stone bed), original frescoed chapel, and Saint Francis’ Well, the spot where legend holds that Francis was miraculously able to summon a flowing spring from the rock near the grotto where he was living at the time.
All of this I learned from my hiking companions as we climbed the switchback trail through the thick woods from the Ponti dei Torri, past the photogenic Monastero di Sant’Antonio ruins, and, finally, to the Sacred Grove and Monastero di San Francesco at the summit. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and parts of the trail seemed like a sporty version of Spoleto’s Corso as couples with children and seniors with dogs on leads took advantage of the first warm days of spring. We stopped often to take pictures and, as the trail began to climb in earnest toward the summit of the mountain, to catch our breath and take in the view.
Our prize was the overlook at the top…from here you can see the Umbrian Valley from Spoleto past Assisi, with a series of hilltowns dribbling down the mountainsides and a patchwork of olive groves, fields, and vineyards in the valley. Our prize was also an excellent lunch at one of the three seasonal hotels at the top and would have been a nap on inviting green which covers the summit, had it not been for the walk back down to town.
All told, not bad for a Plan B. Not bad at all.
A special thanks to my hiking buddy and all-round Umbria informant Armando Lanoce, who is always full of perfect Plan Bs and beautiful photos.
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
On Tuesday, I began the tale of an outing with a new friend to a new place making new discoveries. It was a day so chock full all of the above that I couldn’t fit it into one blog post, so I’m going to pick up where we left off…
After climbing back down the trail from the Eremo di Santa Maria Giacobbe to Pale, we crossed the village and started up the opposite slope of Monte Serrone towards the historic Abbazia di Sassovivo. The climb was tough and the weather was taking a turn for the worse, but by this point we had put our trust in Paolo—he hadn’t let us down yet.
We were right to press on, as Sassovivo proved to be worth the climb (though it can also be reached by car, for those who are not inclined to hike…). Its air of otherwordly calm belies a grand history. This isolated complex, surrounded by acres of ancient holm oak wood, was once one of the most important and powerful Benedictine abbeys in central Italy, with a jurisdiction extending from Rome to the Marches. Founded by Benedictine hermits in 1070—on the site of a Longobard fortress, which in turn was erected on the site of an ancient Umbrian shrine– less than a century later the Abbey controlled a wide swath of central Italy, including almost 100 monasteries, around 40 churches, and seven hospitals.
Closed in part during the 1700s, the abbey’s holdings became property of the state in 1860 and was slowly abandoned until after the Second World War. It was restored between the 1970s and 1990s, and is now both an active monastic community and, fortunately for us, open to the public.
The monastery’s crown jewel is undoubtably its Romanesque cloister, encircled by arcades supported by delicate double columns, some fetchingly spiral-carved, and pretty mosaic detailing. Visitors can also see the monastery itself, with its Medieval frescoes and original dormitories, the outdoor loggia with fresco fragments from the 15th century, and the trails through the surrounding woods. We did all of that, and then were treated to the news that Paolo’s wife, Anna Lisa, was coming to pick us up. I think I may have fallen a little in love with Paolo right then.
I had a sandwich burning a hole in my backpack, but every time we mentioned a lunch stop, Paolo insisted we press on. By this time, it was early afternoon and we were all getting a little tetchy from sore feet and hunger; our trusty guide announced that we were all invited back to their olive mill to sample some bruschetta made with their own oil. How could we refuse?
And thus began the perfect end to an amazing day. Just as “una spaghettata” in Italian rarely means a meal of mere pasta, Paolo’s invitation for “una bruschetta” turned out to be a wonderful spread of fava paté, grilled sausages, and—yes—bruschetta. All dressed with their excellent olive oil, which was being pressed two meters from our table. We talked and laughed and relived our adventures and made plans for a next outing.
And I took a moment to feel grateful for this amazing region and its people…most of whom are not axe-murderers.
A wonderful view from the ex-railway hike to the Valnerina below. (Copyright Marzia Keller)
There’s nothing I love more than a good hike, and there’s nothing I love morer than a good hike with a compelling backstory. Nature—especially the undulating green landscape of Umbria—soothes my soul, but what makes a walk memorable for me are the tiny stone hilltop hamlets and isolated abbeys and fortresses that most trails (many of which trace the routes of Roman and medieval passages) weave their way through. I chat with the elderly locals or, when I come upon a ghost village, explore the abandoned houses and miniature piazzas. I peek into leaf-strewn chapels in silent, empty abbeys or am surprised by intricate frescoes and stonework virtually forgotten by all but their caretakers. I discover Umbria—her land, her history, her people–in tiny crumbs, and savor each one.
Which is why I jumped at the chance to join a group hiking the former Spoleto-Norcia railway in the breathtaking Nera River Valley recently. I had been wanting to walk at least a portion of this 51 kilometer line since it had been retrofitted as a trail for hiking or biking a few years back, and when I heard that our group would be led by a pair of local guides I was thrilled. I threw a flashlight and a couple of sandwiches into my backpack and was ready to hit the trail.
And here it all begins…
The Spoleto-Norcia Railway
The rail line that ran between Spoleto through the Valnerina to the remote village of Norcia from 1926 to 1968 passes through some of the loveliest countryside in Umbria. From the tiny restored station in Spoleto (now used for railway-related exhibits), the trail skirts the now-empty stations in the villages of Caprareccia, Sant’Anatolia di Narco, Piedipaterno and Borgo Cerreto, passing over dizzying stone bridges and under narrow, ink-black tunnels along the route.
Caprareccia to Sant’Anatolia di Narco: Tunnels and Trestles
Our group began at the highest point of the trail in Caprareccia, skipping the first dozen kilometers of trail n. 20 from Spoleto to Caprareccia (which has some accessibility problems, to be resolved in 2012). We left half our cars in the small lot off the road (the other half of our vehicles we’d parked at our final destination earlier, as there is no public transport to get you back to the starting point), and stretched our legs towards the right to take a quick look at the overpass and the valley below Spoleto. Here is where we got our first lovely surprise of the day: one of our guides recounted how he “drove” the last train to make the Spoleto-Norcia run in 1968. His grandfather was the train’s engineer, and as a special treat he let his grandson take the commands (at the age of six) during the final journey.
The first tunnel is a doozy…but sooner or later there is a light at the end of it. (Copyright Marzia Keller)
We retraced our steps back through the parking area to the left, past the poignant abandoned station to the first baptism by fire along the trail: a 2 kilometer long tunnel (flashlights are a must to walk this route, as are decent footwear…the large stones under the tunnels are a killer for gymshoes), pitch black and with a few friendly bats just to complete the creepitude. Our guides kept us distracted from the never-ending darkness (about half an hour of walking) with historical anecdotes, including this: each morning two rail cars– each powered by a lone man working bicycle-style pedals–would leave, one from Spoleto and one from Norcia. When they met up halfway, they would give the all-clear and the train would begin its morning run.
When we finally came back into the light, we were treated to the breathtaking fall colors of the Valnerina, and continued our gently descending walk (this portion of the trail is about 12 kilometers), passing tiny empty houses once used by the families who worked on the line and a number of wonderfully scenic overpasses and spooky tunnels (two of which formed a 360° loop, completely blocking out any light. I discovered what the phrase “darkness pressing against my eyeballs” means.).
Tunnels and trestles through rolling hills…it’s like hiking model train set. (Copyright Marzia Keller)
Perhaps one of the most charming details along this portion of the hike is easily missed: a miniscule grassy platform along the trail in the middle of a thick wood. Villagers from the nearby hamlets of Grotti and Roccagelli would wake at dawn and, laden with baskets of eggs or produce and leading animals, follow a tiny path through the woods to board the train heading towards the markets in Spoleto or Norcia. This railway, quaint and picturesque to our eyes, was revolutionary for these isolated towns, where travel between them had been for centuries—if not millenia—solely by foot or donkey.
Castel San Felice to Borgo Cerreto: The Nera River
The second half of our walk (we stopped for a picnic lunch at the delightful San Felice abbey, where the frieze on the facade commemorates the slaying of the valley’s dragon by San Felice and San Mauro, about half a kilometer from Sant’Anatolia) offered a completely different landscape…instead of admiring the Nera River Valley from the top down, we skirted the river itself.
The bubbling Nera River (Copyright Marzia Keller)
Along the crystalline Nera, the trail runs under steep mountainsides on which tiny creche-looking stone villages perch precariously– this wild and rugged scenery is some of the most dramatic in Umbria. It is an area both stunningly beautiful and foreboding, where the weather can go from sunny skies to black clouds in a matter of minutes, where the isolated hamlets and claustrophobia-inducing sheer rock walls remind you that centuries ago the inhabitants of these inpenetrable peaks held out against conversion to Christianity for long after the rest of the region, where stories of dragons and witches abound, and where—just to make the area a bit more hostile—each tiny town was locked in perennial warfare with the next one over.
The dramatic slopes above the Nera River, lair of dragons. (Copyright Marzia Keller)
But don’t let such flights of fancy divert you from enjoying the bucolic (and, blessedly, flat) scenery along the river banks. Pretty woods with blankets of cyclamen underfoot and the soft rushing sound of the water make it the more likely home of fairies and sprites than makers of dark magic. From the Abbey of San Felice, the railway trail runs right next to the highway 209; to avoid an hour of walking along noisy traffic, a better choice is to abandon the path for this stretch and instead take trail n. 12 (directly behind the abbey), which climbs the slopes above the river until reaching pretty Vallo di Nera, where it descends again to the river bank at Piedipaterno. From here the trail runs along the Nera on the bank opposite the road, so the traffic noise is much less distracting.
Though the walk itself is much less dramatic (there are no overpasses here, and just a smattering of short tunnels), the views of the rocky slopes above and the river bubbling in and out of sight are simply lovely. Our pace slowed as we began to feel the effects of almost 25 kilometers of walking, and we took advantage of the picnic spots and tiny bridges to stop and watch the river rush by, point out trout, and conjecture as to how refreshing a dip in that clear water must be on sweltering July afternoons. On this gorgeous October afternoon, my legs were tired but my spirit was renewed from a full day of quiet, green, and history.
Soothing for the soul (and maybe for the feet in hot weather!) (Copyright Marzia Keller)
A special heartfelt thanks to Armando Lanoce and Enzo Scoppetta from CAI Spoleto for sharing their beautiful Valnerina with us!
To hike the Ex-Ferrovia Spoleto-Norcia trail, use the CAI Monti di Spoleto e della Media Valnerina hiking map. Caprareccia-Borgo Cerreto can be done in one day (prearrange transit back to your starting point), or can easily be broken into two hikes at Sant’Anatolia di Narco.