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Once More with Feeling: Finding Magic in Narni the Second Time Around

There’s something about me and Narni and magic.

The last time I went to Narni, I went specifically looking for magic. I didn’t find it in the town, but in the enchanting (enchanted?) countryside nearby. This time, I went to Narni simply looking for a fun time. And guess what: magic.

The three flags of Narni's three "terzieri" by Massimo Ciancuti

Umbria is chock-full of festivals in the spring, many of them with a medieval bent. Narni is no exception, with its Corsa all’Anello, one of the longest running of them all—a full three weeks from late April through mid-May of processions, jousting, period concerts and exhibitions, taverns, and a market (all in costume). All this with the participation of upwards of 700 volunteers (in a town with less than 2,000 inhabitants in the historic center) and months of preparation, rehearsals, and—not least—equestrian training for the riders (and their steeds) competing in the jousting competition. I had never been to the Corsa all’Anello, but this year the historic race fell on a school holiday, so I packed up my sons and we headed to the south of Umbria for the day.

For an atmospheric meal, look for the "hosteria" signs! by Massimo Ciancuti

The festival culminates in a competition where riders thread a lance through a suspended ring (the challenge begins using a ring about 10 centimeters in diameter, and continues with progressively smaller rings until riders reach the final elimination with a 3 centimeter adversary); this main event is held in a stadium below the center of Narni. However, on the feast day of San Giovanale (May 3rd), a smaller competition takes places in Narni’s historic Piazza dei Priori in the center of town as part of the celebrations honoring Narni’s patron saint (and first bishop).

It's all about horns and drums at the Corsa (by Massimo Ciancuti)

The day began with High Mass, and let me tell you that if you are going to see one Mass this year, or this decade, or perhaps in your entire life, it should be High Mass on the 3rd of May in Narni. When I say the whole town is there, I mean the whole town. The bishop in full regalia, the cathedral decked out in banners, the three costumed processions representing the three competing areas of Narni (called Terzieri: Fraporta, Mezule, and Santa Maria) arriving from separate directions beating their drums and sounding their trumpets, the citizens—from small children to lapdogs—sporting the colors of their Terziere. The people-watching is fabulous, both outside the church inside inside, where the bishop’s homily is accompanied by the low-level, benign rumble of hundreds of people exchanging enthusiastic greetings sottovoce and asking after the health of their mothers/fathers/cousins/grandchildren.

Even the spectators are picturesque at the Corsa (by Massimo Ciancuti)

Mass ends in a reverse order procession: costumed corps, religious officials (carrying a bust of San Giovanale), city officials, a brass band, and citizens bringing up the rear. We all troop into the main piazza (just a block away), the bishop mounts a medieval stone pulpit to utter those 27 words he missed during his hour-long sermon in the Cathedral, and the town breaks for lunch. Each Terziere sets up a medieval-themed tavern for the duration of the festival, so we headed to Fraporta’s hosteria (my sons and I had already picked our teams: Leonardo rooted for Fraporta, Nicolò for Santa Maria, and I—on the purely esthetic criteria of their chic black and white costumes—cheered on Mezule) for a bite of lunch. The place was hopping (the patron saint’s day is a holiday in Narni, so shops and offices were closed and the town crowded into the three taverns for their midday meal), but the food was good and fast and in just an hour we were taking a post-prandial stroll to kill time until the race later in the afternoon.

Fraporta enters the Piazza (by Massimo Ciancuti)

Santa Maria enters the Piazza (by Massimo Ciancuti)

Mezule enters the Piazza (see what I mean about the chic costumes?) by Massimo Ciancuti

Luckily we ended our walk with a gelato in Narni’s main piazza, because we noticed the crowd already starting to take their places along the railing lining the course two hours before the competition was scheduled to start. Taking my cue, I grabbed a free spot and sent the boys to hunt down kerchiefs from each of the Terziere (Mostly to get them out of my hair. A word to the wise: the race is fun, but the waiting for it to start while you stand along a railing being alernately pushed, jostled, and whined at by your seven-year-old is decidedly not fun.), and then we watched as the crowd swelled, riders and their horses filed into the piazza–followed by the three Terzieri’s costumed processions—and excitement began to mount.

The adversary. So small, and yet so big... (by Massimo Ciancuti)

Missed. Damn. (by Massimo Ciancuti)

Soon the competition was on, and we were absorbed in the action as each rider made an attempt to thread his lance through the ring. As the minutes passed, riders were eliminated until it was down to the smallest ring and the last five riders. The first four missed, and we waiting as the fifth and last rider from Santa Maria made his run. If he managed to get the ring, his Terziere would be the winner. Otherwise, the final five would all make another attempt. The crowd held its collective breath as the rider galloped toward the ring and….WON!! The piazza went wild (and Nicolò with it, as he picked the winning team) and trumpets and drums and voices filled the town with celebration. I looked around at the joyful, celebrating town in the teeming medieval square under the perfect blue sky and wanted to bottle up the moment to keep forever. And that, my friends, is magic.

The magical moment of victory!! (by Massimo Ciancuti)

A huge and very special thanks to the gifted Massimo Ciancuti for the use of his gorgeous photos from the Corsa all’Anello Storica.


Of Darkness and Light: Narni Sotterranea

I have never seen Auschwitz.

I have never visited the Slavery Museum, or walked through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, or sat quietly at Little Bighorn. I turn my face from these places and all that they represent not because I am a Pollyanna, but because I am the opposite. I find that I despair more and more readily over the lengths to which humans will go to inflict unthinkable suffering on their fellows. I find–especially since I’ve become a parent–that these sites steeped in violence and death affect me almost too deeply. I see myself there; I picture myself watching my sons, my family, my friends slip away and can feel a wave of hopeless desperation wash over me. I have become a sunflower, seeking out light and warmth when I travel and leaving the dark corners to others.

It took me a long time to take the Narni Underground (known as Narni Sotterranea) tour. This series of underground rooms and passages beneath the historic center of Narni was brought to light by a group of amateur spelunkers just a few decades ago–having been covered over and forgotten through the centuries as the imposing convent and church of San Domenico was built above– and the dedication (read: bullheadedness) of a local volunteer cultural association was the driving force behind their excavation and partial restoration and subsequent access to the public.

The visit begins lightheartedly enough in the gardens outside the monastery walls, as the guide explains how local speleologists in the 1970s had a hunch that something interesting might lie beneath San Domenico, and asked a local farmer permission to knock through the wall adjoining his hen coop. What they found there was at once surprising and important: an 8th century paleo-Christian church, with surviving frescoes around the apse and along the walls. The chapel is undergoing constant further excavations and restorations, but the paintings and apse are in excellent condition.

From here, visitors move into the adjoining room which holds part of a Roman cistern and is probably the remains of a Roman domus and then to the rooms which were the reason I had shied away from Narni Underground for so long.

The Inquisition. There are two rooms which are testiment to this infamous period in European history: a windowless, stone tribunal used for questioning and torture, and a small, graffitied cell which held the imprisoned. While in the tribunal, I was distracted from dwelling too heavily on the unthinkable acts which were performed here by the incredibly engaging cloak-and-dagger (with a little bit of serendipity) tale of how a team of researchers were able to track down documents referring to the trials held here through municipal and Vatican archives and, strangely enough, papers kept at Dublin’s Trinity College. The hall was still ominous (the torch lighting and reconstructed medieval torture devices didn’t exactly lighten the mood), but being the bookish research-loving nerd that I am, I was fascinated by the torturous (no pun intended) path which led to the discovery of what exactly this hall had been used as.

The second room with ties to the Inquisition is the small cell leading into the tribunal, which turned out to have an even more fascinating backstory than the tribunal itself. Completely covered in graffiti scratches, the cell was home to a soldier accused of ties to the Freemasons (the Catholic church has long considered Freemasons a threat to the Church and under the Inquisition members were charged as heretics) and his etchings and drawings (made with a paste of brick dust and urine) can be interpreted as coded messages using Masonic iconography and secret codes. Anyone who has been fascinated with the pop fiction thrillers of late and their heavy use of cryptography, keys, symbols, and medieval Christian history will be especially captivated by this real-life example of the use of these to communicate banned and secret messages. Again, the intellectual appeal of the unravelling of the historical mystery took my mind off the misery of those who were held—sometimes for years—in this tiny, dank cell.

Is the Narni Underground worth a visit? Absolutely. But despite the charming story of its discovery, the pleasant surprise of the ancient chapel and its frescoes, and the admirable research that went into uncovering its secret uses, I was relieved to return to the light.

To book a visit to Narni Sotterranea, contact them at +39 3391041645 or +39 744722292 or check their website


Finding Magic: Narni and the Convento del Sacro Speco

The late afternoon view from the Convento del Sacro Spreco

The thing about magic is that when you go looking for it, it doesn’t show. And then, when you’ve let your guard down, it sneaks up on you in the most unexpected places.

I went to Narni expecting magic. Perhaps even needing it a little bit. I had long heard the story of Narni being the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ mythical, magical land of Narnia—though, admittedly, the author never visited this dramatically positioned hill town himself. Overlooking the Nera River to the north (where the remains of the monumental Roman Ponte d’Augusto, so picturesque that a rendering of it by impressionist Corot now hangs in the Louvre, still make passersby draw breath) and the craggy peaks of the Valnerina to the west, Narni held the promise of bringing to life the enchantment and adventure that I so loved from Lewis’ epic, and that I had recently rediscovered in reading the novels to my sons.

The view of the Nera River valley, ca 1826.

Narni was lovely. It was. It has a fine historic center, a fetching pinacoteca with a Ghirlandaio and a Gozzoli, either of which worth the ticket price, and Narni Sotteranea, perhaps one of the most remarkable underground tours in Umbria. Plus, it had lots of lion imagery and a homegrown Lucy (the mummified saintly remains creepily displayed in the Duomo) and lush, striking countryside very much reminiscent of Lewis’ novels. But for some reason, it just didn’t click.

Perhaps part of that is the fault of Narni Scalo, a disheartening post-war industrial sprawl, complete with electro-carbon plant, which has gradually filled the valley below Narni itself (take a gander at Corot’s 1826 Le pont de Narni for an idea of paradise lost) and is the first sight to meet visitors. Perhaps part of that is the fault of my own inflated expectations for this unassuming, though attractive, town. Regardless, I left somewhat deflated and at a bit of a loss.

The cloister of the Franciscan convent in the fading light.

And then, magic. Instead of turning north towards home, I headed south on a whim in search of the Convento del Sacro Speco, a Franciscan site about 20 kilometers outside of Narni. I’m not sure why…I’m generally more of an art and architecture (with heavy doses of food and wine) kind of traveller, not a religion and spirituality sort of traveller, but this secluded sanctuary—founded in 1213 by Saint Francis but rebuilt in the 1400s—somehow compelled me, along with the legend of an ailing Francis once being soothed by an angel playing violin music here. The Saint often used a nearby cave to pray in solitude, and many of the friars who live here now do so according to the saint’s First Rule of silence and contemplation.

Parts of the sanctuary are closed to the public.

Not the friar–strongly resembling Disney’s badgeresque Tuck–who met me at the gate, and, taking my face in both hands, looked me kindly in the eyes and asked, “Daughter, why are you here? What are you looking for?” Which gave me pause, because I wasn’t quite sure of the answer myself. I stammered something inane about wanting to take a walk around the grounds, and he stepped back with a smile, easing my discomfort with a welcoming, “Stay as long as you like. This is your home.”

I didn’t stay as long as I would have liked. It was late afternoon and the sun was already low over the forested hills, but I slowly wandered through the miniature stone convent, with its tiny chapel and creche-like cloister. I paused for awhile in the inner courtyard to drink in the stunning view, from the village of Calvi perched on the mountains to the south, across the plain with its handkerchief-sized fields, woods, and stone farmhouses, to Narni to the north (and rued the fact that my camera doesn’t have a panoramic setting).

Climbing the path through the oak forest to the oratory at the top of the hill, the silence was broken only by songbirds and the sound of my own footsteps through the dry leaves. Through the glass doors of the oratory, the simple, rough chapel inside was evocative of the spirit of the Saint and so much more authentic than many of the more visited Franciscan sites in Umbria. I sat for a few minutes at the mouth of Francis’ cave—now sheltering an altar used for outdoor celebrations—and felt myself meld into the woods around, the darkening sky, the crisp evening air, the softly rustling leaves. My reverie was broken by the sound of the bells from the sanctuary below, calling visitors to Mass and me back to reality. As others headed towards the chapel, I made for the gate knowing that my spirit had been filled already and I had found, in this casual side-trip, what I had been seeking. Just a little bit of magic.


To visit the convent, set your navigator on the village of S. Urbano and follow the signs.

Opening hours are 9:30 – 20:00

Masses are Mon-Sat 11:00 ; Sunday and holidays 11:00 and 18:00