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.
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.
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.