May 30, 2016
Tritely labeled by many travel publications as “the cheaper and less-visited alternative to Tuscany”, Umbria is a popular destination in its own right, attracting tourists and pilgrims since at least the Middle Ages. You might think after reading the typical marketing material Umbria is a knockoff Tuscany, but in reality the region boasts its own array of unique destinations.
Based in Spello for the infiorate and with three days at our disposal, we managed to explore several headline destinations, most of which could be visited on a one-day road trip.
Picking a base, with so many picturesque towns and villages in the region, is a challenge in itself. By the process of elimination, I first crossed off Orvieto because it is about 100 km away from the other points of interest in Umbria. Gubbio is too far north. Perugia and Assisi are too large. The remaining options are Spello, Spoleto and Bevagna, and I chose Spello because I found a reasonably priced apartment and easier access to the infiorate.
Even if you couldn’t time your visit with the festival, Spello, one of the most beautiful villages in the area, is still worth an hour or two. Park your car at one of the public lots on Via Centrale Umbra, then make your way east to the front gate. Slowly ascend the uphill Via S. Angelo until Santa Maria Maggiore where there are several coffee shops serving breakfast. Spello doesn’t have any must-see sight, but a brief look at the Infiorate Museum next to the town hall, a further five-minute walk north, would shed some light on the festival’s history.
Although the drive from Spoleto to Monti Sibillini is often ranked as one of the most scenic in Italy, judging from our observation it is not a particularly well-trodden route. We encountered no more than half a dozen vehicles along the way, none after passing Norcia. Spanning almost 700 km2, the mountain and its namesake national park is impossible to cover in one day, and we were aiming to visit only one location — the Piano Grande. Situated at 4,000 ft above sea level between Norcia and Castelluccio, this alpine plateau is supposedly at its most gorgeous in late May and early June when its wildflowers are in full bloom.
But at a chilly 12 °C on this late May morning, the meadow remained uniformly green. Flower was elusive, but unexpectedly we did encounter a team of horses galloping across the field.
Located near the foot of Monti Sibillini, Norcia was the birthplace of St. Benedict, a major pilgrimage site, and a peerless gourmet destination. All over Umbria and even Tuscany are shops that labeled their products as “norcineria”, prosciutto and sausages made from wild boars hunted around Norcia. Besides cured meat the town is also known for its Pecorino, lentil and truffle.
Famous as it might be, the cured meat is definitely an acquired taste, one I found too saline even when consumed as part of a panini.
After having lunch in Norcia, return to Spello or the home base of your choice for a breather before continuing.
Assisi revolves around one person — St. Francis, who founded the Franciscan religious order in 1208 and has put the town on the pilgrimage and tourist maps ever since. Guided by the Rocca Maggiore fortress at the peak, a town of 28,000 citizens with mainly white limestone buildings spread across the rest of the hilltop.
By far the most touristy destination in Umbria — from the main parking to the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi are nothing but souvenir shops selling all kinds of tacky St. Francis memorabilias. I wonder what St. Francis, who embraced humility and poverty like few ever had, would think about finding his own likeness all over his hometown.
The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi began construction immediately after St. Francis’ canonization in 1228 and took 25 years to complete. The entire structure can be divided into three sections — the Upper Church, the Lower Church, and a crypt where the remains of the saint are interred. Bright and spacious, the nave of the Upper Church is decorated mainly with 32 scenes in the Old and New Testaments. Cimabue’s Crucifixion graced the apse. The Lower Church contains badly deteriorated frescoes depicting stories from the lives of St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Louis and St. Anthony. The humble crypt faithfully reflects St. Francis’ teachings on equanimity and perseverance. Photography is not allowed inside the complex.
Assisi is not a one-trick pony. After visiting the magnificent Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, walk to the other side of town for the Basilica di Santa Chiara. St. Chiara was a follower of St. Francis and the ceiling of her namesake church is filled with beautiful frescoes. The plaza outside of Santa Chiara offers fine views of the surrounding countryside.
After a long day the thought of climbing up to another hilltop town must be daunting, so conclude your day in Bevagna, one of the rare ancient Umbrian towns that is located on flat land. The town has ample of dining options and the compact center is ideal for some post-dinner walks.
Orvieto is a popular option if you have an extra half day. I visited the town on the way to Tuscany. Located on the flat summit of a large butte of volcanic tuff, Orvieto has been a key trading centre since Etruscan times. It also served as a papal residence of several popes.
After parking our car at the train station, we rode the cable car to the the top of the summit. From afar Orvieto Cathedral looks like a carbon copy to Siena’s without a dome and bell tower; on closer inspection it is even more impressive, intricately adorned with golden and bright coloured mosaics and bas-reliefs on its facade depicting Biblical scenes.
We also saw the Pozzo di S. Patrizio, a historic well dating back to the early 16th century. After the sacking of Rome in 1527 by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Pope Clement VII took refuge in Orvieto and commissioned the well’s construction in fear of an impending invasion. The siege never came, but the completed well with its double helix staircase has now become a well-known photography spot.
While not a disappointment, I would have no problem bypassing Orvieto if it is not along the way to my next destination.