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Seven Longobard Sites Newest Additions to UNESCO Heritage List

Saint Michael at the Sanctuary of Saint Michael in Apulia

Saint Michael at the Sanctuary of Saint Michael in Apulia

Last month, UNESCO inscribed Italy’s newest World Heritage sites: The Longobards in Italy. Places of the Power (568-774 A.D.). Treated as one entity, these seven sites stretch from as far north as Castelseprio, a small village in Lombardy where is located Santa Maria Fortis Portas and the castrum with the Torba Tower, to as far south as Benevento and its Santa Sofia church complex. All of these sites represent, according to UNESCO, “the high achievement of the Lombards, who migrated from northern Europe and developed their own specific culture in Italy where they ruled over vast territories in the 6th to 8th centuries.”

While the Longobard sites are the newest ones to be recognized by UNESCO, they are among the least well known of the many UNESCO buildings and sites in Italy, which now leads the world with 45. To learn more about each of the “Longobards in Italy” sites, including where they are, how to visit them, and the treasures they contain, visit Italia Longobardorum, the website of the group responsible for formally submitting these sites for UNESCO World Heritage consideration. You can also click on the links below for the individual sites:

More Hill Towns of Umbria

In my first round-up of the Hill Towns of Umbria, I discussed the towns of Assisi, Gubbio, Montefalco, and Orvieto. The list of hill towns in Umbria is, in fact, exhaustive, and also includes the region’s capital Perugia. In this post, I wanted to focus on a few more worth visiting. They are Spello, Spoleto, Todi, and Trevi.

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Spello: Walls, Flowers, and Frescoes

Spello

The steep streets of Spello

Situated a few miles south of Assisi, this little walled town with a serene air overlooking the Valle Umbra reminds me of a miniature Assisi. Although it’s well-known for its medieval walls and Roman gates (built when the town was known as Hispellum), Spello has a softer, artistic side. The annual event Infiorate di Spello brings visitors from all over the region and Italy to view gorgeous, sweet-smelling portraits and dioramas made only of flowers. If you can’t be in Spello in early June (the typical date of the flower fair), it is still worth going on a side trip here to enjoy the astounding Pinturicchio frescoes in the Baglioni Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore. These frescoes are considered some of the artist’s best work, prompting many to call the Cappella Baglioni the “Cappella Bella.”

Spoleto: Roman Past, Artsy Present

Spoleto Ponte

View of Spoleto and its famous bridge

Right along the Via Flaminia (yes, that same Via Flaminia that leads from Rome right outside Piazza del Popolo) is Spoleto, a strategic city for the Romans (then called Spoletium) and even site of a battle with Hannibal during the Second Punic War. Spoleto has tremendous Roman, medieval, and Renaissance roots, boasting a Roman amphitheater, the six-towered Rocca Albornoz citadel, and the Ponte delle Torri, the massive “towers bridge” that was an impressive feat of engineering in the 14C.

While the city has lots of the typical central Italian attractions, it is today known chiefly for the Festival dei Due Mondi, or the Festival of Two Worlds. The comprehensive arts festival goes on for two weeks each summer (usually from mid-June to July) and includes opera, theater, dance, and other performances. The festival was begun in 1958 by Spoleto native Gian Carlo Menotti, but is now run by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs resulting in quite a controversy in Spoleto and certain arts circles. You can learn more about the Menotti’s side of the controversy here or just visit the Festival dei Due Mondi’s official website. Let’s hope that this conflict over intellectual property rights and a family legacy will not spill over to end what has been one of Italy’s longest running and best known arts festivals.

Todi: “World’s Most Livable City”

Piazza del Popolo in Todi

Todi's lovely Piazza del Popolo

A town that’s been billed as the “world’s most livable” must be a nice place to visit, right? Absolutely! Spread on a hill overlooking the Tiber Valley, Todi has what some consider the most beautiful square in Italy. Three medieval palaces – the Palazzo dei Priori, the Palazzo del Capitano, and the Palazzo del Popolo – front the Piazza del Popolo, producing a scene so picturesque that the square has been used multiple times as a film set. Todi’s compact city center has also earned it accolades from a University of Kentucky architecture professor who, in the 1990s, proclaimed Todi as an ideal city because of its human scale. For better or for worse, that proclamation set off a real estate frenzy among buyers from all over Europe and the United States. But there are still plenty of Tudertini to keep the local traditions alive. Though Todi is charmer, the best reasons to visit are its antique fairs – the Rassegna Antiquaria d’Italia (in April) and the Mostra Nazionale dell’Artigianato (in August and September) and the spectacular temple of Santa Maria della Consolazione, a masterpiece by Bramante and one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in Umbria.

Trevi: Ancient Temple, Fountains, and Olive Oil

Trevi

Vertical Trevi, a classic Umbrian hill town

Unmistakable Trevi and its medieval buildings flower on the Umbrian hillside like clusters of edelweiss on a mountain. Some visitors even compare Trevi to an Umbrian Positano (the famous town on the Amalfi Coast) because its appearance from a distance resembles the practically vertical nature of the cliff-side village. Trevi was yet another outpost during Roman times because it was at the crossroads of three roads (“tre vie”), including the Via Flaminia. Trevi boasts dozens of churches, including the church of Sant’Emiliano, whose belltower crowns the hill upon which Trevi sits.

Two of Trevi’s most famous attractions, however, aren’t in Trevi at all; they lie just below the town by the Clitunno River. The Fonti del Clitunno, a series of lagoons, islands, and springs, is an oasis in landlocked Umbria. The tranquil spot was lauded by Byron, Italian poet Giosué Carducci, and Roman poet Virgil. The other sight near the River Clitunno is the Tempietto del Clitunno (Little Temple of Clitunno), long thought to be a Roman construction but it actually dates  from sometime between the 6-8C. It’s a beautiful example of classical architecture that’s unusual to find in these environs. Finally, Trevi, which is surrounded by gorgeous, silvery olive trees (including the olive tree of Saint Emiliano, dated at about 1,700 years old) is known throughout Italy for its fine olive oil. That is some accolade given that the region as a whole is known for its oil! If you are passing through Trevi, stop by and pick up a bottle of its delicious, artisanal oil. Two good places to try are Frantoio Gaudenzi and Gradassi, located in the hamlet of Campello sul Clitunno. Gradassi also runs its own trattoria which features typical Umbrian fare.

A video of pure tranquility: The Fountains of Clitunno

If you are unable to see the video, click here.

If you are planning to visit any of Umbria’s hill towns, don’t just do it on a day trip from Tuscany. Consider renting a villa in Umbria to enjoy the slower pace of life and (relatively) smaller crowds.

Photos © BlueSky71, VisitSpoleto, VivianaG, TreviTurismo

Perugia in the Spotlight

The Griffin of PerugiaPerugia has been in the news a lot lately but for all the wrong reasons. The picturesque capital of the region of Umbria has been the location of the media circus that has been the Amanda Knox/Raffaele Sollecito trial. And with the two having been convicted for the murder of Meredith Kercher, Perugia will certainly be in the spotlight as the appeals process begins.

It pains me that many people are getting their first look at Perugia through the lens of a sensational murder case because Perugia is a destination I like to recommend to travelers looking for a new place to explore in Central Italy. Perugia is an austere, university town – indeed, its one of Umbria’s hill towns – with several unique characteristics that make it ideal for discovery. Here’s my brief list of its charms:

A History of Rebellion
roccapaolinaWhile Perugia’s early history as a member of the Etruscan League is noteworthy, it is the city’s rankling of Rome that give it a reputation of rebellion. You could even say that Perugia has a “salty” past, as a large part of the town’s character was formed due to a battle with Rome in the so-called Salt War. From the early days of the Papal States, the people of Perugia were often at odds with the church. In 1540, things really came to a head when Rome doubled the tax of salt in 1540. The Perugians rebelled by drastically reducing their consumption of salt, resulting in pane sciapo, a bread made with little or no salt that is still consumed in Perugia today. Pope Paul III was the pontiff responsible for levying the high taxes during this time and made sure to punish Perugia when papal troops (led by his son) captured the city. The Rocca Paolina, a massive fortress built by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, bears the inscription “ad coercendam Perusinorum audaciam” (to curb the audacity of the Perugian people). This is the only fortress I know of that was built to keep its citizenry in rather than thwart outside invaders.

An Artistic Pedigree
800px-Palazzo-Priori-PerugiaA few of the aesthetic pleasures of Perugia include the stark caverns of Rocca Paolina, which has been retrofitted with escalators that run from between the upper and lower parts of town; the Etruscan walls; the Fontana Maggiore, a curious, round fountain built by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano; and the Piazza Italia, the lovely, tree-lined square overlooking the Umbrian valley where many Perugians take their evening passegiata. But Perugia is known in particular for the artist Pietro Vannucci (Perugino). You may also know of Perugino from his frescoes on the walls of the Sistine Chapel and for being a mentor to Raphael. Perugino’s works decorate the Collegio di Cambio in the Palazzo dei Priori and are also featured in the National Gallery of Umbria. Both of these places lie, aptly, on the Corso Vannucci – Perugia’s main street.

City of Chocolate
baciperuginaFinally, one of the best reasons to visit Perugia is because it is a mecca for chocolate lovers. Perugina Chocolate, creator of the Bacio, the hazelnut and chocolate confection that comes wrapped in a love poem, is headquartered in Perugia. Long since purchased by Nestle, Perugina still maintains the Bacio brand, as well as a few others, and has a chocolate boutique on – you guessed it – Corso Vannucci. In addition to Perugina, the city is also site to a chocolate festival each October called Eurochocolate. The festival is a chance for artisanal chocolatiers to show off their products and for guests to learn about chocolate based on a particular theme. If you’re so inclined, you can even stay in the Etruscan Chocohotel (how’s that for combining brands?). This hotel is in the lower town of Perugia, so not among the old, medieval treasures of the upper town. But, they do give you a bar of chocolate upon check-in and have a restaurant that features several dishes made with chocolate.

Photos © Paolo Bertinetto, Agnese Salinas, Maurizio Zanetti, fotopierino

World’s Biggest Christmas Tree

albero-di-natale-gubbio-pRockefeller Center has nothing on this tree. The largest Christmas tree in the world is, in fact, in Gubbio, Umbria. But this is not any tree. No, this is not a tree at all. Gubbio’s Albero di Natale is a dazzling neon feat – and Guinness Book of World Records holder – that has been lighting up the hills of Umbria since 1981.

In order to get the tree ready for its annual December 7 lighting, local volunteers work for three months stringing lights and electrical equipment up the slope of Mount Ingino. (Yes, that is the same mountain that Eugubini scale each May for the celebration of the Corsa dei Ceri.) And, the numbers are astounding:

  • The surface area of the star is 1,000 square meters
  • The length of the connecting cables is 8,500 meters
  • The tree has more than 700 lights each of which requires 35 kilowatts of power to light
  • The tree has a height of 650 meters.

If you’re in some parts of Umbria, such as Perugia or Umbertide, from December 7 until approximately January 10, you should be able to see the bright lights from Gubbio’s Christmas tree. If you want to get a better look, head to Gubbio. For more information on Gubbio, visit the Comune of Gubbio website.

Photo © Agriturismo San Vittorino, Gubbio

The Hill Towns of Umbria

AssisiNo matter where you go in Italy, if you find the highest point in a particular city or region you will likely find some interesting history. Umbria, the region right in the heart of central Italy, is particularly blessed with beautiful hill towns. Etruscans, Romans, and subsequent civilizations built many of their cities on hills in Umbria so as to defend from foreign invaders. Today, the foreign invaders to these elevated areas are tourists who are rewarded with magnificent views. Here is part 1 of several posts about Umbria’s hill towns:

Assisi: Home of Saint Francis
One of Italy’s most visited towns because of its ties to St. Francis, Italy’s patron saint, Assisi (see large photo above) always appears to be bathed in a pale golden-pink light. Even when it’s cloudy, the massive church of Saint Francis, seems to have a spotlight on it – a heavenly glow, even. Assisi is located in the heights of Monte Subasio. The best place in Assisi to enjoy the views of the valley below is from the Rocca Maggiore, the commanding 12C fortress that would, were it not for the Basilica San Francesco, dominate the Assisi skyline.

gubbio-palazzo consoliGubbio: Windswept, With a Famous Festival
Gubbio sits on the lowest slope of Mount Ingino, a mountain that is the site of a famous medieval festival – the Corsa dei Ceri – which takes place each year on May 15. The Corsa dei Ceri features three teams carrying giant candles (ceri) up the hill to the Saint Ubaldo church. The rest of the year, Gubbio’s charms lie in its stern, medieval facades, such as the Palazzo dei Consoli, which houses the Eugubine Tablets, bronze tablets engraved with the earliest known example of the ancient Umbrii language.

montefalcoMontefalco: The Balcony of Umbria
The town that gets the title as the “Balcony of Umbria” is Montefalco, a small town about 20 miles from Perugia (the regional capital). Surrounded by medieval walls, Montefalco has, in addition to its 360-degree panoramas of the Umbrian countryside, several claims to fame. Approximately eight saints were born in Umbria, including Saint Clare. A different saint – Saint Francis – is depicted in a lovely fresco cycle by Benozzo Gozzoli in the town’s Chiesa San Francesca. Finally, Montefalco, which lies in the middle of Umbria’s wine-growing region, is best known for its delicious Sagrantino.

orvietocathedralOrvieto: Just Plain Gorgeous
This is one of my favorite towns in all of Italy. An easy day trip from Rome, Orvieto stands atop a high, impregnable, volcanic plateau and is perhaps more impressive from the ground looking up than for the views of the valley that it affords. Known as Velzna when it was part of the Etruscan League, Orvieto is on the religious map because it was near the site of the Miracle of Transubstantiation (or, Corpus Christi), and, as a result, has a magnificent Gothic cathedral with frescoes by Luca Signorelli.

I know that I’ve left out a ton of other lovely Umbrian hill towns, such as Spoleto, Spello, Todi, and Trevi. I will cover those in a future post. In the meantime, tell me about your favorite Umbrian hill towns in the comments below.

One of the best ways to enjoy the region’s many beautiful hill towns is to rent a villa in Umbria. The area has all types of accommodation options, including farm stay agriturismo inns to private luxury villas with pools.

Want to know about some great views in Tuscany? Stay tuned for that, too! In the meantime, Jessica at the WhyGo Italy blog recently wrote about Rooms With A View in Florence.

Photos (top to bottom): fede_gen88, alexbarrow, zyance, sirvictor59.

What’s On in Italy: February 2009

Here’s the event round-up for February:

Carnevale 2009: Carnival celebrations will run for approximately 2 weeks, from February 13 to 24, with big events, parades, and fairs. The biggest of these, of course, will be in Venice and Viareggio. Other Carnival festivals, according to the Italy Guide on About.com, can be found in Sardinia and Sicily.

Valentine’s Day: If you want to spend lovers’ day in the home of St. Valentine, head to the town of Terni in Umbria. Another ideal spot for you and your valentine on the 14th is in Verona, which holds the Verona in Love festival each year in honor of young lovers Romeo and Juliet. Stagings of Shakespeare’s play, as well as art exhibitions and sweet markets, complete the love fest.

For Record Lovers: Vinilmania (vinyl mania), a huge fair for the buying and selling of LPs, 45s, and other records, is held three times a year at Milan’s Parco Esposizione Novegro. The first fair of 2009 will be held February 7-8; the other two – May 16-17 and October 17-18.

And there’s lots more going on this month. Check out italiantourism.com and whatsonwhen.com for more details.

Catchall Catch-Up Post: More Articles About Italy

Here are just a few notable articles on Italy that I’ve come across in the past month or so. I need to get them off my plate, as it were, so I can move on to more tips, hotels, and news that has come my way…

One Fish, Two Fish – This article my Mimi Sheraton in the New Yorker looks at the origins of brodetto, a fish soup that is most prized in Abruzzo and Le Marche. This link is to an abstract, but if you have a New Yorker subscription you can plug in your account info and read it online (if you haven’t already).

Italy Against Itself – Another abstract, this article by regular Italy columnist Alexander Stille looks at recent politics in the country.

An Italy Variety Plate from Gourmet.com – Last month, the food magazine had articles on Christmas pandoro from Verona and Chicken Liver Crostini from Central Italy. This month is Gourmet’s Italian-American issue, which explores recipes inspiration from Lucca to Lecce. Also, it seems that gourmet.com has a more searchable archive now. So, just go to their search engine, type in “Italy,” and you can find articles going all the way back to 1954!

October 2008 Article Round-Up

Sometimes I’m not always sure if anyone is actually reading Italofile. As I’ve said, it is a true labor of love. Still I like to imagine that there are regular readers out there who enjoy discovering with me the destinations, hotels, art, schools, churches, etc., that make traveling in Italy so rewarding.

Lo and behold, this weekend I found that I have at least one reader! Maribel wrote in to tell me that last year I missed a New York Times article on “Tortellini Lessons at the Source” in Bologna. Thanks, Maribel! And, with that, I thought I’d provide another round-up of recent articles, from the NYT and elsewhere:

New York Times
In Turin, the Olympic Glow Hasn’t Yet Faded
Monastic Doors Open For Travelers
Milan: Princi (a must-visit bakery)

The Washington Post
2,000 Years After Vesuvius (Stabiae)
In the Eternal City, Walk in a Roman’s Sandals
Rome On Two Gelatos A Day
Good Libations: Bassano del Grappa, Still the One (Veneto)

Los Angeles Times
Art Springs to Life in Gardens Near Rome
Planning Your Trip to Rome’s Gardens
Planning Your Trip to San Marino
Planning Your Trip to Vatican City

Wall Street Journal
Venice Crossings: A Traghetto Tour
In Italy, A Monastery Getaway (Umbria)

The Independent (UK)
City Slicker: A Guide to Genoa
The Hip Hop Guide to Tuscany’s Treasures

The Guardian (UK)
The Insider’s Guide to Cortina d’Ampezzo
Instant Weekend: Florence
Flying Visit: Le Marche Is Olive-Town
Letting Catania Out of the Bag
Going Solo: Venice
Flying Visit to Lake Garda

Sydney Morning Herald
Dining in the Sky the New Way to See Milan
See Ya Later, Gladiator
Floating Through a Dream (Venice)

The Telegraph (UK)
Rome: Eternal Love
Palladio: 500 Years of Architectural Wonders
Sicily: Golf in the Shadow of Mt. Etna
Michael Howard’s Venice

Yes, this is an exhaustive list. But I’m sure I didn’t find everything. So, I’m depending on all you Maribel’s out there to help me out by sending me links to articles and other tips you think would be worthy of posting on Italofile. Thanks again!

Keeping Up With the Antinori

Italian wine enthusiasts (that includes most of us, right?) may find this past weekend’s 60 Minutes story on Italy’s Antinori family intriguing. Considered one of Italy’s premier winemaking clans, the Antinori have been in the wine business for more than 500 years. Today, even the Antinori daughters are in on the act. To learn more about the Antinori family empire, which includes vineyards and restaurants in Tuscany, Umbria, and around the world, check out antinori.it.


Watch CBS News Videos Online

What’s On in Italy: October 2008

Lots of art exhibitions going on in Italy this fall, especially this month. So, let’s get started:

Bellini in Rome. The works of Venetian Renaissance master Giovanni Bellini will be on display in Rome’s Scuderiere del Quirinale through January 11, 2009. According to ansa.it, the exhibition – one of the largest ever featuring Bellini’s works – “is showcasing most of Bellini’s best-loved works, including a number of his stunning altarpieces, such as the Baptism of Christ from Vicenza and the famed Pesaro sequence.”

Palladio in Vicenza. Vicenza, long synonymous with the great architect Andrea Palladio, is celebrating the 500th year since the artist’s birth with a grand exhibition at the Palazzo Barbaran da Porto, itself one of many Palladio-designed building in Vicenza, the artist’s hometown. The exhibition showcases almost 80 of Palladio’s original drawings and tells the life story, through paintings by Canalettoand El Greco, among others, and scale models, of the influential architect. The exhibition will run through January 6 in Vicenza and then move on to London for the spring. Take a look at the link for the exhibit, as you can take a virtual tour – awesome.

Correggio in Parma. Sixteenth century artist Antonio Allegri, also known as Correggio after the small town in which he was born, is getting his due in a large exhibit in Parma through January 25, 2009. Some of the works in the show are in situ in Parma, where many of Correggio’s works were created and are still housed, while the rest (about 80 pieces) come from museums throughout Italy and Europe. You can preview the exhibit and pre-order tickets online at the Mostra Correggio Parma website.

National Truffle Fair. With fall comes white truffle season, which is celebrated with the Fiera Nazionale del Tartufo in Acqualagna in Le Marche. Several comuni in the region, including Sant’Angelo in Vado and Sant’Agata Feltria, will hold fairs on the weekend throughout the month of October and beginning of November. The National Fair is held the last weekend in October and the first two weekends in November.

Eurochocolate Time! More feasting will occur in Le Marche’s regional neighbor Umbria as Perugia hosts the annual Eurochocolate Festival. Eurochocolate 2008, which will run from October 18-26, will feature tons of tasting opportunities. And, if you want to get a jumpstart on the celebrations, National Choco Day, a holiday since 2005, takes place on October 12.

Venice Marathon. Just thinking about the truffles and chocolate give you the urge to burn calories? Then you can enter the Venice Marathon, which takes place on October 26. The race starts east of Padova, travels around and over canals, and ends at the Riva dei Sette Martiri in the city. If you’re not up for that much running, there’s a 3K Fun Run and great people watching from the bridges.

For more October events in Italy, check out italiantourism.com and the events site whatsonwhen.com.

Italy Article Round-Up

Time again to see what Italy travel articles have come out for fall.

New York Times
Cave Crusaders in Matera (examines a new boutique hotel in Matera, Basilicata)

The Telegraph (U.K.)
Tuscany: Driving the Italian Dream
Timed to Perfection (Visiting Italy during the “shoulder season”)
Orvieto: The Perfect Break
Discreet Charm in Northern Italy (Bolzano)

Sydney Morning Herald
Position of Strength (about Italy’s highest fort, Rocca Colascio, in L’Aquila, Abruzzo)
The Vesuvius Keeper (Pompeii)

The Independent (U.K.)
Italy: Spirit of Palladio (Vicenza)

The Guardian (U.K.)
10 Things to See in Venice (about the Venice Biennale of Architecture)

The Boston Globe
Sampling the Motherland (a culinary expedition through Sicily)

Dallas Morning News
Fast Cars, Haute Food in Northern Italy

What’s On in Italy: September 2008

Hard to believe it’s September again! Here’s a rundown for the beginning of the fall – a marvelous time to be in Italy!

Time for Wine! One of the reasons it’s so great to travel in Italy in the fall is for all of the wine sampling to be done. Oenological Week in Montefalco, Umbria, which celebrates Sagrantino, runs from September 18-21. The Wine Championship in Florence, a sort-of wine-related Jeopardy! contest, kicked off today and runs through the weekend; the event is sponsored by Slow Food Firenze. Throughout the month in Tuscany will be the Chianti grape harvest, a yearly ritual which has been honored each year since 1926 with a Festa dell’Uva in Impruneta. The town of Bardolino, on the shores of Lake Garda, also holds a Festa dell’Uva, which begins at the end of September.

Food, Glorious Food! You need something to go with your wine. Try the Festival del Prosciutto di Parma, happening throughout the Parma province of Emilia Romagna through September 21. Some of you probably didn’t know that couscous is a staple in Sicilian cuisine; in fact, a festival dedicated to couscous takes place in San Vito Lo Capo from September 23-28. Outside of Milan, in the town of Gorgonzola, the 10th annual Sagra Nazionale del Gorgonzola, which celebrates the distinctive cheese and other food products of the area, will be held on September 20 and 21. Meanwhile, in Le Marche, the city of Fano will hold a Festival del Brodetto, which will honor the region’s typical zuppa di pesce (fish soup).

Traditional Festivals and Fairs. Soak up some Italian heritage with a visit to Venice, where the Historic Regatta on the Grand Canal takes place this weekend (Sept. 7) at 5:10 p.m. There are traditional jousting tournaments in Arezzo (Sept. 7) and Foligno (Sept. 13 and 14). Naples’ ever-popular Feast of San Gennaro takes place on September 19, and will include lots of food, frolicking, and fawning over the city’s patron saint, a statue of whom is paraded throughout the streets. (We couldn’t find a good official site for the San Gennaro fest, so here’s an “unofficial” explanation of the event.) Finally, a fun event for the entire family is the live chess match, played in the town of Marostica every two years by real people on a life-size chess board in Piazza Scacchi (fittingly, Chess Square). The game(s) will be held September 12-14, and tickets cost between €10-80.

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