Orvieto is a beautiful city. It is constructed on cliffs of volcanic tufa and exists on two levels. Above ground are the remains of an Etruscan and Mediaeval city side by side with the "modern" city as it has existed since the 16th century. Underground the city is riddled with an intricate labyrinth of tunnels, galleries, cisterns, wells and cellars.
More of Umbria
We arrived in Orvieto having completed a walk of 115 km through the classical countryside of Umbria (link) and were feeling it was time for a change of pace. With two days to spend in Orvieto where the walk had finished, we bought a ticket to see all the significant sites of the city and joined the happy holiday crowds enjoying the Pentecost long weekend.
A tour of the underground caves opens up a startling perspective of the city's defences and ability to survive a siege. Thousands of pigeons were kept in what must have been the world's biggest dovecot, there are cisterns and wells to store water, and there were olive presses and deep storage chambers. As recently as World War II these caves were used air raid shelters.
The centrepiece of the city is the enormous gothic Duomo, with its beautiful mosaic facade and strangely incongruous green and grey side walls. All is best seen from the top of the Torre del Moro whose 250 steps you climb for sweeping views of the city and surrounding countryside. The cathedral stands tall above a jumble of tiled rooftops, crooked winding streets and the towers of smaller churches. The streets are lined with small shops selling colourful ceramics and many restaurants and bars
Moving on
After three days of town life, there was still much more we wanted to see and do in Umbria and neighbouring le Marche. So we caught the funicular railway to the base of the cliffs to the commercial city of Orvieto where everyday business is conducted. From here we set off in a hire car to make a base in Gubbio for ten days and then to explore the area known as the Valnerina, round Norcia.

On the way was a detour to take a look at Lago di Trasimeno, Italy's fourth largest lake and a popular holiday location. But rather than its recreational potential, the interest to us was its place in Roman history.

In 217 BC, right there where we were, Hannibal's Carthaginians ambushed and nearly annihilated the Roman army. On a foggy morning 15,000 Roman soldiers were killed on the shores and in the waters of the lake. It was one of the bloodiest battles in Roman history.

There is little to see now, just a peaceful rural setting, a small museum and some maps and plans describing how the battle proceeded. Perhaps surprisingly, there are no artefacts or relics on show.
Gubbio sits half way up the slopes of the conically shaped Mt Ingino, above a flat green collage of farmhouses, ploughed fields and tree lined winding roads. Its austere stone buildings mount in terraces up to the very fine Piazza Grande where the Duomo and the Palazzo Ducale dominate the town.

A little further up the hillside is the Basilica di Sant'Urbaldo which plays a significant role in the town's spring festivities.
From the wide range of accommodation in the area, we had selected Agriturismo Montelujano, just a short distance from the town. The choice was inspired. Our apartment was one of several in a group of simple traditional buildings dating from the 15th century. From a hill above the plain it faced directly towards the splendid vista of Gubbio. The view extended to the east to take in Mt Cucco, which at 1566m was still wearing patches of snow.
Gubbio was an important settlement of the Umbrian people who lived here in pre Roman times and one of the town's treasures is a set of bronze tablets, known as the Eugubine Tablets. These date from 300-100BC and constitute the most significant surviving text of the Umbrian language.
It was an important Roman town and became a powerful city in the middle ages. There followed centuries of local warfare before it was incorporated into the territories of Montefeltro, finally becoming part of the papal states which were incorporated into the kingdom of Italy in 1860.
In the days we spent exploring Gubbio the things we loved most were the centuries-old palimpsests of stonework in the narrow streets, the curious iron hitching rings on the old buildings, the piazzas and grand palaces. There was a busy weekly market and dozens of little shops selling more brightly coloured ceramics.
La Corsa dei Ceri
We knew that Gubbio's most spectacular "event" was the Corsa dei Ceri, held every year on 15 May but as our dates didn't co-incide we were resigned to missing it. This is a festival in honour of Sant'Ubaldo, the town's patron saint and involves three massive "candles" (or ceri) being raced around the streets by rival teams.
To our delight, however, there was a prequel to the main event when the ceri are brought down the mountain, from the church of Sant'Ubaldo, to be on show in the Palazzo Ducale till the big day. This event was during our stay.

The day started early as a huge crowd, dressed in team colours, took up vantage points. Everyone, but especially the children, were dressed in red/yellow, blue/red or black/red and banners hung from every window round the town and the district.

We found a good spot and watched the crowd till the sound of drums and bands heralded the arrival of the ceri, carried on their sides like huge canons by big strong men. Sitting astride each ceri all along its length was an excited band of little children decked out in the team colours and waving flowers. Each ceri was preceded by a band and surrounded by hundreds of supporters.

When they reached the Piazza Grande the ceri were given a run around a flagpole and then taken up into the Palazzo where they would remain till the celebrations in two weeks time. It was a wonderful spectacle.
Monte Cucco and beyond
When it came time to do some walking we looked no further than Monte Cucco, the big lump of mountain looming in the view from our windows at Montelujano.

Monte Cucco, a significant peak in the northern Apennine range, is contained within a regional park where there are mountain meadows, woods and spectacular rocky gorges. This is limestone country so there are soft slopes and deep holes and kilometres of underground caverns. The Rio Freddo encircles the mountain and runs east through spectacular waterfalls and rapids in a deep ravine. Further east, into le Marche, is even more wild country.
Hiking, caving, mountain biking and paragliding are among the most popular activities. There are also some interesting roads to explore and villages and ancient abbeys to discover.

We were drawn out to this area several times, but first to do some walking. There are well marked trails throughout the area and an excellent brochure produced by the park authorities describes a number of itineraries and is full of useful information.
Choosing what looked like one of the best circuits, we drove to the start point at a launching area for hang gliders and set off on a well marked path to walk around and over the mountain. The pathway climbed along the contours round the mountain with splendid far reaching views. There were orchids and other wildflowers hidden away in protected patches of grassland.

Through patches of snow and then woodlands we gradually climbed up until a side path diverted to the summit and its panorama over the surrounding mountains and valleys. On clear days you can see a very long way, even to the Adriatic sea. We weren't so lucky, but the immediate vista was pretty good, looking towards more craggy mountains and deep valleys dotted with villages that were linked by tortuous, winding roads.
We came back to this area another day, negotiating some of the winding roads to investigate the villages and also the abbeys and hermitages that were established here from, perhaps the 10th century. This wild and isolated area was a popular place for hermits to hide themselves away. Some of their ancient buildings are still to be seen in a forest environment that is still pretty bleak and isolated. Only Fonte Avellana is still in use.
Another trip took us deep into the mountains of le Marche to the fantastic Grotte di Frasassi. Here there were huge caverns with impressive columns and shapes and side caverns where delicate crystalline formations were illuminated. A river flowed deep below the walkway. Caverns run for about 35km under the mountains but tours only cover 1km of this wonderland. The visit includes an enormous cavern into which, they say, Milan Cathedral would fit.
Anyone who has done any drawing or painting will be familiar with Fabriano paper which, since the 13th century has been made in the town of Fabriano, just east of Monte Cucco. Its paper is still used worldwide, there is an interesting museum in the town and many shops selling lovely paper, some of which found its way home with us.
Coming down from the top, the steep pathway passed the entrance to the cave of Monte Cucco which is 30km long and 945m deep. Apparently only open to specialist groups, the entrance was closed by a locked grilled gate which allowed you to peer down into the entrance cavity. "Cucco" in a local dialect means "something empty", so the deep cave system gives its name to the mountain.
Between two shores of Italy, not far
from your birthplace, rise great crags so high
that thunder sounds from far below their peaks;

they form a humpback ridge called Catrìa
below which stands a holy hermitage
once dedicated to God's praise alone.
Monastery of Fonte Avellana
Founded early in the eleventh century.
Dante stayed here in 1310. He mentions it in his Commedia Divina.
(Paradiso, Canto XXI - Tr. Mark Musa)
Leaving Gubbio we made our way south by way of a series of small mountain roads, to Norcia. This area, still just in Umbria, is known as the Valnerina, named for the River Nera which rises in the Monti Sibillini and goes on to join the Tiber after flowing south for 116km. This is a very popular area for walking and the area is criss-crossed by tracks.

Norcia is in a stunning setting, encircled by its 14th century walls with the craggy slopes of Mt Sibillini forming an imposing backdrop. Its main points of interest are its central piazza, certainly not a square, surrounded by solid, elegant flat faced buildings and many wonderful food shops stuffed with black truffles and tantalising aromatic salamis.

There have been some bad earthquakes here (1763, 1859 and 1979). The city wall has always withstood them but other important buildings suffered and needed to be restored.

In Italian towns we have frequently seen posters pasted on walls and posts advising of a recent demise - a very public sort of death and funeral announcement.

While waiting for the tourist office to open we hung around the piazza, and observed a doleful gathering at the 14th century Church of San Benedetto. Posters attached to buildings round the town announced the funeral of Gianni. The arrival of a cortege and a cavalcade of leather clad young men on motor bikes suggested that Gianni was a dare-devil rider who hadn't made it around a tight bend that weekend. We saw near misses all the time.
Castelluccio and the Piano Grande
The Piano Grande was the magnet that had drawn us to this area. We had read lots about these high plains and the spring and summer fioritura, or annual eruption of flowering wild plants, but nothing really prepares you for this place.

Driving up a steep winding road, seemingly towards the top of a mountain, suddenly we were on the top and spread out before us was this vast flat plain, encircled by a rim of mountains patched with drifts of snow. The spring was late in arriving that year so there was not the anticipated panorama of brightly coloured flowers, but instead an amazing patchwork of fields in different hues of green and brown. Far in the distance on a slight rise was the hilltop village of Castelluccio. Rising up behind the village was Mt Vettore 2476 m, the highest peak in the chain.
Castelluccio was almost a ghost town of firmly shuttered buildings, many in a state of crumbling disrepair. They told us that the village is sometimes used as a film set and it would certainly be hard to find anywhere more picturesque and quaint.

There was one place to stay, Albergo Sibilla, and we booked a room overlooking the
piano, for a couple of nights. Indeed it would be hard to find anywhere in the town that didn't overlook the piano. The view looked out to the towering mountains and over the activity down in the fields as tractors worked their way up and down the long rows, presumably preparing them for the crops of lentils for which Castelluccio is famous. The restaurant served wholesome meals of local salsiccie and, of course, lenticchie.
For walking we were spoiled for choice. You could do a walk right around the rim above the plain, take a route across the plain or you could do circuits up into any one of the mountains around the village.
We chose to walk up into the mountains, first following a rough road to gain some height and then following a delightful track that wound through snow drifts and forests, all the time looking down onto the piano and across to the mountains on the other side. Walking doesn't get much better than this.

It was quite cold and we watched as dark clouds engulfed Mt Vettore and eventually closed in on us with a brief hail storm. But this passed quickly and we found a place for lunch and then continued down through beech forests and meadows where orchids and other flowers were popping up.
Another hearty meal at the albergo marked the end of our Umbrian explorations. Now we were to move south to investigate the big peaks of the Central Apennines and the opportunities for walking in the Abruzzo, Gran Sasso and Maiella National Parks.
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View from Torre del Moro
Cathedral (duomo)
View of Gubbio from
across the valley
Ruin and landscape near Gubbio
Children in the colours of the three teams astride the ceri in procession
Umbrian mountains from Monte Cucco
A stop for ice water
Two valleys below
Monte Cucco
il Piano Grande
Castelluccio and
the Sibillini Mountains
Two street scenes
in Castelluccio
A piazza in Castelluccio
Orchids near Castelluccio
Palazzo Ducale Gubbio
Bell Tower, Gubbio
Palimpsest, wall in Gubbio
Abbazia di Santa Maria di Sitria
Church of San Benetto, Norcia
Piazza di San Benedetto, Norcia
Around Gubbio
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