A Walk in Umbria
Assisi to Orvieto
Umbria, the 'green heart of Italy' il cuore verde d'Italia, is best known for its beautiful mediaeval hilltop towns and cities and for the renaissance art that hides in classically simple churches and basilicas. As walking country it has varied landscapes rising from flat agricultural land into green rolling hills which merge into the higher crests of the northern Apennines

In spite of the minor irritations we experienced using Sherpa in Tuscany, we decided to give them another go and explore the walk they offered in Umbria. This was April 2005.

Once again we received detailed walking notes and an odd assortment of maps. We noted the apology included with some daily instructions that the maps may be "problematic" as they did not accord with most of the tracks on the ground. We rationalised that Tuscany had turned out OK, so we could handle hopeless maps.

The walk started in Assisi, culminating seven days later in Orvieto, taking in the best of the historic towns of the region along the way. The highlights were to be the gentle landscapes, intriguing towns and the wonderful works of art that we discovered.
Walking from Assisi to Orvieto
Perugia seemed the perfect place to start our explorations. It is the capital city of Umbria and a lively university city. At its centre is the Piazza IV Novembre flanked by a Gothic cathedral and grand old palaces. We found throngs of young people enjoying the spring sunshine on the steps of the cathedral and around the square. At the centre of the piazza is the 13th century Fontana Maggiore built to celebrate the construction of the aqueduct that brought water to the city. Marble figures of saintly and historical figures adorn the fountain.
Cafes in the streets leading to the piazza were busy and entertaining. Perugia is a city to explore on foot. The historical centre is a muddle of narrow alleys and steep narrow streets, sometimes just flights of steps. Around the periphery are remnants of old city walls and gates. Hidden away are churches, gardens, pieces of aqueduct and an Etruscan well.

We found a hotel off one of the staircase streets and enjoyed a view of towers and turrets standing above the tightly stacked, shuttered buildings of the old city. Above the rooftops we looked towards the open countryside, the city of Assisi and Mt Subasio where we were shortly to walk.
On the slopes of Mt Subasio, Assisi is a compact town with a crazy maze of steeply sloping narrow streets and alleys. It is contained within ancient walls and appended at its north west edge is the vast Basilica di San Francisco. A 14th century fortress, known as the Rocca Maggiore stands above the city commanding fantastic views of the rooftops, domes and turrets below and an expansive vista of the surrounding area.

Construction of the basilica was begun in 1228 to honour St Francis, a rich young tearaway, who gave it all up to commit himself to charitable works and inspire a following that was to become the Franciscan order. The church today is on two levels. On the upper level is the celebrated cycle of 28 frescoes depicting the life of St Francis, painted from 1297-1300 and attributed to Giotto. Many art historians now consider that other painters also contributed. On the lower level are more frescoes, notably by Lorenzetti, Cimabue, Martini. All are lovely simple designs in soft pastel colours and we marvel at their freshness after so many centuries.
Millions of visitors visit Assisi each year but it remains an agreeable place to explore and it is still possible to find quiet corners up and down steps and staircases where gateways and archways frame glimpses out to the patchwork of fields, roadways and country villas. Intriquing painted plaques of St Francis hide away in little wall niches.

Assisi is a short bus trip from Perugia. The balmy spring weather we had experienced in Perugia had given way to wet, cold and windy days, but this added atmosphere to the Assisi experience which we enjoyed for two days. Sherpa had done us proud with a comfortable hotel just off the central Piazza del Comune. The hotel's lovely enclosed garden was overlooked by the domes and towers of surrounding buildings and the erect forms of cypress trees and we had a magnificent view out to Mt Subasio.
We also marvel at the restoration works that were undertaken following the shattering earthquake of 1997. The ceiling and walls of the upper church were almost totally destroyed and priceless frescoes on the ceiling vaults were tragically lost.

Remarkably, after two years of painstaking restoration, the majority of the remaining sequences were successfully pieced together
The construction of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi began in 1228 bringing with it an influx of renowned artists. Those most associated with the Basilica were were Cimabue (1240-1302), Giotto (c1266-1337), Simone Martini (c1284-1344) and Pietro Lorenzetti (c1280-1348). They, and the artists who followed them, made Umbria one of the most important centres of Renaissance art, with Perugia as its capital.

A second generation to be associated with Umbria was led by the two great masters Pietro Perugino (c 1446-1523) and Bernardino Pinturicchio (1454-1513). Much of their important work was carried out in Rome but some works are to be seen in Perugia's Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria. Among Pinturicchio's most significant work in Umbria are the frescoes decorating Baglioni chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore in Spello.

Students and followers of Perugino included Luca Signorelli (c1445-1523), who painted the frescoes of the Orvieto cathedral and Raphael (1483-1520), best known for his later work in Rome.

Benozzo Gozzoli (c 1421-1497) was another contemporary who worked in Rome and then in Montefalco where he painted the scenes from the life of S. Francesco. Piero della Francesca (c1415-1492), who mastered the use of geometric forms and perspective, worked mainly in Urbino but had an influence on Perugino and Signorelli.

After the death of Perugino, Umbrian painting came to an end and the new style of Michelangelo and Raphael gained favour.
The Renaissance Painters of Umbria
Clockwise from top left
Benozzo Gozzoli: Life of St Francis
Pintucchio: Christ among the doctors
Cimabue: Madonna and child with angels
Giotto: Legend of St Francis
The Walk
Day 1. Assisi - Spello - 18 km
Day 2. Spoletto - Monteluco - Spoletto - 18.5 km
Day 3. Spello - Montefalco - 21 km
Day 4. Montefalco - Giano dell'Umbria - Todi - 15 km
Day 5. Todi - Acqualoretto - Poggio della Volara - 13 km
Day 6. Poggio della Volara - Montecchio and return - 14 km
Day 7. Poggio della Volara - Orvieto - 12 km
Fresh snow on Monte Subasio was a pretty, if not entirely welcome sight on the first morning of the walk.

The walking notes offered three alternative routes for the day. One a low level road with no climbing, a track which traversed the upper slopes of Subasio or another high level route, combining roads and tracks, but avoiding the high ground of the summit. This third route seemed the best choice.

We bought a delicious lunch from a highly acclaimed
gastronomia and set off, passing through the Porta Capuccini, one of the impressive number of gateways that remain in the old wall. The route followed the walls for a time and then struck off to begin climbing steeply on a rough path from which there were lovely views looking back to Assisi in the swirling cloud. Soon we arrived at a sanctuary called the Eremo delle Carceri, the sanctuary of the cells, a place of hillside caves where St Francis and his followers retreated to pray and eventually build a little convent.
Assisi to Spello
Our route, very well marked, left the Eremo and gradually climbed through quiet forests full of purple violets, yellow primroses and green hellebores. The highest point of the day was reached and soon afterwards the summit route came down to join us at a spring where a sculptured fountain has been constructed.

From here it was pretty well downhill all the way to Spello first on a narrow stony track traversing the scrubby slopes of the snow capped peaks, La Sermolla and Mt Pietrolungo. By now the day had been transformed again into crisp spring weather and we perched up there admiring the view, eating our gourmet lunch.
The path descended more and more, leaving the forests and becoming loose and gravelly till we were in lush farmland where the ground under the olive groves was carpeted in a mass of yellow buttercups. Finally Spello came into view and for once it was a novelty to be sliding down into a walled hilltop landscape of sloping roofs and square towers instead of climbing up to it from below.
Spoleto and a circular walk via Monteluco
The official plan for the day was to take the train to Spoleto, do a walking tour of the town and then a circular walk which would return to Spoleto via the old "Roman bridge" - 9.5km, according to the notes. The underestimated distance was perhaps an omen, because as ill-starred days go this one was to rank pretty high.

It all started with a train strike,
uno sciopero, a word you learn early on in Italian travels. The strike was off again on again for a bit, according to who we spoke to, but finally it seemed it was off and we dashed to catch a train for the 30 minute trip to Spoleto.

Spoleto has an impressive reputation as the town which heroically drove Hannibal back, only to later be destroyed by Barbarians. It recovered well and is now a treasure trove of mediaeval and Roman monuments. Its splendid cathedral was built in 1067 on top of earlier places of worship and there are many other churches.
We decided to explore the town on our return and so set off on the circuit, reached via narrow streets lined with interesting shops. We briefly inspected some of the Roman ruins and looked into a couple of churches. One of these was under restoration and we laughed to see that its statues were all wearing hard hats. We hadn't bothered about buying lunch as the notes advised there was a restaurant along the way.

Pretty good signage showed us the way uphill through thick vegetation until we reached the Romanesque church of San Giuliano. This was where we expected to find the restaurant but we were shattered to discover that it did not open till later the following month. So we looked around the church which had a lovely carved doorway. We pushed on to find a pathway which followed the contours of the hillside and led into a tunnel through the rock. It had been built in1856 to accommodate an aqueduct going to Spoleto. We were well prepared for this with torches and this was fun.

We emerged from the tunnel and everything promptly went haywire. Signs, tracks and instructions all disagreed with each other. We retraced our footsteps, scrambled up and down hillsides. We found a locked fenced area ominously signposted "Luogo per Addestramento di Carni Tipo 1" while across a gully there was a farm where dogs barked furiously. We tentatively crossed a bridge to approach the farm and woke up a very old dog which was asleep in the sun. He latched onto Kel's leg. A very very old man appeared and showed us the way to Monteluco by road. We took this route eagerly in anticipation of some lunch.

It started to rain as we arrived in Monteluco to find absolutely no sign of life, let alone food. There was nothing for it but to continue down a steep, slippery cobbled pathway through the woods. The rain got heavier, the path became a river and it started to hail.
Eventually we reached the spectacular Ponte delle Torre an aqueduct dating from the 14th century, built over Roman foundations which accounts for its false designation as a Roman bridge. From here it was a short walk back to Spoleto where we had a brief look at the imposing Duomo whose mosaics glittered in the wet sunshine.

The restorative powers of a pizza and a glass of wine worked miracles. The train returned us to Spello and after a good dinner in a nearby restaurant equilibrium was restored.

So what went wrong? We assume that other walkers usually spent this day in Spoleto, so no one had walked the circuit in recent times, and so the errors had remained uncorrected.
Spello to Montefalco
Spello was the Roman commune of Hispellium and in mediaeval times it was part of the Dukedom of Spoleto. There are still Roman ruins, mediaeval streets and pretty churches. In 1600 there were 2000 inhabitants in Spello and 100 churches , 22 consecrated to the virgin. Now there are about 20 but only one that you really must visit, Santa Maria Maggiore, and it was there we paused before setting off on the day's walk.

In a small chapel of the church is a cycle of frescoes, completed by Pinturricchio in 1501, depicting the life of Christ in lively pastel tones. The frescoes portraying the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Dispute of Jesus with the Doctors are also remarkable for the background scenes episodes of everyday life. On a side wall there is a rare self portrait of Pinturricchio.
We walked out of town through the very fine Porta Consolare, looking back on the splendid view of Spello slowly receding behind us. The walking was easy going on flat ground, navigating our way along rivers and dykes, through farmland and small villages. Impressive storm clouds gathered ahead of us and, though it didn't rain, the day became very cold.

Midway to Montefalco was Bevagna, a tiny walled gem, famous as the place where St Francis gave his sermon to the birds. Entering through one of the old gates we spent some time poking around its piazzas and, with better luck than yesterday, had an excellent small lunch before continuing out another gate. A series of small roads and tracks followed the Teverone River until a settlement called Torre di Montifalco where we were advised to take a spell before tackling the steep 3 km climb up to Montefalco.
The view from the town is panoramic and you understand why Montefalco is called the Balcony of Umbria - on a clear day you can see Perugia and Spello and the Apennine and Martani mountains. We weren't so lucky but we could certainly see the day's walk spread before us and feel a little smug when considering the climb up from the plain.
Montefalco is said to have acquired its name around 1250 when the emperor Federico (Frederick) II visited to do a bit of falconry.

We spent an afternoon admiring more wonderful frescoes in the local museum, this time Gozzoli's representations of the lives of St Francis and St Girolamo and a nativity scene by Perugino. As a further treat our hotel incorporated parts of an old church and ancient frescoes had recently been found on its walls.

The wines of Montefalco are among the most prized of Umbria and, in particular, le Sagrantino, is highly esteemed. We allowed ourselves the extravagance of a bottle for dinner and it must have been good as it was served in such enormous glasses that just one would have held the entire contents of the bottle. It was pretty OK.
Montefalco to Todi
"Please note that the maps for today only give an approximate indication of the route because they are so old fashioned! Follow the notes and you should be all right! "
Not exactly words to inspire confidence. Nor were the black clouds hanging ominously. The car arrived to take us to the remote fortified village of Giano dell'Umbria where the day's walk began. The driver tried to persuade us to go all the way to Todi with our luggage but we weren't so easily corrupted.
It turned out to be a great day's walking. First was a climb through forests on white roads and tracks then, emerging from the trees, we were instructed to follow a methane pipeline and climb very steeply towards some TV towers on the summit of Monte Martina. The view was stunning, all the way to Subasio with new snow from the latest cold front.

Just off the crest there was a spring in a picnic area which made a good spot for lunch. From here it was downhill and mostly along the road through the Martani hills to the small town of Massa Martana where there was just time for a coffee before catching a bus to Todi.
Todi to Poggio della Volara
We loved Todi. Our accommodation was in a charming old palazzo just off the main Piazza del Popolo where the austere duomo is the dominant feature. The palazzo was furnished with antiques, there were books everywhere and we were convinced that our charming hostess was a contessa. And there was a fabulous view.

The plan for the day was to go by taxi to a place called Asproli and then start walking. The route notes talked a lot about overgrown paths, disappearing tracks and obliterated way marking so we decided to skip the first part of the day and persuaded the driver to drop us off further along the route in a small town called Acqualoretto.
At Acqualoretto there was supposed to be a grocery shop where lunch provisions could be bought. After finding this little shop to be firmly closed we discovered that the owner had died some time previously. Salvation came by way of an Ostelleria whose owner was happy, if a little bemused, to make us some panini and sell a bottle of wine.

Very confusing instructions took us from there through some farms and woods to Moruzze, a semi-abandoned village now being extensively renovated. From there we were directed down to a stream where there was supposed to be way marking provided for our benefit but we never found it. Only afterwards did we discover that commercial trekking companies like ours weren't supposed to paint signage in the countryside so it either had to be located in inconspicuous places or it was removed by more "official" walking enterprises.
Having eventually found the creek and crossed it on to a rough track up the mountainside and into a forest of old chestnut trees underlaid with masses of tiny white flowers and pink cyclamens. We were instructed then to follow a mule track that soon became a maze of mule tracks and surprisingly some mules. They were being used by timber cutters to carry out felled timber. The mules were quiet placid creatures patiently waiting to be loaded and led out of the forest .

Some very old way marking appeared and threaded a way through dense woods onto a main road. A passing cyclist helped with directions and we emerged at a high vantage point to look down on a patchwork of vines and farmland. Below us was Poggio della Vollara, an agriturismo where we were to spend the next two nights.
Daywalk to Montecchio
Agriturismo Poggio della Volara was owned and managed by Marco, an enthusiastic young man who spoke a little English. His mother, who cooked superb meals, spoke a rapid Italian and we had fun chatting with her.

The day here was almost a rest day. After a relaxed start, the hilltop town of Montecchio was an easy target with the advantage that it was always within sight. It was a gentle walk along white roads that twisted and turned through olives and vineyards and past farmyards with barking dogs, fortunately securely chained up.

The village was the now familiar mediaeval labyrinth of streets, footpaths, staircases and archways. A square tower of the central austere flat faced church was the tallest landmark in the village. It seemed to be a place little touched by tourism but is probably destined to become a museum town. A small trattoria offered an excellent
menu del giorno and we strolled back for another of the signora's dinners.
Poggio della Volara to Orvieto
The official plan for this last day was to walk to the town of Baschi and then catch a bus or a train to Orvieto. Animated discussions indicated some doubt as to whether trains actually ran anymore and revealed that, anyway, the buses didn't run on Sundays or public holidays. This was both a Sunday and the Festa di Pentecost. So arrangements were made for Edgardo, who would be collecting our luggage, to pick us up in Baschi.

After good walking back in the direction of Montecchio, we diverted to the fascinating Necropolis of San Lorenzo. Relatively recent excavations here have unearthed a network of burial chambers dug into the rock around the 6th century BC. It is a rather weird place with hundreds of tombs, implying, apparently, that there was a large settlement somewhere near here, straddling the Etruscan and Umbrian cultures.
From the tombs the route took us along a series of white roads, passing by comfortable rural dwellings whose gates were the main reference points in our notes. Whether white gates or green gates, they never quite seemed to accord with the terrain we were walking through. Eventually all routes converged on the main road leading to Baschi and we walked along this road until a point where a rough track led up a very steep hill towards the fortified walls of the town.

We arrived in Baschi's central piazza just as there was an explosion of fireworks - a pretty good welcome we thought. A band set off round the village leading a procession in the midst of which was carried a holy statue. The procession broke up at the church and everyone moved on to lunch. All the restaurants were very busy but we were found a table and enjoyed another delicious lunch with a bottle of Orvieto Classico.
This was the end of what had been an easy and very enjoyable walk . After lunch we spent some time looking around the photogenic streets of Baschi until Edgardo arrived to drive us to Orvieto. To find out more about Orvieto and Umbria please click on MORE OF UMBRIA.
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Wet day in Assisi
St Francis in a niche
Monte Subasio in background
Road into Spello
San Giuliano
Ponte delle Torre
Walk alongside the canal
Leaving Spello
Storm over Subasio
Martani hills
Piazza del Popolo
Track with cyclamens
Lost in Moruzze
Two streets in Montecchio
Etruscan tombs
Piazza, Perugia
Window view, Perugia
Bell tower, Perugia
Buttercups and olives
Spoleto Cathedral and detail
Near Montefalco
Wayside shrine near Bevagna
Track in Martani Hills
Making friends
Street in Baschi
Street in Baschi
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