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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
The view from the town is
panoramic and you
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
"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
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.
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
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
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.
Wet day in Assisi
St Francis in a niche
Monte Subasio in background
Road into Spello
Ponte delle Torre
Walk alongside the canal
Storm over Subasio
Piazza del Popolo
Track with cyclamens
Lost in Moruzze
Two streets in Montecchio
Window view, Perugia
Bell tower, Perugia
Buttercups and olives
Spoleto Cathedral and
Wayside shrine near
Track in Martani Hills
Street in Baschi
Street in Baschi
See pictures of Umbria: