The Man, the Myth, the Legend: Saint Valentine of Terni

Not many tourists make it to Terni. But many of those who do come to Umbria’s second largest town come specifically to see the church of Saint Valentine. Continue reading The Man, the Myth, the Legend: Saint Valentine of Terni

Will Work For Wine: Luca Signorelli’s Orvieto Duomo Contract and His Intoxicating, Apocalyptic Fresco Cycle

In 1499, Tuscan artist Luca Signorelli signed a contract to paint two remaining sections of the Cappella Nuova (new chapel) of the Duomo in the Umbrian town of Orvieto. By 1502 (or 1504, depending on which documentation you read), he had completed his “End of the World” fresco cycle in what is now known as the San Brizio Chapel. Continue reading Will Work For Wine: Luca Signorelli’s Orvieto Duomo Contract and His Intoxicating, Apocalyptic Fresco Cycle

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.

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.


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The Ultimate Italian Driving Adventure

If you’re the type of traveler who likes to go it alone and doesn’t mind injecting a little technological know-how into your trip, then a GPS-driven self-guided tour may be the ticket.

Information about Zephyr Self-Guided Adventures through Italy just crossed our desks over the weekend. The company offers walks, biking, and driving tours through Tuscany, Umbria, and parts of Lazio, all of which are powered by GPS navigation. According to a press release:

The GPS Navigation systems have pre-loaded waypoints along the driving routes and are designed to accompany written turn-by-turn directions. With simple touch commands travelers can easily get from one destination to another. These portable systems not only allow for a comfortable traveling pace, but are also a cheaper alternative to the typical guided vacation.

In addition to the GPS Navigation systems, these driving tours come with a “virtual tour guide” in the form of a Portable Media Player loaded with short videos. In these videos, Zephyr Adventures President Allan Wright gives a daily route talk summarizing what to expect for each day while certified Italian guide (and Zephyr in-country support representative) Giovanni Ramaccioni gives entertaining cultural and historical presentations about sights on the route. The cultural videos were filmed at the exact spots the travelers pass through.

The combination of these two technologies allows for the ultimate driving adventure.

While Zephyr may have touched on a rather novel concept, we also like the fact that they have worked in the price of hotels and rental cars, so you don’t have to do any extra legwork (unless, of course, you choose to walk or bike your way through central Italy). Rates start at $1,250 per person, not including airfare.

Dirty Weekends in Italy

The Times UK’s Stephen Bleach had a fun article about romantic getaways in Europe this weekend titled “The Dirty Weekend Guide to Europe.” Bleach argues that a “place of [one’s] own” makes or breaks a romantic holiday and highlights a “dozen of the slushiest, smoochiest and downright sexiest hideaways on the Continent.” No surprise to us, four out of the 12 are in Italy:

And, not a Tuscan villa among any of them. Be aware, however, that romance this luxurious comes at a price!

Unofficial Guide to Central Italy, 4th Ed., is Here!

UG Central Italy, 4th edition

We are pleased to announce that the 4th edition of The Unofficial Guide to Central Italy: Florence, Rome, Tuscany & Umbria arrives in stores – and is available for shipment from Amazon – today! Like previous editions, this UGCI has the best information about travel in Tuscany, Lazio, Umbria, and the Marches (Le Marche). But it also has updates on restaurants, hotels, planning your trip, and more. We hope that you will consider buying this guide for your next trip to Italy. And, of course, keep coming back to Italofile.com for the latest Italy travel tips.

20 Things We Love About Italy – Part 2

Torino's Mole Antonelliana

We hope you enjoyed yesterday’s run-down of part 1 of 20 Things We Love About Italy. Hopefully, the list has given you more travel ideas and the inspiration to learn more about all of Italy’s 20 regions.

Now, without further ado, the remaining 10 favorites on our list:

11) Termoli, Molise. If Puglia (see #13) is the next Italian travel spot, surely Molise will follow. This beautiful beach town in Italy’s second smallest region is little known outside of the country and blissfully free of the tourist throngs (so far).

12) La Mole Antonelliana of Torino, Piemonte. This iconic building (perhaps you remember it as the symbol of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games?) may be one of the younger structures in the region, but it certainly has a cool history. Originally built to be a synagogue, the Mole now houses Italy’s National Cinema Museum. Besides a collection of thousands of movie posters and exhibits about early cinema in Italy, the museum presents a huge roster of films each month. This is great if your Italian is up to snuff.

13) Padre Pio, Puglia. If you’ve spent any time tooling around the shops near the Vatican, you’ve most certainly seen images of Padre Pio, the white-bearded Capuchin monk (originally from Pietrelcina in Campania) who lead a congregation at San Giovanni Rotondo and was canonized in 2002. Unofficially, for better or for worse, Padre Pio is Italy’s modern patron saint. What’s really random is that he’s now the patron saint of the New Year Blues.

14) Neptune’s Cave, Sardinia. Long known as a playground for the jetset, Sardinia is more than just beaches. Because of the island’s geography of rocky promontories spilling into the sea there is a vast network of underwater caves, or grottoes, to explore. Chief among them is the Grotta of Nettuno, which spans about 1 kilometer, includes impressive stalagmite and stalactite formations, and is a great cure for beachside boredom. Take a boat tour of Neptune’s Cave or, if you’re feeling more active, approach the grotto from the 656-step staircase that leads from Capo Caccia.

Beautiful Taormina Sicily
Beautiful Taormina, Sicily

15) Taormina, Sicily. Like the region of Campania (see #4), much of Sicily lives in the shadow (or under the legend) of a volcano: Mt. Etna. Taormina, with its Greco-Roman theater, bougainvillea draped hillsides, medieval town, and views of Etna, epitomizes the beauty, history, and geology of Sicily. We’re also fond of Taormina’s cultural attractions, including Taormina Arte and Taormina Filmfest.

16) Ötzi the Iceman, Trentino Alto Adige. Europe’s oldest mummy was found in 1991 in the ice-packed mountains above Trentino Alto Adige, the alpine region that borders Austria’s Südtirol. After years of research, the 5,000-year-old Ötzi was placed on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano in 1998. Also on exhibit are the Iceman’s tools and clothing, and information about the preservation measures being taken to keep Ötzi in peak condition for many millennia to come.

17) Botticelli Gallery, Galleria degli Uffizi, Tuscany. It’s too hard to single out just one thing in Tuscany, of course. But the Botticielli Gallery at the Uffizi has to be one of the most special rooms in Florence. Upon seeing Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera in the flesh, we are transfixed, barely even noticing the dozens of other museum-goers trying to elbow us out of the way. For more information about the Uffizi, including how to get tickets, visit the museum’s official website. We also like this unofficial site that provides a virtual tour of the Botticelli Gallery and others.

18) Orvieto, Umbria. One of our favorite day trips from Rome has to be to the town of Orvieto. Situated atop a huge mountain of tufa, Orvieto shines because of its gorgeous, Gothic Duomo, its ancient Etuscan caves and wells, and the superb Orvieto Classico white wine. Actually…forget the day trip. Why not stay overnight?

19) Fiera Sant’Orso, Valle d’Aosta. How can you not appreciate the Fiera Sant’Orso, Aosta’s traditional craft fair which has been going strong for more than 1,000 years?! The fair usually takes place at the end of January – so you just missed this year’s edition – and it is known for its wooden handicrafts, artisanal metalworks, ceramics, and sculptures. No doubt, there aren’t many events that can boast a 1,000 year history – not even in Italy.

20) St. Mark’s Lion, Venice, Veneto. Leave it to us astrological Leos to love the symbol of the city of Venice: the lion of St. Mark. From atop a column in St. Mark’s Square to Madonna’s Like a Virgin video, the lion has been an effective marketing tool for Venice for hundreds of years. You can learn more about the symbol and the city in Garry Wills’ excellent Venice: Lion City, one of the most gratifying biographies about a city that you will ever read.

Photos © Comune di Torino, Joe Routon

Coloring the Skies

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This weekend, the incredibly picturesque town of Castiglione del Lago, located on the banks of Lake Trasimeno in Umbria, will become even more beautiful. The event is called Coloriamo i Cieli, and it features some of the world’s most interesting kites as well as its most adept kite fliers.

Since its inception, in 1982, the festival has spawned dozens of smaller programs, such as hot air balloon rides, nature walks in Parco del Lago Trasimeno, art exhibits, such as a collection of Chinese kites, and food fairs in Castiglione’s main piazza. Indeed, in Umbria, Coloriamo i Cieli means that spring has sprung!
Photo: Let’s colour the sky 27042007-001, originally uploaded by Giuseppe Toscano.

Art Teacher in Your Pocket

Art history junkies take note: learning about Italian art is easy with Jane’s Smart Art Guides. Order a CD set – or, even better, download the MP3s to your iPod – and you can learn more about St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome’s Santa Maria del Popolo, or the Fra Angelico fresco cycle in Florence’s San Marco while you’re visiting them this summer or fall. Jane is also at work on audiotours for Orvieto’s San Brizio Chapel and Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico. We especially like Jane’s blog, which is rich with information on art history and happenings around the world.

While we encourage our readers to support Jane and her excellent guides, we also want to point out another artsy podcast of note. A team called smARThistory has an interesting – and FREE – video podcast on Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa. Upload this – rather than Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons – before your next trip to Rome.

Jazz in January

Winter means the music season for most of Italy. Opera productions and church-sponsored chamber music events are typical fare from Liguria to Lecce, but you’ll also find jazz and blues in the mix. Umbria, which has been home to Umbria Jazz and Umbria Jazz Winter for about a decade, is also host to Terni in Jazz, a festival that keeps central Italy humming until spring.

While several cities in Italy put on annual jazz festivals, only a few (that we know of) take advantage of the long winter nights with performances by internationally-known singers, pianists, saxophonists, and guitar players. Here’s a sampling:

Brianza Open Winter (Provincia di Milano)
Fiemme Ski Jazz (Valle di Fiemme, Trentino)
Euritmica (Udine)