A March 2004 trip
to Umbria by moatway
Quote: We settled down near Assisi for a week and used the location as a hub for our travels through Umbria and eastern Tuscany.
My second pick would be Orvieto. Nowhere else will you see a city so defined by its geography. The sides of the plateau fall fairly quickly on all sides of the city. Make sure you take the time to climb the Torre del Moro. . . the views are great. And don't miss the underground -- it was a lot of fun.
Perugia is also an excellent visit. Do take time to walk the Corso Vannucci between the Piazza 14 Novembre and the Place Italia. Plan, too, to spend time in the National Gallery of Umbria.
Plan to spend at least half a day in Gubbio. . . the climb will be good for you if you can't find the elevators and the Palazzo dei Consoli is well-worth the visit. And try to spend some lazy time circling Lake Trasimeno and spending some time in Castiglione del Lago. And if you're in Castiglione, you may as well spend half a day down the road in Cortona, they are very close.
I can't recommend Spoleto as highly as the others. It is a little more spread out and I found parking difficult. The interesting looking fortification at the top of the hill isn't open to the public, although it is currently being renovated for the future. I do recommend the duomo there though.
In Assisi, just park it and forget it. If you follow the signs to gualdo Tadino you will pass several parking lots. There is a big one on the Piazza Matteoti. If you can park there (it is a pay-lot), you are just across the street from the entrance to town and San Rufino. If it's full, you can drive through the narrow gate at the other end of the Piazza and to your left is a road that will take you to the parking lot near the Basilica at the other end of town.
In respect of parking, all these towns are quite the same. Get rid of the car, in the generally well-marked parking lots and walk. The towns all tend to be quite small. Spoleto was the only place where I found this difficult to do.
Otherwise, Italy appears to have quite the bus system, and if I weren't driving, the buses seem to go everywhere. . . the trains don't.
Assisi was the only town in which I noted a proliferation of white radio-controlled cabs, but I would presume that Perugia would have the same, perhaps not as obviously.
I knew that we were supposed to get one of the units "under the eaves" and I had thought that it would be a garret where we would have to stoop if we were close to the outside walls. My preconception was, fortunately, wrong. The unit was very attractive (although the 55 steps up to it weren’t). We were greeted by high ceilings and tiled floors and not only were there windows, there was a small balcony facing the no-view rear. The kitchen was neat – a three-burner gas stove, electric oven, sink, and small fridge. There wasn’t a toaster or a percolator, but there was an Italian coffee maker. . . I took the latter to the office for a quick lesson and got the hang of it very quickly. There were no wine glasses (in Italy?), but we survived quite nicely.
There was a nice open area with a table, four chairs, a futon/couch and a TV. In the bedroom, there was lots of storage and a king bed. The bath was tight. . . it had four pieces but no tub. The unit also featured its own gas furnace and an air-conditioning unit.
Guests here are obligated to buy a pass for full access and maid service. . . at 30 Euros per adult. Even owners pay (a smaller fee, but they pay). For that you get the use of the sun-bed, workout room, tennis, mountain bikes, shuttle to Assisi, sauna and a discount on laundry and maid service. The maids do come every day to take the garbage and do a mid-week linen change.
Other amenities or services included the possibility of two day trips. . . one to Rome and one to Sienna/San Gimignano, an outdoor pool with great views from its deck and daily breakfast buffet for a small charge. There is also a bar in the reception area.
My initial reaction was that the place was well-built and it would be noiseless. The floors were poured concrete as were the roofs. I was wrong. It may have been well-built, but our unit picked up a lot of noise from the one neighbouring unit that was occupied. . . chairs scraping, a voluble Italian patriarch, the plumbing etc. Other than that, it was quite satisfactory.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on May 6, 2004
Attraction | "Cathedrale Santa Maria Assunta (Spoleto)"
Part of the charm of this church is the patterned, tile floor, which is worn with age. Large artworks adorn the side chapel, most of them 18th century and framed with marble columns and pediments.
To the right, in the transept, is the bishop’s tomb. To the right of the chancel there is the magnificent Capella dell’Icone in which, brilliant in its ornamented surroundings, is an icon of the Virgin given to Spoleto by Frederick Barbarossa in 1185. The artwork of the Byzantine apse tells the life of the Virgin, the work of Frau Filippo Lippi. (The tomb of the artist is in the right transept.)
Probably the first thing you noticed as you entered was the number of crystal chandeliers – three large ones in particular that hang across the nave before the entrance to the transept. They are particularly beautiful. Before you leave, near the rear of the church you will have to visit the Altare, tabernacole e Armadi – the marquetry and carving in the small room is magnificent.
This is a particularly fine church and should be visited, probably before anything else in this town.
Duomo di Spoleto (Santa Maria Assunta)
Attraction | "Duomo (Orvieto)"
On the other side of the church is another chapel which features a large reliquary on its altar. It was nearby that the event inciting the feast of Corpus Christi took place – a host began to drip blood, staining an altar cloth. The cloth is exhibited twice a year. . . I assume it is kept in the reliquary.
Other impressions are of a triple nave striped in Tuscan fashion. It has magnificent height – the ceiling has the look of wood beams and coffers but it appears to be stone. The frescoes of the chancel and the transepts are beautiful.
The rest? It’s actually fairly plain. Along the walls of the side aisles are window alcoves with plain windows. Between the alcoves are gothic windows, but only the upper parts are stained. The floors are an attractive red marble and the font is very large and ornately decorated in white marble, in other words, a handsome church, probably worth a visit on its own merits, but the Capella di San Brizio is a must-see in this small, Umbrian city.
Cathedral of Orvieto (Orvieto Duomo)
Via Di Piazza Del Popolo 13
Attraction | "Underground Orvieto"
Over a thousand underground rooms and room complexes have been discovered so far, dug in Etruscan times continuing right through into the middle ages. Your tour will visit two such complexes. In the first, you will see what may have been an Etruscan cave turned into an olive oil making operation and finally into a 17th century mining operation (for building materials).
In the second cave, you will go into the dovecotes. Pigeons were a big industry until the 17th century. These rooms access the cliff sides –- man made dovecotes carved out of the rock, accessed by stairs to the homes of the owners 30 or 40 meters above. Here is my "buyer beware", some of the cave passages are a little narrow but unless you have severe claustrophobia, everyone should enjoy them (particularly children).
The tour is a lesson in Orvieto’s history and man’s ingenuity. It was really good fun. . . and what a relief, not a religious artwork in sight.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on May 6, 2004
Attraction | "Basilica of San Francesco (Assisi)"
You’re in the lower church. Again, the frescoes are beautiful and the low ceiling combined with Sunday morning incense lends an interesting atmosphere. It is built as an "L". . . the chapel as you enter is quiet but it is Sunday and mass is being offered in the church to the left. A steady line goes to the tomb of Saint Francis even as the sacrament of communion is being offered. It’s a bit of a zoo. . . I’m not sure whether I’m in the line for the sacrament or the line for the crypt. . . I reassure my wife that taking communion won’t hurt. Luckily, (I’m Anglican), it’s the line to the crypt.
Saint Francis has been disturbed twice. Originally placed in his tomb in 1230, he was moved in 1818 and again in 1978. The feeling here on a Sunday morning is surreal – the tourists, the devout and the dutiful, all in a swarm, circling the crypt and issuing out the other side of the nave of the lower church. There is no access to the transept or the forward part of the nave of the church. It’s been interesting.
Basilica of Saint Francis
Town Center Halfway Up The Hill
Rocca Paolina was a large fortress built by the papacy to control the city. After 300 years the city was liberated and much of the fortress was torn down to create space for the Place Italia, which contains a statue of Victor Emanuelle. When the parking escalators were installed, the remaining rooms of the fortress were opened up. Their mass and height gives an impression of what a place it must have been. (There’s not a lot to see here, but it is worth looking at). As you emerge from the fortress, you will want to walk to the little park at the edge of the city plateau for the great views over lower Perugia.
From the Place Italia, you have the option of a couple of streets through the central core of Perugia to reach the Piazza IV November (Take the street to the left of Place Italia as you leave the Rocca, the Corso Vannucci), where you will find the beautiful Palazzo dei Priori (town hall), the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, the Fontana Maggiore (a beautiful 13th-century fountain), the Duomo and the Tourist Information Office. Just a stone’s throw down the Corso Vannucci, which is pedestrianized is the Collegio del Cambio, an art museum.
So it’s the little hill-town that grew up. . . but almost everything that you will want to see is within a few minutes of Piazza IV November. Because it grew up, there is also a large selection of good shopping and places to eat. . . great town.
Perugrino was a mentor of Raphael and his school produced marvelous work. The price for this display was 12 Euros plus 5 Euros for the audioguide – and worth every penny. (Normally, the admission is 4 Euros for a notable collection.) Perugrino’s works were on loan from museums all over the world, and brought together in one place provided a wonderful example of the evolution of a great artist. There were portraits, altar pieces and many religious scenes – the bulk of them involving the lives of the Virgin and Christ but also featuring two saints in particular, Saint Jerome and Saint Sebastian.
In the heavily-lidded eyes, almost pursed lips and straight noses, we saw work that was repeated with romantic themes by the pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century. Looking into some of the faces, I saw what inspired Rossetti and his movement.
To my understanding, had we come to the museum when it wasn’t mounting this exhibit, we should have seen an excellent collection, but I doubt anything like this. This exhibit was scheduled to close in mid-July, 2004. Normally, to see a collection of Perugino, you would look in the Collegio del Cambio, next door.
Access is easy, there seems to be plentiful parking and the very visible tower of Rocca del Leone will draw you through the historical center of this attractive town. In a small square on the Via Victor Emanuele you will find a fountain, an old tower, and the tourist information office.
Further down the street, you will come to the Piazza Antonio Gramsci where for three Euros you can visit the Palazzo della Corgna and the Rocca del Leone. The Palazzo della Corgna was built in the late 16th century. Ascanio della Corgna was a warrior who commissioned a number of late Renaissance artists to celebrate his life, among other things, on the walls and ceilings of his home. It is very interesting as the subject matter is far from the usual religious material. There are battles, duels and cavorting nude goddesses – quite a display, he knew what he liked. The visit to the mansion is somewhat limited and the visitor moves to the Rocca del Leone through a fortified passageway.
Rocca del Leone was built in 1247 by Frederick II of Swabia. Don’t expect much – the fort looks like it’s in the midst of a long renovation and it’s not particularly impressive. What it does have is a beautiful view of the lake from its ramparts.
I liked this little town. . . it’s not really on the must-see list, but it is just down the road from the Tuscan town of Cortona. . . so if you’re in the neighbourhood.
Halfway up the hill, you will find the Piazza Grande on one side of which sits the Palazzo Consoli. Thanks to the broad square in front of it, this crenellated, white building from the 14th century has real presence. A stairway leads from the piazza to a big, barrel-vaulted assembly room. . . the seat of government. (You will enter through a more humble door on the ground floor and pay five Euros.)
Apart from being the former seat of local government, the building now houses a fine collection of artifacts and artworks in the civic museum. In the collection of ceramics and coins are the seven bronze Eugubine Tablets, the Rosetta Stone of Umbria. The collection also contains a fine collection of medieval furniture and religious art and crosses time into the 17th century. Having made your way up to the last gallery (and it’s been a great journey), you can pass into an exterior porch offering you even better views than the piazza below.
The second elevator is just down the street from the palazzo and it will take you up to the Museo Diocesano and the Duomo. The duomo is a magnificent gray-stone gothic church with a timber-framed roof. . . 10 stone arches of the single nave advance to the chancel. Behind the altar, there is a wooden choir and throughout the chancel there are beautifully painted walls setting off an extremely ornate organ case. Light streams in through Gothic stained-glass above the altar and less so from a few plain windows high on one side of the nave.
The high point of the duomo is the small Capelle di S.S. Sacramento. It is domed with windows in a cupola allowing light to flood the ornately decorated space. It stands in sharp contrast to the relative austerity of the rest of the church. Having seen the duomo, you can walk directly into the Palazzo Ducale.
At the time, the Palazzo Ducale, a very attractive building, was being renovated and most of the rooms were empty except for a temporary exhibit upstairs. Leaving the palazzo and going to the right, there is a small garden that offers beautiful views over the city. If you make your way down the hill, again staying to the right after leaving the palazzo, you will come in contact with a street coming across from the left. This is part of the Citta Vecchia, a street over which many buildings have expanded. . . really quite attractive. From this street, you can take any one of the staircases down and back to the Piazza Grande.
In Orvieto, you can purchase a billieta unico – a ticket that for one price, will cover most of your attractions and the funicular. In winter however, proceed to the funicular (tourist information is in the piazza across from the duomo). You can purchase your return funicular ticket in the lower station.
As you exit the funicular station at the top you should realize: (1) Your funicular ticket is good for the bus to the Duomo and the center of town for one hour after purchase. (2) St. Patrick’s Well is to your immediate right. If you are determined to descend the 240 steps to the bottom and come back up, you might as well do it while you are fresh. (3) If you are going to walk to the duomo, go up the street immediately in front of you – the Corso Cavour – it has some shops in it and is mildly entertaining. The road that hugs the cliff to the left has no views and is just plain dangerous. (Ask me how I know these things.)
In the Piazza del Duomo there is a tourist information office. You can arrange your guided tours to the Orvieto Underground or the Collection of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. The sites that you should see (in my humble opinion) that are not museums are the Orvieto Underground and the Torre del Moro. If you want museums, you will probably start at the Palazzo Faina, directly across from the Duomo and the three museums in the Papal Palace. (Sorry, I was suffering from museum over-exposure).
The Torre del Moro is just down Via Duomo from the piazza. You’re going to walk there (it is in the tourist area), so you may as well pay the 2.80 Euros for the climb to the top (and it’s a serious climb… don’t be fooled by the elevator, it only travels a couple of floors). If you have already done St. Patrick’s well, you may find this a little difficult. The view from the tower is absolutely extraordinary and reaffirms that Orvieto is actually a small town occupying a small plateau.
While you’re walking the town, drop into some of the local churches. The Chiesa di San Francesco, which you will find by walking down the street directly across from the front doors of the duomo, is excellent and is undergoing restoration. Louis IX of France was cononized here. Chiesa di San Lorenzo de’ Arari is just downright spooky with its dark, low ceiling, heavy columns and its Etruscan altar. There are more, many of them quite interesting. Regardless. . . you will find this a compact town, extremely entertaining and your visit will eat up most of the day.
The original cathedral was San Rufino in the Piazza San Rufino. It is dedicated to St. Rufinus who originally brought Christianity to Assisi. The nave isn’t wearing its age very well as the walls have lost their frescos. When we visited, the apse was closed for repairs but the marble altar stood in front of the tented area and is very large as are the side altars under each of which there is a sarcophagus. A lot of people pass on the crypt and the displays below the church, deterred by the 3 Euro fee. Unfortunately, many of them also pass by the magnificent Capella del Sacramento which runs perpendicular to the church and is closed off by doors that you are actually expected to push open. That chapel was one of the high points of our visit to Assisi. It is brilliant with huge artworks on the walls, a completely decorated ceiling and an excess of gold leaf and marble. Do look up and see the cherubs and the seraphim statues on the ceiling. . . just wonderful, I can’t recommend it more.
The other former cathedral church is St. Maria Maggiore, but it is a shadow of what it must have been. Again, most of the frescoes are gone. The apse is stone in classical architecture. . . somewhat Byzantine. A three nave church, it is currently under renovation, but I can’t recommend it.
Santa Chiara (Saint Claire) Church is in the Piazza Santa Chiara. The visitor enters the 13th century Italian Gothic church through the Chapel of the Crucifix of San Damiano. . . small, wooden columns to the rear and a frescoed chancel. The main body of the church is a single nave and like San Francesco, features four arches on each side before the transept. It is, however, very plain except for the frescoes in the transept. The large marble altar is surrounded by Corinthian columns and an ironwork fence. . . in the ambulatory is a small organ case.
The one side chapel of Santa Chiara is of the Blessed Sacrament. So far, the church is pleasant, very similar to San Francesco, but without the ornamentation. It is the crypt that stands out here. In one section, you see a display of the relics of St. Claire and the personal possessions of Saint Francis, but the crypt proper is magnificent. It is a wonderful display of marble and contains an amazing marble chapel and antechamber. I can’t recommend the it highly enough.
A couple of small churches that you might drop into are the old Roman temple of Minerva, now an extremely beautiful small church dedicated to Santa Maria in the Piazza del Commune. The other is the Chiesa Nuova just off the piazza. It isn’t very nuova – it was built in 1615 on the site of what is now believed to be the home of St. Francis’ family. It is an interesting symmetrical church. . . the dome is in the center and the transepts, chancel and nave all appear to be the same length. Finally, peek into the Oratory of San Francesco Piccolino. This diminutive 13th century room with its Gothic ceiling is a humble a testament to faith and perhaps as powerful as the others are in their grandeur. This list is not complete. . . enjoy.
Riverview, New Brunswick