Series by Hans Couwenbergh.
Previous visits to Umbria had been most about photography, and then mainly focused on nature and more in particular the beauty of Monti Sibillini National Park. Although this was also a high priority item on this year’s list, I did want to visit some of the beautiful Umbrian cities and villages. So far, we’d only been to Assisi.
One thing every visitor to Umbria (and indeed also Tuscany) must realize is that on a first trip you’re bound to underestimate travel times. The main reason for this is that the main highways all run along the North-South axis of the country. In Umbria, there really isn’t any major road going East-West. That’s not a problem, is it? You see a lot more along the country roads, it is just something to be aware off when planning your daily itenaries. You may well drive over 1,5 hours over, say, 45 kms.
Orvieto and Todi
Our first destinations were Todi and Orvieto. From Montefalco, this means going West. So taking into account what I said earlier, we planned ample time and decided to go for the most scenic roads. Michelin maps are very handy for that as they show you how to see the most en route.
We immediately liked Orvieto. A beautiful city, with obviously tourists, but we found it not very busy at all, considering it was the start of the summer season. One word of caution: one has to realize that all Umbrian (and indeed Tuscan) villages and cities are built on hilltops. City centres are, except for residents, kept traffic free (and that’s a good thing), but it does mean you need to park the car outside the city and walk up. Some of these climbs are more demanding than one may expect.
Orvieto’s cathedral is magnificent. It is in the middle of a large square with unobstructed views from all sides and plenty of space to take pictures (although you will need a very wide angle lens to capture all of it). While the main piazza is a large open space, all around are narrow streets and alleys with typical shops, trattorias and enoteca. I lost Sonia in one of those alleys only to see her emerge of a small boutique with a brand new custom made handbag…
Todi then again is also typical but still a different story altogether. Of course perched on a hilltop this charming village is not only beautiful on its own but it also offers magnificent views on the surrounding valley. With the warm weather and harsh daylight there was a lot of haze but I did make a note to come back sometime and photograph the place at dawn and dusk. I already found the right angle for both pictures and they are safely bookmarked in my GPS.
More hilltop cities and hamlets
We explored several other locations. Each time, both the destinations as well as the trip were beautiful. I can be picky saying the sunflowers were late and therefore to tiny still to make a good picture, but that is just an incentive to come back!
I’ll let the photographs tell the story. We went to Spoleto (again a big climb!), to Spello (more gorgeous little alleys and a very special enoteca I must tell you about later), discovered Trevi, and last but not least “came home” to Norcia when once again heading into Monte Sibillini National Park. But that part merits a report on its own.
Spoleto does deserve specific mentioning: when we were there, preparations were ongoing for the world famous “Festival dei 2 mondi”. This is a unique festival of classical performance arts: dance, theatre, opera during 3 summer weeks. The 2 worlds mentioned in the name refer to the US and Europe: it is the Festival’s intention to have cultural Europe and US facing each other in this event. Furthermore, there is a twin “Spoleto Festival US” held annually in South Carolina. There has always been a struggle around the “ownership” of this event and after the founder, Gian Carlo Menotti, passed away, his adopted son was removed as chairman in 2007. The whole history of the festival is full of intrigues and supporters of the “old management” continue to maintain a website and fuel the fued.
At the risk of repeating myself: it does pay to buy a good detailed map up front and find the most scenic routes, and then be ready to take the time and enjoy. There are so many views to enjoy on the way, and every once in a while stopping for a little stroll will reveal yet even more gorgeous scenery.
As a side note, for those interested: I started off planning using the Michelin of Umbria (1:200:000) which already has plenty of detail; later on I also purchased the excellent Kompass map-guide combinations (1:50.000).