Spoleto: A historical jewel in the Umbrian hills

Spoleto has enchanted me more than any other town in the central Italian region of Umbria. It is an ideal destination for a day trip out of Rome.

While sometimes overlooked in favour of Assisi, Perugia and Orvieto, it is a charming place with a wealth of history. Once a Roman colony, in the sixth century it became the capital of an independent duchy led by the Lombard tribe, who ruled over a significant part of central Italy.  It was destroyed by Barbarossa in 1155, then brought under the authority of the Papal States by Cardinal Albornoz in the 14th century.

blogspoletopanoramaThe train journey from Rome usually takes under an hour and half. On my last visit I bought a bus ticket in the station newsagent’s and caught the local shuttle bus up to the higher part of the town. I started off in Piazza del Mercato, a bustling central square surrounded by lots of shops selling local delicacies such as truffles, liqueurs and Umbrian wines and cheeses. After looking in some of the shop windows I stopped to admire the nearby Arch of Drusus  (son of the Roman emperor Tiberius), next to the remains of an old temple, both of which hark back to when the town was a Roman colony.

archI then had a peek into the gardens of the Hotel Palazzo Leti. The front courtyard is decorated with pretty little fountains and flower pots and offers panoramic views of the surrounding hills and valleys.

Spring-summer2013 075Carrying on up the hill, I took a walk around to see the Ponte delle Torri, an impressive medieval bridge built by Gattapone, an architect from Gubbio. Originally used as an aqueduct, it also became a way to escape the city when it was under siege.

spoletobridgeI then decided to pay a visit to the huge castle that dominates the town’s skyline, the Rocca Albornoziana. Albornoz was a Spanish cardinal who helped unite the papal states in the 14th century, paving the way for the pope to return to Rome after a period based in Avignon, France. He built the castle around 1360 as a strategic post to help reconquer the papal territory. Its construction was also led by Gattapone.

roccaI liked the elegant “courtyard of honour”, which had a large well in the middle and some pretty but damaged frescoes on the surrounding walls.

courtyardInside the halls there were more frescoes to admire, especially in the “painted room” where the 14-15th century wall paintings depict scenes of chivalrous love.

chivalrouslove2

chivalry1

After this I headed down the hill towards the town’s cathedral. The approach is unusual: you actually descend a large set of stairs to arrive outside the Duomo.

spoletoduomoIn here I admired the wonderful 15th century fresco in the apse by the Florentine artist Filippo Lippi: a huge and colourful piece depicting the coronation of Mary.

Spring-summer2013 088If you are lucky and it is open, you can also pop into the chapel of the Bishop of Eroli, on the right hand side when you walk into the cathedral, which contains some stunning frescoes by Pinturicchio.

Spring-summer2013 097Next door to the cathedral is the church of Sant’ Eufemia and the Museo Diocesano. This church, which some records date to the 12th century, is especially interesting and rare because it is constructed in a way to segregate the women from the men, including upper galleries for the ladies, a bit like in a synagogue.

santeufemioThe museum contains an art treasure by Lippi’s son Filippino, a painting on wood depicting Mary and Child, dated around 1485.

madonnaandchildAfter all of this sight-seeing, a nice way to round off my day was to take a moment to admire the beautiful views surrounding Spoleto. Here’s an idea of the lush green backdrop to this interesting place.

spoletoviewWhen you are ready to stop for a meal, I highly recommend the Osteria del Matto. When I last visited, I wasn’t offered a menu, rather the food they were cooking that day was just brought to me, one dish after the next. In the end after sharing two half litres of wine with my friend on top of the several courses, it came to a very reasonable 25 euros each. It has interesting decor, including theatrical masks, linked to the big music and theatre festival that is held here  each summer. If you prefer to sit outside, try La Barcaccia. I enjoyed some delicious Pappardelle pasta with Porcini mushrooms during this recent visit out on their pretty front terrace. The good-value local white wine is also very drinkable.

In this section on Spoleto I have focused on the Upper Town. In fact there are even more precious gems to discover in the Lower Town, but I’ve decided they merit a separate blog post- coming up soon!

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