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Circling the Adriatic Italy: Hill towns of Umbria

Sunday morning we got a quick breakfast of Porchetta and then packed the four of us, the bags, carseats and the gondola (my pet name for our double stroller) into a little taxi which took us to the Europcar rental office near the train station. After an interminable line to sign the paperwork, I was directed to a garage a few blocks away where I waited again for twenty minutes for the dudes to bring me my car. There was less than half a tank of gas so the guy scribbled something on my copy of the contract. I wasn't about to argue because Mei Ling was still back at the office with the two kids and all our stuff and I'd already left her alone there for a half hour. I activated Google maps and made my way back to the office, which was no small task since the road I had walked down was a one way. Finally I made it back to the office, hooked up the car seats and strapped the kids in them, arranged the bags in the trunk and wedged the disassembled gondola into the front seat. Mei Ling had the unfortunate duty of sitting in the back between the car seats to play stewardess to two very picky, needy first class passengers. I was nervous at first, having read terrifying descriptions of Italian drivers, but since I'm not exactly meek on the road myself I quickly realized that part of things was going to be OK. We made it out of Rome fairly easily and got to our first destination, Spoleto, in about an hour.

I should add here that my go to guide for practically everywhere in the world is Lonely Planet. It falls into just the right spot between backpacking and luxury travel, so you get the whole range of local destinations with respect to expense and difficulty. We aren't backpackers by any means. We want to eat well and sleep comfortably, but we don't want to be coddled and waited on either. We aren't hikers or adventurers either, but we do enjoy the outdoors and natural beauty as well as urban attractions like restaurants and crowded markets. Lonely Planet has been pretty good to us in most respects, although I've learned not to take them as a sole authority on restaurants. Mei Ling had also bought a copy of Rick Steves Italy before we left, although I didn't much care for it because it ignored most of the country to focus on the places Rick Steves had been. I did take some notes and photocopy some pages for places I planned to visit, which came in very handy in Umbria. However, most of the towns we decided to visit were chosen based on the write-ups in Lonely Planet. We did have to pick and choose, and of course I still don't know if the ones we skipped like Narni, Gubbia, Norcia, and Assisi would have been more enjoyable than the ones we visited. I know for sure that there are still enough towns to justify a return visit to the area.

Google Maps failed me for the first time coming into Spoleto. I had charted a course for the Rocca Albornoziana, a medieval fortress, but Google Maps wanted me to pull over inside a tunnel on the highway. I circled and came back to the spot a couple of times, and eventually concluded that the fortress was on top of the hill the tunnel went through. That was the first of many times Google Maps would misdirect me when I entered the name of a landmark or restaurant. Eventually I learned it was much more reliable to figure out the exact address I was going and enter the address rather than a name. We eventually found our way into the town of Spoleto, where I had my first experience with restricted traffic zones, white signs with red circles that indicate that only certain cars may travel into the city center. These signs always indicate the presence of cameras which will photograph your license plate, possibly multiple times, resulting in tickets being forwarded to the rental car company. The rental car company, in turn, will pass on the fines to your credit card bill along with whatever convenience charges they can dream up. It's a rather terrifying prospect, so whenever I see those signs I immediately halt forward progress and start looking for a parking spot. I struck out close to the center but eventually found a pay spot a quarter mile away in a modern part of town. I used my small stash of coins to pay for an hour and a half in advance. I never did figure out how to pay for parking using my SIM card, and instead got into the habit of saving change and stashing it in the pocket of the door handle for parking. After the first time I rarely ran out.

We piled the kids into the gondola and ambled towards the old town. One of the interesting things about the hill towns, and many other Italian cities was the contrast between the modern city and the old town. Many times it would seem like there couldn't possibly be anything of interest in a nondescript city, when we would suddenly stumble into a beautifully preserved old neighborhood of cobblestone streets and churches. There's nothing remotely comparable in the US. We eventually found our way to the entrance of the old town, where we stopped for gelato and then proceeded to the Duomo, the ubiquitous cathedral found in practically every Italian city.
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Our next challenge was a long, wide staircase to the upper level of town. Normal able-bodied travelers probably wouldn't even notice it, but it's quite a significant job with the gondola which has to be levered up over every step. Fortunately, Cleo wanted to climb the stairs on her own which made my job a lot easier.
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Eventually we made our way to the entrance to the fortress, but when we looked inside all we could see was a steep gravel path leading upward indefinitely. At that point, we decided that the fortress probably wasn't going to be that exciting anyway and decided to explore the narrow streets of the upper level of town instead. It was our first experience with the narrow alleys snaking between the tall buildings of the hill towns, and very enjoyable.
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We then made our way over to what seemed to be the best restaurant in town, Tempio del Gusto, where we found the owner setting the restaurant up for dinner. Unfortunately, he wasn't going to open for over an hour and we felt there really wasn't enough to justify hanging around so we decided to move on to the next town instead. On the way back to the car we heard a band playing in the park, and Cleo dragged us up to a little cafe where a classic rock band was just finishing their set. We stuck around to have some fruit juice and rather tasteless snacks, and then piled back into the car and hit the road again. For more on Spoleto, have a look here

Our next stop was Todi, a quintessential hill town reached via an uphill, winding road. We parked in a lot at the base of the old town and stopped for pictures at the famed Chiesa di Santa Maria della Consolazione. We took the second picture at night at the end of our walk, when the church was illuminated with floodlights.
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We plowed our way with the kids up one of the steepest streets I've ever climbed, with one of us towing the gondola from the front while the other put a shoulder into it from the back. Eventually we reached the top where we found the charming Piazza del Popolo and beautiful views over the surrounding valley.
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We ate dinner at the Lonely Planet recommendation Antica Hosteria de la Valle, which was the best meal we had in Italy up to that point. Pasta was perfectly cooked with flavorful and generous fresh truffles, and game dishes were also excellent. It wasn't the fastest dinner we ever had though, so it was about 8:30 by the time we got out of the restaurant. We knew we were a lot later than we had promised to show up at the B&B, so we hurried as much as we could down the dark and curvy roads. We had been warned not to use Google Maps, so we followed the instructions we had been given which ended up working quite well. The B&B was truly well off the beaten path, however, so we had a few nervous moments driving down narrow dirt roads in a dense forest before we eventually got there. By that time it was 9:30, which apparently was considered the middle of the night as the owner seemed rather grumpy. We tried not to trouble him too much as we unloaded everybody and everything into our comfortable little chalet, accompanied by a very friendly dog. We had chosen a two floor, three bedroom accommodation for our two night stay which turned out to be very charming and comfortable.

After a restful night, we snacked on a chocolate cake we found in the kitchen that apparently was the latter half of our B&B. We stepped outside and took stock of our surroundings, which were even more impressive than the Airbnb photos that had drawn me to the location in the first place. Across a valley we could see the walled city of Orvieto perched at the top of a steep plateau. Unfortunately, my point-and-shoot camera doesn't do the view justice at all.
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We then drove through the beautiful Umbrian countryside to our first destination, Civita di Bagnoregio. This was a fortunate result of Mei Ling's investment in the Rick Steves book, which gave a lot of emphasis to the town. The Lonely Planet barely mentioned it, but I would place it in the middle of the list of our top ten experiences of the entire journey. Civita di Bagnoregio is a 2500 year old ghost town on a crumbling plateau connected to the modern village of Bagnoregio via a steep footbridge. We were fortunate to arrive in Bagnoregio on market day so we breakfasted on porchetta and bought a salami that was fated to roll around in the trunk for another three weeks. After a little fumbling around with Google Maps to find the access road to Civita and the right parking lot, we extracted the gondola and brought the kids to the foot of the bridge. Gulp. The incline made Todi look like a gentle slope. We returned the gondola to the car and strapped the kids onto our backs instead. Even though there was a tall railing on either side of the bridge, it was hard to ignore the feeling of walking a giant balance beam suspended across a deep chasm. The walk was strenuous, but the views over the surrounding valley were stupendous. Eventually we reached the old town and wandered around the medieval alleys and courtyards. Most the the buildings were made of a brownish stone whose edges had been rounded over the centuries. Ivy covered many of the facades and there were potted plants and flowers everywhere. Unfortunately, there were two large tour groups there at the same time which detracted somewhat from the quiet beauty of the town. A few restaurants looked interesting but it was still early and we didn't want to lose too much time so we just had a drink and headed back for the footbridge and the car.
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After Civita, we drove to the famous Umbrian hill town of Orvieto. Orvieto is best known for it's magical setting within medieval walls at the rounded top of a tall plateau, as well as one of the most recognizable Duomos in Italy. We chose to take the cable car up the plateau instead of the road, which led to a mad dash through town to get lunch before all the restaurants closed. Lunch ended up being average, although atmospheric. The town itself felt a little sterile to us compared to Todi and Spoleto, but there was no denying the beauty of the Duomo despite the scaffolding that marred the left side of the facade. For more about Todi and Orvieto, check this blog.
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After a couple of hours wandering around Orvieto, I was at a loss for how to spend the afternoon. I knew there was a fairly large lake nearby, so we decided to drive to the town of Bolsena on the shore of Lago di Bolsena. Aside from an attractive central square, there didn't seem to be an old town in Bolsena. The deficit was more than compensated for by the beautiful lake with a sandy shoreline, and a backdrop of a paved boardwalk with tall trees in full foliage. We brought the kids down onto the beach for a while and took some pictures as the sun set.
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We ate dinner in one of the top TripAdvisor rated places, Il Pinzale, and weren't disappointed although I lost a half hour driving in circles due to entering the name of the restaurant in Google Maps instead of the address. They specialize in the local lake fish and we found the pan-fried filets delicious, as well as the pasta. Cleo made some Italian friends and they horsed around on the swings just outside. By then it was late so we drove back to the B&B. It was our last full day without a change of accommodation until Venice.

The next morning we dragged our feet getting up and getting out of the house, and we paid for it by arriving in Perugia after the weekday produce market had already closed. I also had a hard time finding the city center, so we parked on the main street close to the university and ended up walking about half a mile with the gondola to get to the main square. Perugia is much bigger than the other hill towns and contains a large student population, which gives the city a very lively and cosmopolitan feel. We had a fairly good lunch at one of the more highly rated restaurants. It was a slow day for them, so we spent some time talking with the owner and the Cameroonian waitress before buying some macaroons for Cleo at a lovely pastry shop. We wandered a few more narrow streets and then I got a cheap haircut on the way back to the car. It's hard to put a finger on what I found so appealing about Perugia, but I made a mental note to return here some day and use it as a base to explore the Umbrian cities that we didn't have time to see on this trip.
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Our last hill town before we reached the Adriatic for the first time was Spello. The old town here was essentially a one street show and we found a parking space in the main square. We walked downward until we couldn't stand the idea of lengthening the uphill climb any more and then reversed direction, eventually finding ourselves at a scenic overlook below the Chiesa di San Severino. Spello in some ways was like a living version of Civita di Bagnoregio with similarly colored stone walls, narrow alleys, ivy and plants. In the square where we had parked, we stopped for a while in a lovely Alimentari and examined various local delicacies.
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And just like that, our time in Umbria was finished. I would have loved to stop in Assisi but it was already getting dark and our next destination, Parco del Conero, was something of an unknown quantity.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:56 Archived in Italy Tagged orvieto umbria perugia spello todi spoleto civita_di_bagnoregio bolsena Comments (0)

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