From Bettona to Bevagna, from Spello to Montefalco: here is the account of the last two days of our vacation in Umbria, discovering the area around Assisi and its many artistic and scenic treasures.
A sightseeing itinerary away from the usual tourist routes. A “slow” tour among beautiful medieval churches and ancient Romanesque remains, between a glass of excellent Sagrantino and some truffle delicacies
Bettona, the terrace over Umbria
The first day of our vacation in Umbria (read the story about the first leg of our three-day trip to the territories of St. Francis here) is now almost over.
We arrive in Bettona, a small town perched on the top of the hill in front of Assisi that it is almost seven o’clock in the evening. It was a busy day. We left Viareggio very early, visited Assisi and its splendid basilicas, drove down to Spoleto to admire the Fonti del Clitunno, and climbed up to Colfiorito to discover the little village of Rasiglia, which is not crisscrossed by roads and squares, but crisscrossed by bridges, streams and small lakes.
We are tired but happy for all that we have seen and full of enthusiasm for all that still remains to be seen.
Waiting for us in Bettona are Roberta and Silvano, lifelong friends: with Roberta we have known each other for more than 20 years, we are so similar that we jokingly call each other “sisters.” They are the owners of the Osteria Straccaganasse and the Bed & Breakfast Residenza d’Epoca Palazzo Baglioni, which is located right on the south corner of Piazza Cavour, the city’s living room.
We will be their guests: and this is a “bonus” not only because the b&b and inn are stratospheric (just take a look at the reviews on Trip Advisor) but because spending a few days with Roberta after years of work commitments have kept us apart is a “vacation within a vacation” for me. Our first dinner in Bettona is under the banner of the very tasty traditional Umbrian cuisine: after an amazing mixed appetizer for two, Marco “settles” for a plate of homemade maltagliati with goose ragout, while I “limit myself” to a “simple” carbonara revisited with truffles. All of course washed down with excellent wine.
As Camilleri would have commissario Montalbano say, such a “light” meal really deserves a “nice passiata,” but since we did not have a pier with reef inhabited by impertinent crab at hand, we decided to take a stroll along the city limits, walking the perimeter of its walls.
Bettona still preserves intact in many places the splendid Etruscan walls built of huge sandstone blocks: believe me, this alone is worth the whole trip.
It is, however, the night of August 10, the night of St. Lawrence and shooting stars: sitting in the cool of a bench, the hillside of Assisi illuminated by the glow of evening lights looks just like a nativity scene lit up for Christmas.
With our noses turned to the celestial vota, we romantically wait for the Perseids to pass by to make, too, a wish.
Exploring Bettona: City Museum and Oratory of St. Andrew
The second day of our trip to Umbria, begins (just so we don’t miss anything) with a hearty breakfast together with our two hosts. The plan for the day is to join a mutual friend, Luisa, and have lunch all together in Bevagna, around 1 p.m.
It couldn’t have gone better, Bevagna was already on our list of things to see.
While we wait for the time to leave, with Marco we engage in exploration of the country.
We begin with the Museum of the City of Bettona, which is located right in the center of Piazza Cavour and is housed partly inside the 1371 Palazzetto del Podestà and partly inside Palazzo Biancalana built in the 19th century. The visit begins with the archaeological section, which preserves Etruscan, late Hellenic, and some Roman-era marbles. A marble head of Aphrodite from the imperial period is very beautiful, and the remains (just below the central square) of a monumental well dating from the 15th century and over six meters wide are extremely impressive. In the section devoted to the picture gallery, Perugino’s Madonna of Mercy stands out above all.
Umbria – Lands Museums
The Museum of the City of Bettona along with the Museum Complex of San Francesco in Montefalco we visited, are part of a museum system spread across Umbria called “Umbria – Lands Museums” which brings together 20 museum sites located in 12 municipalities (Amelia, Bettona, Bevagna, Cannara, Cascia, Deruta, Marsciano, Montefalco, Montone, Spello, Trevi, Umbertide).
All of these museums and their many artistic, ethnographic but also craft masterpieces (the circuit also includes the Deruta Ceramics Museum) are accessible with a single ticket that costs 7 euros (adults) and lasts for 15 days.
We leave the museum around 11:30 a.m.: we still have an hour or so to spare. We set out to explore Piazza Cavour, trying to trace, at street level, the location of the cistern and the other excavations we have just admired in the underground rooms of the museum: you know the scene where Indiana Jones (a.k.a. Harrison Ford) looks for the “X” in the Venetian library during the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”? Here we more or less made the same moves.
We pause to admire the beautiful octagonal-shaped nineteenth-century fountain that precisely divides Piazza Cavour from the Piazza Garibaldi in front of it and welcomes a sly and somewhat annoyed cat into one of its basins this morning.
We continue walking through the historic center. We enter the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, whose origins date back to 1200. Behind the Palazzetto del Podestà we look out to admire the Oratory of Sant’Andrea, perhaps Bettona’s main attraction, in which the 12th-century wooden ceiling and a large fresco by the school of Giotto stand out.
Bevagna and the suspended magic of Piazza Silvestri
It takes less than twenty minutes by car from Bettona to Bevagna. You pass through small inhabited hamlets that are extremely neat and tidy. If there is one thing that struck me, it is precisely the care that distinguishes every single garden, every balcony, every house. Even the vegetable gardens-which usually always give that sloppy idea with those ugly colored plastic containers for water to water and sheet metal shelters to keep tools sheltered-in this portion of Umbria seem designed by the hand of a garden designer.
We arrive in Bevagna and join Luisa for lunch all together at Delizie del Borgo, a very cute cottage carved out of the Municipal Park, just outside the city gate, surrounded by the coolness of the trees and sheltered by the Roman walls of the village. Excellent menu, excellent wines…my “truffle” drift takes over again today and I start with a soft egg sprinkled with “scorzone,” as the truffle that is harvested in the summer is called here. I couldn’t make a better choice. The lunch flows slowly, taking as much time as memories, anecdotes and plans among friends need to be shared.
It is only after four o’clock that we get up from the table inebriated and begin the exploration of Bevagna. We enter the town through the main gate by walking down Corso Matteotti, an ancient Roman decumanus, and reach Piazza Silvestri. A real jewel, whose suspended and timeless beauty tore my heart out. Surrounded by imposing and mysterious buildings it looks even more austere with the afternoon sun marking the edges and facades of the buildings, creating a strong contrast with the warm, earthy color of the stone.
Both the thirteenth-century Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel and the Church of St. Sylvester are impressive, but what really dominates the whole area is the large central fountain and the Roman column in one corner of the square.
We return to Bettona for cocktail hour. We treat ourselves to one last stroll through the narrow streets of the historic center, understanding to the full why it is part of the Most Beautiful Villages in Italy and why it is called the “terrace on Umbria”: in fact, thanks to its privileged position, it dominates from the top of the hill on which it is perched the entire 360-degree panorama, from Perugia to Assisi, all the way to Spello, and in the distance the gaze even reaches Foligno and Spoleto.
Day three in Umbria: to the “climb” of Spello
Well, there are no words, because the visit to Spello left us literally speechless.
We arrive there on the morning of our third and final day in Umbria.
We park the car in a paid parking lot not far from the beautiful Consular Gate, at the southern entrance-the lower one-to the city.
This timeless jewel is waiting for us, all perched on a spur of Mount Subasio, ready to reveal its secrets and treasures.
Immediately we realize its historical and artistic importance: Spello is the Umbrian town with the most Roman remains, and the first-century B.C. Consular Gate with three arches adorned with as many statues is just the prelude. Before heading down the steep Consular Way that runs through the entire town, we move to the left of the gate to admire a portion of the Mura Augustae and part of the excavations. It always has a certain effect on me to walk through the ruins; it is as if a part of me can hear the echo of the footsteps of all those who have passed through over the centuries. A beautiful suggestion.
We walk, or rather, we climb – I remind you that Spello is all uphill and especially in summer, with the heat, it is good to take it easy – along the central street. As we climb, our wonder increases: every little street, every corner, every little balcony, step, or windowsill is carpeted with plants and flower pots. A riot of color and grace. I discover that it is a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages: it is the Corpus Christi Infiorata,when between June 25 and 26 the streets and houses are adorned with flowers to commemorate St. Louis Gonzaga.
The Beautiful Chapel
Halfway up Consular Street, right in the center of the village is the Piazza Matteotti with the beautiful church of Santa Maria Maggiore which welcomes the even more splendid (and famous) Baglioni Chapel, entirely frescoed by Pinturicchio in 1501: if you don’t know why to visit Umbria, this chapel alone is enough to decide to leave right away.
Unfortunately, a sign is posted on the main door stating that it is uninhabitable due to earthquake damage, but we notice a coming and going of people from the side cloister, so we find that the side entrance, the one from the sacristy, is open, and we go in.
Indeed, the church lies in a semi-decayed condition, but the Cappella Bella-another name by which the Baglioni Chapel is known-is manned by a diocesan volunteer who watches over access. We pay (well-deserved) two euros per person as a contribution to the lighting and enjoy the splendid frescoes. The beauty of the Madonna and Child’s face leaves one enraptured, and searching among the painted scenes, we also notice a self-portrait by Pinturicchio, a true ante litteram selfie.
After the riot of color and grace that the Baglioni Chapel has left in our eyes (and hearts), we indulge for a few minutes in the cool of the Kiosk, which also houses a delightful garden of simples, while waiting to go to lunch.
Not far from the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, a series of small restaurants follow one another, and we chose to sit at the tables of Gustò Bistrò (because the only ones sheltered by the trees in Piazza Matteotti) and ordered a platter of mixed cold cuts and two glasses of Sagrantino. Although the choice was dictated by a mere need for shade, we once again lucked out: the sliced meats and cheeses are of the highest quality and the service quick and friendly. Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)
Sure, the bill price was a bit high, but, after all, we are on vacation and that is the only downside of the whole day.
Before leaving Spello in the direction of Montefalco, we decided to visit another gate of the five that punctuate the town’s walls, Porta Venere, because it had attracted our attention since the freeway.
Montefalco, last stop
It is now three o’clock in the afternoon. The heat of the Umbrian countryside is making itself felt but we cannot pass up the opportunity for one last exploration. We reach Montefalco, home of Sagrantino and birthplace of St. Clare – perhaps the juxtaposition is slightly sacrilegious, but so be it – in less than half an hour.
The parking lot where we leave the car is just outside the town wall, down from the central square we want to visit.
Another climb, moreover at the hottest hour of the day and in the midst of digesting a not-so-light meal.
Luckily, halfway down the main street is the San Francesco Museum Complex, which houses the frescoes of the Stories of St. Francis painted by Benozzo Gozzoli: in the end, we have to admit that even this museum alone is worth the whole trip. A masterpiece of Renaissance painting.
After visiting the complex, we then head to the central Piazza del Comune, or “platea rotunda” as it was called in the 14th century. It is a square with an unusually circular shape and a very special atmosphere, from which many narrow streets and alleys branch off. A tangle of narrow streets that lead to ancient stone and stone houses, to parish churches and medieval churches such as the Church of San Bartolomeo, but also to many urban vineyards to mark the inseparable link that binds the people of this place to wine production. Dutiful stop at the Church of St. Clare and then ready to go home.
They were three intense days that left us full of memories and stories to tell. Three days that taught us – if we hadn’t yet understood – that it doesn’t matter to go very far, that it is not necessary to reach exotic destinations that are 11 hours away by flight in order to experience the perfect vacation. After all, the true essence of travel is not in the distance we reach, but in the attitude with which we travel the road.