Monthly Archives: May 2013

It’s Just Another Morning Here

Can I walk on the mist as the sun rises?

Spello, view from apartment - misty morning

Can I float on the mist, like a ship in full sail drifting towards land?

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Can I step from the rooftops on to the quiet mist below?

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Can I run through the mist, like a field of silver wheat?

Spello, view from apartment - misty morning

Can I lie on the mist, dreaming of unexplored pleasures?

Spello, view from apartment - misty morning

Can I gather the mist around me like a cloak and disappear?

Spello, view from apartment - misty morning

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Another Brick in the Wall

Perugia. Palazzo dei Priori, Merchants' Guild Hall: detail

Perugia: the largest city in Umbria and its capital. City of contrasts, city of mystery, city of violence, city of art and culture, city of chocolate. To understand Perugia, past and present, it is important to understand a little of its fascinating history and how it has shaped today’s bustling Perugia. It is a complex, bloody history, so it is difficult to do it justice here, but I will try to pick out some highlights.

Originally occupied by the Umbrians, the site was settled by the Etruscans in around the 5th century BC. The old city, built on a hill overlooking the Tiber valley, still retains visible remains of the Etruscan period, such as Porta Marzia which incorporated a fine Etruscan arch into the city walls.

Perugia. Porta Marzia -Etruscan archway

Perugia. Porta Marzia -Etruscan archway

Conquered by Rome in 309 BC, the Perugians staged several revolts, culminating in the city being burned down when the funeral pyre of an Etruscan who had refused to capitulate got out of hand. Rebuilt by Augustus, there is little recorded of the city in the Dark Ages and beyond, other than its incursions into its neighbouring towns – Assisi, Spello and Folignio for example – all of which were subjugated.

In the 13th to 15th centuries, Perugia was embellished with some of the magnificent buildings that can still be seen today. In theory the city was part of the papal state but the popes found it difficult to control Perugia with its influential nobles and merchants. Pope Benedict XI visited the city and was given – by a nun so it is rumoured – poisoned figs. He was just one of 4 popes to die in Perugia: 3 of poison and one of overeating!

Tales of skulduggery abound. The nobles, merchants and commoners continued to vie for dominance and the popes, Milan and Naples all joined in at various points. Then along came the wonderfully named Braccio Fortebraccio – “Arm Strongarm” who conquered all of Umbria and had ambitions to unify Italy until he too was disposed of by a Perugian.

The feud between 2 noble clans – the Oddi and the Baglioni – grew increasingly violent and bloody. A pitched battle in the main square left 130 dead and revenge killings that the Mafia would have been proud of followed, until the murder of a papal legate gave Pope Paul III a reason to visit Perugia and exercise papal control once again. He raised the tax on salt, so the Perugians revolted again in the Salt Wars, only to be crushed by huge papal forces. Umbrians do not, even today, put salt in their bread as a protest against this provocation.

The Baglioni family gathered the Perugians together in the main square and vowed to protect them from the papal forces. It is said that a painting of Jesus was taken out of the cathedral to help the people. It has never been returned inside the cathedral as the Perugians feel they have still not had justice for the wrongs they suffered.

Perugia Cathedral, showing the painting of Jesus over the entrance.

Perugia Cathedral, showing the painting of Jesus over the entrance.

A deal was struck between the Pope and the Baglionis in which the Pope agreed not to destroy the city. He soon reneged on this deal however, and in 1543, as a further act of repression agains the Perugians, the Pope ordered the building of a huge fortress, the Rocca Paolina. In order to make way for the fortress, monasteries and churches and more than 100 houses – notably the properties belonging to the Baglioni family – were destroyed. The tall towers of the Baglioni family, symbols of their power, were demolished to form the foundations of the Rocca.

Rocca Paolina by Giuseppe Rossi

Rocca Paolina by Giuseppe Rossi

When Perugia gained independence in the 1800s, its citizens demolished the fortress brick by brick. Today little of it remains, other than the Porta Marzia  and the rather spooky remains of Via Baglioni, perfectly preserved medieval streets beneath Perugia.

Via Baglioni - medieval street buried beneath the Rocca

Via Baglioni – medieval street buried beneath the Rocca

Walking through the underground streets feels very strange.

Via Baglioni - medieval street buried beneath the Rocca

Via Baglioni – medieval street buried beneath the Rocca

These are the very places where the medieval nobles lived, ate and slept. Was that an echo of a voice from the distant past? The ring of a sword being drawn? In these silent streets, it is not difficult to imagine.

Via Baglioni - medieval street buried beneath the Rocca

Piazza IV Novembre lies at the centre of Perugia. The most well-preserved and attractive square we have seen to date, it has, at its centre, the Fontana Maggiore, a magnificent 13th century fountain which is one of the best Romanesque monuments in Italy. Designed by a monk, Fra Bevignate, and created by father and son Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, the waters of the aqueduct converged here.

Fontana Maggiore. Piazza IV Novembre, Perugia

Fontana Maggiore. Piazza IV Novembre, Perugia

The lower basin is in white marble, decorated with panels showing agricultural scenes and biblical episodes.

Perugia, Umbria. Fontana Maggiore detail. Piazza IV NovembrePerugia, Umbria. Fontana Maggiore - detail. Piazza IV NovembrePerugia, Umbria. Fontana Maggiore. - panel, Piazza IV Novembre

The second basin is in pink marble and portrays mythical and biblical characters. At its base are multiple spouts in the form of animals.

Perugia, Umbria. Fontana Maggiore detail. Piazza IV Novembre

Perugia, Umbria. Fontana Maggiore. Piazza IV Novembre

At the top is a bronze bowl with nymphs supporting an amphora from which the water pours.

Fontana Maggiore. Piazza IV Novembre

Fontana Maggiore. Piazza IV Novembre

The Cathedral of San Lorenzo faces onto the square. Constructed between 1345 and 1490 and remodelled over the centuries, its facade remains unfinished. The lower facade is decorated with pink and white marble.

Perugia, Umbria. Palazzo dei Priori & Cathedral

The beautiful exterior pulpit is from the 15th century, and it was from this spot that Saint Bernadino of Sienna preached to large crowds in the 1420s.

Cathedral, exterior detail

The interior is Gothic in style and is light and cool. Its most important treasure is in the Cappella del Sant’Anello where, in a gold casket, a ring said to be the Virgin’s betrothal ring, is kept under lock and key.

The Virgin's ring. San Lorenzo Cathedral, Perugia.

The Virgin’s ring. San Lorenzo Cathedral

San Lorenzo Cathedral, Sacristy

San Lorenzo Cathedral, Sacristy

Facing the cathedral is the Palazzo dei Priori, built in stages between the 13th to 15th centuries, and designed to hold Perugia’s administrative offices when it was a flourishing city. Note the castellations and the shapely windows.

Palazzo dei Priori, Perugia

Palazzo dei Priori, Perugia

Annunciation by Perugino

Annunciation by Perugino

The Palazzo’s interior is most impressive. It now houses several attractions of note. The National Gallery of Umbria features works of art from the 13th to 19th centuries, organised chronologically and well laid out and labelled.

The art is almost exclusively religious art; by the end you have seen enough Madonna and Child paintings. But there are some remarkable works by significant artists such as Perugino, Pinturicchio, Fra Angelico. My favourite was a small Annunciation by Perugino.

Also within the Palazzo is Il Collegio della Mercanzia, home of the Merchants’ Guild from 1390 and almost unaltered since that date. The quality of the woodwork was so crisp and clear that it could have been carved yesterday.

Perugia, Umbria. Palazzo dei Priori, Merchants' Guild Hall

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Perugia, Umbria. Palazzo dei Priori, Merchants' Guild Hall

imagesFinally, we visited the Collegio del Cambio where the money-changers operated. It was used as a counting house and the tiny scales and coins are on view. There is a series of frescoes by Perugino covering its walls which is considered to be one of the most significant examples of Italian Renaissance art. Perugino also included a self-portrait, left.

The attached chapel of Saint John the Baptist contains additional frescoes.

Palazzo dei Priori. Chapel of St John the Baptist, fresco detail

Palazzo dei Priori. Chapel of St John the Baptist, fresco detail

There are so many interesting things to see just walking around Perugia. The backstreets seem virtually unchanged from medieval times, drainpipes excepted.

Perugia, Umbria. Backstreets

There are magnificent buildings and signs of the past everywhere.

Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, seat of the judiciary. Justice, detail

Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, seat of the judiciary. Justice, detail

Pharmacy sign - founded 1592

Pharmacy sign – founded 1592

Perugia’s hilltop position allows some far-reaching views over the Tiber valley. These shots were taken from Piazza Italia.

Perugia, Umbria. Piazza Italia view

Perugia, Umbria. Piazza Italia view

The University of Perugia was founded in 1308 and still attracts large numbers of students, as does its reputed Language School.  Perugia is a cultural city; it hosts a chocolate festival and Europe’s top jazz festival annually and has several theatres.

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Despite its history of conflict and conquest, modern Perugia is vibrant and colourful, forward-looking and proud of its past.

Horse's head in the bed...?

Watch out for the horse’s head…

My Kind of Town

In a previous post (Red Red Wine) I wrote about the Sagrantino di Montefalco wine and the erstwhile pleasure of our visit to the Arnaldo Caprai winery set in the verdant Umbrian countryside. At the centre of the Sagrantino wine region sits the small town of Montefalco, perched high on a hill and enclosed within medieval walls.

Porta Sant'Agostino, Montefalco

Porta Sant’Agostino, Montefalco

The walls are pierced by 5 gates, and from each gate a narrow road winds upwards to the main square, Piazza del Comune, at the summit of the town. The Piazza is almost perfectly circular, and around its perimeter stand a number of grand buildings. The Palazzo Comunale dates from the 13th to 14th centuries, although it was restored in the 19th century. It is an imposing building with beautiful, crisp brickwork.

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Montefalco. Piazza del Comune. Palazzo Comunale

Tall, thin and elegant, the former church of San Filippo Neri, built in the 18th century, is now a theatre.

Montefalco. Piazza del Comune. Former church of San Filipo Neri, now a theatre

The tiny Oratorio di Santa Maria was used to hold public meetings during the Renaissance. It has some original frescoes and copies of other key paintings held in Montefalco’s museum and churches. Just as well, since the “no photos, even without flash” policy is common.

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Detail from a painting in Montefalco’s museum, reproduced in the Oratorio di Santa Maria.

Montefalco. Piazza del Comune. Oratorio di Santa Maria

Leaving the square, we visited the church of Saint Francis and the attached monastery which now form part of a small museum which is renowned throughout the region. The museum houses a number of interesting paintings, largely by Umbrian artists including Francesco Melanzio from Montefalco. There are also some artefacts – ceramics, wooden statues, glass from Murano for example – and the ancient cellars of the Friars Minor of Montefalco, containing an enormous wine press!

The highlight of the museum is the former church itself. Built as a Franciscan church in the early 14th century, it houses a cycle of frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli depicting the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. In terms of their subject matter, these frescoes are considered second only to those in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. Gozzoli, a pupil of Fra Angelico, is best known for his wonderful frescoes in the Medici Palace in Florence. So, important art for a small town. The detail below shows Saint Francis giving his sermon to the birds.

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There is also a Nativity fresco by Perugino as well as various paintings by Umbrian artists of the 15th century. It was well worth a visit.

Continuing down the street, we reached a lovely piazza with extensive views across the Umbrian valley, vineyards, olive groves and mountains. You can appreciate why Montefalco is known as the “Balcony of Umbria”.

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The photo below shows Spello in the distance, perched on the lower slopes of the mountain.

Montefalco. View from Montefalco showing Spello

This photo shows Spello and Monte Subasio, the mountain we drove over (!!! See earlier post Stairway to Heaven) to Assisi which is just out of shot to the left of the picture. 

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And here is Assisi….

Montefalco. View from Montefalco, showing Assisi

You could still see snow on the highest peaks.

Montefalco. View from Montefalco showing snow-topped mountains

Everywhere you turned in Montefalco could have been a scene from the film “A Room with a View.”

Montefalco.

Montefalco.

Montefalco.

Everywhere you looked there was something of beauty, like this detail of a painting on one of the old buildings.

Montefalco. Detail of wall painting

And a more modern poster advertising an exhibition.

Montefalco. Via Ringhiera. Poster

After all of that culture and fresh air, there was nothing else for it but to head for lunch in the main square. L’Alchimista had come highly recommended, and its tables were filling up fast.

Montefalco. Lunch at L'Alchimista

We started with zucchini flowers, stuffed with ricotta cheese. Not only did this look divine, it tasted heavenly too. It was, without doubt, the best dish I have eaten during our entire stay – and that is saying something!

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I followed up with carpaccio of veal with goat’s cheese and truffle….

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….whilst mio marito settled on tortellini stuffed with porcetta and truffle with fresh peas and broad beans….

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….all washed down – inevitably – with a glass of Sagrantino di Montefalco.

Montefalco. Lunch at L'Alchimista

It was the most perfect lunch: local produce, zinging with flavours, beautifully prepared and presented.

Just as we left, the local Harley Davidson Hills (as in hill towns) Angels arrived, the distinctive throaty thrum of their engines preceding them by a short handlebar.

Montefalco. Piazza del Comune. L'Alchemista Restaurant

Car Jamming

Does the traffic where you live drive you mad? How I detested those commuter days when it felt as though I spent more time behind the wheel than at home. How I love driving down quiet country roads with no real destination, and fast highways with arrival on my mind.

I garnered this piece of advice from an Italian website (lakebolsona.com). I have reproduced it here word for word.

“If you are not used to driving on the right, one might venture to suggest that the ring road is not the best place to learn. Just remember to keep your foot down, flash your lights at all sluggards and keep immaculate lane discipline and you will be swept along by the tide.”

Apart from the main towns, Umbrian roads are generally quiet and driving can often be a pleasure. As non-residents we are not entitled to park within Spello’s town walls so we leave our car in a spot with a stunning view. But we, and countless others, can drive right through the tiny, winding Spello streets – quite a challenge in some places.

Traffic jam, Spello style….

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Breathe in….

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The perils of squeezing past…..

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Underneath the arches…Smart parking.

Spello, Bob/Helen's smart car, smartly parked!

And not so smart parking….

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A tight turn….

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Another fine mess you’ve got me into….

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Only just room for the mirrors….

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Maybe we should think about alternative forms of transport?

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Free Falling

Remember that sketch from Monty Python’s Life of Brian – “What did the Romans ever do for us?” The response was a long list, including roads, sanitation, education, medicine, peace, wine and irrigation. Well, yesterday we visited a fine legacy of a Roman irrigation project at the Cascata della Marmore (Marmore Waterfall) near Terni. At 165 metres, it is the highest man-made waterfall in Europe. Set in a lush, green park of forests and gorges, it is a breathtakingly beautiful sight.

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria. As we arrived - a gentle fall...

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria. As we arrived – a gentle fall…

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria. A trickle...

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria. A trickle…

In 217BC, the Romans dug a canal to divert the water from the swampy, stagnant River Velino over the Marmore cliff and into the River Nera which runs below it. The channels have been modified several times over the years in order to better direct the flow of water; the last significant alterations were in the 1930s.

For over 50 years the powerful waters have been redirected to fuel the largest hydroelectric plant in Italy. This means that the majority of the water is only released over the falls at certain times during the day, so it is important to check the timetable before a visit. At this time of year the water is released for just an hour, twice a day. Surprisingly, there were no crowds on a very sunny and warm morning. It could not have been more perfect.

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria. Flowing into the River Nera...

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria. Flowing into the River Nera…

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The Marmore Falls were a feature of the Grand Tour, which was at its height in the 17th to 19th centuries. Young English noblemen and intellectuals would complete their education with extended European travel and Italy, with its historical and artistic treasures, was a prime destination. The rainbow that can often be seen at the Falls was considered to be one of the great marvels of the Italian leg of the Grand Tour.

The site inspired many artists and poets, including (moving seamlessly from Life of Brian to Life of Byron) Lord Byron. His 19th century poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage contains several stanzas relating to his visit to the Marmore Falls. Since he described it much more eloquently than I can, the quotations below are his.

There are 2 main vantage points: the upper and lower belvederes. Only the lower belvedere provides a view of all 3 drops of the Falls, so we stationed ourselves there to await the rush of water. A siren wailed to warn spectators of the impending torrent, and the sound of water filled our expectant ears.

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria. In full flow...

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria. Gaining power…

“The roar of waters from the headlong height..”

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria. In full flow...

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria. In full flow…

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria. In full flow...

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria. The highest drop in full flow…

“The fall of waters, rapid as the light..”

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria

At times the spray almost obscured the highest drop.

“And mounts in spray the skies, and thence again returns in an unceasing shower..”

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“The hell of waters! Where they howl and hiss and boil in endless torture.”

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria

When we had marvelled at the sight for some time, we took one of several trails leading up and around the waterfall in order to see a different perspective. We passed a small pond, green and still, with the sound of frogs croaking competing with the steady roar of the water. As we got closer, the spray soaked our clothing and the noise increased.

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Higher and higher we climbed, until we were 40 meters from the ground. The droplets of water sparkled in the sunlight, and suddenly we saw the rainbow below us!

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria. Rainbow!

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria. Rainbow!

Someone once described the water as looking like bridal veils; you can see why below.

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria

Marmore Waterfall, Umbria

Back down then, to see the waters slow and fade again to a trickle, an equally beautiful sight.

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“A matchless cataract, horribly beautiful..” Lord Byron

A Different Corner

I wrote about our visit to Assisi in an earlier post (Stairway to Heaven). From Assisi, high on its mountain slopes, you can look down onto the flat plain below and see a huge dome, standing out amongst the insignificant buildings that surround it.

View from Assisi: Santa Maria degli Angeli

View from Assisi: Santa Maria degli Angeli

Why was there such an enormous church so close to Assisi? What was its significance? This called for a visit to investigate, so we headed to the small town of Santa Maria degli Angeli (Saint Mary of the Angels) and the church of the same name.

Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi

Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi

This church revealed a story that had me wondering why so many pilgrims and tourists visit Assisi in their droves, bypassing the place with the strongest links to the life – and death – of Saint Francis. I have a hunch that many of them don’t even know of its existence, based only on speculation and crowd density during our visits: Assisi: thousands of people versus Santa Maria degli Angeli: maybe a hundred.

Saint Francis came from Assisi at a time when the plains below the town were heavily forested. In the forest was a tiny chapel from the 10th or 11th century. This chapel was given to Francis by the Benedictines, and it was here that Francis founded his Order of Friars Minor in 1209. The chapel – known as the Porziuncola – still exists in its original location. And the church was built on top; the chapel is directly under the dome!

The Porziuncola Chapel: Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi.

The Porziuncola Chapel: Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi.

The name Porziuncola means “gift”, and derives from the story that Jesus gave Francis the gift of forgiveness, known as the Pardon of Assisi, at this spot.The exterior frescoes, illustrating the Pardon, are a 15th century addition, but the chapel’s structure has apparently not been significantly modified since the 13th century when Francis and his followers were based there.

Just out of view behind the Porziuncola is a small cell, formerly part of the infirmary of the convent on this site where Francis died in October 1226. It is known as the Capella del Transito (Transit Chapel). Inside the cell are a statue of Francis in white, glazed terracotta by Andrea della Robbia from 1490, and a glass case containing what pertains to be the cord from Francis’ robe with its 3 knots representing the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Santa Maria degli Angeli is the seventh largest Christian church in the world. It was begun in 1569 and was substantially completed in 1667 when the dome was added. Following the devastating earthquake of 1832, the church underwent some remodelling, particularly of the facade.

Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi

Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi

Even for the non-believers amongst us, this place has a wonderful, spiritual feel to it. Its credentials – birthplace of the Franciscan Order and the place where Francis died – qualify this church for much more attention than it seems to receive.

St Francis of Assisi, attributed to Cimabue

St Francis of Assisi, attributed to Cimabue

Battlefield

Leaving Castiglione del Lago, we headed north around Lake Trasimeno to the town of Tuoro, which is unremarkable other than it was close to the site of the Battle of Trasimeno which took place during the 2nd Punic Wars.

The Battle was fought on 21 June 217 BC between the Roman army, under Gaius Flaminius, and the Carthaginian troops, led by Hannibal. Hannibal planned a massive ambush of the Roman army along the shore of the Lake. Here, a narrow lakeside passage opened out into a confined plain, restricting the Romans’ ability to adopt their normal battle formations. Under cover of a morning mist, once the Roman troops were contained on the narrow plain with their rear blocked by Carthaginian cavalry, Hannibal’s men poured down from the heavily forested hills and routed the enemy. Hannibal 1, Rome 0.

Hannibal preparing for battle. Well, it was difficult to get a photo.....

Hannibal preparing for battle. Well, it was difficult to get a photo…..

It is estimated that around 15,000 Romans were killed that day, whilst Hannibal lost around 2,500. Hannibal almost suceeded in overpowering Rome and he was Rome’s biggest threat for many years. Although he eventually lost the Punic Wars, Hannibal is today remembered as one of the finest generals in ancient military history, and the Battle of Lake Trasimeno is considered to be an outstanding example of military tactics.

And if you are wondering what happened to Hannibal’s famous elephants, most of them died during the harsh, northern Italian winter.

Fired up by tales of derring-do, we continued on to Passignano sul Trasimeno, built on a rocky promontory overlooking the Lake.

Passignano sul Trasimeno

Passignano sul Trasimeno

The centre of Passignano still retains its medieval walls, but there is little left of the old town other than the remains of La Rocca di Passignano, a fortress dating from the V-VI centuries, due to bombing during the second World War.

Passignano sul Trasimeno, La Rocca

Passignano sul Trasimeno, La Rocca

The more modern town has sprawled to the Lake’s edge and attracts tourists mainly because of its access to the Lake’s islands by boat.

Passignano sul Trasimeno, Ferry Boats

Passignano sul Trasimeno, Ferry Boats

Fishing – both commercial and for leisure – is also carried out here. Tench, eel, pike, carp and perch are all found in the Lake.

Passignano sul Trasimeno, Fishing Boats

Passignano sul Trasimeno, Fishing Boats

Passignano sul Trasimeno, Fishing Boats

Passignano sul Trasimeno, Fishing Boats

Passignano sul Trasimeno, Gone Fishing!

Passignano sul Trasimeno, Gone Fishing!

There is also a small but pretty marina.

Passignano sul Trasimeno, Marina

Passignano sul Trasimeno, Marina

There were few boats out on the water…

Passignano sul Trasimeno, sailing.

Passignano sul Trasimeno, sailing.

Passignano sul Trasimeno, sailing

Passignano sul Trasimeno, sailing

It’s not difficult to idle away a few hours just looking….

Passignano sul Trasimeno

Passignano sul Trasimeno, misty view over Lake Trasimeno

There were lots of ducks, birds and various other wildlife on and around the Lake.

Duck, Lake Trasimeno

Duck, Lake Trasimeno

How green is this lizard? Lake Trasimeno

How green is this lizard? Lake Trasimeno

Right Mabel - let's get those 2 tourists down there...!

Right Mabel – let’s get those 2 tourists down there…!

Mini Adventures, Lake Trasimeno, Italy

Mini Adventures, Lake Trasimeno, Italy

Roll on the next adventure!