You would be forgiven if, after reading this blog, you thought that every town in Umbria is built on a hill. After the fall of Rome, beligerent tribes such as the Lombards, Goths, Saracens and Byzantines, forced the Umbrians to retreat to fortified hill towns from where they could better defend themselves. They were also able to store food to keep starvation at bay, and protect themselves against diseases brought in from outside their walls.
So it is true that the vast number of ancient settlements are high on the hills. Two notable exceptions – Folignio and Bevagna – are close to Spello, and both are worthy of a visit, even if it is just to rest those aching muscles!
Folignio is of Roman origin and was an important commercial centre during Roman times as it was on the Via Flaminia, constructed in 22BC on the orders of the Emperor Gaius Flaminius, and linking Rome to the Adriatic coast via a number of settlements including Folignio.
Today the town sprawls across the plain, with its mix of manufacturing and commercial facilities and modern housing. Folignio does, however, retain a historic centre with winding streets and some interesting religious and civic buildings.
When we visited, the town’s main square, the Piazza della Repubblica, was being resurfaced and it was enclosed by orange plastic barriers. This explains why the photos are all taken with the camera pointing upwards!
The Palazzo Comunale has an imposing frontage. It was begun in the 13th century but was altered throughout the years, most notably after the earthquake of 1832 when it suffered severe damage.
The Cathedral, started in 1133, has two facades opening out onto two piazzas. The larger facade looks onto Piazza della Repubblica, and has attractive rose windows and marble lions guarding its doors.
The main facade faces the smaller Piazza del Duomo and features a colourful mosaic over its door.
Opposite the Cathedral is the Palazzo Orfini. The Orfini family offered financial support to the exiled German printer, Johann Numeister, making Folignio an early centre for printing in Italy. This Palazzo is said to be on the site of the workshop where the first copies of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” were printed in 1472.
The Palazzetto del Podesta, thought to date from the 14th century, still shows traces of its original frescoes which had been hidden from view until its restoration in the 1980s.
From Folignio, it is just a short drive down the Via Flaminia – passing a couple of tall Roman tombs on the roadside – to the ancient settlement of Bevagna. Present day Bevagna preserves its medieval appearance. Its town walls are still largely complete, and there has been little expansion outside its boundaries.
Formerly a Roman town, it was affluent due to its location on the Via Flaminia, and wealthy Romans built their summer villas on the banks of its river.
There are few visible signs of Bevagna’s Roman past; the best-preserved are the Roman baths. These were known about in the 17th century, but it was only in the early 20th century that the remains were uncovered. It is thought that the wonderful monochrome mosaics date to around the 2nd century AD. The room may have been the fridgidarium, or cold baths, which was likely to have been part of a bigger complex with tepid and hot baths.
The mosaics show sea creatures – real and fantastical – in great detail.
Piazza Silvestri, Bevagna’s main square, is one of the most harmonious and well-preserved in Umbria.
The church of San Michele Arcangelo dates from the 12th/13th century.
The interior is light and simple, with soaring columns…..
and beautiful paintings…..
According to tradition, Saint Francis of Assisi preached his sermon to the birds nearby, and a stone embedded in the altar of the church of San Francesco is said to be the very stone on which Saint Francis stood to deliver his address.
Once renowned for its rope production as a result of the plentiful hemp grown along its watercourses, todays artisans of Bevagna weave baskets and make wrought iron goods. The past is not forgotten, however, and each June the town holds its Mercato dell Gaite festival with re-enactments of medieval life, demonstrations of archery and ancient crafts.
Just off the main square is the best cafe in Bevagna, La Bottega di Assu.
Books line the walls and are piled high on tables.
Chairman Mao looks after the wine…..
…..and ceramic acrobats hang precariously overhead…..
Opera or jazz plays in the background, and posters of jazz players jostle for space amongst photos of artists, writers and musicians.
Best of all, the food is superb: simple, local fare, cooked to perfection.
Bevagna has a lot to offer: a beautiful setting, a lovely town with tiny shops selling everything from cashmere to hand-made pasta. And at least one really good cafe.