Category Archives: Umbrian Hill Towns

Heart of Stone

 

Spello’s well preserved town walls remain surprisingly complete. At the highest point is the Belvedere with its extensive views over the Topino valley and its Roman archway. Leave the main streets and lose yourself in the quiet medieval alleyways crowded with interlocked stone houses with flower-filled balconies.

Spello is built on the lower slopes of Mount Subasio. The pink marble from the mountain was used to build the town, giving it a rosy hue, especially at sunrise and sunset. The striations in the stones show the ridges and grooves  of movements in the rocks over millions of years.

The remains of the Arch of Augustus form part of a later wall, its original Roman inscription visible.

The walls show the changes to building facades over the centuries; here a doorway has been bricked up, still using the local marble.

Each turn, each tiny alley brings its rewards, with plants and flowers, delicate handrails and secret arches. Who knows where that street will lead? Who cares, when there is time to explore?

I place my hand on the ancient stones in sunlight and they are warm to the touch. The marble absorbs and stores the heat, releasing it when the day cools down. The walls are thick, keeping the houses cool in summer and warm in winter. The roofs are made from layers of crafted Roman tiles, normally on a wooden frame or barrel vaults. The colours of the tiles change as they weather. The result is picture perfect.

I stand with my back to the stones and wonder what tales they could tell, what changes they have seen and how many people have passed them by. I am just one visitor, just one more person passing through this town of pink stones. But this visitor will be back. Spello may  have a heart of stone, but it is entwined with my own.

 

 

 

 

 

Castle on the Hill

On a previous visit to Spoleto, we had taken the escalators from the walls of the city to its summit. This time we took the underground, moving walkways. They would not have looked out of place in a science fiction film, with their shiny tiles and endless horizon. There were breaks at certain points where it was possible to exit at various levels of the city, but we went right to the end where the fortress of La Rocca dominates the skyline. Built in the 13th century to protect the Papal territories, it was associated with, amongst others, both Cesare Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia.

From the fortress there are extensive views across the city, including a bird’s eye view of the cathedral….

….and the mountains beyond….

The piazza outside the cathedral is beautiful, and when the sun shines, the mosaics on the front of the building are golden bright.

It was a dull day, but there are always restaurants to explore. We found a local Osteria at the top of this slope.

Wending our way back down the city’s hills, the lovely, arched streets were a pleasure to visit….

….and we even found a disdainful lion….

Food Glorious Food

There are many reasons to visit Italy. It is a country full of history, art and magnificent architecture. It has an endless coastline with aquamarine seas, long stretches of untrodden sand and craggy cliffs. Its people are warm, welcoming, noisy and passionate. But if you love good food and wines, then perhaps that’s enough of a reason to come here.

Find a quiet bar with a fabulous view and pause with a prosecco….

….or stop in a welcoming wine bar to smell the roses….

….and taste some local meats and cheeses….

Try somewhere new, and sample olive oils from all over Italy. Peppery, lemony, spicy….

….perfectly matched with a panzanella that’s as pretty as a picture….

….or tender steak tartare with liver pate and tomato salad….

….and melting  artichokes like petal-strewn bells….

Pass the cutlery please!

With special thanks to Bar Bonci, Vinosofia and Extra Vergine OLeOteca, all proud Spello bars.

In the Still of the Night

Strolling round Spello at night is a wonderful experience. The day-trippers have left, the streets are quiet and the shutters are closed on the many windows. The Propertius Towers flank the western gate into the town, their restored Roman remains surrounding a medieval entrance. Beyond, the lights of Foligno and Montefalco shine through the darkness.

The main piazza has been recently refurbished, its clean lines contrasting with the previous rather haphazard arrangement.The changes have been controversial. It seems that there was little or no consultation with the people of Spello – the Spellani – over the plans. There is lingering discontent still, and it remains to be seen whether any further changes will be made. A bronze statue of The Return of Saint Frances by Norberto is sited in the piazza. It’s a lovely thing, but it is a copy of the statue outside the basilica in nearby Assisi, and although Norberto was a native of Spello, the locals feel that it is not sufficiently original for Spello. Close to the statue is a white metal tree, ugly by day and barely improved by night when its branches are lit. The original fountain has been refurbished; previously it rarely worked, but now it is in full working order and an asset to the piazza.

At the moment, when darkness falls, the square is lit in the colours of the Italian flag. There are rumours that this is a temporary measure but, Spello Commune, if you listen to the people you will hear that they want the lights to stay. For what it’s worth, I’d like them to stay too.

Chance Meeting

 

On our first night we planned a quiet evening at a favourite restaurant with good food and a little local wine to wash it down with. But this is Spello and anything can happen.

No sooner had we poured the wine than a familiar face appeared at the window. Maestro Elvio Marchionni had arrived with two of his friends, fellow artists originally from Armenia and Germany, but both living in Italy for many years. Fuelled by copious amounts of wine and much artistic passion, spanning laughter, tears and a little grumpiness, the evening was a lively affair.

I have written about Elvio Marchionni before and much admire his work. He is a man who lives for his art and his hands are never still. By the end of the evening he had covered the paper tablecloth with drawings which we were fortunate to be gifted. Another magical evening in magic Spello.

Wonderful Tonight

The first of May is a national holiday in Italy, dedicated to the workers. The roads were busy with traffic, holidaymakers returning home. On fast roads we soon left the crowds behind and headed into Umbria, the green heart of Italy. Mountains rose all around us, their slopes rich with trees. Here and there, hill-top villages cascaded from the peaks, topped by church spires or castellated walls, reminders of past sieges. Wisps of cloud stretched just below the peaks, like casually worn scarves draped across the shoulders.

It was almost dark when we arrived in Spello. The rose-coloured stones had dulled to a light ochre and the cypress trees looked black in the fading light. My heart soared; returning to Spello was just like coming home.

The crepuscular sky held a promise of good weather ahead.

The pale moon hung like a paper lantern in the dark sky, pinprick stars piercing the velvet night.

Spello, you look wonderful tonight. Time to dream now of friends revisited and adventures to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Heaven is a Place on Earth

Blue Nun, Spello

Blue Nun, Spello

Italy remains a Catholic country and there are many Italians for whom religion remains part of the daily ritual, whether they live a cloistered life, such as in Spello’s ancient Vallegloria Convent, or by making their own personal spiritual journey. We stepped out of a doorway and found ourselves caught up in a procession, a microphone and loud-hailer leading the chanted prayers, the street brimming with people.

Nuns in the Sun, Spello

Nuns in the Sun, Spello

The nearby town of Assisi, birthplace of Saint Francis, is an important stop on the ancient pilgrim’s route from Tuscany to Rome. Spello is one of the many hill towns visited along the way. Not everybody walks the entire route, but this section with its rolling green hills and proximity to Assisi is particularly popular.

Did I hear something?

Did I hear something?

The Spellani watch the procession in the narrow streets, leaning out of high windows or peeping between the balcony railings. Everybody loves a spectacle.

Well Hidden, Spello

Well Hidden Flower Girls, Spello

It’s time for us to bid farewell once again to Spello. Like lovers we make promises about returning soon. We greet friends for the final time and say arrivederci – until we meet again. We linger in our favourite wine bar, Vinosofia, listening to the legendary Miles Davis, one more Martini for the road, stirred not shaken. If ever heaven was a place on earth, it’s Spello. Taxi’s here. I wipe away a tear….

Lost in Contemplation

Lost in Contemplation

“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place: we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”― Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon

Thanks for coming along for the ride. Did you enjoy it?

Street Life

Baby You Can Drive My Car

Baby You Can Drive My Car

In the warm autumn sunshine, Spello attracts few tourists and can often be quiet and still. The restaurants with their delicious dishes celebrating local food and wines remain open, the scent of herbs wafting from their busy kitchens. The cafes still spill out onto the pavements where the afternoons drift lazily by, fuelled by strong coffee and Aperol spritz.

Paws for Thought

Paws for Thought, Spello

On the street, life continues on. The children are back at school now, and in the early mornings and afternoons their excited chatter echoes in the narrow passageways. Workers continue to improve the road surface, vehicles squeezed into the narrow streets, blocking any traffic.

Parking Problems?

Parking Problems? Spello

In the town square, old men sit chatting whilst old women fill their baskets with ingredients for dinner. A Fiat 500 (cinquecento) – ideal for the narrow roads – screeches past, its distinctive engine stutter and rattle a regular sound here on the street.

For Ishita, as promised!

For Ishita, as promised!

During the afternoon pausa, shutters are closed and the sound of clattering plates and talking can be heard from the cool interiors. Now and then people stroll by, keeping to the shade of the buildings.

Strolling, Spello

Strolling, Spello

In nearby Montefalco, even the statues have sunglasses to protect them in the heat of the day…

Blues Brothers Chef, Montefalco

Blues Brothers Chef, Montefalco

….and these young girls look cool as they whizz around the medieval villages with a scooter tutor….

Scooting, Montefalco

Scooting with a Scooter Tutor, Montefalco

But even on the warmest day there is often a hint of rain in the air, as the clouds gather over nearby Mount Subasio. Armed for any weather, this wonderful friend is all smiles….

One of my Crew, Spello

One of my Crew, Spello

How can a day be so perfect? Perhaps you have a perfect day too?

Blue,

Blue Remembered Hills, Spello

Handbags and Gladrags

P1040233

As part of my occasional series on artisan shops in Spello I have spoken to people who farm the produce, design the clothes and even hunt the truffles that they sell. For me, it is the people who interest me most, although I am never averse to a little purchase given the opportunity. Il Vario is located on Via Garibaldi. It sells a variety of things (the shop’s name means “varied”), but largely handbags and ceramics.

P1040235

The owner is Marcello Paneri, a well-known character in his smart shoes and stylish clothes. Marcello has had his shop in Spello for 16 years and branched out 2 years ago with another in nearby Foligno. Marcello speaks little English and his quick-fire Italian is difficult for me to follow at times, but we (almost) managed to understand each other using the normal pointing and nodding translation tools!

Marcello Paneri, Il Vario, Spello

Marcello Paneri, Il Vario, Spello

Marcello collaborates with a potter to design and produce ceramics which use the work of the famous Austrian artist Gustav Klimt as inspiration. Many of the pieces are big and bold and their high glaze shines in the sunlight….

P1040217

Handbags were quirkily displayed in frames or draped with well-matched accessories.

P1040215

The handbags are made in Umbria using the softest leather with handcrafted stitching. These bags aren’t cheap, but the clean lines, quality and timeless styles will ensure that buyers are still filling them with absolute essentials for years to come.

P1040231

Jewellery reminded me of the sea with its rocks and shells…..

P1040228

….and brightly coloured, swimming fish caught in nets….

P1040227

Some of the bags were decorated with tapestry designs; we asked where these were made.

P1040225

Come” motioned Marcello, and we obediently followed him, destination and purpose unknown. He led us down a side street which opened out into the small Carlo Carretto piazza, and through a double door into a light-filled space with displays of tapestries created by Mauro Ottaviani, who had by now joined us, summoned by Marcello.

P1040248

Mauro’s ancient Singer sewing machine was a source of great pride, although its sewing days were long gone. His intricate picture of a favela was my favourite….

P1040240

….and this detail of a colourful seaside town also caught my eye….

P1040246

Mauro has been creating his works since 1985, showing flowers, human figures, townscapes and geometric designs. A large tapestry of Spello took 3 years to make; the intricate work makes this understandable.

P1040259

Mauro invited us (nodding and pointing) to his workshop, and we were fortunate to see him at work on his latest design, his deft fingers flying over the fabric….

P1040256

Who would have thought that a chat with Marcello would result in an opportunity to see one of Spello’s craftsmen at work? Only a chilled glass of prosecco could complete our lovely afternoon, and so it was that we spent the early evening in the gardens of the Bar Bonci. Now that’s another story….

You Wear it Well

 

Audrey - You've Forgotten Your Hat!

Audrey – You’ve Forgotten Your Hat!

On Spello’s main street, just beyond the Piazza della Repubblica, is La Bottega degli Intrecci. It’s the prettiest shop in the street from the outside, and stepping inside does not disappoint.

Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Bottega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Paola Tacconi is the driving force behind the business. She is a chic, cultivated lady, always smiling. A creative person and a published poet, her passion is to create beautiful clothes with a strong ethical philosophy. The materials she uses are natural and organic – linen, bamboo and wool are particular favourites – leaving behind the smallest imprint possible on the planet.

Paola Tacconi, Spello

Paola Tacconi, Spello

Paola was born in Terni near Rome but moved to Spello 28 years ago, when she fell in love with its peaceful, spiritual ambience. She opened her shop 18 years ago and now has clients from all over the world who recognise the quality and originality of her work.

Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Everywhere you turn there are stylish clothes, recalling the timeless elegance of Audrey Hepburn.

“The imprint of Miss Hepburn is absolutely, totally present.” Manolo Blahnik

Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Everything is designed by Paola and her designs are translated into reality by a local seamstress with whom Paola has worked for many years. It is all made by hand, all made in Spello.

“If you can dream it, you can do it.” Enzo Ferrari

Wool and Bobbins, Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Wool and Bobbins, Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

The clothes are wonderfully classic in style, the sort of things to buy and keep rather than discard the following season: full of flair, rather than disposable fashion. Paola is full of good advice, helping customers select items and matching them to delightful accessories, all without any pressure to buy. The boutiques of Milan can’t compete with service like this!

Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello. Fine bamboo top with silk beads.

Whether you are going to the beach or to the ball, once you have chosen your clothes, there are original bags, scarves and jewellery to complete your look….

Stylish Bag, Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Stylish Bag, Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Paola promotes the age-old art of tatting: handmade lace-making using a small shuttle to produce intricate jewellery. Each piece is entirely original and very decorative.

Tatting, Bottega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Tatting, Bottega Degli Intrecci, Spello

As well as tatting, there are many pieces made from macrame, a form of textile making that uses various knots to produce lampshades, cords and chains. Again each piece is original, delicate looking and light to wear.

Macramé Jewellry, Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Macramé Jewellery, Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo da Vinci

Macramé Necklace, Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Macramé Necklace, Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

It is the fine details that make Paola’s clothes stand out. The collar and button on this vibrant jacket add a timeless quality….

Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

BUtton Detail, Bottega Degli Intrecci, Spello

…and this coat sleeve has layers of detail that take it well beyond any high-street item….

Coat Sleeve Detail, Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Coat Sleeve Detail, Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

To mark her 18 years in business, Paola commissioned local artist Elfrida Gubbini to produce a terracotta sculpture, Madonna del Telaio (Madonna of the Loom) which can be found on Via Catena on the wall of the shop. It is a lovely work, and a generous gift to Spello, its residents and visitors who walk these cobbled streets.

Madonna Del Telaio, Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

Madonna Del Telaio, Botega Degli Intrecci, Spello

I am no shopper, but even I left with a stylish little number. All I need now is a special occasion to wear it. Breakfast at Tiffany’s anyone?

image