Category Archives: Umbrian Hill Towns

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

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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.

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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….

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

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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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….

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

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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.

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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….

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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?

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I Heard it Through the Grapevine

Prosecco, Drinking Wine, Spello

Prosecco, Drinking Wine, Spello

If you come to Italy for just one thing, come for the gastronomic experience. If your heart is hardened to history, culture, art and beauty, come anyway and feast. Drink in the colours, breathe in the aromas and taste the wonderful, local, seasonal food that Italy has to offer.

Fresh Truffle Bruscetta, Vinosofia, Spello

Fresh Truffle Bruscetta, Vinosofia, Spello

As we drove along the winding roads to Montefalco we passed rows of neat vines heavy with the weight of magnificent bunches of grapes gleaming in the bright sunshine. The wine produced by these sun-kissed grapes is delicious, sometimes even divine.

“Beer is made by men, wine by God.” Martin Luther

Afternoon Delight, Bar Bonci, Spello

Afternoon Delight, Bar Bonci, Spello

We regarded it as our duty to try out as many local restaurants and bars as we could in order to give you a taste (no pun intended) of the local produce. Olive oil is one of Umbria’s best products and it features heavily in its recipes.

Tartare, Drinking Wine, Spello

Tartare, Drinking Wine, Spello

Salami, cheeses and unsalted bread is the most popular Umbrian antipasti dish – great for sharing.

Antipasti, Dada's Spello

Antipasti, Dada’s Spello

Zuccini flowers stuffed with ricotta cheese and herbs was a favourite dish; these vegetables tasted like ambrosia.

Zuccini Flowes, L'Alchemista, Montefalco

Zuccini Flowes, L’Alchimista, Montefalco

“Wine is sunlight held together by water.” Galileo

Vino Rosso, Vinosofia, Spello

Vino Rosso, Vinosofia, Spello

What is fine food without fine wine? An incomplete experience surely.

Carpaccio of Beef, Rocket and Parmesan, Drinking Wine, Spello

Carpaccio of Beef, Rocket and Parmesan, Drinking Wine, Spello

Perhaps our biggest culinary treat was Sunday lunch with our Italian friends, cooked by la bella Mariella, who had taught us how to make ravioli on an earlier visit.

Pigeon, L'Alchemista, Montefalco

Pigeon, L’Alchimista, Montefalco

We started with a selection of Bruscetta, topped with aubergines, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh figs, speck and straccino cheese with wild rocket. A meal in itself, but this was Italy so this was merely the prelude.

Salami, Vinosofia, Spello

Salami, Vinosofia, Spello

Next we had ravioli, stuffed with spinach and ricotta in a light tomato sauce. It was a mouthful of flavours that left us wanting more, but knowing that there was more to come it was wise to decline.

Rose, L'Alchemista, Montefalco

Rose, L’Alchimista, Montefalco

Pappardelle with hare sauce arrived, a meaty, savoury dish that melted in the mouth. By now we were feeling full, but still we waited in anticipation for the main event.

Potato Rosti with prosciutto and Parmesan, L'Alchemista, Montefalco

Potato Rosti with prosciutto and Parmesan, L’Alchimista, Montefalco

Piled up plates of hare cooked with garlic, rosemary, slivers of olives and white wine, in a sauce of olive oil, capers, garlic, vinegar and parsley appeared, with dishes of spinach, perfectly seasoned. It was thoroughly delicious.

Coffee and Passito, Dada's, Spello

Coffee and Passito, Dada’s, Spello

No Italian meal is complete without a dessert, and this lunch was no exception. Ciaramicola, a traditional Perugian dessert was served, red on the inside and covered with white meringue, the colours of the Perugian emblem. According to tradition, girls give this cake to their lovers at Easter; this would melt many an Italian man’s heart!

Tiramisu- already nibbled! L'Alchemista, Montefalco

Tiramisu- already nibbled! L’Alchimista, Montefalco

Did I mention the wine? Umbrian whites and reds accompanied each course. Afterwards there was an aniseed liqueur, known as a “coffee killer”, poured into strong espresso to hide the bitter after taste. I resisted photographing each course as I was too busy eating, so use your imagination to conjure up a meal fit for a king.

“I shall drink no wine before it’s time! OK, it’s time.” Groucho Marx

 

 

Scene Through the Eye of a Lens

Spello Staircase

Spello Staircase

One of the things I love about Italians is that they love a festival. Any opportunity to celebrate local food, wines, traditions and culture is seized upon with enthusiasm. One such cultural event which we were privileged to attend this week was the Spello Photo Fest.

Fabrizio Corvi's Studio, Spello

Fabrizio Corvi’s Studio, Spello

Organised largely by Fabrizio Corvi, who has a studio in Spello, and Barbera Pinci, it was a celebration of the work of fifteen talented photographers. Local people opened up their garages, storage spaces and unrestored buildings to host the exhibitions in the ancient Via Giulia. This meant that as well as the art on show, we were allowed a secret peek into the wonderful old buildings which are usually hidden behind large wooden doors. This particular space was enhanced by the view across the fields and hills: a framed picture in itself….

Framed View, Spello

Framed View, Spello

Interiors offered glimpses into crumbling rooms, waiting to be brought back into use….

Ripe for Renovation, Spello

Ripe for Renovation, Spello

The exhibits themselves were extremely varied. There were haunting black and white photos by Deigo Good that drew you into his mystical world….

Lake Trasimeno. Copyright Diego Good

Lake Trasimeno. Copyright Diego Good

Artists such as Andrea Cianca documented the struggle of Italians who came out onto the streets as a last resort to defend things that were dear to them, such as their land and their jobs. These were harsh realities, tenderly portrayed.

Copyright Andrea Cianca

Italian Streets. Copyright Andrea Cianca

A laughing bride was presented in a distressed frame against a rustic wall….

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As well as the more traditional works, there were contemporary exhibits such as this mix of familiar objects. Who wore these shoes? Who watched this TV? Whose lives are we part of for a few fleeting minutes?

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Fabio Galioti recreated a 16th century painting by Caravaggio – The Calling of Saint Matthew – in a 9 minute film entitled “In the Light”. The characters were positioned exactly as in the painting, and as we watched they moved really slowly. It was an unusual and moving piece.

Was this doll’s head meant to remind us of childhood, or to give us nightmares?

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In a local cafe there was a display of old photographs of Spello and the people of Spello – the Spellani. This picture was really evocative – taken in Via Guilia which has hardly changed.

Family Collection, Spello

Family Collection, Spello

In Spello’s tiny museum there was another celebration of photography, this time by the American photographer Steve McCurry containing photos of Umbria. Steve McCurry is perhaps best known for his beautiful colour photos in the documentary tradition, including his striking portrait “Afghan Girl” which first appeared in National Geographic magazine. (We saw this recently at an exhibition “Drawn by Light” in London’s Science Museum).

Steve McCurry Exhibition, Spello

Steve McCurry Exhibition, Spello

“Even in the most forgotten and hidden areas of the country you will come across massive amounts of elegance and poetry, architecture and art. In Italy I like to explore the old and new and see how they intersect. And…if I had to recommend a place to visit in the world I would not hesitate: it’s Italy.” Steve McCurry

Family Lunch, Perugia. Copyright Steve McCurry

Family Lunch, Perugia. Copyright Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry’s photographs were beautifully presented, lit from behind in a darkened room. They are full of life, full of colour and display a real empathy for the people he portrays. This photo of a horse rider taken near Castellucio di Norcia – an area known as the Tibet of Italy – could almost be a painting….

Castellucio Di Norcia. Copyright Steve McCurry

Castellucio Di Norcia. Copyright Steve McCurry

In Bevagna at the medieval market of the Gaite held each June, he captured this recreation of an ancient craft, lit like a Vermeer painting….

Bevagna Medieval Market of the Gaite. Copyright Steve McCurry

Bevagna Medieval Market of the Gaite. Copyright Steve McCurry

His photos are inspirational; it is easy to see why he is considered to be a master of his craft.

“If you wait, people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view.” Steve McCurry

Monk, Spello. Copyright Steve McCurry

Monk, Spello. Copyright Steve McCurry

 

My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You

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Set amongst picturesque mountains and surrounded by some of Umbria’s most stunning scenery, the ancient Roman town of Spello is a place where you come to visit, leave and then long to return to.

Rooftops Spello

Rooftops Spello

And so it was that we arrived in Rome after a perfect flight, ready to connect with the fast train to Roma Termini, the main railway station, then onwards to Spello. Unfortunately the luggage for our entire flight went missing and it was an hour and a half later before we finally had our cases. By the time we tumbled onto the final train, night had fallen so we arrived in darkness, hungry and tired. Next morning, refreshed and bright-eyed, we were delighted to see the views from our terrace.

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The bells of the ancient church of Santa Maria Maggiore welcomed the day and we strolled around the streets, reacquainting ourselves with old familiar places and familiar faces.

Spello street

Spello street

And yet there is always something new to see, like this pair of angels on the wall of a house. Were they always there?

Angelic Wall, Spello

Angelic Wall, Spello

Even though summer is over, bright flowers can still be seen, their colours contrasting starkly with the mellow Spello stone….

Spello Street

Spello Street

An unexpected development was the long-promised work to improve the streets. This sunlit church watched over diverted traffic….

Sunlit Church, Spello

Sunlit Church, Spello

It is a huge project but progress is good and the end result will surely be worth the disruption. Here and there we had to squeeze past large trenches cut into the ancient foundations….

Work in Progress, Spello

Work in Progress, Spello

Familiar places, familiar faces, blue skies and Italian food; it’s good to be back in Magic Spello.

“Is that actually you or am I dreaming again?” Phil Klay

Spello Sky

Spello Sky