Toddling along in the car in Umbria presents its fair share of challenges and I’m not talking about driving on Italian roads?! I’m talking about which village perched on a hillside, completely splendid in all its medieval glory, is the one I stop and visit? This ancient region, the green heart of Italy is magnificent and drips with history. Spello is one such village and it’s been a favourite destination and ‘stop’ of mine for years.
I love the way it sits perched on its hill, resplendent in its coat of local pinkish stone; whiter than the stone of Assisi, the better known nearby neighbor. Its historical pedigree is impeccable, belonging to the period of Augustus who settled a number of his army veterans here. Making sure they were provided with enough financial support to cement this new Roman community he put them to work to reclaim the marshes that had formed in the lowest parts of the valley caused by the winter flooding of the River Topino. In much earlier times the Etruscans had dug canals to direct the flow of that river into the Tiber but it was the veterans of Augustus who improved the effectiveness of these canals, after which the region flourished. The site of Spello was chosen, sitting it above the plain safe from flood with a hint of a summer breeze which even today on the plain in hot summer is rarely felt!
Imperial Rome is here for all of us to see in the magnificent gates of the Porta Consolare, Porta Venere and the Porta Urbica that dot Spello today. I love the scale of Spello, making me feel special as I walk its streets. What we see today is mostly medieval from around 900AD onwards and if the Renaissance is your cup of tea, give yourself over just for a moment to the genius of Romanesque architecture, from which the Renaissance world is born. I’m always on the lookout for an untouched piece of the Romanesque like the beautiful Pieve di Corsignano, just outside Pienza in Tuscany. Here in Spello your walk will take you to the old church of S.Maria Maggiore and whilst the exterior of pure Romanesque will get the blood pumping, the horrible mix of late Renaissance and the Baroque on the inside will only disappoint; the integrity of the original architecture having been lost forever, as is often the case throughout medieval Italy. Upon entering and to your left you will discover the Baglioni Chapel decorated with magnificent frescoes painted by Pinturicchio from 1500. The majolica floor is a joy and dates from 1566 – the tiles most probably manufactured in Deruta.
Sometimes a building just speaks to you? In Spello that building is the 12th century church of Sant’Andrea; the light that filters through the leadlight windows and the ancient vaults of the ceiling have witnessed down through the centuries the ebb and flow of life in this Umbrian village. It’s here that I feel history and tap into the stories of the village. It’s here that I’m reminded of the heartbeat of Spello, and it’s wonderful.
I have eaten at Osteria de Dada’ on Via Cavour, 47 (closed on Monday) over the years and you get value for money and hearty food, particularly in the cold months of autumn and winter.
If Spello captures your imagination enough to want to use it as base for touring in this part of Umbria you might like to check out Albergo del Teatro on Via Giuila, 24. It’s more than acceptable and I love the location: www.hoteldelteatro.it