There is no better way to begin your travel journey than with a gentle introduction to the Italian way of life through this amazing medieval city, sitting high on the tufa rock with commanding views of the surrounding green valley. You will settle quickly into the daily routine with time to meet these generous, warm-hearted people and to experience the culture, art and food right on your doorstep and, have every opportunity through day tours and excursions to all that is close by. In this "city on the rock" you will find that you never lose touch with history, from the ancient Etruscans to the modern day, with its own brand of local produce that plays a significant role in defining the characteristics of the Orvietani and the pride they take in their long heritage of viniculture and olive oil production, not forgetting the unique experience of the famed Orvieto cathedral and the astonishing Signorelli frescoes, admired too by Michelangelo himself. There is so much to do and to appreciate here that the biggest mistake you can make is in not giving yourself enough time to sit, take that first morning gasp of espresso, followed by a great sugar hit of pastry and ready yourself for a day full of sights and sounds - and quietness too - like no other.
No visit to Assisi can be considered "complete" without first visiting the tiny chapel of the "Porziuncula" at Santa Maria degli Angeli. It is housed inside the monumental basilica that was built around it to protect it from the environment and to house the thousands of pilgrims who come to worship at this most sacred site of St Francis of Assisi. Whether you have faith or not, it is this one site and all that surrounds it (and the forest that surrounded it once) and the stories that abound, that will give meaning to your visit of the town of Assisi proper. Like all these places it is critical to know to best time to visit and also the best vantage point to park your car (or with your guide and driver). Beginning at the top gate that leads onto the basilica of Santa Chiara then allows for a gentle wander down the streets and eventually to the fabulous upper and lower basilicas that hold the great Giotto cycle of the life of St Francis, as well as many other masters who were breaking new ground in their depiction of the life of their most beloved saint and the movement that quickly sprung up around him. We do highly recommend a guided visit, at least to the basilcas. Our facilitator in Orvieto can also make sure you get the best lunch and wine tasting to include on this unforgettable visit.
Bevagna is one of those charming ancient walled towns, off the Via Flaminia, that offers a wonderful walk through the winding back streets, around the crescent buildings (following the remains of a Roman theatre), to the beautiful medieval central piazza. This piazza dates from the 12th to 13th centuries, proudly displaying one remaining Roman column with its Corinthian capital, a strange, lone reminder of things past. In particular, the 12th century church of San Silvestro, with its unfinished facade in travertine and Subasio stone provides a glimpse into a typical dark interior that has, luckily, been left unadorned in the passing of time, giving us the feeling that, as we step through the central portal under the Gothic frieze, we do indeed step back in time. There are many more quiet, hidden delights of this unassuming town to be discovered, such as the Roman bath house with fabulous mosaic floor that spent eons of time hidden under straw and muck as it was used as a piggery. Over summer time the whole town starts buzzing with Medieval wooden stalls laden with typical products and crafts with the vendors all dressed in Medieval garb. Many of the crafts, these "Medieval Mysteries," have local workshops open throughout much of the year too and can be visited with prior booking.
The large lake at Bolsena was created as part of the huge volcanic area that spreads as far as Orvieto and beyond. But the two towns hold a greater bond than that of geomorphology as the remains of the Etruscan settlement of the ancient town of Velzna (now Orvieto) were banished to Novi Velzna (Bolsena) as the Roman troops burnt and pillaged their way through in the 3rd century BCE. Archaeological remains of this new settlement are still visible as you enter the town today and the local Museum of La Rocca Monaldeschi provides not only the best views of the lake from the upper ramparts but also lays out the physical and historical landscape of the area in a very accessible way. It is one of our favourite small museums to visit. The next connection to Orvieto comes from the tale of the "Miracle of Bolsena" which played out in the church of Santa Cristina. The story (legend) of the 4th century Santa Cristina herself, an early Christian martyr, creates another depth to the abundant myths and legends of the place in a rich tapestry (if a touch horrific) depiction of life as it was lived and, to this day, the towns people of Bolsena celebrate it all with great festivals that include the re-staging of her numerous "torments." The towns around the lake also offer up some of the best trattorie with fish from both the lake and the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea.
The gardens at Bomarzo, often called "the Sacred Wood" or the "Park of the Monsters" provides one of those fabulous opportunities to sloth off the surrounds of busy towns and people and immerse yourself into the fantasy world created by the Italian nobleman, Duke Pier Francesco Orsini (also known as Vicino) in the 16th century. The garden he created was populated by dozens of huge sculptures, hewn out of the local stone wherever they lay. After his death the garden fell into ruins and became so overgrown, with many fallen statues, that the local population used to scare their children with stories of the "monsters" in the park. Now lovingly restored and open to the public, the garden offers up a strange insight into that particularly Italian Renaissance penchant for challenging the mind, providing a philosophical journey through themes such as love, death, memory and truth. A knowledge of Medieval iconography helps and also some knowledge of the poets Dante, Petrarch and Oriosto, but our DI booklet will help you through and, in any case, it is a great delight on its own to wander through and enjoy the sculptures where they now stand, in the revived garden of Vicino's fancy, a garden like no other.
The Villa Farnese at Caprarola provides an unparalleled insider's view of how the popes "played" and how their families made the most of what was typically a short but most ardent moment of power and glory. The stunning pentagonal-shaped, Mannerist-styled Villa Farnese is one of the two most beautiful examples of 16th century country villas in Latium. It ranges over five floors with a huge central loggia. The fabulous frescoed walls, of course, celebrate the many (and nefarious) victories of the Farnese family and their important connections. With weather permitting and the protectors of the land willing, the adjoining Renaissance-style garden offers a gentle stroll through the grotto and expansive parkland that leads up through the forest to a cascading rill leading into the "giardino segreto" (secret garden), to the highest point of the "casino" or hunting lodge. Here there is a private, rear entrance to protect the identity of some guests as well as the "virtue" of any ladies entering by carriage. Visits are strictly via pre-booking and led by a household guide. It is best taken in the company of the DI facilitator as she knows the villa very well and we often find the household guide is only in Italian.The small town of Caprarola adds its own interest with a couple of great trattorie tucked away in hidden side streets.
The 3rd century BCE township of Carsulae probably originated as a rest stop and watering place for travellers, traders and soldiers. This branch of the ancient Via Flaminia courses through a gentle rolling upland plain, an area that had been heavily populated since the middle of the Bronze Age. It was a bucolic setting, with mineralised thermal baths, theatres, temples and other public amenities, attracting wealthy and even middle class tourists from Rome. Today, nothing but the ruins remain of this once bustling community. The only activity that happened beyond this hey-day of existence was in the Paleo-Christian era with the building of the 4th or 5th century church of San Damiano, built on the ruins of an earlier Roman building. Deserted for centuries, it was used as a quarry for building materials but otherwise was left alone. Consequently, it became an archaeologists dream as they were able to map the whole city area in great detail. The most plausible reasons for the abandonment were that it was almost destroyed and the site made inhospitable by an earthquake, and also because of preference shifting for north-south traffic to Rome on the faster eastern branch of the Via Flaminia. What we can see today is the skeleton of a once thriving Roman wayside stop. It is an evocative, wonderfully pastoral scene that allows for a quiet reflective wandering, DI map and information in hand to help give it context, of course.
At almost a 2 hour drive from Orvieto you will need to be an Etruscan enthusiast to add this to your days, but it is worth every minute driving through a panorama of fertile fields dotted with cypresses and umbrella pines, to find yourself suddenly in this off-the-beaten-track archeological park, immersed in the world of the ancient Etruscans. The tombs here at "Banditaccia Necropolis" are organised along paved roads with gutters, drains, sidewalks cut out of rock, giving a real feel of a typical Etruscan urban layout. Back in the unassuming town of Ceveteri is the museum, housed in a Medieval castle, displaying all the fabulous treasures from the necropolis. Over the last two hundred years, some of the best discoveries have been made here, especially in the rare case when an Etruscan tomb of a high-ranking person has been found undisturbed, the finds are fantastic - often a tomb filled not only with funerary containers and sarcophagi, but also pottery, gold, metalwork, and jewellery. At Cerveteri, a few tombs have yielded Etruscan objects that are nothing short of spectacular and it is possible to go inside several of the "tumuli" (mushroom-shaped mounds atop with grass and a girdle of stone around the bases). The tombs are now empty but there is a quiet stillness in them, and even that "soothingness in the air" that D.H. Lawrence described in his Etruscan Places, as death to the Etruscans, "was just a natural continuance of the fullness of life.".
This extraordinary township clings to life high on its rocky precipice, rising up out of the "Valley of the Badlands." In the 3rd century BCE the Etruscan city was substantially connected to the town of Bagnoregio. Today it is just one third of its original land mass. Numerous earthquakes and landslides saw the land bridge (once broad enough to hold a convent and a treed thorough fare for carriages), reduce again and again to what remains as the rather alarming foot bridge, spanning the valley far below. It seems a long and daunting climb at first sight but the rewards are definitely worth it. Once through the Medieval Porta Santa Maria (remains of the Etruscan door sit inside this later one), it opens up into a very pretty piazza - note that some of the tall windows in the walls of the outer palazzi now look straight out onto the sky instead of to an interior space! The church of San Donato sits in the central piazza. It was founded in the 8th century on a pre-existing Roman temple. Engraved tiles from the Roman period can be seen embedded in the exterior walls. There are many stories to tell (some touched with a little fancy perhaps) about this small enclave and its remaining population but there is an undeniable charm that makes wandering along the small streets, engaging with the locals and sitting quietly to reflect on it all a memorable journey and one not easily found elsewhere.
Deruta is a hill town and comune in the Province of Perugia and has long been known as a centre of refined maiolica manufacture. The old town of Deruta Storico houses a fabulous, didactic museum for maiolica, from the Medieval, to the Renaissance and into the modern era. This ancient centre is also home to one of the best maiolica artisans in Patizio Chiucchiu, a long time friend and colleague. The image here is of his exquisite work. There is also one of our favourite trattorie here owned and run by the ever affable Luciano - try especially a variety of the antipasti! Along the route to Deruta is the very special sanctuary of Madonna del Bagno, housing ceramic "ex voto" tiles dating from the mid 16th century. The eight hundred "ex voto," all the same in shape and size, have accumulated over the course of almost four centuries and provide an astonishing insight into the social mores over this long period including not only the everyday activities undertaken by locals (peasants and nobles alike) but also in the depiction of furnishings and dress of those pictured. Every hand-painted tile denotes the refrain of "P.G.R." - "per ringrazia ricevuta," giving thanks to the Madonna "of the cup" for the grace received in saving each person represented from some bad outcome. This is a super special place to visit.
Montefalco is a very pretty Umbrian hill-top town with pre-Roman foundations. It has retained much of its Medieval charm, still surrounded by its circular ashlar walls. There are many delightful alleys and side streets as you ascend that will take you to some great views over the valley filled with vineyards and especially the grape of the "sagrantino" wine, a delicacy sought out by visitors in the many specialist vineyards close by and served in all the restaurants here, along with its local fabulous olive oil. The central piazza is dominated with the many aristocratic palazzi and in particularly by the town hall with its open loggia and 18th century bell tower, a lovely spot to sit in the sunshine with an espresso - or a local wine. One of the main attractions that brings us back is the small church (now brilliant little museum) of San Francesco. This unimposing building includes what must be considered some of the most important works of the Renaissance in Benozzo Gozzoli's cycle of that most beloved of all Umbrian saints, Francis of Assisi. The cycle consists of 19 episodes in the life and differs from the more famous cycle in that it depicts only those scenes from when Francis was alive and not the posthumous miracles included by Giotto. Benozzo Gozzoli also places the scenes in a contemporary (for his time) landscape and architecture in order to bring the saint closer to the people. And it works. It is one of the most beautiful fresco story-cycles and one I love to tell.
The name of Tarquinia is derived directly from the Etruscan, having changed briefly in the Middle Ages then reinstated once more in acknowledgement of its important history. The focus of any visit is the National Etruscan Museum which displays all the amazing finds from the close by "Monterozzi Necropolis." Just ONE of the many important finds are the "Winged Horses" in a relief that looks for all the world like they are about to leave behind their clay footings and soar into the air, truly magnificent. The museum also houses a number of the more "at risk" wall paintings in temperature controlled rooms to preserve them from the damp tomb walls of the necropolis. But there is nothing that beats a visit to the close-by tombs themselves. It is a significant privilege to be able to view the tomb paintings in situ. These were meant after all as a private expression of faith rather than an open display for the general public. Of the more than 6,000 tombs discovered, dating from the 6th to the 3rd centuries BCE, there are only a small number properly excavated, preserved and open to visit. Those with painted walls offer an intimate insight into these fabulous, enigmatic people of Etruria - gifted, intelligent, energetic and lively - and worth every descent to catch a glimpse of a life that was beautifully depicted and then meant to be closed up - immediately and forever.
According to myth Todi was founded by the ancient Umbrian tribe of Veii, on the site where an eagle dropped a cloth taken from their table, hence the outspread wings of an eagle with a cloth in its claws on the Todi coat of arms. High on the hill, the easiest access is from the lower carpark via a funiculare/elevator to the mid point with an easy and delightful walk up a little further to the central Piazza del Popolo. There are galleries, antique stores and craft workshops hidden along the side streets as you go and a fabulous restaurant tucked away down a set of steps serving some of the best Umbrian cuisine including game and other delights - especially the huge antipasto plate - with views from the terrace out over the many-hued green valley. Along the way you will pass the Umbrian Gothic church of Tempio di San Fortunato. It is worth the climb up the steps to trace the long ribbons of spiral-carved marble that encapsulate the main door. Only if you are truly vigilant will you see the everlasting joke that the labourer carved into his work, quite naughty really! Once in the main piazza the whole comune is visible with its monumental buildings, including the 12th century Lombard-style cathedral in the dominant position, also atop a great flight of steps. It is one of those lovely towns to wander, take a leisurely meal or drink and and gaze at the valley spread out all around.
The gardens of the Villa Lante are wonderful in that you can enter and wander at your leisure - DI Information Booklet in hand - and be delighted by what you see. We suggest you head first to the very summit of the garden (while you are still fresh and energetic) and then descend slowly, taking in all around you, as though descending from the natural parkland level (outside the fence) of Ovid’s “Golden Age” down the path of humanity’s descent, to the geometric order of the still pools below. Many see an allegory imbedded in the layout based on Ovid's Metamorphosis which is perhaps not too much of a stretch given the hyper-idealisation and ambiguous spaces favoured by Mannerist painters and designers. The formal gardens are laid out symmetrically on a hillside, with two palazzine and two temples to the Muses laid out in pairs, leaving the centre open for water features. It was built mostly by/for Cardinal Gianfrancesco Gambara from 1568 to 1578. The family’s emblem, the crayfish (gambero in Italian), can be seen in many places. It was almost complete when Pope Gregory XIII criticised the extravagance and cancelled Gambara’s "poor cardinals" stipend, a financial supplement given to cardinals who were not from affluent families and needed extra income to live with the dignity due the office. Fortunately for us, the garden was completed in 1610.
Vulci was another of those amazing Etruscan cities but, unlike Tarquinia and Orvieto was all but forgotten. It is hard to imagine that it once stood as one of the wealthiest and most luxurious cities of ancient Italy — the chosen residence of the princes of Etruria. Now, once again, the treasures it unearthed are prized possessions, all housed in the remarkable, if rather sombre Medieval, grey stone castle of "Castello della Badia," built on the ruins of an ancient abbey by Cistercian monks, on the edge of the archaeological park and joined to it by the beautiful Roman arched "Ponte della Badia," often referred to as the "rainbow" or "devil's" bridge. Inside the museum are elegant bucchero Etruscan vases and refined figured Greek vase with some very significant finds. There is a small restaurant within the archaeological park which makes for a great stop for lunch after a hike through the park (closed in winter), offering traditional Maremma dishes. And, in Spring and Summer, the park organises events, which includes guided tours at night, horseback riding, sports activities, canoeing, etc. These do have to be pre-booked. It is possible to book an English speaking guide to both the park and the museum but, with the DI map and guide in hand, you can choose to wander at your leisure. It can be another one of those quiet days we delight in, in being able to move at your own pace through the ancient land that still bears evidence of a vibrant life that went before.