Taking Goethe’s Favorite
SPOLETO in Umbria Italy was one of our favorite places to visit on weekend trips when we lived in Napoli. Only a three-hour drive north from Rome, this medieval split-level city (though I like to call it a town, limiting it only to its historical section) dates back to the Roman times. To feel its charm, this ancient town is best explored on foot. And the best way to approach it is as the medieval travelers did in the past.
One afternoon, we left our car in a small parking area along the switchbacks of a sacred mountain called Monteluco. From there, we followed a foot trail that cut deep through the ilex woods. The trail opened up to an ancient bridge spanning over to the town of Spoleto—Ponte delle Torri, the “Bridge of the Towers.”
The bridge stands 264 feet above a gorge filled with dense trees, and it spans 760 feet to the other side connecting Monteluco with Spoleto. Historians believe the bridge was built over an ancient Roman aqueduct.
In 1786, Goethe, Germany’s most celebrated poet, while traveling through Italy, came upon this bridge. He was struck with awe by the graceful construction of its nine pylon arches. He wrote that it was “so beautifully natural, purposeful, and true.” In fact, this stone structure spanning over the ravine was one of the few things Goethe was ever impressed about Italy.
Spoleto – Entering the Medieval Town
As Goethe, perhaps, would have done, we walked across the bridge toward the watchtowers of Rocca Albornoziana, which looms at the highest point of Spoleto. Until recently, this stone fortress, built in 1359, had been used as a prison. Its most infamous prisoner was the man who attempted in 1981 to assassinate Pope John Paul II. Now, the structure stands restored and refurbished, open to the public since 1984 as a historical heritage site.
Crossing the bridge, we turned right and ambled along the wall of the Rocca, along a wide shaded road of Via della Rocca, overlooking the deep gorge on our right. A breeze rustled the treetops. Birds chirped in the slanting light of the late afternoon sun. No cars drove through this road. And there was no tourists. Only a few local people walked, enjoying their passeggiata, their leisurely strolls. A couple of joggers ran by. That’s all. All was quiet.
The road gradually curved to the left, hugging the curvature of the Rocca wall, leading us away from the gorge. Then we spotted, slightly above our eye-levels, the top of a 12-century campanile peeking above the treetops—Spoleto’s Duomo.
Spoleto – The Duomo Is the Heart of the Town
Descending some stone steps, we entered the shadowy streets of the old section of the town. Down on the cobblestone alleys, we couldn’t see the Duomo anymore. The medieval buildings dominated our views, towering over us. After a few wrong turns, we finally came to an opening. Broad stone steps cascaded onto a slopping piazza below. Facing us stood the Duomo’s façade of the Umbrian Romanesque style, simple yet elegant.
From the top of the steps, we saw the eight rose windows and the golden mosaic at the center that glinted in the warm sunlight. To its left towered the belfry, which was pieced together with stones looted from some Roman temples. Now the tower stood like an afterthought addition, giving the Duomo’s façade an off-balanced symmetrical impression.
Down on the travertine brick laid piazza, several boys were chasing a soccer ball. Their shrill voices bounced off the surrounding stone structures. A couple of women sat on a stone bench in the shade in front of an embankment wall that held the hill with the trees rising up toward the Rocca.
Spoleto – Duomo is a Gallery of Italian Artists
Walking through the shadowy Renaissance portico, we entered the Duomo. Inside, we ambled on the original twelfth-century pavement. Our first stop was the Cappella Erioli off to the right. There graces the unfinished fresco—Madonna and Child—by a seventeen-year-old Pinturicchio.
Then, we went to the apse to see Frà Filippo Lippi’s frescoes depicting the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This is the artistic highlight of Spoleto.
Fra Fillipo Lippi
His Life Story in Short
Fra Lippi was a friar-artist. But he was an odd friar who did not keep his vow of celibacy. On the contrary, history tells us Lippi was quite a womanizer. He had even seduced a nun. Local legend weaves a tale of how an enraged family member of a woman he had seduced had poisoned him to death. His body was put to rest inside the Duomo. Then his remains disappeared, to disgrace him further. But no one knows what really happened. All that remains is his empty tomb.
What Am I Doing Here?
Spoleto – the Umbrian Culinary Delights
When I lived in Napoli, one of my favorite things to do was to visit small medieval towns where only a few tourists roamed and lose myself in wandering and wondering. There’s so much a place can teach you if you slow down and take your time. Listen and let the place speak to you. And of visiting these ancient towns, my wife, Sharon, and I were always open, our taste buds ready, for the place to speak to us about its unique culinary flavors.
That day, after exiting the Spoleto’s Duomo, we wandered off along cobbled streets to Piazza del Mercato, built on the site of an ancient Roman forum. Every morning, vendors’ market packs this plaza. But it was late afternoon and it was quiet. Hardly anyone was there, expect for a few locals doing the Italian thing of ‘hanging around.’
We strolled along the storefronts of several alimentary stores. We peeked into a couple of wine shops. We entered a store and explored some of Spoleto’s culinary delights. Myriad bottles, small and large, were stacked neatly, forming precariously like a wall, each bottle filled with fruity green olive oil cultivated from the local olive groves.
In plastic bags were yarns of flat, dried, stringy pasta called strangozzi. This is Spoleto’s egg-less pasta, named after the leather cords the locals repute to have used a long time ago to strangle the tax collectors (sorry, IRS).
In glass jars and plastic bags were walnut-sized-tar-black truffles—Tartufo—an indispensable ingredient for the Umbrian cooking. They’re found growing underground on the roots of oak, willow, or hazelnut. And they’re gathered with the help of the keen olfactory power of specially trained dogs (thank you, men’s best friends).
We entered a wine shop that flaunted bottles of local wines. From the nearby Umbrian town of Montefalco (another favorite place for us to visit, known as the balcony of Umbria for its superb view of surrounding rolling hills) comes the up-and-coming red wine raved by the wine-coinsurers—Rosso di Montefalco. This wine is made from Sagrantino, a local grape.
Visiting the stores and peeking into the windows worked up our appetites. The sun now slanted toward dusk. We hurried back out of the town, crossed Goethe’s favorite bridge, and got back in our car. We drove up the mountain to our favorite inn, Eremo delle Gracie, which I blogged about before . This is the place where Michelangelo, the great Italian Renaissance artist, raved about when he stayed there, writing to his friend, Vasari, in Rome: “Che sol nei boschi è pace . . . Only in the woods, there is peace.”