Splendid Spoleto

Posted on April 24, 2008 by Holly Hayes
Part of: The Great European Road Trip


We loved Spoleto, a smallish town in a beautiful location overlooking the Umbrian countryside. It is filled with old and interesting churches, the streets and buildings have an authentic medieval feel, and the shops and restaurants are excellent. But they aren't kidding when they call it a hill town - those streets were some of the steepest we've encountered yet! Unfortunately a lot of the town was under renovation and there was scaffolding everywhere, but at least it wasn't on the churches.

And the churches were fantastic. Lots of good-and-old ones scattered about the city, nearly all with pretty Romanesque facades, interesting crypts, sculptures, and frescoes. First there was the lovely Spoleto Cathedral, near the top of the town:

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Inside, the general view is uninteresting but there are some great treasures in the details. One is the apse fresco of "Scenes from the Life of the Virgin", which was painted by Fra Filippo Lippi in 1467-69:

Annunciation - the Archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, while God makes it happen from a cloud above.

The Nativity.

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Self-portrait of the artist in the central scene depicting the Death of the Virgin.

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The Coronation of the Virgin in heaven. Quite New-Agey for the 15th century, isn't it?

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Another great treasure is displayed in a side chapel - an original letter from St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), one of only two that survive.

Another side chapel has a lovely Madonna and Child by Pinturicchio (1497).

Further on in the same side chapel is some very different 15th-century art, and one that looks rather out of place in a church! This is the style called grotesque, which you can read all about at Wikipedia.

Very close to the cathedral is Sant'Eufemia, a very plain and atmospheric Romanesque church. You can only visit it as part of the Diocesan Museum, but the admission is reasonable and it has some interesting artworks. David opted out of this one as it was towards the end of a long day of hill-hiking! He waited patiently for me in the bookshop.

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San Gregorio overlooks a plaza that became very lively in the evenings. It's not too exciting on the outside, but inside are pretty Romanesque arches, some really good medieval frescoes, and a nice little crypt:

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In addition to these churches in town, there are three outside the walls that are probably the most interesting of them all. Two of them are very close together on a hill to the west of the city: San Ponziano and San Salvatore.

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San Salvatore has the square-topped roof in the center; San Ponziano is the large monastery complex on the right.

Another view of San Ponziano from the top of the hill. It is still a working monastery.

San Ponziano, with the castle in the background.

The church interior is incredibly boring, but a stairway in the side aisle leads down to a wonderful crypt with lots of interesting frescoes.

San Salvatore is just a little further up the hill, past a huge and impressive cemetery. This church was one of my favorites in Spoleto because it is the oldest in Spoleto, and it still feels old.

It was built in the 5th century and has not been rebuilt or changed much since then.

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The design is based on a Roman temple, which is unusual for a church.

Last but not least is San Pietro, on a wooded slope outside the walls on the other side of town.

It was closed for some major renovations, but we managed to tiptoe around the construction materials to check out the wonderful sculptures on the facade, inspired by medieval legends as well as the Bible. Good thing it was Saturday and the workmen weren't there!

After the scales tip the wrong way, St Michael the Archangel abandons a sinner to devils.

A wolf in friar's clothing.

A farm scene; probably symbolic but I don't recognize it.

To get to San Pietro (the last church), we walked a loop around the castle, across a medieval aqueduct-bridge, and down a forested road. The walk was glorious, with perfect weather and the most beautiful views of the Umbrian countryside.

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The scenic path that encircles the castle is smooth and amazingly flat - would be great for bike rides and jogging.

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Spoleto's medieval castle, La Rocca, was used as a high-security prison in the 1800s; among the prisoners was the would-be assassin of Pope John Paul II.

The 13th-century bridge leading away from the castle, built on the foundations of a Roman aqueduct.

The walkway across the bridge. The tall wall blocks the view on one side, but it also blocks the wind!

View back to the castle from halfway across the bridge.

Gorgeous Umbrian landscape as seen from the bridge.

The food was fantastic in Spoleto. Lovely little food stores were everywhere, selling mouth-watering varieties of meat, cheese, fresh pasta, and truffles. And all our restaurant meals were delicious. The main Umbrian specialties seem to be truffles (*tartufo), a long square-edged pasta called strangozzi, and wild game. There are two different types of truffles: black and white. The black ones must be cheaper because we got to have them grated on various dishes without much increase in the price! We never saw a white one in any form. The only food we didn't like much in Umbria was the bread, which was rather spongy.

"Tutto tartufo!" proclaims one shop window.

Window display of another foodie store.

One of our best meals was at the little Osteria dell'Enoteca on a steep street leading to the cathedral. It had inviting torches outside the door and an even more inviting menu. Inside it was cozy and rustic, the music was nice Pacific-Northwest-style guitar strumming, the staff were incredibly friendly, and the food was amazing.

Signs above the door

We started with bruschetta - with tomatoes for David and with olive oil for me.

David had strangozzi with wild boar, which tasted like it had been cooked in red wine. He loved it and so did I.

I had polenta with sheep's cheese and black truffles. Different and delicious!

David and the very nice waiter, taken from the spiral staircase leading up to the kitchen and bathrooms. Most interior space is vertical in Spoleto!

Another great meal was lunch at Il Tempio del Gusto near the Piazza Mercato.

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Restaurant exterior, with the menus that drew us in, and our table on the main floor, next to the wine rack. From my seat against the wall, I could see into the kitchen!

The starter - the best bean soup ever. The beans were cooked just right, al dente like Italian pasta. That stuff on top that looks like cheese is actually lardo di colonnata - think slices of pork fat. A delicacy maybe, but not for us.

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Then came eggy tortelloni filled with goat's cheese and walnut paste, topped with truffle oil and a cream sauce. So rich, but so very good!

For dinner we ate twice at a casual place not too far from our hotel, the Trattoria Pecchiarda. It had a strong family feel - one night we shared the restaurant with the local football team, and another night three generations were playing cards at a table outside the kitchen. The food wasn't as spectacular as our lunches but it was quite good.

We stayed in the Hotel San Luca at the bottom of the hill just inside the city walls. It was highly recommended on TripAdvisor and rightly so. Our room was spacious, the bed was huge (2 meters wide!), and the bathroom was lovely, complete with a nice tub. And we had a nice view over a small grassy courtyard.

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We got lots of useful information about the city from the friendly hotel staff and parking was free right next to the hotel. And they have a resident cat. But I only saw him once, in the stairwell. The only drawback was the poor wireless internet connection in our room. But it worked well in the lobby and was reasonably priced at 5 euros for 5 hours.

And now we are in Assisi, which is even more beautiful than Spoleto! We've extended our stay by two nights, so will be here until Saturday morning. More soon...