A Valley in Umbria

Rain splattered the train between tunnels through mountains as we headed north from Rome to Montefalco in Umbria, “the green heart of Italy.”

At breakfast that first morning in Montefalco our trip coordinator fetched our bags and pointed out (beyond patchwork squares of fields and vineyards, studded by dark cypress, and trimmed with hedgerows of mixed green) Mount Subasio – recumbent, green clad, and broad, promising an 11 mile day with serious elevation gain on the last day.

The days we walked across the valley were easy – downhill a little from Montefalco to Bevagna, then flat to Spello, through vineyards with grapes the size of big peas and just as green. Color flashed from rose bushes, unexpectedly planted at the ends of vineyard rows, and thousands of yellow sunflowers beginning to bloom.

In the evenings we sat at the edge of piazzas to drink wine or a beer and watch small town life with few other tourists. Each evening’s passeggiata seemed to be just locals with babies to greet and kids doing wheelies on bikes to admire.

Every hilltop town has Roman antecedents below and flights of swifts patrolling above, but each is different. Montefalco “the balcony of Umbria” offers views of the countryside down little vicolos (tiny passage ways off already narrow streets). In Bevagna colorful flags for a medieval festival draped archways, and maidens, warriors, and clerics dressed in period costume looked molto authentic against cobblestones and ancient stone buildings. Spello spilled over with hanging baskets and potted flowers.

On the walk, heat was an unaccustomed presence – mid-day, mid-summer heat. On his birthday, the day we challenged Mount Subasio, the trail boss (our younger son) organized an early start from the base camp at Spello. We gathered fruit, bread, cheese, and sliced meat for sandwiches – or  focaccia  with olives or vegetables like zucchini or mushrooms – a bar of chocolate and water – lots and lots of water.

The hotel owner shook his head and pointed to the sun as we left, declaring the day to be caldo and suggesting a car.

And hot it was. We walked for many hours – one foot in front of the other – out Spello’s upper gate and along a Roman aqueduct. We switchbacked the side of Subasio and crossed its broad and windy summit, skirting herds of cattle and wild horses, goats and sheep tended only by their dogs.

The route down, long but gradual, followed little roads (strada bianca) or paths through fields of wildflowers with orange and lime-green butterflies. The scent of wild herbs surrounded us. The route leads right to top gate of Assisi – the birthplace of St. Francis. After time on his sacred mountain he, too, would have entered through this gate.

Hot, dusty pilgrims, we trudged through Assisi’s tourist crowds – eager for showers and a celebratory birthday dinner for the trail boss.

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