Monday, March 26, 2012

Spoleto: Ancient Spoletium on the Via Flamina

One of the most important towns in Umbria, Spoleto has a rich history that has attracted many visitors over the ages, and more recently, with its famous Festival dei Due Mondi — the annual summer music and opera festival held each June to early July. Located at the head of a large, broad valley, surrounded by the Monteluco mountains, Spoleto has long occupied a strategic geographical position, and appears to have been an important town to the original Umbri tribes, who built walls around their settlement in the 5th century BC, some of which are visible today.

Spoleto's Roman Theatre which dates from the 1st century BC

A Roman fountain that still works, as all do in Italy, 
transporting water through Roman aquaducts, from the 1st century BC

The Roman Arch of Drusus from AD 23, one of many in Spoleto

Spoletium, founded in 241 BC, became an key Roman colony, due in part to its proximity to the Via Flamina, the ancient Roman road that led from Rome, over the Apennine Mountains to the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Spoleto later became the seat of a Lombard dukedom and then an important commune, or city state, during the middle ages.

The sloping Piazza del Duomo leading to Spoleto's spectacular Cathedral

Spoleto's Cathedral, built in the 12th century, is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. One of the most beautiful examples of Umbrian Romanesque architecture, the Duomo was built in three phases over the space of a couple hundred years. The interior however was rebuilt in in the 17th century in the Baroque style and features many outstanding frescoes and extraordinary works of art.

The 12th century rose windows and mosaic portraying 'Christ giving a Benediction'

Duomo interior

The spectacular Cappella Eroli surrounded in frescoes by Pinturicchio

Strolling up from the Duomo through the Piazza to the old town, we wandered out through the Cathedral arches and uphill to the heart of the oldest part of Spoleto, Piazza del Mercato, with its gorgeous 18th century fountain made with architectural details pillaged from various architectural remains around Spoleto.

Looking into Piazza del Duomo through the archway of the Cathedral

Wandering uphill along the 'Cardo Maximus' from the Duomo to Piazza del Mercato

The 18th century fountain in one of the oldest parts of Spoleto, Piazza del Mercato

Fountain detail with clock and coats of arms

With the auspicious chime of twelve bells on the Piazza del Mercato clock tower, it was noon and time for lunch. We headed up through Spoleto's Medieval quarter to Via Brignone and arrived at Trattoria del Festival, a charming 16th-century restaurant serving dishes based on traditional local recipes, with local truffles very much in evidence.

Trattoria del Festival in Spoleto's Medieval quarter

Trattoria del Festival's menu featured a selection of four-course lunches highlighting specialties of the region, in addition to an extensive a la carte menu. The owner of the restaurant suggested we try the cucina tipici as well as a local wine from the area, which we did so obligingly, starting with a Mixed Plate of Bruschetta with tomato, chicken liver and funghi costini with an unusual but light and flavourful Farro Salad with Tuna.

A selection of Costini Tipici with a lovely farro & tuna salad

A local Montefalco wine from vineyards just north of Spoleto

My husband and I both chose two different traditional menus, which featured traditional recipes from Spoleto and the region, such as Strangozzi con Tarufi e Funghi, which is a fabulously descriptive Umbrian pasta known as 'The Priest Strangler'. Strangolare means to strangle in Italian. Devout families in Umbria would invite the local priest for lunch and wanted to ensure that they left well fed. As legend has it, a large quality of these noodles with sauce were served to the men of the cloth, suggesting that eating so much could strangle the priest — or at least his appetite. 

A sweet and sour Risotto with local 'Fruits of the Woods' 

Strangozzi con tartufo e funghi 

Farro, Lentil & Apricot Risotto

Frittata di Tartufo e Funghi

Spedeini Porchetta alla Griglia alla Verdure

Spoleto is a culturally rich and vibrant city that is impossible to take in, all in one visit. As fabulous as it is to enjoy Umbria in the off-season, with no crowds, line-ups or holiday traffic, there are events such as the Spoleto Summer Festival, that make it imperative to return again, to discover the new Spoletium of the 21st century. For this is a strength of any ancient city, to reinvent itself for the the next generation, so it continues to thrive for another millennium.

Spoleto Festival poster