Umbria underground by Rebecca Winke

Spring in Umbria, like in most of world, seems to be the season of unpredictable weather. The skies go from sunny to downpour in just minutes; plans of sipping a cappuccino at a cafè table while watching the world go by, or having a leisurely picnic on a hillside overlooking olive groves, may have to be quickly scrapped when the clouds start to gather. It’s a good idea to have a back-up plan in case the forecast doesn’t want to cooperate with your travel itinerary, and it’s a better idea for the back-up plan to be under cover. What's more under cover than underground? Umbria has a number of fascinating and quirky underground sights, more than satisfying enough to make you forget those showers outside.

  1. Orvieto Underground

    Stately Orvieto, home to an outstanding cathedral and Orvieto Classico wine, dominates the surrounding countryside from atop a dramatic volcanic stone, which it has inhabited on and off since the time of the Etruscans. What many visitors don’t know is that the cliff on which the city perches is honeycombed with more than 1,200 manmade underground caverns and passageways. Most are private property and not open to the public, but the Orvieto Underground tour takes small groups on visits. Tours span the very first underground tunnellings by the Etruscans who were in search of water roughly seven centuries before Christ, Roman excavations used for temperature-controlled storage and pigeon cotes, the expanded and converted caverns housing workshops for local ceramic production, quarries to excavate the soft stone to mix as cement, and an olive oil press from the Middle Ages.

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  2. Narni Sotterranea

    The same, but vastly different, is the Narni Underground tour. Where Orvieto’s subterranean network had primarily pragmatic uses, what was discovered underneath the town of Narni is much more transcendental. This series of underground rooms and passages beneath the historic centre of Narni was brought to light by a group of amateur spelunkers just a few decades ago. Having been covered over and forgotten through the centuries as the imposing convent and church of San Domenico was built above, it is composed of an 8th century paleo-Christian church, with surviving frescoes around the apse and along the walls. Disturbingly, two rooms also exist with their roots in the Inquisition: a windowless, stone tribunal used for questioning and torture, and a small, graffitied cell which held the imprisoned. The tale of how a team of researchers were able to track down documents referring to the trials held here (through municipal and Vatican archives and, strangely enough, papers kept at Dublin’s Trinity College) is fascinating, as is the explanation of the intricate Freemason graffiti covering the cell walls.

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  3. The Mummies of Ferentillo

    In the same vein of compelling creepiness, Ferentillo’s 12th century church of Santo Stefano–now beneath the 15th century church built on top of the original–is a crypt-turned-mummy museum. A combination of microfungus and mineral salts in the soil as well as a unique air flow resulted in the natural mummification of many of the bodies buried here over the centuries, the remains of which were discovered at the beginning of the 19th century. Some of the most intact of these mummified corpses are displayed behind glass, and the guide tells their backstories of torture and hangings, disease and plague, and human tragedy. Unlike the Egyptian mummies we are so used to viewing, these are recent enough (the last was buried here in 1871) that the details surrounding their lives and deaths resonate more and make them more human and less like monstrous curiosities. Their stories are told matter-of-factly, yet with great decorum and respect. It is, at the same time, both the quirkiest and perhaps the most moving of Umbria’s museums.

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  4. Roman Assisi

    It’s easy to forget, with all the attention to Saint Francis, that long before this town’s most famous citizen walked the streets, Assisi was an important Roman city. Unfortunately, the lovely and important Roman monuments here—dating primarily from the first century B.C.—had been largely neglected over the past century, but recently many sites have been newly renovated or opened to the public for the first time. The Piazza del Comune is dominated by the Temple of Minerva, but to put this monument into context head to Assisi’s Roman Forum and Archaeological Museum underneath the piazza, where you can see a scale model reconstructing the layout of the Roman forum, the foundation of the Temple of Minerva, which is level with the underground museum, and three lovely marble statues unearthed in Assisi, one of which represents Minerva herself. Assisi also has the remains of a luxurious Roman villa, the so-called Domus Propertius; open by appointment for a limited number of groups, and boasting one of the few known examples of Roman mural painting north of Rome, it also houses the extensive remains of the amphitheatre (now part of the elegant Nun spa and open only to guests).  

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  5. Rebecca Winke's top picks

    The entrance to Orvieto Underground is just steps from the city’s breathtaking Cathedral, one of the most beautiful in all of Italy. If you’re ducking out of the rain, head to the incredible San Brizio Chapel inside, with its excellent Signorelli fresco cycle.

    Narni has one of the most rollicking Medieval festivals in Umbria, indeed the capital of rollicking Medieval festivals: the Corsa all’Anello. Time a visit for the end of April/beginning of May to savour the party atmosphere in this otherwise sleepy hill town.

    Ferentillo is a village along the Nera River Valley, one of the most picturesque areas of Umbria. After your visit, continue south to the majestic Marmore Waterfalls, the largest in Europe and constructed by the Romans.

    The Roman amphitheatre ruins in Assisi’s Nun Hotel and Spa are stunning and worth the price of spa entry to view. Treat yourself to a few hours of hammam and relaxation in one of the most stunning historic settings in the region.

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