Friday, February 3, 2023

Hidden Italy Weekend: fabulous outing cycling along the Spoleto to Norcia Greenway


Amongst the mountain railways in Italy, the Spoleto to Norcia line in southern Umbria was always considered one of the finest. It was one of the last and one of the most challenging built. The first public service to run line was a steam driven bus in 1902. The popularity convinced the authorities to convert it into a proper railway. Construction was started under the direction of Erwin Thomann, a Swiss engineer who had extensive experience drilling tunnels back home. It kicked off in 1913 and was finished in 1926.

The railway is 52 kilometres long. It connected the beautiful hilltown of Spoleto, burrowed through the foothills of the Apennines and then follows the Nera River as it winds up to Norcia. It operated until 1968. It lay neglected for several decades until finally, in 2001, thanks to the work of volunteers and the support of local authorities, it was reworked and opened as a cycling and walking ‘rail trail’. The ‘Greenway Spoleto-Norcia’ has since won several prizes and is a fabulous way to explore this special part of central Italy. What more could you want for a healthy and exciting weekend in Italy?

How to get there:

Spoleto is 60 kilometres south of Perugio. By car: If you are travelling down the A1 autostrada, that runs between Milan and Naples, take the Valdichianna exit, then the SS 73 and then the SS 3, known as the Flaminia. By train: Spoleto station is in the lower town on the Rome/Ancona line. There are regular buses up to the upper town. By air: the closest airport is Rome-Fiumicino, 150 kma south.

Where to stay:

Hotel Palazzo Dragoni (Via del Duomo, 13, Spoleto). A lovely hotel in a restored 16th century palazzo. Doubles from 220 eruo per night, b&b.

Hotel Palazzo Letti (Via degli Eremiti, 10, Spoleto). This elegant hotel is also situated in a restored 16th century palazzo. It has a beautiful Italianate garden with views over Monteluco. Doubles from 230 euro per night, b&b.

Hotel Palazzo Seneca (Via Cesare Battisti, 12, Norcia). Palazzo Seneca is in the centre of this ancient town. It was built in the 16th century by the Seneca family. It was the first hotel in Norcia and was one of the first in Umbria, being in operation since the beginning of the 1900s. Doubles from 190 pernight, b&b.

Ostello il Capisterium (Via dell’Sopedale, Norcia). This hostel is on the outskirts of Norcia. It is bike friendly and good departure point from which to explore the surrounding region.

Where to eat:

V4 Termial Le Mattonnelle (localita Pontebari, Spoleto). This restaurant three kilometres out of Spoleto is at the start of the Greenway and is popular with cyclists. It serves robust local fare based on truffles, including wild boar stew but, most importantly, you can hire bikes here. Lunch costs around 25 per person.

Taverna dei Duchi (Spoleto). This restaurant is well-known for its fillet steaks and frittata topped with the prized local truffles. They also serve strangozzi alla spoletina (long pasta served with oil, garlic and tomatoes) From 45 euro per person.

Cantina dei Corvi (Spoleto). This pleasant trattoria serves local specialities like cannelloni stuffed with rabbit and lamb chucks roasted in the oven. From 25 euro per person.

Osteria Sienti ‘n Puo (Corso Sertorio, Norcia). This small and welcoming osteria prepares traditional local specialities, including tagliatelle with truffles. From 20 euro per person.

Granaro del Monte (Via Aflieri, Norcia). This excellent restaurant serves classic Umbrian cuisine. Degustation menu at 40 euro per person.

What to do:

Friday:

Arrive, check into your hotel and explore Spoleto. There is a lot to see in Spoleto. Below are what I feel are some of the ‘must sees’ in the town, not an exhaustive list, but enough to give you an introduction to the richness of Spoleto’s heritage. They have been organised following an itinerary that starts from the Ponte delle Torri, your entry into the town.

• Ponte dell Torri (a magnificent 14th century bridge
• The Duomo (with art works by Pinturicchio and Fra Lippo Lippi)
• Palazzo Rosari-Spada (modern art museum)
• Corso Garibaldi (shopping precinct in the lower town)
• La Rocca Albornoziana (the 14th century castle)

Saturday: Go for a ride along the Greenway Spoleto-Norcia.

The trail is 52 kilometres long and takes around four hours, calculated without breaks, with an accumulated ascent of 907 metres and accumulated descent of 670 metres. There are regular buses that run back to Spoleto from Norcia that are fitted with bike racks. To check the timetable go to: www.fsbusitalia.it.

You will need a helmet and a headtorch as the trail does pass through a number of tunnels. Some of the trail may be closed without notice, so it is important to check at the Railway Museum, which has all the information (Via Fratelli Cervi, Spoleto).

Before you start you should visit the Museo della Ferrovia (the Railway Museum) in the ex-station of Spoleto (Via Fratelli Cervi), not only does it have all the most up-to-date information on the Greenway but it is also a fascinating museum.

The Greenway starts at the intersection of the SS 395 and the road to Forca del Cerro, close to the museum.

The first interesting feature of the Greenway you encounter after a short climb is the Caprareccia tunnel, a two kilometre unlit tunnel (this a is where your head torch is important1). It is perfectly safe by provides you with a few thrills, nonetheless.

After descending over three hundred metres through a series of twisting tunnels you come out at the base of a towering viaduct, with the ruins of the San Felice castle on a hill on your right, which has a very interesting Romanesque church.

From here, the Greenway takes you above the beautiful Nera River through tunnels of willows, poppies and alders which thrive along the banks of the river. Along the way, you pass a number of villages and hamlets that sit on hills overlooking the river, including Santa Anatolia, Vallo di Nera Cerretto di Spoleto, all worth a detour, if you have the time.

At Triponzo, you leave the Nera River as the trail takes you up the side of the Corno River. From the safety of the Greenway you can look down in the Gola di Balza Tagliata, a 700 metre deep gorge cut by the two rivers and also see the remains of the road that the Romans cut out of the sides of the mountain over two thousand year ago. You follow the Corno River all the way to Norcia, with a climb of around 200 metres.

Norcia is a very pleasant mountain retreat, the only town of substance in the Nera Valley. Noted on the one hand as the birthplace of St Benedict – founder of Western monasticism – and on the other as the producer of Italy’s top salami. It has an air of charming dereliction and its low, sturdy houses (built to be earthquake resistant and never over two stories high) are a world away from the pastoral towns to the west. Norcia has rebuilt itself many times over the centuries thanks to the violent earthquakes the area is prone to. The most recent of these was that of 2016.

The main sites are the duomo (particularly its fa├žade); the Castellina, a papal fortress full of medieval echoes with a fine little museum; and San Benedetto, a labyrinthine church supposedly built over St Benedict’s birthplace but more likely raised from the ruins of an early Roman temple.

Norcia has a centuries old repudiation for the production of woollen goods and jewellery, crafts that are still practiced in the towns. It is also famous for its truffles (both black and white) but is perhaps best known throughout Italy for its cured meats and butchers, so much so the town gave its name to the art of preparing small goods: ‘norcineria’.

Saturday evening:

As mentioned above, there are buses that go directly back to Spoleto, which will carry your bikes, however, having made all that effort, there is definitely no reason to rush away from this fascinating little town. We would recommend that you check-into the very good Hotel Palazzo Seneca, freshen up, go for a wander around the town, have an aperitivo and have dinner at the Ristorante Granaro del Monte, you can always get the bus back to Spoleto on Sunday morning.

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