An Italian Paradise – Weekly Travel Photo

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Italy’s charm never ceases to amaze me.  There’s just something about the storied Italian towns as they sit perched atop ancient hills that oozes romantic thoughts.  It is always somewhat shocking to me how the gritty charm of a city like Orvieto can make something as simple, benign, and uninteresting as drying laundry charming and memorable.   While Italy’s large cities (Rome, Florence, Milan, etc.) may draw the biggest crowds, my favorites have always been the smaller and mid-sized towns.  Many of which have been inhabited for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  This photo from the hilltop city of Orvieto showcases one such city.  The contrast between beautiful brick and stone buildings, the charm of crumbling and oft repaired plaster, of teaming flower pots, and of course of freshly washed laundry drying in the Italian spring air ignites my imagination and tugs at my heart strings.

In far too many parts of the world travelers have the opportunity to see history, but find themselves feeling detached or disconnected.  The beauty of these wonderful Italian towns is that they offer that rare and unusual opportunity to feel like you’re not just a casual observer in passing, but actually an active participant in history.  I captured this photo during a far-too-brief spring visit to the city.  It’s history as a pivotal defensive city is rich, and influential.  At times it has been nearly destroyed, served as a papal residence, and  was once home to one of early Rome’s most challenging opponents.  It layers history like layers of delicious delight in a layer cake.  Each new layer adds to the flavor, the depth and the richness of the overall experience.

This photo was made possible in part by the travel experts at  Directline-holidays.co.uk.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here.

Tales of Narnia, or Should I Say Narni?

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

Roused from our beds by the golden rays of the Umbrian sun we began what would round out our two and a half-day adventure through Umbria. Slowly rubbing the last traces of sleep from my eyes I found myself once again staring out the gently tinted windows of the bus as we wound our way past Lake Corbara and made our way toward the town of Narni.  Little did we know that the 6 hours remaining as part of our adventure promised interesting epiphanies, rich culture, and a walk through the mists of fantasy.

Cities of Umbria, Italy

When our guides told us we were heading to the town of Nari we said, ” Narni? Sounds a lot like Narnia.” We chuckled and then went back to watching pristine hilltop town after town drift past our windows. After the week or so I spent in Umbria I now stand convinced that one could easily spend a year exploring the region’s wealth of small towns and still barely scratch the surface. Each seems more picture-perfect, more inviting, more…charming than the last.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

…and then something happened. The rolling hills and the small settlements precariously perched atop them suddenly gave way to the blur of lights and curving gray walls. Some might say we had entered a tunnel, though I now find myself somewhat suspicious. You see, as we raced along at a furious pace it felt as though things had changed. Not by much, just ever so slightly.

Cities of Umbria, Italy

So, it may come as little surprise that when we finally reached the end of the tunnel, I’ve come to theorize, we may have been transported to a parallel place and time. Sure it looked similar. The cars were still there, the roads were there, but the clouds were slightly different. It reminded me of a story I once read only in place of a tunnel through a mountain, in that story the characters entered an old dresser in an attic and were spirited away.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

I shrugged off the sensation for a while, but it soon returned as our destination came into view. A partially fortified town a bit larger than most and carefully situated on top of an impressive nearby hill.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

As we drew closer to what I would later learn was the city of Nari our path led over a large bridge, passing long collapsed though still impressive Roman stone works, and then up a narrow road just barely large enough for our bus. Luckily the road opened up at the base of the hill into a fairly large, but no less jam-packed, parking lot which seemed to be the de facto parking lot for all of the city’s residents.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

As I stood staring up at the city, I took note of its skyline.  While many of the cities in Italy manage a set uniformity for their skyline, the steep hill where Narni resides and the general approach to raw stone and cured plaster gave it a somewhat random appearance.  Now in most cases describing the skyline of a city as random, unorganized, and somewhat confused would be anything but complimentary.  In the case of Narni, however, it is quite the opposite.  It adds to the charm and offers a depth to the city which is both unusual and quite flattering.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

Our trip from the parking area to the city was no less interesting. It consisted of a series of stairways, a funicular, several beautiful cobblestone streets and a square or two thrown in for good measure. The walk provided a chance to talk to several local guides and learn a bit about the city. As we walked I quickly found myself winded by the steep steps and conversation was slightly more challenging than normal. We eventually passed a group of wise women engaged in delightful banter, turned one more corner and found ourselves walking along a slightly larger road which seemed to line the spine of the hill. That’s when it happened.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

It quickly became evident that the strange sensation I had while passing through the tunnel had been far more than the idle result of one too many nights sampling local Italian wine. You see, as we turned a corner we were suddenly and quite obviously transported back in time. It would seem that we had stumbled onto a formal event. A festival of sorts that paid homage to the city, its rich history and culture.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

As we slowly made our way down the street we were greeted by a noble lord and lady of what I can only imagine to be some stature. Their serfs handed us beautiful scrolls and gestured for us to relax and to enjoy a bit of music, dance and contest.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

It was about this time that the city’s youth assembled in crisp lines. Adorned in the city’s regalia and with instruments in hand they faced down the day’s beating sun and after pausing long enough to fire off a series of fierce glares, they washed all emotion from their face and began to play. They beat their drums mightily sending waves of sound crashing from cobblestone street to storied stone wall, and then the trumpets began. As the crowd stood mute they performed for us an impressive array of pieces from a time (and place?) long past but clearly not forgotten.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

Suddenly, just like that, they stopped and turned looking to their left at mounted men of note. Men who with ease and grace lifted scrolls before them and began to read aloud. Their words announce the start of the next event… A contest of strength, of precision and of speed – an archery contest.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

Just like that the youths who were still assembled and standing in formation let forth a blast to commence the archery competition and the assembled archers – men of all ages – nocked arrows to bows.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

Bows were drawn to cheeks, breath inhaled and then quickly exhaled. Fingers released and in the beat of an eye arrows seemed to leap from lazily resting against the archer’s bows to sitting quivering embedded in the distant target.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

As each round passed it was a delight to watch both seasoned archers and boyish novices stand side by side performing their craft. By the end of the contest the target stood riddled with arrows and while one or two had found their way to areas beyond the target, nearly all struck squarely in the target’s center.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

As the silence of the crowd slowly began to replace the twang of vibrating bowstrings Narni’s next treat began. The silent roar of the assembled crowd was quickly replaced by a medieval melody. It was cheerful and energetic…music of a type that we all recognize, but rarely hear and almost never in person. As I turned to find the source of the music I quickly discovered several local women engaged in a graceful dance. As they bowed, stepped, bowed again and twirled I enjoyed their graceful movements and leaned slightly to the left, engaged in a muted conversation with my guide.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

As it turned out, our idle musings and chatter earlier in the trip had been far more spot-on than we expected. The wonderful world I had entered when I left that country-tunnel did in fact mirror the magical wardrobe found in C.S. Lewis’ series describing a far off place called Narnia. The city I now stood in, Narni by name, had served as official inspiration for the author. Though, one can only wonder – was he inspired, or just recounting the experiences he stumbled on during his time in the city and surrounding area?

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

As the women bowed to each other the drums and trumpets resumed their powerful song. Then, with surprising organization all of the assembled nobility, squires, archers and dancers formed into a line and paraded out and off into the depths of the city. Just like that we found ourselves transported back to our own time and making our way down the spine of the hill to see portions of the city’s underground town. But first, we paused at a beautiful overlook to take in the site of a fortified structure, the Abbey of San Cassiano, located across the ravine but still just outside of bow-shot from the city.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

Eager to explore the underground church which we had been told about, we made our way down and across two small terraces to the obscure doorway which modestly led into the side of the hill.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

After ducking through the tiny portal we were greeted by a 12th century benedictine chapel which was only re-discovered some 20 years ago. In a fun twist of fate our guide was actually one of the individuals who participated in the initial discovery and exploration of the complex. The chapel which is simple but beautifully preserved and eerily still contains human remains buried in its floor is part of a series of rooms, including a nearby area which was used as a foreboding dungeon.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

The entrance to the dungeon’s main cell is small. So small in fact that I found myself nearly bent in two to get through it. The room isn’t much larger with room for a bed, and a little space to stand and stretch. The walls are decorated with graffiti from at least one of the room’s unfortunate residents. It is an odd thing to experience as you stand there staring at carvings made by a desperate soul hundreds of years past.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

With the prison cell behind us and our visit winding to a close we wandered the streets and learned more about the city’s history. The location where the city currently stands is thought to have been settled in at least 600 BC as the city of Nequinum.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

By the 4th century BC the Romans had conquered and reinforced the city which sat upon the Via Flaminia, an essential artery between Rome and the Adriatic. Around 300 BC in a failed attempt to gain freedom from Rome the Romans fully incorporated the city and renamed it Narni. While having claim to a number of historical greats, the city was the birth place of Marcus Cocceius Nerva Caesar Augustus, or more simply put Emperor Nerva of Rome who assumed position as emperor in September of 96 AD.

The City of Narni, Umbria, Italy

After the morning and early afternoon events we had worked up a mighty hunger. Luckily, the city had decided that a traditional feast was an absolute must! So, off we went down winding cobblestone streets through a town that drips character like authentic spaghetti drips the rich colors and flavor of fresh tomato sauce.

Eating in Umbria

Now, this is normally where I’d post shot of the meal. Unfortunately, it looked REALLY good and we were starving. So with reckless abandon we set to are simple, but delicious meal of pork-chops, sausage, pasta, fresh beans, and salad. It was all served by local volunteers and in/on traditional earthen plates and cups. The local red wine was every bit as delightful as one might imagine and the venue (Terziere S. Maria) was a great little tavern-like space located down a side street. The room we were in consisted of crude wooden benches and in a sparsely, but historically themed room with vaulted brick ceiling and and rough brick walls. In short, it had a wonderful ambiance and fit the day’s theme perfectly.

I had a wonderful time getting lost in Narni and dreaming of the role it played in the mythical lands of Narnia. I’d like to extend a hearty thank you to the people of Narni who offered us such wonderful hospitality while wining and dining us. It’s a wonderful city, and one with a distinct personality of its own.

Have any of you been? I’d love to hear your stories in a comment below!

A Visit To Picture Perfect Perugia With Ken Kaminesky

Streets of Perugia

Nestled atop a prominent hilltop in the heart of Umbria about two hours north of Rome, the medieval city of Perugia stands constant vigil over ancient trade routes.  The current capital of the region, Perugia has a long and storied past that pre-dates the Romans and stretches back to the Etruscan period.  With a population of just under 170,000 the city serves as home to a large university, and a plethora of wonderful festivals and events.

Perugia - Metro Line

My visit to Perugia occurred as part of an afternoon photo workshop and walking tour with Ken Kaminesky as part of the Travel Bloggers Unite Umbria conference.  Ken is a fantastic photographer with a specialty in HDR (High Dynamic Range Imaging). He was speaking at the conference and had offered to host one of the workshops which allowed a small group of us to pick his brain and discuss the simple (and not-so-simple) subtleties of advanced travel photography.  After Ken’s initial presentation filled with great info, we piled onto a bus and were shuttled to the foot of Perugia. Once there we were greeted by the city’s futuristic mini-metro cable-driven cars which quickly ferried us up past ugly modern buildings and into the gorgeous heart of the old city.  In a way, it felt as though we had boarded a time-ship and were pulled back hundreds of years in time.

Perugia - Rooftop Textures

We had parked and ascended on the side that was marked by modern structures – hotels, office buildings, and the types of structures you would expect.  The first views as we exited the MiniMetro however,  were breathtaking.   The far side and the overlook were mostly natural and almost completely historic.

Perugia - Rooftop Textures

As we paused to gather our group together and lay out our plan of action I was immediately taken by the rich textures and colors of the surrounding buildings.  Buildings that embody the very image of what I think of when I think “Italy”.

Perugia - Rooftop Textures

There’s something about the brick and earthen tile work on Perugia’s old buildings that really add to their character and charm.  It gives them a mottled aged look, but in a way that still seems fresh, vibrant, and strong – only tempered with depth and added character.

Perugia - Rooftop Textures

One of the things I love about hilltop towns is the varied rooftop levels that result and the crazy quilt juxtaposition of building shapes.  These can be gorgeous to behold. Hilltop towns offer the added depth of windows, portals, and views down partially obscured, winding streets. Each small alleyway begs exploration and beckons enticingly. There is mystery and magic unfolding in the twisting streets below. I pick out a few distinctive elements that I would later search out once I began my exploration of Perugia’s environs.

Perugia - Atrio Postale

With more than 2,000 years of rich history and a far from insignificant role in Italy’s history, Perugia’s streets are decorated with small but historically interesting highlights. There are lots of features to photograph and enjoy.

Perugia - Street Scene

As we wound in towards the city’s core Ken paused periodically to discuss framing, best conditions for lighting different shots, how to hunt for good people shots, and shared what he looks for when capturing a moment. Our path took us past the old palatial city hall before we paused in Piazza IV Novembre by the Fontana Maggiore.

Perugia - Building Textures

I mentioned previously that the city is awash in wonderful textures. Those textures go far beyond the mottled reds and grays of the roof tiles on the city’s building’s. They permeate all aspects of the city, from the wonderful local Italian foods, deserts and famed candies to the marble decorations that highlight the walls of the local buildings.

Old Buildings in Perugia

It is only when you pause and look closely at the buildings that you start to realize just how old the city is! These buildings have stood for centuries and sustained a myriad of renovations and updates.  Closer inspection reveals bricked in doorways, windows, arches, and building dividers.  I find my eye is often drawn to the contrasting elements of  modern plumbing and electrical lines attached to the surface of these ancient stones.  All integrated into the crumbling (and oft repaired) brick walls that support foundations that have seen the passing of countless generations.

Perugia's Rooftop Textures

As we continued to cut across the crest of the hill we were soon met with by another wonderful overlook and a steep staircase that cut down into the small saddle where the majority of the city’s residential districts sit.

Perugia - Rooftop Textures

One thing that made me chuckle were all the satellite dishes. They serve as an interesting reminder that behind the facade of history and tradition lies a thriving, modern, 21st century city that is busy relaxing, working, and engaging with the rest of Italy and the world at large.

The View from Perugia

As we made our way down the staircase, our luck with the weather began to turn.  We had driven through a light rain before arriving at Perugia.  About 2/3 of the way through our walking workshop, the rain decided to make a light (but bearable) return.  While we were all less than thrilled with the prospect of it turning into a more aggressive rain, it did serve to bring the colors out of all of the city’s stone and vegetation.  It left sparkling water droplets on blades of grass and the city’s many flowers adding to their crisp and natural beauty.

Winding Roads of Perugia

The downside to exploring Italy’s incredible hilltop cities is, of course, that they’re actually on hills. Not just any hills – but usually quite steep ones. I can’t imagine what sort of adventure the streets turn into in the rare event that the towns get snow or rain-turned-ice. Regardless, it makes for wonderful curving streets that catch your eye and race with it down and away towards the flat plain below.

Perugia in Bloom

If you find yourself planning a trip to Umbria, definitely consider late April and early May. You avoid the conventional high season, the flowers are in bloom, and the air is fresh and crisp. It is just right for casual walking.

Perugia - Man and Umbrella

Just make sure to pack an umbrella and a sense of relaxed time. The weather in the region often seems to come in waves with a brief afternoon rain that quickly gives way to movie-perfect clouds and drifting skies. While animated, the Italian pace of life in these cities is often fairly relaxed and serves as a wonderful reminder to pause and enjoy the moment before setting aside an hour or two for an amazing meal.

Perugia - People Wandering

Thanks again for Ken for the fantastic tips, TBU, Umbria on the Blog and the Umbrian Tourism Board for a great look at the city of Perugia.

These photos were shot on my new Canon T3i (600D) dSLR Camera with an 18-135mm lens.  My time in Italy was the first opportunity I’ve had to experiment with the camera “in the wild”. It has been a wonderful upgrade to my trusty Canon G11 (which I still love) and I look forward to truly mastering the camera in the future.