On Palm Sunday, the streets of Spello overflowed with tourists. The Spellani gathered on chairs to watch the visitors parade by with their blessed olive-boughs and eyes peeled for gelato. Later that night, I asked Angelo if he preferred Spello when there were no tourists or when there were many. In his characteristic way, he stopped walking to answer me. Then started walking, only to stop again with further reflections. The man will not be hurried, but by then we’d been in Spello for a week and the urge to move! move! move! had vanished, leaving only a deepened gratitude for the moment. He said, and of course I’m paraphrasing from his intentional Italian, “I love Spello when the streets are utterly empty. And I love Spello when it’s alive with the energy of tourists. But you know, I love Spello when it’s hot and I love Spello when the cool fog weaves around the corner and it whispers of the Medieval days. I love Spello all the time.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
If a trip to Spello is in your scopa cards, here’s how I advise you to make the most of your visit.
First of all, don’t try to “do” Spello in an afternoon. If you do, your trip will be summed up in this way: “Look! Flowers! Look! A cat in a flowerpot! Why is it so hot? Is there an elevator? Where is everyone? Look, an arch.” You might as well pore over google images of Spello and save the calf work-out.
You need long days to savor the gifts Spello offers. So first things first, find accommodations in Spello and plan on spending a week, more if you can. You want to have time to decide if you prefer your afternoon Spritz in Bar Bonci’s garden overlooking the countryside or Bar Tullia’s patio where you can watch old ladies fawn over babies bundled in their strollers. You’ll want to pop into the bakery a few times—the choices vary daily but everything is always wonderful. You’ll want to watch the town wake up. You'll want to watch the sun set over the distant hills. You’ll want to enjoy Umbrian cuisine, and most restaurants aren’t open for lunch. You’ll want to lean out of your window and do nothing but watch the swallows dance.
Now, I’m not saying you need to keep your feet planted in Spello for the entirety of your trip. In fact, it’s the leaving and returning that can start to make it feel like home. So take a few side trips. When you land in Spello, keep your eyes open for signs—usually on boards by parking lots or posted in cafes—announcing festivals. Festivals are Italy distilled, a celebration of the pride and care towns take in their history and traditions. Especially food traditions. Barring a festival that draws you to a specific town, worthy side-trips are Assisi, Foligno, Bevagna, Trevi, Gubbio, Perugia, Orvieto, Lake Trasimeno, Montefalco, and Citta di Castello. Really, you can just drive around or drop a euro on a map and stumble across thriving market towns or abandoned villages (like the ones I talk about in IBC). Umbria is a choose-your-own-adventure made manifest.
People often ask, “But when should I go to Spello?” To which I answer, “Whenever you can.” Truly, don’t overthink it. There are pleasures in all seasons. If you really have a blank travel slate, then I’d avoid summer when it’s blisteringly hot and there are bus tours stopping for an afternoon and shops tend to close for a week at a time. Italy is spellbinding in the winter with the lights and La Befana and the pageantry. Spring is when Spello stirs awake with asparagus and poppies. Fall is when Umbrian cuisine really shines and Spello is its most cozy with grilled meats and new wines. So just go when you can—like anything there are pros and cons to any time, you’ll have more fun playing with the toys you’re given than trying to determine that illusive perfect one.
And now, for your Spello days, I’d advise the following itinerary, but in the same breath I’d recommend you finding your rhythm, your flow, your Spello magic.
Breakfast at Bar Bonci. Letizia’s smile is as enlivening as her coffee. If you’re lucky she’ll be singing along with the radio or there’ll be a spirited political debate among the patrons. Have your breakfast in the garden. Variations: Sample the huge pastry display at Bar Tullia, or get your breakfast foods (think cream-filled cornetti or pine-nut studded yogurt cakes) from Forno Artigiano on Via Giulia. Bakery tip: A small loaf of bread—excellent for bruschetta—is called a filetta. Second bakery tip: If you just can't abide the salt-less Umbrian bread, you can find some of the best bread I've ever had just down the street from the piazza at the new rosticceria (a shop to get slices of pizza, usually for about a euro). It's like a soft, stretchy mild sourdough with a perfectly crunchy crust.
Walk along the aqueduct. Smell the fennel and mint, look for asparagus in spring, let your mind wonder at those ancient Romans, and pause to read the embedded plaques with quotes from the world's philosophers including Gandhi and Einstein (who knew?). Bring along your Italian English dictionary—these are really fun to figure out. My favorite is “Lasciamo le belle donne agli uomoni senza fantasia.”(Proust) Variations: Other walks include the Strada Francescana towards Assisi, or down the mountain to the prato—the bucolic farmland below Spello. If the weather precludes a walk, this would be an excellent time to explore the art, architecture, and atmosphere of Spello's many churches. If you're lucky, you'll overhear cloistered nuns singing.
Pranzo. Back to your apartment where you make lunch from the fixings you purchased yesterday at the macelleria. If you didn’t have time yesterday and you don’t want to walk to the borgo (the newer part of Spello at the base of the hill), stop into the negozio in the piazza for some salumi, cheese, produce, wine, tuna (seriously! Italian canned tuna is fantastic) and bread.
Pausa. Do not skip the pausa. The problem with fast travel is that people feel like they have to tick all the boxes and then ultimately everything becomes a blur. The pausa serves as punctuation. It carves out the days and helps you harken back to your idyllic vacation later when you are home and cranky at yet another traffic jam.
Gelato and/or apperitivo at Bar Tullia. My family always opts for gelato. For me, I prefer an Aperol spritz. But you’ve read my book, so you know this already. Pro-tip: The more of you who have prosecco or a spritz or a glass of sparkling rosé, the more little snacks are served. This last time, we had an apperitivo at Tullia for five adults, and Gianni gave us chips, peanuts, olives, fennel bread rings, and a sliced-up tuna sandwich (yay! More tuna!).
Passeggiata: Stroll to the park, making a reservation at whatever restaurant you’ll be dining at in the evening. If you’re coming in the summer, the park will be empty until after sunset, but if you’re there in spring or fall, it’s a treat to sit on the bench and let the sun warm your bones while you listen to Italian children play. If you are hungry, grab a slice of excellent pizza at the rosticceria. Maybe a chino, too. Photo-tip: In this hour or two before sunset is when Spello is at her most photogenic.
Wander to the macelleria. The butcher shop we love, Marcelleria di Sauro Barbanera, is at the bottom of the hill, across from the museum which houses the remains of a Roman Villa (closed during our visit, but looks to be extraordinary). Say ciao to Sauro and Francesca for us. They don't speak English but are great at meat charades. Everything is excellent, but we really love the lamb spiedini (if you have a grill), the pork chops, the thin slices of beef coated in soft-bread crumbs to fry and then sprinkle with lemon. Stock up on salumi (this doesn't just mean salami, but all the cured meats—prosciutto, mortadella made from wild-boar, fresh salami, my favorite coppa, etc) for your apartment. You may think that you’ll never eat again after lunch, but the siren song of speck in the fridge is pretty compelling. Variation: Shop for non-perishables like a new shawl or necklace at La Bottega degli Intrecci (now with two locations in Spello!), or ceramics at one of the many little shops.
Hoof it back up the hill. When you start to get cross about the lack of a Spell-evator, remember that you’re earning your dolci tonight. On the way back to your apartment, why not stop into MicroBirrificio DieceNove? You can sample some interesting beers before selecting one for tomorrow’s lunch. I like the one with honey and figs.
Chill. If you go to dinner at 7:30 when restaurants open, you’ll be sharing the dining room with a German couple and their children. I’m sure they are perfectly lovely people, but if you want to feel the burble and joy of Umbrian dining, eat at 8:30. Instead of grumbling about the havoc these late dinners wreak on your digestion, enjoy the taking your time getting ready for dinner. Take a shower, put on fresh clothes, maybe play a game of scopa. Relax. You're in Italy.
Vinosofia. Before dinner, get an education in local wines at Vinosofia. Brenda also makes a phenomenal gin and tonic. She has a patio now, a great place to rest and watch the world, i.e. Spello, go by. This is also a great variant for your apperitivo hour.
Cena. Restaurants in Spello are a wonder, and they all have a miraculous selection of regional wines. I easily sink into a state of bliss at La Cantina (their agnello scottadito is other-wordly, as is their paccheri with rabbit ragu, and beef carpaccio), but we’ve loved all the restaurants we’ve dined at—
Osteria del Buchetto was where I fell in love with both strangozzi (an egg-less noodle that is more akin to ramen than the spaghetti packets we get in the States) and gnocchi al Sagrantino. A small outdoor seating area looks out to the twinkling lights of Assisi.
La Locanda del Postiglione has an unbelievable tagliatelle ai porcini, and their picchirilli (a hand rolled thick noodle) with guanciale is mesmerizing.
Drinking Wine has a mind-blowing salumi platter and a lovely terrace in the centro.
Ristorante il Pinturicchio has a cozy atmosphere that is often the scene for Spellani family parties, plus a a red-potato gnocchi with cheese fonduta that will rock your world.
L'Orlando Furioso is bustling with locals and their wood-fired pizza is divine (family faves are the Mediterranea with tuna—sorpresa!—and the Montanara with gorgonzola and pears. I like anything I can ask for with piccant'olio, their spicy oil, on the side).
Float home. Listen out for the bells intoning into the night air. The sound will deepen your sense that all is right with the world.
Spello is magic, indeed.
P.S. Each establishment has its own closed day. This is a problem if you arrive for a day trip with hopes of visiting a specific shop. If you are there for longer, you can just revamp a little and pat yourself on the back for your flexibility. Have another glass of wine in celebration.
Also, full disclosure, despite living in Spello for a year, there are some establishments I never went to. I guess even in the unfamiliar, we create the familiar and then stick with that. So if you try some place not on the list, let me know how you liked it! Let me know anyway, wherever you go, I like hearing about people’s trips to my fair town.