Looking to get out of Rome for a couple of days? Here are five of my favorite weekend escapes!
Siena, one of my favorite cities, boasts medieval streets, incredible Renaissance art, graceful palaces, and one of the most incredible churches in Italy. It's a 3-hour train ride from Rome. Check out my other post on Siena, or my day trip itinerary over at Art Trav.
Although it takes almost 5 hours to get here on the train from Rome, Monopoli, located in Puglia, has a beautiful beach, lovely streets, and top-notch food. It's also a great place to stay for the weekend to explore Puglia's other gems, like Bari or Polignano a Mare.
Although you could visit Naples in a day trip—on the high-speed train, it's just a little over an hour—the city's really worth at least a weekend. Evocative piazzas and palaces? Check. Some of the most important art in Italy? Check. One of the finest archaeological museums in the world? Check. Incredible food (including pizza), three castles, and the liveliest atmosphere you'll ever experience? Check, check and check. Here's my post on what to see in Naples, here's my weekend guide to where to stay and what to do for the weekend for New York Magazine, and here's my most recent article on why I love the city so much.
I owe you all a post on Ponza, the gorgeous island just a 2-hour ferry ride from Formia (itself an hour-long drive from Rome). But until then, this picture, of the cliffs on Ponza where Circe was said to have lived and seduced Odysseus, will suffice.
Perugia, located 2.5 hours from Rome on the train, is a gem of a city. It's also a great base to spend the weekend exploring Umbria, possibly my favorite region in all of Italy.
Orvieto was my first real day trip from Rome. I’ve been partial to it ever since.
But that’s not the only reason why I love Orvieto.
Orvieto is one of Umbria’s many excellent offerings, with the added advantage of being just an hour’s drive or train ride from Rome. It boasts an Etruscan museum, underground tunnels, gorgeous views, great food, and a gorgeous duomo with game-changing frescoes (yes, I just said “game-changing” to refer to Renaissance art). Oh, and those little winding streets, hidden churches and medieval-hilltop-town character that, if you’ve traveled in Umbria before, are ho-hum to you by now.
(Just kidding. This stuff never gets ho-hum. I don’t think).
Part of Orvieto’s unique character comes from its history. Etruscans lived here as early as the 8th century B.C., and you can still see — even touch — the remnants they left behind. Like the tunnels and chambers that they dug into the soft tufa underneath the current city. This underground, which includes some 1,200 caves, passages and chambers, is a labyrinth that reaches several stories deep.
You can explore Orvieto’s underground either by taking a tour of a section of it (tours leave from the piazza of the Duomo, and take you through chambers with wells and olive mills built by the Etruscans), or simply by stumbling onto a section. Like at lunch. Below, the Grotte del Funaro, a restaurant that’s built into underground caverns where locals made rope in the Middle Ages.
Don’t miss, either, Orvieto’s two archaeological museums. The National Archaeological Museum, right next to the duomo, boasts delicate bronze hand mirrors, sculpture with the paint traces remaining, and even a full suit of armor. All, you know, about 2,300 years old. The most exciting part, though, is the museum’s two chambers with frescoes taken from 5th century B.C. necropoli discovered nearby. If the rooms aren’t open, ask the guard to let you in. The other archaeological museum, meanwhile, is across from the duomo and has more finds from Orvieto’s prehistoric, Etruscan, and Roman eras.
Then there’s the duomo itself. It’s… well, it’s a masterpiece. Begun in 1290, it’s the epitome of the Italian Gothic style, its exterior elaborate with mosaics, stonework and detailed carvings.
Inside, though, the duomo is something else entirely. For worshipers, it’s most famous for an event said to take place not far from here in 1263: A priest traveling to Rome stopped at Bolsena to pray, and blood started to seep from the consecrated host. The bloodstained linen is still enshrined at the duomo of Orvieto, where it had been brought that year. It’s in the last chapel on the left, with 14th-century frescoes.
But don’t miss, either, the last chapel on the right-hand side, which is where Luca Signorelli painted his Last Judgment in 1499. That’s thirty-six years before Michelangelo would start his own version, and you can see the inspiration Michelangelo took from the older artist: The vibrant, muscular, tortured-looking figures of Signorelli’s frescoes aren’t that far off from what you see in the Sistine Chapel today. Below, his image of the damned, courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.Etruscan tunnels, medieval duomo, Renaissance frescoes — but there’s more to do in Orvieto, too, whether exploring its myriad other churches or simply wandering through its streets. Don’t miss it.
Orvieto is easy to get to; you can either drive (it’s a straight shot on the highway) or take the train, which takes from 45 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes, depending on the price. Check train times at www.trenitalia.com. Be aware that the train station is at the bottom of the hill, so you will have to take the funicular up to the city.
Umbria is the undiscovered Tuscany. It has the rolling hills, medieval towns, excellent food, and artistic treasures of its next-door neighbor — but, thanks to the fact that Frances Mayes’ book was not “Under the Umbrian Sun” (although that does have more of a ring to it), tourists haven’t discovered it. Yet.
One of Umbria’s loveliest towns is Spoleto. First settled in the 5th century B.C. by the Umbri tribes, who built the fortified walls that you can still see there today, the town isn’t just beautiful; it’s rich with history.
Want to see ancient Roman remains? Spoleto boasts two ancient theatres and a bridge, the Ponte Sanguinario, so-called because of the killings of Christians that took place in the theatre next door. How about medieval sites? You couldn’t miss the imposing Rocca Albornoziana, a 14th-century castle, if you tried, nor the Ponte delle Torri — a striking 13th-century aqueduct that might have been built into ancient foundations (shown above).
And that’s not to mention the surprising number of medieval churches for what feels like such a small town. Most notable among them is the Duomo of Santa Maria Assunto, completed in 1227.
But the Duomo’s biggest claim to fame is actually Renaissance-era: the frescoes of Italian great Filippo Lippi (right), painted in the 1460s to commemorate scenes from the life of Virgin Mary. (Lippi is buried in the church, too).
Finally: I think it’s worth noting that Spoleto boasts some particularly good dining, including one restaurant that a friend of mine likes so much he’ll drive to Spoleto just to eat there. It’s called Il Tempio del Gusto, located on Via Arco di Druso, 11. Information is available on the restaurant’s website.
The easiest way to get to Spoleto is by train: it takes just 1.5 hours, and costs €7.45 for a second-class ticket, one way. Check for times and prices at www.trenitalia.it. If you’re lucky enough to have a car, Spoleto’s a 1.5- to 2-hour drive to the north. For a map, click here. For more information about Spoleto, click here.