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by Rebecca Winke

“You may have the universe if I may have Italy”, Giuseppe Verdi famously said. I offer you instead Umbria’s postcard-perfect rolling hills, if I may only keep the dramatic craggy mountain peaks of the Valnerina.

Within the off-the-beaten-track central Italian region of Umbria, the Valnerina is even further off the map. Virtually inaccessible until 1998 (when the 4 kilometer Forca di Cerro Tunnel near Spoleto was completed), now it’s an easy trip from the gentle rolling hills of northern and central Umbria to the wild and rugged scenery in the Nera River Park at the southern tip.  That said, its long history of geographic isolation means that this perfect daytrip destination remains largely unknown to travellers. Here are a few highlights.

Nera River Valley

The valley offers one of the prettiest drives in the region along highway SS209, which skirts the crystalline Nera river and runs under steep mountainsides where tiny creche-looking stone villages perch precariously.  It is an area both stunningly beautiful and foreboding, where the weather can go from sunny skies to black clouds in a matter of minutes, where the isolated hamlets and claustrophobia-inducing sheer rock walls remind you that centuries ago the inhabitants of these inpenetrable peaks held out against conversion to Christianity for long after the rest of the region, where dragons and witches lurked in caves, and where – just to make the area a bit more hostile – each tiny town was locked in perennial warfare with the next one over.

Marmore Waterfalls

My favorite stretch of the Valnerina begins at the southern end with the bucolic Marmore Waterfalls – the highest in Europe – with its climbing walking paths along the falls and breathtaking scenic overlook, and ends at the northern town of Vallo di Nara, a pretty example of the tiny medieval hilltowns for which this region is famous. I also love to stop in at Scheggino, a village criss-crossed with miniature canals full of trout and crayfish (a local specialty, along with black truffles), and the hamlet of Castel San Felice, where the 12th century facade of the San Felice in Narco church tells the story of the historic slaying of a local dragon by Saints Felice and Mauro.

San Pietro

If you only have time to see one thing during your visit, don’t miss San Pietro in Valle. Tucked away on the slopes of Mount Solenne, this former Benedictine abbey—now a four star historical residence—was established in 710 on the site of a Syrian hermitage and was home to abbots for the next 800 years. The outside of the abbey is breathtaking; the church and cloister are surrounded by thickly wooded fields and look out over the steep river gorge and the gradually receding mountain peaks along the horizon. Guided tours take visitors through the interior of the church, covered in recently restored frescoes from the 12th and 13th century, and filled with stone work including Etruscan and Lombard altars, and a Roman sarcophagus.

Mummies of Ferentillo

The Valnerina is also home to one of the oddest sights in Umbria: the Mummies of Ferentillo. Housed in the tiny village’s 12th century church of Santo Stefano–now the crypt of the 15th century church built on top of the original–this odd museum holds roughly twenty mummies, the most intact of which are displayed behind glass. The combination of a microfungus and mineral salts in the soil and a unique air flow resulted in the natural mummification of many of the bodies buried here over the centuries, which were discovered at the beginning of the 19th century. The guide’s chirpy commentary—with gruesome backstories of torture and hangings, disease and plague, and grim human tragedy—is both surreal and compelling.

I love all of Umbria, from the gentle, undulating hills around Lake Trasimeno, to the vast vineyards covering the landscape near Montefalco, to the lovely pink stone hill towns of Spello and—my home—Assisi. But if I were to choose just one area of this exquisite region as my favorite, it is the mysterious Valnerina which continues to fascinate, bewitch, and draw me back.

Rebecca moved to Italy in 1993 and shortly thereafter opened an agriturismo in her husband’s renovated family farmhouse at the foot of Mount Subasio near Assisi, Umbria.  She spends her time taking care of guests at Brigolante (www.brigolante.com), blogging about the lovely region she now calls home at Rebecca’s Ruminations (www.brigolante.com/en/blog), and wondering about what strange winds blew an urban vegetarian to a farm in Umbria.