A Perfect Plan: Spoleto’s Monteluco

Written on 22 aprile 2013 by Rebecca

The older I get, the more zen I become. I used to be the kind of person who made plans and stuck to them…and then got all hot and bothered when plans changed. But I am finding more and more that things tend to work out in the end, and when the end is different than what you had envisioned at the beginning, it is usually a better end.

Yesterday is an excellent example: I had made plans to visit the Mongiovino castle and sanctuary near Panicale, which I had been looking forward to since friends had taken a hike there and came back raving about the area weeks ago. I don’t tend to explore around Lake Trasimeno (I prefer the rugged Sibillines and the tiny hamlets of the Valnerina) and the sanctuary is one of Umbria’s few excellent examples of Renaissance architecture, so I was looking forward to shaking up my usual routine and doing something a little different.

Well, it didn’t happen that way. For a series of reasons, the Mongiovino plan had to be abandoned and Monteluco near Spoleto was floated as an alternative. Sure, I said. Ok, I said. Whatever, I said.

It was the perfect day.

I had been meaning to visit Monteluco for years, but just never seemed to get around to it. One of the reasons may be that it’s so accessible—a quick walk from the center of stately Spoleto–that I always put it aside as a back-up plan when a more complicated day of hiking wouldn’t work. Which is exactly what ended up happening on Sunday.

Monteluco is an area which covers about 7,000 hectares of lush, holm oak-wooded mountain. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the hilltop on which Spoleto is perched, the two are joined by the the city’s iconic medieval acqueduct Ponte dei Torri, which dramatically spans the valley between the them like a bridge joining two islands. By crossing the bridge and following the hiking path number 1 uphill, you can scale the mountain from the bridge to the summit along the medieval acqueduct and past a series of hermitages and sanctuaries.

The name Monteluco comes from the Latin lucus, meaning a sacred grove dedicated to Jupiter. This historic Sacro Bosco still stands at the top of the mountain, where it has been forbidden to cut trees for at least four millenia. Though the ban was ostensibly established for religious reasons, there was also a more pragmatic explanation: the thick forest acted as a filter between the disease-laden air emanating from the stagnant swamp which covered the valley floor on the far side of Monteluco at one time and the populace of the city of Spoleto. Indeed, a marble stone still stands at the entrance to the sacred grove inscribed with the Lex luci spoletina in ancient Latin reiterating this ban (a copy—the original is in Spoleto’s Archaeological Museum).

The mountain’s sacred history continued through early Christianity as Monteluco became home to a colony of religious hermits—primarily Syrian–who used the natural caves and grottoes found on the flanks of the mountain and in the sacred grove itself as places of spiritual retreat and contemplation. One of these became San Giuliano, and the picturesquely crumbling Romanesque church (built in the 1200s over a pre-existing shrine from the 5th century and subsequently abandoned by the Benedictines in the 1500s) dedicated to his memory can be seen from the panaramic lookout in the Sacred Grove (it can also be reached by car from the valley; there is now a small restaurant/pizzeria at the site with one of the prettiest views over the Spoleto Valley.)

With the expansion of Christianity, Monteluco endured as a spiritual destination for monks from a number of religious orders who sought to live according to their vows of humility and poverty. Of these, Francis of Pavia (who died here in 1454), Bernardino of Siena, Bonaventure, and Anthony of Padova. The remains of the abandoned monastery and church dedicated to Saint Anthony can be found about halfway up the hiking trail, and his grotto is still intact in the Sacred Grove. The most famous of all religious sites on Monteluco, however, is the Convent of Saint Francis on the summit of the mountain.

In 1218, Francis was granted the small Saint Catherine Chapel adjacent to the Bosco Sacro by the colony of hermits, which he and his followers expanded into a small monastery and church over the following decades. The convent is still active, and Mass is often held in both the original church and the larger, more modern addition. Some of the older parts of the complex are open to visitors, including the tiny cells (one of which still holds the Saint’s stone bed), original frescoed chapel, and Saint Francis’ Well, the spot where legend holds that Francis was miraculously able to summon a flowing spring from the rock near the grotto where he was living at the time.

All of this I learned from my hiking companions as we climbed the switchback trail through the thick woods from the Ponti dei Torri, past the photogenic Monastero di Sant’Antonio ruins, and, finally, to the Sacred Grove and Monastero di San Francesco at the summit. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and parts of the trail seemed like a sporty version of Spoleto’s Corso as couples with children and seniors with dogs on leads took advantage of the first warm days of spring. We stopped often to take pictures and, as the trail began to climb in earnest toward the summit of the mountain, to catch our breath and take in the view.

Our prize was the overlook at the top…from here you can see the Umbrian Valley from Spoleto past Assisi, with a series of hilltowns dribbling down the mountainsides and a patchwork of olive groves, fields, and vineyards in the valley. Our prize was also an excellent lunch at one of the three historic hotels at the top and would have been a nap on the inviting green which blankets the summit, had it not been for the walk back down to town.

All told, not bad for a Plan B. Not bad at all.

A special thanks to my hiking buddy and all-round Umbria informant Armando Lanoce, who is always full of perfect Plan Bs and beautiful photos.

Rebecca

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