A short 10 minute drive from our villa, la Fattoria del Gelso, in Italy’s “green heart” region of Umbria, lies a gem of a town called Bevagna.
Founded more than two millennia ago by the Romans, Bevagna, originally called Mevania, is a small town ringed by medieval walls that were designed to keep enemies at bay. Inside those walls are traces of the remaining Roman town plan, a Roman theatre, an ancient temple and some wonderfully preserved Roman mosaic floors. Built over the original town is a hodgepodge of winding streets laid out in medieval times, which give this peaceful settlement much of its character and charm. And overlaid on that medieval town, with its glorious central piazza flanked by several churches and important civic buildings dating back to the 1200s, is a modern town with interesting shops, its share of tourist traps, gastronomic stores featuring fresh pastas, regional specialties and local baked goods, enotecas and restaurants.
Lots of restaurants.
Bevagna is a great place to eat.
We first visited Bevagna shortly before finalizing the purchase of our villa in 2008. I had been there just once before, a brief visit and lunch there with our artist friend Giuseppe Fioroni during a magical day that took me to the Arnaldo Caprai winery and to Caprai’s fashion outlet in nearby Trevi and which included a tour of Caprai’s private family collection of lacemaking artifacts (ancient sewing machines, lace patterns, private letters from European royalty who were customers, thimbles and needles) led by Signor Caprai himself. After the tour, Maestro Fioroni took us for a memorable lunch in Bevagna at one of the town’s finest restaurants, Ottavius, for a hearty bistecca fiorentina and local wine. Afterwards we wandered through the compact town’s main square and to its ancient water wheel, drinking in the clear air, peaceful breeze and bright blue skies. The Maestro described to me that the city had been designated one of the most beautiful towns in Italy, a designation (i Borghi Piu Belli d’Italia) we would learn about more as a result of our travels throughout Umbria. It was clear to see why it had been so recognized.
So as we began our self appointed job of learning more about our new home, Bevagna was at the top of our list of places to visit. We arrived at the now familiar Porta Cannara, the Cannara gate, with its confusing parking lot set out just outside the city walls. Confusing because while the lot is one large open space, it is broken into several different zones with varying restrictions as to when and how long you can park. The signage is mostly unhelpful, leading to some doubt about whether to pay, whether to set your disco orario or whether to act Italian and simply don’t care. We have mostly followed the latter course and have never received a ticket.
Wandering through the massive pointed stone arch Porta Cannara we entered a “piazza” which is less a square than a slightly widened street, flanked by well kept stone building decorated with flower pots overflowing with an explosion of bold bright colors. At the end of the piazza are the remains of a façade of a Roman temple, its original brick columns protruding from the bricked façade. On your left is a light stone stairway that leads to a church and a maze of streets where you can wander and get lost, only to easily find your way back in this protective, walled city.
The left side of the piazza boasts several small, homey restaurants, including Antichi Sere (Ancient Nights), which literally is a hole in the wall, with seating for about a dozen. Despite its size and the size of its kitchen, though, it is not just possible, it is practically guaranteed that you will eat well there, with its emphasis on local dishes and ingredients, especially fresh, local produce.
Our first visit landed us on the other side of the piazza, however, at a new restaurant that had just opened its doors a few months prior. This was le Delizie del Borgo (the Delicacies from the Town), a restaurant just a little larger than Antiche Sere, but with a nice outdoor dining deck and a warm interior, made even warmer by the fire burning in the small fireplace that January afternoon. This restaurant had another important distinction. Simone.
From that first visit to Bevagna we were fortunate enough to meet and become friends with Simone Proietti-Pesci, the chef-owner of le Delizie del Borgo. For those who follow our Italian blog, you will know that a visit to le Delizie del Borgo marks the official start of each of our visits to Umbria. It is a tradition that is well worth maintaining.
Just around the corner from le Delizie del Borgo, on the Via delle Terme Romane (Street of the Roman Baths) is a museum that boasts a beautifully preserved Roman mosaic floor. From the design of the floor it is apparent that the Romans, too, knew how to eat. Designed into the floor are all manner of delicious tasting sea creatures – octopus, fishes, lobsters and the like – as well as some more fantastical creatures. The museum is open upon request. If locked you need to head toward the central piazza and ask at the tourist office to have it opened for you.
Even if you are satisfied to spy the mosaic floors through the museum’s windows, you will want to wander to the main square. Passing by the Roman temple (on your left) you will wander down a cobblestone street (with precious little if any auto traffic) until it dead ends. Follow the road to the right and you will end up in the main square but first you should turn left so as not to miss two important sights.
The first, just down the street a bit and then left down the first cross street (follow the Via Dante to the Via dell’Anfiteatro) is a beautiful hotel (l’Orto degli Angeli – the Garden of the Angels) and its restaurant Redibis (latin for come back). The hotel and restaurant are worthy in themselves, but you should not miss an opportunity to wander into the restaurant, down its long hallway until you enter the main dining room. For as you wander down the passageway toward the dining room you will not realize it, but you are traversing the ruins of the town’s Roman theater and when you emerge into the dining room you are clearly under the arches that supported the theatre’s seats above. It is an extraordinary use for an extraordinary building. And for those with time and money to spend, the restaurant is also well worth a visit.
Retracing your steps, on the left side of street leading to the main square is an enoteca (wine tasting room) from the local Antano winemaking family. Their estate is outside Bevagna on the road to Montefalco, right in the heart of Umbria’s best wine producing zone, the Montefalco D.O.C. A brief stop at the enoteca is a great way to sample the local grechetto (white) and Montefalco Rosso and Montefalco Sagrantino (red), or maybe a Passito (sweet wine) or grappa (no translation required). Their Sagrantino, which is not inexpensive, is one of the area’s best.
Turning left out the door of the enoteca, following the main street (the Corso Matteotti) to the main piazza, you will pass a wonderful bakery on the right. If you are lucky, they will still have their special pistachio cookies – crisp, crunchy and sweet – but even if not, there will be a dozen other cookies and pastries to tempt.
Next door is a wonderful fresh pasta shop which is open at irregular hours. One gets the sense that they open when they have made pasta and close when it is sold out, but regardless of the schedule, there is nothing like fresh, homemade, handmade pasta. A little goes a long way.
And along the way to the main piazza you will cross a number of very nice alimentari (gourmet shops), with local specialties, such as truffles, prosciutto, salame, various sauces and artisanal pastas. Other shops, hardware stores, wine shops, restaurants will keep you busy for what would otherwise be a five minute walk. So it is best to linger and take in the local color of this beautiful town as you wander.
The main piazza (Piazza Silvestri) is one of the most beautiful piazzas in Italy. You emerge into the piazza, which connects a number of streets, greeted by a sense of openness and light. The proportions of the square are harmonious and the architecture glorious. Several 12th century churches ring the piazza as well as heavy civic buildings. And off the center of the square, in typical medieval fashion, a beautiful (although modern) fountain completes the scene. It is truly breathtaking in its beauty.
Wandering down any of the other streets that radiate from the piazza is an exercise in restoration of the spirit. Again, getting lost and wandering are the order of the day. Be sure to wander down to the city gate to the south. From the bridge crossing the river you can see a picturesque water wheel and basin where grain was ground centuries ago.
One of the nice things about Bevagna, like many Italian towns, is the way they hold onto their traditions and proudly share them with anyone interested enough to ask. In medieval times, Bevagna was home to a number of important trades, among which were candle making, paper making and silk spinning. Today you can still see demonstrations of these arts by artisans whose studios are open to the public. And each year the village celebrates its historic past with a town festival called the Mercato delle Gaete that takes place in mid-June over two weekends. Although we have not (yet) had the pleasure of attending the Mercato, the town’s four neighborhoods (gaete) are decorated with temporary “taverns” where ancient arts are practiced and much food and drink is consumed. The gaete participate in a number of competitions, a la palio of Siena, to determine the worthiest. For several years now we have arrived in Italy (and hence Bevagna as it is traditionally our first stop in Umbria) just after the final day of the Mercato, seeing vestiges of the pomp and pageantry, but lo, no festival.
Perhaps this year will be different. Stay tuned.
Check out photos from our previous visit to Bevagna below: