We were in Verona visiting an art exhibit with some friends the first time I had ever heard of Spello.
We were at a stand buying an easy-clean tablecloth. The man and his wife were basically retired when they decided to sell tablecloths for a living, traveling all of Italy to set up their stand at various festivals, events or weekly markets. He said they come and go as they please, seeing all of Italy, big and small, and really enjoy it. “The most beautiful borgo in all of Italy, though, is Spello,” he said.
He said it with such conviction, surprising me and Marco, who had never even heard of it. Located in Umbria, Spello is tiny…as in tiiiinnnyyyy, but this man, who has seen nearly every inch of Italy, deemed it the best.
Turns out, he wasn’t the only one.
Months later Marco was discussing our vague idea to visit Umbria to his colleague from the area. “Then you have to go to Spello,” she declared.
How do you choose which cities to include in a two and a half day tour in beautiful Umbria when nearly all are attractive, beautiful, unique? Random word-of-mouth seemed like a good enough method. Spello was in.
Spello sits at the base of Monte Subasio (though not considered a real mountain by Alpine Italians…) between Foligno and Assisi. With a population of just 8,500, the city is encircled by the original Roman walls and surrounded by lush, fertile fields that grow olive oil, Spello’s most famous export.
Though there is a lot to see (Spello is the Umbrian city with the most preserved monuments from Roman rule), for me a town as characteristic as Spello is best seen by simply walking. Maybe occasionally sitting. So, I cannot tell you the best church to visit, the name of the main shopping road or even where the Town Hall is. What I can tell you is what I saw walking.
I can tell you that the streets of Spello are so narrow, you have to step on doorsteps, flattening yourself against a stranger’s front door, to allow the cars to pass.
I can tell you that the locals talked with us more, and more naturally, than any other city I’ve ever visited in Italy, despite the fact that there are quite a few tourists who visit.
I can tell you that the city seems to be filled with cats who twirl between legs for love, run under church alcoves or sunbath in between balcony railings.
And that the balconies seem to compete with one another: which is the most beautiful, which has the most flowers, the most decorations, the strangest combinations. Their decorations overflow into the streets, making the narrow pathways even narrower, like a secret garden.
Perhaps I haven’t seen enough of Italy, or even Spello, to be able to claim it as il più bello borgo di Italia, but the views, architecture and atmosphere certainly make it close.