We spent two wonderful weeks in Panicale, nesting in an apartment owned by friends from Brisbane.
Perched on a hilltop on the eastern slopes of Mount Petravella, it’s a Renaissance-era stone village.
Within its stone walls, traffic-free winding lanes follow a snail-shell pattern. Wherever you wander you are sure to wind up in Piazza Umberto I, the central meeting point of the village. Perfect for an afternoon Prosecco, or for coffee, lunch, dinner….
Or for some summertime entertainment.
We’d been here about an hour, wandered around, had a Prosecco and light lunch. We pronounced Panicale a very fine village indeed, and John said “the only thing missing here is cats”. Word must have got around, because shortly after that we had our first feline visitor and, as it transpires, the village is full of cats!
Panicale has great views across Lake Trasimeno, Italy’s fourth largest lake.
It’s a short drive to some lovely towns on the shores of the lake.
Castiglione di Lago
The town was first established on an island on Lake Trasimeno but as it grew, the area between the island and the shore was filled in and eventually a defensive wall encircled the town, joining it to the land.
The modern town has developed outside the old walls, leaving the historic centre as a preserved medieval village of churches, shops and cafes. It’s traffic-free and has some outstanding produce stores showcasing regional specialties such as wild boar products, truffles and local wines.
And for when all you need is a good quaffer, on the outskirts of the modern town is a wine cantina where you can buy five litre flagons filled from what look like petrol bowsers. There’s white, red and … another red. And yes, that is our flagon being filled.
On the far side of the lake is genteel Passignano. Apparently it gets mobbed by domestic tourists in the height of summer, but we visited on a Monday, when many restaurants close, and it was very quiet. You can stroll on the lakeside promenade and climb the cobbled lanes up to its castle.
A little further afield is Assisi. It is probably best known as the birthplace of St Francis of Assisi, one of Italy’s two patron saints and the founder of the Franciscan Orders. It is also a remarkably beautiful Umbrian hill town. Badly damaged by earthquake in 1997, it’s been rapidly and sympathetically restored. Its Franciscan structures were designated by UNESCO as World Heritage sites in 2000.
From a distance the town is magestic.
St Francis is buried in a magnificent tomb under the Basilica which bears his name.
His acolyte, St Clare founded the Order of Poor Ladies, commonly called the Poor Clares. Her Rule of Life was the first set of monastic guidelines written by a woman. Yes, that’s right, up until that time, men wrote the rules as to how nuns were to live in a convent.
Under the Rules, the nuns embraced extreme poverty, spent the majority of their time cloistered in prayer and observed almost complete silence. In other words, a life which involved effectively being cut off from the secular world. So it’s ironic, at least to us, that St Clare is the patron saint of television. We didn’t even know there was a patron saint of television.
Apparently St Clare died following a long illness during which she was too sick to attend Mass but she reported being able to hear the service and see it on her bedroom wall. That’s a neat miracle – watching television in bed more than 650 years before it was invented.
She is entombed in the Romanesque-style Basilica of St Clare at the other end of town from St Francis.
Between the two Basilicas, the town of Assisi stacks up on ribboning switchback cobbled streets linked by stairs.
Thanks to the saints, the city attracts many, many pilgrims, yet somehow seems to absorb them in a way that means the town doesn’t feel crowded.
Walking in Tuscany and Umbria
Panicale is in Umbria, close to the border with Tuscany, making it ideal as a base for walking in both. Here’s four day walks we did, the first two in Tuscany and the second two in Umbria.
Abbey of Sant’Antimo circuit: We’d read of a walk from Montalcino to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo. It sounded great but was a one-way walk and we didn’t fancy a 16km walk back.
So instead we downloaded a GPS track map for a 12km circuit walk from the Abbey through the forest and vineyards, circling around to end back at the Abbey. It would avoid the walk back or a walk to the nearest town and a likely long wait for the bus. We’d be in Montalcino in time for lunch. It was a plan so cunning even Baldrick would have been impressed.
When we arrived at the Abbey it was a stunning day. The sky was a glorious blue.
We headed up a heavily degraded but well defined track through bush land. After a steep climb we reached flatter ground and began walking through vines which looked just about ready for harvest. The sky was still a glorious blue.
We reached a restored pieve, now a winery and guesthouse with its own chapel. The sky was still a glorious blue.
From there we continued on farm roads through the vineyards. All was good until we turned onto the track down to the Abbey. Two things happened simultaneously. The track became a narrow slice through shoulder high brambles, loose underfoot, heading straight downhill at about a 45 degree angle. And it started to rain. Not just a few drops, this was a torrent. Weirdly, the sky was still a glorious blue.
Two kms later we emerged at the bottom, soaked to the skin, spattered in mud, arms and legs flayed and bleeding from the brambles. The rain stopped as we arrived back at the Abbey but lunch in Montalcino was out of the question. Appearing in civilisation anywhere was out of the question.
We headed back to Panicale for a shower and liberal applications of Betadine. The sky in Panicale was a glorious blue.
Pieve di Corsignano to Chapel of Madonna di Vitaleta circuit: This is a spectacular walk in the Tuscan countryside starting at the Pieve di Corsignano.
A pieve is a medieval rural church with a baptisty, in case you were wondering.
The countryside is stunning. We followed farm tracks through wheat fields, gently up and down until reaching the Chapel of Madonna di Vitaleta.
Continuing in a gentle circle, we reached the ‘Gladiator Road’. Fans of the movie may recognise this as the road taken by Russell Crowe’s character, Maximus Decimus Meridius, in his dreams of returning home.
Walking the road in the opposite direction to the glowering gladiator, we had great views up to the town of Pienza and returned to our starting point at the pieve.
And then, having managed to avoid being soaked, splattered or shredded, we headed into Montapulciano, one of Tuscany’s iconic hill towns, for a wander through its stone streets and a bite to eat.
Magione to Monte Ruffiano circuit: This lovely 13km hike started from the cemetery outside the small town of Magione, climbing steadily up until we had great views over Lake Trasimeno and its islands in one direction and over farms and vineyards in the other.
It wound through pine and cyprus trees up to Monte Ruffiano.
And then down through olive groves, rejoining the original track back to Magione.
Fontignano – Montali – Monte Solare circuit; And last but not least, a canter from Fontignano to the hamlet of Montali and up to the summit of Monte Solare for spectacular views over the Umbrian countryside.
You could walk here for weeks and see something different every day.
Panicale was the quintessential and perfect Italian village. We had a brilliant chill-out time there. We wanted to stay longer, but it was time to head to Rome.