Avoid the Summer Crowds in Italy, Go With The Saints: Umbria and Tuscany


A long-time fan of plastic cameras, Argentinean writer and photographer Lorraine Healy is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera. In the first of a two-part article, Healy shares a 2005 trip to Umbria, Italy with an unusual itinerary.

Rosa, the produce seller in Orvieto’s Piazza.

In 2005, I was determined to take my mother on a European trip, but as she was still working as a college professor in Buenos Aires, the only possible slot was her winter vacation and my summer one, July. So, the time when things get awful crowded in places like Italy. I decided to create a different kind of itinerary, one that would really appeal to her: following the trail of her favorite saints.

Golden light, long sweltering days, tons of walking, and the best gelato in the Northern Hemisphere. Umbria, Italy, Holga S.

After a fabulous first week in the southeastern region of Puglia, we drove north through the Adriatic coast, veered west after passing Pescara (I would dearly love to drive the Adriatic coastline again and stop everywhere…), skirted Rome and its suburbs and proceeded to the lovely, charming, endlessly beautiful hill town of Orvieto. On a friend’s recommendation, (Grazie, Cristina Speranza!) we chose the dramatic town perched on the Umbrian volcanic tuff to use as our base for the second week, visiting the many saints of Umbria and a couple in Tuscany.

Scenes from an Orvieto summer week (left to right): the famed late-Gothic Cathedral, zucca flowers for sale, a viccolo (alley), the twice-weekly public market, where everyone was out for a good bargain, including the nuns.

A traffic-free town, at least when you make it to the top of the hill (there is a more modern, full-traffic part of Orvieto at ground level, which is also where you find the train station), Orvieto was close to many of the roads we needed to take to get to the occasionally very off the beaten track places where my Mother’s saints were to be found. It had reasonable rates for apartment rents; a hysterically funny Thursday-and-Saturday market where vendors yelled their best offers and nuns and widowed ladies bought underwear and cheese and comfortable shoes; a little old lady named Rosa who rode in a three-wheeled Ape truck every day and set up her home-grown fruits and vegetables by the church doors; great restaurants and the magnificent Gelateria Pasqualetti right by the Cathedral. Oh, the Cathedral is also quite magnificent. But the gelati at Pasqualetti? Oh, Diò!

Orvieto from a distance, perched on a hill of volcanic tufa. Looking up from an alley, as we strolled through our home for the week in Umbria.

In no particular order, we then visited the towns of Spoleto and Todi (because they were close), Norcia (birthplace of monastic twins Saint Benedict & Saint Scholastica), Cascia (resting place of Saint Rita, whom you can see through a crystal casket), Assissi (birth and resting place of Saint Francis and Saint Clare, whom you can also see in her crystal casket), Terni (birthplace of the mythic Saint Valentine, protector of lovers), all in Umbria. We also drove to the nearby Castiglione in Teverina, a tiny, very beautiful village south of Orvieto, where another friend has family connections, and then we braved the summer crowds in Tuscany, visiting Siena (had to see Saint Catherine’s birthplace), the towers of San Gimigniano, and finally, the sweet town of Panicale.

A handsome gentleman by the side of his Ape, Castiglione in Teverina. It was hard to keep the highlights from blowing in most images, especially when shooting in the middle of the day.
Under the Tuscan sun. San Gimigniano (left) and Siena (right). Both images taken with Fuji color film, I converted the San Gimigniano shot first to b&w then to sepia because it made the light leaks from the faulty seals in my camera less of an issue.

Late July in central Italy is hot, hot, hot—in temperature, in the amount of visitors. Keeping to our saintly itinerary was key to avoiding crowds, except where crowds were inevitable, like Siena and San Gimigniano. Besides, churches, as buildings, are blessedly cool! There were no nearby beaches nor swimming pools like we had enjoyed in Puglia, but the roadsides were bursting with sunflower and the very green Umbrian hills made for entertaining driving. I was the recipient of many a vociferous opinion regarding my not quite-neck-breaking-speeds, but we safely made it back and forth, leaving Orvieto after breakfast in our rented flat and returning in time for dinner and communal passeggiatta with ice cream at Pasqualetti.

Holgarama of the sunflower fields between Castiglione in Teverina and Orvieto.

Late last year, in October, there were a series of earthquakes in the southeastern area of Umbria that proved devastating to some of the places we saw. Norcia (or Nursia) in particular was hard hit. A heart-melting combination of ancient devotion and practical delight in the earthly, Norcia was home to the founder of monastic life and to Italy’s biggest salami culture. Inhabited since the Neolithic, it is hard to imagine that Norcia, as we saw it, is no more; that the tiny Roman ruin of a hut where St. Dominic and St. Scholastica were born is all rubble and the town’s lovely church no longer stands.

The foundations of the very rustic house in Norcia where Saint Dominic and Saint Scholastica were born, which used to be enclosed within the local church, now sadly destroyed by the 2016 earthquakes.
The main square in Norcia, on market day, in July 2005. From what I have read, it all collapsed during the October 2016 earthquakes in southeastern Umbria.
One of the many, many norcinerie, the sausage-and-salami stores so prevalent in Norcia (which has a long wild-boar hunting and processing tradition) that this type of store is actually named after the town itself. I hope it is still standing…

My Mom still talks about this trip to Italy as “the best in her whole life,” which means a lot coming from such a well traveled person. Mission accomplished! And a parting thought: creating a traveling itinerary that is “out of the box” will take you to places that are unspoiled, less crowded, more affordable, and a lot more idiosyncratic than the usual tourist haunts.

Shot from the side of an Umbrian road.

To the best of my recollection, all of the 35mm images in this article were taken with a Canon A-1 and a Canon AE-1 with a couple of longish zoom lenses, 70-210mm and 100-300mm. The Cano AE-1, which I had bought on an online auction site, had faulty seals—which I never thought to check! All medium format images were taken with two basic Holga S.

Lorraine Healy (@lorrainehealy) is an Argentinean writer and photographer living in the Pacific Northwest. A long-time fan of plastic cameras and she is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera, available as an eBook from Amazon.com.

written by Lorraine Healy on 2017-03-22 #places #lifestyle #travel #medium-format #120 #35mm #color #italy #holga-n #tuscany #canonae1 #canona1 #umbria


  1. schugger
    schugger ·

    I loved San Giminiano and Siena when we had a trip through Tuscany some years ago...

  2. lorrainehealy
    lorrainehealy ·

    @schugger they are lovely!!!! Just avoid them in July & August!!!! ;)

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