Built on a fault line, Norcia is an ornate retreat in a wild valley. Lee Marshall loves it.
The Forca di Cerro road tunnel, just north of the Umbrian town of Spoleto, separates two different worlds. To the west is the wide sweep of the Valle Umbra, one of central Italy's most classic agricultural landscapes, long ago sculpted into terraces for the olive trees of Trevi and the vines of Bevagna and Montefalco. It's an ancient, prosperous, densely populated valley, so gentle in its declivities and generous with its vistas that it hardly seems a valley at all. In summer, outside the green vineyards, shades of sunflower yellow and clay brown dominate the palette, and the air buzzes with urgent insects.
Those bound for Norcia leave all this behind near a little walled town with the delicious name of Eggi, where the tunnel swallows them up. They emerge five minutes and four kilometres later in a valley so unlike the one they have left behind that it feels like another country.
When I mention this odd effect later to Vincenzo Bianconi, co-owner of the Palazzo Seneca hotel in Norcia, he laughs in recognition.
"My friends and I call the tunnel Stargate," he says. "It's a portal into another universe."
It feels as though you have been rewound to spring.
On the eastern side of the tunnel is the Valnerina: a steep-sided valley cradling a fast-flowing torrent of clear mountain water, the Nera. Everything here is green and fresh: if you arrive, as I did, in high summer, it feels as though you have been rewound to spring. Buttercups and bee orchids nod from the roadside verges, and in lay-bys on the narrow valley road ruddy-faced contadini, or smallholder farmers, offer sacks of red potatoes from Colfiorito and lentils from Castelluccio. Villages are small and widely scattered, clinging improbably to spurs and hillocks or venturing down towards the river from the snag-toothed ruins of mediaeval castles.
The agricultural riches of the Valle Umbra fostered a cultural and ecclesiastical refinement that culminated early in Giotto's ground-breaking frescoes in Assisi. Over here in the rugged Valnerina, art may not have scaled such peaks but itinerant sculptors and fresco painters nevertheless left behind a series of touching testimonies to an area suffused with spirituality. You see it as you ascend the valley from Terni, in the Romanesque frescoes of the Abbey of San Pietro in Valle, in the naif basso-relievo of the dinky 12th-century church of San Felice di Narco and, later, in Norcia itself, in the Museo Civico's star turn: a delicate Jacopo della Quercia terracotta sculpture of the Virgin Mary, dressed in a striking vermilion robe. Fresh-faced and radiant, she can't be more than 16.
As you drive towards Norcia, first along the Nera and then along its tributary the Corno, the valley narrows into a sheer-sided gorge; until a road tunnel was blasted out in 1857, a rock-hewn pedestrian and donkey passageway, the Sasso Tagliato, was the only way through.
It comes as a relief, and a surprise, when the gorge opens out all of a sudden into the verdant upland plain of Santa Scolastica. There, ahead of you, in the middle of the plain, backed by the rounded peaks of the Monti Sibillini, is a neat walled town, unblemished by urban sprawl.
Its position alone - at the centre of a well-irrigated breadbasket of a plain, with endless summer pastures in the mountains above - explains why Norcia has been considered such a prize down through its long history, from Sabines and Romans through to princes and popes.
One thing strikes you immediately: there are none of the usual mediaeval towers, and even the palazzos of the nobility seem modest in their vertical ambitions. This is not because of lack of funds or imagination. It's because Norcia lies on a fault line and has suffered a series of devastating earthquakes over the years. In the 18th century the town's pontifical rulers issued an edict that no building could be more than two storeys high. And so Norcia went for decoration rather than height, embellishing its architecture with ornate balconies and intricately carved stone lintels and arches.
Today, Norcia is associated in the rest of Italy above all with its salumi, or pork and wild boar products, which come in sausages, salamis and cured hams of all shapes and sizes. As you stroll down the central Corso Sertorio, around the civic and religious hub of Piazza San Benedetto or in the lanes behind, every other shop seems to be a norcineria (a name adopted by cured pork butchers all over Italy, even if they don't come from Norcia).
The skill of the norcini in making use of every inch of the pig had some interesting spin-offs. In Preci, a rather dour town a few kilometres north, pork butchery segued into human incisions: a school of self-taught surgeons sprang up here in the Renaissance that was famous throughout Europe. A surgeon from Preci, Cesare Scacchi, was even called to operate on Elizabeth I's cataracts in 1588.
Norcia's other claim to fame is less earthy. These remote but gentle valleys have long attracted monks and hermits, and it was here in about AD480 that Saint Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism and the town's patron saint, was born.
The Benedictine order's mother church of San Benedetto in the main square has an unexpectedly simple interior - probably because it has been rebuilt so many times following earthquake damage - but the real draw is the ancient crypt downstairs (which purportedly stands on the site of the house where Benedict and his equally saintly sister Scholastica were born), especially if you get there at 7.45pm for Compline, when Gregorian chant resonates from the vaults. Make sure you're at the door to the crypt a few minutes before: a monk will come up to let you in.
Many visitors simply pass through Norcia on their way to Castelluccio and the Sibillini mountains. Italy's highest permanently inhabited village, Castelluccio stands on a rise overlooking the Piano Grande, a vast upland plain divvied up into lentil fields. It's an unforgettable sight, but the village offers only the most basic accommodation. If you're looking for comfort and a gastronomic breadth of choice in the evening, the best approach is to take to the mountains by day and return to Norcia's excellent restaurants and wine bars in the evening, with burnt-off calories to replace.
By road, allow two hours from Rome, via Terni, and about 2½ hours from Florence, via Perugia. Public transport means buses: either from Rome via Terni (three-hour journey, twice a day Monday to Saturday, once Sunday) or from Spoleto (55-minute journey, six times a day Monday to Saturday, four times a day Sunday). Timetables at umbriamobilita.it.
Palazzo Seneca is a boutique hotel to compare with Italy's best. Double room from €130 ($167). 10 Via Cesare Battisti, +39 0743 817434, palazzoseneca.com.