But thou, Clitumnus! in thy sweetest wave
Of the most living crystal that was e’er
The haunt of river nymph, to gaze and lave
Her limbs where nothing hid them, thou dost rear
Thy grassy banks whereon the milk-white steer
Grazes; the purest god of gentle waters!
And most serene of aspect, and most clear:
Surely that stream was unprofaned by slaughters,
A mirror and a bath for Beauty’s youngest daughters!
And on thy happy shore a temple still,
Of small and delicate proportion, keeps,
Upon a mild declivity of hill,
Its memory of thee; beneath it sweeps
Thy current’s calmness; oft from out it leaps
The finny darter with the glittering scales,
Who dwells and revels in thy glassy deeps;
While, chance, some scattered water-lily sails
Down where the shallower wave still tells its bubbling tales.
Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, Canto the Fourth, LXVI – LXVII
Byron is talking about a little spot in Umbria, North of Spoleto, where the Clitunno river begins, bubbling from the base of a small limestone cliff to form a large, clear pool. In Roman times, it was a point of interest on the Via Flaminia, the Rome – Ariminum (Rimini) road. Pliny the Younger reported that there was an ancient temple near by, dedicated to the river god Clitumnus.
I went there in 2006, when I had my first holiday in Umbria, renting a picturesque apartment built into the medieval walls of Castel san Giovanni, just three or four kilometres away. These days, there’s a restaurant/bar and gift shop on site. (Actually, I suppose it’s quite likely that there was in Roman times as well!) But it’s no Disneyland, once past the gates to the pool itself (it costs a couple of euro) it’s all very natural: just the sunlight sparkling from the water, and only the ducks making much noise.
On that holiday, I came back a second time; and returned again in 2009 when I spent a couple of months in Umbria. You might have guessed that I like the place, although if Byron really saw the river nymphs washing their limbs he was luckier than I. No, it’s just the gentle peacefulness that I like. You can sit by the waterside and throw crumbs from your lunch to the ducks. A happy place.
About a kilometre and a half downstream, there’s a tiny “tempietto” — it looks like a Roman temple but it’s really a very old Christian church, a World Heritage Site for its links with the Longobards of early post-Roman days. The old antiquarians thought that it must originally have been a Roman temple, perhaps the very one which Pliny had mentioned, but the better-informed view now is that it was built around the eighth century from scavenged Roman materials.
High above the flat valley bottom, pool, river and temple, is the city of Trevi. A higgledy-piggledy maze of a medieval hill town, Trevi is today the centre of production of the best olive oil in the world. (No, really. Trust me.) I also like Trevi. I think I’d like to live there — it’s a beautiful, untouched medieval town. And the views from the roadside walls down into the valley are breathtaking. Trevi’s similar neighbour, Spello, is more self-consciously picturesque and prettified, but Trevi has a slightly shabby authenticity.
It has been a grey February day in Ireland. You can easily guess why my thoughts have turned to Summer and the hard, clear light of the South. It’s where I belong.