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San Gemini

Tranquil medieval streets, Europe’s tallest man-made waterfall and the ruins of a Roman resort

By: Donald Strachan Writer & Journalist | Specialist in Italy & European travel

San Gemini travel guide

Like many small towns in southern UmbriaSan Gemini is a quiet, unassuming place where life is lived gently. Perhaps its most unusual feature is the name, which comes from a wandering Syrian hermit (Yemin/Gemine) who died near Viterbo in the early 9th century. 

Seasons ebb and flow — and the Umbrian delicacies on market stalls and dinner plates with them. Locals enjoy the good things in life, largely untroubled by tourism.

Just 9 miles north-west of provincial capital Terni, San Gemini is a great place to get a taste of real Umbrian life.

In the Beginning…

San Gemini’s roots are probably Roman, and connected with the rise of nearby Carsulae. Its importance grew as ever more traders travelled the Via Flaminia, which connected Rome with Rimini via a pass across the Apennine Mountains.

Pope Innocent III (r. 1198–1216) granted San Gemini relative autonomy under the Papal States, although these scant freedoms were lost in 1530. The town was ruled from the Vatican until the unification of Italy.

Young Romantics on the Grand Tour loved the thundering cascades and intense rainbows of the Marmore Falls

Visit This

San Gemini first appears in documents belonging to the Abbazia San Nicolò in the early 11th century. Its old centre retains a medieval layout and many important contemporary buildings, including the abbey itself.

Piazza San Francesco is the town’s hub, named after San Francesco church, a 13th-century Gothic building with later frescoes. Through the Porta Burgi, it’s a short walk from here to Piazza Palazzo Vecchio, site of a town hall built when San Gemini was a free commune, plus another church — 14th-century San Carlo.

The Museo Guido Calori exhibits Calori’s 20th-century paintings and sculpture inside a former Clarissine convent. A native of Rome, Calori’s art put him in conflict with the interwar Fascist state.

The town is best known today as the source of Sangemini mineral water, which is sold all over Italy. The spring water is rich in calcium, and supposedly good for kids, convalescents and anyone with a musculoskeletal condition.

Out of Town: Carsulae, the Marmore Falls & a Fossil Forest

A couple of miles north of San Gemini’s medieval centre is something much older. The Roman town of Carsulae was an important trading post and a popular resort with the wealthy classes of Ancient Rome. Its ruins lie right on the former Via Flaminia. You can still walk on its flagstones. 

Carsulae’s hilltop site is open for roaming; an amphitheatre, Forum and necropolis all survive. It is the biggest Roman archaeological site in Umbria.

At the Foresta Fossile Dunarobba, 8 miles north-west of San Gemini, 50 or so preserved stumps of giant sequoia trees have survived (until recently under thick clay) since the Pliocene era. The fossilized (not petrified) remains are from a forest which stood on the edge of a prehistoric lake, now called Lago Tiberino, around 2 million years ago. The site is not exactly scenic... but is fascinating.

The roaring Marmore Falls, 13 miles south-east of San Gemini, are not quite what they appear at first glance. They are artificial — albeit with a long history. The Romans first built this system for draining flood waters from the River Velino and Reatina marshes in 271 BC. The water now tumbles 165m down into the River Nera, and onwards into the Tiber. The falls took on their current shape, with 3 cataracts, in 1787. This is now a protected area with guided trails up to and around the falls.

Marmore also has an impressive literary heritage. The falls feature in Virgil’s “Aeneid” and (probably) also Dante’s “Paradiso”. Young Romantics on the Grand Tour loved the thundering cascades and the intense rainbows they create. Byron waxes lyrical about them in his epic 1818 poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”. 

Before visiting, you must check the timetable (online), because all night and during parts of the day, water is diverted from the photogenic falls to power a hydroelectric station instead.

Three Excursions from San Gemini

  • Narni: below the streets of this quiet town is an underground world used as a prison and torture chamber by the Holy Inquisition; a guided tour with Narni Sotteranea treads the eerie passageways
  • Spoleto: for 3 weeks in June and July, this pretty town hosts one of Europe’s most prestigious classical music festivals, staged around town including at an outdoor Roman theatre
  • Todi: its winding medieval streets converge on one of central Italy’s most photogenic piazzas

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