Overseen by a stern Italian sun, I amble through Piazza Campello in the Umbrian city of Spoleto, in the central part of the country between Rome and Florence. I have seen as much of Spoleto as can be crammed into a single day, enjoying its blend of Renaissance beauty and vibrant modern-art scene. Once a Roman colony, Spoleto dates to the 12th century. It has a laid-back, artsy edge. Think Umbria by way of Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant or Toronto’s Ossington Ave. and Dundas St.
Thanks to the Spoleto’s Mobilita Alternativa (Alternative Mobility) system, I’ve been able to see much of the city in a single day and it’s been an experience as inspiring as any scenic sunset. Before I elaborate, it should be mentioned that Umbria is very beautiful and very hilly. One Canadian soldier who fought in the Italian campaign during the Second World War described the territory as “mountains and fountains.” In Umbria, except for flat regions such as the Valnerina Valley, you’re either walking up something or walking down something. Most Umbrian towns and cities work hard to reduce the strain while at the same time limiting the use of automobiles in city centres. Spoleto, however, has gone further, creating what they call an “Unspoiled Pedestrian Paradise.”
The Mobilita Alternativa is comprised of three underground lines, each of which employ a combination of moving walkways (travelators), elevators and escalators. The “Spoletosfera” travelator is 270 metres long, and the Ponzianina escalators are 300 metres. The “Posterna” travelator is 650 metres long and has two moving walkways that connect its stops. Each travelator begins at a parking lot where visitors can be dropped off by transit or leave their vehicles. Visitors use these walkways to access the entire city. Wheelchair users can access the Posterna and Spoletosfera and travel along the central aisle between the travelators. They can then use the elevators to reach the city. That’s a big advantage for those who have mobility issues; it makes this hill town accessible.
“Before the alternative mobility system, it was almost impossible for a wheelchair user to hang around in this kind of city,” one Spoleto resident tells me. “Now they can just park outside and use the tunnels and lifts.”
Once up in the city, visitors find tourist signs located at intersections. The red field provides your location. The grey field gives directions to city sites, while the white field shows access points for the mechanized walkways. Visitors can also download this information to mobile devices by using a QR code found on all tourist signs.
I drop my Opel Corsa rental car at the 452-space parking lot at Posterna and from there use the Mobilita Alternativa to visit Teatro Nuovo, Piazza Piancini (not far from the Teatro Romano), Piazza del Mercato (near the Church of St. Ansano and Crypt of St. Isacco) and finally Piazza Campello (with access to the medieval fortress Rocca Albornoziana and Ponte delle Torri aqueduct).
The system works seamlessly. Sure, two of the mechanized walkways are not in service, but otherwise, the alternative mobility system hums along effortlessly (in cool underground temperatures). Cars are virtually non-existent and there is little traffic noise.
It takes 15 minutes to travel the length of the Posterna line. One of the Mobilita Alterntiva’s great advantages is that it evens out the steep inclines. To those suffering from medical issues such as osteoarthritis, these climbs could be prohibitive. The Mobilita also cuts down on time spent getting lost. Spoleto sits on top of a high hill and has streets that twist and snake up the slopes in a crisscross. A “Spoletan” can navigate these with ease, but a North American accustomed to the grid system is liable to get lost. It’s a characteristic common to Umbrian hill towns. When staying in the small town of Scheggino I climbed up the hill to my room, only to find myself back down at the base of the hill after several wrong turns.
“The availability of pedestrian access to the city centre has brought about a structural change in the management of the historic centre,” says Spoleto’s mayor Andrea Sisti. “In fact, it has made it possible to limit and, in many areas, eliminate the use of cars, contributing to a greater livability of the city, both from a residential and tourist point of view.”
Such livability has a price tag. The Mobilita Alternativa cost €65-million ($85-million) to construct. Work started in the early 2000s and was completed in 2014. Around 3,500 people take it each day in a city of 38,000. In 2021, approximately 1.25-million people used the Mobilita Alternativa and (this being Italy) probably quite a few dogs and maybe even some cats.
After using the Mobilita Alternativa to see Spoleto and touring the area around the Posterna line’s final stop Piazza Campello, a welcome sign appears – a restaurant called Al Bacco Felice that has a full outdoor patio. Several of its patrons have motorcycle helmets resting on their chairs. Everyone knows a busy restaurant is likely a good omen.
I live by the “Helmet Rule.” I’ve known quite a few bikers and they’ve come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve met vegetarian bikers, carnivore bikers, bikers who drank bourbon and bikers who were “California Clean,” stockbroker bikers, super bikers, Buddhist bikers, Christian bikers, biker bikers, you name it – and, despite all these differences, every one of them loved to eat. Bikers know food. I mean, half the reason they ride motorcycles is so they can get to restaurants faster. So, when I spy helmets decorating a restaurant’s patio, I figure I’m on the right track. I grab the last table and am not disappointed. The Helmet Rule remains undefeated.
And, thanks to the Mobilita Alternativa, so does Spoleto’s reign as Unspoiled Pedestrian Paradise.
The writer was a guest of Umbria Tourism. Content was not subject to approval.