As the home of St Valentine, Terni likes to call itself the ‘City of Love’. It even has its own Niagara Falls for honeymooners: the green and misty Cascata delle Marmore, part of the beautiful Parco Fluviale del Nera that extends some 20km up the Valnerina, along with pretty Lake Piediluco. For all that, you may not want to linger long in southern Umbria’s capital itself, but you might at least muster some respect for its accomplishments as the Manchester of Italy.

Set in a fertile plain, it was settled since the Iron Age; by the 7th century BC, it was the capital of the Umbrii Naharkum, best remembered as Gubbio’s sworn enemies. Terni’s name derives from Interamna Nahars (from inter amnes, ‘between two rivers’ – the confluence of the Nera and the torrential Serra). Conquered by the Romans in the 3rd century BC and a major station along the easterly route of the Via Flaminia, it was traditionally considered the birthplace of the historian Tacitus, although scholars now quibble that Terni’s was the more meagre Claudius Tacitus, Roman emperor for a year.

In 1867, as the city closest to the centre of Italy, it was intended to be the nation’s capital (this was before Rome was wrested from the occupying French), but even so, the idea flew like a penguin. If Italy’s politicians couldn’t appreciate Terni’s location, far from the vulnerable coasts and frontiers, the military certainly did. Its location on the Nera, and the vicinity of the Cascata delle Marmore, sealed its destiny. In the 1870s, the beautiful thundering waters were diverted for cheap hydro-electric power, a foundry was built, and in 1884 Italy’s first steel mill went up to build ships to pester Africa, pushing Umbria to lurch belatedly into the Industrial Revolution.

The population doubled in less than a decade, then tripled, and what had been an insignificant medieval town before Unification became Umbria’s second city. In the 1920s Terni scientists astounded the world with the first practical plastic. Terni also has the State Arms Factory (the rifle that killed JFK was manufactured here); these three industries together proved enough of an attraction for Allied air forces to smash 80% of the city flat in 108 air raids, which left more than 1,000 dead.

Terni’s industry quickly recovered, and it doesn’t just sit on its gritty laurels. The mills, now the ThyssenKrupp Acciai Speciali Terni, specialise in stainless steels. It has the medical, engineering and economics branches of the University of Perugia, hosts top stem cell, cancer and nano material research centres, and TERNI (Terni Enterprise for Research and New Industries) into alternative and high-tech green industries.

What to see and do around Terni

Cascata delle Marmore

One of Europe’s tallest (165m), most beautiful and most photographed waterfalls roars down the wooded precipice in three stages – when it’s running. Surprisingly, the Cascata is an artificial creation, albeit an ancient one. In 271BC, Curius Dentatus, best known as the conqueror of the Sabines and for having two sets of teeth, dug a channel to drain the marshlands of Rieti, diverting the Velino River into the Nera, although it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

Cascata della Marmore Umbria by LianeM Shutterstock
Italy’s most beautiful waterfall, the Cascata delle Marmore near Terni, thunders part-time into the Valnerina © LianeM, Shutterstock

By 54BC, during wet seasons, the Nera would flood Terni, leading to a fight between Rieti and Terni that came to no conclusion. The channel blocked up after the fall of Rome, leading to the return of swamps and disease around Rieti, until 1422 when a new channel was dug under the reign of Pope Gregory XII. The new channel had to be repaired in 1598; and yet another canal had to be dug in 1787.

Although the falls are usually swallowed up by hydro-electric turbines, the thundering waters are let down at regular times, at certain times on certain days each month. A warning siren sounds 15 minutes before they pull the switch, to warn swimmers to get out; try to be there to watch the trickle turn into a foaming avalanche. 

Lago di Piediluco 

This lovely lake – once part of the much larger Lacus Velinus before the creation of the Cascata delle Marmore, and now the capital of sport rowing in Italy – is formed by the rivers Velino and, somewhat surprisingly, the Nera (thanks to Mussolini’s scheme in the 1920s to channel waters from the upper river through an aqueduct to increase the hydro-electric power-giving force of the falls).

Lago di Piediluco Terni Umbria by ValerioMei Shutterstock
Above the Cascata delle Marmore, Terni’s pretty Lago di Piediluco hosts rowing competitions © ValerioMei, Shutterstock

It zigzags in and out of wooded hills, one of which is crowned by a 12th-century fortress. The medieval village and modest resort village of Piediluco on the northeast shore has a couple of beaches where you can swim, although the water is pretty cold. 

Getting to Terni

Terni is a stop on the main Rome–Ancona train line, although from Rome you’ll often have to change at Orte. Terni is also the terminus of the FCU train to Sansepolcro through central Umbria, if and when that ever runs again. The BusItalia station, by the train station car park, has frequent links to Orvieto, Todi and Perugia, and to all the towns in the Valnerina – all routes heading east stop at the Cascata delle Marmore.