We finally, after many false starts, technical problems, and delays—in short, Italy—installed wifi internet access at Brigolante. And I am thrilled. Really. Over the moon. Ecstatic. Tickled pink. Walking on air. On cloud nine.
Okay. I’m not happy.
Now, before I begin what I hope will be thoughtful analysis but fear will quickly degenerate into diatribe, let me be clear that I absolutely understand why internet access is indispensable while travelling. As a parent and small business owner, I either travel for work (so need to keep in touch with my kids) or travel with my kids (so need to keep in touch with work). Unfortunately, there is no way around that conundrum, however unfortunate it may be. I certainly am not judging guests who require internet access with the same presumption as running water and electricity. And I would never flip the switch—at this point Pandora’s box has been opened, for better or for worse.
It's a whole new world out there.
So, what’s my problem?
Let’s parse travel–specifically, why we travel– for a minute. You can compile an endless list of reasons for skipping town, but once you break them down it turns out that virtually each can be filed under a single category: connection.
Travel, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back to ourselves. – Albert Camus
Camus saw travel as the moment in which we strip ourselves of all the accoutrements of normal life and are able to connect with and confront who we really are. I can very much identify with this; it has been during my travels in life that I have been able to shed the skin of others’ expectations and projections and reinvent myself from within according to my own. At times it has been frightening, but it has also been my most dramatic periods of growth.
There was a time when travel meant leaving. (And before you young whippersnappers out there get all condescending, let me say that it was not that long ago. Like, until the late 1980s.) You left. You were out of touch. Unless you had the foresight and organization to leave an itinerary and hotel phone numbers with someone back at the ranch, there was pretty much no way to track you down. Yes, there was poste restante, the American Express office, and those banks of public phones with the queues stretching down the block, but apart from being informed of a death in your immediate family by telegram, there was no expectation that you would be in touch.
Now, it is very rare that travellers completely disappear from the radar. We Skype, we post pictures on Flickr, we tell everyone about the amazing sunset we are enjoying while sipping cocktails on Facebook, we check in on Foursquare. I know many people who are more active online while travelling than when they are at home since they don’t have the nuisance of work to get in the way. But it begs the question of how much baggage we drag along behind us from home along with our suitcases, and how much it weighs us down. Do we expend so much energy staying connected with ex-schoolmates and colleagues on social media, Skyping mom every evening so she doesn’t worry, and living each moment as a meta experience of simultaneously composing our next blog post about it in our heads, that we have none left over for ourselves?
To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.—Bill Bryson
It used to be like this: It used to be that our guests would hang out in the garden together in the evening. Couples would sample wine and hold hands. Friends would spread out maps for tomorrow and laugh about the adventures they had had today. Families would tromp around the vegetable garden, teaching their kids the essential yet novel art of picking ripe tomatoes. Complete strangers would strike up conversations and, over the course of the week, swap hidden gem restaurant suggestions and compare day trips.
This is what I loved. This is the gift I gave.
A place just that removed from the hustle that at the end of a long day of culture, of art and architecture, of nature, of food and wine, there was the time and the quiet to connect with loved ones: to propose, to fall in love again, to conceive, to make new friendships, to have long and wandering conversations, to play hide and go seek, to spend that last week together before kids left for college. Sure, we had internet if someone needed to check their email. But you actually had to go into our office (by “office” I mean “home office” and by “home office” I mean “small, cluttered corner of toy-strewn living room”), and it was so nice outside, and there was still wine in your glass, and your kids were saying, “Daddy, just one more time!” and the sausages on the grill were just about ready and, okay, maybe tomorrow you would check. There probably wasn’t anything that important in your inbox, anyway.
It’s changed since we installed wifi. Not to say that these things still don’t happen, but less. Less. More staring at screens and missing the sunset. More staying inside where the wifi is stronger. More stressing about emails coming from an office 2000 km away. More keeping in touch with friends online and not meeting new ones next door. More partners sitting outside alone with a book. More kids saying, “Mommy, are you almost finished?”
Sure, internet access is something I now offer. But what have I taken away, I wonder?
As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.” — Margaret Mead
I have often said, and repeat here, that leaving my home country has made me a patriot. Not, of course, because I espouse that insidious “love it or leave it” vein that seems to have become the cultural trope in the US in the past few years, but because the distance and separation have given me the perspective necessary to be able to appreciate those aspects of American culture which do, indeed, make it a great country (and a critical awareness of some substantial problems that real patriots should care enough to fix). It’s kind of like how your mother is an absolute moron until you leave home and start raising your own children while still maintaining a career, social life, and your sanity. Suddenly she becomes the smartest woman you ever met (and you understand her flaws much better, as well).
But to acheive the kind of distance and separation to put that vast cultural panorama into focus, you need—ahem—distance and separation. The day is made up of only so many hours, so if we fill them with constantly checking the CNN newsfeed on our iPhones, watching Glee on our iPads, and listening to Morning Edition on our iPods (It seems like I have it in for Steve Jobs. Not really. I just like alliteration.)—essentially floating through our travels in a bubble of familiar language, politics, customs, and trash tv–there simply aren’t enough left over to observe and absorb the culture we are visiting in a way essential to useful juxtaposition. At the end of the day, can you ever really understand your mother until you’ve moved out of her basement?
I suppose all this ambivalence can seem patronizing and high-handed. After all, we are all grown-ups here and make our own decisions about how and why we travel. After all, I’m just a business owner providing services clients request. After all, all this connectivity has revolutionized my line of work, largely for the better. After all, before we had wifi all I did was bitch about not having wifi. After all, it’s one of the first things I ask when I book an accommodation myself. After all, it’s progress, right?
It was such a pleasure to parse food in Umbria by season for Jessica Spiegel of the powerhouse WhyGo Italy travel website last week.
If you’re curious as to what you should expect–seek out, even–during your next trip, be sure to take a look at What to Eat in Umbria: Food for Every Season.
And get those appetites ready!
I feel roughly the same way about persimmons as I do about Leonardo di Caprio. Though objectively I realize that both are near perfect products of nature, neither are my type. Ripe persimmons have a sliminess factor that is hard for me to get past (come to think of it, that may just be my hang up about di Caprio, as well) which is a shame, since come late autumn gardens across Umbria offer up the dramatic sight of the stark blackish trees bare but for the perfect orange-red orbs of ripe fruit hanging from each bough like the Earth’s own Christmas ornaments. Framed against a slate-grey autumn sky, the trees have all the spare elegance of a 15th century Japanese waterpainting without the requisite languid kimono-clad damsel.
The starkly elegant persimmon tree in autumn. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Robert.
But then you have to eat the damned things. And, since nature is a prankster, it seems that the less you are partial to persimmons the more your backyard tree is a contender in the persimmon olympics. They don’t keep for more than a couple of days if picked ripe (food writer Sara Bir described the ripe fruit as “supple and yielding, like a breast”. Which may be one more reason eating one gives me pause.) and tend to ripen all at once, so suddenly you wake up one day with crates of persimmons you have no idea what to do with. It is a zucchini-like fruit, in that way.
This persimmon is pretty, but not yet completely ripe. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Olegiwit.
That said, the tangy-sweet flavor of persimmons is quite pleasant if you can get past the viscid, jellylike texture of the fruit fully ripe (when the flavor is at its best—don’t try to cut to the chase and eat them too soon, unless you enjoy that certain je ne sais quoi of chewing cotton batting). Here are three recipes that cut the slime while highlighting the tang, making persimmons palatable—even delectable—to a self-declared skeptic like myself.
They almost look good enough to eat. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Pizzodisevo
Lava Cake with Persimmon Sauce
In the eighties, this over-the top-chocolate debauchery was commonly known as “undercooked brownies” and eaten with spoons out of a single baking pan with your best girlfriends whilst sitting on the kitchen floor bemoaning boys. Now we are all genXers and have hiply renamed our sinful desserts, make them with organic single bean chocolate in precious little ramekins, and top them with exotic fruit sauces. Though we still tend to indulge with our best girlfriends whilst bemoaning boys. So, get yourself a good Lava Cake recipe among the 124,000 results that pop up when you google “Lava Cake recipe”. And then make yourself a Persimmon Sauce to top it with (the tang of the persimmon is the perfect foil to the oozing sweetness of the cake). Simply simmer 3 persimmons (about two cups cut into pieces) with enough water to keep the pulp liquid (it will depend upon how breast-like your ripe persimmons are). When the firmer pieces of persimmon are soft (about 15 minutes), blend the mixture with enough of the cooking liquid to make a creamy sauce, adding a tablespoon or so of lemon juice to highlight the flavor. You can season with cinnamon or nutmeg, or sweeten with a bit of sugar or honey to taste.
I cribbed this from one of those half-assed low brow daytime news cooking segments, which feature unhealthily thin women instructing the masses on how to cook a meal in twelve minutes or less. Kraft Singles and ketchup often figure prominently. I usually tune out this background noise as I wait for them to get around to the weather forecast, but I was so desperate to do something edible with my persimmons one year that I actually jotted this down. I’ll be damned if it wasn’t delicious, and can be made in twelve minutes or less. Take 2 persimmons (they have to be absolutely ripe) and peel and seed them. Pulse the pulp in a blender until smooth. Whip 500 grams of whipping cream with about 3 T sugar (depending upon how sweet your persimmons are) and a couple of drops of vanilla extract, and fold the two mixtures together until evenly mixed. Spread the mixture in a loaf pan and freeze until solid (about three hours). When you are ready to serve, place the loaf pan in hot water until you can easily turn it onto a plate. During the holidays, I’ve put star anice onto the bottom of the loaf pan which makes it pretty turned out and adds a little undercurrent of anice flavor, which ain’t bad.
Spiced Persimmon and Orange Jam, a.k.a. My Drug of Choice
I have never actually watched frenemy Letizia (I say frenemy because she keeps me about 5 pounds overweight with her irresistible cooking) prepare this highly addictive jam, but I suspect that she sneaks some crack into the boiling pot at some point, because there is no other explanation as to why I find myself thinking about this jam as I drive down the highway, waking up during the night to eat it by the spoonful directly from the jar, and hiding it from my loved ones. The tartness of the persimmons, the bite of citrus, the lingering spiciness. This is the jam version of the best sex you’ve ever had. And jam has to be epically good to be compared with sex, in my book. I especially like it on a crostata (Letizia’s sweet shortbread crust version is perfect for this flavorful preserve), but it also makes a sophisticated Jam Thumbprint for your Christmas cookie plate, or–I may as well admit it—holds its own on butter-spread Saltines. It’s made a persimmon convert out of the most recalcitrant of hold-outs (myself included).
I love planning a trip (sometimes, I suspect, more than actually taking the trip) but I hate figuring out the trasportation logistics. Scrolling down lists of flight times, wading through bus and train schedules, highlighting routes on maps the size of my kitchen table–the whole thing manages to be both tedious and stressful at the same time. Even the thought of writing a blog post about it was daunting, which is why when someone offered to do it for me, I jumped at the chance.
By someone, of course, I don’t mean just anyone…I mean crack travel writer Jessica Spiegel of WhyGo Italy and BootsnAll (see her bio below. To hear her dulcet tones, tune in to the weekly Eye on Italy podcast.), whom I am very honored to welcome as my very first blog guest. (FYI: How do you know a crack writer? By the fact she sends you an article pre-formatted into bullet points. Something that mere mortals like myself haven’t yet figured out how to do. On my own blog. )
A huge thanks to Jessica for this wonderfully informative post:
You probably know what Italy looks like on a map – that boot shape is hard to miss – but even if you’re a geography buff you may not be familiar with just how far apart the cities you’ll be visiting are, or how long it takes to get between them. This kind of unfamiliarity can lead to problems when you’re already trying to pack too much into a relatively short trip, because you’re more likely to make the mistake of not leaving enough time to get from place to place and still enjoy each spot you visit.
Each city in Italy has a variety of transportation methods within that urban and suburban area, and I encourage you to investigate the local public transport either before you leave home or at the tourist information office when you arrive in a new place. But for the purposes of this article I’m going to talk about the larger question of getting around Italy as a whole. This is the part where many travelers make assumptions that lead to trip frustration, and no one wants that. You’ll find a brief overview of the four major ways to get around Italy listed below, with links to additional resources under each one.
Taking the Train in Italy
Even if you’re not old enough to have personally backpacked around Europe with a Eurail Pass in your youth, you’ve heard the stories. Europe – including Italy – is criss-crossed by a network of train lines that make getting just about anywhere easy-peasy. There’s even a new set of higher-speed trains in Italy that connect some of the bigger cities in stunningly short times. But don’t go into an Italy trip assuming that (a) every city has a train station or (b) the train is always the best option.
While most cities in Italy do have train stations, in some cases it’s either faster or more efficient to take a bus (as is the case for a trip from Florence to Siena) or even fly. And just because there’s a rail line between two cities doesn’t mean it’s going to be a quick day-trip (see the journey times from Rome to Venice for proof). Also, that high-speed train may sound perfect until you see the price of a ticket.
If you, like me, love the romance of trains and want to take them as much as is prudent in Italy, then be sure you check the Trenitalia site for schedules and ticket prices so you know just how much of your day (not to mention your travel budget) will be eaten up by sitting on a train. There’s much to be said for romance, but efficiency can’t be overlooked when you’ve only got a couple weeks of vacation time to work with.
A few resources to peruse when planning train travel around Italy:
Flying in Italy
With the increase in the number of budget airlines throughout Europe, flying from city to city within Italy poses a real threat to the country’s train network. You can’t always count on a €30 one-way air ticket, but if you time it right and easyJet or Ryanair is having a sale then you’d be crazy to pay several times that price for a train ticket.
Of course, for some journeys it won’t ever make sense to fly rather than stick to ground transportation. Sure, Pisa and Florence both have airports, but should you fly between them? Not unless you’re a pro soccer player or a rockstar of some kind. For that trip from Milan to Naples, however, you might want to check both the high-speed train and your flight options to see what suits you best.
When browsing the potential flights connecting cities in Italy, be sure to keep in mind that it’s not just the flying time that you need to factor into your day. It’s also the time required to get to and from the airports (many big airports are quite a distance from the city center), the extra hour or more you’ll need to arrive at the airport before your flight, and the expense of transport to and from the airports as well.
A few resources to peruse when planning flights around Italy:
Taking the Bus in Italy
If you’re coming from a country that has a nationwide bus network – like Greyhound in the United States – then you might be surprised to learn that Italy operates things a bit differently: bus travel in Italy is primarily regional.
There are a few bus companies that operate inter-regional lines (when the regions border one another) and some that connect major cities in different parts of the country. For the most part, however, traveling by bus is best suited to trips where you’re staying within one region and one or both of the towns you’re visiting doesn’t have train service. In some cases, even if both towns have train service the bus is still a more convenient option (such as getting between Florence and Siena, for instance). If your trip includes at least one small town without a train station and you don’t have a car, the bus should be your first line of defense.
It should be said that if you’re doing a grander tour of Europe there are bus companies that cross borders and will get you from country to country – but despite the fact that these companies have routes like Paris to Rome, they don’t really sell tickets for just the Milan to Rome portion of that trip. Look into the cross-Europe bus companies for long-distance country-to-country journeys, but not for most long-distance trips within Italy.
A few resources to peruse when planning bus travel around Italy:
Driving in Italy
There are people who love to drive, people who hate to drive, and the vast expanse in between – people who, like me, are perfectly capable of driving but don’t mind at all if someone else wants to take the wheel. In Italy, these divisions are pushed further by unfamiliar roads, signs in a language you don’t know, and drivers who seem to be certifiably insane at times.
Still, there are some places in Italy that can only be accessed by a car – and if you’re determined to get off the so-called beaten track, then you’ll need your own four wheels to do it. You don’t need to pass a special test to drive in Italy as a tourist (thank goodness), but you do need to get an international driver’s license before you leave home (they’re $15 at AAA, whether you’re a member or not) and you’ll want to have a basic understanding of the driving laws and what the road signs mean.
You can try to get a good driving map before you leave home, but chances are that you’ll have better luck getting a far more detailed driving map for the regions (or even sub-regions) you’re visiting once you’re there. Some of the best driving maps I’ve ever seen were in the Chianti region of Tuscany, available for sale at a shop or two in each town, and they even included the famous strade bianche – the gravelly roads used mainly for service vehicles.
A few resources to peruse when planning to drive around Italy:
About the Author:
Jessica Spiegel is the Italy travel guide writer for BootsnAll, the indie travel guide. She’s partway through the paperwork process to make a permanent move to Italy, she’s a fan of a good marocchino, she’s annoyed by the fact that the Italian word for “female writer” is such a tongue-twister, and she doesn’t feel like a day in Italy is complete without at least a couple scoops of gelato.
I sure got into the Christmas spirit over the last week while writing articles for two of my favorite Italy websites: Dream of Italy for a general overview of the holiday season in Umbria and About.com’s GoItaly for some specific suggestions for not-to-be-missed sights and events if you are celebrating Christmas in Umbria.
Enjoy, and Buon Natale!
Over the past thirteen—gulp! That can’t be right!—years welcoming guests at Brigolante, I have come to realize that about 95% of their queries are repeat questions. Some of these I have template emails for (i.e. Do you have driving directions to reach you?), some of these I have pages in our welcome packet for (i.e. How does the washing machine work?), some of these I have Slowtalk for (i.e. What is the best credit card to use when travelling?), some of these I have local friends for (i.e. Where does one buy an accordian, anyway?). And some of these I am gradually trying to answer here on my blog, which is why there is a drily-yet-concisely-entitled category called Trip Planning Tips for Umbria.
Among the most common travel advice guests require is help in planning an itinerary for Umbria, which is also one of my favorite questions to answer. Here is a two week long suggested itinerary for visiting Umbria which throws in the crème della crème of the region: art and history, towns and parks, food and drink, people and shopping. It may not suit everyone, but feel free to use it as a guideline for planning your trip.
A couple of caveats:
Two weeks is the minimum amount of time you will need to properly visit Umbria, but I recognize that travellers have minor inconveniences like Jobs and Families which restrict their holiday time. If you are only here for a week, check for a seven day itinerary here.
I am writing primarily for my guests, so I presume your base is Brigolante or, at very least, Assisi. If you are staying in another town in Umbria, you will have to make some adaptations.
I presume you have a car.
I am neither for turtle nor hare travel, so each day has enough to keep you busy, with enough time left over to add/linger/meander/get lost/come home and relax.
Day One: It’s Sunday so it must be Gubbio
Yes, I know you are chomping at the bit to visit Assisi, but believe me, Sunday is not the day to do it. This is the most crowded day of the week, when day trippers from Tuscany and Rome fill up the parking lots and churches. In fact, not only do I suggest you avoid visiting Assisi proper…I suggest you avoid driving through town altogether. Instead, follow the winding provincial highway 444 from Brigolante to Gubbio (make sure to enjoy the beautiful drive through the Appennine foothills between Assisi and Gubbio). This archetypical medieval walled town is a perfect place to begin to get to know Umbria. Its roots are steeped in the ancient Umbrii people (the town houses the most important example of the Umbrian language on the Eugubine Tablets in the Civic Museum), passes through Roman civilization (there is a wonderful view of the town from the Roman Theatre in the valley below), and remains largely architecturally frozen in the middle ages. Be sure to dine on truffles while you’re there, and work off your hearty lunch with a climb (or, if you’re feeling lazy, the funivia car…no one will ever know) to the top of Mount Ingino where you can visit the sanctuary dedicated to Gubbio’s patron saint and enjoy the amazing views from the Rocca fortress.
Day Two: It’s Monday so it must be Assisi
Ah, now we’re talking. Assisi can get crowded with coach tours from late morning through the afternoon, so get yourself to the Basilica of Saint Francis as early as you can to enjoy the view, the church, and the famed frescoes virtually to yourself. From here, leisurely spend the rest of the morning exploring the town (don’t miss the Roman temple in the Piazza del Comune and the surprisingly lovely museum under the Cathedral of San Rufino) and partaking in a little Italian culture by having a slow lunch. In the afternoon, climb up to the dramatic Rocca fortress (be sure you make it to the “highest room of the tallest tower” for the best photos of your holiday), then hop back into the car to visit San Damiano and the Eremo delle Carceri. These two shrines will give you a much better sense of who Francis was as a man and Saint than his opulent basilica ever can. If you are a sunset person (I’m a sunset person), continue along the road past the Eremo to the top of Mount Subasio. A little luck, the right weather, and a bottle of wine may just be the perfect storm for one of the most stunning sunsets of your life.
Day Three: It’s Tuesday so it must be Nature
You’ve had two towny days, it’s time to see the other side of Italy’s Green Heart: her lovely parks. Umbria has seven regional parks and one national park…a surprising number for one of the smallest regions in Italy. You’ve already visited one of the regional parks…in fact, you’re sleeping in one as Brigolante is within the borders of the Mount Subasio Park (as is the entire town of Assisi). Today I suggest you go further afield and visit one of the other parks in the region: the Sibilline National Park with its breathtaking Piano Grande plateau. There are a couple of hiking trails of varying difficulty—make sure you take a good map—or you can simply take a scenic drive along the spectacular winding road through the plateau, which is bloom from May to July but gorgeous all year round. I also suggest you work in a visit to delightful Norcia (don’t waste your time with Castelluccio, which is much prettier from afar), a pretty town known as a foodie mecca for its tradition of truffles and charcuterie. Ristorante Beccofino in Piazza San Benedetto is a perennial favorite for lunch or dinner.
Day Four: It’s Wednesday so it must be Perugia
Umbria’s provincial capital may seem daunting, with its modern suburbs surrounding the historic center, but don’t be put off. Find your way to the Piazza Partigiani parking lot and take the series of escalators passing through the underground ruins of the medieval alley of the city, which now form the foundations of the modern city above. Have a good guide on hand; Perugia is full of interesting churches, monuments, and museums. My favorites are the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria and San Francesco al Prato. After lunch and a post-prandial stroll (and a caffè and pastry at Pasticceria Sandri on the Corso), take the afternoon to discover Umbria’s amazing array of artists and artisans who, for centuries, have produced some of the highest quality wares in Italy and the world. Many, including my two favorites Laboratorio Giuditta Brozzetti, which hand-looms traditional Umbrian fabric and Laboratorio Moretti-Caselli, which paints stained glass, are workshop-museums where five generations of artists have occupied the same artelier. Others, listed here, offer visits to their workshops. There is no better way to return home with both a unique souvenir from Umbria, and an understanding of the region’s rich artisan culture and history.
Day Five: It’s Thursday so it must be People
You’ve seen the towns (and the City), you’ve seen the nature. Now it’s time to see the people. Unfailingly, my guests name the day they took a tour and/or course as their most memorable day in Umbria and I can’t speak highly enough of some of the guides and instructors in this area. When you spend time with someone familiar with the local history and culture it gives you a chance to really get to know Umbria and its people in a way you wouldn’t be able to by simply visiting monuments. So plan a day preparing a traditional meal with a local cook, touring the small family-run vineyards, learning to hunt truffles (and how to use them in the kitchen), or painting your own majolica ceramics. Alternately, get under the skin of a town or area with a knowledgeable guide. I especially like Discovering Umbria for food and wine tours, and native Umbrians Marco Bellanca (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Elizabetta Federici (email@example.com) for cultural visits. You won’t regret it.
Day Six: It’s Friday so it must be Todi and Orvieto
I can’t possibly send you home without having seen Orvieto’s cathedral. It is, simply put, one of the most stunning churches in Italy. You will be tempted to stop in Todi first, as it’s just off the highway, but push on to Orvieto passing along the banks of tranquil Lake Corbara. Once there, first book your time for the Orvieto Underground tour in the Piazza del Duomo’s tourist office, then backtrack to visit the sumptuous Duomo. Explore Orvieto under- and above ground, don’t miss the curiosity of San Pietro’s well, and make sure you have some excellent local white wine with your lunch. Afterwards, head back to Todi and spend the afternoon in the small but surprisingly cosmopolitan center of this friendly hill town. Take in the fabulous view over the surrounding rolling hills from the small public park along Via Ciuffelli and the quirky contemporary art boutiques in the center. Have dinner here, because it’s an easy highway drive back to Assisi.
Day Seven: It’s Saturday so it must be Spello
One of my favorite towns in Umbria is Spello, which has much of the charm of Assisi with about 1/100th of the tourists Yesterday you had a pretty long day that involved a bit of driving, so today you only need to be in the car for about 20 minutes. Spello is the next town over from Assisi along the S75 highway, though I suggest you take the old frontage road, which passes in front of Villa Fidelia—the Italian garden is worth a quick peek—and the much more interesting 11th century San Claudio church, whose delightfully off-kilter facade and elegant Romanesque interior has made it one of my off-the-beaten-track favorites (though you have to be damned lucky to catch it open to visitors). Once in Spello, don’t miss the Pinturicchio frescoes in the Cappella Baglioni and the impressive Roman Porta Venere. If you’ve been holding out to have a special meal, today is the day. La Bastiglia, a four star hotel with an equally wonderful restaurant at the top of town, is one of the best restaurants in Umbria. If the weather is nice, you can book an outdoor table overlooking the olive grove covered hills, or eat inside in the elegantly rustic (or is it rustically elegant?) dining room. A meal to remember. Otherwise, Spello is peppered with casual, friendly wine bars (my favorite: the unfortunately named Drinking Wine) where you can have a light meal and wonderful vino.
Day Eight: The Day of Rest
Even God himself kicked back once a week, and (if I may remind you) you are on vacation, after all. So after a week of high powered touring, take it down a notch for today. Catch up on your laundry, hang out in the garden and power your way through one of those books you packed, grab our maps and hiking information and take a walk through the countryside around Brigolante (you can pick up the famous Franciscan trail virtually from our front door, or simply follow the road uphill past vineyards, olive groves, and pastures until you get to Costa di Trex at the top). Slow down and enjoy the passage of time. After all, as the great James Taylor once said, that is the secret of life.
Day Nine: It’s Monday, so it must be Lake Trasimeno
You’ve been landlocked for over a week now, so now it’s time to head to water. You’re back on the road again, but don’t panic because Lake Trasimeno is an easy 45 minute highway drive. Castiglione del Lago is a lovely town to visit, and from there you can take the regular ferries to Isola Polvese or Isola Maggiore in the middle of the lake. Trasimeno is a mud-bottomed lake and—frankly–not one of my favorite places to swim, but there are certainly pretty sandy beaches near Tuoro and Passignano if you want to stretch out and enjoy the view (notice how the countryside has become more gently rolling as you near the Tuscan border). One of my favorite spots for dinner in Umbria is Rosso di Sera in San Feliciano, where you can enjoy the beautiful sunset over the lake.
Day Ten: It’s Tuesday, so it must be Spoleto
One of my favorite places in Umbria to have a quiet drink is the Bar Tric Trac in Piazza del Duomo…if you manage to get there when the sun is setting and the swallows are circling the Duomo’s stately belltower, you are in for a golden Umbrian moment. Austere Spoleto was saved from centuries of provincial backwaterism by the world reknowned fine arts festival Due Mondi, and now is center to a thriving cultural scene. Don’t miss walking across the dizzying medieval Ponte dei Torri acqueduct which spans the Tessino ravine more than 80 meters below. As the wind makes the grass in the meadows below move like waves in a green ocean, stand near the edge, spread your arms, and understand for just a moment what it must feel like to take flight. (But not too near the edge…this towering structure is one of the top destinations for spurned lovers who have decided to meet their maker.) On your way home, take a minute to stop at the delightful Fonte del Clitunno and nearby Roman Tempietto.
Day Eleven: It’s Wednesday, so it must be the Valnerina
I have often waxed lyrical about the Valnerina, because this dramatic corner of Umbria inspires waxing. Today you will explore the Nera River Regional Park, winding your way along highway SS209 which skirts the Nera river and runs under steep mountainsides where tiny hamlets perch precariously. Stop by the beautiful Marmore waterfalls and the gorgeous San Pietro in Valle abbey (check their quirky opening hours carefully)…two of the best kept secrets in Umbria. Visit some of the creche-like villages along the river valley: Arrone, Vallo di Nera, Scheggino, Sant’Anatolia di Narco, Cerreto di Spoleto. You won’t be so much scratching your head as to why these towns are so empty, but more likely surprised that these miniscule, remote centers are still inhabited at all. If you are drawn to the truly strange and wonderful, visit Ferentillo’s mummies or Castel San Felice’s 12th century San Felice in Narco church, where the facade is decorated with a bass relief of the Saint ridding the locals of a troublesome dragon. We call it an allegory today, but if you visit the Valnerina on one of her more brooding, misty days the presence of a dragon doesn’t seem so farfetched.
Day Twelve: It’s Thursday, so it must be People
I know, I know. I keep harping on the People thing, but I know of what I speak. I can’t encourage you enough to take the time to really under the skin of Umbria with a knowledgeable instructor or guide. If there was something that caught your eye from Day Five (the most common combination with my guests is a wine tour one day and a cooking class another day—we must really attract foodies here), go ahead and consult that list again. Otherwise, there are some wonderful area guides who offer itineraries that would be hard to reproduce without their insider expertise. I especially like American Elizabeth Wholey’s Artisan Tour, Anne Robichaud’s (another American) FestaTours, and native Umbrian Alessandra Pettinelli’s Underground Tour. You won’t regret it. Again.
Day Thirteen: It’s Friday, so it must be Bevagna and Montefalco
Okay, I was kind of stuck on Friday because it’s the last guaranteed day of daytripping (some of you won’t be able to squeeze in your last visit somewhere on Saturday because your spouse pounced on cheap airline tickets while late-night online surfing nine months ago and didn’t notice until it was too late that it involved being at the Rome airport at 4 am tomorrow) and there are still about 50 wonderful things to visit. See caveats. But I couldn’t in good conscience send you home without getting to know two of my favorite villages in Umbria: Bevagna (the perfect town to visit if your calves are aching; it’s in the valley!) and nearby Montefalco (perhaps my favorite small town in Umbria. Art, architecture, food, wine, views, textiles…Montefalco is all that is wonderful about this region in one convenient little package.) Start in Bevagna, making sure not to miss the medieval workshops, and end your day in Montefalco, from where you will certainly want to watch the sun set over the Umbrian valley. I love L’Alchimista for dinner.
Day Fourteen: It’s Saturday, so it must be Your Bucket List
This is your last day, and a bit of a wild card since you may have all the time in the world or you may have to make a dash to your next destination. Fill this last day/half-day/quarter-day/final two hours by choosing one thing off your Umbria bucket list that you didn’t get to earlier. Some suggestions: choose one of the Most Beautiful Villages in Umbria in which to say goodbye to this enchanting region; head to Deruta if you are interested in seeing this famed artisan majolica production; take a tour of the Perugina chocolate factory on the outskirts of Perugia and stock up on Baci for home; check out the Roman ruins of Carsulae near Narni; if you have the stamina for one more church, work in Lugnano in Teverina’s Santa Maria Assunta or the moving Madonna del Bagno near Casalina. You’ve come full circle–from your first Umbrian town to your last, with the best of the region along the way. May you bring back a little piece of Italy’s Green Heart in your own. This is not goodbye, but arrivederci!
Sometimes I discover something so amazing, so unique, so share-worthy, that it immediately plunges me into a schizophrenic episode. Yes, because I have had two women warring inside my head for the past, oh, 39 years and nine months.
One of them wears her hair loose and flowing, dresses in organic cotton flower-print yoga pants, has tantric sex, and urges me to eat according to my dosha and do my daily affirmations. The other pulls her hair in a tight bun at the nape of her neck, wears Hillary pantsuits, hasn’t gotten it on since, oh, forever, and tisks about fat content and carbohydrates with her lips pursed like a cat’s butt.
The first says, “Look at you, aren’t you a star! You found a hidden gem, you. Go, go and shout it from the mountain tops! You are fabulous!” The other says, “Well, it certainly took you long enough. Seventeen years in Umbria and you’re only blumbering on it now. Humiliating, really. Always the last to know. Keep it quiet so you won’t make a fool out of yourself again. And put that cupcake down.”
They slug it out for awhile, but the first woman always ends up coming out on top. Because, as we all know, tantric sex always kicks pantsuit’s ass.
So, here I am, a couple of weeks later, telling you all about one of the best kept secrets in Perugia. And I really do mean best kept, because, despite it being just steps from both the Corso and the main parking garage in the provincial capital and despite me having passed directly in front of the nondescript sign probably a thousand times over the years, I had no idea what was in store for me when I stopped by their open house a few Sundays ago.
Studio Moretti Caselli has been producing hand-painted stained glass windows for cathedrals and monuments all over the world since its founding in 1860 by Francesco Moretti, who began by studying chemistry and glass art texts from the 12th and 13th centuries (glass art had declined to the point of becoming almost extinct after the 1400s) to become one of the greatest modern restorers of stained glass windows. Now in the fifth generation of the same family of artists, the studio is still an active artelier and offers guided visits through its museum-workshop.
This rendering of Perugino's Incoronation of the Virgin rivals the original. Loaned for a museum exhibit, it was returned with four cracks in the delicate glass.
The studio is housed in a 15th century palazzo originally belonging to the once powerful Baglioni family; the modest plaque near the heavy wooden front door belies the soaring and lightfilled vaulted rooms with their immense windows inside. A visit begins in the archive, where instead of computers and file drawers, the shelves are filled with cracked leather volumes containing more than 150 years of commissions, sketches, and family documents.
The Moretti Caselli archive, with its historic ledgers of commissions, collections of sketches, and family documents.
From there, the charming Maddalena Forenza—the last of the Moretti Caselli family, who continues to run the workshop with help of her sister, Elizabetta—leads you to the historic laboratory, where tiny glass jars of powdered pigment line the walls and 19th century chemistry equipment used to prepare the paints (now subsituted by modern pigments which are much less toxic) are still on display.
The Moretti Caselli Studio's founder died relatively young, quite probably from the effect of toxins commonly found in pigments at the time.
The highlight of the workship is without a doubt the two main halls; the first was used to recieve clients and is covered in pretty period frescoes restored by Moretti at the beginning of the 1900s. From here, visitors pass into the captivating second hall, with monumental life-sized displays of pencil sketches and final drawings of many of the finished works still mounted in windows across Italy and the world. Two of the most precious works produced by the Moretti Caselli Studio are on permanent display here: a full sized portrait of the Queen Margherita and a tondo copied from a Perugino painting. I never knew how enchanting a stained glass window could be until I found myself utterly entranced by the delicate and flawless brushwork and the luminous effect created as the light passes through layers of pigment applied and fired repeatedly. These are truly works of art.
It's hard to capture the breathtaking luminosity of these works in photographs. Stained glass is meant to be seen with the light behind, not in front.
The visit ends in the workrooms of the studio, where I was aghast at the time and effort involved in producing each piece. From the initial drawings and sketches, to the selection and cutting of glass, to the actual painting (which can only be done by daylight, as the secret to a masterpiece is the alchemy of correctly mixing colours and light), the pieces then begin the baking process to fix the colour. Often pieces pass through the kiln—the studio uses a modern electric kiln now, but until just a few years ago was still using the original wood-burning kiln which takes up an entire room–three or four times, applying a new delicate coating of color between each firing. Finally, the glass pieces are assembled on their lead mountings to create the stained glass window.
This wood-fired kiln, which required two to three people to bake glass pieces, was used until 1993.
Have I mentioned how often pieces break? Often. Incredibly often. So often I begin to think that the Moretti Caselli clan is either extraordinarily patient or slightly off. I, for example, dropped one stitch on my son’s baby blanket and disgustedly stuffed it unfinished into the back of the closet, where it remains nine years later. But the pride this family has for their work, and the passion with which they still talk about both their windows and their history, explains it all. They put their whole hearts into their work, and those hearts are made of glass.
Now that I've seen the workshop, my next quest is to travel across Umbria to see some of their masterpieces in situ.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see one of the most fascinating historical artisan workshops in Umbria, which is open to visitors upon appointment. The Studio continues to produce hand painted glass windows and panels, hand etched glass, and Tiffany glass, and also offers day workshops and longer courses in the art of painted and stained glass.
These photographs were used with kind permission of the Studio Moretti Caselli, who hold the copyrights.
I know, this seems to come out of left field. But I’ve been meaning to pull together a quick travel resource for celiacs travelling to Umbria for awhile…not because I have a gluten intollerance, but because we have a strangely disproportionate number of celiac guests. This for two reasons: 1) celiacs tend to stay in self-catering accommodations where they have access to their own kitchen and 2) Shauna Ahern, aka star celiac blogger and cookbook author, stayed with us a couple years back during her honeymoon (just for the record, she and new hubby were the cutest little piccioncini—lovebirds—and are now parents) and we’ve had many of her readers as guests.
Let me preface this by saying that though Italy is often associated with pizza and pasta, it is–somewhat counterintuitively—one of the best gluten free countries in the world. There is a very high awareness of celiac disease here, children are routinely screened for it, and celiacs get a state subsidy for the cost of their gluten free foods. People who follow a gluten free diet will find that most chefs and waiters are matter-of-factly familiar with celiac disease, and Italian food manufacturers produce some of the best gluten free food (which is readily found in larger supermarkets). In restaurants and bars, I have come across gluten-free croissants, pasta, beer, pizza, and gelato.
All this to say that I’m not being a hero. Not a lot of sleuthing had to go into this, just a bit of organization (and some translating).
Gluten Free Travel Resources for Italy
The sine qua non to tripping through Italy gluten-free is Maria Ann Roglieri’s The Gluten-Free Guide to Italy. The downside is that—like all printed guides—the restaurant information can go quickly out of date. However, there is an extensive glossary and sample questions to ask restaurant staff, and many of the suggestions are still valid (the latest edition is from 2009).
For a more updated guide to regional restaurants, bars, pizzerie, and gelaterie which offer gluten free options, you can check the Italian Celiac Association’s website. It’s not translated into English, but you can choose a category from the list at the left (example: Ristorante) and then the region (Umbria) from the drop down menu at the bottom. From there, you get a list with the location (by town), category (hotel, restaurant, pizzeria, or albergo (inn)), and and name. There is also a regional Celiac website, but their restaurant list just sends you back to the national website.
If you feel awkward about stumbling over an explanation as to your dietary restrictions in Italian, you can simply download and print celiac restaurant cards in Italian here.
There is also a new iPhone app that maps out the nearest gluten free dining options. The text is in Italian, but the list is easy to decipher and the maps are your standard Google maps. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much for the region of Umbria, but if you are hopscotching around Italy you may find it helpful.
Where to Buy Gluten Free Food in Umbria
Keep in mind that the gluten free (senza glutine) label in Italy looks like this:
The best place to get gluten free food simply at the grocery store. And the best grocery store in our area is the Ipercoop at Collestrada. Coop (the chain of supermarkets) makes their own line of gluten free products, easily identifiable by the white and mint-green packaging. Aside from their own line, they also stock a variety of gluten free foods from other producers at a fraction of the cost of the pharmacy (see below). The shelving is a little unpredictable (sometimes the gluten free pasta is shelved with all the other pastas, but sometimes they seem to group all the gluten free products into one display near the pharmacy section) so you may have to comb the store pretty well and watch your labelling, but from pasta to flour to bread to frozen pizza to crackers to snack cakes to cookies…it’s all here, and relatively inexpensive.
I have noticed that other area grocery stores stock gluten free items, but seem to have less variety and consistency than the Ipercoop. Smaller Coop grocery stores, for example, may stock some of the Coop gluten free line, but not as completely as the Collestrada flagship store. If you are popping into a supermarket to pick up something, it may be worth it to take a quick look around. But with the Ipercoop, you know you are going to hit gold.
For a little more grain variety, you can also try the health food store in Perugia. There are a couple, which are all part of the B’Io organic market chain, but the easiest one to find is just up the road from the Perugia train station at Via M. Angeloni, 42 (it’s on the right as you are climbing the one-way street). They stock goods made with kamut, rice, spelt, and corn flour and a variety of soy products, as well, if you are looking for lactose free products.
As a last resort, you can purchase gluten free food at any pharmacy in Italy (the bigger the pharmacy, the more variety they will probably have, of course). I say as a last resort simply because it is usually the most expensive, inconvenient, and restrictive option. But it is there, in case you find yourself in a bind and can’t make it to either a Coop or a health food store.
Where to Eat Gluten Free Food in Umbria
The gluten free restaurant emblem in Italy looks like this:
It seems like every menu I run across lately has a little star next to the gluten free dishes on offer, so it’s pretty daunting—if not impossible–to make an exhaustive list. Just casually mentioning this blog post to a friend solicited two gluten free pizzeria suggestions that I had never heard of.
A good place to start is the Italian Celiac Association’s website mentioned above. I gave it a cursory glance and noticed one restaurant listed that has since closed and one I know which serves gluten free options not included, so your mileage may vary. I recommend phoning first just to confirm that they do, indeed, have dishes for celiacs available.
I will also be listing restaurants here as I review them when I see that they offer gluten free options. If I actually eat something from the gluten free menu, I will be sure to mention it. Otherwise, you can use it as a guide to the general quality and vibe of a place. Check back periodically, as I will be updating the list over time.
L’Alchimista Wine & Co., Montefalco
Finally, ask around. As I mentioned before, Italians are generally quite well informed about celiac disease (and many have friends or family who are on gluten free diets), so I’ve often found that word of mouth is a great way to discover local restaurants and pizzerias who will be happy to accommodate your diet.
What to Eat Gluten Free in Umbria
You’ve hit the jackpot in Umbria, as some of its best local foods are naturally gluten free. While you’re here, make sure you sample the famous pork charcuterie (including prosciutto, salame, and dried sausages) from Norcia, the porchetta (whole roasted pork) from the street vendors’ white vans, wild asparagus, mushrooms, and truffles (depending upon the season), Sagrantino wine, extra virgin olive oil, and legumes (lentils from Castelluccio, fagiolino from Lake Trasimeno, and the chickpea’s close cousin: cicerchie). Sure, Italy may be known for its pasta and pizza, but the traditional cuisine is so much more than that…and much of it senza glutine. Enjoy every bite!
There saints of whom I am particularly fond. San Francesco, because we eat mostaccioli on his feast day (Umbria’s singular contribution to cookie-dom). San Costanzo, because we eat torcolo on his feast day (any cake that is considered a viable breakfast food is good, in my book). San Giuseppe, because we eat frittelle di riso on his feast day (in a land lacking donuts, we turn to fritters for our cholesterol). And San Martino, because we go to Mass on his feast day.
Just kidding. We eat roasted chestnuts and drink young wine on his feast day.
San Martino, San Martino, Castagne e Vino (Saint Martin, Saint Martin, Chestnuts and Wine)
Dishes associated with the celebration of a particular saint usually have a symbolic connection with their life and legend. Mostaccioli (a lovely anise infused crisp cookie sweetened with grape must) were Francis’ favorite sweet and the Poor Clare Jacopa di Sottesoli is said to have prepared him a batch on his deathbed. Torcolo (a sweet bread ring rich with candied fruit, raisins, and pine nuts) recalls, with its circular shape, the wreath of flowers mourners placed around San Costanzo’s neck to hide the signs of his decapitation. San Giuseppe, patron saint of the destitute, is fittingly fèted with fritters traditionally prepared with only rice and lemon peel. The modern versions are more elaborate and use ingredients which would have been too precious for poor farmers centuries ago (eggs, flour, sugar), but the symbolism of a poor man’s sweet for the poor man’s saint remains.
San Martino, a pragmatic ex-soldier who ran his sword through his own cape in order to give half to a freezing beggar, doesn’t cotton to any of that highbrow symbolism. To celebrate him, we eat castagne and sample Vino Novello because, well, they’re in season.
If you’ve only ever tasted the blackened balls of mealy styrofoam hawked on winter streets in most northern American cities, you have missed one of the great miracles that the alchemy of heat + nut can produce. Chestnuts from Umbria—particularly marroni from the forests surrounding Spoleto—are sweet, creamy flavour bombs and overdose is avoided only because liberating them from their piping hot toasted peels is particularly labor intensive (and leaves you with charcoal-tinted fingertips for days). Umbrian’s score the reddish-brown shells with a sharp knife before roasting the nuts whole in perforated metal pans over the coals in fireplaces, woodstoves, or bonfires. Once the shells blacken and peel back from the escaping steam of the cooked nutmeat inside, they are wrapped in a large cloth and rolled between the table-top and able hands to loosen the shells from the interior.
Vino Novello, is the perfect foil to the richness of roasted chestnuts This ‘young wine’—which officially goes on sale on November 6th, but is traditionally consumed the evening of the 11th to celebrate San Martino– is a light, fruity (sometimes slightly fizzy) red similar in taste and production to the French Beaujolais Nouveau. Made by accelerating the fermentation process, Novello does not have tannins and will go bad if not consumed the same day it is opened. Not to be confused with Vino Nuovo (which is simply ‘new wine’, or wine that has just finished its traditional fermentation process and has not yet begun to age…most rural farm families drink their home brew Vino Nuovo on the night of San Martino), Novello can be found in most wine shops and cantine through the winter.
If you are in Umbria around November 11th, take the time to drop in at a local Castagnata (chestnut roasting) for the Festa di San Martino. Here you can sample the local marroni, Vino Novello, and, if you are lucky and are treated to one of those unseasonably warm days that can pop up even late into autumn, toast to l’Estate di San Marino (Saint Martin’s Summer).
I am actually okay with death. By death I mean, of course, Death…not death. In fact, the absence of any conviction regarding the existence of an afterlife has freed me up to fully appreciate Mother Nature’s warped sense of humor, as she seeds the universe with our molecules to produce the next generation of stars and aardvarks, sequoias and spores, saints and Republicans. On the other hand, becoming a parent has made death all the more terrorizing. Though I have always admired Ayelet Waldman’s sentiments, they also somewhat perplex me. If I imagine the film of my life, my husband’s death would be followed a period of muted colors which would, over time, return to their former brilliance. The death of one of my children would mark the place where the film suddenly becomes black and white, and there would never be color again.
But the abstract concept of Death doesn’t freak me out. I don’t get the heebies at the cemetary, have any particular aversion to blood and gore, and the few times I have seen bodies have been struck more with a clinical fascination than a sense of horror. So when I headed to the Valnerina to see the mummies in the 12th century church of Santo Stefano–now the crypt of the 15th century church built on top of the original–that I had been hearing about for years, it was with the lighthearted mood of adventure (and playing hooky from the office).
The tiny village of Ferentillo tucked into a crag between two looming peaks.
As I neared Ferentillo, however, the fluffy white clouds overhead were suddenly run out of town by a black, ominous storm front. The temperature plunged several degrees in a matter of minutes, daylight faded, and the dramatic craggy peaks which loom over the town on all sides began to seem ominuous and windswept in a way that made me think of Jane Eyre and crazy ex-wives locked in attics. By the time I had parked, rain was pelting the tiny village pitilessly and the rolling thunder had become deafening. I ran to the entrance of the crypt, which is now a museum, and darted past the massive wooden door into the vaulted stone entry just as lightening struck close by and its blinding flash lit up this welcoming inscription:
This warm and fuzzy inscription welcomes all visitors to the museum.
Oggi a me, domani a te.
Io fui quel che tu sei
tu sarai quel che io sono.
Pensa mortal che il tuo fine è questo,
e pensa pur che ciò sarà ben presto.
Today me, tomorrow you.
I was what you are
and you will be what I am.
Consider, mortal, that your end is this
and consider also that it will be quite soon.
When the cheerful young guide suddenly popped out from around the corner to sell me our tickets and take us through the crypt, she pretty much scared the bejeezus out of me. My nine year old son was, by this time, trembling like a Labrador puppy at the prospect of 1) seeing mummies and 2) seeing his otherwise unflappable mother visibly rattled, so we stepped inside.
This process of mummification only takes about a year. There are two mummified birds on display, the result of more recent test runs by skeptical locals.
The crypt-turned-museum is quite small and there are probably no more than twenty mummies on display, so the visit didn’t take long. Our guide explained how the combination of a microfungus and mineral salts in the soil and a unique air flow (there are openings along one wall where the cold storm air was gusting in) resulted in the natural mummification of many of the bodies buried here over the centuries. The mummified remains were discovered at the beginning of the 19th century, when a Napoleanic edict ordered the emptying of crypts and the trasfer of remains to cemetaries outside of the town walls. This being the Valnerina—an impenetrable area which held out against Christianity, Napoleon, and a united Italy long after the rest of Umbria—they continued to inter their dead here until 1871, when the last coffin was placed in the crypt (it’s still on display, though the surviving relatives have forbidden its opening).
Some of the most intact of these mummified corpses are displayed behind glass, and the guide’s chirpy commentary—with gruesome backstories of torture and hangings (You can still see where his neck is broken!), disease and plague (Notice how the sores are still visible on her skin!), human tragedy (The baby looks as if he is merely sleeping!), and grim details (If you step closely enough you can see the whiskers, teeth, eyeballs, and hair!)—was both surreal and compelling in a Tim Burton-esque sort of way. Add to this the muffled sound of thunder and flashes of lightening that periodically made the lights flicker, and you pretty much had the making of a nine-year-old boy’s perfect excursion.
There are also neatly shelved skulls and bones on display in the dimly lit crypt.
Is it macabre? Sure, but in a fascinating way. Unlike the Egyptian mummies we are so used to viewing, these are recent enough that the details surrounding their lives and deaths resonate more and make them more human and less monstrous curiosities. Their stories are told matter-of-factly, yet with great decorum and respect. Death is, after all, a part of life.
That said, is it a little spooky? You bet.