As a rule, I am not a big fan of books about Italy written by non-Italians. They are often condescending, superficial, and/or naive.
That said, I loved Dianne Hales’ entertaining and informative La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language and was so honored when she asked me to contribute a blog post about my experience raising my children bilingually in Italy.
You can read my post (and see a very cute picture of my little diavoli) here!
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. Which is the best credit card to use in Italy?), 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.
Umbria, Italy by Armando Lanoce
One of 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 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:
A week is not enough time to properly visit Umbria, but I recognize that guests have minor inconveniences like Jobs and Families which restrict their holiday time. Come back soon for a two week itinerary, which will be much more complete.
I am writing primarily for our 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.
(And one last note…I know, I know. Blog posts must have pictures. After much deliberation, I decided that pictures would just be a pain for folks wanting to print out this itinerary as a reference. So buy a guidebook.)
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…two of my favorites are the Sibilline National Park with its breathtaking plateau Piano Grande (you can work in a visit to pretty Norcia…don’t waste your time with Castelluccio, which is much prettier from afar) and the Nera River Regional Park, winding your way along highway SS209 which skirts the Nera river and runs under steep mountainsides where tiny villages perch precariously. Stop by the beautiful Marmore waterfalls (check times when the falls are running here) and the gorgeous San Pietro in Valle abbey…two of the best kept secrets in Umbria.
Day Four: It’s Wednesday so it must be Perugia (and then some)
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 remains of the medieval center, which now form the foundation for 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 the Oratorio di San Bernardino. After lunch and a post-prandial stroll (and a caffè and pastry at Pasticceria Sandri on the Corso), you may still have the time and energy continue touring. I have two suggestions to fill your afternoon: 1) Deruta. If you are interested in seeing this famed artisan majolica production, head here. Shop, walk, have dinner at the elegant Forziere Antico. 2) Lake Trasimeno. If you are more enthusiastic about a pretty drive or walk, head to the lake. Castiglione del Lago is a lovely town to visit, and one of my favorite spots for dinner in Umbria is Rosso di Sera in San Feliciano.
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
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 stop 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. However, after much soul searching I decided that 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 past 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. Have dinner here, because it’s an easy highway drive back to Assisi.
Day Seven: It’s Saturday so it must be the Village of your Choice
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 of the Most Beautiful villages in Umbria in which to say goodbye to this enchanting region. My favorites are Spello (which has much of the charm of Assisi with about 1/100th of the tourists), Bevagna (a good final town to visit if your calves are aching; it’s in the valley!) or 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.)
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. Arrivederci!
In a perfect world, I would come back to this blog post every once in awhile to dust it off and add new fonts of information for planning a trip to Umbria. As we know, this is not a perfect world. Your mileage may vary.
Well, the world isn’t perfect…but I did manage to get back here to update this post in under two years, which is a pretty good turn around time for me.
I have two resource suggestions in which I personally have my paws, both of which have come into being after this post was written and both of which you can read all about here.
Umbria Slow: Food, Culture, & Travel: an iPhone app with pretty much all the information contained in this blog, but boiled down to fit on your mobile device screen. My co-author is Alex Leviton of Lonely Planet fame, so it’s a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll…and all Umbria.
Umbria on the Blog: This is where I am more actively blogging about Umbria now, because they pay me. What I get when I blog here is personal satisfaction and backed up ironing.
Also, I dabble sometimes on Gogobot. You can take a look at my Nearby Faves and Raves here:
Best Guidebooks For Umbria
I am very cautious about overusing printed guidebooks. While it’s handy to toss one in your carry-all when you travel for some one-stop referencing of maps and sites, art and history, local customs and practical information, there is much more complete and timely information available online. Many guidebook authors are not based in the countries they are covering, and much of the information (especially regarding lodging, restaurants, and hours of museums and monuments) goes quickly out of date.
That said, I adore the Umbria guide published by Cadogan Guides. Adore. I have never met prolific travel writers Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls, but when I do I will either take them to dinner or marry them. They did live in Umbria for a few years, and their knowledge of and affection for this region permeates every page of their instructive, engaging, and light-hearted writing. This is the guide you want.
The Umbria guide that puts the others to shame.
There are also a couple of niche printed guides that I like:
For walks and hikes in the region, I mention a few possibilities here.
For driving itineraries, Sunflower Book’s Umbria and the Marche by Georg Henke or Frommer’s 25 Great Drives in Tuscany and Umbria can do in a pinch (though I think you can get the same itineraries and maps with a little online diligence).
For the foodies out there, Christine Smallwood’s An Appetite for Umbria: The People, the Places, the Food is a feast for the eyes, soul, and palate.
Restaurant recs, luscious pictures, mouthwatering recipes. A keepsake.
Unfortunately, the latest edition from 2006 has begun to show its age. Rather than as a guide in the strict sense, I suggest using this as more of a coffee table book to remember your visit to Umbria (and to duplicate the cuisine at home, as there are recipes!).
Best Official Websites for Umbria
There are times when I am painfully reminded that Umbria is not Tuscany (aka the Italian poster child of successful web marketing), and one of these times is when I am searching for information from the official government tourist agency websites, which are generally a) awful b) ugly c) poorly organized d) rarely updated and e) badly translated (if at all). Okay, let’s just go with a) awful. That said, there are a few out there that are worth a look:
I like the official regional website primarily for the downloadable maps and proposed itineraries.
For some information on the regional cuisine, you can take a look here.
A jaw-droppingly complete and engaging website for biking in Umbria is here.
For planning a winery visit, La Strada del Sagrantino association offers an informative and well organized website.
Wineries, oil mills, local artisans, and foodie events are all here.
The Park Service can’t manage to provide decent trail markers half the time, but their website is surprisingly chock full of information about the regional parks.
I love to get off the beaten path a bit, and a great place to start is with the Most Beautiful Villages of Italy site.
For biking around Umbria, check out Bike in Umbria. Walkers and hikers can find information instead at Via di Francesco.
One of my favorite sites for pure quirky pleasure is the Strada dell’Olio DOP Umbria. Great information for visiting oil mills in Umbria, but also check out their Unusual Sites, Local Personalities, and Wanderings pages.
Best Personal Websites and Blogs for Umbria
I can’t speak highly enough of Bill Thayer’s Website. Bill is a lovely curmudgeon (and I say that with much affection…I wouldn’t have it any other way) who has walked about 2,000 km all over Umbria, taking detailed photos and notes. His site isn’t flashy and his delivery can be dry, but there is simply no more complete online resource for Umbria than his juggernaut of a website.
I also love:
Life…Italian Style – American chef and Umbrian resident Jennifer tells of life and food in this region.
Discovering Umbria – Alessandra organizes wine and food holidays and customized tours in Umbria…and writes a wonderful Umbria blog.
Villa in Umbria – A lovely blog with some gorgeous photography.
For foodies, you can’t go wrong with local cooking class instructor. Again, Jennifer’s cooking (with a little Life in Umbria thrown in) blog at Life…Italian Style, Deborah’s Italian Food Forever and Simona’s Sagra in Casa are allo winners.
Best Travel Forums for Umbria
I have been, over the years, either a lurker or an active participant in every major travel forum out there. Only one, however, have I stayed true to over the years for the pure quality and scope of information, friendly vibe, and sense of community. Slowtalk (the forum for the Slow Travel website) is where it’s at. I have never seen a question go unanswered there (use the search function before posting, though…chances are your query has already been discussed!).
Best Local Resources for Umbria
Umbria still uses the anacronistic posters plastered along roadsides and on billboards, which is a good way to get an overview of what’s going on while you are in the region (many have the website address for the event at the bottom, for more information). One of the best resources for current festivals and events is the monthly VivaPerugia magazine, which you can buy at newspaper stands for €.80 They list cultural, music, and art events, restaurants, food festivals, courses, children’s activities, and some practical information (the location of pharmacies, gas stations, and a train schedule). The magazine is in Italian, but the listings are easy to decipher even if you don’t speak the language.
The pocket-size monthly Viva Perugia
Each town also has a local tourist office, which—at best—provides up-to-date event information, maps and brochures for local sights, and logistical travel information. At worst, it provides a life lesson in surly government employees. It can go either way.
I was very happy to contribute a nuts-n-bolts “how to” article for planning a trip in Umbria for Pauline Kenny at Slow Europe.
If you are thinking about your next visit, you can get some tips here!
I never used to cry. I mean, first I never used to cry in that slightly unhealthy maybe-you-need-a-little-therapy-and-some-getting-in-touch-with-your-feelings way. Then I never used to cry in that hipster I’m-your-sassy-best-girlfriend way. Then I never used to cry in that pragmatic it’s-just-how-I-am way.
Now I cry at the drop of a hat. I have the frustration tolerance of an overtired two-year old who had Cocoa Pebbles for both breakfast and lunch and Wants. Them. For. Dinner. I cry about my dry cleaning getting lost, my telephone bill being exorbitant, and my dentist running 40 minutes late. I tear up at PTA meetings, at the car mechanic, and the police station.
Last week I was on the phone with a vendor negotiating some details of a contract and we disagreed about the conditions in one of the clauses. The conversation was getting heated, though remained—I thought—cordial, until out of the blue the vendor announced he felt under attack, wasn’t used to clients treating him this way, and that I should take my business elsewhere. At which point I very professionally began to sob. With him on the phone. Mortifying, wracking, nose-blowing sobbing.
And I remembered a scene that once when down when my son was a toddler and we were driving home late from a birthday party. He piped up from the backseat, “Mamma, what’s a thaw?” And I said, “A what, sweetie?” “A thaw.” “A thaw?” “No, a THAW!” And I kept asking him to repeat himself and telling him I couldn’t understand his question, and he kept repeating the same word and getting increasingly agitated until I finally said, “Hey, mister, no yelling at Mamma, please. I don’t like getting yelled at.” At which point he began to sob. Desperate, pathetic, heart-breaking sobbing. So awful that I had to pull over, climb into the backseat with him, and figure out what the question was to calm him down. (“Is it a toy? Is it something we eat? Is it an animal?” “No, Mamma! It’s the little light that does twinkle, twinkle in the sky!”).
I recently got an email from a fellow expat here in Italy who stumbled upon my blog. She wrote, to summarize, “You seem so upbeat about expat life. I am having a really hard time. What’s the matter with me?” And I felt terribly guilty, because I recall those months after having my first child when I was reading all the books and magazines about how wonderful motherhood was while I spent my days alternately crying and raging and felt like somehow I was doing something wrong was being denied boarding on the Happy Mom Express. So, I’m going to step away from the sunny schtick for just a second and talk honestly about the dark side of expat life.
And to PL: There’s nothing the matter with you. It’s tough sometimes. Keep the faith, kiddo.
Remember that adage about Ginger doing everything Fred did, but backwards and in heels? Well, that’s what my days are like. All the craziness that being a working mother who is active in the community and full of social commitments entails–but in a second language. And I’m not bilingual, so expressing myself in Italian still requires concentration, lucidity, and energy. It’s exhausting, frankly. There are times when I get to end of the day mentally devastated, which means that any tiny glitch seems like A Big Effing Deal.
Sometimes I just simply don’t have the linguistic and cultural finesse to express myself how I’d like. I accidentally step on toes, I offend, I come off as too aggressive or too indifferent, or I can’t get my message across. Or, on the flip side, I sense that I am losing in translation a subtle shading that I just can’t manage to put into focus, like a flickering shadow right outside my field of vision. And the harder I try, the more elusive it seems until I am so discouraged and overwhelmed I go into nuclear meltdown.
There is much existential solitude in being an expat, even when I spend my day surrounded by people. I certainly have dear friends who are Italian, there will always be some cultural gaps that no amount of affection or familiarity can bridge. I also have dear friends who are fellow foreigners, but the expat diaspora is varied and saying that the mere fact of being two Americans living in Italy is enough foundation to build a friendship is like saying that the mere fact of possessing double X chromosomes means that women world-over are united in loving sisterhood (whereas there are, honestly, many bitches out there I would love to slap. Coulter, watch your back.) or the mere fact of holding a passport from the same nation should have kept the Serbs and Croats from going at each other’s throats. When you feel like you are von Trier in a nation of Spielbergs, the tears can sometimes come easily.
I’m Treated Like a Two Year Old
I speak Italian like a third grader, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer third grader. So, inevitably, I tend to get treated like a third grader, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer third grader. Which is galling, because I consider myself pretty sharp (in an obtuse sort of way), rather articulate (in a bad speller sort of way), and relatively capable (in a screw-up sort of way). It puts my teeth on edge to have people—with kind intentions, make no mistake—explain the obvious to me slowly and using simple words. Because it’s humiliating. And humiliated people are often not the most even-keeled. See: long world history of social uprisings.
I’m Second-Guessing Myself
Sometimes I look at my life and wonder what it is exactly I’ve been doing over the past 17 years while all of my friends back in the States seem to have been busy building fabulous careers in amazing places using the latest electronic gadgets. My only solace is the knowledge that they look at me and wonder what they’ve been doing over the past 17 years while I’ve been busy building a fabulous career in an amazing place while not slave to the latest electronic gadgets. Seriously, Italy can be a tough place to have a rewarding career even if you are Italian, fluent, well-connected, and big time lucky (even Pier Luigi Celli (the former director of the RAI) advised his son to leave Italy in an open letter citing nepotism and lack of prospects for young professionals. If Celli Jr. can’t land a decent job here, the rest of us truly are chopped liver.). It’s hard to feel like you are spending your time spinning your wheels and perhaps Italy isn’t all you dreamed it would be, even if the food is fabulous.
So why am I still here? The truth is that my experience has been, despite all the whining and crabbing above, ultimately rewarding. It’s a challenge, but so are most gratifying things in life–from building a lasting relationship to being a good parent to making a difference as a volunteer to having a successful professional or creative life. There are days when the fatigue and frustration and loneliness wash over me in pounding waves and I find myself coughing and sputtering for air, but those days are rarer. Most days my glass is half full and I’m able to look back at everything I’ve learned and everything I’ve accomplished since I moved here in 1993 and think, “Damn, girl.”
And then I get a parking ticket. Sob.
There is how the Big Boys do it, and there is how we do it. Wine, that is.
The Big Boys carefully plan their vineyard and select grape varieties appropriate for the soil, sun exposure, and altitude. They take great care in cultivating the delicate vines: pruning the shoots, selecting the stronger plants, replanting old or weak vines. They consult with botanists, agronomists, viticulturists, and agricultural historians. They monitor and treat for mold and insect damage.
Our grapes, of the select "uh, who knows?" variety.
We just go with whatever my husband’s grandfather planted together with his brother 40 years ago on a piece of land near the house that they chose because they eyeballed it figured it looked sunny enough, given that we are on the north side of Mount Subasio. We occasionally fill in the gaps left where vines have died, but only when it gets to be a couple in a row. If you ask my father-in-law what grape varieties he has, he will respond: Red and White. When pressed, he will concede with a nonchalant shrug that there are probably Sangiovese, Merlot, and Sagrantino vines planted, and white Malvasia grapes and “Boh, something else but I can’t remember” grapes. Mold and insect damage get noticed and commented on at the dinner table.
Filled bins, waiting in a line like soldiers about to be shipped to the Western Front.
The Big Boys organize their grape harvest using white lab-jacketed professionals who begin to pick after monitoring the level of sugar, acid, and pH of the grapes. Clusters of grapes are selected according to their stage of ripeness over a period of days, and overripe or damaged fruit is attentively weeded out. The grapes get carefully placed in small crates which are sorted by variety and loaded on flatbed trailers to be transported to the winery with minimum damage and bruising.
Zio Gino, our oldest picker.
Nicolò, our youngest picker.
Our grape harvest includes Zio Gino, Zia Viola, our neighbors, my inlaws, my nine and six year old sons, and occasionally sporting guests at Brigolante and is begun after tasting a couple of grapes to see if they are sweet and monitoring the weather report on Rai Uno. The vineyard is stripped of every cluster of grape over an afternoon regardless of ripeness, lest it begin to rain or run into dinner time. The grapes are chucked indiscriminately into big 50 gallon plastic garbage pails (which we use only for this purpose), and then loaded onto the back of the tractor where they make the bouncing and bumping trip back to the garage.
My father-in-law Ugo's hi-tech harvesting tools.
The Big Boys then proceed to destem, crush, ferment, and press the grapes, sorted by variety, in gleaming modern cantine with stainless steel mechanical equipment and small chemistry laboratories used to monitor and adjust sugar, yeast, and alcohol. The rooms are temperature controlled to calibrate the speed of fermentation, and after the must is pressed the wine is stored in massive stainless steel vessels or new oak barrels for the remainer of the secondary fermentation and aging…under careful watch by the vitner’s enologist who runs periodic tests checking the status of the wine: pH, titratable acidity, residual sugar, free or available sulfur, total sulfur, volatile acidity and percent alcohol.
Our grapes ready to give their life for a bigger cause. Notice the odd white cluster. Eh, just toss it in!
After much swearing and searching for an adapter for the German plug, we fire up our little mechanical crusher/destemmer in the garage and set it on two wooden planks above a big plastic vat the size of a Jacuzzi. (We don’t have a Jacuzzi, of course, but I’ve seen them.) First the white grapes all get tossed in, and the must immediately passed to our old wooden basket press, which is cranked by hand either by my father-in-law or my older son, depending upon if it’s a school day. The white wine is immediately trasferred to the fiberglass vat to ferment and age, because none of us like white that much so if it doesn’t come out that great no one cares. Then the red grapes all get tossed in to be destemmed and crushed, and stay there fermenting in the vat with an old wool plaid blanket thrown over the top to try and keep the temperature warm enough in the cold garage. Every day or two my father-in-law tosses a saccharometer (which looks kind of like a floating candy thermometer and measures the sugar content) in there to see how things are going, but since his eyes aren’t that good and both my husband and I have grave doubts as to whether he actually knows how to read the calibration even if he could see the tiny markings, it’s pretty much a crap shoot. When we notice all the neighbors pressing, we figure we may as well. Then the wine gets stored in big old wooden barrels next to the washing machine and the tool bench for a couple of months.
Tossing the grapes into the crusher/destemmer.
The Big Boys polish their wines with blending and fining, and stabilize them with preservatives and filtration. Often, the results are—unsurprisingly–fabulous. Their wines are bottled in new glass wine bottles, labeled beautifully and informatively, and shipped all over the world.
This is much more fun than going to school.
We open up the taps at the bottom of our barrels and vat in the spring, and drink whatever comes out. Sometimes it’s suitable for nothing more than dressing a salad, together with olive oil and salt. Sometimes the results are—surprisingly–fabulous. We fill pitchers with our rough farmer’s red that we set on the table for mealtimes directly from the vats, or bottle some in bottles we’ve washed and put aside from store bought wines, which we then manually cork and stick a label on that I print off a Word document on my computer. Our wine is incredibly instable; just the altitude difference between our house and the valley under Assisi is enough to make it turn. Which means we drink it all here, just friends, family, guests, and the odd passer-by.
And I’d rather have that than be a Big Boy any day.
This is what's in our wine.
I love to get off the beaten path and discover things in Umbria that aren’t listed in every guide book under the sun.
Alexandra Korey gave me a chance to do that on her wonderful art/travel/lifestyle blog Arttrav this week, where I talk about some of the great contemporary art in Umbria.
I recently spent a day with the delightful Saverio and Gabriella from Tartufi Bianconi in Città di Castello.
Saverio took us along on a truffle hunt (with real truffle dogs and real truffle hunters) and showed us his fascinating private collection of truffle related memorabilia and curiosities. His wife, Gabriella, welcomed us into her kitchen for a tasting of the precious local tubers and a truffle-themed home-cooked lunch.
To read a more detailed article about truffles in Umbria and my day spent with the Bianconis, check out the November 2010 Destinations Travel Magazine–but in the meantime here are some outtakes from our absolutely perfect day.
Meeting our pooches (and their pets) at the edge of the woods.
Asia The Truffle Dog gets right down to bizniz.
Score! Showing the humans how it's done.
And now she wants her Scooby Snack!
Sandy doesn't want to be outdone...she's on the chase now!
Giving us the goods...
Mmmm. That's what we're talking about.
Gabriella and I look over our haul, about to be sorted and weighed at the Tartufi Bianconi processing rooms.
Saverio shows me his unique private collection of truffle-related memorabilia
While we were preparing lunch, some local truffle hunters brought in some precious white truffles.
Gabriella prepares our tasting of the four different kinds of truffles found locally.
The perfect day ended with a perfect truffle-infused meal!
A special thanks to photographer Carlo Franchi for his wonderful shots of our adventure.
The other night at the dinner table I noticed that my husband had picked out all the carrots from his Peas –n- Carrots and left them on his plate. When I asked him why, he told me he doesn’t like cooked carrots. Which gave me pause, because I’ve known him since 1986 and, though I haven’t kept a log or anything, my rough estimate is that I have prepared Peas-n-Carrots more or less four thousand times over the past 24 years (I like peas. And I like carrots. And I think the green and orange look pretty together on the plate. And I like any phrase that involves substituting ‘n’ for ‘and’, because it seems kind of anachronistic and Rockwellian, like E-Z and Quik.) and this little detail about him not liking cooked carrots has never, ever come out in casual conversation. Which just goes to show you…you think you know everything about something, and then it turns out you know nothing.
Which is the same earth-shattering—though somewhat uncatchy—conclusion I came to the other day when I discovered Citerna. Despite living in Umbria since 1993, this little button of a town—one of the villages listed with The Most Beautiful Villages in Umbria—was completely under my radar. Now, remember the high school analogy that served so well for Bevagna? Okay, Citerna is still in her Sophomore year. She is about to get her braces off, has taken up jogging, is mustering the courage to get her hair layered and highlighted, and has been trying to talk her cousin from LA into taking her shopping the next time she’s in Des Moines so she can get a little style makeover. Junior year is just around the corner and look out, because Sandra Dee is about to put on the disco pants.
Citerna surrounded by the soft hills of the Tuscan-Umbria border. So romantic that I start understanding why everything in town is dedicated to innamorati. Photo by Adam Whone.
I discovered Citerna by accident, in an serendipitous sort of way since I am on the Cs on my quest to visit all the villages listed in I Borghi Più Belli d’Italia. I went on a truffle hunt last week (Wait…hold the phone, you say. Truffle hunt?!? I want to hear about the truffle hunt. Well, pipe down. That blog post is coming.), and our meeting spot with the guide was Citerna’s pretty piazza which looks out over the Upper Tiber Valley. You can tell this town sits right on the border between Tuscany and Umbria, as the landscape is much more reminiscent of Tuscany’s soft, rolling hills than the more dramatic and rugged peaks you find further south into Umbria.
A piazza with a view....
The piazza is also home to pretty much the only businesses in town: a bar, grocery store, restaurant, and—oddly—tiny silversmith. Grab an outdoor caffe table and enjoy the view across the piazza for awhile before you head off to explore the rest of town. Citerna is a one-street village, so once you leave the piazza head down the main Corso Garibaldi toward Porta Romana. You’ll pass the City Hall on your right in the recently restored former Franciscan convent, which sits above the medieval cisterns–currently under restoration (remember this phrase…you’ll be hearing it again. As I said, Citerna is going through a complete makeover.). The name of the town probably derives from the word cisterna, and the town sits above a complex network of channels, vaults, and tanks used for collecting and storing rainwater. Citerna’s claim to cultural fame is a prestigious annual collective photography exhibition each spring, and the warren of restored underground rooms will be used in the future as a unique exhibition space to house this show.
The warren of underground vaults and cisterns is currently "having work done". Photo by Carlo Franchi.
When you get to the city gate, pass through and make a sharp right. One of the most delightful details of the town is the vaulted passageway which circles much of the town at the base of the fortified city wall—part of which is known as the Via degli Innamorati, or Sweethearts’ Way. From these medieval walkways you can peer through the arched openings onto some of the prettiest views over the Tuscan (to the west) and Umbrian (to the east) countryside around. When you’ve had your eyeful, climb back up the gently sloping Corso Garibaldi, noticing the brick walkway which crosses the street about halfway up which was once used by the noble Vitelli family to access their private theater (Teatro Bontempelli –currently under restoration) from their family palazzo across the street without having to bother with socializing with the plebs. They must not have been so awful, however, as their Palazzo Prosperi-Vitelli is home to a fabulously carved 16th century fireplace, again dedicated to Innamorati.
One of the most romantic strolls in Umbria...along the fittingly named Via degli Innamorati
When the folks from Citerna weren’t getting it on, they managed to find time to fill their main Chiesa di San Francesco (currently under restoration) with frescoes by Signorelli, paintings by Raffaellino del Colle, and a graceful terracotta Madonna and Child recently attributed to Donatello (currently under restoration). Continue on with a brief visit to Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo, home to some della Robbia and lots of gloom.
She really is "getting some work done". After the restoration, this work by Donatello will be on display in Florence's Pitti Palace before coming home to Citerna.
Finish your visit by climbing to the highest point in town, at the far end of the Corso. Here stand the ghostly remains of Citerna’s castle, bombarded by the Germans during World War II: stark stone walls, a brick tower, and a large window suspended in space framing a romantic Tuscan landscape (innamorati, indeed). Citerna knows which of their monuments will become more attractive with restoration, and which are heartbreakingly poignant left just the way they are.
Some broken things aren't meant to be fixed. Photo by Carlo Franchi.
Many of these photos were taken by Assisi photographer Carlo Franchi, whom I thank for letting me use them here. To see more of his work, visit www.franchicarlo.net.
I talk about living in Assisi, but I’m lying. I live about 6 kilometers outside of town in a breathtakingly beautiful spot inside the Mount Subasio Park called Costa di Trex.
Federica and Gabriele from Umbria Lovers discovered this special place recently, and asked me to tell them all about it.