The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Castiglione del Lago
Spring has arrived–in a teasing, come hither sort of way–and with it the unmistakeable signs of the change of season: a desire to get the hell out of the house, a bloomingly photogenic countryside, a waning of winter’s lethargy (affectionately known in our family as “an acute case of the lazy asses”), and bored, whining children off of school for two long weeks of spring break. All of which are the basic ingredients for mixing up a killer batch of Day Trip. And—given that my project of visiting The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria had been shelved during the last, ahem, six months—it seemed serendipitous that the next village on the list (in alphabetical order, which I have more or less been sticking to) has two of the key features any parent with kids under the age of twelve know will be an instant hit: a castle and a large body of water.
So, having run out of duct tape and rope, I tossed my sons in the general direction of the back seat and headed to the village of Castiglione del Lago, which perches on a small promontory on the shores of placid Lake Trasimeno. (I’m joking. About the duct tape and rope, I mean. Castiglione really is on the shores of Lake Trasimeno.) I hadn’t visited its tiny historic center for years; truth be told, the area around the lake (and the lake itself) has never held much fascination for me and when I do head to that area it is almostly exclusively to eat. But I quickly realized I was in for two pleasant surprises:
1) Castiglione del Lago is actually quite lovely, in a lighthearted, resort town-y sort of way.
2) Kids give you a completely different perspective on what you are seeing. Like a monkey-cam.
Immediately upon passing under the largest of the three medieval gates along the town wall at the base of the Corso, my nine year old grasped my six year old’s hand tightly and said, “You have to hold my hand because we’re in the city now and bad people can come and take you.” To give you an idea of the size of Castiglione, let me just say that its expansion has been limited by the topographical confines of the promontory on which it rests, so it has remained the same 2 by 6 blocks for the last 900 years. And, though Wikipedia lists its official population at roughly 15,000—which includes all those who live in the quite extensive modern suburbs of the town along the plain below—my guess is that there can’t be many more than a couple hundred souls who actually dwell within the city walls. We weren’t exactly in Manhattan.
That said, the town was hopping as we had inadvertently stopped by on Wednesday during their weekly market, which was the usual mish-mash of small town Umbrian markets: vegetables, housedresses, rubber boots, flower pots, frying pans, camouflage jackets, and an amazingly well-stocked stand of dried and candied fruit. We got a big bag of mixed ginger, mango, coconut, and pineapple to fortify us for our visit. Thus armed, we set off toward the two notable monuments for which Castiglione is known.
It took us a few minutes to wind our way through the vacationers and shoppers, past the market stalls and small shops and restaurants lining the main street, but in a short time we were in the circular Piazza Gramsci at the far end of town, which is dominated by the 16th century Palazzo Ducale, or Palazzo della Corgna. After a quick review of acceptable museum behavior, I took my sons inside and immediately undermined my own dictates by having a loud debate with the woman selling tickets as to why it is unfair that a “family” ticket (for two adults and two children) cannot be applied to a “family” of one adult and two children, so single parents end up having to pay two euros more entrance fee for three separate tickets.
We wandered through the stately halls with our noses in the air, enjoying the prefectly preserved late Renaissance frescoes still decorating the ceilings (my sons’ sniggers and hissed commentary, “Look! You can see their naked butts!” echoed in the largely empty rooms) until we we reached the covered walkway which was built to connect the palace to the imposing castle for which Castiglione is named: the Rocca del Leone.
The pentagonal shaped Rocca has a tall triangular keep and four outer towers, all of which can be explored by walking the perimeter along the top of the castle wall. Not for parents faint of heart (the signs warning visitors to hold children by the hand are crazy talk for anyone with boys from 6 to 12), kids love the conqueror’s view over the lake and surrounding countryside. While gazing from one of the towers, my six year old wondered aloud what it would be like to fly. “Like Icarus!” my nine year said. “Who’s Icarus?” “A deity.” “What’s a deity?” “Remember those naked guys painted on the ceiling in the palazzo?” “Yes.” “Those are deities.” And before I could point out the difference between mythical figure and deity, they were off running along the parapet to check out the view from the next tower.
Having completed our exploration, we headed back down through the streets in search of some lunch. The market was packing up; the restaurants lining the Corso looked inviting (especially for anyone curious to try Lake Trasimeno’s local specialty: eel), but having checked off the “Castiglione” part of the town’s name, we decided to we wanted to visit the “Lago” part, as well, and picnic on the shores of the lake. Within minutes (really, anything is within minutes in Castiglione. Have I mentioned the town is 2 by 6 blocks?), we found ourselves in Piazza Mazzini, with its pretty tinkling fountain, Bar Centrale, aging dame of a grand hotel, and—most importantly—picnic supplies heaven.
In a tiny shop next to the clock tower, we were greeted by perhaps the friendliest shopkeepers in Umbria, who happily sliced up some local pecorino, salame, and prosciutto and made us three thick sandwiches on local flatbread (torta al testo)—having first basically fed my children lunch in free samples of charcuterie. Oh, and cookies. Oh, and one son changed his mind halfway through the sandwich assembly? No problem, Signora, he’s so cute we’ll just make him another. Oh, and they want juice? But this juice is too cold for them to drink on this hot day straight from the fridge so we’ll just run into the storeroom in the back and move about fifty boxes to come up with the one bottle of apple juice that is perfect drinking temperature. My kids worked it.
We meandered along the remaining two unexplored streets, lined with pretty flowerpot-decked facades, ancient wooden doors, and ivy-festooned garden walls and then drove down through the olive groves to the lakeshore beneath the town. Near the dock where ferries make their run between Castiglione and the lake’s pretty islets (our hopes to make a quick trip to Isola Maggiore after lunch was dashed by the news that ferries only run on the weekends in low season), we spread our picnic blanket and ate with the town at our back and Tuscany’s rolling countryside across the lake in front of us. Looking over the quiet waters, my son leaned against me and said (through a mouthful of biscotti), “This was nice, Mamma. We should do this more often.”
Yes, we should.