When I was nominated by Jessica Spiegel of WhyGo Italy to participate in Tripbase’s My 7 Links project, I couldn’t say no. First, Jessica sits at the head of the Italy Blogging Roundtable (of which I am a participant) which makes her kind of my boss, if by “boss” one means “very nice person who lives nine time zones away and invents writing projects which are super-fun but unpaid”. Second, Jessica is a rarified Real Travel Writer, whereas I am Just Some Chick Who Futzes Around, so I’m thinking I should probably follow her lead.
The third–and probably most compelling–reason I couldn’t say no is that it was an excuse to go back through my old posts and indulge in a bit of nostalgia. The project has participants publish a link to one of their own past posts in seven different categories.Though I’ve been blogging for just over a year, some of the older articles on my blog are pieces that I wrote between 2003 and 2006 for the Slow Travel website (back when the word blog had yet to permeate our culture), and it had been awhile since I’d had the excuse to read through them. Almost eight years have passed since those first articles were written, and it was fun to say hello to my 32 year old self again.
So thanks to Jessica for calling me out, and to the folks over at Tripbase for coming up with these seven great reasons to shake the moths out of the archives.
My most beautiful post
Though many of my blog posts offer pragmatic information and travel tips to help visitors discover Umbria, the ones in which I tend to wax most poetic are, of course, those where I touch on my personal life. And nothing is more personal than this crazy hold Italy has over my soul—and, as I said in this recent post (this is an extra link, so it doesn’t count as one of my seven) sometimes Italy comes close to breaking me. During those times I dig out this love letter I wrote to Italy close to a decade ago and rekindle the flame that made me fall in love with her in the first place.
My most popular post
Everybody loves a good rant, and boy did I tap into a pulsing expat frustration artery with this post from last year. I was surprised and touched by all the wonderful, thoughtful comments and dialogue this post generated and realized that as isolating as the expat life can sometimes be, there is also a lot of affection and support in our community.
My most controversial post
I was actually expecting this post to spark more controversy than it did. Nothing gets folks riled up like a good religious debate, which is why I generally hold my own spirituality cards close to my chest. But, as it turns out, my blog has a passel of openminded and accepting followers. Thank god.
My most helpful post
No ifs, ands, or buts…people love an itinerary to give their trip planning some structure without the hassle of all the background research. My one week Umbria itinerary continues to be the nuts-and-bolts post readers love the most (my two week itinerary, as well. And no, this doesn’t count as one of my seven) and was also one of my favorites to write.
A post whose success surprised me
Okay, the popularity of this post was totally shocking to me. A piece that I totally pulled out of my derrier one grey January weekend when I was stumped about what to throw up on the blog ended up going as close to viral as I’m ever going to get and snagging me my first speaking engagement. Ever. Who knew that so many readers out there harbored an interest in hog butchering?
A post I feel didn’t get the attention it deserved
A dear friend turned me on to Umbria’s dragon legends, and this post remains one of my all time most entertaining (both to research and write). Unfortunately—and I know this may come as a shock—not many people are running Google searches with the terms Umbria + dragon. At least I can never be accused of writing for SEO.
The post that I am most proud of
I don’t have many redeeming qualities beyond my freakish ability to wiggle my ears and to sniff out a fib from a six year old at 50 paces, but I do concede that I am very good at finding the humor in otherwise trying situations. When our phones were out for over a month, it caused me such stress that I think I am still working the knots out of my shoulders seven years later, but I was able to write one of my funnier pieces about it and make myself laugh. And that ain’t peanuts in this tough world.
I’m sort of late to the game, which means that most of my favorite bloggers seem to have already been nominated. That said, I enthusiastically nominate my guilty pleasure: Liz from the irreverently hilarious Letters from Florence.
This is the third installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some Cracker Jacks, and join in on the conversation.
My Favorite Work of Art in Italy
If I were to name my favorite work of art in Umbria purely on merit of aesthetic beauty, technical skill, or creative mastery, I would be hard-pressed. From Etruscan stonework dating two hundred years before Christ to the twentieth century avant-garde artist Alberto Burri—this region has been producing breathtaking art for millenia.
Now, if I were to name my favorite piece of art in Umbria purely in its ability to inspire my imagination, give flight to my fancy, move and amuse me, and make me want to sit my butt down in front of the computer on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in July when everyone else is out swimming in the creek to share it with you, there is one piece of artwork that immediately comes to mind.
Surprise! Betcha didn't see this coming.
I like to imagine that there are tens, hundreds, thousands of parallel universes out there, populated with the anti-versions of myself. Every time I find myself at a crossroads in life where I have had to make a choice about which path to take, I like to think that a separate reality splinters off and continues on a different trajectory, spinning out a version of what my life would have been like had I taken that other, rejected road. Each time I’ve been courageous or cowardly, kind or cruel, thoughtful or hasty, a new world has spun away, carrying on it a slightly altered cast of characters and plot line. I step off the walkway, tread on a butterfly, and set off unpredictable chain reactions.
These alternate realities present a fun-house mirror of my world and myself, just distorted enough to be new but just similar enough to be recognizable. And when I’m in line at the post office, or in the dentist’s waiting room, or up in the wee hours of the morning wandering the dark rooms of my house, I like to wonder about these anti-Rebeccas in these parallel universes, and conjecture about their lives there.
In the beginning of the 13th century, young Francesco Bernardone–son of a wealthy merchant in Assisi—decided to abandon his life of luxury and war-mongering for spiritual pursuits. He took to praying in the semi-abandoned country churches around his hometown, and in 1206 knelt before an unremarkeable Romanesque rood cross in the small, humble chapel of San Damiano outside Assisi’s city walls. This icon crucifix, with its 12th century cartoonish Byzantine-style decoration based on the Gospel of Saint John (probably painted by an anonymous Syrian monk), would surely have faded into obscurity had not an extraordinary event taken place. Or, I should say, two extraordinary events:
- The cross spoke to Francis.
- Francis listened.
A copy now hangs in the church of San Damiano; the original is in the Basilica of Saint Claire
Tradition holds that Francis heard the cross say to him, “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin,” three times. Francis did just that…first interpreting the message as a call to restore the neglected San Damiano and Porziuncola chapels and later taking it to mean a tweaking of the Roman Catholic Church itself. In this vein, he founded the Franciscan Order and the Order of Saint Claire and—many hold—became one of the most influential figures in religious history, pioneering virtues of poverty, brotherhood, respect for animals and the environment. He is the patron saint of Italy and his hometown of Assisi is one of the most visited in the country, primarily because of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Basilica di San Francesco.
But it could have gone differently.
Francis could have never heard the voice, or never listened. He could have heeded the message, but become demoralized and given up. He could have stuck to restoring churches (perhaps becoming the patron saint of general contractors) and never founded an Order. He could have continued ministering to the poor and sick and died in obscurity, as so many devout did over the centuries, or simply joined one of the many rich and corrupt orders already thriving in medieval Italy. Catholicism would be fundamentally different (as would many other religions, as Francis–with his spirit of humility and fraternity–is a figure almost universally admired), Italy would be fundamentally different, Assisi would be fundamentally different, and my life (and most likely yours, my friend) would probably be fundamentally different. All this the legacy of one young man and the choices made in one moment of his life.
This is why I—a proud Secular Humanist and largely Non-Lover of Byzantine Art—have always been drawn to San Damiano’s cross which, were it to have a less compelling backstory, wouldn’t draw a second glance. Because when I look at it (it now hangs in the the Cappella del Crocifisso in the Basilica di Santa Chiara here in Assisi), more than making me pause to reflect on beauty, or skill, or genius, I find myself pausing to reflect on choices and consequences, on caution and risk, on sliding doors and what-ifs.
And when I do, I say a little secular prayer to Il Poverello:
Francis, may I have the courage to listen to voices speaking, to walk through doors opening, to take paths beckoning. May I have the wisdom to choose the right voices, the right doors, and the right paths. May I have the serenity to one day stand on this spinning Earth, look at all those countless other planets hurtling past with all those countless anti-Rebeccas standing on them and know that of them all, I would choose to be on this crazy planet living the life of this–at times, crazy–Rebecca.
Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.
If there’s one thing my mother taught me, it’s this: If you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all. (Second only to: Always wear clean underwear in case you’re in an accident. A life lesson slightly less useful but still memorable.). Which is why there are certain areas in Umbria that I don’t talk about much; I just don’t have very many nice things to say.
I admit that Lake Trasimeno and environs has been, for many years, one of those areas for me. Not that the Trasimeno basin isn’t lovely…it certainly is, in a bucolic, softly rolling hills, postcard-y sort of way. I am a more dramatic, craggy, sturm-und-drang school sort of gal (see my lauding ad nauseam of the Valnerina), however, and the resort town atmosphere around the lake feels somehow staged.
It took a recent impromptu fishing excursion to rethink my blanket dismissal of Trasimeno. (Let me preface this by saying that I do not like fishing. Patience is—ahem—not a virtue for which I am particularly known, and if you want to see an otherwise competent, mature, and self-possessed woman morph instantly into a squealing mess of a girl, have her unhook a writhing carp from a fishing line.) But it was a cloudless day in May and perfect weather to be on a boat, so I went. And discovered that underneath the beaches and nightclubs and boutiques ringing the lake, there are real people who have lived and worked in symbiosis with its waters for generations.
The traditional fishing boat is flat-bottomed and wooden.
We met up with our fishman/guide/capitano (Who sized us up rather skeptically. He was apparently familiar with the morphing issue.) at the Trasimeno Fishing Cooperative in the unassuming town of San Feliciano and immediately set out in a traditional flat-bottomed wooden boat.
Our pensive captain. He knows what he's dealing with here.
After motoring to the nearby fishing grounds, our captain cut the engine and stood in the center of the boat rowing in the traditional style–criss-crossing the handles while alternating pulls on the right and left oars–and somehow managed to keep a straight course. Like the Venetian “voga” rowing style, it looks damned easy until you try it and find yourself going nowhere fast.
The traditional rowing style looks easy. It ain't.
We cut slowly through the placid waters, casting long nets and hauling in the cone-shaped traps for eel, pike, tench, and carp. (And crayfish from the Southern US, who somehow inexplicably have ended up in the Bel Paese.)
Hauling in a cone-shaped trap.
While we fished we chatted with the friendly-yet-taciturn captain (have you ever met a chatty fisherman?) as he told his story of following in his father’s footsteps, and about the history and culture of the local fishing town. As he talked passionately about the lake and his life there, I felt myself warm to Trasimeno…which suddenly seemed less like a movie set and more like a community.
Letting out the nets.
We only had time for a quick trip out on the water, but excursions usually include a turn around the lake with a stop on the Polvese Island where your catch is grilled up on the beach (something I certainly plan on doing with my kids this summer). Alternatively, your haul is weighed and sold at the Cooperative, which supplies the area restaurants. The local landmark “Ristorante Da Settimio” is half a block from the Cooperative and docks and features fish caught by the Cooperative, if you are curious to sample the lake’s bounty.
A real fisherman repairing real nets on real Lake Trasimeno.
To reserve a fishing excursion with the Cooperative, I suggest actually stopping by the office in San Feliciano. They may know where the fish are biting, but they’re not so good with the answering emails and phone calls thing.
In these tough times, even travelling has been pared down to the bare bone. That said, there are some great cheap and/or free A list attractions in Umbria if you are keeping your eye on the bottom line but still want a memorable trip.
I was asked this week by the budget travel site extraordinaire Eurocheapo to suggest five cheap thrills in Umbria, and it was tough to whittle down my choices to just five.
But whittle I did, and you can take a look at the finalists here.
This is the second installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the first, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some Rice Crispy Treats, and join in on the conversation.
Driving in Italy
When “Driving in Italy” was selected as this month’s theme, I have to admit I was a bit nonplussed. Not because I don’t think it’s an interesting topic—indeed, rivers of ink have been spilt discussing the ins and outs of navigating the Bel Paese’s much less Bel Traffico—but because I simply couldn’t think of anything new or compelling to add.
My history of driving here has more or less followed the typical expat trajectory: driving with my American license for the one year legal grace period after relocating, letting those first twelve months pass without getting around to applying for my Italian license, driving for an—ahem—undisclosed period practically illegally, finding religion (in my case, through the nascient sense of responsibility that comes with pregnancy), finally sitting down to study the daunting Italian Driving School Manual (roughly the size of the Manhattan White Pages) and taking the written exam, passing that and taking the practical exam (my oven was full of bun thus that I had to slide the seat back so far I was working the brake pedal with my tippy-toes), passing that and officially becoming a smug licensed driver to all the newly-minted expats who were still back at stage one.
My feeling about driving here is that Italian drivers display roughly the same measure of aggressiveness, attitude, and skill as the Chicago drivers with whom I came of age behind the wheel, the only difference being that they are unlikely to resolve traffic altercations with automatic weapons.
And then I had an inspiration. A creative epiphany. A comic stroke of genius. I would write a haiku about driving in Italy! It would be hilarious. In an ironic hipster sort of way.
Coleridge’s knock at the door arrived in the form of the realization that I’m not smart enough to write a haiku about driving in Italy, ironic or not. (I was so enamored with the idea that I was momentarily tempted to have someone else write the haiku for me. However, after a quick reality check, I decided that though I haven’t signed any sort of contract with my fellow Roundtable bloggers, my gut feeling is that farming out the second post in the series to a ghost writer is smack in the middle of the ethical grey area and would probably speed my inevitable ousting.) So, no haiku.
Serendipity being what it is, however, the same afternoon in which I discovered I am a literary dunderhead I ran into an old friend who told me he’d been spending his evenings in the garage restoring his father’s vintage Vespa. I realized that despite having lived Italy for almost 20 years, I had never driven this icon of Italian culture and history. And, boom, there it was. I was going to drive a Vespa.
I challenge you to look upon this and not smile. It's like a smile machine on two wheels.
I may lack the basics for composing poetry, but I do have access to the basics for driving a Vespa: my friend, Claudia, who rents out bright yellow scooters from her “Vespa Oasis” on the shores of Lake Trasimeno. When I called her up, she said, “Sure! Stop by anytime and I’ll loan you one for the day. You know how to drive a Vespa, right?”
Well, a writer can only have so many knocks interrupting the creative flow before she starts to take extreme measures, so I did what was only necessary. I lied.
“Sure! I mean, a long time ago. Long. Probably rusty, but it’s just like riding a bike, right? It’ll come right back to me. A snap. I’ll be fine. No worries. Be there on Monday at nine. Kaythanksbye!”
(Sorry, Claudia. I know you’re only finding out about this now.)
Huh. How hard could it be?
It turns out that Claudia is right about checking first with drivers about their experience, because though the average Italian manages to navigate a scooter through Roman traffic whilst smoking, talking on a cell phone, and balancing his entire nuclear family and their weekly grocery purchases on the back with effortless finesse, apparently it is a talent included in the Italian genetic package that the rest of humanity—or, at least, me–lacks. To wit, it’s not as easy as it looks.
Further complicating the matter, when you hop on and buzz out of the Vespa Oasis toward Castiglione del Lago (Luckily I faked it enough to convince Claudia that I was good to go. Sorry, Claudia. I owe you a drink.) you undergo an immediate baptism by fire: the ring road around Lake Trasimeno, which has a heavy, steady traffic flow. After about ten minutes of erratic weaving, sounding the horn instead of the turn signal, braking instead of accelerating, and taking bugs in the teeth (I had forgotten to lower the visor on my helmet and was too terrified to let go with one hand to do it while driving), I turned off at a scenic overpass and realized I had my shoulders up around my ears, my elbows out like chicken wings, and my chin resting on my sternum. This was no fun.
The scenic overlook where I stopped to take stock and rethink my plan of attack.
Luckily, Claudia is not only cautious but also well organized and supplies maps and itineraries. I had envisioned toodling around the perimeter of the lake (the most popular itinerary), but upon further thought realized a) I didn’t really care that much about going around the lake since I’ve already done that drive and b) I was very close to the turn off for Panicale and Paciano, two hilltowns I had never visited and that were along a much quieter country road.
With newly gathered courage, I jauntily flipped down my visor, sounded my horn-uh-put on my turn signal, had a near miss with a Peroni truck (Sorry, Claudia. I’ll make it up to you.), and was off.
It became immediately and dramatically clear that I had chosen the right road. The gently climbing country highway winding its way to Panicale was deserted, so it took me just a few minutes to feel comfortable with my new ride and relax enough to enjoy the lovely countryside and views of the lake below. In fact, I was almost disappointed when I arrived at the city gate leading to Panicale’s pretty piazza less than 15 minutes later. I did need to fill up the old cappuccino tank, however, so I pulled in for a break. And quickly learned two things:
- If you are one of those people who frets about blending in, roaring into a quiet, provincial piazza on a shiny Vespa the color of egg yolk with little duckie stickers decorating it and proceding to make it very clear to one and all that you have no effing idea how to put the kickstand up may not be for you.
- Old geezers love Vespas. Love them. Crowd around you and regale you with stories of their first Vespas, which leads into stories of their first love, which leads into stories of their subsequent marriage, which leads into stories of their grandchildren, which leads into snapshots being busted out and compared. Which leads to a much longer cappuccino stop than intended.
The short drive between Panicale and Paciano was one of the prettiest, and I was finally relaxed enough to enjoy it.
I finally did break away and continued the short drive along the tree-lined lane to the tiny medieval walled village of Paciano. Map consulting–aided by a quick gelato–ensued, and I decided to dive into the uncharted (for me) territory to the north, trying to make Castiglione del Lago by lunchtime. It was perfect…the hills were just hilly enough and the curves just curvy enough to really start having fun on my trusty Vespa and I began to understand why the scooter has had such staying power over time. The softly undulating countryside (Tuscany is just a few kilometers from here, and the landscape reflects that) is a patchwork of tilled fields, vineyards, and woods and there was almost no traffic as I buzzed through tiny hamlets like Villastrada and Vaiano, Gioiella and Pozzuolo.
Choices, choices. Ah, what the hell...left.
The thrill of the open road.
My frequent stops to snap pictures (and dig the insects out of my cleavage…next time no V-neck t-shirts) meant that I barely made it to Castiglione before it was too late to grab a plate of pasta. I chose an outside table where I could enjoy my lunch while keeping my cheery Vespa in view, and gazed upon it with newfound affection.
“Damn,” I thought. “It sure is lucky that I can’t write a haiku.”
Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.
This article was reproduced by permission of its author, Giuseppe Bambini, and was originally published in the now defunct quarterly magazine AssisiMia, edited by Francesco Mancinelli.
This is a pleasurable spring excursion, in an area full of fountains and springs, which is quite an unusual incidence for a limestone mountain like Subasio. If you want to fully enjoy this excursion you should wear comfortable clothing and suitable shoes for a mountain hike and you should take a backpack and water bottle, rain coat, bread roll, camera, first-aid kit, and the map of Mount Subasio’s paths “Carta dei Sentieri del Monte Subasio” in scale 1:20,000 of the C.A.I. section of Foligno.
The itinerary: from Piazza Matteotti (445m) take Via Santuario delle Carceri uphill which within a short distance leads to Porta Cappuccini (469m). As soon as you pass through the arch, turn left onto a tree-lined dirt track which runs parallel to the outside walls of the Rocchicciola (red and white signpost 50/51). Once you arrive at Cassero, take the rocky track on the right which goes uphill; after passing a small fountain, leave the rocky track at the crossroads—the rocky track continues straight uphill towards the Hermitage (signpost 50)—and take the small flat path on the left (signpost 51), which enters into the wood and becomes a pathway. The way to follow is obvious–wellmarked and sloped–and runs through the thick wood and ends on the asphalted road Assisi-Armenzano which you then cross. Take the dirt track opposite which leads within a short distance to some perfectly restored country houses. Go right and you will find yourself once again on the asphalted road which you follow towards the left for a short distance as far as Costa di Trex’s few houses, locally called “la Costa” (573m – 1.40 km from the start).
The Church at Costa di Trex
This site is particular not only because of its pleasant position and characteristic bell tower which can be seen by all the houses in the parish, but also because of its unusual toponymy “Costa di Trex” which is a cyncope of the old name “Costa di Tre Chiese”.
Follow the asphalt road towards Armenzano for about 700m, then leave the road at this point and take the chained-off road on the right used by the park rangers (signpost 61), go uphill and within a short distance it leads to the Fonte (fountain) Castellana (600, 0.15 km from Costa di Trex).
The basin which collects the fresh spring water, the surrounding glade, and some magnificent cypresses from Arizona make this a very pleasant resting place. Continue uphill and ignore the signpost 61 which indicates to go left, keep going uphill along the service road; at a crossraods continue straight on uphill as far as a plateau and there you will find the Fonte Maddalena (800m – 0.50 km from the Fonte Castellana); the excursion’s highest point is definitely worthy of a stop. At the following crossroads go right downhill until you reach the end of the service road closed off by a chain. There you cross a rocky path which you follow downhill towards the right (signpost 50) reaching within a short distance the Rocchicciola. The tree lined dirt track taken at the beginning takes you again to Porta Cappuccini, and then again to Piazza Matteotti (0.45 km from Fonte Maddalena).
Mount Subasio’s water is really very good!
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million (or, at least, seven) times…there’s no better time to visit an Umbrian town than during their annual festival.
Umbria is chock full of great ones (almost every village has their own), but I was recently asked by the wonderful European travel guide, blog, and community Europe Up Close to pick my five favorites…and it wasn’t easy.
Take a look here to see which made the cut, and consider working in at least one on your next trip to Umbria!
It’s that time a year when everyone is all a-flutter about Cantine Aperte, mapping out their favorite wineries and designating drivers and such. This is only as it should be, since the last Sunday in May–when cellars across Umbria throw open their doors to the public–is one of the most anticipated events of the season. And it can be great fun with a little advance planning and the right weather (for a helpful how-to guide for enjoying the day, take a look here).
Unfortunately, family obligations prevent me from participating in the bacchanalian festivities this year (These damned kids…they’ve been coming between me and wine since I got pregnant. Which is ironic, actually, since this whole parenting adventure started quite by accident due an incident involving some atrocious Czech wine in Prague one weekend in November, 2000.) but in keeping with the spirit of the season I wanted to mention a few area vineyards with a particularly high wine/fun ratio.
Some visit wineries because they are true aficionados, but many—if not most—are simply curious about the wine-making process and the culture and people behind it. In short, they are looking for an enjoyable day with some nice swill thrown in. There’s nothing wrong with that (in fact, I count myself amongst those numbers) and if you recognize yourself in this description, here are three wineries that offer something beyond the tasting room and cellar.
A mood setting shot, from the Monte Vibiano cellar.
Mercatello di Marsciano (PG)
Open every day, reservation required
Don’t let the Napa Valley winery on steroids aesthetic of this cantina–with its chic outdoor patio winebar and designer tasting room–fool you. Beneath the Armani suit, Monte Vibiano dons hemp underwear and Birkenstocks.
Monte Vibiano produces both award-winning wines and olive oil.
The first in the world to be certified at zero greenhouse gas emissions according to international standards, the winery at Monte Vibiano boasts a groundbreaking cantina especially fascinating for science buffs. Photovoltaic electricity, biofuel, organic fertilizer, managed forest, albedo roofs, sustainable mobility, and general energy efficiency–no one has more ecological street cred than these folks, and with their award-winning wines have shown that world that the best whites and reds are those tinged with green.
Toodling through the olive groves and vineyards.
But the crown jewel of their eco-bling are the small electric jeeps visitors can use to toodle around the estate. The winery itself sits on the plain, but their olive groves and vineyards cover the picturesque hillsides above and can be reached in a few fun-filled minutes of buzzing up the hill on your souped-up golf carts. After a visit to the grapevines themselves, you can come back and relax in Monte Vibiano’s stunning new wine bar and sample what those vines have to offer.
This small family winery in the plain under Assisi is relatively new: the vineyards are still young and the converted farmhouse housing their modern tasting room was restored in 2005. That said, they already attract their share of visitors both for the quality of their wines and for the warm and welcoming reception of the Mencarelli family, which has gone to great lengths to make their mom-and-pop cantina a destination in itself.
Saio's labels are inspired by the famous arches on Assisi's Basilica di San Francesco.
Aside from the basic tour-and-tasting, Saio offers three unique ways of visiting their winery that combine passion for wine with passion for the outdoors:
From Vine to Glass: An informal, user-friendly vintner course, in which guests learn basic cultivation and pruning techniques along with their tour and tasting, and finish with a certificate declaring them “apprentice wine growers”.
Hiking Among the Vines: From the farmhouse, a 2.5 km walking path (they provide you a map and explanations of each variety of grape) winds its way through the vineyards and olive groves and offers a beautiful vantage point for viewing Assisi perched on the hill above. Finish your preamble back at the starting point with a tasting and chat with the family.
Picnic Among the Vines: Along the walking path, the Mencarellis have built two pretty picnic gazebos, and they will provide you a quaint wicker basket (you can either take it along on your hike, or they will deliver it to you at lunchtime) stuffed with local cheeses and charcuterie, traditional flatbread, biscotti…and wine, of course.
Yep, these arches. This is the lovely view from one of the picnic spots along the walking trail.
Miraduolo di Torgiano
This extensive winery (52 hectares of planted vineyard) has been growing grapes for years, but only started producing and selling wine under the Terre Margaritelli label recently. Their growth has been exponential, however, with a production of around 50,000 bottles a year, including four IGT and two DOC Torgiano labels. With almost half their land set aside for experimental vines and an emphasis on innovation in their wine laboratory, this is a producer to watch. But how best to visit a cantina of this size? On horseback, of course.
Exploring the vineyards around Terre Margaritelli on horseback...the only way to go!
A visit at Terre Margaritelli (managed by the charming and effusive Federico) begins with a 45 minute guided tour on horseback–no experience necessary–through the undulating countryside surrounding Torgiano. Once you’ve dismounted and shaken off your saddle butt, you take a quick peek at the cantina itself, and then sit down to a wine tasting/lunch prepared by professional chef American Jennifer McIlvaine (as destiny would have it, wife of the charming and effusive Federico).
The cantina overlooks some of the most beautiful wine country in Umbria, and lingering over your lunch and wine is de rigueur. If you’re lucky, you may stretch it out to watch the sun setting over the medieval rooftops in the distance. Alla salute!
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.
Two elements guaranteeing kid fun: a castle (foreground) and a lake (background).
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.
Some say that the promontory on which Castiglione sits was originally the fourth island in Lake Trasimeno, but over time blended into the shoreline. Huh. Well, I read it on the internet so it must be true. Photo by Andrian Michael via Wikimedia Commons.
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.
My younger son was pleased to learn that this noble palace--commissioned by Duke Ascanio della Corgna and built by celebrated architect Vignola--once hosted his namesake, Leonardo da Vinci.
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 long--and very narrow--walkway on the left connects Castiglione's two noteable monuments: Palazzo della Corgna and Rocca del Leone. Stop to check out the views over the lake along the walkway, and hope you don't meet a large German coming the other direction.
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.
In keeping with the universal danger/fun ratio, let's just say this is off the charts on both counts.
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.
When you dial Central Casting and request a Small Town Italian Main Piazza, this is what you get. Complete with porchetta truck parked next to the fountain.
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.
The picnic jackpot. Lots of local wine and liqueur, too, but I stuck with juice since I was en famille.
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.
This is the first installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. I am very much enjoying my time here while I can, because in just a few short months my fellow participants will realize that I am the millstone standing between them and fame, at which point I will quietly fade into obscurity and remain the subject of myth and conjecture for generations, much like the fifth Beatle.
Our topic this month is “Why I Write About Italy”. So pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some Chex Mix, and join in on the conversation.
Why I Write About Italy
“Write what you know,” they say.
They also say, “Use correct spelling and punctuation”. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in almost two decades of living in this benign anarchy known as Italy, it’s that there are certain rules which absolutely must be observed in any circumstance lest you unwittingly release the winds of hell, destruction, or—god forbid—brutta figura (i.e.: when shaking hands in a crowd, never reach across another person’s outstretched arm, which brings on the evil eye and/or plagues of grasshoppers) and there are certain rules which are discretionary (i.e.: Red means stop. Green means go.).
To say I write about Italy because I know Italy would be folly, of course. Italy—much like Italian, theoretical mathematics, and parenting—is a field in which the only thing you every truly know is this: The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know jack. Knowing this captivating country is as daunting—and, ultimately, impossible—as trying to frame a river. Italy rushes past, churning up sand and bubbling over boulders, changing its path according to history, trend, and whim, alternatively drying up and flooding the plain, and confounding anyone who tries to navigate its changeable waters.
I don’t know Italy, and never will. But I do know some things about my corner of Italy—Umbria–and my experience living here as an American expat, married to an Italian, raising two sons, and running a business. And that’s what I write.
Umbria is Changing
The world is changing, and Umbria along with it. But the changes this rural region has gone through over a single generation took most of the western world a plodding two hundred years. My husband has gone from having no electricity, indoor plumbing, or telephone in the late 1960s to having wifi and solar energy in 2011. He remembers harvesting grain with a thresher powered by a hand-cranked motor, piling haystacks two stories high, and walking to a schoolhouse with all five elementary grades in a single room.
Clearly, modernization is positive, but has also brought with it a certain loss of traditions and unraveling of social fabric. The countryside has emptied out, as have many historic centers, and soulless apartment blocks have replaced courtyards and piazze. Outdoor markets and tiny specialized shops have succumbed to shopping centers and box stores. Backyard wood-burning ovens and cold January days of curing prosciutto and salame can’t compete with the convenience of industrial bakeries and butchers.
And so I grasp on to these disappearing vestiges of the slower, richer (though, certainly, smellier and grimier) Umbria…I try to hold on to these wisps of memory like a child grasping to catch fog in his hand. I try to stop time for just a minute, just 500 words, just enough to remember the torta, the Cantamaggio, the hog butchering, the artisans, the people and their lives before there’s no one left who can.
Italy is Demanding
Diego to my Frida, Ted to my Sylvia: Italy exalts and rarifies me, stripping me to my creative and artistic core, teaching me the worth of beauty, time, and love. The next day–hour, moment?—Italy exhausts and defeats me, exasperating me with demands and accusations, making me long for escape. Italy is a demanding lover and I am hopelessly in its thrall.
But instead of a legacy of jarringly intimate paintings or confessional poems, I find relief in leaving a breadcrumb trail of reminders. I write about what I love about Umbria, about Italy, about my life here because I know there are times–many times–when I need to page through these mental photographs like an unhappy wife who studies her wedding album trying to recapture what it was that made her fall in love in the first place.
And so I visit the villages, study the art, hike the mountains, discover the workshops, dance at the festivals, learn the recipes, drink the wine, banter with the people. I jealously hoard these stories –snapshots of a courtship—until I find I need to take them out of their dusty shoebox, spread them out on the kitchen table, and say, “See? Look how happy we are here. This was when we first met. We should really go back there and visit again.”
I am Dying
Pipe down, we’re all dying. Sooner or later we’ll be gone, and our children and grandchildren will be left with very little information that goes deeper than what is recorded in the municipal archives. Our inner lives, our impressions, our decision-making processes, our visceral hate of cilantro…anything that fills in the sketchy outlines of our life will be precious to them.
How I would love to know what my great-grandmother was thinking all those weeks on the ship from Greece, what she made of her first hot dog, how long it took her to wrap her head around English, what she missed the most from Mykonos, what she loved most about America, why—oddly–her favorite snack was Dutch windmill cookies. But I will never know those things, because Yia Yia didn’t write them down.
And so I write. I write for Umbria, past and future. I write for myself, head over heels. I write for my children, who will wonder.
This is why I write about Italy; this is what I know.
Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.