This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is a bit sluggish…blame the August heat. Take a look at what my fellow bloggers including travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel (on leave this month), professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward and me have to say. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some popsicles, and join in on the conversation.
August in Italy
August in Italy is hot. Hot hot. Too hot to work (which is why this post is late), too hot to sleep, and too hot to cook—much less eat–much of anything.
There is one dish that I can always stomach, no matter what the thermometer reads. No, it’s not gelato (there are days when even gelato seems a challenge) and it’s not pasta salad (though it’s a close runner-up). It’s panzanella.
Panzanella is both a quintessentially Umbrian and a quintessentially summer dish. Umbrian because it is a delicious way to use up stale bread, which appeals to the parsimonious Umbrians and their farming traditions of not letting anything go to waste, and because pretty much every cook has their own version of it, depending upon their tastes and vegetable garden. Summer because it is built around flavorful garden tomatoes, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, and not much else–all ingredients that abound in these summer months—and involves not a lick of flame to make.
When the temperatures soar, make yourself a big ol’ plate of panzanella. And then take a nap in front of the fan.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Ingredients for four servings:
- 200 grams traditional Umbrian bread (cooked in a wood oven is best), cubed
- 3-4 ripe tomatoes (cherry tomatoes work fine, as well), chopped
- 1 small red onion, chopped
- 1 stick of celery, sliced
- (optional, according to taste: 1 cucumber and/or 1 carrot and/or a few leaves of romaine lettuce and/or capers and/or minced garlic and/or red or yellow sweet peppers)
- a handful of green or black marinated olives (the good ones, people)
- a bunch of fresh basil, chopped
Cut the vinegar with the same volume of water, making enough to soak the bread cubes. Soak for about five minutes, then press out the liquid well (the cubes get a little mushed up…it’s fine.).
Mix the bread with the chopped vegetables, olives, and basil in a large salad bowl. Dress with olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste.
Let the panzanella rest in the refrigerator for about two hours.
Yep, that’s it. Nap time.
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.
In the long and proud tradition of two steps forward/one step back, one step forward/two steps back, and general non-linear progression, I am skipping from the Cs (I have Citerna in the works…great things to say about Citerna, folks) back to the As. Arrone is the first town on the list of The Most Beautiful Villages in Umbria and logically where I should have begun my quest to visit them all, but instead I got sidetracked by the Bs and then Citerna kind of fell in my lap, but here I am back at the beginning. As it turns out, I was so enamored with the Nera River Valley–home to Arrone–that I have a feeling I will soon be skipping to the last village on the list (Vallo di Nera) just for an excuse to go back again.
These rocky slopes have captivated travellers for centuries.
Know’st thou the mountain, and its cloudy bridge?
The mule can scarcely find the misty ridge;
In caverns dwells the dragon’s olden brood,
The frowning crag obstructs the raging flood.
Know’st thou it well?
(– J. W. Goethe, Mignon)
I dare you not to be charmed by Arrone. And I know you. You are going to take the dare.
The hilltop hamlet of Arrone, with the fortress portion known as La Terra and the more recent lower portion known as Santa Maria.
And you’re going to have a sinking feeling as you come out of the long tunnel behind Spoleto which leads you from the gentle rolling hills of northern and central Umbria to the wild and rugged scenery in the Nera River Park. You are going to suffer some serious self-doubt as you snake through the dramatic Valnerina along highway SS209 which skirts the crystalline Nera river and runs under steep mountainsides where tiny creche-looking stone villages perch precariously. It is an area both stunningly beautiful and foreboding, where the weather can go from sunny skies to black clouds in a matter of minutes, where the isolated hamlets and claustrophobia-inducing sheer rock walls remind you that centuries ago the inhabitants of these inpenetrable peaks held out against conversion to Christianity for long after the rest of the region, where dragons and witches lurked in caves, and where—just to make the area a bit more hostile—each tiny town was locked in perennial warfare with the next one over.
You'll know you're here when you're here.
You may have a flash of hope and begin to feel cocky as you near Arrone, whose medieval central fortress on the peak of her rocky outcrop is ringed with buildings from the 1960s and1970s, a period which is to Italian architecture what the 1980s was to American fashion. But then you will park your car, grab a quick espresso at the Bar di Piazza alongside every retired guy in town, spend a moment watching the locals drive by and wave to each other, try to make out the faded lettering on the political posters plastered on the door of the Italian Free Hunting Union across the street (I’ll help you out. They say: Free Hunting is Our Reason to Live. They don’t mess around in Arrone.), and you will feel yourself beginning to weaken. You’ll step across the piazza and poke your nose into the church of Santa Maria, whose unadorned facade belies the lovely frescoes inside–some from Caravaggio’s school– and know that you are in big trouble.
No rush for morning coffee in Arrone.
And then you’ll start to climb the steep, winding road that leads from the lower—and more recent—portion of the historic center of town to the walled castle portion above, stopping often to catch both your breath and the view of the surrounding mountains. You will step through the arched gate of the castle, and know that your goose is cooked. You’ll be charmed.
The views only get more dramatic the higher you climb.
There is not one commercial establishment in the castle portion of Arrone. No stores, restaurants, bars, or Starbucks. There are simply tiny, winding pedestrian alleyways that end in quirky courtyards, dramatic views over the Valnerina from every parapet, a main street Via del Vicinato which ends under the civic clock tower, a tiny Gothic Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista (if you’re lucky, the door will be open and you can take a look at the lovely votive frescoes inside, commissioned by Arrone’s noble families over the centuries), octogonal stone bell tower (try to be there at noon when the bells are rung and the lone resident dog barks in time. He lives for the noon bells. You can tell.), and residents.
Arrone's main street which leads to the civic tower.
Yes, residents. I was amazed to find homes lived in, gardens tended, stoops swept, and heartening signs of renovation. At a time when tiny mountain villages are as endangered as the Panda, this incredibly inconvenient hamlet above a tiny town in an isolated river valley in the far corner of Umbria is surviving. Plucky folk.
Here's to Giovanni and Natalina, living a life in Arrone
It doesn’t take long to explore Arrone, but don’t leave this beautiful area just yet. Directly beneath the town, there is a pretty little park along this placid stretch of the Nera River, which is a perfect place to relax or set off on a rafting excursion. If you love to drive (I love to drive), you can continue past Arrone to Polino (Arrone’s historic arch-enemy. They were feisty back in the day.), where the view over the mountains is even more breathtaking, and up to the peak of Colle Bertone for a pretty walk or picnic. Beware of asking for restaurant recommendations from gathered groups of locals in the Bar di Piazza, lest long debates, convoluted directions, cellphone verifications that cousins’ trattorias are actually open for lunch, and conflicting last words delay you so long that you miss lunch. Take my word for it.
Before I go any further, let me just preface this by saying that Umbria is a food culture, not a drink culture. A group of friends in Umbria is much more likely to organize an evening around a meal—either at home or at a restaurant—than around meeting for drinks. In fact, for roughly the first 15 years I lived here I don’t think I ever met up with friends for a cocktail. At most, we would grab a beer after dinner in the pub…but even that was rare.
Lately a small cocktail culture has begun to take hold in Umbria, for a number of reasons. First, the concept of the aperitivo has become increasingly popular over the past couple of years, probably because the happy hour-esque pairing of drink with food around dinner time is something that the Umbrians can cotton on to without much trouble. Also, with the economy being what it is, it can be cheaper to nurse a drink for an evening of after-dinner conversation than order a meal (However, as part of my hard hitting journalism, I actually found myself consuming an €8 cocktail the other night. €8. Like, the same amount I pay for a pizza margherita and a small beer in my real life.). And, of course, Umbrians–like the rest of the world–like to feel like they are doing the same things hip people in Manhattan are doing, so mixed drinks are hot right now. Though the hip people I know in Manhattan seem to spend an inordinate amount of time ordering-in Vietnamese sandwiches and watching The Wire on their TiVo.
The bottom line is that you are probably not going to get an extraordinary drink in Umbria. This is not the land of the mixologist, but of the porkologist. If you want a memorable salame, you’ve come to the right place. If you want a memorable Manhattan, you should probably go there. This is, however, a land of wonderful views, people watching, and historic cafes…so I’ve given more weight in my choices to the esthetics than to the quality of the alcohol. If you’re choosy about your cocktails, you can always just order a glass of wine. Umbrians do know good wine.
A Drink with a View
Punto di Vista–Viale Indipendenza, 2 Perugia
The bad news is that Perugia has no rooftop bars. The good news is that this hilltop town doesn’t need them. Perch yourself on one of the stools along the parapet which forms the long wall of this outdoor bar, and sip a cocktail while enjoying one of the most spectacular views around. From here you can see almost the entire length of the Umbrian valley, and prettily lit Assisi on the far hill.
Why, yes, I did manage to snap this picture on the night of the full moon. Why, yes, I do rock.
Il Trombone–Via Fontanello 1, Spello
The view from this outdoor lounge is so enchanting that you will be tempted to return here for a meal. Don’t do it. The restaurant is—how can I put this?—a crime against Italian cooking. But the adjoining bar is a lovely tree shaded patio with wicker seating tucked into niches and an incredibly soothing view over the green olive-grove covered hills surrounding Spello. I repeat: just drink here.
The view takes the edge off just as much as your drink.
A Drink with a Different View
Tric Trac–Piazza Duomo, 10 Spoleto
If you are green hill panorama-ed out but would still like some eye candy to accompany your gin and tonic, head to one of the outdoor tables at this elegant bar overlooking Spoleto’s breathtaking duomo. The piazza–closed to traffic–is unusually quiet for an Italian square, so you can sip in peace while gazing at the softly lit facade of one of the most magnificent churches in Umbria.
The bell tower is currently under scaffolding, but that doesn't distract from this breathtaking facade.
Nun–Via Eremo delle Carceri, 1A Assisi
This rather unfortunately named brand-new-never-been-opened-still-in-box luxury hotel and spa seems to have gotten everything right…the elegant renovation of the historic ex-convent it now calls home, the breathtaking spa in the excavated Roman ruins under the hotel, and the chic internal courtyard bar open to both guests and the public. This glass, chrome, and dramatically lit space offers a unique view in Assisi…looking up, rather than down, you see the Rocchicciola, or secondary fortress which dominates the skyline.
Hotel Bontadosi–Piazza del Comune, 19 Montefalco
If all humans are actors in this theater of life, the main stages in Italy are doubtless the town piazzas. Settle yourself down in one of this elegant hotel’s inviting outdoor couches, order a drink from the formal yet approachable staff, and watch the show.
Get front row seats to the show in Montefalco's charming piazza
Bar 1.2–Piazza Garibaldi, Todi
Right under the portico of the elegant Palazzo del Comune, this new bar is both a wonderful place for people watching and, if you’re lucky, listening to live music. The atmosphere is young and casual, the shows are a mix of acoustic, jazz, and alternative, and the piazza is hopping. A winner.
H2nO–Via Baldeschi, 12/a Perugia
If the sun isn’t cooperating but you are still hankering for a Cuba Libre, search out this quirkily hip bar right in the university district, with its young clientele and a fun vibe. The main floor is built around some restored Roman arches in brick and stone, which makes it an interesting space when the weather outside is frightful.
Il Vincaffè–Via Filippeschi 39 Orvieto
This wine bar is upscale yet friendly, like a neighborhood place in Soho. Great wines and spirits, jovial staff, and some foodie munchies. A perfect place to pop in for an hour on a chilly fall evening to imbibe and rub elbows with the locals.
This great shot by Dean Thorsen captures the vibe of the place. Good times.
A special thanks to Alessandra from Discovering Umbria for her Todi and Orvieto help and suggestions!
Tucked away on the slopes of Mount Solenne in the Valnerina lies one of the best kept secrets in the region: San Pietro in Valle. This former Benedictine abbey—now a four star historical residence—was established in 710 on the site of a Syrian hermitage (One fun curiosity: among the stone fragments mounted on the interior walls, look for the bass relief of a monk with Asian facial features. Legend holds that this is a rendering of one of the two Syrians who founded the original hermitage in the 6th century.) and was home to abbots for the next 800 years.
The outside of the abbey is breathtaking; the church and cloister are surrounded by thickly wooded fields and look out over the steep river gorge and the gradually receding mountain peaks along the horizon.
Directly across the valley from the abbey sits the walled fortress town of Umbriano, completely abandoned since 1950. Founded in 890 to defend the abbey from advancing Saracens, popular tradition holds it to be the first city of Umbria.
Though locals hold that the citadel of Umbriano was the first Umbrian town, in truth it lies across the river from the ancient Umbrian territory, in the land once ruled by the Sabines. But it’s a good story, and a fascinating ghost town to explore.
Guided tours take visitors through the interior of the church, covered in frescoes from the 12th and 13th century (note the portrait of the Three Wise Men, one of whom apparently had second thoughts), and filled with stone work including an Etruscan altar, an 8th century Lombard high altar, and a Roman sarcophagus holding the remains of Duke Faraoldo II of Spoleto, the abbey’s founder.
The frescoes inside the church have recently been restored and are a fine example of the leap from Byzantine to the more natural Umbrian school.
My favorite detail: the original altar (now to the left of the central Lombard altar), with its semi-circular corridor which passes behind the tiny nave. Symbolizing the purification of the spirit, it begins with the wide opening level with the floor, and gradually rises to end in a tiny doorway a step above floor-level at the other end. I’m not sure if my spirit was actually purified, but having to squeeze my bulk through the final aperture sure made me ponder how often I commit the cardinal sin of gluttony.
One of my favorite corners of Umbria is the dramatic and wild Valnerina, where craggy mountain peaks loom, tiny creche-like hamlets perch precariously on cliffs, and the serene Nera River meanders its way through the valley.
The abbey is open to visitors October through March Saturday and Sunday only (10-12:30/2:30-4) and April though September every day (10-1/3-6). The church is not well lit, so be sure to choose a sunny day to visit otherwise you will not be able to see the frescoes well.
I’ll admit it. I tend to wax lyrical about the Valnerina. The dramatic valley–where the crystalline Nera river runs under steep rocky slopes, upon which tiny creche-like stone villages perch precariously–lends itself to waxing. The scenery in this largely unsung regional park is wild and rugged, stunningly beautiful yet foreboding. The weather can go from sunny skies to black clouds in a matter of minutes, and the isolated villages and claustrophobia-inducing sheer rock walls remind you that millenia ago the inhabitants of these inpenetrable craggy peaks held out against conversion to Christianity long after the rest of the region.
A spring storm in the Valnerina near Meggiano, Umbria, Italy
I was waxing thus to an Umbrian friend awhile ago—a fellow passionate aficionado of the Valnerina–and telling him how I love the juxtaposition of the bucolic scenery with an unsettling underlying darkness (a David Lynch-esque feel, if you will), and he nodded knowingly and said, “And, of course, there’s that business about the dragon.” I nearly spit out my drink. What?!? What dragon?
It turns out–as so often happens–I am practically the last person in Umbria to find out about the dragon. Everyone knows the story of Mauro and his son Felice, two Syrian pilgrims who arrived in the Naarte region (from the ancient Nare or Naarco River, from which the modern Nera derives) roughly six centuries after Christ’s death to proselytize to the recalcitrant locals. As fate would have it, they were having a bit of trouble with a nearby dragon and, in what must have seemed like a serendipitous means of killing two birds with one stone, called on Mauro to prove his faith by taking care of business. No one knew precisely where the beast lived (his toxic breath kept them from getting too close), so Mauro set off at dawn with a reed walking stick and mason’s hammer to search the monster out. When he reached the general area where the locals had indicated the dragon might be found, the holy man stuck his stick in the ground for safe-keeping while he set about building a stone hut for shelter. The stick immediately sent out roots and shoots, and Mauro took it as a sign that God was covering his back in this dragon thing. He returned to his masonry work and after a short time caught the unmistakeable sulfuric odor of dragon-breath…if you’ve ever woken beside someone who dined on aglio, olio, peperoncino the night before, you know what I’m talking about.
San Mauro (and/or San Felice) slays the dragon from the facade of the church of San Felice di Narco
Though he feared his end was near, Mauro took his mason’s hammer and somehow managed to skirt the flames, avoid the sulfur, and overcome the height difference (accounts speak of a good 27 meters of dragon) to bonk the monster on the head. While the unconscious beast lay motionless on the ground, Mauro used his hammer to detach large pieces of rock from the cliff above, which continued falling on the dragon until it died (apparently of blood loss, as the river ran with dragon’s blood for three days and three nights). This begs the question as to why Mauro didn’t simply finish the job with the hammer rather than go to all the trouble to detach stones from the cliffside, but the ways of saints and screenwriters of horror movies are a mystery to mere mortals. Regardless, the locals needed no further proof of Mauro’s holiness and his God’s bad ass-edness, so they promptly converted. Mauro and Felice lived out their lives in prayer and service (Felice died in 535 AD and Mauro in 555 AD) in the Valnerina.
The lovely Romanesque San Felice di Narco
Some of the details of the story remain unclear. There may or may not have been an angel involved. The dragon may have actually been slain (dragons never seem to be killed, only slain) by Felice. There is a nurse who pops up now and then and seems to have died of fever with Felice. But the legend holds, and the area still bears testimony of it on the facade of the lovely Romansque Church of San Felice di Narco near Castel San Felice. If you look carefully at the freize under the intricately carved rose window, you will see a detail of depicting the slaying of the dragon (not to scale, please note) and inside the crypt the sarcophagus of the Saints Mauro and Felice. The nearby town of Sant’Anatolia and Church of Sant’Anatolia also pay homage to the two saints by adopting their surname.
Sant'Anatolia di Narco in the Valnerina
I was talking about this dragon story to another local friend in that cynical, sardonic tone that we hipsters use when discussing Self Help Gurus, the Easter Bunny, and Compassionate Conservativism, when he said, “Yes, and there’s that dragon bone in Città di Castello, of course.” More drink spitting ensued.
I discovered that the Valnerina wasn’t the only area in Umbria known for harboring fire-breathing winged reptiles. In the pretty upper Tiber Valley, a rolling countryside in the north of the region bordering on Tuscany, yet another dragon was slain (see?) by a travelling Christian missionary, Crescenziano (a Roman patrician known as Crescentino in Latin texts). Having given up his worldly goods to the poor, Crescenziano arrived in the area on horseback and was immediately put to task by the local pagans in dispatching their troublesome dragon. He killed the beast, converted the inhabitants, and was promptly martyred by the Romans for his trouble.
The iconography of San Crescenziano almost always depicts him on horseback in the act of killing the dragon.
Traces of this legend appear in a small bass-relief in the tiny country church of Pieve de’ Saddi, near Pietralunga (built on the spot where Crescenziano was martyred), and the coat of arms of Urbino’s cathedral—both of which depict Crescenziano on horseback impaling the dragon with a long spear. More convincing than this, however, is the 2.6 meter dragon rib bone, long conserved in the church of Pieve de’ Saddi until being moved to the cathedral in Città di Castello, where it is still stored, and a second rib bone, measuring 2.2 meters, kept in another tiny country church near Pieve de’ Saddi, San Pietro di Carpini. Scientists, skeptics, and spoilsports speak of the vast expanse of water which covered the area during the late Miocene and early Pliocene eras (That’s roughly 23-5 million years ago. I googled it.) which was home to vast numbers of water and land animals, some quite large, of which numerous remains have been found by paleontologists over the years.
The church at Pieve de' Saddi marking the spot where San Crescenziano was martyred.
Academics, historians, and spoilsports also speak of the symbolism and allegory attached to the role of the dragon in myths. Both Umbrian legends originate from areas where there is a waterway—once interspersed with standing pools of fetid water harboring disease– and the work of draining and reclaiming the land for agriculture and ridding the area of disease may be symbolized by the slaying of a toxic, deadly monster. Man’s triumph over the wildness of nature, so to speak. The dragon was also historically used to symbolize paganism, and the Christian slaying the beast protrays this innovative religion’s advance.
Leonardo da Vinci's famous rendering of a dragon battling a lion.
Whale bones. Malaria. Swamp reclamation. Religious wars. Sure, it all fits, but what fun is that? I’ll take the fairy tale version, and continue to wax lyrical about the Valnerina (and all of Umbria) and her dragon.
Umbria hosts over 20 music festivals each year, an astonishing number given this region’s tiny size and population (Ikea hasn’t even deemed it worthy of a store yet). Even more surprising, however, is the world-class quality of the music festival scene–belying the otherwise sleepy, provincial character of these bucolic rolling hills and medieval stone villages.
The height of the festival season is the summer, of course, as organizers take advantage of the warm evenings to hold concerts and events in the stunning piazze and gardens across the region, but good listening is to be had even in the dead of winter.
Here are some of the best annual music festivals, and why you should take the time to stop by for a listen:
Why: Umbria Jazz is the king of Umbria’s music festivals; a juggernaut of an international event which stretches over two weeks and attracts some of the biggest names in jazz (and beyond—I’ve seen R.E.M., Alicia Keys, and Eric Clapton here, as well). The lively feel in Perugia during UJ is irresistible—take a walk down the main Corso and pop in at one of the free outdoor concerts if you don’t want to spring for tickets at one of the headlining concerts. If you are driving into town for a mainstage event, give yourself plenty of time to park and get settled before the set starts—traffic is notoriously a gnarled mess the evenings of sold-out shows. I get to town early, take a fun stroll downtown, and then head to the venue (usually the Santa Giuliana stadium) about an hour ahead of time, where I buy a beer and sandwich from the stands inside, dine on the lawn, people-watch in leisure.
If you can’t make it to Perugia for Umbria Jazz, don’t despair. Umbria Jazz Winter is held every December in Orvieto, and Jazz Club Perugia’s season runs from November to March, featuring Italian and international musicians plunking out some of the best jazz around.
If you are curious about the Italian jazz scene, try Gubbio No Borders Italian Jazz Festival in August. These are the heppest cats in the Boot.
Festival dei Due Mondi
Why: If Umbria Jazz is the king of Umbria’s music festivals, the Spoleto Festival—as it is colloquially known—is the queen. UJ powers through with the sheer force of its size and star power, where the Spoleto Festival finesses the fine arts with grace and dignity, bringing the lovely city of Spoleto to life along with it. More of an arts than strictly a music festival, the program is rich with opera, classical music, dance, theater, and cinema events attracting both the biggest names in art and theater (Isabella Rossellini and Baryshnikov were guests this year) and promising young performers. If you are looking for an excuse to visit Spoleto (which, by the way, you don’t need. This stately hill town is worth a visit on its own.), this is a great one.
Where: the towns surrounding Lake Trasimeno
Why: I’m from Chicago, so nothing says “summer” to me like an outdoor blues show on a lake shore. Yes, I realize the venue, crowd, and lake are all about 1/100th of what I’m used to, but the vibe at Trasimeno Blues is regardless big fun (and, given that public drunken antics are rare and frowned upon in Italy, this is one great blues show that you won’t risk vomit-splattered shoes at.). The concerts are held at a number of locations around Lake Trasimeno, but I am especially partial to those at Castiglione del Lago’s romantic medieval fortress.
Trasimeno grooves all year long, so if you won’t be around in July try Bianco Rosso & Blues (concerts with dinner and wine tasting from local vintners) from August through October, or Soul Christmas during the month of December.
Sagra Musicale Umbra
Why: Location, location, location. Yes, the classical music at the Sagra Musicale Umbra is fabulous, but I would be a big fat liar if I didn’t admit that usually the main reason I attend these concerts is the venue. SMU’s events are often held in churches, abbeys, and palazzi generally closed to the public, and I have been known to sit through an entire harpsichord concerto (an instrument I can usually tollerate for a maximum of 12 minutes. 13, tops.) if it will get me into a mysterious monument I have passed a million times but never managed to find open—in fact, I did just that last year and finally saw the elegant Romanesque interior of Spello’s delightful 11th century San Claudio church. If you are picking through the program trying to decide on a concert, I suggest you give heavy weight to its location. The music may fade with time, but these heart-stopping historic halls certainly won’t.
Perugia’s Classical Music Foundation season program runs from October to May and equals the SMU in quality of music, if not eccentricity of venue. Concerts are held in Perugia’s Sala dei Notari, Morlacchi Theater, and San Pietro Basilica—three stunning settings, but not much cloak and dagger-ing has to go on to visit any of the three on your own.
Umbria Folk Festival
Why: If you’re wondering what else is out there on the contemporary Italian music scene besides winners of X-Factor and Tiziano Ferro, the Umbria Folk Festival is the perfect opportunity to find out. Many of these artists put a hipster spin on historic regional Italian musical traditions or instruments, so expect to hear echoes of the Tarantella and lots of guitar and accordian. Fun stuff (and many of the concerts are free).
Assisi Cambio Festival
Where: Palazzo di Assisi
Why: This nano-festival (last year Assisi Cambio Festival hosted a sum total of four concerts) is near and dear to my heart. One, because I think it is a shame and a scandal and a mystery that the powers that be in Assisi can’t pull their shit together enough to put on a decent music festival during the year (I mean, come on, Narni has a music festival. Narni. Really, people.). Two, because this little bon bon of a festival was the brainchild of a group of locals who decided to throw it together a few years ago, and they’ve done a damned fine job of keeping their momentum going. And three, because Palazzo (a hamlet right outside of Assisi) has a fetching little castle courtyard which is the perfect place to pop in for a concert on a summer night, and is exactly 43 meters from The. Best. Gelato. In. Assisi. So, to recap: Medieval castle courtyard, summer night, live jazz, best gelato. Need I say more?
Umbria World Fest (previously Canti e Discanti)
Why: I know there are a lot of Umbriaphiles out there who are feeling very blindsided by the left field choice of Umbria World Fest right now. Stay calm….I’ll walk you through it. Foligno often gets a bad rap, largely undeservedly. Located on the Umbrian plain, you won’t get any stunning views from this industrial town, but that doesn’t mean it lacks a pretty historic center which offers some of the best shopping, most authentic trattorias, and warmest people in the region. Foligno is Umbria’s friendly “Hi there, can I help ya?” Midwest to Perugia’s formal “Ahem, may I assist you?” East Coast, and is going through a cultural renaissance right now—of which this light-hearted arts festival is testimony. Last year I caught a Tarantella performance from a group of Pugliese musicians…there was much singing and dancing in the streets, despite the fact that 99% of the crowd couldn’t penetrate the thick Puglia dialect. Music is, after all, the universal language.
Festival delle Nazioni (Città di Castello in August/September): Classical music festival focusing on one guest country each year.
Preggio Music Festival (Preggio in July/August): If you’re hankering for opera, this is one of the few music festivals which feature it. (The other safe bet is Spoleto.)
Festival Pianistico (Spoleto in April): Classical music festival for piano.
Trasimeno Music Festival (Magione in June/July): This upscale classical music festival is the pet project of Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt and is held in the dramatic courtyard of Magione’s Castle of the Knights of Malta.
I have to fess up and admit that it took me years to finally work up the courage to check out what turned out to be one of my favorite festivals in Umbria.
My only other contact with anything resembling a medieval fair was the now defunct King Richard’s Faire outside Chicago, which is an event roughly 1/3 kitsch, 1/3 tacky, and 1/3 fat, badly dressed midwesterners (I feel I can say this with impunity, being myself a fat, badly dressed midwesterner). Actors wandered around the fairgrounds in costumes which can be described only as flower child 1980s Shakespearean, chitchatting in ye olde English, and selling “jars of mead” (Budweiser) and “sweet water” (Coke) from handbaskets. The food was whole turkey legs, eaten with one’s hands, and funnel cakes. The crafts were dried flower arrangements and toy swords. I loved it, to be fair. But I was 8, to be honest. When I was 8, the height of cuisine was chili-mac, the height of fine wine was Lancers (Grandma drank it), the height of music was K-Tel’s Disco Nights, and the height of culture was King Richard’s Faire.
So it was with much trepidation that I approached the Mercato delle Gaite in Bevagna, imagining obnoxious jesters, marauding costumed concessionary hawkers, and just simply too much bad taste for my grownup self to handle. Instead, this ten day long festival set in the 1300s is the antithesis to all of that, and a damned good time for both adults and kids, to boot.
One of the principal differences is that the annual event—founded in 1983–is not simply entertainment but instead a competition between the four traditional gaite, or quarters, of the town of Bevagna: San Giorgio, San Pietro, San Giovanni, and Santa Maria. Each quarter earns points primarily based on their historical accuracy during each of the four competitions held during the festival; continuous and quite rigorous accademic research goes on behind the scenes and the festival’s jury is largely made up of historians and experts on fourteenth century Italy. Like I said, there ain’t no ye olde English-esque stuff going on.
The coat of arms for San Giorgio
San Giovanni's coat of arms
San Pietro flies these colors
The crest of Santa Maria
Another difference between the two festivals is, of course, the venue. Bevagna is an absolute jewel in the Umbrian plain, listed among the most beautiful villages in Italy. The festival’s four competitions all take place in the lovely main piazza, and the medieval streets, buildings, and courtyards which surround it. A charming place to visit all year round, this town really shines when all decked out for their annual festival.
The most important difference is, of course, the events themselves, four in all, which make up the competition between the gaite—first among them the mestieri, or artisan workshops. Each quarter has the task of organizing two different workshops which use both the techniques and technology of the 1300s to actually produce wares—which makes the Mercato delle Gaite unique in a region where medieval festivals come a dime a dozen.
The bell foundry...one of the "mestieri"
Over the years some of the less successful workshops have been replaced, others enlarged (this slow but constant evolution means that the trades have become more elaborate and spectacular with time), and now all are marvelous and fascinating.
The immense replica silk thread making machine
From the silk workshop–which raises silkworms, unravels the cocoons, and spins fine thread on a manual wooden contraption which fills an entire room and looks as if it jumped right out of one of da Vinci’s sketchpads of marvelous machines—to the paper workshop—which produces fine handcrafted paper by pounding rags with an enormous pulper powered by a waterwheel—to the bell foundry—which casts bronze bells on commission from churches and historical societies all over Italy—each workshop is manned by artisans in period garb who explain their trade as practiced 700 years ago. There are ten mestieri in all (two are permanent and non-competing) open to the public every night from 9-12 pm and Saturday and Sunday from 5-7 pm and again from 9-12 pm.
The apothecary's workshop
As long as you are headed into town to see the workshops, plan to have dinner at one of the four taverne (outdoor restaurants) organized by each gaita. The second competition which takes place during the festival–and figures into calculating the victor–is gastronomic. Each quarter of the city researches recipes and ingredients used in fourteenth century cuisine and offers the public a chance to taste the fruits of this research by creating a menu exclusively made up of historical dishes. The fare is heavy on meat (especially game), spices (this year I had a spice lasagna which was fabulous), and egg pasta and bread. You won’t find tomatoes (no tomato sauce on your tagliatelle), potatoes (no gnocchi), corn (no polenta), or any other ingredients which were brought back from the New World 200 years after the time of the gaite.
A banquet with period food and costumes
After dinner and before making the rounds of the workshops, you can stop in the central Piazza Silvestri and watch a series of theatrical and musical events in costume, or the archery contest (the third of the four competitions during the festival). Especially interesting is the Notte Medievale, a dusk to dawn medieval festival-within-a-festival with a full night of art, music, dance, and food.
Archers from the four Gaite prepare to compete in the piazza
The highpoint of the festivities, and the origin of the name Mercato delle Gaite, is the medieval market which takes place during the afternoons of the final weekend. Each quarter organizes a working market, where locals play artists, artisans, tradespeople, and farmers displaying their wares—the competition consists in trying to create the most interesting, artistic, and historically accurate market square. The feel of these markets really is a step back in time…each teems with customers weaving their way through the market booths, the din of the tradespeople hawking their wares and the live animals protesting their confinement, the smell of fresh flowers and herbs, cheeses, and dried sausages, the colorful garb of the costumed sellers and their stalls heaped with wares.
A market scene
I suppose the one thing the Mercato delle Gaite and King Richard’s Faire have in common is that you will find yourself inevitably bringing something home from both…what you end up bringing away with you from Bevagna, however, will never be a source of buyer’s remorse.
These photos were reproduced with permission of the Associazione Mercato delle Gaite.
I am quickly coming to realize that this little quest of mine to visit all the Umbrian villages listed by I Borghi Più Belli dell’Italia (to see how the whole crazy idea came to be, read here) is a total win-win (-win) situation. I either get to visit a town I don’t know well and discover its charm (win-Bettona) or have an excuse to spend half a day in a town I already know and love (win-Bevagna) …or finally make it to a town I have only heard about but never actually seen (win-Arrone. No, I haven’t made it to Arrone yet, but it will be a win when I do. I just know it.)
Right now is the perfect window in time to visit Bevagna, I town I already know and love, and this is why: remember that girl in high school who was nice and everything but nobody really paid much attention to her Freshman and Sophomore years, but suddenly and inexplicably Junior year all the cute guys suddenly seemed to discover her and she completely flowered under the attention but was still very approachable and just wandered around bewildered by her sudden luck but by Senior year had dumped her friends and fallen in with the popular crowd and become one of those stuck up bitches who always have the right jeans and spend all their time in the bathroom combing their hair and talking smack? Well, Bevagna is in her Junior year.
I remember ten years ago I had to beg people to visit Bevagna. “It’s lovely, it has a Roman mosaic in this lady’s garage, it has the prettiest piazza around, it’s flat (a big selling point in a region where the vast majority of towns are built on a 60 degree slope),” I would say. Now I have guests who pop out of their car upon arrival and announce that they want to visit Assisi, Perugia, and Bevagna. Which can mean only one thing: Rick Steves. But, hey, if it took the biggest jock in school to get the rest of the class to sit up and pay attention, I certainly can’t begrudge him. Now the town has dusted herself off, prettied herself up, organized herself a bit better, and welcomes her new admirers with a friendly, if slightly baffled, smile. She’s known all along what a gem of a town she is.
If you can, begin your visit by entering the city through the southern city gate, over a small bridge spanning the Clitunno River…to the left you can still see the public fountain where women once came to do their wash.
The bridge over the rushing Clitunno River at the southern gate is a perfect starting point.
Once you have crossed the river, stop for a morning cappuccino at one of the outdoor tables in this sleepy piazza (One reason you know Bevagna hasn’t yet sold its soul to the popular crowd: this is a town that still completely shuts down at 1 pm. You need to get there first thing in the morning or you’ll find the place deserted and the all shutters closed half an hour after you start poking around. I was there at 1 pm and it was as if the wizard behind the curtain suddenly threw a big switch at exactly 1:10 and the town shut off.) and watch the locals come and go.
From there, walk one block to Piazza Silvestri, Bevagna’s pride and joy. And rightly so—this delightful little piazza is home to two of Umbria’s loveliest Romanesque churches: the small, serious, hewn stone San Silvestro (take a peek at the crypt under the raised presbytery, typical of 12th century churches) and the larger, lighter, soaring San Michele Archangelo.
The interior of the church of San Silvestro uses columns with Egyptian-style papyrus leaves on their capitals--a bit of an historical mystery.
San Michele Archangelo--if you look closely at the stone work around the central door you can see clusters of grapes growing on vines. Bevagna is smack in the middle of historic wine country.
Begin your peramble down Corso Matteotti, where you can see Bevagna’s delightful Junior year mix of hipster sidewalk cafés, small historic workshops, artsy antique stores, and commercial establishments of the variety which serve real residents: butcher, baker, candlestick maker (or, more precisely, beauty salon)– glaringly missing from the more touristed hill towns in Umbria, tragically. (Another reason you know Bevagna hasn’t yet sold its soul to the popular crowd: they still have the completely charming and almost extinct Small Town Unofficial Municipal Council sitting in ancient wooden folding chairs along the Corso, holding forth loudly and passionately about sports, politics, and any passing female under the age of 82.)
Bevagna's Small Town Unofficial Municipal Council meetings are held on the Corso every day from dawn to dusk, excluding meal times. And the seating is assigned.
About halfway up the Corso, stop in at the Museo di Bevagna to get two tickets: one will get you into the museum itself, the Roman mosaic, and the Francesco Torti Theater. A guide from the museum escorts you to the second two, so you can first take a quick look at the museum. The staircase is lined with remnants of stone tablets and random pieces of sculpture mortared right into the stucco…a fetching show of creativity which apparently exhausted the artistic vein of the museum architects, as what follows is a pretty anonymous series of square white rooms with not much to engage a visitor artistically.
It's not a good sign when the most interesting thing in the museum is the stairwell. That said, the archaeological collection is currently closed to the public, so maybe there's still hope.
When you come back downstairs, your guide will walk you the two blocks to the marine-themed mosaic (now in a neat well-lit room with a raised walkway and explanatory tablets. When I first visited years ago, it was the floor of someone’s garage with a big iron padlock on the door, the key to which the nice lady across the street would toss into your hand from her second floor window, with the admonition to remember to turn off the light when you were done and leave the key in the door…she’d come down later and get it. Ah, that was Bevagna her Freshman year.) Afterwards, follow your guide for a peek into the pretty little 19th century Torti Theater, with its red velvet seats, gilded boxes, and richly decorated ceiling.
Bevagna's surprise gilded lily of a theater.
Whew, lunchtime. Now’s when you really realize Bevagna is edging into her Senior year, as the town is chock-full of great places to eat. For a casual, hip atmosphere try La Bottega di Assù on Corso Matteotti, which is part bistrot/part bookstore/part art boutique all crammed into a space the size of my bedroom. For something more upscale, but worth every penny, dine at one of Umbria’s hottest restaurants right now: Redibis. Offering nouveau-Umbrian cuisine in a section of Bevagna’s restored Roman amphitheater, this unforgettable restaurant is on every foodie’s A-list. Otherwise, for traditional Umbrian cuisine head to Piazza Garibaldi, lined on both sides with the outdoor tables of the trattorias which have popped up like mushrooms over the past few years.
Spend a little time after lunch wandering the backstreets of Bevagna, making sure not to miss the curving Vicolo del Amphiteatro, tree-lined Piazza Garibaldi with its medieval city gate (Porta Cannara) and bricked-in facade of a Roman temple, and quiet cloister of the Dominican convent (now converted into a hotel). At 3:00 (or 2:30. or 3:30. It changes month by month.) head back to the Museo di Bevagna for your second ticket, the one which will get you entrance into a number of historically accurate workshops where artisans demonstrate their crafts using methods and tools from the middle ages. I prefer by far to see these workshops during Bevagna’s wonderful medieval festival–Il Mercato delle Gaite–in June, but if you can’t make it then this is a good substitute. To hear more about these amazing workshops, see here.
Once you’ve seen the mestieri, your visit is done. Stay for just a few more minutes to have a relaxing glass of wine (you are in the heart of Sagrantino country) at La Bottega di Piazza Onofri on Corso Matteotti, and toast to Bevagna. You had the amazing luck to meet her during her magical Junior year moment—here’s to hoping it stretches out for years and she remains forever lovely and warm, just as she is now.
A pretty view over Bevagna from the Santuario della Madonna delle Grazie outside of town.
I find it shocking when I discover that I’m not always right. It happens rarely, of course, as I am usually always right. But every once in awhile I am not completely right, and I am served up a big old dish of steaming hot crow, which I choke down philosophically. Then I immediately try to get back on track with the being always right thing.
Case in point:
Enoteca L’Alchimista Wine & Co Enoteca
Piazza del Comune, 14 Montefalco
Lunch and dinner; closed Tuesdays
Vegetarian and gluten free options
There are a couple of characteristics common to a certain category of restaurants in Italy that pretty much guarantee mediocre food, in my experience. A setting of outdoor tables looking over a pretty main piazza, for example. Frequent mention on the online foodie forums. A menu in three languages, color coded for vegetarian, low sodium, and gluten-free options. A website with a flash intro. And lots and lots of foreign customers.
This is because Italians are all about food. They are not about ambience (some of the best food I’ve had in Italy has been served in stuffy, overcrowded restaurants panelled alla 1976 basement rec room and decorated with soccer trophies and an oversized fish tank.). They are not about foodies (if you discuss food with ardor and passion in Italy you are just a normal citizen, not part of an irritatingly pompous social subset.). They are not about complicated menus (Good: a single page grease-spotted photocopy with name of dish and price. Better: a chalkboard near the door. Best: the waiter tells you what you will be eating today. And you had better like it, because Mamma’s in the kitchen.) or blingy websites. And they are certainly not about pleasing an international palate.
Which is why it took me so long to try L’Alchimista in Montefalco, which I had been hearing about (primarily from my guests here at Brigolante and on the travel forums) for so long. Everything about the place turned me off. The charming outdoor tables in Montefalco’s main piazza…incidentally, one of my favorite towns and favorite piazzas in Umbria. The purple prose praise in the guidebooks and on the forums for the wine/gourmet shop inside the enoteca, and for the food itself. The extensive menu, with its unusually ample selections for vegetarians, celiacs, and those trying to watch their waistline. The website with so much stuff flashing at me I got a headache and had to lie down in a dark room for a few hours to recover. And the lots and lots of foreign customers.
I went so far as to recon another restaurant in town that I was sure would be better. Because I’m always right. So I dragged a friend all the way to Montefalco to dine at Spirito Divino, which has an elegantly understated website, is on a smaller secondary piazza, offers a simple straightforward menu, and strangely seems to be under the international radar (the foreigners are all up the street at L’Alchimista, apparently). When I got there, I was pretty convinced I was right. The restaurant is charming…exposed beam and tile ceiling with requisite hanging prosciutti and garlic braids, shelves of wine bottles lining the walls, compelling menu, enthusiastic owner/server. Unfortunately, the food was a heartbreaking disappointment. And overpriced. I was crushed.
So I swallowed my pride and returned, tail tucked between legs, to take L’Alchimista for a long overdue spin. I was there on a warm summer evening, so sat at an outdoor table watching life pass by in Montefalco’s piazza and trying not to be irritated by all the English and German I was overhearing at the neighboring tables. When the waitress—who proved herself competent and attentive, if not passionate–hefted the multilingual menu at me, I hunkered down and silently spent the next few minutes wading through pages of traditional or vegetarian or gluten-free or heart healthy options. I was grim.
The house red came—a Montefalco Rosso. To me, the quality of a house wine is to a restaurant what the quality of a first kiss is to a love affair. You can pretty much tell if it’s going to fly in the first 3 milliseconds or so. And the wine was good. Very good. Ah, I harrumphed, you can hardly expect to get a bad wine in Montefalco. (I was not going to make this easy.)
Then our antipasti came…mine was a surprisingly enjoyable cheese and confit plate (like I said, I wasn’t going to make this easy) and my friend had a twist on a caprese salad. The reluctant comment: Olio buono. Now, just to put that into perspective, to have an Umbrian admit that an olio not produced directly by themselves or, in a pinch, immediate family is buono is akin to having a Democrat admit that a Republican colleague is a worthy adversary or a Greek admit to a Turk being a good neighbor. I was a bit taken aback, and hoped L’Alchimista would drop the ball on our primi so I could salvage a bit of pride.
It was not to be the case. The gnocchi al Sagrantino were fabulous…the gnocchi were light (Umbrians tend to make them heavy and either too sticky or too chewy) and freshly made, the sauce not overpowering. We even unobtrusively scarpetta-ed our plates (when you use a piece of bread to clean the remaining sauce off your dish and pop it in your mouth. Not very polite. Not restaurant behavior.). The portion was so generous that I skipped a second course, but my friend had the chicken saltimbocca (again, with a splash of Sagrantino) and again a little scarpetta action went on. The olio was buono. Harrumph.
There was still a chance for them to ruin everything, as I am a Big Dessert Person. But wouldn’t you know it, they had an extensive an embarrassingly sinful house dolce selection, from which I chose a chocolate nuclear bomb-esque mousse cake concoction that gave me tachycardia for hours and completely won me over. Nothing more be said. L’Alchimista is a winner and I was wrong.
Our meal was paid for by e20umbria, but would have been about €40/head.
Via S. Agata, 14
Lunch and dinner; closed Tues (open every day during the Spoleto Festival)
Can accommodate vegetarian and gluten free (no separate kitchen for celiacs)
I haven’t written a restaurant review in a long time, and there’s a reason for this: it’s a pain in the ass. Menus change, chefs change, management changes, the place has a bad night, it closes, it moves–it’s just too hard to keep current with it all. When I go back over the restaurants I’ve mentioned over the years in the reviews section, they all seem so out of date that I get demoralized.
That said, I’m throwing my hat back into the ring because I’m often asked for restaurant recommendations for Spoleto and I’ve never had a particularly convincing answer. Until now. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Spoleto over the past week for the Spoleto Festival, and have eaten at a number of the city’s local eateries. Of these, a couple have stood out (see below) but the only one that has piqued my interest enough to return for round two (aside from the awesome pizza by the slice place in Piazza del Mercato) is Ristorante Apollinare.
Before I actually wrote about it, I wanted to eat there at least twice…the first dinner I had was a kind of officially workish thingie, so I thought maybe they had pulled out all the stops and if I were to come back as a mere mortal (with my kids, no less) the food would be less memorable. Luckily, I was wrong.
Let me just preface this by saying that Apollinare immediately got on my good side by doing one of my favorite things: face time with the chef. I love when the chef comes out of the kitchen to chit chat for a minute and let you know what he (or she) is cooking up. I also love eating al fresco…Apollinare is part of a medieval convent, so it’s all pretty stone walls and exposed beams indoors (Don’t expect any chic contemporary restaurant decor in Spoleto. The local esthetic leans heavily towards dark wood and damask.), but Umbria in general is the land of stone walls and exposed beams, so it’s easy to get all twelfth century, schmelfth century after awhile. And the winters can get long here; it’s nice to juice the summer for all it’s worth and get outside as much as possible.
The young chef, Michele Pidone, is cute as a button and, though he’s been at Apollinare for 12 years (head chef for five of those and manager for two), he’s still brimming with the enthusiasm of the newly converted. His menu is seasonal–though the specials change every few days and he’s always ready with off-menu suggestions–and centers around local, traditional dishes served up with just enough of a twist to keep them interesting but not overwhelming.
His strangozzi al tartufo got a double thumbs up from my kids (who are very blasé about truffles, having been pratically weaned on them), and I especially loved his vegetable parmeggiano, for which he departs from tradition and doesn’t fry his vegetables, making the final product filling but not stuffing. My son also enjoyed the chianina hamburger, and we all devoured our carrot and ginger quiche amouse bouche. I had high hopes for my mixed green salad with fresh fruit, nuts, and raspberry vinaigrette, but for some reason it didn’t gel. Italy doesn’t do eclectic salads very well, so I was philosophical about it.
The plating is uninspired–I’m more for substance than show so that doesn’t bother me much—but the attentive service (did I mention I love when the chef comes out to your table to check on you?) and solidly excellent food make up for it. There are a couple of themed fixed menus (including a vegetarian option, bless him), which range from €15 to €35/head, but when Michele greets you with a “Ci penso io?” (Would you like me to take care of you?), I would take him up on the offer. You’ll be in for a satisfying surprise.
Full disclosure: My meals were paid for by e20Umbria, but I picked up my sons’ tab. Because they’re not so good at washing dishes.
There were a couple of other memorable restaurants that I stumbled across in Spoleto this week. Here are the also-mentioned:
Trattoria del Festival
Via Brignone, 5
Via del Duomo, 3
(lovely terrace with a view)