I have made many gastronomic discoveries during my years living in Umbria. Mostly, I’ve discovered Food. Having grown up in a major American city during the 1970s and 80s, we didn’t see much of Food. We saw a lot of Kraft Mac & Cheese, Marshmallow Fluff, Froot Loops, and Kool-Aid, but real honest to goodness Food didn’t really start showing up on my plate until I moved to Italy.
Olive groves cover hillsides across Umbria.
One of the foundations of Italian food, at least from central Italy and continuing south, is olive oil. Each region has its signature oil, and Umbria is no exception. One of this area’s most prestigious products, olive oil from the millions of trees cultivated on the hillsides across Umbria is interwoven with the region’s cuisine, landscape, agriculture, and many of its folk traditions.
One of the most unique places to visit in Umbria is one of its many olive mills during pressing—late October through December, most years—where you get to see how this “liquid gold” is produced and sample one of the joys of the world’s gastronomy: freshly pressed olive oil.
This is what oil looks like hot (actually, cold) off the presses. Check out that color…finger-lickin’ good.
Bright green, pungent, knock-your-socks-off peppery, and thick as molasses, olio nuovo should be on everyone’s bucket list of Foods to Try Before I Die. Its flavour is too strong to use as a condiment to dress salads or vegetables; it’s best tasted liberally poured over freshly toasted bread (saltless Umbrian bread works like a charm) or to perk up a winter legume soup.
The color of the oil turns golden and becomes transparent as the weeks pass. The top oil is about two weeks old and the bottom oil about four weeks.
Unfortunately, the unmistakable zing of freshly pressed oil softens quickly as the oil matures. In just a few short weeks the taste mutes into the well-balanced grassy-fruity flavour which works well as a base for more complex dishes. If you love fresh olive oil as much as I do, however, there is a trick: you can freeze a small amount and use it through the summer. It consolidates into an easily spreadable paste, which melts as soon as it comes in contact with hot bread or soup. So come those chilly days in March you can still have some soul-satisfying bruschetta.
How new oil is meant to be relished…
A special thanks to Lucia Olivi and Alessandra Mallozzi for their delish pics!
There is no greater joy than receiving a book in the mail. Unless, of course, it turns out to be such a gem of a read that you find yourself thinking two things: 1. I wish I had written this book; and 2. I can’t wait to share this book.
And so it happened last week that I found Elizabeth Wholey’s new “Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy’s Heartland” in my mailbox. I’ve known Elizabeth “virtually” for more than a decade; she’s a fellow American expat who has lived in Umbria for more or less the same amount of time I have and our paths crossed years ago on the then embryonic Slow Travel forum. I’ve always felt a bit of a kinship with Elizabeth, as she seems to share my same delicate mix of delight and affection for our adopted home tempered with straighforward pragmatism. We are, neither of us, either bucolically Under the Sun nor bitterly Burnt by the Sun.
That said, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Elizabeth’s new book. Umbria being a small place, I had heard through the grapevine (the grapevine being one of her neighbors, Saverio Bianconi, who is mentioned with much warmth in “Sustenance”) that she was writing a socio-gastronomic history of the Upper Tiber Valley, an expanse of land where the four regions of Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, and Le Marche meet. Beginning at the source of the Tiber River on Monte Fumaiolo, the Alta Valle del Tevere extends south to Umbertide, traveling through rugged mountains, rolling hills and finally to the fertile river valley, passing a number of Roman and Medieval towns along its meandering journey.
It is the area that Elizabeth calls home and knows well, and as both a Slow Food and International Association of Culinary Professionals member, she is more than qualified to to research and publish a thorough academic study of the agricultural and culinary history of the valley. And with that in mind, it goes without saying that I “put it aside for later”.
Luckily for me, that “later” was cut short by a bout of insomnia just the next night. I sighed, switched on the light, and picked the first book from the stack next to my bed which seemed dry enough that it would be likely to put me sleep quickly. Yes, “Sustenance”.
How wrong I was. I found myself staying up to the wee hours reading this delightful, engaging guide from cover to cover. Part history, part journal, part travel guide, and peppered throughout with tempting recipes for preparing the rustic, genuine dishes which characterize the local peasant cuisine, “Sustenance” tells the story of this land and its people by highlighting sixteen local, contemporary farmers and food producers who turn out everything from eggs to honey, from olive oil to heirloom fruit.
In its pages, Elizabeth weaves a fascinating historical and social narrative, reconnecting these modern agricultural and culinary hold-outs with the peasant culture and traditions which preceded them (and are in danger of vanishing) and their continued belief in and defence of the exceptional quality and variety of foods still found in this valley. But she also goes one step beyond, making her subjects and their food accessible to readers (and, one hopes, travelers) through both sharing their simple, homey recipes and providing practical instructions to seek them out and sample their food as one should: in the land and with the people who have put their heart and soul into bringing it to the table.
To make it even easier to explore the Upper Tiber Valley, Elizabeth has divided the chapters of “Sustenance” into carefully curated itineraries, organizing farmers and products geographically, highlighting nearby sites and monuments to visit, and listing local markets and annual festivals and fairs.
Richer than a cook book, lighter than a historical tome, more compelling than a travel guide, I can’t sing the praises of this small but important book highly enough. “Sustenance” is must-read for anyone–traveler or settler–who wants to discover the Upper Tiber Valley, its history, its people, and—of course—its food.
It’s a strange way to begin a tour, and our guide’s question gives me pause. I would like to think I am—aside from issues about which no moral adult could have any flexibility, like the appalling pairing of french fries with mayonnaise—but exactly how elastic does one have to be to appreciate the surreal, allegorical, esoteric “Ideal City” of 20th century Milanese architect Tomaso Buzzi, La Scarzuola?
Quite a bit, it turns out, as a visit to this mind-bending “theatrical complex”—as Buzzi defined it—with its adjoining sacred and profane “cities” which together form a vast architectural allegory for the physical and existential journey through life is a trip down a rabbit hole, transporting visitors from the bucolic hills on the Umbrian-Tuscan border to a parallel universe; both dream and nightmare, both whimsical and forbidding.
An oasis for gathering, for study, for work, for music and silence, for Greatness and Misery, for a social life and a hermitic life of contemplation in solitude, reign of Fantasy, of Fairy Tales, of Myths, of Echoes and Reflections outside of time and space so that each can find here echoes of the past and hints of the future
–Tomaso Buzzi on La Scarzuola
As do so many spots in Umbria, La Scarzuola has roots in Franciscan history and lore. The Saint is said to have built himself a humble hut on this remote hillside using a indigenous marsh plant called la scarza, from which derives Scarzuola. In 1218, Francis planted a rose and laurel bush near his shelter and a spring miraculously began to flow (still considered sacred by the locals); slowly a Franciscan community grew and a monastery was eventually built in the early 1400s—the surviving fresco in the apse is one of the few which pictures Francis levitating—which remained a property of of the Franciscan Order until the end of the 19th century.
Buzzi, an eminent architect, artist, and influential cultural figure in Italy since the 1920s and 1930s, purchased the monastery in 1957 and soon after began his most visionary project to date: the transformation of the site into his “Ideal City”. Beginning with the restoration of the existing monastery and the trasformation of the convent gardens into an intricate series of hedge mazes, dotted with statuary, fountains, and exotic plants—what he regarded as the Sacred City—Buzzi moved on to build the more fantastical (and impenetrable) “Profane City”.
The architect viewed his opus as an autobiographical work—his Città Buzziana–and to visit this theatrical mash-up of Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, and Mannerist structures built around a natural amphitheater in the hillside and adorned with bizarre and fantastical reliefs, astronomical symbols, and quotations is like a stroll through his right-brain stream of consciousness sketchbook. Seven theaters, an Acropolis, the Tower of Babel, the Arch of Triumph, meditation grottoes, pagan temples, and a monumental nude all vie for space in this Escher-esque cityscape, where staircases lead nowhere, proportion is warped, buildings are meticulously rendered outside yet a warren of empty chambers inside, and the apparent randomness masks layers of meaning and symbolism.
The site would be a mere curiosity were it not for the quirky yet fascinating guide, Buzzi’s nephew Marco Solari. Solari inherited the site from his uncle upon the latter’s death in 1981 and has devoted his life to completing the work based on prints left by Buzzi. Who better to lead visitors through this convoluted and complicated monument, with its decadent jumble of contrasting architecture and philosophies?
Solari has put his soul into La Scarzuola and his joy at peeling back the layers of allegory and symbolism which permeate every stone pillar, grotesque relief, and geometrical calculation–and adding his own colorful interpretation, full of energetic forces and third eyes and mysticism—is what brings this jarring yet somehow harmonious jumble to life. Peppering his rapid-fire, eccentric-at-times-bordering-on-bizarre presentation with his contagious cackle, Solari weaves a story of art and architecture with one of magic and miracle…leaving some incredulous, and some—like myself—simply charmed.
The difference, I suspect, is in how elastic you are.
They say that there are certain places on earth which somehow speak to the spirit. The molecules there vibrate at a certain frequency, or the auras become more defined, or the souls of those who have left their bodies on that spot continue to abide.
I’m not sure what I think about this (one area which is considered intensely spiritual is Assisi, but since I live here and spend my days distracted by electric bills and dentist appointments and work deadlines, I might not be tuned in enough to pick up on all the molecular vibration going on), but it is true that Umbria has produced an inordinate number of saints in its long history, many of whom passed at least part of their life in spiritual contemplation as hermits.
The Sant’Eutizio Abbey in the lush Val Castoriana as seen from the hiking path above.
The lush Nera River Valley (known as the Valnerina, and hands down one of my favorite areas of this region) is a veritable saint and hermit factory. This breathtaking area, with its winding river gorge lined on both sides with towering, craggy mountain slopes, has churned out an impressive number of holy figures over the past millenium and continues to host—in a manner almost inconceivably anacronistic—about ten monastic hermits today.
I recently spent a day hiking in the hills above the tiny town of Preci on the Campiano river (one of the tributaries of the Nera which has carved out a branch of the Valnerina: the pastoral Val Castoriana), where I was able to revisit the origins of a thousand years of hermitic life.
The Benedictine abbey of Sant’Eutizio–or, to be more precise, the caves in the rock wall above the abbey itself–mark the beginning of this long and rich history. Here I wandered through what remains of the living quarters of Saint Eutizio, disciple of Saint Spes (Latin for “hope”), one of the first wave of converts to Christianity who chose the cliffs above the Val Castoriana (known locally as the “Sponga” for the rock’s sponge-like texture) to search for God in solitude.
The pretty rose window in the church’s simple Romanesque facade.
The mountains attracted a number of disciples of Spes over the following decades, who followed in his contemplatory footsteps and formed a vast, loose spiritual community (Benedict from the nearby town of Norcia was also inspired by Spes’ asceticism, leading him to found a small community with an oratory on this spot). Legend holds that Spes, who had spent forty years in complete blindness, regained his sight shortly before his death and spent his final days visiting and ministering to his disciples in the surrounding woods and caves.
After Spes’ death, his disciple Eutizio was appointed abbot of the fledgling Benedictine community but maintained a hermitic lifestyle by carving out a home in these rock caves (now accessible through the abbey courtyard). Eutizio was widely loved and revered for his spiritual integrity, and the valley was soon populated with both religious and lay followers who became the founders of many of the hamlets which still dot these hillsides today (don’t miss delightful Campi, by the way…especially the church portico at sunset).
Eutizio was buried under the primitive Benedictine oratory upon his death in 540, and it took another 500 years for the monastic community to slowly transform itself from hermitic to cenobitic, gradually moving out of solitary caves and huts and organizing around the abbey, built in the 1200s on the spot where the Saints Spes and Eutizio were buried centuries before.
The bell tower rests on the craggy cliffs above the church.
The Abbazia di Sant’Eutizio’s simple stone Romanesque church and rustic cloister remains one of the prettiest spots to visit in the upper Valnerina. The remains of the saints are kept in the carved marble urn behind the church’s altar, and the delicate rose window in the spare facade and ornate 17th century belltower on the rough cliff above make for some beautiful pictures.
Sant’Eutizio continues to be a central figure in local spiritual lore, and his mantle is said to have rain-producing properties. As the monk told me when I visited, during times of drought the mantle is displayed in a religious procession. If rain doesn’t come within a week, it’s taken out again. And again. And—miracle!—sooner or later it always rains.
The ivy-covered, silent courtyard. Where just a little vibration may be felt.
And maybe the miracle of molecular vibration is like the miracle of rain. It’s not so much about the laws of physics as it is about the the depth of faith and the gift of patience. Sooner or later, with a little of both, something is bound to resonate.
These photos were taken by friend and hiking partner-in-crime Armando Lanoce, whom I thank for his generous use of them.
I feel very lucky to have grown up in Chicago, though I take delight in ribbing my hometown for its spit and swagger. Chicago gave me many things: the knowledge that hot dogs are meant to be served with celery salt; the knowledge that even if your team hasn’t won the Super Bowl in over twenty years, they’re still better than the Packers; the knowledge that there is a difference between the temperature and the windchill factor, and you damned well better pay attention to the latter.
But the most important thing that Chicago gave me was a deep, broad, lasting knowledge of the arts. The Windy City may be gritty (or was when I grew up there…the past twenty years have transformed her into a jewel of pristine parks, reclaimed neighborhoods, and haute cuisine), but it is also home to some of the best architecture, music, dance, and literature of any American metropolis.
Not to mention art, of course.
Chicago’s Art Institute is a local landmark and is one of the largest and most important art museums in the world (it is second in size in the US only to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City). This is not why it was so influential in my life-long love of art, however. It was influential for these two reasons: 1) when I was a kid, it was free (kind of) and 2) the most important collection is also one of the most accessible to art newbies.
When I was a kid, entrance to the Art Institute was a “suggested donation”. So, you could pay the de facto ticket price or pretty much anything (or nothing) to get in. Which meant, of course, that when I was a penniless teenager, it was cheap option to pass a freezing Sunday afternoon. And pass, I did. I would throw my buck or two at the ticket counter and head right to the museum’s crown jewel collection: Impressionists. Which was fabulous, because Impressionism is the perfect gateway drug to an appreciation of other art periods and styles. It’s pretty, figurative, easy to decipher, and reproduced on handy posters to hang in your teen bedroom. It also, in my case and I think in many people’s, lit the flame of curiosity to explore what came before the Impressionists (which, in many cases, inspired their works) and what came after (which is, in many cases, inspired by Impressionism).
I am bored with that period now…I overdosed as a teen and when I find myself in the Museé d’Orsay spend more time looking at the fabulous architecture rather than the paintings. But I do know that if I hadn’t had that exposure at a time that I was becoming curious about art, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate Guercino or Caravaggio or—and here I come to my point—Burri.
Alberto Burri, Italy’s pioneer Abstract Expressionist, produced art from the 1950s until his death in 1995 which is the antithesis of Impressionism. Decidedly unpretty (though often majestically gorgeous), unfigurative (though viewers are hard-pressed not to have organic forms jump out from his bold collages and torched canvases), impenetrable in meaning (Burri declared, “I see beauty and that is all” regarding how to interpret his works), and almost completely uncommercialized (this giant of modern art is little known abroad; even the Tate Modern owns only a single example of his work), Burri’s works at once fierce and violent yet lyrical and evocative.
It is perhaps for these very reasons that I found myself a late convert to Burri. He had a revival, as artists often do, upon his death in the mid-1990s, and out of curiosity I was drawn to the museum dedicated to his life and work in his hometown of Città di Castello in northern Umbria. The first portion of the museum is housed in a the 15th century Palazzo Albizzini and opened to the public in 1980; the dramatic annex completing the collection opened in 1990 in a restored mid-century tobacco drying house outside of town.
Here I found some of the most engrossing and captivating works of 20th century art in Italy. Burri’s early quirky “Sacks” collages—using materials from burlap sacking, tar, pumice, PVC glue, netting, and resin—segued into the “Hunchback” period of warped canvases and the charred works of his “Combustion” series that give his art a three-dimensional look, to end in his “Cracked” series, in which canvases were thickly covered in monochrome paste left to dry and crack like the parched fields of a plain in drought. He later went on to use plastic, metal, and the industrial insulation Celotex to create works that are at once abstract yet undeniably natural in form. His paintings (if one can call them that) invoke the natural beauty of his rural home region of Umbria, the bloodshed of WWII (during which he was held as a war prisoner for 18 months in Texas), and the energy of an industrializing post-War Italy.
His works were considered subversive when first shown, but to the contemporary eye they are simply powerfully dramatic, elegantly unconventional, and, considering their dates, surprisingly avant-garde. It seems that everyone and their brother is taking a blowtorch to their canvases these days, but Burri was the first to show how precise destruction can be the most beautiful of all forms of creation.
To visit the Burri Museum and his collection, check the Burri foundation’s website for opening times and information.
The last time I went to Narni, I went specifically looking for magic. I didn’t find it in the town, but in the enchanting (enchanted?) countryside nearby. This time, I went to Narni simply looking for a fun time. And guess what: magic.
The three flags of Narni's three "terzieri" by Massimo Ciancuti
Umbria is chock-full of festivals in the spring, many of them with a medieval bent. Narni is no exception, with its Corsa all’Anello, one of the longest running of them all—a full three weeks from late April through mid-May of processions, jousting, period concerts and exhibitions, taverns, and a market (all in costume). All this with the participation of upwards of 700 volunteers (in a town with less than 2,000 inhabitants in the historic center) and months of preparation, rehearsals, and—not least—equestrian training for the riders (and their steeds) competing in the jousting competition. I had never been to the Corsa all’Anello, but this year the historic race fell on a school holiday, so I packed up my sons and we headed to the south of Umbria for the day.
For an atmospheric meal, look for the "hosteria" signs! by Massimo Ciancuti
The festival culminates in a competition where riders thread a lance through a suspended ring (the challenge begins using a ring about 10 centimeters in diameter, and continues with progressively smaller rings until riders reach the final elimination with a 3 centimeter adversary); this main event is held in a stadium below the center of Narni. However, on the feast day of San Giovanale (May 3rd), a smaller competition takes places in Narni’s historic Piazza dei Priori in the center of town as part of the celebrations honoring Narni’s patron saint (and first bishop).
It's all about horns and drums at the Corsa (by Massimo Ciancuti)
The day began with High Mass, and let me tell you that if you are going to see one Mass this year, or this decade, or perhaps in your entire life, it should be High Mass on the 3rd of May in Narni. When I say the whole town is there, I mean the whole town. The bishop in full regalia, the cathedral decked out in banners, the three costumed processions representing the three competing areas of Narni (called Terzieri: Fraporta, Mezule, and Santa Maria) arriving from separate directions beating their drums and sounding their trumpets, the citizens—from small children to lapdogs—sporting the colors of their Terziere. The people-watching is fabulous, both outside the church inside inside, where the bishop’s homily is accompanied by the low-level, benign rumble of hundreds of people exchanging enthusiastic greetings sottovoce and asking after the health of their mothers/fathers/cousins/grandchildren.
Even the spectators are picturesque at the Corsa (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Mass ends in a reverse order procession: costumed corps, religious officials (carrying a bust of San Giovanale), city officials, a brass band, and citizens bringing up the rear. We all troop into the main piazza (just a block away), the bishop mounts a medieval stone pulpit to utter those 27 words he missed during his hour-long sermon in the Cathedral, and the town breaks for lunch. Each Terziere sets up a medieval-themed tavern for the duration of the festival, so we headed to Fraporta’s hosteria (my sons and I had already picked our teams: Leonardo rooted for Fraporta, Nicolò for Santa Maria, and I—on the purely esthetic criteria of their chic black and white costumes—cheered on Mezule) for a bite of lunch. The place was hopping (the patron saint’s day is a holiday in Narni, so shops and offices were closed and the town crowded into the three taverns for their midday meal), but the food was good and fast and in just an hour we were taking a post-prandial stroll to kill time until the race later in the afternoon.
Fraporta enters the Piazza (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Santa Maria enters the Piazza (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Mezule enters the Piazza (see what I mean about the chic costumes?) by Massimo Ciancuti
Luckily we ended our walk with a gelato in Narni’s main piazza, because we noticed the crowd already starting to take their places along the railing lining the course two hours before the competition was scheduled to start. Taking my cue, I grabbed a free spot and sent the boys to hunt down kerchiefs from each of the Terziere (Mostly to get them out of my hair. A word to the wise: the race is fun, but the waiting for it to start while you stand along a railing being alernately pushed, jostled, and whined at by your seven-year-old is decidedly not fun.), and then we watched as the crowd swelled, riders and their horses filed into the piazza–followed by the three Terzieri’s costumed processions—and excitement began to mount.
The adversary. So small, and yet so big... (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Missed. Damn. (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Soon the competition was on, and we were absorbed in the action as each rider made an attempt to thread his lance through the ring. As the minutes passed, riders were eliminated until it was down to the smallest ring and the last five riders. The first four missed, and we waiting as the fifth and last rider from Santa Maria made his run. If he managed to get the ring, his Terziere would be the winner. Otherwise, the final five would all make another attempt. The crowd held its collective breath as the rider galloped toward the ring and….WON!! The piazza went wild (and Nicolò with it, as he picked the winning team) and trumpets and drums and voices filled the town with celebration. I looked around at the joyful, celebrating town in the teeming medieval square under the perfect blue sky and wanted to bottle up the moment to keep forever. And that, my friends, is magic.
The magical moment of victory!! (by Massimo Ciancuti)
A huge and very special thanks to the gifted Massimo Ciancuti for the use of his gorgeous photos from the Corsa all’Anello Storica.
I like outdoor sports. I do. Even though I grew up in a large city, I always loved camping and rafting and rock climbing and such as a kid. And then I grew up and became the one responsible for the packing and prep work and discovered what a huge pain in the neck it is. (This is one of the reasons why I still harbor a love for hiking, for which preparation involves changing your shoes and throwing a bottle of water and a Kit Kat in your backpack). The last time I camped, it took a solid week of gathering equipment and rations to prepare for a sum total of two days in the woods…not to mention all the time spent cleaning and unpacking that gear once I got home. Some of it is still sitting in the garage waiting to be stored away two years later.
It’s just too damned labor intensive.
The solution for the lazy outdoor sports lover like me is, of course, the adventure park. These outdoor sports centers offer tree-top rope courses, climbing walls, zip-lines, tubing, rafting, rock climbing and a plethora of other fun activities and take care of the kitting out, so all you have to do is show up in comfy clothes and buy a ticket. A couple of excellent activity parks have sprung up in the breathtaking Valnerina (Nera River Valley) Regional Park in southern Umbria–an area known for its dramatic wooded mountain slopes, crystalline river, and tiny creche-like villages perched high above the gorge—so when you (or, more likely, your kids) get art-and-architecture-ed out, you can head here to blow off some steam for the day in one of the most pristine natural areas in the region. Here are two of my favorites:
This park doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but we spent a fabulous day here. They offer two tree-top rope courses (a beginner course and a more challenging—and higher—advanced course), which are lengthy and varied enough to feel like you are getting your money’s worth, and a climbing wall. The staff is friendly and professional; they take you through the climbing instructions step-by-step and watch you with an eagle eye from below to make sure that you don’t get yourself all tangled up in the ropes. The park itself is in on a heavily wooded hillside (we were there on a hot summer day, but the courses were nice and shaded) and is part of an agriturismo, so you can also lunch at their simple restaurant.
If they do have something you can count as a bell and/or whistle, it’s their alpaca farm. They raise these goofy-looking llama cousins from the Andes for their soft wool and will enthusiastically give visitors a tour (and a little petting action)…they were so convincing about the joys of alpaca ownership that I almost found myself purchasing my very own llama as a household pet. Be forewarned.
This large park is all bells and whistles, and that’s part of the fun of it. Aside from a number of tree-top rope courses and zip lines of varying difficulty levels, they also have a tubing run, rafting expeditions, archery, mule rides, and truffle hunts. There’s a safari bus that schleps visitors from one end of the park to another, and lots of shady places to sit and catch your breath. The park is much bigger than Nahar and the feel is less homey, but the staff is affable and helpful on the rope courses and zip lines. The ticketing system is a little impenetrable, so make sure you are buying the right package which gives you access to the activities that interest you and are accessible to everyone in your group (many of the rope courses have a minimum age and/or height requirement).
The park has a fully functioning restaurant (and picnic tables, if you decide to pack a lunch) or, if you are amenible to staying for dinner, you can book an evening meal at the lodge on the mountain top above the park. They take you up with jeeps, provide dinner, and then you hike back down (with head lamps and a ranger guide), enjoying the sight of nocturnal animals and the starry canopy above.
I have never visited the Slavery Museum, or walked through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, or sat quietly at Little Bighorn. I turn my face from these places and all that they represent not because I am a Pollyanna, but because I am the opposite. I find that I despair more and more readily over the lengths to which humans will go to inflict unthinkable suffering on their fellows. I find–especially since I’ve become a parent–that these sites steeped in violence and death affect me almost too deeply. I see myself there; I picture myself watching my sons, my family, my friends slip away and can feel a wave of hopeless desperation wash over me. I have become a sunflower, seeking out light and warmth when I travel and leaving the dark corners to others.
It took me a long time to take the Narni Underground (known as Narni Sotterranea) tour. This series of underground rooms and passages beneath the historic center of Narni was brought to light by a group of amateur spelunkers just a few decades ago–having been covered over and forgotten through the centuries as the imposing convent and church of San Domenico was built above– and the dedication (read: bullheadedness) of a local volunteer cultural association was the driving force behind their excavation and partial restoration and subsequent access to the public.
The visit begins lightheartedly enough in the gardens outside the monastery walls, as the guide explains how local speleologists in the 1970s had a hunch that something interesting might lie beneath San Domenico, and asked a local farmer permission to knock through the wall adjoining his hen coop. What they found there was at once surprising and important: an 8th century paleo-Christian church, with surviving frescoes around the apse and along the walls. The chapel is undergoing constant further excavations and restorations, but the paintings and apse are in excellent condition.
From here, visitors move into the adjoining room which holds part of a Roman cistern and is probably the remains of a Roman domus and then to the rooms which were the reason I had shied away from Narni Underground for so long.
The Inquisition. There are two rooms which are testiment to this infamous period in European history: a windowless, stone tribunal used for questioning and torture, and a small, graffitied cell which held the imprisoned. While in the tribunal, I was distracted from dwelling too heavily on the unthinkable acts which were performed here by the incredibly engaging cloak-and-dagger (with a little bit of serendipity) tale of how a team of researchers were able to track down documents referring to the trials held here through municipal and Vatican archives and, strangely enough, papers kept at Dublin’s Trinity College. The hall was still ominous (the torch lighting and reconstructed medieval torture devices didn’t exactly lighten the mood), but being the bookish research-loving nerd that I am, I was fascinated by the torturous (no pun intended) path which led to the discovery of what exactly this hall had been used as.
The second room with ties to the Inquisition is the small cell leading into the tribunal, which turned out to have an even more fascinating backstory than the tribunal itself. Completely covered in graffiti scratches, the cell was home to a soldier accused of ties to the Freemasons (the Catholic church has long considered Freemasons a threat to the Church and under the Inquisition members were charged as heretics) and his etchings and drawings (made with a paste of brick dust and urine) can be interpreted as coded messages using Masonic iconography and secret codes. Anyone who has been fascinated with the pop fiction thrillers of late and their heavy use of cryptography, keys, symbols, and medieval Christian history will be especially captivated by this real-life example of the use of these to communicate banned and secret messages. Again, the intellectual appeal of the unravelling of the historical mystery took my mind off the misery of those who were held—sometimes for years—in this tiny, dank cell.
Is the Narni Underground worth a visit? Absolutely. But despite the charming story of its discovery, the pleasant surprise of the ancient chapel and its frescoes, and the admirable research that went into uncovering its secret uses, I was relieved to return to the light.
To book a visit to Narni Sotterranea, contact them at +39 3391041645 or +39 744722292 or check their website www.narnisotterranea.it
My sons hate getting their hair cut. Hate it. They wail and protest, gnash their teeth and rent their garments, and generally cause so much mayhem that I don’t insist until I honestly can’t see the whites of their eyes. But every once in awhile—if the carrot is tempting enough—they go to the gallows with the serene resignation of sheep to slaughter. Or, at least, sheep to shearing.
Which is why I was so sure I had it in the bag this month, because I was offering up the Mother of All Carrots: an afternoon making chocolate creations at Perugina’s Scuola del Cioccolato.
The deal had to be finessed, of course. “Hey, guys, I thought it would be fun to go cook some stuff at the chocolate school this afternoon! Whaddya think? Cool, huh?” When the cheering died down, I slipped in, “We just have to make a quick stop first. Nothing important. It’ll just take a sec.” There was a suspicious silence. They’ve heard that before.
We got through their haircuts with a level of haggling and negotiation that would give Kofi Annan pause (my older son is on his fourth year of drum lessons and intent on cultivating an appropriate rock coiffure and my younger son is profoundly vain of his golden locks in this Mediterranean country of olive skin and dark curls) but without a major diplomatic incident, and were soon off to the Perugina factory on the outskirts of Perugia.
We were met by the kind staff of the Casa del Cioccolato–which includes their museum, factory tour, and cooking school–and our Maestro, Chef Alberto. (Ladies, a side note: Chef Alberto is just about as yummy as the chocolate he cooks up. But you didn’t hear it from me.) My fear that they might not be set up to handle kids was quickly put to rest, as the staff engaged them immediately in friendly banter (my little devils demanded the secret recipe to Perugina’s signature Baci chocolates so “we can make a lot of money”. Yes, those are the values I’ve been raising them with.) and asked about any special requests (they prefer milk chocolate, which turned out to be no problem).
We were sent to wash our hands and don our spiffy Scuola del Cioccolato aprons (just part of the swag we got to take home) and Chef Alberto (who, as it turns out, is not only one handsome specimen but also fitted out with the patience and good-nature of a saint. Whoever the patron saint of chocolate-mess-making seven-year-olds may be. I’ll have to google it.) got down to business, announcing that we would be making Easter eggs! Super fun, and a perfect project for kids (and—ahem—their grown-ups).
After explaining to us the importance of tempering chocolate, we were set to doing it ourselves. Let’s just say it’s not as easy as the deft Chef Alberto makes it look, and our aprons were quickly proving their worth. All I could think of was how happy I was that I wasn’t responsible for mopping up the floor after we left.
But it was great fun…I mean, what isn’t fun about pouring a bowl of melted chocolate onto a flat surface and messing around in it with a couple of spatulas for 15 minutes?…and we were soon ready to pour our chocolate into the egg and base molds and make our little heart-shaped chocolates that would be the “surprise” inside our hollow eggs.
Chef Alberto did a fabulous job keeping everyone busy, working at their own pace, and engaged in the demonstration, which isn’t a small feat with a group of such a range of ages. He is obviously passionate about his job and very much a “people person”—an apt combination for these chocolate lessons aimed not at professional chefs but simply amateur cooks looking to pick up tips for making some eye-popping creations at home.
Once our chocolate had cooled and hardened, we were able to pop them out of the molds, assemble the two egg halves with our little hearts tucked inside, mount them on their chocolate base, and decorate with white chocolate and sugar flowers—all under the careful eye and guidance of Chef Alberto. When we were done with our decorating, we packaged our works of art in plastic boxes provided by the school and were presented with our certificates pronouncing us Artista del Gusto. I’m not so sure about Artista, but we sure became hardcore fans of the Scuola del Cioccolato. And the biggest surprise: a copy of Perugina’s secret Baci recipe! (I’m waiting for the money to start rolling in. It’s time these kids start paying their own way…they are seven and ten, after all.)
The verdict from my sons? “That was worth getting our hair cut!” Well, there’s no higher praise than that.
Otherwise, the Chocolate School holds courses open to the public most Saturdays, or private classes for groups–this is a great activity for families, groups of travellers, or corporate events– can be arranged during the week. You can view a calendar here (in Italian) and request more information and/or sign up for a class on their website here or by calling 800 800 907.
Classes range in price from €30-€65/person…a fantastic bargain given the length of the class, fun quotient, and swag! As the staff told us, these courses are offered with the spirit of spreading Perugina’s passion for chocolate and thus accessible to every budget.
It doesn’t hit you over the head, so much as sneak up on you from behind. You see a quirky bench adorned with the relief of a rooster or cat, a rustic Pinocchio with a nose so long that wooden birds are using it as a handy perch, a two-dimensional tree with leaves applied in layers three deep to give the foliage more depth and you slowly realize that these works of art these must have all been made by the same hand….or, at very least, the same woodworking shop.
Indeed, it takes just a few minutes of meandering the streets and shops of Orvieto to come upon the work of the Bottega Michelangeli wood atelier. Begun as a furniture-maker five generations ago, this workshop developed its now-famous two-dimensional, almost shadow puppet look under Gualverio Michelangeli in the mid-20th century, who departed from the stodgy furniture-making tradition begun by his family in 1789 to experiment with sculpture in pinewood. The style—a quirky yet pleasing blend of folk and contemporary art–is carried on in the work of his three daughters, Donatella, Simonetta e Raffaella, who were, like so many other children of artisans, raised in the shop and bred on family history and wood-shavings.
The atelier is housed in a former theater on the corner of Orvieto’s main Corso and Via Gualverio Michelangeli (thus is the pride the city has in one of its most famous local artists), in a former 19th century theater retrofitted to hold both the workshop and showrooms. Here there are samples of hand-finished furniture (the Bottega devotes much of its work to furnishing and décor), exquisite toys (dolls, marionettes, rocking horses), and what can only be described as art—linear angels, whimsical characters from mythology and fables, solemn birds and angels.
If you’re lucky, you may get a peek into the cavernous backroom, where their one-of-kind works are still hewn and assembled by hand. The dusty antique tools hanging on wall racks, the half-finished and abandoned projects leaning haphazardly in shadowy corners, the clean smell of fresh wood and sawdust, and the quiet concentration of the artisans bent over rough boards is evocative of the backstage that this theatrical space once was.
I prefer, however, to see Michelangeli’s pieces how they are meant to be seen: here and there about town. The odd shop sign, outdoor table, wall decoration…they pop out at you from the most unassuming corners of Orvieto (and some quite stately corners: the Town Hall and theater both are decorated with their pieces) and transform a walk through the streets into a treasure hunt of sorts.
Perhaps the best place to see the grandeur of Gualverio Michelangeli’s fantastical vision is the Montanucci Café on the main Corso. Step through the doors and into a fairy tale forest of trees and flowers, populated with woodland creatures and playful elves. Settle yourself at one of their tables and sample their signature sweet: bite-sized cones of smooth chocolate dubbed Pinocchio’s Nose. Between the chocolate and the whimsical surroundings, you’ll be hard-pressed to not feel somehow transported to a magical land.
A huge thank you to Toni DeBella of the fabulousOrvieto or Bust blog for her kind permission to use these photographs!