After climbing back down the trail from the Eremo di Santa Maria Giacobbe to Pale, we crossed the village and started up the opposite slope of Monte Serrone towards the historic Abbazia di Sassovivo. The climb was tough and the weather was taking a turn for the worse, but by this point we had put our trust in Paolo—he hadn’t let us down yet.
We were right to press on, as Sassovivo proved to be worth the climb (though it can also be reached by car, for those who are not inclined to hike…). Its air of otherwordly calm belies a grand history. This isolated complex, surrounded by acres of ancient holm oak wood, was once one of the most important and powerful Benedictine abbeys in central Italy, with a jurisdiction extending from Rome to the Marches. Founded by Benedictine hermits in 1070—on the site of a Longobard fortress, which in turn was erected on the site of an ancient Umbrian shrine– less than a century later the Abbey controlled a wide swath of central Italy, including almost 100 monasteries, around 40 churches, and seven hospitals.
Closed in part during the 1700s, the abbey’s holdings became property of the state in 1860 and was slowly abandoned until after the Second World War. It was restored between the 1970s and 1990s, and is now both an active monastic community and, fortunately for us, open to the public.
The monastery’s crown jewel is undoubtably its Romanesque cloister, encircled by arcades supported by delicate double columns, some fetchingly spiral-carved, and pretty mosaic detailing. Visitors can also see the monastery itself, with its Medieval frescoes and original dormitories, the outdoor loggia with fresco fragments from the 15th century, and the trails through the surrounding woods. We did all of that, and then were treated to the news that Paolo’s wife, Anna Lisa, was coming to pick us up. I think I may have fallen a little in love with Paolo right then.
I had a sandwich burning a hole in my backpack, but every time we mentioned a lunch stop, Paolo insisted we press on. By this time, it was early afternoon and we were all getting a little tetchy from sore feet and hunger; our trusty guide announced that we were all invited back to their olive mill to sample some bruschetta made with their own oil. How could we refuse?
Something amazing happens when you start to write about a region like Umbria. A region, that is, populated by warm, welcoming people who have a long history and deep roots in their land. This amazing thing is that these people contact you and are like, “Hey, I’ve got something really special in my neighborhood I want to share with you!” Not because they have something to sell, or something to promote, or something to gain in any way. Just because they genuinely love their region, and want others to love it, as well.
Take, for example, the sweetest couple ever: Paolo and his wife Anna Lisa. Out of the blue, Paolo got in contact and invited us to hike an area near his home on the outskirts of Foligno. Just because, you know, there were a couple of pretty sites there he thought we should know about. And we decided that we would take the risk that Paolo was a crazy axe-murderer and meet up with him on a Sunday last fall.
Paolo was not an axe-murderer, but one of the friendliest, kindest people you’d ever want to meet. He enthusiastically led us along an itinerary in a little-known area of Umbria, introducing us to couple of places that I’d honestly never heard of with the shy pride of a kid unveiling his latest art project.
Paolo. Not an axe murderer.
We began at Belfiore, a hamlet outside of Foligno in the Altolina valley, leaving our car parked in a gravel lot and beginning our walk among the ubiquitous olive groves that cover these mountain slopes. Paolo was playing his cards close to his chest about what awaited us during our outing, and the first stretch of the trail was a pretty, but typical, olive grove hike. The kind you get inured to after twenty years of living here. Bucolic, schmucolic.
Then we arrived at our first lovely surprise of the day: the Menotre Falls. The climb began to skirt the Menotre River, and we came across a series of small, charming waterfalls, pretty wooden bridges, and wooded overlooks that had us gushing and snapping pictures. Paolo told us that the Cascate del Menotre (also known locally as the Cascatelle di Pale) are an oasis for families on hot, summer afternoons, and I could see why.
We continued uphill through the remains of a villa garden with traces of stone grottoes and carvings, passing the tiny village of Pale (and its poignant abandoned paper mill and canal system, with manual valves and weirs). Here the climb got tougher, and Paolo pointed out our destination perched high above us on the rocky cliff of Mount Pale: the Santa Maria Giacobbe Hermitage.
We puffed up the trail, stopping to place our heels in the indentation left by the Saint’s foot in the stone steps (according to legend) and the our fingers in the handhold worn in the rock wall by centuries of pilgrims climbing the same route. Our labors were rewarded by a visit to the hermitage, including its chapel covered in frescoes dating from the 14th to 17th centuries, the cistern holding waters said to have healing powers, and a moving collection of ex votos spanning more than a century.
We had caught our breath and were ready to head back down the hill, but Paolo had one more surprise for us on the cliffside. We climbed a few hundred more meters above the hermitage to a heart-stopping, palm-sweating perch in the rock, and he pointed out a number of small paleolithic markings (easily missed if you don’t know were to look) under the shelf, protected from the elements for thousands of years. I found myself almost more moved by these rough red lines than by the rich frescoes in the hermitage below. From the beginning of time, humans have felt the urge to leave some sign of their passage on this earth…from the earliest cave paintings through the history of art.
Our day didn’t finish here, but to discover what else Paolo had up his sleeve, stop back on Thursday! There are more surprises in store…
I’m competitive. It’s not a trait I’m particularly proud of, but that’s how it is. I like to be the strongest, fastest, brightest. I like my kids to be the strongest, fastest, brightest. I like my dogs to be the strongest, fastest, brightest. I like everything around me to sport bright blue ribbons and shiny trophies. Like I said, I have a bit of a competitive streak.
I’ve always been borderline smug in my conviction that Umbria is pretty much the best in everything: the art, the culture, the food, the scenery. It’s a winner of a region, which makes it easy to enthuse about and even more easy to live in. There have been two massive flies in my Chardonnay (or, more fittingly, Grechetto) over the years, however: the first is that Umbria is landlocked. No coastline, no sea air, no pristine beaches stretching for miles. That’s assumingly not going to resolve itself until the Big One comes to change the global topography, and I’ve settled with falling in love with Lake Trasimeno.
The second was that Umbria had no fantastic caves to visit (unlike our neighbor the Marches, who have the spectacular Frasassi caves), but I am happy to report that I can bump up my smug just a notch because I discovered that Umbria does, in fact, have fantastic caves to visit and they are just as spectacular as Frasassi. Take that, Marche.
The Grotta di Monte Cucco is located in the Monte Cucco Park, near the medieval town of Gubbio in the north of Umbria. The cave isn’t a new discovery (historic sources and graffiti inside the caverns date as far back as the 1500s), but has only been open to the public for the past few years.
Monte Cucco is perforated with numerous caves—the name “cucco” derives from an ancient word for pumpkin or something hollow—which together add up to more than 20 kilometers of natural cavities, passages, and drops. Some of these descend almost 1,000 meters to end in undergound waterways and springs, and most require expert spelunking skills. Fortunately, the biggest and most breathtaking caverns and passages—at an altitude of 1,400 above sea level near the crest of Mount Cucco and stretching for 800 meters into the mountains bowels—are also the most accessible and can be easily visited by anyone in decent physical shape.
I finally had a chance to visit the Grotta di Monte Cucco this week, and had been looking forward to it with such muppet-like enthusiasm that I was worried I would be somehow disappointed when we finally got there. That was not the case; Monte Cucco itself is a beautiful park—one of Umbria’s most lovely—and the climbing drive up to the mountain’s crest from Sigillo is an exercise in rubbernecking gorgeous rolling scenery and beech groves so bucolic you find yourself expecting fairies or elves to come popping out.
The road ends in a small parking lot at Pian di Monte, and from here you hike about half a kilometer to the Valcella meeting point for the cave visit. We met our guide, were given our hard hats, and continued the rest of the way down the trail (another 500 meters) together to the cave entrance. The grotta has a number of entrances, but the east entrance is used for the basic visit, for the more rigorous adventure course (which involves following along rope lines fixed to the sides of the cave with climbing gear and a spelunking guide—something I hope to do in the near future), and for the “traversata”, or crossing, course, which follows the cave through the mountain and exits through the north entrance.
The visit begins with a baptism by fire: a 27 meter drop navigated in a series of near-vertical staircases. If you can make it through that stretch, you’re good. It’s by far the most head-spinning point of the visit, which winds itself for the next hour or so through three massive caverns and a series of twisting connecting passages, all lit with floodlights so you get a sense of the soaring height and nooks and crannies along the way. The esthetics inside the caves are slightly different than what you may be used to; these caves are primarily hypogenic (formed by water rising up from below and dissolving the rock) rather than epigenic (formed by the action of surface waters descending into the ground and dissolving rock), which means that the cave-scape is much heavier on the stalagmites than the stalactites, and at times you get the feeling that you are touring a planet made of mounds of whipped cream and meringue.
Of course, there are the familiar charming names for calcium formations (don’t miss the turtle) and cathedral-like caverns, but I’ll leave those to you to discover. And I recommend that you stop by and discover the Grotta di Monte Cucco, surely the best cave around. Not that I’m being competitive or anything.
Though the visit doesn’t require any special spelunking skills (most of it is along metal walkways and staircases), you need to be in good shape and not suffer from fear of heights or claustrofobia. There’s a minimum age of ten years, and make sure you wear a jacket (the inside temperature is 6° year round) and sturdy hiking boots. For tour descriptions, prices, and times, see their website.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. It was inevitable, really. It was, in truth, just a matter of time.
Yes, a blogging blank. Because, lo and behold, creativity doesn’t really deal well with an editorial calendar. At least not my creativity. My creativity is much like Christmas fruitcake: it requires a long ripening period, preferibly wrapped up in soft cloth and resting in a warm, dark place steeped in alcohol. And the final result is often palatable to just a few loyal connoisseurs.
But here I am, finding myself locked into a schedule directing me to share Perugia with the world this week and this week only and as I turn my gaze on this dynamic, bustling, elegant town (in many ways the social and cultural epicenter of the region), I can’t think of one damned thing to say about it.
Which is when I go to Plan B, aka “beg for suggestions from Mr. X”. Mr. X is my male counterpart, in that we are both Umbrian by adoption, with a passion for exploring and writing about this region, and a tendency toward bad hair days. Mr. X is not my male counterpart in that he never seems to come up with a blank. In fact, a panicked appeal for topic suggestions predictably results in a long, somewhat entertaining list of possible sites, events, towns, and/or local personalities to dissect. This time was no different, as I knew immediately that I had hit the jackpot with the very first on his list of suggestions. (Though the second did give me pause, as it was “San Pietro and its historic organ. I used to know the organist. He’s a drag queen now.” Huh. Now that would have been an interesting blog post.)
Mr. X reminded me of something I had been meaning to stop by and take a gander at for about two years: the immense Gothic stained glass window in Perugia’s monumental—yet unfinished—church of San Domenico. The window, dated 1411, had been out of public view during a painstaking eleven year-long restoration, and was unveiled with great ceremony in late 2009. It is the second largest stained glass window in Italy (the largest is in Milan’s cathedral) and by all accounts spectacular. I had a plan.
Well. Let me just say that I am not one of those women with a hang-up about size. In fact, sometimes an instrument on the small side, delicate and relatively soft, is just what you need. I am, of course, referring to toothbrushes. On the other hand, sometimes the perfect tool to get the job done must be big, thick, and eye-catching. I am, of course, referring to telephoto lenses. But when it comes to stained glass windows, there’s nothing like a towering 23 meter-high colossus, with almost fifty individual intricately-rendered panels and a kaleidoscope of newly-cleaned jewel-toned portraits to stop you in your tracks and, tragically, make you forget you have your camera in your purse.
Notable not only for its extraordinary size and workmanship, but also for the relatively unusual (in Italy) lack of an imposing rose window at the top in lieu of a Tree of Life design motif, the window is divided into a series of five levels of panels in the lower portion, reflecting the iconography of the Domenican Order (Pipe down. I Googled it.). The lowest tells the story of Saint James of Compostela, patron saint of pilgrims and particularly well represented in the Gothic period, and the next rows depicts six female saints (Lucy, Dorothy, Catherine of Alexandria, Mary Magdalene, Margaret of Hungary, and Agnes) beneath—ahem–six male Christian thinkers and philosophers (Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome beside the Domenican pope Benedict XI who, as a side note, was killed during a visit to Perugia in 1304 by poisoned figs. That’s how the Perugini rolled back then.)
The ill-fated Pope Benedict XI at the far right.
Directly above, three of Perugia’s patron saints are included (Costanzo, Ercolano, and Lorenzo) with the martyrs Stephen, Peter of Verona, and Dominic. The final panel is, of course, dedicated to the Annunciation with the Virgin Mary and Archangel Gabriel at the center, flanked by the apostles James, Paul, John, and Peter.
The top-most portion of the window (which, by the way, is best seen with opera glasses. Remember, you are pretty much staring up five stories by the time you get to the top.) is crowded with headshots of A-list evangelists, archangels, prophets, angels and cherubs, and, in the delicate snowflake-shaped top center, Christ.
The interior of San Domenico is relatively spartan, so the perfect backdrop for the barrage of color and light from its stunning window. Just don’t become so caught in the throes of Stendhal Syndrome that you forget to take pictures. Believe me. Because you may not have a Mr. X who can save your skin on that, as well.
Because yesterday I discovered that Spoleto is home to Umbria’s insane.
Mental instability is the only possible explanation as to why someone, some eighty years ago, took a gander at Spoleto’s main thoroughfare–a torturous and steep two-lane road of death–and said, “Listen up, folks. I’m thinking we should run a go kart race right down this bad boy. I’m thinking that the only rules should be that the karts have three bare metal ball bearing wheels, a strip of tire rubber hanging off the back for a foot brake, and one guy who pushes and one who steers.”
Tension at the starting line.
The top of the line high tech starting horn. I hope Calzolari got his car battery back.
This is not why Spoleto is full of nuts. Some eighty years ago, when that suggestion was tossed out, the folks standing around all said, “Hey, that sounds like a great idea! Let’s make sure the course includes at least three hairpin curves and a couple of straightaways with at least a 42 degree incline. And let’s all gather at the most dangerous spot along the route, hoping to witness a spill.”
The cockpit. Note the tire rubber strip of brake tacked on to the back.
My kids wanted to hijack this and join the race. It didn’t happen.
This is not why Spoleto is a cuckoo nest. Some eighty years ago when that suggestion was tossed out and the folks standing around thought they’d invented fun, a whole mess of teams showed up with their rickety karts, pushed them off with a sprint, and proceeded to barrel down the center of Spoleto at breakneck speed in the hopes of bringing home a large ham and glory.
And they’re off!
This is not why Spoleto should be cordoned off from the rest of the rational world. The reason is this: eighty years on, they are still doing all of the above. (Except the ham part. Reports were vague, but I gathered that the prize this year was gift certificates. And glory, of course.)
Spoleto’s annual go kart race (called vaporetti here, though go kart is fetchingly translated go kart in the rest of Italy) has been held off and on since the 1930s, with pauses for various wars—international and local. The latest hiatus ended in 2012 after six years—in large part because the event scored an important new sponsor: the local blood bank. I’m just going to let the irony of that sit here without comment–and thus the craziness was able to commence with renewed vigor.
Fender benders happen.
Trash talk happens.
Indeed, more than sixty teams registered for the race this year and shot down the Spoleto hillside in their modern, souped-up vaporetti. No longer a simple board fitted with wheels and steered by rope, these hot rods are sheathed in fiberglass bodies plastered with their sponsors’ slogans (one has to wonder at the marketing strategy which led the local acrylic nails salon to sponsor a go kart race, but it could work), and include steering wheels and some basic safety gear (um, helmets. And some elbow pads.), though the original package of three ball bearing wheels, a rubber strip brake, and two person teams remains unchanged.
Luckily, the vaporetti set off in groups of three or four, which means that spectators can witness teams push off at the starting line (complete with running commentary and car battery-powered start horn), and then meander their way down the 1.5 kilometer course watching the groups of teams whiz past on the hills and (we all secretly hope) crash and burn in the curves, until reaching the finish line, where the crowd lingers to watch them fly through the final stretch. Competition is fierce but friendly, and it is clear that this is a deeply homespun event organized by and for the Spoletini. One of the highpoints is the running commentary, almost impenetrable with its local dialect, insider jokes, and wine-loosened language. The bits I could understand were hilarious.
Does the vaporetti race have any redeeming cultural or historic value? No, probably not. But it’s fun as heck, a kid-pleaser galore (my sons were distressed to find out that minors are not allowed to race), and a light-hearted peek behind Spoleto’s impenetrably staid facade into its crazy local traditions.
Crazy being, of course, the operative word.
A special thanks to Spoleto natives Marina and Armando Lanoce, who are crazy enough to invite friends to the race, but not crazy enough to participate!
The Medieval vibe in Umbria can be so overwhelming that it’s easy to forget that this region is just a stone’s throw away from Rome and was a thriving part of the Roman Empire for centuries before aesthetic of the Middle Ages began to dominate art and architecture. There are a number of well-preserved Roman monuments and sites–and lots of ruins requiring a bit of imagination to piece back together–across Umbria (most notably at Carsulae, Spello, and Assisi), which for Roman history buffs is always a thrill.
I, however, am not a Roman history buff. I’ve always found Roman architecture to be magnificent yet aseptic, devoid of much sense of humanity and so remote and unapproachable that it leaves me impressed yet unmoved. Roman sites come to life when I see them in some sort of context, and I can begin to picture them as they were two millennia ago, teeming with life and reference points for a vibrant community and culture.
I am reminded of this every time I see a performance at Spoleto’s pretty Teatro Romano, built in the 1st century AD and restored in the 1950s. This intimate outdoor Roman theater is used for concerts and dance performances during the annual Spoleto Festival, which is why I’ve spent the past two evenings reflecting on this telescopic sense of history—at once feeling so removed yet so immediate–against the background of Schumann and Verdi.
It’s fun to sit before the performance (A side note: either the Romans had much tougher bums, or they had the foresight to bring cushions. Those stone stands are hard on the derrière.) and watch the theater slowly fill with chatting people–dressed to the nines, as I’m sure they were two thousand years ago—buzzing with expectation and settling in to their seats.
As the sun sets, the sky fills with swallows who sweep over the heads of the orchestra and crowd– lightening the staid atmosphere with their cheeky calls, as I’m sure they did two thousand years ago–and the orchestra begins to tune their instruments, calling to attention the audience.
During the evening, suddenly it all seems to click and the place comes to life…not only for that moment, but for the past millennia of moments. Thousands of years of music and joy, couples holding hands, mothers chiding squirming children, husbands adjusting shawls over the shoulders of their aging wives, and people coming together as a community and culture.
A community and culture we hope will still be gathering at the Teatro Romano two thousand years from now.
The Teatro Romano is just one venue hosting performances during the Spoleto Festival, which takes place in theaters throughout the town. To participate in an evening at the Roman theater, check the program online.
Nothing brings out the kid in you like a visit to a chocolate factory. Maybe it’s the recollection of Curious George’s shennanigans when he stopped by with the man with the yellow hat. Maybe it’s that classic episode of “I Love Lucy”, which flashes through your mind any time you see a conveyor belt in motion. Maybe it’s the image in Willy Wonka of the majestic chocolate river and mixing waterfall (never touched by human hands!). Maybe it’s simply that irresistible scent that seeps into your clothes and hair and skin and follows you around for the rest of the day.
Whatever it is, it’s right up there with bubbles and foosball and lawn sprinklers as far as the power to channel your inner child. And, given that I’m a big believer in the restorative properties of an occasional date with my inner child, the Perugina chocolate factory and museum (officially known as the Casa del Cioccolato) outside of Perugia is one of my favorite places to visit.
Perugina (now owned by Nestlé) was founded in Perugia proper in 1907, though didn’t begin producing its signature “Bacio” (kiss) chocolates until 1922. Brainchild of Luisa Spagnoli, wife of one of the company’s four founders (you know what they say about who is behind every successful man…), this chocolate and hazelnut treat (a sphere of gianduja, topped by a whole hazelnut and glazed with a layer of dark chocolate) was originally called “Cazzotto” (punch) because of its irregular fist shape. Luisa may have been a brilliant chocolatier, but marketer? Not so much. Fortunately, the other partners stepped in to both rename the product and add the tiny slips of paper printed with pithy romantic aphorisms which make the chocolates so distinct…and such a huge commercial success.
Perugina’s Bacio chocolates, as well as their other chocolate and candy products, are still made in their sprawling modern factory on the outskirts of Perugia. A visit begins with a brief tour of their small museum, where there are sections dedicated to the history of the company, the techniques used in their chocolate production, and—perhaps my favorite—a collection of their advertising posters and marketing materials over the past century. Akin to the historic Coca-Cola ads, the progression of Perugina’s advertising images parallels the evolution of modern popular art in Italy, and, under the art direction of the great Federico Seneca, some of the Futurism-school images used to promote the company at the beginning of the century are both iconic and timeless.
Before entering the factory itself, visitors are shown a short video explaining the production (yes, okay, it’s an infomercial. But guess what. They placate you with a free sampling of their chocolates before it starts. I find that I sell my soul disconcertingly easily when chocolate is on the table.). Afterwards, the group is led by a guide into a suspended catwalk over the production floor, where the scent of roasting cocoa beans washes over you like a chocolate tide. The tour is worth it for that alone. The guide sportingly attempts to describe what is going on below, fighting a losing battle against the roar of the machinery (this is why you should pay attention to the video) and the glazed-eye distraction the intoxicating aroma produces, but it’s fun to see actual chocolates being whizzed around on actual conveyor belts and packed into actual boxes by actual white coat-and-hairnet-clad ladies. It’s just like the movies.
A little side note: I actually have a friend who works for Perugina, and when I learned that enticing bit of information I grabbed her by the elbow, steered her into a corner of the room, and asked with the urgent intensity of a drug addict having found a new source, “Can you eat the chocolates?” Well, yes and no. Employees have an all-you-can-eat policy while at work, but aren’t allowed to take anything out of the factory. Which means, according to my friend, that almost everyone overdoses the first few weeks they work there, and then go off of chocolate pretty much forever. I know. Shocking, but true.
After seeing the roasting machines, mixing vats, pouring and molding equipment, and packaging belts (What products you will actually see made depends upon the season; Baci are made all year round, but many other products only specifically for Easter or Christmas. Production also slows dramatically in summer.), visitors end in the small gift shop, where you can pick up fun Perugina memoribilia and—of course—chocolates.
Don’t let the lack of an English version of their website deter you (Really?!? C’mon Perugina. You sell in 75 countries on 5 continents and your website isn’t translated?); it is both possible and easy to reserve an English speaking tour by calling their toll-free number at 800 800 907. Opening days and hours vary by season depending upon the production cycle and pre-booking is a must if you want an English speaking guide. The factory is located in San Sisto (a suburb of Perugia), so make sure you map it out before you go.
–Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed in the factory (Corporate espionage is just like in the movies, too.). The photos here are used with kind permission from Perugina–
I don’t need a certificate to show I’m a little off. My kids remind me this every time I ask them to perform an undesirable task. “Eat asparagus?!? You’re crazy!” “Clean my room?!? Are you crazy?” “Ok, so I forgot my homework. You don’t have to get all crazy!” The fact that I’m one fry short of a Happy Meal is common knowledge in my house.
But to those of you who don’t have the good fortune of blood-relatives both driving you to your destination and declaring your arrival daily, perhaps you feel the need to officially document your mental state.
Gubbio, an austerely beautiful Medieval outpost in northern Umbria, has long held the dubious honor of being home to a populace known for not having all their screws in tight, if you know what I mean. Known as Iguvium in Roman times, legend has it that Gubbio was just that perfect not-to-close-not-too-far distance away from Rome for the city to export their lunatics there. It was the Australia of the Roman Empire, so to speak. And if you have any doubt about the lingering effects of this batty blood line on its citizens today, a visit during their annual Corsa dei Ceri is enough to convince.
During this symbolic race on the first Sunday each May, three teams devoted to S. Ubaldo (the patron saint of Gubbio), S. Giorgio, and S. Antonio charge through cheering (somewhat drunken) throngs through the steep streets of the town and up the mountain, from Palazzo dei Consoli to the Basilica of S. Ubaldo above the town. Each team carries a towering cero: a statue of their saint mounted on a wooden octagonal base, which is 4 meters tall and weighs almost 300 kilograms. The sheer force of the teams, the teeming masses, the deafening cries of the onlookers…it was enough to convince the Pope. While Gubbio was still part of the Papal State, it found itself with 19 hospitals in town, but no mental asylum. City officials sent a delegation to the Vatican to ask permission to found an asylum and the Holy Father–who had just recently participated in the famed Corsa dei Ceri–responded, “Just close the town gates with the inhabitants inside and you’ve got yourself a madhouse.”
The story may be anecdotal, but the reputation has stuck. Still today a quick visit to the town is enough to have yourself certified bonkers. Just head to the 16th century Fontana dei Matti–Madmen’s Fountain–on Borgo Bargello and run around its circular base three times (opinions differ if it matters if one goes clockwise or counter-clockwise). Finish with a quick splash in the fountain, and then head to the nearby souvenir shop where they will fill out your official Patente da Matto (Madman’s License) for you to take home and proudly frame.
The more I travel the world, the more I appreciate the beauty of Umbria. (I know, it seems like a hard sell—but it’s the truth.) And the more I travel Umbria, the more I appreciate the beauty of Assisi. Sure, there are other areas of Umbria which I hold particularly dear (the largely undiscovered Valnerina, for example), but Assisi is—despite the tourists, despite the souvenir shops, despite the glaring lack of stellar restaurants—simply, gloriously, lovely.
One of the features which makes this iconic hilltown remarkable is the lack of modern development ringing its historic center, which means that it has both remained stunningly picturesque from afar and a perfect base for walkers and hikers, who can literally step out of the city gates and in minutes find themselves meandering in bucolic solitude the surrounding undulating landscape.
The wines produced on the hillsides and valley surrounding Assisi—using primarily Trebbiano, Grechetto, Sangiovese, and Merlot grapes to make their whites, red, and rosato—are perfect walking wines: light and clean, pairing well with a simple dejeuner sur l’herbe spread, and not picky about temperatures and oxidation. These are wines to be tossed into your shopping basket alongside your marinated olives and artichokes, cheese and salame, bread and apples, and uncorked on a hillside, under an olive tree, with the sun shining on your upturned face.
Mount Subasio Park
This extensive regional park–which includes the Assisi DOC producing towns of Assisi and Spello (and the lesser known Nocera Umbra and Valtopina), a number of tiny hamlets, four country churches, three abbeys, the Topino and Tescio rivers (criss-crossed with medieval stone bridges), and a network of hiking and walking trails (you’ll need to pick up a CAI trail map at a local bookstore)–centers around the hulking Mount Subasio.
It’s worth the trek to the softly rolling peak of this mountain (often full of wildflowers and grazing horses), which offers amazing views from over the Umbrian Valley to the south and the Appennine foothills (you can spot the craggy peaks of the Appennines themselves in the distance on a clear day) to the north. I especially love the Franciscan Trail (CAI n. 51) from Assisi to Nocera Umbra, which traces the last journey of a dying Saint Francis, and the itineraries suggested by Via di Francesco.
The Bosco di San Francesco
The newly inaugurated San Francesco Woodland, adjacent to the imposing Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, is a restoration project spearheaded by the Italian National Trust, which cleared more than 30 tons of waste, cut back undergrowth and replanted native species of trees and shrubs, opened over 3 kilometers of walking paths, and restored the 13th century Santa Croce Benedictine convent and mill, (now used as a visitors’ center) over a 12 acre area of wooded land which had been neglected for centuries.
The woodland’s walking paths and corresponding explanatory notes, an audioguide, and mobile app are grouped into three thematic routes: the landscape route illustrates the history of the rural landscape in Italy; the historical route recounts the area’s historic architecture; and the spiritual route invites walkers to reflect on the relationship between nature and mankind. The Saint Francis Woodland also holds Michelangelo Pistoletto’s piece of landscape art Terzo Paradiso, using the mathematical symbol for infinity to comment on the unsustainability of the model of modern development and the union of heaven and earth.
Don’t want to muck around with trail maps and packing picnics? Saio Winery just outside of Assisi’s historic center has a pretty walking trail through its vineyards and can provide a picnic (which they drop off at one of the shady spots along the trail for you).
If I could change one thing about Italy–wait, who am I kidding? I love living in Italy, but given the chance I would change roughly 14,000 things about it. But for argument’s sake, let’s choose one thing—it would be the ethnic food situation. Italy doesn’t do ethnic food. It doesn’t even do inter-regional food that well. If I go to my vegetable guy at the outdoor market and ask for black cabbage, I get a look and a, “Black cabbage?!? I don’t sell that. That’s what they use to make ribollita in Tuscany!” as if Tuscany were a remote province in southern China and not the bordering region roughly a 20 minute drive away. In Umbria, you eat Umbrian food. Just like in Puglia you eat Puglian food and in Liguria you eat Ligurian food. And if you want anything outside of those gastro-geographical borders, you need to book a flight.
Part of me is happy about that. I believe very strongly in eating mindfully (it’s about at new age-y as I get). Our food doesn’t inhabit a cultural and historical vacuum; our food is part of a larger context of land and people, the ebb and flow of economies and conquering armies, and often there’s a side helping of religious traditions on our plates, as well. Eating locally in a country like Italy—which has a rich gastronomic history and culture currently under attack by the invasion of fast food and imported counterfeits—is both a pleasure and a civic duty.
Of all the foods that weave a seamless tapestry between culture, history, and land, wine is the most illustrative. To really get a sense of the importance of millenia of viticulture and vinification on the landscape, art and literature, and cuisine of Umbria, Italy, and the entire Mediterranean basin, a visit to Torgiano’s excellent Wine Museum is de rigueur.
Though founded in the mid-1970s, careful upkeep and curation have made this far from a dusty, arid storehouse of wine related bric-à-brac, but more a compelling walk through the history of wine in all its thousand facets: gastronomic, economic, social, ceremonial, and medicinal. The museum, housed in the the 17th-century Palazzo Graziani-Baglioni six kilometers from Perugia, displays a vast array of items from archeological artefacts, artworks, and ethnographic collections—all aimed at illustrating the history and civilization of wine from its import from the Middle East, through the Etruscan and Roman cultures, until the Industrial Revolution.
Perhaps the most charming section of the museum is the vaulted stone and brick basement holding the antique wine cellar, with its collection of reconstructed antique grape presses, immense vats, and other wine-making equipment, many of which still used in Umbrian cantinas until just a few decades ago. One can just picture a winsome Sofia Loren-esque country maid, with her skirt hitched up and a come-hither look on her face, as she stomped through grape must and captured the heart of a roomful of farmboys.
I had expected an academic vibe to this museum, but instead found it captured the light-hearted, human side of wine–and drinking. From the collection of “lover’s cups”—used to woo one with wine—to the animal-shaped flasks, to the pieces dedicated to the ubiquitous Dionysian Myth, to the hip contemporary ceramic and graphics sections, at the Wine Museum I was reminded of how such a humble chemical reaction (we’re just talking about fermented grape juice, after all) can produce something so central to an entire civilization’s history and culture.
That said…um, I’m really craving a samosa right now.
One of my favorite wineries is right down the road: Terre Margaritelli. Stop in for a tasting!