I have, of late, discovered the small nugget of joy that is birdwatching. To be honest, what I do can hardly be called by that name. I rarely correctly identify a species—indeed, I rarely see a bird if it’s not pointed out to me by a companion. I have a hard time maneuvering binoculars, and forget about photography. By the time I’ve chosen the right exposure and focus, the flock has long migrated to Africa.
Photo by Battitoriso via Wikimedia Commons
The Lake Alviano WWF Oasis
But the silence and pace are a welcome respite from my loud, fast life, so I find myself more and more frequently retreating for a few hours to one of the number of natural bird sanctuaries around Umbria. My favorite, the WWF Oasis of Alviano in the southern part of Umbria, was hit hard by a devastating flood two years ago and my heart broke when I heard about the incredible damage to the park and its infrastructure. So when they put out the call for volunteers to come and lend a hand rebuilding, I signed right up.
Photo by Il Cantore via Wikimedia Commons
The Alviano Oasis is one of the WWF’s largest, extending 900 hectares along the manmade Alviano Lake, formed with the 1960 damming of the Tiber River for a hydroelectric plant. The area had already been an established stop for thousands of migratory birds each year, but with the formation of the vast lake and surrounding wetland, the importance of the resulting ecosystem became such that in 1978 the area became a natural reserve and in 1990 was taken over by the WWF.
Photo by Ziegler175 via Wikimedia Commons
There are four kilometers of walkways and hiking paths circling the lake and marsh, broken up by bird blinds and towers. Here skilled (and, ahem, lucky) birders can spot over a hundred species, including brightly plumed kingfishers, great crested grebes, herons, cormorants, bitterns, and falcons. The area is also lush with aquatic plants and the amphibians that call them home.
Photo by Marco Ilari via Wikimedia Commons
Repairing the Damage
When I went to lend a hand on the first gorgeously sunny Sunday of spring last year, I was expecting scenes of destruction and despair. Instead, I found that though much of the park infrastructure had been badly damaged (the oasis also lost two of their three horses in the flood), reconstruction efforts were going well and spirits were high with both the staff there directing the work and the hearty group of volunteers.
We worked on clearing the paths, rebuilding walkways, cleaning out the blinds and towers, and repairing fencing. Ours was just one in months of volunteer weekends, and it was so heartening to see the mixed group of locals and lovers of the oasis from further afield working together to get this unique area in shape to be reopened for the 2013 season. Indeed, just a few weeks later the Alviano Oasis was able to open its gates to birding enthusiasts again (though there is still work to be done), just in time for the first spring migration.
Photo by Mediamenta via Wikimedia Commons
Visiting the Oasis
The Alviano Oasis is open to the public 10 am to sunset from September 1st to May 31st (best times for birding are October/November and April/May). The entrance to the Oasis is at Madonna del Porto (Guardea) along the Alviano Scalo-Baschi road. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 333/7576283.
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Semel in anno licet insanire! (Once a year you are allowed to go crazy!)
There are places in Italy where Carnevale is very much an adult affair. Venice, for example, with her elaborate Baroque costumes and gala balls. Viareggio, with her gargantuan paper mache floats (eye-popping for the little ones, but with satirical political and social themes that fly right over their heads). In Umbria, however, Carnevale is primarily for kids (with a few nostalgic adults thrown in here and there), focusing on costume parties, parades, and lots and lots of fried, sugary foods.
As I didn’t grow up with the tradition of Carnevale (in the US it is only celebrated with any real feeling in New Orleans), I have acquired a taste for it only over the past few years as a parent. Unfortunately, I’ve especially acquired a taste for the calorie-laden Carnevale fare, which takes the full forty days of penance before Easter (known as the Quaresima, which Carnevale ushers in) to work off.
For those who, like me, aren’t well-versed in the tradition, Carnevale is a month-ish long festival which culminates in the “Fat Days”–from the Thursday through the Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday. The festival was, as were many in the Middle Ages, coopted from pagan tradition by the Christians, and in many parts of Italy evolved into a swan song of bacchanalian and carnal overindulgence before the period of penitance and purifying deprivation before Easter.
In many parts of Italy—primarily Bergamo and Naples–there are traditional maschere, translated as masks, but intended to mean both the costume and accompanying character—with a specific personality and personal history–which have been codified over the centuries. One of the few which may be familiar to those outside of Italy is Arlecchino (Harlequin), who wears a black mask covering his eyes and a suit of multi-colored diamonds stitched together, and sports a stick and pouch attached to his belt. He is an opportunist, perennially penniless (his pouch is empty), and ready to serve anyone who is willing to pay his debts and foot the bill for his gluttonous habits. He is extremely agile in his movements, and a well-played Arlecchino skips around nimbly on the balls of his feet. There are dozens of such stock maschere, immediately recognizable to Italians.
Unfortunately, Umbria—along with most of the modern Italian regions of Romagna, Marche, and Lazio–spent the Middle Ages under the severe and heavy-hand of the Papal State, so while neighboring regions were living it up and developing strong Carnival traditions, the Umbrians were busy wearing hair shirts and building monasteries. That said, though late to the game, modern Umbria has embraced the fun whole-heartedly and adopted both the traditions and the maschere of other Italian regions.
Most Carnevale dishes are found throughout Italy during the weeks of the festivities in more or less the same forms, but rarely are they called by the same name in different regions. Here’s what to sample in Umbria:
Brighelle (aka Castagnole): My drug of choice. These walnut-sized fried bignet-like puffs are filled with custard or, my personal favorite, crema chantilly (what Italians call custard cut with whipped cream). Perfect to pop in your mouth, by the time you realize you’ve overdosed it’s too late. Good brighelle are crisp on the outside (with a light dusting of sugar), extremely light, and have a fresh—not too eggy—filling.
Struffoli: Umbria’s answer to the doughnut hole, struffoli are essentially fried balls of dough dribbled with honey and/or a red-colored liquor known as Alchermes. These are a little more of a committment to eat, as they are usually too large to toss down the gullet in one go, and involve some intense finger-licking afterwards. Like doughtnut holes, good ones are light on the inside and surrounded by a crisp fried layer. Bad struffoli (which abound) are dry as sand on the inside and engorged with frying oil on the outside.
Cicerchiata: Imagine if you were to make about a thousand mini-struffoli the size of chickpeas (ceci, from which the sweet derives its name), soak them in honey, and form them into a rectangular or bundt cake shape. Then, just to make them sweeter, you sprinkled the whole thing with those little colored sprinkles or silver dragées. My kids live for these.
Chiacchiere (aka frappe or cenci): Fried again (do you notice a theme?), these are irregularly cut strips of thinly rolled dough fried to a crisp and dusted with sugar or dribbled with honey and/or Alchermes. The name they are known as in most of Umbria (chit-chat) gives a sense of how light and fragile a good plate of chiacchiere should be.
Again, Carnevale in Umbria is mostly about the young’uns (though many clubs and pubs have light-hearted costume parties the final weekend of the festivities). You’ll see the piazzas filled with mini-Zorros and Cinderellas and sundry mammals and ballerinas, most of whom are sporting cans of silly string and shaving cream (I suggest you not wear your best coat) and bags of confetti (called coriandoli in Italian. Confetti in Italian means jordan almonds. That took me a long time to wrap my head around.). Most of the merry-making centers around a parade with floats and various types of entertainment involving balloon animals, face painting, and sing-alongs. Big fun for the twelve-and-under crowd and anyone who loves to people-watch. The best ones in the region are:
Sant’Eraclio: an otherwise completely un-noteworthy suburb of Foligno. But they put on a great Carnivale parade. It costs €5 to get in unless you are wearing a costume. (Each Sunday during Carnival)
Acquasparta: smaller than Sant’Eraclio, but still fun. And free. (Each Sunday during Carnival)
Todi: a bit more highbrow, Todi puts on a medieval-themed Carnivale in historic center’s lovely piazza. A good choice for the 12-and-above contingency.
Gubbio: one of my favorite towns in Umbria, any excuse is a good one to visit. Their Carnevale fete is heavy on the marching bands, which is always fun. (The last two Sundays of Carnival)
San Sisto: a suburb of Perugia holds one of the biggest Carnevale parades in the city, complete with struffoli and chiacchiere (which they call frappe) bake-off. That’s why I’d go. (Final two Sundays of Carnival, plus Fat Saturday–the bake-off–and Fat Tuesday)
Assisi– with its iconic Basilica of Saint Francis, picturesque twisting stone alleyways, and breathtaking views over the surrounding olive grove-covered hills–is not known for its nightlife. The atmosphere of this beautiful and stately hilltown is staid and spiritual, lending itself more to contemplative walks and quiet cappuccinos than bacchanal excess and nocturnal partying.
That is, except for those three days (and nights) a year when Assisi really lets her hair down. For the past 50 plus years, Saint Francis’ hometown sheds its normal air of peace and brotherly love to spend the first Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of May locked in intense competition as the Parte de Sopra and the Parte de Sotto put on elaborate processions, scenes of medieval life, and concerts with period music as they compete for the Palio, judged by a panel of three experts, one specialized in history, one in theater and the arts, and one in music.
Virtually everyone who lives in Assisi – and many locals who have since moved away but make a yearly pilgrimage during the days leading up to Calendimaggio – participates in this community-run festival, from building sets and sewing costumes, to acting in the Medieval scenes, to singing in the choir, to going around town each evening to light the many torches illuminating the streets (yes, there is a special group of guys who are specialized in the torches). In a town in which only about 1,000 people currently live in the historic center, almost 2,000 routinely participate in some way in the festival, which brings the town together in both solidarity and rivalry like no other event.
The festival—currently shortlisted for UNESCO World Heritage recognition—is seen best from the bleacher seats in the main piazza (tickets available in the tourist information office); Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons are filled with processions (Thursday is marked by the keys to the city being ceremoniously handed over by the Mayor to the Master of Ceremonies for the three days of festivities; Friday the two Parti compete in crossbow and Medieval games; Saturday afternoon is the theatrical procession. Perhaps the most spectacular of the three days of festivities is Saturday night when fire and pyrotechnics play a large part of the show.). On Thursday and Friday nights the scenes of Medieval life which each Parte organize in their respective areas of the town are open only to the judges, but can be seen by the public projected on screens in the main piazza.
These are magical days when flags and banners hang from each window, a taverna (temporary restaurant) is bustling to serve hungry festival-goers under the Piazza del Comune, costumed theatrical processions, crossbow tournaments, feats of physical strength, Medieval choirs with historic instrumental accompaniment, and dancing go far into the night…indeed, on Saturday the rowdiness flows to dawn, when the verdict from the three judges is announced and the winning Parte literally dances in the streets (And piazzas. And fountains.).
These photos of past editions of Calendimaggio are courtesy of Via di Francesco.
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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.
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.
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.
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!
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–
A wonderful view from the ex-railway hike to the Valnerina below. (Copyright Marzia Keller)
There’s nothing I love more than a good hike, and there’s nothing I love morer than a good hike with a compelling backstory. Nature—especially the undulating green landscape of Umbria—soothes my soul, but what makes a walk memorable for me are the tiny stone hilltop hamlets and isolated abbeys and fortresses that most trails (many of which trace the routes of Roman and medieval passages) weave their way through. I chat with the elderly locals or, when I come upon a ghost village, explore the abandoned houses and miniature piazzas. I peek into leaf-strewn chapels in silent, empty abbeys or am surprised by intricate frescoes and stonework virtually forgotten by all but their caretakers. I discover Umbria—her land, her history, her people–in tiny crumbs, and savor each one.
Which is why I jumped at the chance to join a group hiking the former Spoleto-Norcia railway in the breathtaking Nera River Valley recently. I had been wanting to walk at least a portion of this 51 kilometer line since it had been retrofitted as a trail for hiking or biking a few years back, and when I heard that our group would be led by a pair of local guides I was thrilled. I threw a flashlight and a couple of sandwiches into my backpack and was ready to hit the trail.
And here it all begins…
The Spoleto-Norcia Railway
The rail line that ran between Spoleto through the Valnerina to the remote village of Norcia from 1926 to 1968 passes through some of the loveliest countryside in Umbria. From the tiny restored station in Spoleto (now used for railway-related exhibits), the trail skirts the now-empty stations in the villages of Caprareccia, Sant’Anatolia di Narco, Piedipaterno and Borgo Cerreto, passing over dizzying stone bridges and under narrow, ink-black tunnels along the route.
Caprareccia to Sant’Anatolia di Narco: Tunnels and Trestles
Our group began at the highest point of the trail in Caprareccia, skipping the first dozen kilometers of trail n. 20 from Spoleto to Caprareccia (which has some accessibility problems, to be resolved in 2012). We left half our cars in the small lot off the road (the other half of our vehicles we’d parked at our final destination earlier, as there is no public transport to get you back to the starting point), and stretched our legs towards the right to take a quick look at the overpass and the valley below Spoleto. Here is where we got our first lovely surprise of the day: one of our guides recounted how he “drove” the last train to make the Spoleto-Norcia run in 1968. His grandfather was the train’s engineer, and as a special treat he let his grandson take the commands (at the age of six) during the final journey.
The first tunnel is a doozy…but sooner or later there is a light at the end of it. (Copyright Marzia Keller)
We retraced our steps back through the parking area to the left, past the poignant abandoned station to the first baptism by fire along the trail: a 2 kilometer long tunnel (flashlights are a must to walk this route, as are decent footwear…the large stones under the tunnels are a killer for gymshoes), pitch black and with a few friendly bats just to complete the creepitude. Our guides kept us distracted from the never-ending darkness (about half an hour of walking) with historical anecdotes, including this: each morning two rail cars– each powered by a lone man working bicycle-style pedals–would leave, one from Spoleto and one from Norcia. When they met up halfway, they would give the all-clear and the train would begin its morning run.
When we finally came back into the light, we were treated to the breathtaking fall colors of the Valnerina, and continued our gently descending walk (this portion of the trail is about 12 kilometers), passing tiny empty houses once used by the families who worked on the line and a number of wonderfully scenic overpasses and spooky tunnels (two of which formed a 360° loop, completely blocking out any light. I discovered what the phrase “darkness pressing against my eyeballs” means.).
Tunnels and trestles through rolling hills…it’s like hiking model train set. (Copyright Marzia Keller)
Perhaps one of the most charming details along this portion of the hike is easily missed: a miniscule grassy platform along the trail in the middle of a thick wood. Villagers from the nearby hamlets of Grotti and Roccagelli would wake at dawn and, laden with baskets of eggs or produce and leading animals, follow a tiny path through the woods to board the train heading towards the markets in Spoleto or Norcia. This railway, quaint and picturesque to our eyes, was revolutionary for these isolated towns, where travel between them had been for centuries—if not millenia—solely by foot or donkey.
Castel San Felice to Borgo Cerreto: The Nera River
The second half of our walk (we stopped for a picnic lunch at the delightful San Felice abbey, where the frieze on the facade commemorates the slaying of the valley’s dragon by San Felice and San Mauro, about half a kilometer from Sant’Anatolia) offered a completely different landscape…instead of admiring the Nera River Valley from the top down, we skirted the river itself.
The bubbling Nera River (Copyright Marzia Keller)
Along the crystalline Nera, the trail runs under steep mountainsides on which tiny creche-looking stone villages perch precariously– this wild and rugged scenery is some of the most dramatic in Umbria. 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 stories of dragons and witches abound, and where—just to make the area a bit more hostile—each tiny town was locked in perennial warfare with the next one over.
The dramatic slopes above the Nera River, lair of dragons. (Copyright Marzia Keller)
But don’t let such flights of fancy divert you from enjoying the bucolic (and, blessedly, flat) scenery along the river banks. Pretty woods with blankets of cyclamen underfoot and the soft rushing sound of the water make it the more likely home of fairies and sprites than makers of dark magic. From the Abbey of San Felice, the railway trail runs right next to the highway 209; to avoid an hour of walking along noisy traffic, a better choice is to abandon the path for this stretch and instead take trail n. 12 (directly behind the abbey), which climbs the slopes above the river until reaching pretty Vallo di Nera, where it descends again to the river bank at Piedipaterno. From here the trail runs along the Nera on the bank opposite the road, so the traffic noise is much less distracting.
Though the walk itself is much less dramatic (there are no overpasses here, and just a smattering of short tunnels), the views of the rocky slopes above and the river bubbling in and out of sight are simply lovely. Our pace slowed as we began to feel the effects of almost 25 kilometers of walking, and we took advantage of the picnic spots and tiny bridges to stop and watch the river rush by, point out trout, and conjecture as to how refreshing a dip in that clear water must be on sweltering July afternoons. On this gorgeous October afternoon, my legs were tired but my spirit was renewed from a full day of quiet, green, and history.
Soothing for the soul (and maybe for the feet in hot weather!) (Copyright Marzia Keller)
A special heartfelt thanks to Armando Lanoce and Enzo Scoppetta from CAI Spoleto for sharing their beautiful Valnerina with us!
To hike the Ex-Ferrovia Spoleto-Norcia trail, use the CAI Monti di Spoleto e della Media Valnerina hiking map. Caprareccia-Borgo Cerreto can be done in one day (prearrange transit back to your starting point), or can easily be broken into two hikes at Sant’Anatolia di Narco.