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.
I realize it’s been Itinerary Central over here for the past few weeks, but I’ve had these blog posts simmering in the pot for awhile now and am finally catching up with my editorial backlog. (That’s what we real writers call our half finished Word files. Editorial backlog.)
I happen to think that Umbria is a great destination for kids, for a number of reasons. And Assisi is a fun town for families to visit, with the help of a few caveats to keep in mind and pointers to guide your way.
Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi
There’s some bad news: Assisi (like almost all of Umbria’s towns) is a hill town. Which means there’s a bit of climbing to get between virtually any two points on your map…which can be trying for kids who are not great walkers, but definitely a chore for everyone on the hottest days of the summer.
Try to time your visit according to the season (avoiding long, steep stretches during the hottest hours of the day) and rally your flagging troops with promises of snacks and play time (suggestions for both below). Also, everyone should wear comfortable clothes and shoes (Folks, can we not tour our children around all day in beach flip flops or crocs?) that are also suitable for visiting the Basilica, if that’s on the itinerary.
Assisi is, strangely, largely open to traffic (aside from a number warrens of tiny picturesque alleyways, too narrow to fit cars through), so you’ll have to keep sharp for passing cars along most of the main streets. Even the central Piazza del Comune is criss-crossed by cars through the day, so for better (and greener) play places, see below.
Before You Come
A bit of preparation will go a long way toward helping your kids get the most out of a visit to Assisi, including–most importantly–a quick lesson on the life and person of Saint Francis. His compelling story (Involving some of Disney’s key plot points: spoiled, war-mongering offspring rebels against family to chart own destiny. Personal growth and historical greatness ensue.) is one that most kids find fascinating, and his love of animals, message of peace, and lack of a gory martyrdom make him a relatively innocuous and universal role model.
There are a number of excellent biographies of Saint Francis geared toward children (Including one authored by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Yeah, that one.), and parents can choose one which emphasizes different aspects of his life (the religious, the natural, the peaceful) depending upon their interests and tastes.
There is also a fun app called Gumshoe Tours Assisi specifically for kids visiting Assisi. Full of games like I Spy, treasure hunts, and puzzles, the app gets kids interested in some of the town’s most famous monuments by integrating games and learning. Definitely worth downloading (the download is free, but there are in-app fees to unlock…see comments below).
Also, take a look at my Assisi itineraries (one, two, and three day) for a good general overview, tips like water fountains and shady spots, and more places to eat and shop.
The Basilica of Saint Francis
The Giotto frescoes in the Basilica’s upper church work exactly like religious art was supposed to back in the day: telling a story in comic book form to an overwhelmingly illiterate congregation. If your kids have had an introduction to Francis’ life (you ordered a book, right?), they’ll enjoy recognizing many of the most salient events retold in the famous frescoed panels. Also, be aware that the friars are insistent about maintaining silence within the church, so it’s preferable to go over the fresco cycle before entering (using a guide book or app) rather than incur the wrath of the prowling brothers by hissing explanations inside the church.
The Temple of Minerva
This intact Roman temple facade in Assisi’s main Piazza del Comune is sure to interest older kids who have started studying Roman history (or younger ones who have watched Tom and Jerry cartoons). Not much to see on the inside, but the Corinthian columns and covered portico are a great backdrop for family photos.
The Basilica of Saint Clare
Flying buttresses!! What more need be said? Also, two fountains (one to the side of the church under the buttresses), a sprawling piazza with no cars (except around the local elementary school 1:00 p.m. pick up time), and a row of shady benches overlooking the valley. This is a good stop to make.
The Rocca Maggiore
This is the de facto playground for much of Assisi’s youth (residents get in for free), as its real stone towers, tunnels, ramparts, and parapets are a million times more fun than any tire-and-timber castle at the neighborhood park. Kids need to be careful of the worn stone steps that can be slippery, and the dark tunnel running under the length of the outer wall to the far tower can either be electrifying or terrifying, depending. But, all told, this is a great place for kids to take a break from the solemn church atmosphere and run off some steam. Also, there’s a grassy outer courtyard with a small refreshment stand (there’s no admission to the outer courtyard) where everyone can get a cold drink and relax for a bit.
L’Eremo delle Carceri
This Medieval hermitage halfway up the side of Mount Subasio is a good mix of culture and nature for everyone. The pretty stone monastery has a quirky, windy route through its chapel, rooms, and passages and the tiny doorways and stone slabs where the friars slept are a fascinating look at both how small folks were back then and how humbly the first Franciscans lived. On the far side of the monastery, the woods have a number of paths and trails through the surrounding area leading to little shrines and caves where Francis and his brothers would retreat to pray. A warning: these woods are a pilgrimage destination and visitors are expected to be quiet and respectful…so if you are looking for a place for a loud family game of hide-and-seek, this is not it.
St. Francis’ wood
This is the perfect place for a little break after touring the Basilica. Literally steps from the entrance to the upper church, the Bosco di San Francesco is a recently reclaimed woodland with a gorgeous trail downhill to the valley floor at the bottom. Wherein lies the only problem: if you walk all the way down (it’s a couple of kilometers), you have to make the trek back up. That said, there is a bubbling brook flanked by a pretty (and flat) trail, occasional benches, and lots of woods for exploring at the bottom. A good compromise is simply starting there (there is a free parking lot at the bottom visitor’s center), and exploring the flat bit at the bottom and a bit of trail uphill.
This is fun because it’s a church in a church. The grandiose Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli hides the tiny Porziuncola chapel inside, which was the center of Francis’ second community of friars (the first is about 2 kilometers away in Rivotorto, where another grandiose church contains a tiny stone hut where Francis once lived and prayed).
Assisi is sadly bereft of great playgrounds. In years past, kids would play ball in the church piazzas, but they have been gradually paved over and declared off-limits for play over the past generation. There is a rather desolate, tiny play area with swings and a climbing structure outside the Porta Nuova city gate, which is okay in a pinch. Otherwise, the town park (called Regina Margherita on maps, but known to everyone locally as the Pincio) has just had a grand reopening after decades of neglect and abandon. There are no play structures, but the park itself is very green and pretty and a great place to run around or picnic.
Otherwise, the Bosco di San Francesco (see above) is good for running around (if you don’t pass through the bottom visitor center but instead cross the road and take the trail along the stream you won’t need to pay the entrance donation), the Rocca is perfect for the more adventurous (the outer courtyard is open to the public; to enter the castle itself you need to purchase a ticket), or, for calmer kids, the Eremo is good for stretching the legs in shady woods.
Of course, the mother of all outdoor play is on the top of Mount Subasio, where the vast grassy plain offers kilometers of traffic-free running around.
Laboratorio Artistico Alice
Address: Piazza Chiesa Nuova (right beneath Piazza del Comune)
I can’t talk up the kids’ t-shirts Alice hand-paints enough…sunflowers, doggies, dinosaurs, poppies, whimsical scenes of Assisi. If you give her a couple of days (and she’s not too busy), she’ll even personalize the back with your choice of name painted in a rainbow of colors. A one-of-a-kind gift. Aside from her handpainted tshirts, Alice has jewelry, photo albums, paintings and prints. All in her lovely, whimsical style.
Address: Via Portica, 15/A
This shop is bursting with wooden toys and decorations…Pinocchio in all sizes and colors, mobiles, wall clocks, rocking horses. Toys from another era yet somehow ageless.
Ok, yes. In a perfect world, we would feed our children three square meals and two healthy snacks a day, travel or no travel. Yeah, well. Guess what. This ain’t a perfect world. Here’s where you can score some pizza and ice cream.
Ristorante I Monaci
This popular local favorite for pizza on Via Scallette, 10 is usually hopping with those looking for a simple meal at a fair price. They serve pasta and meat as well.
Pizza by the slice
The tiny pizza shop “Da Andrea” on the corner right across the street from the Church of San Rufino (there is a small wooden bench next to the door) has the best slices in Assisi.
There is, sadly, no great ice cream in Assisi. But there is convenient ice cream…i.e. Caffè San Francesco. After your visit to the Basilica, it’s time to give your brain and feet a rest at this landmark local cafè across the street. Try to grab the secret hidden table behind all the flowerpots on the corner for the best view in town, or enjoy the old-world style marble and scarlet decor inside.
Bar Pasticcieria Sensi is about halfway down Corso Mazzini between the main piazza and Santa Chiara. Though not as showy as many other pastry shops around town, this is where the locals all flock to satisfy their sweet-tooth. They also have not great (but convenient) ice cream.
Easter comes exceptionally late in 2014, which means it’s a great year to take off for the week and head to Umbria where spring is in full swing.
If you are planning an Easter visit, I wrote a few tips about what to expect regarding events and food related to this important holiday for About.com’s GoItaly this week.
Want more information on what to pig out on during your Easter break in Umbria? Say no more.
What’s the funnest part of Easter in Umbria? Read on.
Have any more tips for visiting Umbria at Eastertime? Leave a comment below!
It’s that season when it feels like it has been raining for roughly, oh, seventeen years.
Why is Umbria Italy’s “green heart”? Well, because we get an incredible amount of precipitation during the winter, which usually (though we have been hit with drought in this crazy new global climate, as well) sees us through the summer. But, boy, can it be a bummer during January and February, when it starts feeling like we may never see the sun again.
In my California dreaming, I was reminded of a little guide to beach resort towns in Le Marche I wrote recently. Umbria is landlocked, so visitors who want to day trip to the seaside either need to head over the Appennine mountains to the east, or across Tuscany to the west. The Adriatic coast to the east is slightly closer, so most choose Le Marche for a quick jaunt.
Here are a few suggestions of seaside resorts close enough to day trip for those seeking the sun:
The other option (Tuscany) is doable for a day trip from Umbria, as well. I’ll be writing up a guide to some of my favorite Tuscan resort towns soon. But right now I need to go have some hot cocoa by the fire…
I have to fess up and admit that it took me years to finally work up the courage to check out what turned out to be one of my favorite festivals in Umbria.
My only other contact with anything resembling a medieval fair was the now defunct King Richard’s Faire outside Chicago, which is an event roughly 1/3 kitsch, 1/3 tacky, and 1/3 fat, badly dressed midwesterners (I feel I can say this with impunity, being myself a fat, badly dressed midwesterner). Actors wandered around the fairgrounds in costumes which can be described only as flower child 1980s Shakespearean, chitchatting in ye olde English, and selling “jars of mead” (Budweiser) and “sweet water” (Coke) from handbaskets. The food was whole turkey legs, eaten with one’s hands, and funnel cakes. The crafts were dried flower arrangements and toy swords. I loved it, to be fair. But I was 8, to be honest. When I was 8, the height of cuisine was chili-mac, the height of fine wine was Lancers (Grandma drank it), the height of music was K-Tel’s Disco Nights, and the height of culture was King Richard’s Faire.
So it was with much trepidation that I approached the Mercato delle Gaite in Bevagna, imagining obnoxious jesters, marauding costumed concessionary hawkers, and just simply too much bad taste for my grownup self to handle. Instead, this ten day long festival set in the 1300s is the antithesis to all of that, and a damned good time for both adults and kids, to boot.
One of the principal differences is that the annual event—founded in 1983–is not simply entertainment but instead a competition between the four traditional gaite, or quarters, of the town of Bevagna: San Giorgio, San Pietro, San Giovanni, and Santa Maria. Each quarter earns points primarily based on their historical accuracy during each of the four competitions held during the festival; continuous and quite rigorous accademic research goes on behind the scenes and the festival’s jury is largely made up of historians and experts on fourteenth century Italy. Like I said, there ain’t no ye olde English-esque stuff going on.
The coat of arms for San Giorgio
San Giovanni's coat of arms
San Pietro flies these colors
The crest of Santa Maria
Another difference between the two festivals is, of course, the venue. Bevagna is an absolute jewel in the Umbrian plain, listed among the most beautiful villages in Italy. The festival’s four competitions all take place in the lovely main piazza, and the medieval streets, buildings, and courtyards which surround it. A charming place to visit all year round, this town really shines when all decked out for their annual festival.
The most important difference is, of course, the events themselves, four in all, which make up the competition between the gaite—first among them the mestieri, or artisan workshops. Each quarter has the task of organizing two different workshops which use both the techniques and technology of the 1300s to actually produce wares—which makes the Mercato delle Gaite unique in a region where medieval festivals come a dime a dozen.
The bell foundry...one of the "mestieri"
Over the years some of the less successful workshops have been replaced, others enlarged (this slow but constant evolution means that the trades have become more elaborate and spectacular with time), and now all are marvelous and fascinating.
The immense replica silk thread making machine
From the silk workshop–which raises silkworms, unravels the cocoons, and spins fine thread on a manual wooden contraption which fills an entire room and looks as if it jumped right out of one of da Vinci’s sketchpads of marvelous machines—to the paper workshop—which produces fine handcrafted paper by pounding rags with an enormous pulper powered by a waterwheel—to the bell foundry—which casts bronze bells on commission from churches and historical societies all over Italy—each workshop is manned by artisans in period garb who explain their trade as practiced 700 years ago. There are ten mestieri in all (two are permanent and non-competing) open to the public every night from 9-12 pm and Saturday and Sunday from 5-7 pm and again from 9-12 pm.
The apothecary's workshop
As long as you are headed into town to see the workshops, plan to have dinner at one of the four taverne (outdoor restaurants) organized by each gaita. The second competition which takes place during the festival–and figures into calculating the victor–is gastronomic. Each quarter of the city researches recipes and ingredients used in fourteenth century cuisine and offers the public a chance to taste the fruits of this research by creating a menu exclusively made up of historical dishes. The fare is heavy on meat (especially game), spices (this year I had a spice lasagna which was fabulous), and egg pasta and bread. You won’t find tomatoes (no tomato sauce on your tagliatelle), potatoes (no gnocchi), corn (no polenta), or any other ingredients which were brought back from the New World 200 years after the time of the gaite.
A banquet with period food and costumes
After dinner and before making the rounds of the workshops, you can stop in the central Piazza Silvestri and watch a series of theatrical and musical events in costume, or the archery contest (the third of the four competitions during the festival). Especially interesting is the Notte Medievale, a dusk to dawn medieval festival-within-a-festival with a full night of art, music, dance, and food.
Archers from the four Gaite prepare to compete in the piazza
The highpoint of the festivities, and the origin of the name Mercato delle Gaite, is the medieval market which takes place during the afternoons of the final weekend. Each quarter organizes a working market, where locals play artists, artisans, tradespeople, and farmers displaying their wares—the competition consists in trying to create the most interesting, artistic, and historically accurate market square. The feel of these markets really is a step back in time…each teems with customers weaving their way through the market booths, the din of the tradespeople hawking their wares and the live animals protesting their confinement, the smell of fresh flowers and herbs, cheeses, and dried sausages, the colorful garb of the costumed sellers and their stalls heaped with wares.
A market scene
I suppose the one thing the Mercato delle Gaite and King Richard’s Faire have in common is that you will find yourself inevitably bringing something home from both…what you end up bringing away with you from Bevagna, however, will never be a source of buyer’s remorse.
These photos were reproduced with permission of the Associazione Mercato delle Gaite.
If there’s one thing my mother taught me, it’s this: If you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all. (Second only to: Always wear clean underwear in case you’re in an accident. A life lesson slightly less useful but still memorable.). Which is why there are certain areas in Umbria that I don’t talk about much; I just don’t have very many nice things to say.
I admit that Lake Trasimeno and environs has been, for many years, one of those areas for me. Not that the Trasimeno basin isn’t lovely…it certainly is, in a bucolic, softly rolling hills, postcard-y sort of way. I am a more dramatic, craggy, sturm-und-drang school sort of gal (see my lauding ad nauseam of the Valnerina), however, and the resort town atmosphere around the lake feels somehow staged.
It took a recent impromptu fishing excursion to rethink my blanket dismissal of Trasimeno. (Let me preface this by saying that I do not like fishing. Patience is—ahem—not a virtue for which I am particularly known, and if you want to see an otherwise competent, mature, and self-possessed woman morph instantly into a squealing mess of a girl, have her unhook a writhing carp from a fishing line.) But it was a cloudless day in May and perfect weather to be on a boat, so I went. And discovered that underneath the beaches and nightclubs and boutiques ringing the lake, there are real people who have lived and worked in symbiosis with its waters for generations.
The traditional fishing boat is flat-bottomed and wooden.
We met up with our fishman/guide/capitano (Who sized us up rather skeptically. He was apparently familiar with the morphing issue.) at the Trasimeno Fishing Cooperative in the unassuming town of San Feliciano and immediately set out in a traditional flat-bottomed wooden boat.
Our pensive captain. He knows what he's dealing with here.
After motoring to the nearby fishing grounds, our captain cut the engine and stood in the center of the boat rowing in the traditional style–criss-crossing the handles while alternating pulls on the right and left oars–and somehow managed to keep a straight course. Like the Venetian “voga” rowing style, it looks damned easy until you try it and find yourself going nowhere fast.
The traditional rowing style looks easy. It ain't.
We cut slowly through the placid waters, casting long nets and hauling in the cone-shaped traps for eel, pike, tench, and carp. (And crayfish from the Southern US, who somehow inexplicably have ended up in the Bel Paese.)
Hauling in a cone-shaped trap.
While we fished we chatted with the friendly-yet-taciturn captain (have you ever met a chatty fisherman?) as he told his story of following in his father’s footsteps, and about the history and culture of the local fishing town. As he talked passionately about the lake and his life there, I felt myself warm to Trasimeno…which suddenly seemed less like a movie set and more like a community.
Letting out the nets.
We only had time for a quick trip out on the water, but excursions usually include a turn around the lake with a stop on the Polvese Island where your catch is grilled up on the beach (something I certainly plan on doing with my kids this summer). Alternatively, your haul is weighed and sold at the Cooperative, which supplies the area restaurants. The local landmark “Ristorante Da Settimio” is half a block from the Cooperative and docks and features fish caught by the Cooperative, if you are curious to sample the lake’s bounty.
A real fisherman repairing real nets on real Lake Trasimeno.
To reserve a fishing excursion with the Cooperative, I suggest actually stopping by the office in San Feliciano. They may know where the fish are biting, but they’re not so good with the answering emails and phone calls thing.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million (or, at least, seven) times…there’s no better time to visit an Umbrian town than during their annual festival.
Umbria is chock full of great ones (almost every village has their own), but I was recently asked by the wonderful European travel guide, blog, and community Europe Up Close to pick my five favorites…and it wasn’t easy.
Take a look here to see which made the cut, and consider working in at least one on your next trip to Umbria!
If I were given two choices, and the choices were a) rip my beating heart from my chest with my bare hands or b) spend an evening in a children’s theme restaurant wearing a silly hat and participating in a “guess how many beans are in the jar” competition at the prodding of a microphone-wielding MC dressed as a cricket, I would, of course, choose b).
But only after thinking about it long and hard.
Which is why, when my dear friend Barbara, a bubbly blond mother-of-two-up-for-anything-anytime Aussie (That’s how they are Down Under. Mostly because eight of the ten most lethal animals on the planet call Australia home, and you get very Carpe Diem and No Worries, Mate when you know a simple trip up the walk to retrieve the morning paper may end in meeting your Maker.) called me up to say, “Hey, did you hear about the new Pinocchio restaurant for kids in Perugia?!? They wear costumes! They have games for the kids! Let’s take the boys on Saturday!” (At least, that’s what I think she said. I’ve known her since 1993 and I still find myself struggling with that strange language she claims is English on the phone. We often revert to Italian.), she was greeted with a long silence. So she gave me a tongue lashing, which she is wont to do when I act like a bludger, need to get off my fat date, stop being a dill and/or drongo and/or knocker, because really, sometimes I make her spit the dummy. Since I don’t really understand any of that, but none of it sounds very good, I offered to call and reserve before she called me a whacker for good measure.
This is how it went:
Hello, this is the Talking Cricket. Can you please hold?
Uh, ok. (I hold.)
Hello, sorry about that. How can I help you?
Um, did you just say that you’re the Talking Cricket?
Uh, ok. I need to reserve for Saturday night. Four adults and four kids.
And will the children be eating on Pleasure Island?
I was beginning to rethink my choice of b).
Osteria di Pinocchio
Via Tazio Nuvolari (Pian di Massiano)
But here I am, a few months later, not only about to endorse this place as one of the funnest evenings to be had for a family with kids under about 8, but openly admitting to becoming a bit of a regular. To explain why, let me tell you what Osteria di Pinocchio isn’t.
It isn’t garish
I had formed a mental picture of an aesthetic which hovered in that nightmarish land between Disneyland ca. 1972 and Chuck E. Cheese ca. 1987. Lots of formica in primary colors, industrial stain-camouflaging carpet, neon lights, and those swivel chairs that are hooked directly onto the table so that both fat people and children can’t use them (which, as fate would have it, comprises about 92% of Disneyland and Chuck E. Cheese’s combined customer demographic.).
I had forgotten that Pinocchio did not, in fact, originate from a mid-western strip mall, but instead from Tuscany. Lovely, understated, natural wood and period details Tuscany. Really, if you ignore the immense wooden Pinocchio suspended above your head along the length of the ceiling, you could imagine yourself being in any warmly furnished large restaurant in central Italy. Well, you have to ignore the maitre-d’ with the cricket antennae headband, as well, but we’ll get to him.
Where the interior decorating takes it up a notch is in the separate children’s dining room, where the walls are covered with lovely Pinocchio-related reliefs in stained wood and matching child-sized stained wooden tables and chairs. But the effect is both fun and tasteful.
It isn’t video-game loud
Okay, I admit that if you are looking for a quiet candle-lit bistrot to stare into each other’s eyes for a romantic tête–à–tête, this may not be the place. It’s a relatively big restaurant, and most nights the place is hopping.
However, conversation loud is one thing—screaming children and flashing and buzzing arcade game loud is another. As I mentioned above, there is a separate dining room for children (they can choose to eat there or in the main dining room…my kids love the separate dining room, though some shyer types might balk at you being out of sight during dinner), which cuts out the lion’s share of screaming and running children, a common sight at most other children-themed places. Also, in keeping with the muted decor, there are no video games in sight. Kids are kept busy by the staff in the children’s dining room, who organize sing-alongs, games, story-telling, dancing, and all sorts of stuff to keep them engaged and entertained for the evening. Which means that you are free to enjoy the Holy Grail of any parent’s dining experience: an uninterrupted conversation.
The only distraction that can border on annoying is the roughly five minutes of game playing (see bean game above…we have also witnessed trivia quizzes and riddle-solving) led by a loudly mic-ed Pinocchio in the main dining room. But even he grew on me after I actually won the competition one night and took home a nice bottle of Sagrantino di Montefalco for my effort. My hipster smugness goes right out the window when prizes are involved.
It isn’t crap food
Your average 6 year old is no gourmand, and most restaurants catering to kids know that. Timeless favorites like greasy pizza, hot dogs, tater tots, and soft-serve ice cream feature prominently on the menu. Your average 6 year old is also no credit card holder and likely won’t be footing the bill, however, and–since I am–I would like to eat something resembling something edible (and, to be frank, have my kids eat something that isn’t a gateway drug into childhood obesity).
The food here is good. I mean, not life-changingly awesome, but solidly good. Fine pizza (fired in a wood-burning oven), inventive antipasti, nice primi, big honking hunks of meat roasted over wood-coals secondi. A nice selection of fixed menus (I’ve seen vegetarian, traditional Umbrian, fish and seafood, among others) if your brain has been so fried by parenting that you’d rather not ponder pages of dishes in a foreign language.
The best menu by far is over in the children’s room. The kids get a fixed menu, but whoever cooked up the piatto del giorno sure had a lot of fun (and an amazing amount of creativity). My kids have had parmeggiano boats filled with tortellini floating on a green bean sea with a corn sun and a cricket’s face made of mashed potatoes with asparagus antennae and a meatball bow-tie. Fun stuff, and they actually ate the asparagus. Makes you want to take up food styling at home.
It isn’t a money black hole
So, for your kids to have a healthy meal (ok, with an occasional french fry and some ice cream), unlimited kiddie bar access, and a good three to four hours of awesome fun, it will cost you a whopping €15. Which is pretty much the same thing a regular pizza + drink + dessert will cost you in any run-of-the-mill restaurant in Umbria, but with no entertainment. The price/quality ratio for the regular menu is more than fair: the fixed menus with four courses run €25 (I couldn’t finish my vegetarian menu the last time we went) and the alla carte is more than in line with average trattoria prices. The lack of arcade machines or tacked-on entertainment extras means that it’s easy to keep an eye on your budget for the evening.
Oh, I forgot to mention the funny hats. They’re free.
I am actually okay with death. By death I mean, of course, Death…not death. In fact, the absence of any conviction regarding the existence of an afterlife has freed me up to fully appreciate Mother Nature’s warped sense of humor, as she seeds the universe with our molecules to produce the next generation of stars and aardvarks, sequoias and spores, saints and Republicans. On the other hand, becoming a parent has made death all the more terrorizing. Though I have always admired Ayelet Waldman’s sentiments, they also somewhat perplex me. If I imagine the film of my life, my husband’s death would be followed a period of muted colors which would, over time, return to their former brilliance. The death of one of my children would mark the place where the film suddenly becomes black and white, and there would never be color again.
But the abstract concept of Death doesn’t freak me out. I don’t get the heebies at the cemetary, have any particular aversion to blood and gore, and the few times I have seen bodies have been struck more with a clinical fascination than a sense of horror. So when I headed to the Valnerina to see the mummies in the 12th century church of Santo Stefano–now the crypt of the 15th century church built on top of the original–that I had been hearing about for years, it was with the lighthearted mood of adventure (and playing hooky from the office).
The tiny village of Ferentillo tucked into a crag between two looming peaks.
As I neared Ferentillo, however, the fluffy white clouds overhead were suddenly run out of town by a black, ominous storm front. The temperature plunged several degrees in a matter of minutes, daylight faded, and the dramatic craggy peaks which loom over the town on all sides began to seem ominuous and windswept in a way that made me think of Jane Eyre and crazy ex-wives locked in attics. By the time I had parked, rain was pelting the tiny village pitilessly and the rolling thunder had become deafening. I ran to the entrance of the crypt, which is now a museum, and darted past the massive wooden door into the vaulted stone entry just as lightening struck close by and its blinding flash lit up this welcoming inscription:
This warm and fuzzy inscription welcomes all visitors to the museum.
Oggi a me, domani a te.
Io fui quel che tu sei
tu sarai quel che io sono.
Pensa mortal che il tuo fine è questo,
e pensa pur che ciò sarà ben presto.
Today me, tomorrow you.
I was what you are
and you will be what I am.
Consider, mortal, that your end is this
and consider also that it will be quite soon.
When the cheerful young guide suddenly popped out from around the corner to sell me our tickets and take us through the crypt, she pretty much scared the bejeezus out of me. My nine year old son was, by this time, trembling like a Labrador puppy at the prospect of 1) seeing mummies and 2) seeing his otherwise unflappable mother visibly rattled, so we stepped inside.
This process of mummification only takes about a year. There are two mummified birds on display, the result of more recent test runs by skeptical locals.
The crypt-turned-museum is quite small and there are probably no more than twenty mummies on display, so the visit didn’t take long. Our guide explained how the combination of a microfungus and mineral salts in the soil and a unique air flow (there are openings along one wall where the cold storm air was gusting in) resulted in the natural mummification of many of the bodies buried here over the centuries. The mummified remains were discovered at the beginning of the 19th century, when a Napoleanic edict ordered the emptying of crypts and the trasfer of remains to cemetaries outside of the town walls. This being the Valnerina—an impenetrable area which held out against Christianity, Napoleon, and a united Italy long after the rest of Umbria—they continued to inter their dead here until 1871, when the last coffin was placed in the crypt (it’s still on display, though the surviving relatives have forbidden its opening).
Some of the most intact of these mummified corpses are displayed behind glass, and the guide’s chirpy commentary—with gruesome backstories of torture and hangings (You can still see where his neck is broken!), disease and plague (Notice how the sores are still visible on her skin!), human tragedy (The baby looks as if he is merely sleeping!), and grim details (If you step closely enough you can see the whiskers, teeth, eyeballs, and hair!)—was both surreal and compelling in a Tim Burton-esque sort of way. Add to this the muffled sound of thunder and flashes of lightening that periodically made the lights flicker, and you pretty much had the making of a nine-year-old boy’s perfect excursion.
There are also neatly shelved skulls and bones on display in the dimly lit crypt.
Is it macabre? Sure, but in a fascinating way. Unlike the Egyptian mummies we are so used to viewing, these are recent enough that the details surrounding their lives and deaths resonate more and make them more human and less monstrous curiosities. Their stories are told matter-of-factly, yet with great decorum and respect. Death is, after all, a part of life.
That said, is it a little spooky? You bet.
If I only had one summer left to live and had to choose a single last sagra to attend, (Yes, I realize it’s an unlikely scenario. Humor me.) I would choose Cannara’s over-the-top-out-of-control-mother-of-all-sagras Festa della Cipolla at the beginning of September. Hands down.
There's a big sign. Just in case the smell of cooking onions doesn't clue you in.
This year I went on a Saturday night at 8 pm. If there is a night that one should not attempt to eat at the Onion Festival, it’s Saturday night. If there’s a time one should not attempt to eat at the Onion Festival, it’s 8 pm. But there are days—stretches of days, sometimes—out here in the Umbrian hills during which I do not see another human being who is not a blood relation, so I get a little starved for human contact. And if there is a place to be in Umbria if you are looking for human contact, that place is the sagra in Cannara on a Saturday night at 8 pm.
As I parked my car (so far away that the guys directing traffic spoke with Roman accents), I thought Wouldn’t it be funny to say in my blog that despite parking roughly 25 kilometers from the sagra, the smell of cooking onion hit me as soon as I opened my car door for comic effect. Then I opened my car door, and the smell of cooking onion hit me. These folks are serious about onion, and their onion gravitas stays with you for days. I speak from experience.
This is what I'm talking about.
The reason I love the onion festival so (aside from the fact that it is one of the few sagre where a vegetarian can eat to her little piggy heart’s content) it that it embodies the essence of all that a sagra should be:
At a time where sagre are multiplying like mushrooms, and disappearing with the same speed, La Festa della Cipolla is in its 30th year and still going strong. From a tiny little block party-esque communal dinner, this annual event now feeds around 60,000 people during its two week run. Just to put that in perspective, keep in mind that the population of the entire region of Umbria hovers around 900,000. This festa has put Cannara on the map, and it’s fun to be a part of it.
Sorry this picture is a little blurry. I was being jostled by roughly ten percent of the population of Umbria.
Nothing bugs me more than these young whippersnapper sagre serving foods that have absolutely no cultural value whatsoever. The Beer Sagra. The Nutella Sagra. The Seafood Sagra. In Cannara, the main food celebrated is a genuine local delicacy. Cannara’s red, yellow, and flat onions are unique to this area (their flavor influenced by the type and humidity of Cannara’s marshy soil) and have been noted by Slow Food and various famous chefs.
Onions. Consume them on site, or purchase for home. Either way, you'll be sleeping alone.
How much of the real stuff is actually used in the menu is debatable (that would be a heck of a lot of onions to serve 60,000 people for a tiny area like Cannara), but you can buy rustic braids of onions from the stands set up along the streets of the town and taste them for yourself.
The onions go like hotcakes.
I love a sagra where I get the feeling everyone and their brother (and sister, mother, father, cousin, and car mechanic) is involved…and that is definitely the vibe for two weeks in Cannara every fall. There are six “stands” set up in various courtyards and squares in the town–by stands, they mean entire piazzas crowded with long tables and benches under canvas tents—which can serve a total of 2,500 people at a sitting. Given that Cannara is home to less than 4,000 residents, to keep an event going of that size–between the planning, cooking, serving, cleaning, organizing, and entertaining—it’s pretty much a whole town affair. And then some.
The stands are hopping on a Saturday night. Or any night, for that matter.
At one end of the spectrum, there are sagre set up underneath anonymous tents in the middle of some wheatfield, then come the ones set up in a gravel and concrete paved community park, then come the ones which are in the main piazza of a town, then comes Cannara, where the town and festa exist in perfect symbiosis. Every courtyard is occupied with tables, the streets are crowded with booths hawking wares, the larger squares have main stages set up with band playing music or clowns entertaining the kids, local shops are open until after midnight. This is Cannara’s moment to shine, and it goes all out.
Onions, spices, mushrooming baskets, art, crafts, disco lights, jewelry, antiques, pet rocks. I saw them all on sale in Cannara.
There are doubtless naysayers who do not love the Onion Festival. It’s crowded (though if you hit it at 7:00ish on a weeknight the crowds are much more manageable), overblown (lots of people attend the festival. See above.), overpriced (expect to pay pretty much trattoria prices for your food), slow (hey, they’ve only got 4,000 people working there) and leaves you gassy (no denying that). But the food is delicious. Some stands are better than others (for the record, I’m a Giardino Fiorito abituè), some years are better than others. But I have never been disappointed by my dinner, and that’s a big plug for a meal that is being prepared inside camp kitchens by volunteers. Don’t miss the onion desserts. I’m not kidding.
Il Giardino Fiorito is the oldest stand and housed in the cloister of an ex-convent. It is also my stand of choice.
If you have a rare onion intollerance and have to choose just one thing to eat, get the onion pizza. Trust me.
La Festa della Cipolla is held the first two weeks of September every year in Cannara. For a complete program, list of stands and their menus, and map please see their official website.