Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
Browsing category: Italy Blogging Roundtable, Life in Umbria, Uncategorized
puppy in umbria
3 comments

Of Dogs and Death

Yesterday morning, I sat on a hillside with the soft spring breeze on my back and watched my 15 year-old son dig a grave for his dog.

When I had seen him throw the pick and shovel over his shoulder and trudge towards the woods, I had begged him to let me come and help. “No, I want to do this alone,” he had said, and set his shoulders as only a teenager can do. “Then let me just keep you company so you won’t be alone,” I had insisted. So there I sat, a few meters away, and watched him wrestle with buried field stones and tree roots as he hacked at the hard earth beneath a towering oak, pausing occasionally to wipe at his eyes until, finally, he let the tears run in two steady streams down his cheeks and drip onto the newly turned soil.

I waited in silence on the slope above, just far enough to respect his heartbreak and just close enough to share it. The sun rose directly above as a trio of yellow ladybugs made their way onto my knee. I carefully rounded them up in my palm to make a wish: “Let him never feel pain. Let him never feel pain. Let him never feel pain.” They scattered into the wind, their magical powers no match for the weight of my son’s grief.

IMG-20170401-WA0004

 

——————————–

I remember the day I watched my sons die. How I stood rooted to the ground as their bodies were thrown high into the air, two rag doll shapes silhouetted against the sun, and swore I would never let them suffer again.

“Please!” they had begged me that hot August afternoon in Puglia. We had spent the day at a zoo-slash-amusement park, an ethically questionable form of outdoor entertainment that my sons had loved with an enthusiasm only ethically questionable entertainment seems to evoke in pre-teen boys. “Please let us ride the ‘Jet Figther’!” I was skeptical, pausing in the shadow of this hulking beast of loop-the-loop coaster. How rigorous could the safety standards possibly be when they hadn’t even managed to spell the name of the ride right? And, in all honesty, my younger son met the minimum height requirement only because he was badly in need of a haircut.

But I relented, and they ran off merrily with ticket money clutched tight in their fists. I watched from below as their car ran back and forth along the track, circling higher and higher, until it finally made the entire loop and shot off the rails at the other end, throwing passengers helter-skelter into the sky. The riders’ screams filled the air and I screwed my eyes shut, amazed at how casually I had sent my sons to their death. Me, who had spent their entire lives shielding them from pain. Me, who had slept on the couch for five years to delay the inevitable breakup of our family. Me, who had forced their father to drag our resident badger from his final resting place in the middle of our country highway and hide him in the tall weeds so they would never know about his sad end. Me, who had made sure that despite an economic crisis and failed business, music lessons and sport teams and pizza nights continued as if they world was and would always be a secure and predictable place.

happy dog

My reverie was interrupted by the sound of thundering footsteps, as my sons ran to me, breathless with excitement and pride. “Did you see us, Mamma?” they asked, “Did you see how brave we were? We didn’t scream even once. The grown ups all screamed and screamed, but we weren’t scared at all!” They jumped up and down and threw their arms around my waist, surprised and emboldened by their own courage. “Can we go again, Mamma, please?” I looked down at the tiny half-moon marks my nails had left in my palms from having kept my fists clenched so tightly during their ride. “Yes,” I said. “Of course.”

And that’s what it is, this beautiful and terrifying adventure of parenting. That’s the choice we have to make, every single day. We can send our children out into the dangerous world, letting them risk body and heart and mind, and find that they are stronger and bolder then we – and even they – ever expected. Or, we can distract them with cotton candy and merry-go-rounds, and never know what people they could have been or what lives they could have led.

—————————————-

We buried him that afternoon, my sons and I. We stood by his grave piled high with unearthed fieldstones and cried, my sons for the dog they had loved and lost and I for all the loving and losing I knew they would encounter over the course of their lives. All the risk and disappointment. All the sorrow. I cried because I knew I had to send them there, to that dangerous roller coaster that could derail in an instant, and let them sail up into the sky, two bold and fearless shapes silhouetted against the sun. Not to fall, but to fly.

 

our last photo

 

This post is a late addition to the Italy Blogging Roundtable, which focused on pets this month. It was just too soon to post before today. It may still be too soon, but these are my thoughts. Take a look at posts by Georgette JupeJessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) 

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

© Andrea Fongo | www.andreafongo.com
4 comments

Local Flavor: The Best Restaurants in Assisi

Welcome this month’s edition of the Italy Blogging Roundtable tackling the theme of “flavor”! Take a look at posts by Georgette JupeJessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

Last month, the Italy Roundtable blogged around the theme of “move”, and the obvious choice would have been for me to write about moving from the countryside, where I had lived for most of last two decades, to the center of Assisi. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a fraught and complicated topic and since we seem to be living in a moment in history in which everything is fraught and complicated, I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm for it. So I talked about hiking, which is my salve when things get fraught and complicated, and left it at that.

© Andrea Fongo | www.andreafongo.com

© Andrea Fongo | www.andreafongo.com

This month the theme is “flavor”, and in a surprising twist of events, it turns out that the move from country to city – well, ok, town – is related in an indirect way. For the years that we lived outside of Assisi, we almost never ate in the restaurants in the center of town for two reasons: one, if we were going to all the trouble to shower and get in the car, it seemed more fun to make an evening out of it and head further afield into Perugia (for the window shopping), Bevagna or Montefalco (for the great food), or Lake Trasimeno (for the sunsets); two, the restaurants in Assisi simply weren’t very good. So we would just toodle past town on our way to better cooking and more interesting nightlife.

Now that we live on the main square, the car stays parked most days since my sons can walk to school and about 90% of their activities, and I have all the grocery store, butcher, pharmacy, post office, and pretty much anything else I need just downstairs. It takes a bit more motivation for me to pull the car out now than all those years when I was driving back and forth into town at least four times a day, which means that we have started to try out eateries withing walking distance from the Piazza del Comune, and discovered some real winners.

If you’re looking for a good meal in the center of Assisi, here are my picks:

 

Osteria Piazzetta delle Erbe
Via San Gabriele dell’Addolorata 15/A
075 815352

© Andrea Fongo | www.andreafongo.com

© Andrea Fongo | www.andreafongo.com

This is our hands down favorite place to eat in Assisi, especially in the summer when they have tables set up outside in the tiny square just a block from the crowded Piazza del Comune and you can linger over your meal in peace. Gourmet without being pretentious, local without being boring, friendly without being overbearing…the Piazzetta is a little on the hipster side with bearded waiters and whimsical plating, but Matteo’s food is genuinely excellent. A local favorite, this is one of the few places that doesn’t close down for a month or two after New Year’s and is almost always full, so be sure to reserve a table in advance. In the winter, space is limited to the few tables they have in their indoor dining room with vaulted stone ceilings and tables set elbow to elbow. When the weather warms up, you can choose to eat inside or out. They menu changes every few months or so, but is always an interesting selection of surprising combinations…which almost always work. The latest dessert menu had a chocolate and olive oil dish that we dared each other to order, but ended up with the mascarpone and espresso mousse, which was probably a better choice. We usually order a two courses and wine, and it ends up around €30 a person.

 

Hosteria La Terra Chiama
Via San Rufino 16
075 8199051

When the Piazzetta is booked full or when we are up for more traditional cooking, we walk one block further up Via San Rufino to the charming La Terra Chiama, where Annarita prepares rustic local specialties in a contemporary, almost art gallery-esque atmosphere. Though there is limited seating, the high ceilings, colorful artwork, and raised area in front of the large arched window make if feel less oppressive than most local restaurants tucked into Assisi’s Medieval center. The dishes are traditional, but the ingredients are all Umbrian DOP certified or authentic and heirloom local products, including the charcuterie, cheeses, olive oil, and legumes. There is no outdoor seating, but the dining room stays cool in the summer so you can get some respite from the heat. We especially like the handmade tagliatelle egg pasta, often served with local truffles, or the classic Umbrian meat dishes featuring lamb, rabbit, and squab. They also serve a nice selection of Umbrian wines and craft beers, and a meal of two courses and wine usually costs around €25 a person.

La Terra Chiama Assisi

 

Il Vicoletto
Via Macelli Vecchi 1
075 813620
This is a new place which opened up about a year ago and has gained a loyal following pretty quickly among locals and visitors, despite being tucked into a nearly hidden pedestrian back alley just off the main Piazza del Comune. We’ve eaten here a couple of times and the food has always been very good – updated versions of classic Umbrian dishes and some innovative surprises – but somehow it doesn’t have the je ne sais quoi to knock Piazzetta delle Erbe out of our top spot. The decor is a little fussy for my taste, and the service slightly formal for the space with its exposed stone walls and vaulted ceilings. That said, they do serve fish and seafood, which is not common in this landlocked region, and the location guarantees a quiet respite when the crowds take over restaurants with more foot traffic. If Piazzetta is booked and you want something more gourmet than Terra Chiama, this is a good option. Our meals here cost about the same as La Piazzetta, though the fish and seafood dishes are a bit more expensive.

 

Trattoria degli Umbri
Piazza del Comune 40
075 812455
Let’s say you find yourself in Assisi’s main piazza at mealtime and you are hot, tired, hungry, and just need to tuck into a plate of lasagne or a nice pork chop before your blood sugar level drops to DEFCON crabby. Ignore all the touristy cafès that line the square and head to where Via San Rufino starts heading uphill and the Trattoria degli Umbri. Here you’ll find a no-frills, checked tablecloth and paper napkin eatery that has classic dishes, quick service, a great location, and competitive prices. There is a small deck with a few tables in the summer, which is perfect for a meal overlooking the fountain and the bustling piazza, or cool off indoors in the air-conditioned dining room. The prices here are quite inexpensive, and you can probably have a meal for around €20 a person.

 

I Monaci
Via Arnaldo Fortini 10
075 812512
Sometimes you just want pizza. Unfortunately, Umbria doesn’t do pizza very well, but this pizzeria is run by a transplanted Neapolitan family, so you get the real deal. About a 5 minute walk from Piazza del Comune, I Monaci is informal and family-friendly; they also serve pasta and meat dishes, though we only order pizza when we dine here. You can easily spend less than €15 a person for a pizza and drink.

 

 

Italy Blogging Roundtable
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

hiking in umbria
0 comments

A Perfect Day, A Perfect Hike: Spoleto’s Monteluco

Welcome to my late entry for the January edition of the Italy Blogging Roundtable! The theme this month is “Move”, and I look back on one of my favorite ways to move…hiking! So take a look at posts by Georgette JupeJessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table in this new year…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

The older I get, the more zen I become. I used to be the kind of person who made plans and stuck to them…and then got all hot and bothered when plans changed. But I am finding more and more that things tend to work out in the end, and when the end is different than what you had envisioned at the beginning, it is usually a better end.

Monteluco spoleto umbria

An excellent example: recently, I had made plans to visit the Mongiovino castle and sanctuary near Panicale, which I had been looking forward to since friends had taken a hike there and came back raving about the area weeks ago. I don’t tend to explore around Lake Trasimeno (I prefer the rugged Apennines and the tiny hamlets of the Valnerina) and the sanctuary is one of Umbria’s few excellent examples of Renaissance architecture, so I was looking forward to shaking up my usual routine and doing something a little different.

Well, it didn’t happen that way. For a series of reasons, the Mongiovino plan had to be abandoned and Monteluco near Spoleto was floated as an alternative. Sure, I said. Ok, I said. Whatever, I said.

It was the perfect day.

monteluco hike umbria

I had been meaning to visit Monteluco for years, but just never seemed to get around to it. One of the reasons may be that it’s so accessible—a quick walk from the center of stately Spoleto–that I always put it aside as a back-up plan when a more complicated day of hiking wouldn’t work. Which is exactly what ended up happening on Sunday.

Monteluco is an area which covers about 7,000 hectares of lush, holm oak-wooded mountain. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the hilltop on which Spoleto is perched, the two are joined by the the city’s iconic medieval aqueduct Ponte dei Torri, which dramatically spans the valley between the them like a bridge joining two islands. By crossing the bridge and following the hiking path number 1 uphill, you can scale the mountain from the bridge to the summit along the medieval aqueduct and past a series of hermitages and sanctuaries.

hike spoleto umbria

The name Monteluco comes from the Latin lucus, meaning a sacred grove dedicated to Jupiter. This historic Sacro Bosco still stands at the top of the mountain, where it has been forbidden to cut trees for at least four millenia. Though the ban was ostensibly established for religious reasons, there was also a more pragmatic explanation: the thick forest acted as a filter between the disease-laden air emanating from the stagnant swamp which covered the valley floor on the far side of Monteluco at one time and the populace of the city of Spoleto. Indeed, a marble stone still stands at the entrance to the sacred grove inscribed with the Lex luci spoletina in ancient Latin reiterating this ban (a copy—the original is in Spoleto’s Archaeological Museum).

franciscan sanctuary spoleto

The mountain’s sacred history continued through early Christianity as Monteluco became home to a colony of religious hermits—primarily Syrian–who used the natural caves and grottoes found on the flanks of the mountain and in the sacred grove itself as places of spiritual retreat and contemplation. One of these became San Giuliano, and the picturesquely crumbling Romanesque church (built in the 1200s over a pre-existing shrine from the 5th century and subsequently abandoned by the Benedictines in the 1500s) dedicated to his memory can be seen from the panoramic lookout in the Sacred Grove (it can also be reached by car from the valley; there is now a small restaurant/pizzeria at the site with one of the prettiest views over the Spoleto Valley.)

umbria hike spoleto

With the expansion of Christianity, Monteluco endured as a spiritual destination for monks from a number of religious orders who sought to live according to their vows of humility and poverty. Of these, Francis of Pavia (who died here in 1454), Bernardino of Siena, Bonaventure, and Anthony of Padova. The remains of the abandoned monastery and church dedicated to Saint Anthony can be found about halfway up the hiking trail, and his grotto is still intact in the Sacred Grove. The most famous of all religious sites on Monteluco, however, is the Convent of Saint Francis on the summit of the mountain.

monteluco sanctuary spoleto

In 1218, Francis was granted the small Saint Catherine Chapel adjacent to the Bosco Sacro by the colony of hermits, which he and his followers expanded into a small monastery and church over the following decades. The convent is still active, and Mass is often held in both the original church and the larger, more modern addition. Some of the older parts of the complex are open to visitors, including the tiny cells (one of which still holds the Saint’s stone bed), original frescoed chapel, and Saint Francis’ Well, the spot where legend holds that Francis was miraculously able to summon a flowing spring from the rock near the grotto where he was living at the time.

hiking trail near spoleto

All of this I learned from my hiking companions as we climbed the switchback trail through the thick woods from the Ponti dei Torri, past the photogenic Monastero di Sant’Antonio ruins, and, finally, to the Sacred Grove and Monastero di San Francesco at the summit. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and parts of the trail seemed like a sporty version of Spoleto’s Corso as couples with children and seniors with dogs on leads took advantage of the first warm days of spring. We stopped often to take pictures and, as the trail began to climb in earnest toward the summit of the mountain, to catch our breath and take in the view.

hiking in umbria

Our prize was the overlook at the top…from here you can see the Umbrian Valley from Spoleto past Assisi, with a series of hilltowns dribbling down the mountainsides and a patchwork of olive groves, fields, and vineyards in the valley. Our prize was also an excellent lunch at one of the three seasonal hotels at the top and would have been a nap on inviting green which covers the summit, had it not been for the walk back down to town.

All told, not bad for a Plan B. Not bad at all.

A special thanks to my hiking buddy and all-round Umbria informant Armando Lanoce, who is always full of perfect Plan Bs and beautiful photos.

 

 
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

3 comments

The Humble Art of the Nativity Crèche in Umbria

Welcome to the last monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable of 2016 (thank goodness…let’s turn the page on this year)! The theme this month is “Home”, so take a look at posts by Georgette Jupe, Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our holiday table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

PS: I wrote a little ditty about “home” years ago for Gloria, so if you want a strict interpretation of this month’s theme, feel free to take a look. Today, I am going with a more loose interpretation of the theme. It is what it is.

Christmas nativity scene Assisi Umbria Italy

Nothing says home to me more than where you spend the holidays, gathered with the people you love, eating and chatting and generally being reminded of why you both love and irritate the dickens out of each other. In all my homes over the years, this has been done beneath the Christmas tree, but most Umbrian homes–and businesses, churches, and public spaces—are adorned during the holiday season with the traditional Nativity scene or crèche. Some are a simple crib including the Holy Family, perhaps beneath a thatched roof with an ox and ass thrown in, but much more often they are sprawling, elaborate scale models representing village and country life, often with tens–if not hundreds–of figurines, moving mechanical parts, small glowing “fires” and running fountains, and artistic lighting.

Christmas Nativity scene Assisi Italy

A secondary countryside portion of the sprawling Nativity scene at Rivotorto. The empty rectangular boxes will have fields of wheat planted in them come Christmas. Oh, and there will be snow on the hilltops.

You can hardly take a step during the month of December in Umbria without coming across a Nativity scene tucked in the most unlikely of places (there was one next to my bank teller’s window this morning), but perhaps even more delightful than the finished product is watching the painstaking labor behind the construction and assembly of one of these humble and transient works of art.

Nativity scene Assisi

Enzo, Franco, and Alberto: the Three Wise Guys behind Rivotorto’s historic Nativity scene. I made them pose for the camera. Can you tell?

Just ask Franco, Alberto, and Enzo. This winning threesome has been the creative and logistical team behind the massive Nativity scene which fills the area around Rivotorto’s Tugurio shrine for the last thirty-eight years. The first home of Saint Francis and his disciples, the Sacro Tugurio (or sacred shed) was occupied by Francis and his followers from 1208-1211, where they lived and worshipped in this rough stone hut and here began organizing what would become Francis’ order. In 1211, the group was granted use of the nearby Porziuncola in Santa Maria degli Angeli from the Benedictines, and the Sacro Tugurio was abandoned only to become a site of pilgrimage in the following centuries.

Christmas creche assisi

A complex Nativity scene is peppered with dozens of little vignettes tucked into nooks and corners.

And guess what? It’s also the perfectly picturesque backdrop to one of the area’s most lovely Nativity scenes every year. I stopped by one morning to see how work was moving along, and was able to watch the “artists” at work and chat about good old times. Times when the Nativity scene was actually outside—this before the threesome were retired—so work went on in rain and snow, beginning after dinner and going late into the night. The time about 15 years ago when the creche mysteriously caught fire (cryptic mentions of competing Nativity scene teams and significant looks are exchanged here), and the parish priest kicked them back outside for a couple of years. The year of the earthquake, when the whole church was closed for the season. That one year that Franco didn’t work on the creche because of (as the three will sheepishly admit if you press them) irreconcilable creative differences. But he was back on board the following Christmas.

Christmas Assisi

Much time and labor regarding the Nativity scene seems to be dedicated to the creative process.

Nativity scene rivotorto assisi

More creative process.

Christmas scene assisi

A bit of work. Quickly followed by creative process and a coffee break.

Work begins at the end of November and proceeds with due ponderance and frequent coffee breaks for about a month (the creche is open to the public from 24 December through the first week of January). The threesome work without a master plan, beginning with the central Nativity crib—emphatically underlined by all three as the most important and beautiful section of the creche—and gradually moving towards the outside of the surrounding model countryside. All the buildings are made by hand, and new elements are added each year; the oldest piece is a terra-cotta team of oxen with a plowing farmer, which is over 40 years old. The scene is built up with moss and life greenery, sand and gravel roads, dozens of wooden buildings and structures, water elements and fields of sod and wheat.

christmas assisi umbria

A water element. Since a short caused a fire about 15 years ago, the team keeps water and electricity as far from each other as possible.

christmas umbria

The B-list characters are the last to make a cameo appearance, filling in any holes during the final retouches.

After the holidays, the team breaks the scene down again, repairs and packs away the pieces, and begins laboring over new buildings and elements for the following year, when they will meet up, have a leisurely caffè, and start work all over again.

presepe assisi umbria

These oxen and their farmer have been in the Rivotorto Nativity scene since the beginning. They are older than I am.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

classical music umbria
0 comments

Eyes and Ears: Winter Concerts in Perugia’s Sala dei Notari

Way back in November, the Italy Blogging Roundtable took on the theme of “Winter”. I got a little behind, so finally managed to share one of my favorite winter activities in February. But it’s still cold so it still counts. Take a look at posts by Georgette JupeJessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome to our table on this cold winter day…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

The thing I’m proud of: I love classical music. I do. I love a lazy morning with grey skies, a cuppa, and a little Satie for mood. I love a full orchestra, a crowded hall, and a rousing Austrian symphony. I love a quiet café, a comfy armchair, and some Bach on the guitar.

The thing I’m not so proud of: I have the attention span of a four-month-old Labrador puppy. I do. No matter how much I may be enjoying a concert, after about thirteen minutes I start shifting in my seat and the desire to crack my knuckles becomes overwhelming and I am distracted by the lady’s perfume three rows behind me and is it just me or is it hot in here? and…anyway.

classical music in perugia

I’ve found that the perfect solution is to combine a concert with a venue that offers a bit of eye candy. I am a great fan of the summer Sagra Musicale Umbra for just that reason, which is organized by the Amici della Musica association. This same cultural organization has a regular concert season with runs through the winter and offers a number of excellent classical music concerts—from choral pieces to symphonies to individual performers—in some of the most beautiful spots around Perugia.

sala dei notari perugia

Most often concerts are held in the gorgeous Sala dei Notari, a richly frescoed hall cross-sectioned by a series of soaring arches, which occupies the first floor of the imposing Gothic Palazzo dei Priori, Perugia’s historic seat of local government and professional guilds (two of which, the Collegio del Cambio and the Collegio della Mercanzia, are still open to the public). The Sala dei Notari, now often used for concerts and cultural events, is ornately decorated with Old Testament scenes from the early 13th century done by a student of Pietro Cavallini and a more recent series of coats of arms from the ruling podestà from the late 1200s through the 1400s.

music concerts perugia

During the performances, my eyes wander up the walls and ceiling, picking out details from the biblical tableaux and keeping me quiet and still and concentrated on the concert. It’s like a Disney DVD for a two-year-old, but a bit more high-brow. I notice other concert-goers doing the same, so I suspect I’m not the only one who either needs a bit of visual stimulation or is simply drawn to the intricate frescoes.

classical music umbria

The concerts are either Sunday afternoon or Friday night, so easily combined with a stroll through the center of Perugia and a stop in the nearby Pasticceria Sandri for a thick hot chocolate and pastry (I find I have a better attention span with a full stomach.) or, for a full on culture tour de force, a visit to the excellent Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, housed just next door.

classical concerts umbria

For a full concert schedule, with dates, venues, and ticket prices, you can check the Amici della Musica website.
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

2 comments

From Tours to Tables: Umbria’s Farm Bounty

After our annual August break, we’re back with our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable! The theme this month is “From Farm to Table”, and we have a new member to welcome…Georgette Jupe from Girl in Florence in one of the most beautiful cities in Italy! Our roundtable has grown, but don’t forget to take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our long banquet table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

Italy Blogging Roundtable

Remember in high school when you would go to Blockbuster on Saturday night? You would wander the aisles crowded with hundreds of VHS covers lined up at attention on the shelves for an hour, undecided…maybe I should get all intellectual, you’d think, and rent a French movie. Or retro and grab a Cary Grant classic. Or Film Study and watch “Citizen Kane”. Perhaps now’s the time to see the entire Bond canon, or every movie Jack Nicholson ever made.

And, finally, exhausted with the endless options, you would say, “Fuck it,” grab a copy of “The Princess Bride” for the 14th time, and thoroughly enjoy every minute. Sometimes the obvious solution is also the most satisfying.

That’s what I felt like about this month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable theme. “From farm to table” seems tailor-made for this rural region of Umbria, where pretty much everything on your table has come from a farm…yours or someone else’s. To mix things up a bit, I toyed with a bunch of crazy interpretations of the theme (one discussing my older son’s eye-opening trip to New York City this summer, during which he went from his Umbrian farm diet to sampling more world cuisines in 15 days than he had in his previous 15 years of life), but after wandering the aisles of my mind for hours, I finally came to the conclusion that the obvious solution was also the most satisfying. So, ladies and gentlemen, I offer up “The Princess Bride” of blog posts…a quick guide to how to sample Umbria’s farm bounty during your next visit.

 Umbria farm tour

 

Agriturismo (Farm Holiday)

You can’t get more farm to table than an agriturismo, which is a working farm which also offers accommodations and/or meals to travelers. Umbria has one of the most dense concentrations of agriturismi in Italy, which is hardly surprising given its rural history and culture here and thriving tourist economy.

A caveat, however: the more posh the farm, the less likely you will be sampling anything beyond their olive oil or perhaps wine. An agriturismo can be classified as such as long as it produces at least one agricultural product, which means that alongside the small, traditional family farm (which generally includes stock, an olive grove, a small vineyard, a kitchen garden, an orchard, courtyard animals, cultivated fields, and woods), you also have large, wealthy estates which have hectares of olive trees or vines from which they produce their label of oil or wine, but nothing else. If you are looking for an upscale relais with a spa and paved parking lot, this is where you should head. If you are looking for a mamma in the kitchen who is cooking up hand-rolled tagliatelle with goose sauce featuring a fat lady you heard honking out back just yesterday, choose a simpler, more rustic agriturismo.

Many agriturismi also offer casual cooking lessons with the family, which is a great way to both sample the farm products and learn some tricks for reproducing the simple yet unforgettable flavors of the Umbrian countryside in your kitchen back home. Very few, however, will allow guests to participate in the farm work (they’ll tell you that it’s for insurance reasons, but the truth is that nothing throws a wrench into the works like well-intentioned city folk who don’t know what they’re doing) aside from simple tasks like picking olives or grapes, but most let you pick your own produce from the home garden, gather eggs, and sample the house preserves, charcuterie, cheese, and other goodies.

farm tour umbria

 

Farm Visits

Even if you prefer to stay in town rather than an agriturismo in the countryside, you can work in a farm visit or two to your itinerary. Umbria is blanketed with farms, large and small, though most are not set up for visits…and even those which are open to the public are quite informal, so don’t expect a White House tour. Here are some good options:

Wineries

Remember, a cantina (or winery) is a farm…it’s just specialized in a single product. My favorite area for winery visits is around Montefalco, home of Umbria’s flagship Sagrantino wine. Try the Di Filippo or Scacciadiavoli wineries, which have a good balance between down-home, family hospitality and organized wine tours.

Umbria’s wineries also have two open houses a year: Cantine Aperte in May and Cantine Aperte in Vendemmia in September. Things can get a little crazy during Cantine Aperte, but it’s also a great way to enjoy a day in the vineyards with music, food, tastings, and tours.

Olive Oil Mills

A mill (or frantoio) is really only interesting to visit during the fall and early winter when the harvest is coming in; the rest of the year, things are pretty quiet and your “tour” will consist of standing in a silent mill to gaze at machinery. That said, if you are visiting from October to December, it’s fun to stop by a frantoio buzzing with tractors pulling up to unload bales of olives and local farmers lounging around as their harvest is milled. Most have a small fireplace to grill bruschetta, so the newly-pressed oil can be sampled seconds after it drips out of the press.

For a list of olive oil farms and mills open to the public, take a look here. There is also an annual open house, Frantoi Aperti, each November with tastings and events.

Truffle Reserves

Ok, truffles aren’t really “farmed” in the strict sense, but the precious patches of woods where trufflers and their dogs forage for these buried treasures are certainly cultivated with as much care as fields of grain. A truffle hunt, followed by a cooking lesson and meal, is an unforgettable way to experience Umbria’s rural countryside and cuisine…especially for families with kids.

My favorite truffle producers who organize hunts and meals are Bianconi near Città di Castello and San Pietro a Pettine near Trevi.

Meat Farms

Umbria is the Iowa of Italy, a land where pork reigns supreme and the charcuterie is among the best in the world. I love visiting Peppe Fausti’s farm near Norcia, where he raises his pigs free-range (they come when he whistles…you can see it here at 2m 50s.) For locally-raised Chianina beef, heirloom Cinta Senesi pork, lamb, poultry, and game, there’s no better stop than Fattoria Lucchetti, which raises the stock and sells cuts from their farm butcher shop in Collazzone.

Cheese Farms

Some of Umbria’s best artisan cheeses are made by Rita and Francesco Rossi near Cascia, but I have recently fallen in love with Diego Calcabrina’s goat cheese, made with his tiny herd at the foot of Montefalco. Il Secondo Altopiano outside of Orvieto is also known for its amazing artisan goat cheeses, and Walter Facchini near Sigillo in the Monte Cucco Park has a variety of wonderful pecorino sheep cheeses.

Herbs, Jams, Saffron, and Other Special Things

A special mention to one of my favorite farms in Umbria, Zafferano e Dintorni, in the breathtaking Valnerina along the Nera river. Marta and her family (21m 30s) began with an orchard, then added saffron and medicinal herbs, and now have a number of excellent jams and preserves, herbal teas, and other goodies available to taste and purchase at their family farm right next to the San Felice di Narco church.

 

img_8668

 

Farm Tours

So, yes, you can definitely go commando and just show up at the farms listed above for a walk around and tastings. That said, many of these spots are not easy to find, the hosts speak little if any English, and they don’t have a staff…so if they are busy with chores or simply not home, you may be out of luck.

By far the best way to tour Umbria’s farms are with a local guide on a farm tour. This solves all of the logistical hitches in one fell swoop: you don’t have to worry about navigating the confusing country roads, you have a translator and interpreter by your side, and your visit is arranged in advance, so the family knows you are coming and can spend some time showing you around. You can also often have a farm meal during your visit, or a cooking demonstration or lesson.

Two of the best farm tours around are those offered by Alessandra at Discovering Umbria and Jennifer at Life…Italian Style. I have been sending guests to both for years, and everyone has come away raving about their wonderful experience.

farm tours umbria

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

2 comments

Of Flowers and Bees, Butterflies and Dreams: Il Lavandeto di Assisi

We’re back with our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable! The theme this month is “Bug”, and you can blame any of my fellow writers for this, including Laura Thayer, Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, or Michele Fabio. Any of them. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

Italy Blogging Roundtable

 

Follow your dream, they say. They say it in commencement speeches. They say it on Oprah. They say it on Instagram, superimposed on romantic photos of footprints on the beach stretching to the distant sunset.

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Yeah, well. As anyone who has actually followed a dream knows, it is a hell of a lot of work…much more than one would presume from the idyllic kitten posters and wrist tats. And sometimes it doesn’t pan out, or it pans out only halfway, or it pans out much, much later than what your business plan suggested.

 

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

But sometimes it does work out. Sometimes you’re just an office employee in Umbria who has a passion for plants – lavender and other herbs, to be specific – and you up and decide more than a decade ago that you are going to quit that job, rent a plot of land near your house, and plant your first rows of fragrant lavadula. You start with that first crop, and then you plant the next. You sweat under the hot sun, you start adding other herbs and medicinals, you pack up your van each weekend with pots and dried flower sachets to hit the area markets and fairs, and you begin to make a name for yourself.

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Sometimes you even open up a little shop in town, stuffed to the gills with lavender-themed gift and crafts. You start getting your husband excited about your side hustle, and he eventually quits his job to help you in the fields and greenhouses. You start to stock rare types of basil and strangely colored breeds of sage, and next to the fields you begin to stake out a lovely garden with rose-covered trellises, lush beds of herbs, and even a tiny pond with waterlilies looking as exotic as pineapples in the surrounding Umbrian countryside.

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

 

Sometimes you have the grit and vision and patience of Lorena Fastellini, who founded Il Lavandeto di Assisi more than ten years ago. From a small plot of lavender, Il Lavandeto now grows dozens of types of herbs and medicinal plants – including a vast variety of lavender – and has a shop both in Assisi and at the farm. But most people know Il Lavandeto for their lovely garden in the valley below Assisi, where visitors can wander through the herb and flower beds, stroll under the trellis, relax next to the pretty pond, and snap some of the best pictures of Assisi from below against the foreground of deep blue lavender flowers.

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

 

I stopped by last week, just after their annual “Festa della Lavanda” was finishing up. For three weekends in June and July, the lavender is at its most colorful and Loreno (with husband Gino), hold a market in their garden and a series of lavender-themed dinners and other events. The Lavandeto buzzes with visitors from across Italy, and is filled with stands selling lavender-related crafts. But the morning I pulled in, all was quiet. I spent a few minutes in the garden by myself, savoring the clean scent of lavender and rose, watching the butterflies and honeybees alight on their delicate blossoms, and listening to the plops of fish (or maybe frogs) in the pond. If this is what a dream looks like, then follow away, I say.


A special thanks to Lorena Fastellini, who very generously provided me with bug pictures to fit the theme of this month when it became clear that I had neither the skill nor the equipment to take them myself. You can visit their garden and greenhouse on Via dei Laghetti in Castelnuovo di Assisi, or their shop in the center of Assisi at Viale Guglielmo Marconi, 1c right next to the Giovanni Paolo II parking lot near the Basilica.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

5 comments

Public Transportation: Getting to Assisi from Rome and Florence

We’re back with our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable! The theme this month is “Public Transportation”, and we have a new member to welcome…Laura Thayer from Ciao Amalfi on Italy’s beautiful Amalfi Coast! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome to our ever-expanding table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

Italy Blogging Roundtable

 

Ok, yes, I realize that instructions on how to take public transportation from Rome or Florence to Assisi is not that exciting of a topic. But guess what: you’re a grown up now (at least I presume you are, as you are traveling to Europe). And though there are many perks to being a grown up, many of which involve gin, there are also downsides. Like, for example, having to deal with the decidedly unsexy logistics of travel in Italy.

 

calvin and hobbes

 

To be honest, I never really paid that much attention to how to take the train or bus from Rome and Florence to Assisi until just recently. I get around almost exclusively by car, and when we only hosted guests in the countryside, they either rented a car or traveled with their own wheels during their stay. Now that we host guests in the center of Assisi as well, we have more and more guests who are using Italy’s public transport and I find myself fielding questions often about the logistics of getting between the two biggest cities in central Italy and our hilltown in Umbria.

So here are some tips and information, based on the situation on the ground in 2016:

Getting from Rome to Assisi

By Train

If you are arriving at the Fiumicino airport, you will have to take the Leonardo Express shuttle train from the terminals to the Termini train station in the city center, where you can connect to trains to Assisi. The shuttle trains run every 15-30 minutes, take just over half an hour to reach Rome, and cost €14 per one way ticket.

There are a number of direct trains (both high speed and slower regional) which run from Rome’s main Termini station to the Assisi station, located in the valley below the center of Assisi in Santa Maria degli Angeli. High speed or Alta Velocità (AV) trains including the Frecciarossa, Frecciabianca, and Intercity require reservations in advance and passengers have an assigned seat; Regionale and Regionale Veloce train tickets can be purchased directly before boarding and you have no assigned seat.

There are also many trains which require a change in Foligno, a small city about half an hour from Assisi. There are only four tracks in Foligno, and the change is usually easy…but if you would rather not have to make a connection, double check before buying your ticket that you have selected a direct route.

Many trains to Assisi depart from the remote Binari 1 or 2 EST tracks at Roma Termini, which are an extension of the main platform. If your train is departing from one of these, it will take about 7 minutes more to walk to the remote platform from the station atrium.

Direct trains take around 2 hours between Rome and Assisi, and trains which require a change can take 15 to 20 minutes more. Tickets cost from about €10 to €50 (don’t take those trains…that’s crazy money).

Assisi’s tiny station is called both Assisi and Santa Maria degli Angeli, so make sure you get off when you see either of those destinations. You will also see Assisi up on the hillside to the right as the train pulls into the station.

Once you arrive at the station, you can take a local bus (the C line) 10 minutes up the hill to the center of town. Tickets can be purchased from the newspaper stand in the station for €1.30 or directly from the bus driver for €1.50 (you must have exact change). Get off at Piazza San Pietro for the Basilica or Piazza Matteotti for the central Piazza del Comune.

Otherwise, there is also a taxi stand in front of the station, and the fare is about €15 for two passengers plus luggage to the center of Assisi.

 

***A note from friend and Italy expert Bill Thayer that I will add here:

A detail, but an important one, I think. The logistics of getting from Rome to Assisi: no, absolutely not, we do not need to go through Termini! The place is hell on wheels, especially for Italy newbies. To get to Umbria, they might prefer to take the *other* train – the one that goes to Orte, on the other track at the airport. They’re going to have to change trains anyway, and the change at the little station at Orte is much easier than scrambling through Termini. The train to Orte is almost never full, plenty of room to sit down and put your baggage in the aisle comfortably, and on a hot day the air conditioning is not swallowed up in the heat of all those bodies. It is also much cheaper; the Termini train is specially priced: it gouges the tourist. It’s also useful to tell them that they can buy their tickets to Assisi right at the airport, not just a ticket to (Rome/Orte), with the need then to buy a second ticket at a second station.***

 

By Bus

There are also coaches which travel between Rome and Assisi, though they only depart in the early morning and take much longer than the train.

The Sulga bus departs from the Fiumicino airport Terminal 3 – International arrivals (it stops in the tour bus parking area) and from the Tiburtina train station (not Termini!). Only two routes come all the way to Piazza San Pietro in Assisi; the other routes stop at the Perugia train station, from which you will have to catch a train to Assisi. The trip takes between 3 and 4 hours and tickets cost €23.50 (from the airport) and €18.50 (from the station).

 

Getting from Florence to Assisi

By Train

If you are flying into Florence, you will have to take a taxi or the shuttle bus from the airport to the central Santa Maria Novella train station. Routes depart every half hour, and tickets cost €6 and can be purchased directly from the driver on board.  

There are direct trains (both high speed and slower regional) from Florence’s central Santa Maria Novella station to Assisi, and routes which include a change in Terontola, a small town about an hour from Assisi. The Terontola station is small and it’s simple to change trains there, but if you would rather avoid having to make a connection, opt for a direct route. There are also routes which require two connections (Terontola and Perugia), to be avoided if possible.

High speed or Alta Velocità (AV) trains including the Frecciarossa, Frecciabianca, and Intercity require reservations in advance and passengers have an assigned seat; Regionale and Regionale Veloce train tickets can be purchased directly before boarding and you have no assigned seat.

Direct trains take around 2.5 hours between Florence and Assisi, and trains which require a change can take 30 minutes more. Tickets cost from about €15 to €30.

Assisi’s tiny station is located below the center of town in the valley and is called both Assisi and Santa Maria degli Angeli, so make sure you get off when you see either of those destinations. You will also see Assisi up on the hillside to the right as the train pulls into the station.

Once you arrive at the station, you can take a local bus (the C line) 10 minutes up the hill to the center of town. Tickets can be purchased from the newspaper stand in the station for €1.30 or directly from the bus driver for €1.50 (you must have exact change). Get off at Piazza San Pietro for the Basilica or Piazza Matteotti for the central Piazza del Comune.

Otherwise, there is also a taxi stand in front of the station, and the fare is about €15 for two passengers plus luggage to the center of Assisi.

 

By Bus

There is one coach which travels between Florence and Assisi each Monday and Friday, departing at 6 pm and and arriving at 8:30 pm; seats must be booked by 7 pm on the evening before departure by phone (800099661).

The Sulga bus departs from the Santa Maria Novella train station and arrives at Piazza San Pietro in Assisi. The trip takes between 2.5 hours and tickets cost around €25.

Italy Blogging Roundtable

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

2 comments

Lake Trasimeno with Kids: Five Suggestions for a Family-Friendly Visit

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable theme this month is “Five”, to celebrate our 5 years of gathering around the table for a virtual chat and drink. Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

Italy Blogging Roundtable

Dreamy Lake Trasimeno, located in Umbria but hugging the border of neighboring Tuscany, is the perfect destination for traveling families who need to strike that delicate holiday balance between water fun and sports (for the kids) and cuisine and culture (for the grown ups). The lake itself is ringed with family-friendly beaches and parks, a leisurely walking and biking trail, and casual restaurants and pizzerias. Further up in the surrounding hills, more active (and older) families can take advantage of a number of scenic walking trails, visit pretty Medieval lakeside villages, and sample some of the area’s excellent wine and olive oil.

Photo by Maurizio Zanetti via Flickr

Photo by Maurizio Zanetti via Flickr

For a special day in the Trasimeno area focused specifically on the kids, here are a few suggestions for the most fun-packed spots and activities guaranteed to keep the little ones occupied the adults relaxed:

Sualzo Beach
Passignano sul Trasimeno

Perhaps the best kitted out beach for a day on the lake is this long stretch near Passignano. With a nice mix of sandy shore and grassy, shaded park, Sualzo has rental chairs and umbrellas, a playground, pool, restaurant, and refreshment stand. For the more active families, there is a beach volley ball court and canoes, paddle-boats, and bikes available for rental. You can also bring your own paddle boards, if you don’t have one and want to see what ones are the best go to https://simplysupboards.com/best-inflatable-paddleboard. On weekend evenings, the place gets hopping with a DJ or live music far into the wee hours. If you have your choice of where to stop for a day at the beach, this is probably your best bet.

Fishing Trips with the Cooperativo Pescatori di Trasimeno
San Feliciano

With the beaches lining the lake, and the resort feel of the villages perched on its shores, it’s easy to forget that for hundreds—if not thousands—of years, the people of this area survived almost primarily by fishing. Though there are not that many fishermen left, those few who do continue to live off the water do so through the Lake Trasimeno Fishermen’s Cooperative, which is based in San Feliciano. For kids (and adults) who would like to try their hand at the traditional fishing techniques that the locals have used since time immemorial, the Cooperative organizes day trips on the water with a flat-bottomed wooden boat, an assortment of nets and lines, and a local expert to reveal where the fish are biting.

Photo by Roberto Taddeo via Flickr

Photo by Roberto Taddeo via Flickr

Water Park: Parco Acquatico Tavernelle
Tavernelle

This water park is perfect for a family looking for splish-splashy fun in the sun. With three pools (swimming, diving, and wading), a jacuzzi, three fabulous waterslides for the older kids, and a separate kiddie area for toddlers who need some pint-sized slides and shallow water, there are thrills for the whole family. You’ll need to bring your own suit and towel, but the pool has caps (required), goggles, and sundry other pool gear for purchase. You can rent an umbrella and loungers in the vast, grassy surrounding park, or grab a shady spot under some trees and spread out. There is an excellent self-service restaurant and refreshment stand, or you can bring your own picnic supplies.

Autodromo dell’Umbria
Magione, Loc. Bacanella

Vroom, vroom! Sure, art and culture. Nature, too. But for a real treat for your motor-loving kids who need a break from all the bucolic sights around Lake Trasimeno, consider a day at the races. The Magione autodrome is a family-friendly sized facility hosting both auto (ranging from NASCAR to antique cars) and motorcycle races on its 2.5 kilometer circuit most weekends. It may not be the most educational day of your vacation, but chances are your kids will remember it as the most fun. For a race schedule (in Italian), check their website.

Photo by Coloriamoicieli via Instagram

Photo by Coloriamoicieli via Instagram

Coloriamo i Cieli
Castiglione del Lago

For a few days spanning the end of April and the beginning of May, the skies around Castiglione become crowded with brightly colored kites, as kite enthusiasts from across the globe gather to fly their creations over Lake Trasimeno. Located at the former airport, the festival has workshops, entertainment, refreshments, games, and lots of booths were visitors can buy the most basic to the most elaborate kites of their own to try their hand at flying. Co-sponsored by a number of environmental organizations, the festival is thick with fun kid-friendly activities promoting conservation and recycling, art projects focused on local flora and fauna, and a number of nature walks, bikes, and horse-back rides.

Five Best Towns on Lake Trasimeno

Passignano sul Trasimeno

One of the most popular villages along the lakeshore, Passignano has a Medieval castle at its head and a pretty beach and park at its feet, both fun stops for traveling kids. Their “Palio delle Barche” festival in July, when locals in period dress race through town toting boats on their shoulders, is raucous and memorable.

San Feliciano

Quiet San Feliciano harks back to the lake’s roots and a fishing culture and economy, and is one of the few spots along the shore where visitors can spot fishermen heading out in their traditional flat-bottomed wooden boats or hand-mending their nets.

Panicale

This Medieval village perched on a hilltop south of the lake offers beautiful views over the lake and surrounding countryside, and an iconic “small Italian town” vibe of locals leisurely making their way between the town’s three historic piazze to shop, mingle, and gossip.

Montecolognola

Tiny Montecolognola, near the more industrial town of Magione, is perched on the summit of an olive grove-covered hill, and has a pretty castle, a parish church decorated with frescoes spanning from the 14th to the 16th century, and gorgeous views over the lake.

Castiglione del Lago

Neatly laid out on a tongue of land sticking out into Lake Trasimeno, Castiglione’s beautiful views, picturesque castle, excellent restaurants and shops, and resort town vibe make it one of the more popular destinations for travellers to the lake.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

3 comments

My Local: The Last Woman Standing

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable theme this month is “My local…”! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

Italy Blogging Roundtable

Sometimes I feel like I have lived through the 1970’s twice.

I did my first turn around the block in the US, growing up in the Midwest. The 1970’s was a time when there were still small neighborhood shops and locally owned grocery and department stores. Our day-to-day shopping was broken down into a number of stops: the butcher’s downtown, the bakery on the corner (watching our loaf go though the bread slicer was the highlight of the trip), and even – if I plumb the depths of my toddler memory – the dairy. (Side note: the Weber Dairy building had a big cement milk bottle out front, which was huge when I was three years old. It towered at least 2 stories above my head. Two years ago, I happened to pass the building, now an office complex called The Dairy Center. The milk bottle is still there, but I had to laugh at how small it had become over 40 years.)

Even the larger stores were local chains. Our grocery store of choice was Honiotis Bros. because, you know, Greeks. (The Xoniotis family, who became the Honiotis family, was from Mykonos like our Theodosis and Vardoulakis – now Vardal – families, so we bought our carrots and toilet paper from Honiotis’ out of national pride.) But sometimes we would make a big trip to Dominick’s, which was a local chain. If we had to stock up on school clothes, it was off to to Wieboldt’s or Goldblatt’s (Wieboldt’s was better, because they gave out S&H Green Stamps), but a family wedding merited an excursion to Kline’s or The Boston Store. We loved The Boston Store, because the name conjured up that sophisticated and exotic city on the East Coast.

And then things started to change, and we all know how. First it was large supermarket chains that offered unbeatable prices during the recession, then it was newfangled malls that replaced the main streets for teenagers and adults alike. Not long after, the first big-box stores appeared, funneling business from the locally owned shops, and the vacant storefronts were replaced by national franchises.

None of the businesses I remember from my elementary school years are still around. Honiotis went first in 1985, then Dominick’s began to falter. Wieboldt’s, Goldblatt’s, Kline’s, and The Boston Store (not to be confused with Boston Store)…all gone. Now it’s chains as far as the eye can see, and everything from the suburbs to the downtowns look pretty much the same across great swathes of the US.

When I first came to Umbria in the mid-1980’s, in many ways it resembled the US a decade or two before. Franchises and big-box superstores were virtually unknown, and the retail sector was almost exclusively small, family-run businesses. Grocery shopping was divided between the local outdoor market for produce, the dry goods store, the butcher, and the bread shop. Buying a pair of black pants meant stopping in at one or two central emporiums, announcing that you needed black pants, and trying on whatever they brought you from the shelves. It was more time consuming and less efficient, but also more human and kept residents living in the otherwise inconvenient confines of the town centers.

Unfortunately, the same process that tore the fabric of American downtowns twenty years before began taking hold in Italy shortly after my first trip. The convenience and competitive pricing of supermarkets began to squeeze out the tiny markets and food shops, the novelty of the mall trumped the fustiness of historic clothing stores for younger customers, and the powerhouse marketing of national and international franchises crushed local shops. I have watched in dismay over the past two decades as more and more local businesses struggle while Foot Locker, H&M, and even the Italian chain Intimissimi seem to multiply overnight like mushrooms.

Though, in my heart of hearts, I long for an Ikea, I also have seen (twice!) the damage this modern franchise culture can do to communities and their local economies. I try to limit my excursions to the mall and the sprawling grocery stores along the highway to dire emergencies, and spend my time and money in the admittedly more expensive but also charmingly timeless shops in the center of Assisi.

Piazzetta dell'Erba, Assisi, Italy

This vintage photo is from the menu of Osteria Piazzetta dell’Erba in Assisi

Case in point: the Piazzetta delle Erbe. This tiny square just steps from Assisi’s main Piazza del Comune has been the local produce market for decades, if not centuries. Certainly long enough that the spot was officially dubbed “Greens Square” at some point and is now home to an excellent restaurant of the same name.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

The home I stayed at on my second trip to Assisi in the late 1980’s had rooms overlooking this square, including my bedroom. I would wake to the friendly squawking of the local ladies bargaining for everything from potatoes and tulips each morning, mixed in with local gossip and good natured ribbing. The Piazzetta delle Erbe was both market and meeting place, and the small space was crammed with makeshift stands and tables, three-wheeled Apes, or simply stacked crates holding towers of seasonal fruit, vegetables, fresh eggs, ricotta, honey, and anything else these farmwives from the surrounding countryside had to sell that morning.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

Today, just Novella remains. With enough energy and warmth to fill a piazza, but with just one lone stand of goodies she and her sweet husband Bruno bring in from their farm plot outside of town each morning, Novella holds court from dawn to lunchtime each day. She is almost never alone, as the local ladies take turns resting on her guest stool to swap news while she tirelessly rearranges buckets of fresh flowers, piles of greens, and crates of fruit. She holds the scales in her hand to weigh purchases, and then always throws in something extra after declaring an (often seemingly arbitrary) price.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

It makes be both sad and joyful to see Novella still out there every morning. “Bongiorno, core!” she calls out as I pass. She knows what each of my sons prefer, and will spend a good five minutes picking the radicchio leaves out of my mixed greens to please them. She will scoff at my selection of tomatoes, tossing them back into the pile and choosing others. “Those are for salad, cocca. You want the sugo ones,” she explains after placing what look like identical ones on the scales. She will pick out a melon with all the gravity of a Antwerp diamantaire, after inquiring about the exact time I plan on serving it.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

I know it takes me twice as long to buy from Novella, but I love the familiarity of it. I love being grilled by a group of housewives about my menu for the day, and then standing back as they argue amongst themselves about recipes and ingredients. I nod and smile, often feigning exaggerated ignorance just to revel in their animated conversation. The vast Coop supermarket will be there for years into the future, but one morning soon Novella will be gone, and with her the Piazzetta delle Erbe market. And until that day comes, she’s my local go-to vegetable lady.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!