Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
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Italy Roundtable: Driving in Italy

This is the second installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the first, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some Rice Crispy Treats, and join in on the conversation.

Driving in Italy

When “Driving in Italy” was selected as this month’s theme, I have to admit I was a bit nonplussed. Not because I don’t think it’s an interesting topic—indeed, rivers of ink have been spilt discussing the ins and outs of navigating the Bel Paese’s much less Bel Traffico—but because I simply couldn’t think of anything new or compelling to add.

My history of driving here has more or less followed the typical expat trajectory: driving with my American license for the one year legal grace period after relocating, letting those first twelve months pass without getting around to applying for my Italian license, driving for an—ahem—undisclosed period practically illegally, finding religion (in my case, through the nascient sense of responsibility that comes with pregnancy), finally sitting down to study the daunting Italian Driving School Manual (roughly the size of the Manhattan White Pages) and taking the written exam, passing that and taking the practical exam (my oven was full of bun thus that I had to slide the seat back so far I was working the brake pedal with my tippy-toes), passing that and officially becoming a smug licensed driver to all the newly-minted expats who were still back at stage one.

My feeling about driving here is that Italian drivers display roughly the same measure of aggressiveness, attitude, and skill as the Chicago drivers with whom I came of age behind the wheel, the only difference being that they are unlikely to resolve traffic altercations with automatic weapons.

And then I had an inspiration. A creative epiphany. A comic stroke of genius. I would write a haiku about driving in Italy! It would be hilarious. In an ironic hipster sort of way.

Coleridge’s knock at the door arrived in the form of the realization that I’m not smart enough to write a haiku about driving in Italy, ironic or not. (I was so enamored with the idea that I was momentarily tempted to have someone else write the haiku for me. However, after a quick reality check, I decided that though I haven’t signed any sort of contract with my fellow Roundtable bloggers, my gut feeling is that farming out the second post in the series to a ghost writer is smack in the middle of the ethical grey area and would probably speed my inevitable ousting.) So, no haiku.

Serendipity being what it is, however, the same afternoon in which I discovered I am a literary dunderhead I ran into an old friend who told me he’d been spending his evenings in the garage restoring his father’s vintage Vespa. I realized that despite having lived Italy for almost 20 years, I had never driven this icon of Italian culture and history. And, boom, there it was. I was going to drive a Vespa.

I challenge you to look upon this and not smile. It's like a smile machine on two wheels.

I may lack the basics for composing poetry, but I do have access to the basics for driving a Vespa: my friend, Claudia, who rents out bright yellow scooters from her “Vespa Oasis” on the shores of Lake Trasimeno. When I called her up, she said, “Sure! Stop by anytime and I’ll loan you one for the day. You know how to drive a Vespa, right?”

Oh.

Well, a writer can only have so many knocks interrupting the creative flow before she starts to take extreme measures, so I did what was only necessary. I lied.

“Sure! I mean, a long time ago. Long. Probably rusty, but it’s just like riding a bike, right? It’ll come right back to me. A snap. I’ll be fine. No worries. Be there on Monday at nine. Kaythanksbye!”

(Sorry, Claudia. I know you’re only finding out about this now.)

Huh. How hard could it be?

Huh. How hard could it be?

 

It turns out that Claudia is right about checking first with drivers about their experience, because though the average Italian manages to navigate a scooter through Roman traffic whilst smoking, talking on a cell phone, and balancing his entire nuclear family and their weekly grocery purchases on the back with effortless finesse, apparently it is a talent included in the Italian genetic package that the rest of humanity—or, at least, me–lacks. To wit, it’s not as easy as it looks.

Further complicating the matter, when you hop on and buzz out of the Vespa Oasis toward Castiglione del Lago (Luckily I faked it enough to convince Claudia that I was good to go. Sorry, Claudia. I owe you a drink.) you undergo an immediate baptism by fire: the ring road around Lake Trasimeno, which has a heavy, steady traffic flow. After about ten minutes of erratic weaving, sounding the horn instead of the turn signal, braking instead of accelerating, and taking bugs in the teeth (I had forgotten to lower the visor on my helmet and was too terrified to let go with one hand to do it while driving), I turned off at a scenic overpass and realized I had my shoulders up around my ears, my elbows out like chicken wings, and my chin resting on my sternum. This was no fun.

The scenic overlook where I stopped to take stock and rethink my plan of attack.

Luckily, Claudia is not only cautious but also well organized and supplies maps and itineraries. I had envisioned toodling around the perimeter of the lake (the most popular itinerary), but upon further thought realized a) I didn’t really care that much about going around the lake since I’ve already done that drive and b) I was very close to the turn off for Panicale and Paciano, two hilltowns I had never visited and that were along a much quieter country road.

With newly gathered courage, I jauntily flipped down my visor, sounded my horn-uh-put on my turn signal, had a near miss with a Peroni truck (Sorry, Claudia. I’ll make it up to you.), and was off.

It became immediately and dramatically clear that I had chosen the right road. The gently climbing country highway winding its way to Panicale was deserted, so it took me just a few minutes to feel comfortable with my new ride and relax enough to enjoy the lovely countryside and views of the lake below. In fact, I was almost disappointed when I arrived at the city gate leading to Panicale’s pretty piazza less than 15 minutes later. I did need to fill up the old cappuccino tank, however, so I pulled in for a break. And quickly learned two things:

  1. If you are one of those people who frets about blending in, roaring into a quiet, provincial piazza on a shiny Vespa the color of egg yolk with little duckie stickers decorating it and proceding to make it very clear to one and all that you have no effing idea how to put the kickstand up may not be for you.
  2. Old geezers love Vespas. Love them. Crowd around you and regale you with stories of their first Vespas, which leads into stories of their first love, which leads into stories of their subsequent marriage, which leads into stories of their grandchildren, which leads into snapshots being busted out and compared. Which leads to a much longer cappuccino stop than intended.

The short drive between Panicale and Paciano was one of the prettiest, and I was finally relaxed enough to enjoy it.

I finally did break away and continued the short drive along the tree-lined lane to the tiny medieval walled village of Paciano. Map consulting–aided by a quick gelato–ensued, and I decided to dive into the uncharted (for me) territory to the north, trying to make Castiglione del Lago by lunchtime. It was perfect…the hills were just hilly enough and the curves just curvy enough to really start having fun on my trusty Vespa and I began to understand why the scooter has had such staying power over time. The softly undulating countryside (Tuscany is just a few kilometers from here, and the landscape reflects that) is a patchwork of tilled fields, vineyards, and woods and there was almost no traffic as I buzzed through tiny hamlets like Villastrada and Vaiano, Gioiella and Pozzuolo.

Choices, choices. Ah, what the hell...left.

The thrill of the open road.

My frequent stops to snap pictures (and dig the insects out of my cleavage…next time no V-neck t-shirts) meant that I barely made it to Castiglione before it was too late to grab a plate of pasta. I chose an outside table where I could enjoy my lunch while keeping my cheery Vespa in view, and gazed upon it with newfound affection.

“Damn,” I thought. “It sure is lucky that I can’t write a haiku.”

Toodle-oo!

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.

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Walking and Hiking in Umbria: The “Costa’s” Fountains

This article was reproduced by permission of its author, Giuseppe Bambini, and was originally published in the now defunct quarterly magazine AssisiMia, edited by Francesco Mancinelli.

This is a pleasurable spring excursion, in an area full of fountains and springs, which is quite an unusual incidence for a limestone mountain like Subasio. If you want to fully enjoy this excursion you should wear comfortable clothing and suitable shoes for a mountain hike and  you should take a backpack and water bottle, rain coat, bread roll, camera, first-aid kit, and the map of Mount Subasio’s paths “Carta dei Sentieri del Monte Subasio” in scale 1:20,000 of the C.A.I. section of Foligno.

Porta Cappuccini

Porta Cappuccini

 

The itinerary: from Piazza Matteotti (445m) take Via Santuario delle Carceri uphill which within a short distance leads to Porta Cappuccini (469m). As soon as you pass through the arch, turn left onto a tree-lined dirt track which runs parallel to the outside walls of the Rocchicciola (red and white signpost 50/51). Once you arrive at Cassero, take the rocky track on the right which goes uphill; after passing a small fountain, leave the rocky track at the crossroads—the rocky track continues straight uphill towards the Hermitage (signpost 50)—and take the small flat path on the left (signpost 51), which enters into the wood and becomes a pathway. The way to follow is obvious–wellmarked and sloped–and runs through the thick wood and ends on the asphalted road Assisi-Armenzano which you then cross.  Take the dirt track opposite which leads within a short distance to some perfectly restored country houses. Go right and you will find yourself once again on the asphalted road which you follow towards the left for a short distance as far as Costa di Trex’s few houses, locally called “la Costa” (573m – 1.40 km from the start).

The Church

The Church at Costa di Trex

This site is particular not only because of its pleasant position and characteristic bell tower which can be seen by all the houses in the parish, but also because of its unusual toponymy “Costa di Trex” which is a cyncope of the old name “Costa di Tre Chiese”.

Follow the asphalt road towards Armenzano for about 700m, then leave the road at this point and take the chained-off road on the right used by the park rangers (signpost 61), go uphill and within a short distance it leads to the Fonte (fountain) Castellana (600, 0.15 km from Costa di Trex).

The basin which collects the fresh spring water, the surrounding glade, and some magnificent cypresses from Arizona make this a very pleasant resting place. Continue uphill and ignore the signpost 61 which indicates to go left, keep going uphill along the service road; at a crossraods continue straight on uphill as far as a plateau and there you will find the Fonte Maddalena (800m – 0.50 km from the Fonte Castellana); the excursion’s highest point is definitely worthy of a stop. At the following crossroads go right downhill until you reach the end of the service road closed off by a chain. There you cross a rocky path which you follow downhill towards the right (signpost 50) reaching within a short distance the Rocchicciola. The tree lined dirt track taken at the beginning takes you again to Porta Cappuccini, and then again to Piazza Matteotti (0.45 km from Fonte Maddalena).

Mount Subasio’s water is really very good!

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Rebecca as Guest rather than Hostess: Five Fabulous Festivals in Umbria

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!

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Fine Wine: Three Fun Cantine to Visit in Umbria

It’s that time a year when everyone is all a-flutter about Cantine Aperte, mapping out their favorite wineries and designating drivers and such.  This is only as it should be, since the last Sunday in May–when cellars across Umbria throw open their doors to the public–is one of the most anticipated events of the season. And it can be great fun with a little advance planning and the right weather (for a helpful how-to guide for enjoying the day, take a look here).

Unfortunately, family obligations prevent me from participating in the bacchanalian festivities this year (These damned kids…they’ve been coming between me and wine since I got pregnant. Which is ironic, actually, since this whole parenting adventure started quite by accident due an incident involving some atrocious Czech wine in Prague one weekend in November, 2000.) but in keeping with the spirit of the season I wanted to mention a few area vineyards with a particularly high wine/fun ratio.

Some visit wineries because they are true aficionados, but many—if not most—are simply curious about the wine-making process and the culture and people behind it. In short, they are looking for an enjoyable day with some nice swill thrown in. There’s nothing wrong with that (in fact, I count myself amongst those numbers) and if you recognize yourself in this description, here are three wineries that offer something beyond the tasting room and cellar.

A mood setting shot, from the Monte Vibiano cellar.

Monte Vibiano

Mercatello di Marsciano (PG)
www.montevibiano.it
Open every day, reservation required

Don’t let the Napa Valley winery on steroids aesthetic of this cantina–with its chic outdoor patio winebar and designer tasting room–fool you. Beneath the Armani suit, Monte Vibiano dons hemp underwear and Birkenstocks.

Monte Vibiano produces both award-winning wines and olive oil.

The first in the world to be certified at zero greenhouse gas emissions according to international standards, the winery at Monte Vibiano boasts a groundbreaking cantina especially fascinating for science buffs.  Photovoltaic electricity, biofuel, organic fertilizer, managed forest, albedo roofs, sustainable mobility, and general energy efficiency–no one has more ecological street cred than these folks, and with their award-winning wines have shown that world that the best whites and reds are those tinged with green.

Toodling through the olive groves and vineyards.

But the crown jewel of their eco-bling are the small electric jeeps visitors can use to toodle around the estate. The winery itself sits on the plain, but their olive groves and vineyards cover the picturesque hillsides above and can be reached in a few fun-filled minutes of buzzing up the hill on your souped-up golf carts. After a visit to the grapevines themselves, you can come back and relax in Monte Vibiano’s stunning new wine bar and sample what those vines have to offer.

Saio

Assisi
www.saioassisi.it
Reservations required

This small family winery in the plain under Assisi is relatively new: the vineyards are still young and the converted farmhouse housing their modern tasting room was restored in 2005. That said, they already attract their share of visitors both for the quality of their wines and for the warm and welcoming reception of the Mencarelli family, which has gone to great lengths to make their mom-and-pop cantina a destination in itself.

Saio's labels are inspired by the famous arches on Assisi's Basilica di San Francesco.

Aside from the basic tour-and-tasting, Saio offers three unique ways of visiting their winery that combine passion for wine with passion for the outdoors:

From Vine to Glass: An informal, user-friendly vintner course, in which guests learn basic cultivation and pruning techniques along with their tour and tasting, and finish with a certificate declaring them “apprentice wine growers”.

Hiking Among the Vines: From the farmhouse, a 2.5 km walking path (they provide you a map and explanations of each variety of grape) winds its way through the vineyards and olive groves and offers a beautiful vantage point for viewing Assisi perched on the hill above. Finish your preamble back at the starting point with a tasting and chat with the family.

Picnic Among the Vines: Along the walking path, the Mencarellis have built two pretty picnic gazebos, and they will provide you a quaint wicker basket (you can either take it along on your hike, or they will deliver it to you at lunchtime) stuffed with local cheeses and charcuterie, traditional flatbread, biscotti…and wine, of course.

Yep, these arches. This is the lovely view from one of the picnic spots along the walking trail.

Terre Margaritelli

Miraduolo di Torgiano
www.terremargaritelli.com
Reservations required

This extensive winery (52 hectares of planted vineyard) has been growing grapes for years, but only started producing and selling wine under the Terre Margaritelli label recently. Their growth has been exponential, however, with a production of around 50,000 bottles a year, including four IGT and two DOC Torgiano labels. With almost half their land set aside for experimental vines and an emphasis on innovation in their wine laboratory, this is a producer to watch. But how best to visit a cantina of this size? On horseback, of course.

Exploring the vineyards around Terre Margaritelli on horseback...the only way to go!

A visit at Terre Margaritelli (managed by the charming and effusive Federico) begins with a 45 minute guided tour on horseback–no experience necessary–through the undulating countryside surrounding Torgiano.  Once you’ve dismounted and shaken off your saddle butt, you take a quick peek at the cantina itself, and then sit down to a wine tasting/lunch prepared by professional chef American Jennifer McIlvaine (as destiny would have it, wife of the charming and effusive Federico).

The cantina overlooks some of the most beautiful wine country in Umbria, and lingering over your lunch and wine is de rigueur. If you’re lucky, you may stretch it out to watch the sun setting over the medieval rooftops in the distance. Alla salute!

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The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Castiglione del Lago

Spring has arrived–in a teasing, come hither sort of way–and with it the unmistakeable signs of the change of season: a desire to get the hell out of the house, a bloomingly photogenic countryside, a waning of winter’s lethargy (affectionately known in our family as “an acute case of the lazy asses”), and bored, whining children off of school for two long weeks of spring break. All of which are the basic ingredients for mixing up a killer batch of Day Trip. And—given that my project of visiting The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria had been shelved during the last, ahem, six months—it seemed serendipitous that the next village on the list (in alphabetical order, which I have more or less been sticking to) has two of the key features any parent with kids under the age of twelve know will be an instant hit: a castle and a large body of water.

Castiglione del Lago on Lago Trasimeno

Two elements guaranteeing kid fun: a castle (foreground) and a lake (background).

So, having run out of duct tape and rope, I tossed my sons in the general direction of the back seat and headed to the village of Castiglione del Lago, which perches on a small promontory on the shores of placid Lake Trasimeno. (I’m joking. About the duct tape and rope, I mean. Castiglione really is on the shores of Lake Trasimeno.) I hadn’t visited its tiny historic center for years; truth be told, the area around the lake (and the lake itself) has never held much fascination for me and when I do head to that area it is almostly exclusively to eat. But I quickly realized I was in for two pleasant surprises:

1) Castiglione del Lago is actually quite lovely, in a lighthearted, resort town-y sort of way.

2) Kids give you a completely different perspective on what you are seeing. Like a monkey-cam.

View of Castiglione del Lago, Umbria

Some say that the promontory on which Castiglione sits was originally the fourth island in Lake Trasimeno, but over time blended into the shoreline. Huh. Well, I read it on the internet so it must be true. Photo by Andrian Michael via Wikimedia Commons.

Immediately upon passing under the largest of the three medieval gates along the town wall at the base of the Corso, my nine year old grasped my six year old’s hand tightly and said, “You have to hold my hand because we’re in the city now and bad people can come and take you.” To give you an idea of the size of Castiglione, let me just say that its expansion has been limited by the topographical confines of the promontory on which it rests, so it has remained the same 2 by 6 blocks for the last 900 years. And, though Wikipedia lists its official population at roughly 15,000—which includes all those who live in the quite extensive modern suburbs of the town along the plain below—my guess is that there can’t be many more than a couple hundred souls who actually dwell within the city walls. We weren’t exactly in Manhattan.

That said, the town was hopping as we had inadvertently stopped by on Wednesday during their weekly market, which was the usual mish-mash of small town Umbrian markets: vegetables, housedresses, rubber boots, flower pots, frying pans, camouflage jackets, and an amazingly well-stocked stand of dried and candied fruit. We got a big bag of mixed ginger, mango, coconut, and pineapple to fortify us for our visit. Thus armed, we set off toward the two notable monuments for which Castiglione is known.

Palazzo Ducale, Castiglione del Lago

My younger son was pleased to learn that this noble palace--commissioned by Duke Ascanio della Corgna and built by celebrated architect Vignola--once hosted his namesake, Leonardo da Vinci.

It took us a few minutes to wind our way through the vacationers and shoppers, past the market stalls and small shops and restaurants lining the main street, but in a short time we were in the circular Piazza Gramsci at the far end of town, which is dominated by the 16th century Palazzo Ducale, or Palazzo della Corgna. After a quick review of acceptable museum behavior, I took my sons inside and immediately undermined my own dictates by having a loud debate with the woman selling tickets as to why it is unfair that a “family” ticket (for two adults and two children) cannot be applied to a “family” of one adult and two children, so single parents end up having to pay two euros more entrance fee for three separate tickets.

I won.

We wandered through the stately halls with our noses in the air, enjoying the prefectly preserved late Renaissance frescoes still decorating the ceilings (my sons’ sniggers and hissed commentary, “Look! You can see their naked butts!” echoed in the largely empty rooms) until we we reached the covered walkway which was built to connect the palace to the imposing castle for which Castiglione is named: the Rocca del Leone.

Rocca del Leone, Castiglione del Lago

The long--and very narrow--walkway on the left connects Castiglione's two noteable monuments: Palazzo della Corgna and Rocca del Leone. Stop to check out the views over the lake along the walkway, and hope you don't meet a large German coming the other direction.

The pentagonal shaped Rocca has a tall triangular keep and four outer towers, all of which can be explored by walking the perimeter along the top of the castle wall. Not for parents faint of heart (the signs warning visitors to hold children by the hand are crazy talk for anyone with boys from 6 to 12), kids love the conqueror’s view over the lake and surrounding countryside. While gazing from one of the towers, my six year old wondered aloud what it would be like to fly. “Like Icarus!” my nine year said. “Who’s Icarus?” “A deity.” “What’s a deity?” “Remember those naked guys painted on the ceiling in the palazzo?” “Yes.” “Those are deities.” And before I could point out the difference between mythical figure and deity, they were off running along the parapet to check out the view from the next tower.

Rocca del Leone, Castiglione del Lago

In keeping with the universal danger/fun ratio, let's just say this is off the charts on both counts.

Having completed our exploration, we headed back down through the streets in search of some lunch. The market was packing up; the restaurants lining the Corso looked inviting (especially for anyone curious to try Lake Trasimeno’s local specialty: eel), but having checked off the “Castiglione” part of the town’s name, we decided to we wanted to visit the “Lago” part, as well, and picnic on the shores of the lake. Within minutes (really, anything is within minutes in Castiglione. Have I mentioned the town is 2 by 6 blocks?), we found ourselves in Piazza Mazzini, with its pretty tinkling fountain, Bar Centrale, aging dame of a grand hotel, and—most importantly—picnic supplies heaven.

Castiglione del Lago

When you dial Central Casting and request a Small Town Italian Main Piazza, this is what you get. Complete with porchetta truck parked next to the fountain.

In a tiny shop next to the clock tower, we were greeted by perhaps the friendliest shopkeepers in Umbria, who happily sliced up some local pecorino, salame, and prosciutto and made us three thick sandwiches on local flatbread (torta al testo)—having first basically fed my children lunch in free samples of charcuterie. Oh, and cookies. Oh, and one son changed his mind halfway through the sandwich assembly? No problem, Signora, he’s so cute we’ll just make him another. Oh, and they want juice? But this juice is too cold for them to drink on this hot day straight from the fridge so we’ll just run into the storeroom in the back and move about fifty boxes to come up with the one bottle of apple juice that is perfect drinking temperature. My kids worked it.

The picnic jackpot. Lots of local wine and liqueur, too, but I stuck with juice since I was en famille.

We meandered along the remaining two unexplored streets, lined with pretty flowerpot-decked facades, ancient wooden doors, and ivy-festooned garden walls and then drove down through the olive groves to the lakeshore beneath the town. Near the dock where ferries make their run between Castiglione and the lake’s pretty islets (our hopes to make a quick trip to Isola Maggiore after lunch was dashed by the news that ferries only run on the weekends in low season), we spread our picnic blanket and ate with the town at our back and Tuscany’s rolling countryside across the lake in front of us. Looking over the quiet waters, my son leaned against me and said (through a mouthful of biscotti), “This was nice, Mamma. We should do this more often.”

Yes, we should.

Castiglione del Lago

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Italy Roundtable: Why I Write About Italy

This is the first installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. I am very much enjoying my time here while I can, because in just a few short months my fellow participants will realize that I am the millstone standing between them and fame, at which point I will quietly fade into obscurity and remain the subject of myth and conjecture for generations, much like the fifth Beatle.

Our topic this month is “Why I Write About Italy”. So pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some Chex Mix, and join in on the conversation.

 

Assisi, Umbria, Italy

Why I Write About Italy

“Write what you know,” they say.

They also say, “Use correct spelling and punctuation”. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in almost two decades of living in this benign anarchy known as Italy, it’s that there are certain rules which absolutely must be observed in any circumstance lest you unwittingly release the winds of hell, destruction, or—god forbid—brutta figura (i.e.: when shaking hands in a crowd, never reach across another person’s outstretched arm, which brings on the evil eye and/or plagues of grasshoppers) and there are certain rules which are discretionary (i.e.: Red means stop. Green means go.).

To say I write about Italy because I know Italy would be folly, of course. Italy—much like Italian, theoretical mathematics, and parenting—is a field in which the only thing you ever truly know is this: The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know jack. Knowing this captivating country is as daunting—and, ultimately, impossible—as trying to frame a river. Italy rushes past, churning up sand and bubbling over boulders, changing its path according to history, trend, and whim, alternatively drying up and flooding the plain, and confounding anyone who tries to navigate its changeable waters.

I don’t know Italy, and never will. But I do know some things about my corner of Italy—Umbria–and my experience living here as an American expat, married to an Italian, raising two sons, and running a business. And that’s what I write.

Umbria is Changing

The world is changing, and Umbria along with it. But the changes this rural region has gone through over a single generation took most of the western world a plodding two hundred years. My husband has gone from having no electricity, indoor plumbing, or telephone in the late 1960s to having wifi and solar energy in 2011. He remembers harvesting grain with a thresher powered by a hand-cranked motor, piling haystacks two stories high, and walking to a schoolhouse with all five elementary grades in a single room.

Clearly, modernization is positive, but has also brought with it a certain loss of traditions and unraveling of social fabric. The countryside has emptied out, as have many historic centers, and soulless apartment blocks have replaced courtyards and piazze. Outdoor markets and tiny specialized shops have succumbed to shopping centers and box stores. Backyard wood-burning ovens and cold January days of curing prosciutto and salame can’t compete with the convenience of industrial bakeries and butchers.

And so I grasp on to these disappearing vestiges of the slower, richer (though, certainly, smellier and grimier) Umbria…I try to hold on to these wisps of memory like a child grasping to catch fog in his hand. I try to stop time for just a minute, just 500 words, just enough to remember the torta, the Cantamaggio, the hog butchering, the artisans, the people and their lives before there’s no one left who can.

Italy is Demanding

Diego to my Frida, Ted to my Sylvia: Italy exalts and rarifies me, stripping me to my creative and artistic core, teaching me the worth of beauty, time, and love. The next day–hour, moment?—Italy exhausts and defeats me, exasperating me with demands and accusations, making me long for escape. Italy is a demanding lover and I am hopelessly in its thrall.

But instead of a legacy of jarringly intimate paintings or confessional poems, I find relief in leaving a breadcrumb trail of reminders. I write about what I love about Umbria, about Italy, about my life here because I know there are times–many times–when I need to page through these mental photographs like an unhappy wife who studies her wedding album trying to recapture what it was that made her fall in love in the first place.

And so I visit the villages, study the art, hike the mountains, discover the workshops, dance at the festivals, learn the recipes, drink the wine, banter with the people. I jealously hoard these stories –snapshots of a courtship—until I find I need to take them out of their dusty shoebox, spread them out on the kitchen table, and say, “See? Look how happy we are here. This was when we first met. We should really go back there and visit again.”

I am Dying

Pipe down, we’re all dying. Sooner or later we’ll be gone, and our children and grandchildren will be left with very little information that goes deeper than what is recorded in the municipal archives. Our inner lives, our impressions, our decision-making processes, our visceral hate of cilantro…anything that fills in the sketchy outlines of our life will be precious to them.

How I would love to know what my great-grandmother was thinking all those weeks on the ship from Greece, what she made of her first hot dog, how long it took her to wrap her head around English, what she missed the most from Mykonos, what she loved most about America, why—oddly–her favorite snack was Dutch windmill cookies. But I will never know those things, because Yia Yia didn’t write them down.

And so I write. I write for Umbria, past and future. I write for myself, head over heels. I write for my children, who will wonder.

This is why I write about Italy; this is what I know.

Italy Blogging Roundtable

 

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.

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Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover: Gastronomia Andreani

Sometimes it’s serendipity. Like, for example, when you are driving through a one horse town like Collepepe–best known for its…um…well…let’s see…its…uh, it’s very close to the pretty hilltown of Collazzone—and you spot the little Gastronomia Andreani market-slash-butcher-slash-baker right off the road and you pull in to stock up on groceries.

Sometimes—sometimes—it’s knowing the right people. Like, for example, when you are invited to participate in a blogger weekend in Umbria (from what I could gather from my experience, by “participate” they meant “eat and drink free and often, take home lots of swag, and speak well of us”, all three of which activities came to me surprisingly easily. In fact, I am now offering myself out as a sacrificial participant in blogger weekends organized by other regions in Italy. Except Tuscany, of course. I’m ain’t doing that shit for Tuscany. Unless the swag is really good.) and when the bus (Yep, they shuttled us around in a bus with a big sticker on the side. Luckily, I’ve already lost my hipster street cred.) stops in front of the unassuming Gastronomia Andreani for the opening welcome dinner you panic just a little. Because it’s not like you organized the weekend or anything, but you still don’t want Umbria to blow it in front of your fellow bloggers who, taken together, pack one of the biggest travel blog punches in the Italian language. No, not good to screw up the welcome dinner.

But however you end up there, you are in for one of the most pleasant surprises in Umbria.

If food is Umbria’s heart and soul and the small family-owned business is its backbone, Gastronomia Andreani combines these into one organic whole. The Andreani family has been serving customers at their local emporium for almost a century; today, the third generation–brothers Antonio and Floriano, along with his wife Silvana—have expanded what began as a tiny provincial general store in 1915 into a superb culinary mecca.

Silvana Andreani welcoming us to dinner.

To call it gourmet or foodie would only detract from the almost reverent concentration on simple yet sublime local fare: their in-house butcher (run by Floriano) is known across the region as one of the best sources of high-quality locally-raised beef and pork, the delicatessen is overflowing with Umbrian wines, charcuterie, preserves, cheese, pickles and marinated vegetables, olive oils, and other Umbrian delicacies carefully hand-chosen by Antonio, and Silvana rules the roost in their house bakery, churning out schiacciata (a focaccia-style pizza), torta al testo (a local flat bread), jam tarts, breads, and seasonal sweets.

But to stop at the commercial backbone of the Gastronomia would do a disservice to its heart and soul: the Andreani family itself, deeply rooted in Umbrian soil and passionate about passing on the local culture and traditions through food. This quickly became evident during our evening there, when roughly twenty Italian food and travel bloggers were treated to a special sneak peek into their upstairs restaurant, which will open to the general public from May, 2011.

Antonio Andreani presenting our dinner.

It was impossible not to be drawn in by their enthusiasm and knowledge, as course after course left Silvana’s deft hands in the kitchen and was presented by the charming Antonio, who gave a brief explanation of each dish in its historical and regional context. From the antipasto (including ingredients like Cannara’s famous red onions, Assisi’s prize-winning pecorino, freshly picked wild asparagus, Chianina, and rich torta di formaggio), to the strangozzi with traditional Umbrian ragu, to the deboned guinea fowl slowly roasted in a local red wine, to the selection of jam tartlets with their homemade preserves; we weren’t just served delicious food, we were taught why it was delicious, what significance it has to this season, this place, this people. These are folks who take their food seriously, and–in this time of disconnect between what we eat, where we live, and who we are—I respect that.

Our dinner.

Not to say our evening wasn’t fun. The Andreani family is warm and affable, and an evening in their restaurant was like being invited to dinner at your favorite aunt and uncle’s house. She can motherhen you in a way that you would never tollerate from your own mother, and he can lecture you in a way that would irk you endlessly from your father. But somehow they make you feel both coddled and smart, worth their affection and their attention, and eager for your next evening together.

This homemade jam showed up in our goodie bags.

The Gastronomia Andreani will open their restaurant to diners Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights from 5 May. They also offer cooking classes and catering. Silvana is the co-author of the Umbrian cookbook “La Cucina Umbra Facile” in Italian and heads a local sourdough starter bank.

A special thanks to photographer Marzia Keller for kindly letting me use her photographs.

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Selling My Soul to the Devil: Osteria di Pinocchio

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:

Ring. Ring.
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?
Yes, Ma’am.
Uh, ok. I need to reserve for Saturday night. Four adults and four kids.
And will the children be eating on Pleasure Island?
Uh, ok.

I was beginning to rethink my choice of b).

Osteria di Pinocchio

Via Tazio Nuvolari (Pian di Massiano)
Perugia
075-5052591
www.osteriapinocchio.it

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.

It’s loud.

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.

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Rebecca as Guest rather than Hostess: Podcasting about Italy

Sure, you say, her prose is brilliant and she’s photogenic as all get out. But are her tones dulcet?

Well, my friends, feast your ears on this week’s Eye on Italy podcast, during which I (with fellow expat blogger and vegetarian Michelle Schoenung) discuss how to navigate the turbulent waters of alternative diets (primarily vegetarian and gluten-free) in the free-flowing river of Italian cuisine.

And remember, there is nothing like a good editor to polish prose, Photo Shop to correct pictures, and excellent editing to transform a bumbling stutterer into a poised and authoritative interviewee. Just a thought.

On with the show!

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Rebecca as Guest rather than Hostess: Five Fabulous Hikes in Umbria

There are so many great walks and hikes in Umbria that it’s impossible to explore them all (unless, of course, you are Bill Thayer).

It is, however, very possible to select the crème de la crème, and in doing so see some of the most stunning countryside in Italy. I was able to share five of what I consider the best hikes in this region recently on the Bootsnall Indie Travel Guide‘s blog.

So dust off those boots, get yourself a good map and some sunscreen, and head to the hills. But read my guest post first!