There’s nothing I like more than a good hike. Okay, maybe a hearty meal. And a solid night’s sleep. And a pair of warm socks. And a compelling book.
But after all that, I really like a good hike. So it was a pleasure to be able to share one of my favorite hikes in Umbria on Keith Jenkin’s wonderful Velvet Escape travel blog.
The trail itself is breathtaking, but my favorite part of the hike is the mysterious legend behind its final destination. Take a look here to read about this quirky hike.
I am still a Twitter novice, despite a year of tweeting. Twitter tends to bring out the worst of my Luddite nature, though I do enjoy tweeting about events and news regarding Italy and Umbria and find it a great resource.
So when Kathy McCabe of the venerable Dream of Italy asked me to guest on the recent #italychat to tweet about Umbria, it was with both excitement and trepidation that I accepted.
Even if you missed the live event, you can still see highlights from the transcript here. (I mention one of my current favorite restaurants in Umbria: Camesena)
Thanks again to Dream of Italy Travel Newsletter for having me as a guest!
If in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, in the dog days of icy February he is most likely thinking about his next vacation. Preferibly to warmer climes. If the drifting snow and slate-colored skies have got you dreaming of your next trip to central Italy, here’s a quick overview of what you can expect in springtime in Umbria.
Spring Weather in Umbria
Spring, specifically April and May, is one of my favorite times to visit Umbria. The crowds haven’t yet begun to bunch up around the major monuments, hotels, restaurants, and anyone working in the travel industry is just coming off a winter rest so happy to see you, the days are longer (many churches and monuments are open until dusk, so a longer day is conducive to getting more bang for your buck), and the lovely Umbrian countryside comes alive with blossoming trees, blooming gardens, and meadows of wildflowers.
That said, being properly kitted out for an Umbrian spring involves a little packing savvy. Make sure you bring clothes you can layer, since the weather may go from chilly and rainy to sunny and warm in a matter of days (if not hours). I would include a jacket, a sweater (or fleece), shoes that can take rain, a scarf (or pashmina), and an umbrella. Obviously March through mid-April will require heavier layers, while the end of April through May warms up considerably and you can get by with lighter clothing. For some average temperatures, try this handy graph here.
Also, make sure you have both indoor and outdoor sights on your itinerary so you can work around anything the sky might toss at you. The weather is, of course, spottier than it would be at the height of summer, but generally has cool, sunny days (good for walking or exploring a hill town) interspersed with some showers (a great excuse to duck into a museum or church). …and gets steadily warmer and sunnier the further you push forward into May.
Spring Holidays in Umbria
If you are planning your trip on a strict budget, by choosing a “shoulder” season (those buffer months between high and low season), you will be more likely to find deals on flights, accommodations, and car rentals. Shoulder season for Umbria generally includes the months of March and some or all of April, but you need to keep an eye on when the national holidays are, as you won’t be likely to find discounted rates during those times.
8 March: Festa della Donna (National Women’s Day)—This isn’t likely to flip rates into high season, and may even save you some money if you are of the fairer sex. The Ministry for Art and Culture has periodic discount days for state museums and monuments across Italy, and on the Festa della Donna women have free admission. Beware of trying to dine out, however, as restaurants will be packed with tables of girlfriends out for a night on the town and many places will offer only a fixed menù dinner option.
17 March: Festa Della Unità dell’Italia (Unification Day)—Word is still out as to whether this holiday is a one-off for 2011 or will stick around for awhile. Some museums and monuments will be closed, as will offices and businesses (most restaurants and shops catering to tourists should remain open). As it falls on a Thursday this year, many Italians may take advantage of the ponte (“bridge” between a holiday and the weekend) to head out for a mini-break, so hotel prices may reflect the surge in demand.
19 March: San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph’s Feast Day, celebrated as Father’s Day)—This doesn’t really have any effect on anything, but if you happen to be in Italy with your favorite Dad, you might want to buy him a plate of zeppole (a custard-filled fritter) or frittelle (a sugar-dusted rice fritter) traditionally eaten today to show him your love.
Pasqua/Pasquetta (Easter weekend–from Good Friday through Easter Monday)– One of the most popular times for Italians to take advantage of their schools and offices closing and head out on vacation. Definitely high season prices, and availability may be scarce. On the upside, however, visiting around Easter offers an opportunity to participate in the many rituals and traditions surrounding this solemn yet joyful holiday.
25 April: Festa della Liberazione (Liberation Day)—Some museums and monuments (along with all offices and schools) may be closed, and if it falls near a weekend you may run into a ponte peak. This year il 25 Aprile (as it is colloquially known) is the same day as Pasquetta, so see above.
1 May: Festa dei Lavoratori (Labor Day)– Some museums and monuments (along with all offices and schools) may be closed, and if it falls near a weekend you may run into a ponte peak. The Ministry for Art and Culture has periodic discount days for state museums and monuments across Italy, and on Il Primo Maggio (as it is colloquially known) many offer €1 admission.
Spring Festivals in Umbria
Hand in hand with holidays come festivals, and one of the biggest selling points to visiting Umbria in spring is the plethora of wonderful traditional local festivals, during which the region awakens from its long winter hibernation and welcomes spring with open arms. For a list of those worth checking out, take a look here. (The list ended up so long that I made it into its own blog post. Sorry about the detour!)
Spring Sagre in Umbria
The sagra season really begins to gain traction in spring, so if you are looking for a festive atmosphere, a traditional meal, and a great window into Umbria culture, stop in to one of these:
Scheggino: Festa del Diamante Nero (mid-March) When they say the Black Diamond Festival, they are not talking about the gems you wear, but those you eat: truffles!
Bevagna: Arte in Tavola (end of April – beginning of May)–A celebration of traditional Umbrian cooking, with a little art and history thrown in, along the streets and piazze of one of Umbria’s loveliest towns.
Eggi: Sagra degli Asparagi (end of April – beginning of May) This hilltop village in the beautiful countryside near Spoleto is all about asparagus one week of the year.
Pietrafitta: Sagra degli Asparagi del Bosco (end of April – beginning of May) In a variation on the theme, this village near Piegaro concentrates on wild asparagus.
Spring Food in Umbria
Affettati (charcuterie): One of the mainstays of the Umbrian diet is pork, and the region is famous for its salame, prosciutto, dried sausage, corallina, and pancetta. Traditionally, pigs are butchered during the winter, and by spring the cured and salted charcuterie is at its prime.
Wild asparagus: Umbrians are diehard foragers: mushrooms, berries, field greens and, come April, the wily wild asparagus. Local markets sell them by the bunches, and the sharp flavor is perfect with fresh tagliatelle (egg noodles) or in risotto.
Easter food: Easter is the biggest spring holiday, and, like most Italian holidays, food plays a principal role. Breakfast is traditionally the contents of the specially prepared and blessed Easter basket, including hardboiled eggs, new salame (see above), wine (yes, the breakfast of champions), a savory cheese bread (torta pasquale or torta di formaggio), and the dove-shaped colomba sweet bread. At lunch, expect egg-based pasta in all shapes and forms, lamb or young goat, artichokes, asparagus, fennel, and other spring vegetables, and the first strawberries of the season. Afterwards, merrymakers break open their hollow chocolate eggs to find their surprise inside and eat the remains as dessert.
One of the biggest selling points to visiting Umbria in spring is the plethora of wonderful traditional local festivals, during which the region awakens from its long winter hibernation and welcomes spring with open arms.
Here are a few worth checking out:
Late March to late April:
Pasqua/Pasquetta (Easter weekend from Venerdì Santo through Pasquetta). Easter is not about a bunny in Umbria; it remains a solemn and deeply religious holiday which begins the week before Easter Sunday.
On Venerdì Santo (Good Friday), many Umbrian towns hold costumed religious processions, when (often barefooted) monks and members of religious fraternities transport statues of the Virgin and/or Christ along torch-lit medieval streets. One of the most moving is in Assisi, where the statue of Jesus is taken down from the cross inside the Cathedral of San Rufino and transported on a canopied litter to the Basilica of Saint Francis and back. Many other towns–Todi, Norcia, Montefalco, Perugia, and Gubbio, to name a few—hold a Stations of the Cross pageant reinacting the martyrdom of Christ.
On Pasqua (Easter Sunday), most Umbrian families attend Mass and enjoy a long leisurely lunch together. After lunch, both children and adults unwrap the brightly colored mylar paper around their huge chocolate eggs, breaking them open to reveal the sorpresina prize inside.
Pasquetta (Easter Monday) is usually spent with friends, often day-tripping to another town for a passeggiata or walk down the Corso. One of the most popular events in Umbria on Easter Monday is the Ruzzolone cheese rolling race in the pretty town of Panicale. Huge wheels of cheese are rolled along a course around the village walls, and the winner is feted with music and wine in the piazza.
Giornata Nazionale delle Ferrovie Dimenticate (National Forgotten Railways Day)—This is one of my favorite annual events, during which ex-railway lines (many now retrofitted as hiking and biking trails) are highlighted with organized excursions, railway museum visits, and period photography shows. This year the events are during the weekend of 5-6 April, but unfortunately the website is only in Italian.
Giornata FAI (Open Day for the Italian National Trust)—FAI is a non-profit fund which protects artistic, historical, and natural treasures in Italy. Many of their sites (if not the majority) are closed to the public for most of the year, but for one weekend annually (26-27 March in 2011) some of the most unique and breathtaking of these open their doors for guided tours and visits. If you are passionate about off the beaten track villas, castles, monasteries, and parks, this is an event to watch.
Settimana della Cultura (Culture Week)– The Ministry for Art and Culture has periodic discount days for State museums and monuments across Italy. During the annual Culture Week (9-17 April in 2011), all State-owned museums, monuments, and archaeological sites are open free of charge and some organize special events, guided tours, and extraordinary openings to closed sites.
La Corsa all’Anello (The Race of the Ring), Narni–In one of the most beautiful (and off the beaten path) hilltop towns in the region, you will find the epitome of the Umbrian festival: medieval pageantry, costumed locals, banner-festooned streets, outdoor taverne with food and wine, torchlit processions, and, of course jousting.
Festa del Tulipano (Tulip Festival), Castiglione del Lago–After World War II, a group of Dutch families resettled on the shores of Lake Trasimeno to coltivate tulips, and with them came the tradition of celebrating the arrival of spring by decorating the town with the petals of the first tulip blooms, which were too short to be sold at market. The Dutch no longer raise flowers here (though there is a concentration of Dutch expats around the lake still), but the tradition continues in decorated floats, flower shows, and petal-strewn streets.
Picnic a Trevi–Art, music, and food among the olive groves of lovely Trevi.
Antiquaria d’Italia (Antique Show), Todi–One of the most important and prestigious antique shows/markets in the area, in the beautiful period Palazzo Landi Corradi.
Calendimaggio, Assisi–Perhaps the most spectacular of all Umbrian festivals, with its squaring off of the two medieval halves of the town–the “Parte di Sopra” and the “Parte di Sotto”—who challenge each other during three days of costumed pageants, medieval reenactments, vocal and instrumental concerts, dances, processions, archery, crossbow, and flag corps competitions. Splurge for tickets so you can get a good look at the action in the main piazza (the most breathtaking show is Saturday night, when antics with fire play a huge part).
Festa dei Ceri, Gubbio–“A candle race” doesn’t quite capture the over-the-top town-wide frenzy that takes over this otherwise stoic village on May 15th each year as three teams carry gargantuan wooden “candlesticks” on their shoulders and precariously charge through the thronged streets to the deafening cacophany of cheering, drums, and bells.
Il Palio della Balestra (Cross-bow competition), Gubbio–If you want a piece of the festival action, but maybe a slightly smaller piece than the Festa dei Ceri dishes up, try this historical costumed event the last weekend in May
Cantine Aperte (Open Wineries)–Wineries big and small open their doors across Umbria (but concentrated in the Sagrantino-producing area near Montefalco) for tastings, guided tours, and special events.
La Palombella, Orvieto–A caged dove representing the Holy Spirit descending upon the Apostles follows a wire from the Bishop’s palace over the heads crowding the piazza to end in a fireworks display on the opposite side in front of the basilica’s breathtaking facade. The festival is held on Pentecost Sunday, so dates vary.
This has to be one of the most arduous posts I have ever had to research. Yes, the toll of recon missions to some of the swankest spas and hotels in Umbria is a sacrifice I would only endure for someone as important as star blogger and travel consultant Robin Locker Lacey of one of the best travel websites out there: My Melange.
If you are seeking wellness and pampering–with a side of culture and history–look no further than one of these heavenly spas in Umbria!
I don’t often write about Assisi per se, as it seems that rivers of ink have been spilled in describing the town’s beauty and mystique. So it was a unique pleasure not only to be able to contribute to one of my favorite blogs about Italy (Madeline Clarke Jhawar’s excellent Italy: Beyond the Obvious) but to be able to explore some of the lesser known Roman monuments and sites in my adopted hometown.
If you have a passion for Roman history (or just want an excuse to check in to a fabulous five star spa), take a look here for some tips!
Let’s face it: times are tough. We are all tightening our belts a little, trimming the fat, and watching our pennies. That said, a trip to Umbria may be more do-able than you think. Here are some suggestions to help keep your dream trip within reach (and without sacrifice!).
Photo by Julien Jorge
Time It Right
By choosing a low or “shoulder” season (those buffer months between high and low season), you will be more likely to find deals on flights, accommodations, and car rentals. This doesn’t mean you are stuck with the dog-days of January; shoulder season for Umbria generally includes the months of March (and some or all of April) and November (and some or all of October). The weather is, of course, spottier than it would be at the height of summer, but generally has cool, crisp days interspersed with some showers…and gets steadily warmer and sunnier the further you push forward into April or back into October. Bring clothes you can layer, and make sure you have both indoor and outdoor sights on your itinerary so you can work around anything the weather might toss at you.
Aim Low to Fly High
With a little time and patience, there are good deals to be scored on airline tickets. Time, patience, and a little bit of knowledge, that is. For an overview on how to play the cheap airfare game, a good place to start is here. Once you have a handle on how to work the system, stop by the new Airfares & Airlines Forum at Slow Talk (the Slow Travel forum), where there is an ongoing conversation going on with travellers about where, how, and when to find the best prices on tickets…and a specific thread to compare what others have paid for their flights. Remember that to fly to Umbria, you have a number of airport options to comparison shop: Perugia, Rome, Florence, Ancona, and (in a pinch) Pisa are all feasible. Perugia has discount European carrier RyanAir flights from London Stansted, so another option is to purchase a ticket to London and connect with a dirt-cheap intra-European London-Perugia flight (make sure you read RyanAir’s infamous baggage restrictions carefully!).
Stay in a Vacation Rental
Okay, anyone who has spent any time on this blog knows that I don’t shill very often, so bear with me while I do here. A vacation rental can be a great budget choice, both for the simple price advantage (Figure Brigolante’s rates average to less than €80/night in high season, which is €40/night per person for a couple and €20/night per person for a family of four. To put it bluntly, the Assisi campground charges more.) and for the added advantage of a kitchen to prepare meals and laundry facilities. When the timing is right, we also offer our guests free access to our vegetable garden and eggs, wine, and olive oil all year long. You do the math.
This view is free!
Get Cookin’, Good Lookin’
While we’re on the subject of the advantages of a vacation rental, let’s talk food. One of the biggest budget crushers when travelling is the cost of eating out three times a day, every day. If you have access to a kitchen, you can dramatically cut down your restaurant expenditures by cooking at home and preparing picnics to take along on day trips. If you’re worried about missing out on Umbria’s fabulous regional cuisine, don’t fret. Traditional Umbrian cooking is very simple–yet hearty–fare founded more on fresh, local ingredients than fancy preparation techniques. Take the time to wander through the region’s farmers’ markets, local butchers, specialty cheese, fresh pasta, and bread shops and pick up a little culture along with your dinner ingredients.
Sometimes The Best Things in Life are Free
Umbria is a particularly budget-travel friendly destination because so many of its sights are free of charge. The lion’s share of her major artworks are in chuches, which are largely open free to the public. Much of the region’s charm is in simply wandering the streets of its numerous medieval stone hilltowns, taking scenic drives through the rolling landscape, and walks in one of the region’s parks. A stroll through sleepy Spello, a drive along the Nera river, gazing upon the iconic frescoes in the Basilica of Saint Francis, watching the sun set over Lake Trasimeno, a picnic on Mount Subasio: all unforgettable moments in Umbria that won’t cost you a cent.
The best things in life...
Here is a bucket list of money saving tips for Umbria:
Purchase a Perugia Città Museo Card: €10/person buys you access to any five of thirteen local museums, monuments, and archeological sights for 48 hours from your first use, €20 (€35 for a family of up to four) buys you access all thirteen local museums, monuments, and archeological sights for a full year from your first use. A good deal.
Other cities in Umbria have similar discount card options (for example Spoleto and Assisi), which can be deals if you intend on visiting the participating museums and monuments. For more information, contact the Tourist Info offices.
The Ministry for Art and Culture has periodic discount days for State museums and monuments across Italy. Around Valentine’s Day (for 2011 it’s 12 and 13 February), museums offer two tickets for the price of one. On 8 March, all women enter free to celebrate Women’s Day. And during the annual Culture Week (9-17 April in 2011), all State-owned museums, monuments, and archaeological sites are open free of charge.
Many music festivals offer some free concerts during their program (Umbria Jazz, for example, has free concerts in the public Giardini Carducci). See here for suggestions.
A great time to visit an Umbrian town is during their annual festival, which often includes costumed processions, concerts, crossbow tournaments and medieval reinactments open to the crowds. Just a walk through the town, all decked out with banners and flags and saturated with an air of celebration, makes for some wonderful memories.
Trawl for car rental deals with the same attention as airfare deals. I am a huge proponent of renting a car in Umbria, and, with some attention to detail, it is possible to shave quite a bit off your car rental price.
Groupon. Yes. Don’t make that face. Groupon is divided by city in Italy (as it is elsewhere), so you can register for Perugia to see what local deals are coming through the pipe. I admit that many won’t be of much interest to the average traveller (unless, of course, you are looking to get your teeth cleaned in Umbria), but there are often discounts on restaurant meals, accommodations, and spa treatments. You will have to sort through the Italian, but with a little work most offers are easily decipherable.
The toughest trial the newly-minted expat has to endure is that clunky, awkward, square-peg-in-round-hole exercise of superimposing one’s own largely culturally dictated belief system on that of one’s new host culture, and–with a little cutting and pasting, giving and taking, conceding and demanding– cobbling together a new one.
Okay, the second toughest trial. The first is, of course, bagel withdrawal.
When it works (a fun story of when it works), the exercise is an alchemy of skimming the cream off the top of both cultures and creating something greater than the sum of its parts. When it doesn’t work, it produces the Bitter Expat…the one who does nothing but harp on the host culture at dinner parties, boring fellow expats with tales of woe and offending locals with claims of how everything is bigger, better, and faster in one’s home country.
I moved to Umbria as a vegetarian. Luckily, not a new vegetarian, so I had shed the holier-than-thou affect of the newly converted, but a vegetarian nonetheless. Umbria is a region of meat eaters. Not only meat eaters, but meat raisers and meat butcherers. This traditional, rural area still has vast swaths of farmland where the turn-around time between barnyard and dinner table is a few hours at most. Though older Umbrians remember a diet based largely on grains and legumes (flavored with pork fat and charcuterie) with meat reserved for special occasions or, for the more prosperous, Sundays, the steadily climbing standard of living over the past two generations means that meat has become a mainstay of the local diet.
The sight of fresh homemade sausages hung to dry warms the cockles of any Umbrian's heart.
That said, the modern regional cuisine continues to reflect the poor hunting and farming culture that dominated Umbria for millenia with its heavy use of game (hare, fowl, and wild boar) and–the uncontested monarch–pork. The pig was, and remains, the foundation upon which the lion’s share of Umbrian dishes rest for a number of reason. Pigs once had a symbiotic relationship with the land (less so now as most are no longer kept outdoors), as each fall they were herded under oak trees bordering farm fields to consume the fallen acorns and—ahem—fertilize the fields along the way. Pigs are a smaller, less dangerous animal than cattle and their care and feeding were often the responsibility of the family’s children. And, most importantly, pigs can be consumed down to the last centimeter. Nothing was wasted when a pig was butchered, and during a time when a family of twenty had to stretch out a single pig to cover a year (something often done), this could make a big difference.
They say that pigs are highly intelligent animals. After having them as next door neighbors for 18 years, I have my doubts.
Most country families in Umbria still butcher a pig each year (though now the meat is consumed by about four people, and much less of it is cured in favor of freezing), and many urban families reserve a pig in the spring at a local farm, which raises it for their clients until the following winter. This tradition is so strong that a recent EU regulation banning home butchering was amended to allow a limited number of pigs to be home butchered (across Italy). The ingrained frugality continues, and the pig is still consumed from snout to tail (head cheese helps clear up the scraps, as does blood pudding (a blood, sugar, raisin, pinenut baked concoction that my husband’s 105 year old grandmother still makes), heavy use of lard in cooking, and generosity with the dogs.).
Le dejeuner sur l'herbe
So, have I mentioned that I’m a vegetarian? Yes, and I may as well fast forward over the first years of avoidance ( I would simply head out of town for the weekend) followed by reluctant acceptance (I would hunker down inside the house for the weekend) to my current whole-hearted embrace (I invite friends for a “salsicciata”, or sausage roast, for the weekend). It has been a long road to reconcile my American urban vegetarian value system with the Umbrian rural farming value system, but I have done it. Here’s how:
Respect the Pig
Ok, there’s no way around it. The pigs end up dead. Yep. They are killed in the end. So, if that’s a deal breaker for you, it’s going to be a problem. I realized that it’s not so much a deal breaker for me if 1) the animals are treated well during their life and 2) the animals are treated well in death. Which they are, on both counts.
There's no getting around this.
Umbrians (and, I suspect many cultures who maintain a much more immediate relationship with their food than most Americans do) tend to treat their animals well…they eat well, they have ample room and fresh air, they are not given hormones, antibiotics, or fillers, they are allowed to grow at a normal rate and are given adequate vet care. This not because Umbrians are more soft-hearted about animals in general (their unsentimental view of dogs can be jarring), but because they care about what they eat and any animal who has been badly fed, stressed, and medicated is not going to make for good eating.
The actual killing of the pig is, I daresay, anticlimactic. There is no throat-slitting, no trauma, no slasher-film graphic. They take a compressed air pistol shot to the temple, and are already gone when they hit the ground. That’s how it’s done. It took me years—years—to work up the courage to stand by and watch, and then I felt silly for making such a big deal of it. Some squealing occurs, not because of pain or terror but because pigs are stubborn, ornery SOBs who don’t like to be moved around, be it from one sty to another, from one pasture to another, or from one dimension to another.
Three generations of "norcini" or hog butchers.
Respect the Earth
There is no environmental impact in family farm stock raising. We feed them the forage we raise in our fields, and use their waste to fertilize our fields. This is not a feed lot. There is no manure lagoon. They roam freely in their pen. They are never medicated (unless, of course, they get sick). All those misgivings I had about meat consumption in the 1980s in the US do not apply here. In fact, much of the Umbrian landscape—the patchwork of tiny, oak-ringed fields, pastures, vineyards, and olive groves–would be very different were it not for the history of the small, family farm which dabbles a bit in stock, a bit in forage, and a bit in produce.
It's a tag-team job of hands and knives (and tongues).
Respect the People
To love Umbria is to love its culture, history, and people. And it’s hard to separate that from the dinner table. There are some practices that have roots in history that I consider indefensible (genital mutilation comes to mind, for example), but the annual hog kill is not one of them.
Once a year, the extended family gets together (with various neighbors, friends, and passers-by who catch a whiff of fresh sausages frying) for what amounts to more of a party than a chore. In Umbria, the heavy work of sectioning the meat, grinding mixes for sausage and salame, and preparing haunches and shoulders for salting and curing is primarily the men’s job, though that’s not true in all of Italy, and the women spend the day bustling back and forth from the kitchen with pots of boiling water, spices, and lots of unsolicited advice.
Making the salame is serious business accompanied by lots of banter.
There is laughter, light-hearted ribbing, and hours and hours of story-telling. Long dead family and friends are brought up as if they had just departed yesterday, and children (mine included) are handed knives and taught how to correctly cut ribs (usually by four different people with four conflicting methods), make head cheese (in a perplexing development for this vegetarian mom, my eldest son’s favorite task is also arguably the goriest one), and, in a subtle way, internalize the cycle of life-death-life. The day culminates in a sausage roast come dinner time, when the numbers swell and often an organetto appears from nowhere to wheeze out traditional tunes.
My son's favorite task is, clearly, also the most dangerous and disgusting.
Have I begun eating meat? No (more out of habit that principle–honestly, many of the same moral and ethical arguments made against the meat industry can be made against the sugar and cocoa bean industry but that doesn’t slow my chocolate consumption one bit, baby) but I learned that though we began our journeys from two points of departure that seemed diametrically opposed, somehow the Umbrians and I have ended up in the exact same place.
Our charcuterie curing under a thick layer of salt, pepper, and garlic.
Intrigued by home curing meat? Follow Judy from Divina Cucina as she spends the next twelve months showing us her thighs, breasts, and belly during Charcutepalooza!
We finally, after many false starts, technical problems, and delays—in short, Italy—installed wifi internet access at Brigolante. And I am thrilled. Really. Over the moon. Ecstatic. Tickled pink. Walking on air. On cloud nine.
Okay. I’m not happy.
Now, before I begin what I hope will be thoughtful analysis but fear will quickly degenerate into diatribe, let me be clear that I absolutely understand why internet access is indispensable while travelling. As a parent and small business owner, I either travel for work (so need to keep in touch with my kids) or travel with my kids (so need to keep in touch with work). Unfortunately, there is no way around that conundrum, however unfortunate it may be. I certainly am not judging guests who require internet access with the same presumption as running water and electricity. And I would never flip the switch—at this point Pandora’s box has been opened, for better or for worse.
It's a whole new world out there.
So, what’s my problem?
Let’s parse travel–specifically, why we travel– for a minute. You can compile an endless list of reasons for skipping town, but once you break them down it turns out that virtually each can be filed under a single category: connection.
Travel, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back to ourselves. – Albert Camus
Camus saw travel as the moment in which we strip ourselves of all the accoutrements of normal life and are able to connect with and confront who we really are. I can very much identify with this; it has been during my travels in life that I have been able to shed the skin of others’ expectations and projections and reinvent myself from within according to my own. At times it has been frightening, but it has also been my most dramatic periods of growth.
There was a time when travel meant leaving. (And before you young whippersnappers out there get all condescending, let me say that it was not that long ago. Like, until the late 1980s.) You left. You were out of touch. Unless you had the foresight and organization to leave an itinerary and hotel phone numbers with someone back at the ranch, there was pretty much no way to track you down. Yes, there was poste restante, the American Express office, and those banks of public phones with the queues stretching down the block, but apart from being informed of a death in your immediate family by telegram, there was no expectation that you would be in touch.
Now, it is very rare that travellers completely disappear from the radar. We Skype, we post pictures on Flickr, we tell everyone about the amazing sunset we are enjoying while sipping cocktails on Facebook, we check in on Foursquare. I know many people who are more active online while travelling than when they are at home since they don’t have the nuisance of work to get in the way. But it begs the question of how much baggage we drag along behind us from home along with our suitcases, and how much it weighs us down. Do we expend so much energy staying connected with ex-schoolmates and colleagues on social media, Skyping mom every evening so she doesn’t worry, and living each moment as a meta experience of simultaneously composing our next blog post about it in our heads, that we have none left over for ourselves?
To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.—Bill Bryson
It used to be like this: It used to be that our guests would hang out in the garden together in the evening. Couples would sample wine and hold hands. Friends would spread out maps for tomorrow and laugh about the adventures they had had today. Families would tromp around the vegetable garden, teaching their kids the essential yet novel art of picking ripe tomatoes. Complete strangers would strike up conversations and, over the course of the week, swap hidden gem restaurant suggestions and compare day trips.
This is what I loved. This is the gift I gave.
A place just that removed from the hustle that at the end of a long day of culture, of art and architecture, of nature, of food and wine, there was the time and the quiet to connect with loved ones: to propose, to fall in love again, to conceive, to make new friendships, to have long and wandering conversations, to play hide and go seek, to spend that last week together before kids left for college. Sure, we had internet if someone needed to check their email. But you actually had to go into our office (by “office” I mean “home office” and by “home office” I mean “small, cluttered corner of toy-strewn living room”), and it was so nice outside, and there was still wine in your glass, and your kids were saying, “Daddy, just one more time!” and the sausages on the grill were just about ready and, okay, maybe tomorrow you would check. There probably wasn’t anything that important in your inbox, anyway.
It’s changed since we installed wifi. Not to say that these things still don’t happen, but less. Less. More staring at screens and missing the sunset. More staying inside where the wifi is stronger. More stressing about emails coming from an office 2000 km away. More keeping in touch with friends online and not meeting new ones next door. More partners sitting outside alone with a book. More kids saying, “Mommy, are you almost finished?”
Sure, internet access is something I now offer. But what have I taken away, I wonder?
As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.” — Margaret Mead
I have often said, and repeat here, that leaving my home country has made me a patriot. Not, of course, because I espouse that insidious “love it or leave it” vein that seems to have become the cultural trope in the US in the past few years, but because the distance and separation have given me the perspective necessary to be able to appreciate those aspects of American culture which do, indeed, make it a great country (and a critical awareness of some substantial problems that real patriots should care enough to fix). It’s kind of like how your mother is an absolute moron until you leave home and start raising your own children while still maintaining a career, social life, and your sanity. Suddenly she becomes the smartest woman you ever met (and you understand her flaws much better, as well).
But to acheive the kind of distance and separation to put that vast cultural panorama into focus, you need—ahem—distance and separation. The day is made up of only so many hours, so if we fill them with constantly checking the CNN newsfeed on our iPhones, watching Glee on our iPads, and listening to Morning Edition on our iPods (It seems like I have it in for Steve Jobs. Not really. I just like alliteration.)—essentially floating through our travels in a bubble of familiar language, politics, customs, and trash tv–there simply aren’t enough left over to observe and absorb the culture we are visiting in a way essential to useful juxtaposition. At the end of the day, can you ever really understand your mother until you’ve moved out of her basement?
I suppose all this ambivalence can seem patronizing and high-handed. After all, we are all grown-ups here and make our own decisions about how and why we travel. After all, I’m just a business owner providing services clients request. After all, all this connectivity has revolutionized my line of work, largely for the better. After all, before we had wifi all I did was bitch about not having wifi. After all, it’s one of the first things I ask when I book an accommodation myself. After all, it’s progress, right?
It was such a pleasure to parse food in Umbria by season for Jessica Spiegel of the powerhouse WhyGo Italy travel website last week.
If you’re curious as to what you should expect–seek out, even–during your next trip, be sure to take a look at What to Eat in Umbria: Food for Every Season.
And get those appetites ready!