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Walking and Hiking in Umbria: Seavalley Up in the Mountains

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.

The excursion which we propose here unfolds along peaceful dirt roads and small country roads accessible to all and offers out of the ordinary views of the woody eastern slope of Mount Subasio.  The entire itinerary is charactierized by powerful oaks whose presence is due principally to the clayey nature of the hills which look out over the Topino river.  These have been planted and cared for by man since the times of the Umbrians; they are not nature but culture.  When the leaves fall, among the bare branches it is easy to descry the presence of the “golden branch”: mistletoe with its golden berries, symbols of light and of life which regenerates itself.  Since this is a parasitic plant which does not have its roots in the earth, it used to be said that it had come down from the sky, that it was a divine emanation.  The Celts called mistletoe “that which cures all”.  This mysterious plant was the central element in a complex ceremony which was held during the rites connected with the winter solstice.  The Druids—the priests and prophets of the ancient Celts—gathered the plants with a golden sickle and were careful not to let it touch the ground; the water in which it was subsequently immersed was held to be an efficacious antidote for curses and spells.  Even today, the gift of a branch of mistletoe on New Year’s Eve—to be hung inside above the door—brings good luck.  And as for you skeptics, it certainly does no harm!

We recommend comfortable clothing and shoes suitable for a trip to the mountains.  Bring a knapsack with food and drink, a rain slicker, compass, and altimeter, the Map of the Trails of Mount Subasio (CAI), binoculars, and a camera.

By Car: from Piazza Matteotti (445 m) go out under Porta Perlici and take the SS 444 (of Mount Subasio) road in the direction of Gualdo Tadino.  After about 500 m leave the SS 444 road and go right (following signs for Costa di Trex and Armenzano).  The narrow asphalt road, in slight but constant ascent, leads you to the few houses of Costa di Trex, (573 m – 5 km) then to Armenzano (759 m – 10 km).  Here leave the SP 249 road and continue on to the left; after skirting the walls of the castle, go left again on a road which goes down.  Once you have passed a small cemetary shaded by cypresses, you will come to a saddle, the Armenzano Cross (627 m – 11.5 km from Piazza Matteotti) where numerous roads and paths intersect.  You will recognize the spot because of a small country shrine here made of stone and a characteristic country tower for doves.  The saddle is the watershed between the Cavaliero Channel (N-W), a tributary of the Tescio Torrent and the Anna Channel (S-E), confluent of the Topino River.

The shrine at Armenzano Cross

Itinerary: from the Armenzano Cross (627 m) begin to walk (E) along the dirt road and after a few meters you will reach a fork where you bear to the right on a road which ascends slightly.  After you have passed alongside the country dove tower, continue along the peaceful dirt road.  Towards the right, a view will open up of the broad head of the Anna Channel and of the eatstern slope of Mount Subasio, deeply furrowed with numerous streams.

The slope of Mount Subasio

You will reach Falcioni Alto (684 m – 20 min from your departure) signaled by various man-made structures—houses and stables for animals—in a complete state of abandonment.  Here go left and after a few meters turn right; once you have crossed a metal fence, continue along (N-E) on a grassy path through uncultivated fields which will bring you to a saddle between two modest rises.  On a little hill on the left (700m)—delimited below by a low stone wall—remains of a country villa from Roman times have been found.  No visible trace of the villa remains above ground except for a few square blocks and numerous fragments of pottery.  The presence here now of small cement fireplaces, which perhaps anticipate debatable tourist “fruits” in the future is a real disappointment.

Return to the Falcioni Alto fork (15 min round trip) and continue on to the left (S-E) with various brief descents and ascents.  The dirt road will wind along the eathen partition which separates the head of the Anna Channel (on the right) from the head of the Rio Chanel (on the left), both tributaries to the Topino River, while all around you, revealed in all its harmony, lies the countryside so typical of Umbria, miniscule villages, isolated farmhouses, woods, cultivated fields, and oak trees in the midst of fields, all to be leisurely savored.  Continuing on in the same direction, you will come to the intersection at Casurci (701 m – 25 minutes from Falcioni Alto), a miniscule farming village.

The Umbrian countryside

Here you must change direction and turn right onto an ascending road which winds around the Solfea hill. On your left, the view widens to include the Apennines of  Umbria and the Marches with the stubby mass of Mount Pennino (E) and the mountains of Gualdo Tadino (N).  Once you have crossed a mountain pass (720 m), the road begins to descend and Mount Subasio will reappear on your left.  At the next fork, shift directions again and turn right: a dirt road (interrupted several times) will descend through the vineyards and oaks and bring you to the few houses of Vallemare (Seavalley) (660 m – 15 min from Casurci).

This toponym, truly unique among the Mount Subasio spurs, has given rise to various interpretations and legends, the most convincing of which is supplied by Arnaldo Fortini: in 969 an entire population was transplanted from the land of Puglia, at the time of Pandolfo Testadiferro, duke of Spoleto who, at the head of the imperial army of Otto I, conquered and subdued the Saracens and Byzantines in that region.  Perhaps this reference to the sea in this valley makes us remember that people.  In addition, the presence of last names with the prefix “de” or “di”—unusual given the “genitive” last names in this area—could be another small bit of supporting evidence.

Continue your descent and you will come out almost immediately on the narrow asphalt road from Valtopina.  Here turn right until you come to the small inhabited village of Colle Silvo (544 m – 10 min from Vallemare), which you will have seen for some time in the distance.  The charming panorama here invites the traveler to make a well-deserved stop.

Retracing your steps for some thirty or forty meters, you will come to a curve to the right.  Here turn instead to the left (N) onto a small descending road which will begin to wind around the woody head of the Anna Channel, watched over from above by the castle of Armenzano.

One you have passed the small in-cut channel of Colle Silvo, you will come to an intersection.  Here go straight down (N), then cross the Cacciaragani Channel (490m) which is the left branch of the Anna Channel.

Continue on the opposite side which winds up steeply, flanking a fence.  Shortly after, the path levels out: on your left, vast fields with trees for timber and vines.  You will cross a pass between two oaks which face each other, the one on your left is an imposing tree and seems to be completely enveloped, up to its topmost leaves, by a stubborn creeping plant which has a trunk of its own of notable dimensions.

The shrine of the Armenzano Cross  (627 m – 40 min from Colle) is just steps away.

A Seavalley up here was really the last thing I’d expected!

Quest’articolo è riprodotto qua con il permesso dell’autore, Giuseppe Bambini, ed è stato pubblicato originariamente nella rivista ormai fuori stampa AssisiMia, di Francesco Mancinelli, editore.

L’escursione proposta – con caratteristiche riportate nel profilo altimetrico – si sviluppa lungo tranquille sterrate e stradelli campestri accessibili a tutti, offre inconsueti scorci sul boscoso versante E del Subasio. L’intero itinerario è caratterizzato dalla presenza di poderose querce, la cui funzione è dovuta principalmente alla natura argillosa delle colline che si affacciano verso il Fiume Topino. Sono state piantate e curate dall’uomo sin dai tempi degli Umbri: sono cultura, non solo natura. Quando cadono le foglie, tra i rami spogli sarà facile notare la presenza del “ramo d’oro”: il vischio con i suoi frutti dorati, simbolo di luce e di vita che si rigenera. Trattandosi di una pianta parassita senza radici in terra si diceva che, discesa dal cielo, fosse emanazione divina. I Celti chiamavano il vischio “quello che guarisce tutto”.

Questa pianta misteriosa rappresentava l’elemento centrale di un complesso cerimoniale che si teneva durante i riti legati al solstizio d’inverno. I Druidi – sacerdoti e vati degli antichi Celti – lo raccoglievano con un falcetto d’oro ed evitavano che toccasse terra; l’acqua nella quale veniva poi immerso il vischio, era ritenuta un efficace antidoto contro malefici e sortilegi. Ancora oggi è di buon auspicio regalare per capodanno un rametto d’oro da appendere dietro la porta di casa. Per gli scettici: male non fa! Consigliato abbigliamento comodo e calzature adeguate a una gita in montagna.

Munirsi di zainetto contenente qualcosa da mangiare e da bere, giacchetto antipioggia, bussola e altimetro, Carta dei Sentieri del Monte Subasio in scala 1:20000 del C.A.I. sezione di Foligno, binocolo per gustare i panorami e macchina fotografica per chi vuol ricordare.

In automobile: da Piazza Matteotti (445 m) si sottopassa Porta Perlici imboccando la SS 444 (del Subasio) in direzione Gualdo Tadino. Percorsi circa 500 m si lascia la SS 444 e si prende a ds la SP 249 (indicazioniCosta Trex – Armenzano). La stretta strada asfaltata, in leggera e costante salita, conduce alle poche case di Costa Trex (573 m – 5 km), quindi ad Armenzano (759 m – 10 km). Qui si lascia la SP 249 e si prosegue sulla sinistra. Dopo aver lambito le mura del castello, si prosegue ancora a sin in discesa.

Oltrepassato il piccolo cimitero ombreggiato da cipressi si giunge a una sella, la Croce di Armenzano (627 m – 11.5 km da Piazza Matteotti ) – punto di incrocio fra numerose strade e sentieri – riconoscibile per la presenza di una edicola campestre in mattoncini e di una caratteristica torre colombara. La sella rappresenta lo spartiacque tra il Fosso Cavaliero (N-W)tributario del Torrente Tescio, e il Fosso dell’Anna (S-E) affluente del Fiume Topino.

Itinerario: dalla Croce di Armenzano (627 m) si inizia a camminare (E) lungo la sterrata e percorsi pochi m si giunge a un bivio dove si prende a ds in leggera salita.

Fiancheggiata la torre colombara si prosegue lungo la tranquilla sterrata. Verso ds la vista si apre sull’ampia testata del Fosso dell’Anna e sul versante orientale del Subasio, inciso profondamente da numerosi fossi.

Si giunge a Falcioni Alto (684 m – 20 min dalla partenza), segnalato da alcuni manufatti – abitazioni e ricoveri per animali – in stato di completo abbandono.

Qui prendere sulla sin e dopo pochi m piegare a ds. Attraversata una recinzione metallica si prosegue (N-E) su pista erbosa tra campi incolti che porta a una sella tra due modesti rilievi. Sul piccolo colle sulla sin (700 m) – delimitato a valle da un muro di pietrame a secco – sono stati individuati i resti di una villa rustica di epoca romana, di cui non resta traccia visibile in superficie all’infuori di numerosi cocci sparsi e di alcuni blocchi squadrati. Davvero deludente l’attuale presenza di caminetti in cemento, che forse anticipano future discutibili “fruizioni” turistiche. Tornati al bivio di Falcioni Alto (15 min per andare e tornare) si prosegue a sin (S-E) con alcuni saliscendi. La sterrata si snoda lungo il diaframma che separa la testata del Fosso dell’Anna (a ds) da quella del Fosso il Rio (a sin) entrambi tributari del Fiume Topino, mentre tutt’intorno è il tipico paesaggio umbro che si manifesta in tutta la sua armonia: minuscoli borghi, isolati casolari, boschi, coltivi, querce camporili: da gustare in tutta calma. Mantenendo la direzione principale si giunge all’incrocio di Casurci (701 m – 25 min da Falcioni Alto), minuscolo borgo agricolo. Qui si trascura la direzione principale e si piega verso ds in salita, aggirando il colle della Solfea. Sulla sin la vista si allarga sull’Appennino Umbro-Marchigiano con il tozzo massiccio del Monte Pennino (E) e i Monti di Gualdo Tadino (N). Superato un valico (720 m) la strada inizia a scendere mentre sulla ds riappare il Monte Subasio. Al bivio successivo trascurare la direzione principale e piegare sulla ds: una sconnessa sterrata in discesa tra vigneti e roverelle conduce alle poche case di Vallemare (660 m – 15 min da Casurci).

Il toponimo, davvero singolare tra i contrafforti del Monte Subasio, ha dato adito a diverse interpretazioni e leggende, la più verosimile la fornisce Arnaldo Fortini: “nel 969 tutta una popolazione fu trapiantata dalla terra di Puglia al tempo di Pandolfo Testadiferro – duca di Spoleto – il quale, al comando dell’esercito imperiale di Ottone I vinse e sottomise Saraceni e Bizantini in quella regione”.

Forse questo richiamo al mare tra questa valle, fa ricordare quella gente. Inoltre la presenza di cognomi con prefisso “de” oppure “di” – inconsueti rispetto ai cognomi “genitivi” della zona – potrebbe rappresentare un’altra esile conferma. Si prosegue in discesa andando subito a sbucare sulla stretta strada asfaltata proveniente da Valtopina.

Qui prendere a ds giungendo all’abitato di Colle Silvo (544 m – 10 min da Vallemare), già visibile in lontananza.

L’ameno panorama circostante invita il viandante a una meritata sosta.

Tornati indietro per alcune decine di m, in corrispondenza di una curva a ds imboccare sulla sin (N) uno stradello in discesa che inizia a girare intorno alla boscosa testata del Fosso dell’Anna, vigilata dall’alto dal castello diArmenzano.

Oltrepassata la piccola incisione del Fosso di Colle Silvo, a un incrocio proseguire diritto in discesa (N) quindi si traversa il Fosso Cacciaragani (490 m) che costituisce il ramo sin del Fosso dell’Anna.

Si prosegue sul versante opposto con ripide svolte in salita, costeggiando una recinzione. Poco dopo il sentiero rimpiana: sulla sin vasti campi con alberi da legno e radi filari di viti maritate. Si passa attraverso un vallo

costituito da due roverelle affacciate fra di loro, quella di sin è imponente e appare completamente avvolta fino alla chioma da un tenace rampicante, che si diparte da un tronco anch’esso di notevole dimensioni.

L’edicola della Croce di Armenzano (627 m -40 min da Colle Silvo) è lì a due passi.

Una Vallemare quassù proprio è proprio una sorpresa!


Amazing Grace: La Madonna del Bagno

There are places on earth that somehow get to you, and sometimes it’s not easy to put your finger on exactly why.  The tiny church of La Madonna del Bagno near Deruta is one of those places for me.  I am charmed and moved every time I have the opportunity to visit, though at first glance you, too, may be scratching your head.

This country sanctuary, just meters from the roar of traffic on the four lane E45 highway (in fact, if you are arriving from Rome this is a great place to stop off for a few minutes and stretch your legs.  Take the Casalina exit and follow the signs; you will be there in roughly 30 seconds.) with its neat yet nondescript brick exterior, seems like a place you could easily pass by in a region saturated with architecturally imposing cathedrals and basilicas.

The simple brick facade of La Madonna del Bagno

What makes La Madonna del Bagno special is on the inside—hundreds of majolica votive tiles adorn the walls of the church, each inscribed with the letters PGR (Per Grazia Ricevuta or for grace received) and a scene depicting various misfortunes and illnesses that have been resolved due to La Madonna’s intervention.

The historic oak and original piece of painted majolica are behind the altar; the walls covered with centuries of votive tiles.

First a brief history of this quaint and fascinating tradition.  In the mid 1600s, a Franciscan friar found a broken fragment of crockery on the ground, the base of which was painted with an image of the Madonna and infant Jesus.  To avoid it being trodden on by passersby, he wedged it between the branches of a small oak tree along the path.  Later, a merchant from nearby Casalina noticed the fragment had fallen again, so nailed it back to the tree.  This merchant—Cristoforo di Filippo—returned to the tree just a few years later to pray to the image of the Madonna and ask for her grace to save his dying wife—whom he found in perfect health upon his return home.  The couple then commissioned the first votive plaque to give thanks to Maria for her intervention, a tile now almost 400 years old that can still be seen behind the altar of the church.

This glass case behind the altar holds the first votive tile from 1657; behind you can see the famous oak tree.

Just months later the first stone was laid to build the church around the site where the oak grew, which can now be viewed behind glass above the altar of the church, with the fragment of painted crockery still attached to its trunk.  Once the church was completed, local citizens began commissioning their own tiles to give thanks to the Madonna for her various interventions.  Over the succeeding 4 centuries, these tiles gradually began covering the walls and corridors of the sanctuary.  Looking closely, you can even see some affixed around the ring at the base of the cupola’s interior.

The base of the cupola is ringed with tiles

I suppose some of the charm of this church is its unique history—and the romantic aspect of a desperate and grieving husband whose love for his wife is so intense that it spawns a miracle.  But I can’t deny that my fascination revolves mostly around the votive plaques themselves.

From a historical point of view, it is interesting to see the progression as the scenes move from medieval misfortunes like demonic possession, highway robbery, and females bedridden for undisclosed maladies and rural accidents that involve horses, agricultural tools, and falls from trees to sons returning from war and open-heart surgery and industrialized accidents involving cars and trains.  I wander through and watch Umbria’s 400 year modernization take place in a 20 minute majolica slide show.

Demonic possession

Highway robbery

Trampled by a horse

Falling from a tree

A wartime detention camp

Modern surgery

Yikes. No explanation needed.

From an artistic point of view, I find the progression of artistic styles—from the simple two-dimensional rendering in the earliest tiles, to the more decorative and elaborate paintings from the 1700s, to the straightforward journalistic style of post-war Italy—as complete and self-explanatory as any local museum.  The color pallet has changed over the centuries, the tiles range from barely more than a sketch to legitimate works of art, the faces have gone from mask-like to hyperrealistic, but the basic iconography has remained intact.

An example of the simple two dimensional early tiles

An elaborate later tile

These portraits are so realistic that they look like photographs

From a human point of view, one of the most disturbing images I have ever seen is a photo of the destruction wrought over two nights in 1980 when thieves broke into the church (at the time it was left unguarded.  Currently, it is attended to by a foundation which provides housing and work to adults in need.  The women clean the church and the men tend the garden; I have never seen the church and grounds so immaculate.  If you stop by, give them your compliments…they beam with pride.)  and stole over 200 tiles—including the original tile from Cristoforo di Filippo.  Even more tragic were the dozens left abandoned on the floor after being broken by clumsy hands trying to chip them out of the walls.  Many were later recoved, others were replicated from photos (you can pick these out, as their colors are discordantly bright despite the dates from the 1600s), but the fact that these intimate tokens of devotion were stolen and sold is heartbreaking.

This large plaque commemorates the post-1980 restoration after thieves damaged the church

From a spiritual point of view, I have always been attracted to simple manfestations of faith more than elaborate religious ceremony.  I find these unpretentious tiles so representative of the Umbrians’ pragmatic spirituality and so poignant in their straightforward depictions of life’s most painful moments that it is deeply moving.  That I can get teared up over the rough rendered painting of a toddler falling into the flames of an open fire 300 years after it happened, and feel relieved knowing that the child survived, is a testament to the spirituality of this humble place.

The child is saved from the flames

I suppose what it comes down to is that in these humble squares of terracotta I find embodied all I have come to love about Umbria:  its rich history and sense of tradition, its humble yet steely faith, its artistic eye and ability to render even the simplest thing beautiful, and, ultimately, its overwhelming—and, at times, it can be just that—sense of family.  The first tile, painted in 1657, gives thanks to Maria from a family.  The last tile, painted in 2010, gives thanks to Maria for exactly the same thing.  Here’s to the di Filippo family.  Here’s to the Natalizi family.  Per Grazia Ricevuta, we give thanks.

The latest tile hung

Note:  The sanctuary was historically known as La Madonna del Bagno, but in contemporary times has also come to be called La Madonna dei Bagni.  It’s the same place.


Perfect Picnic Places: Fonte di Monte Lauro (Bettona)

Here’s whatcha wanna do, whatcha wanna do is this:

The last time I took a walk around Bettona, I noticed some antique photos hanging in the main piazza’s bar.  Local citizens dressed in 1920s regalia were snapped posing around a little brook, and the picture was inscribed with the name Fonte di Monte Lauro.  When I asked the proprietor of the bar if the spring was still around so I could go take a look, he shook his head and told me it wasn’t worth my time as the place had been abandoned for years.  Then he proceeded to shaft me for a cappuccino.  So I went looking for the spring anyway.  And–lo and behold–I found an absolutely charming little picnic place.  Moral of the story:  any barista who will shaft you for a cappuccino is not to be trusted.

Whom you can trust, however, is Donatella from Bottega del Gusto on Via Vittorio Emanuele, 1 in Bettona, whose gourmet shop is stocked with all you’ll need to throw together an impromptu picnic.  Have her slice up some top quality local cheeses, prosciutto, or salame for a tasty sandwich on fresh torta al testo (Umbrian flat bread), which she can warm up for you.  She also has truffle paté, which can be spread on bread, a variety of the best Umbrian wines, biscotti, fresh jam crostate and artisan chocolate.  You’ll be tempted to stop and lunch at one of the tiny bistrot tables in their charming shop, but press on!

Once you’ve chosen all your picnic makings, head to Bettona (about a 15 minute drive).  You need to climb all the way up the hill to the ring road that encircles the historic center of town.  Follow that ring road around the city walls until you see the yellow sign indicating a right turn downhill with Acqua Minerale Monte Lauro written on it.

Ok, I'll admit the sign isn't very promising. Stay with me...

Follow those signs for about a kilometer until the road ends in front of a utility shed.

The signs don't get better

Leave your car here and walk just a few meters down the path until you get to the brook with a footbridge which leads you to a stone pavilion and picnic table on the opposite side.

The little footbridge is super fun for kids (and me. I thought it was fun, too.)

The cool woods and sound of the bubbling spring-fed brook are a wonderful backdrop for a relaxing picnic.  There are a few paths that wind their way into the woods beyond the picnic area, which I didn’t have time to explore.  Perhaps you will, once you’ve digested your Umbrian goodies!

The water from this fountainhead, with its alkaline and chalybeate properties, was used in the past to treat gastro-enteric maladies. (Chalybeate means it contains salts of iron. I had to look it up.)

Buon appetito!


The Best Tiramisù on the Planet (But I’m Not Bragging)

You will never make tiramisù better than mine.  I’m not gloating, just stating a fact.  You may as well make peace with it now.

When my dear friend Letizia asked me to make my famous Limoncello and Berry Tiramisù for her daughter’s birthday party, I was thrilled.  First because Letizia is a wonderful cook, so anytime she asks me to make a food item I get all flustered and honored and start sounding like Sally Field accepting an Oscar.  Second because it gave me an excuse to go off Weight Watcher’s exactly 36 hours after hopping back on the wagon.  Because it was for a child’s birthday party, people.  I mean, who doesn’t cheat on their diet for a child?  Cruella DeVil, for example, was stick thin because she did things like refuse to prepare desserts for children’s birthday parties and attempt to skin puppies for a fur coat.  I am not Cruella de Vil.

The great thing about tiramisù is that it’s so amazingly simple to make (there’s really only one thing you can screw up, which I inevitably screw up every time I make it), even this variation which was suggested to me years ago by another wonderful cook, Judy Witts Francini.  The tricky thing about tiramisù is that success of the end product depends almost exclusively on the quality of the ingredients you use.  Which is why my tiramisù rocks, almost certainly much more than yours will.

I use the classic 1-1-1 proportion–100 g mascarpone-1 egg-1 tablespoon sugar—which I multiply by 5 to fill a nice sized baking dish.  To make the cream, you mix the mascarpone, egg yolks, and sugar (I also add some limoncello here.  An amount somewhere between “half a glass” and “too much to reasonably drink in one sitting”).  Then you fold in the whites which you’ve whipped to hard peaks.  You layer it with Savoiardi cookies (ladyfingers to those sad world citizens who can’t lay their hands on the real deal) and mixed berries (I use two bags of frozen berries, which I thaw and toss with some sugar and blackberry liqueur then let sit for an hour or so), and leave it set in the refrigerator for a few hours to a day.  What could be simpler?

But here’s the trick:  I go to the dairy down the road and get the mascarpone they make fresh every morning.

The fresh mascarpone is so dense, the dairy wraps it in butcher paper

Then I go to the fowl I harbor in my backyard, and grab eggs right from under the hen’s butt.

Why, yes, that is a piece of straw sticking to one of the eggs. I told you they were fresh.

Then I go to the liquor cabinet and get a bottle of homemade Neapolitan limoncello so rich you can slice it with a knife and a bottle of homemade Umbrian blackberry liqueur.

Neapolitan relatives bring us a bottle of their take no prisoners limoncello every Christmas.

Then I whisk it all together.  Which is actually the biggest pain of the whole process.  Fresh dairy mascarpone is about as hard as butter, but you can’t whisk it with an electric mixer because it will break down and get all curdy on you.  So, you hand whisk.  And whisk.  And whisk some more, until your arm starts to ache and just when you are cursing that stronza Letizia who should have just requested that you bring a bag of chips or something because, what, are you, like, Laura Ingalls Wilder now? you look down and–voilà—there is a lovely smooth cream in your bowl.

This is what it looks like before you've cursed Letizia

This is what it looks like after you've cursed Letizia

Then you whip your egg whites with an electic mixer, loving every 21st century automated minute of it, and fold it together.

Better taste the cream, just to be sure. Hmm. Better taste it again.

Once you’ve admired your lovely homogeneous cream you can start layering it with your cookies and berries:  cookies, berries (make sure you use enough juice to moisten the cookies), cream; cookies, berries, cream.

Your first layers: cookies,, cream.

Beginning the second layer with more cookies over the cream...this is about 30 seconds before you realize you've screwed up.

Then you screw up the one thing you can screw up.  You use too much cream in the first layer and don’t have enough to completely cover the top layer.  You probably would have had enough cream had you not been pilfering it out of the bowl since you made it, but you are not Cruella de Vil.  So, you just spread what you have left semi-attractively over the center of the top layer, call it “rustic” and conveniently forget to photograph the final product.

Which, I can assure you, is better than yours will ever be.  But I’m not gloating.


The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Bettona

I recently discovered the charming organization I Borghi Più Belli dell’Italia, which formed in 2001 to promote the hundreds of small Italian towns at risk of depopulation and decline because they are not on the commercial and travel A-list.  The foundation states its goal as “to guarantee – through protection, restoration, promotion and utilization – the preservation of a great heritage of monuments and memories that would otherwise be irretrievably lost.”

Umbria is particularly rich of just these kinds of small towns (indeed, Umbria is the region which has the most towns listed…even more than her historic rival Tuscany), and the fact that many of these villages are faltering economically because they have been unable to attract industry and tourism is a not only a shame but also a huge loss for the local history and culture.

Perusing I Borghi’s list of Umbrian towns, I realized there were many I’d never visited myself (though three of my favorite spots in Umbria—Montefalco, Bevagna, and Spello—are all included) despite having lived in this region for almost 20 years.  So, I have officially set a personal goal to visit them all this year which, given my median to do list turn around time since my two sons were born, I foresee I will actually accomplish within the year 2018.   Late 2018.

I started a few days ago by stopping by the sleepy yet charming hill town of Bettona (I had decided to go in alphabetical order, so I should have visited Arrone first…but Arrone is more of a drive and I only had a morning free so it was Bettona.  I’ll get back to Arrone sometime before 2018.  My scientific methodology is already all shot to hell.) which, as it turns out, is the perfect place to begin as it is the quintessential Umbrian village.  A piazza, a church, a small museum, a view, some picturesque alleyways…nothing “important” to see, but just a lovely hour or two of slowly paced wandering.

Bettona floats over the Umbrian valley

Once you’ve wound your way up the hill on which Bettona perches—passing the town walls on the way, parts of which are made of large sandstone blocks dating to the Etruscan period–you can park your car right in the main piazza (!!) to begin your visit.  Take an outdoor table at one of the two bars in town to enjoy a cappuccino (the owner will stiff you slightly…take it in stride) while you admire the bell tower of Santa Maria Maggiore which dominates the space, flanked by the austere town hall and the 14th century stone Palazzetto del Podestà.

Bettona’s bell tower in the main piazza

From here, stroll past the bell tower to the Oratory of S. Andrea—poke your head in to see the fabulous carved wooden roses on the coffered ceiling—and, at the end of the steet, the city gate Porta V. Emanuele.

Double back to the main piazza, pass the requisite central fountain and the church of San Crispolto, patron saint of Bettona, and continue on to one of the hidden jewels of the town:  Piazza IV Novembre.  Grab one of the benches along the railing on the far side of the tree-covered square and gaze across the Umbrian valley to the towns of Assisi, Spello, and Perugia.  This is one of the most enchanting views around, so kick back for a few minutes and enjoy it.

A town with a view

When you’re ready to stretch your legs, spend the next half hour wandering through the narrow streets and alleyways of the town.  The stone houses with their flowering window boxes, wooden shutters, and forged iron gates are captivating with their simplicity and charm.  I guarantee that by the end of your walk, you’ll be sizing up the nice Shuttercraft windows with “for sale” signs out front and fantasizing about acquiring a little Umbrian pied-à-terre and easing into village life.

Your final stop should be the quaint Municipal Museum, housed in the stately Palazzo Biancalana in the main piazza.  My favorite room is upstairs in the painting collection…smack in the middle of the gallery, counter to the current fad of drive-thru museum going, they have plunked down two of the comfiest leather sofas I’ve ever had the pleasure to take for a test drive.  So settle yourself in and admire Perugino’s etheral Madonna della Misericordia at your leisure.

I find my appreciation for art grows exponentially given a comfortable seat

A quiet town, a meandering walk, a drink in the piazza, a park bench with a view.  This, my friends, is Umbria.

Bettona is known locally as host to one of the best sagre of the summer–La Sagra dell’Oca Arrosto—where thousands gather at long tables filling the piazza to feast on roast goose and trimmings.  If you happen to be around the first week of August, come witness this sleepy village come alive with crowds, food, and music.  Otherwise, the aptly named Osteria dell’Oca (they have a goose thing in Bettona) right in the main piazza is a solid choice for traditional Umbrian cooking.  Don’t be put off by the entrance—the interior is quite charming and they have outdoor seating in the summer.  If you’d rather opt for a quiet picnic in the vicinity, check here for a suggestion.


Perfect Picnic Places: San Francesco al Prato (Perugia)

Here’s watcha wanna do, watcha wanna do is this:

This week, after a series of picnic spots out in the country, I’m going to mix things up a bit and point you to a sanctuary in the middle of the bustling Umbrian city of Perugia.  This cosmopolitan provincial capital is stuffed with wonderful restaurants and pizzerias, but in a day of touring its fabulous museums and churches you may find your soul yearns for a bit of green after all that stone.  But first, provisions!

All three of the places I’m going to point you to are within a couple of blocks of the main Corso Vannucci, so with a pretty basic tourist map of the historic center of town you’ll be good to go.  You’re going to pick up your food in reverse order of how you will be consuming it, because cold pizza is only good for breakfast.  So first, head to one of my favorite spots in Perugia, if not the universe:  Pasticceria Sandri (Corso Vannucci, 32).  This historic pastry shop opened in 1860 and has been serving up cakes, pastries, and confections to Perugians since.  Before you head inside, stop for a moment to look in their shop window—the ever-changing display, stuffed with their dramatic edible works of art, is themed around local events and holidays.  Once inside, make sure you take the time to admire the lovely antique frescoes and wooden display cases before your attention is absorbed in choosing some sweets for your meal.  If you need to think it over, try a glass of their cool almond milk in the summer or sumptuous hot chocolate in the cooler seasons while you ponder.

The historic inside of Pasticceria Sandri

Once you have dessert taken care of, get some fruit.  Bananas, that is.  Head around the corner and down a block to Piazza Matteotti, where on the west side of the piazza next to the post office you will see an old Perugian institution:  a brightly painted stand from which the eccentric owner hawks nothing but bananas.  If you are in Perugia and have a banana craving, he’s the go-to man for you.

Now that you’re set for the end of your meal, rewind for the main course:  pizza.  In nearby Piazza Piccinino, 11/12 you can order a take-away pie from the Pizzeria Mediterranea.  This Neapolitan-style pizza is so good we will actually drive all the way from Assisi (where pizzerias are second only to churches in density) to eat one.  If you want the quintissential Italian pizza, go for the margherita.  Otherwise, any of their toppings are highly recommended.  Order it to go, and ask if they will slice it for you before you leave, so you can eat it more manageably al fresco.

San Bernardino's famous dictum: "Make it clear, make it short, and keep to the point" earned him the post of Patron Saint of Advertising

Time for your picnic!  Start walking down Corso Vannucci and turn into Via dei Priori, which you will follow until it ends in the inviting green Piazza San Francesco.  If you are there at lunchtime on a sunny day you will join the numerous students and office workers who spread out on the grass to enjoy the relatively tranquil lawn to sunbathe and relax.  While you eat, enjoy the view of the facade of the fifteenth century Oratorio di San Bernardino which–adorned with pink and green marble reliefs by Agostino–is one of the finest examples of Renaissance art in Umbria and the majestic San Francesco al Prato which—despite ongoing restoration work—has one of the most graphically elegant pink and white stone facades in the city.

San Francesco al Prato is finally getting the restoration it's badly needed for the past 300 years.

In a city which can be hectic in its rhythm and austere in its architecture, this spot is a haven of both peace and exquisite art.

Buon appetito!


How to Beat the Heat in Umbria: Five Hot Suggestions to Keep You Cool

It may be the dog days of summer, but no reason you should be living a dog’s life in the heat.  Here are some suggestions to keep your temperature down on even the hottest summer days.

Retreat to the Hills

Mountain tops abound in Umbria, where the air is cooler, the breeze is constant, and the view itself is worth the trip.  Pack a picnic, plenty of water, and a camera…by the time you’re ready to head back down towards the valley you’ll be refreshed and relaxed (and have a pretty good tan, to boot).  My favorite places up high are Mount Subasio, Mount Cucco, and—my favorite—the Piano Grande in the Mount Sibilline National Park where, if you’re lucky and spring comes late, you can see the last of the wildflowers into July.

Up through the atmosphere, up where the air is clear!

Go Underground

If there’s one thing humans understood soon after climbing out of the primordial soup, it’s that if you want to keep cool, the lower you go, the better.  In guided underground tours of Narni and Orvieto you can check out how subterranean passages and cells, cisterns, crypts, and catecombs have been used by the local populations for hundreds—in some cases, thousands–of years…and cool off while you do.  Still not ready to come back up to the surface?  How about some cool caves?  The Grotte di Frasassi (right over the border in Le Marche) is one of the most spectacular caves open to the public in the world, and is easily visited by a walkway.  If you’re feeling more adventurous (and are over 11 years old) you can try your hand at real spelunking with professional guides in the Mount Cucco caves.  Once you come out, you’ll both feel and be cool!

Water, water, everywhere

Umbria is known as the green heart of Italy, and much of that vegetation is the result of the ample annual precipitation which falls in this region…so there’s no lack of water to cool you off when the temperature starts rising.  You can head to tranquil Lake Trasimeno for a cool dip or to the Mount Sibilline National Park to spend the day at one of my favorite lakes in the area, Lake Fiastra.

Okay, not exactly what I meant.

To cool off with a natural shower, visit the beautiful Marmore Waterfall in the south of Umbria…the sound of rushing water is refreshing, even before the first mist hits you.

Praise the Lord

Or, at least, stop by His house for a little natural air conditioning.  With their thick stone walls, marble or terracotta floors, and small windows, the historic churches in Umbria provide a respite from the heat with their cool interiors.  Choose one where there is something interesting to look at to keep you occupied long enough to really cool down:  The Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi is, of course, a front runner as the entire interior of both the upper and lower church are covered in frescoes by some of the greatest painters of that time, including Giotto and Cimabue.  Perugia’s Duomo di San Lorenzo, though the city’s cathedral, doesn’t offer much eye candy to keep you interested…head instead to San Pietro, which is chock-full of frescoes and paintings inside.  For a city cathedral which will keep you inside long enough to cool off, visit Orvieto’s Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta.  It will take you awhile to tear yourself away from gazing at its glorious facade, but once you get inside the simple grace of the striped stone walls is as soothing as the temperature.  When you are feeling up to being overwhelmed again, stop by the chapel of San Brizio, richly frescoed by Signorelli.

Take advantage of the natural a/c while you take advantage of the art in Orvieto's Duomo

Do as the Romans Do (and the Umbrians, too)

One of the hardest things to get accustomed to your first time in Italy is the mediterranean schedule, as the entire country grinds to a halt for roughly the same hours during which the Anglo-Saxon world is at its most productive.  There are lots of explanations for this cultural difference (which, by the way, is becoming less and less the norm—especially in larger cities), but principal among them is that it is simply a pragmatic way to avoid being outdoors during the hottest hours of the day.  So as long as you’re in Italy, do as the Romans do (and the rest of the Italians, for that matter) and try the siesta on for size.  Get yourself out and about at a decent hour of the morning (when the temperature is still amenable to touring), enjoy Italian cuisine to its fullest at lunch, and retreat to base camp afterwards.  Rest for a couple of hours:  nap, read a book, have yourself a little afternoon delight, map out your next day of traveling, write in that travel journal that you vow with every trip you will keep, vacate (after all, you are on vacation).  By the time you are back out on the streets, the grueling summer sun will have left but the rest of the Italians, who have disappeared indoors along with you, will have returned.


This Vegetarian Loves Eating Hearts: Artichoke Hearts, That Is!

There are some things you hate as a child, as a grown-up continue hating, and in all probability will die hating.  In my case, math and being called Becky.

There are some things you hate as a child, but as a grown-up realize that in the hands of a competent professional they can actually be quite rewarding.  Take, for example, a perm and french kissing.

And there are some things you hate as a child, but as grown-up come to love them so deeply they become your raison d’etre and you fervently wish you could travel back in time and inform your child self about their virtues, thus avoiding missing out on 20 years of pleasure.  Opera, for example. Non-fiction books.  And, of course, artichokes.

A basket of artichokes from the garden, about to meet their maker.

I love artichokes with a passion one can only feel for vegetables and men whose spiny, tough exteriors harbor a soft heart within.  This was not always true (either for the artichokes or the men, but let’s talk artichokes); I spent the first 15 years of my life loathing them for reasons I can no longer recall.  Then, at 15, I got my first job at an Italian deli called Gino’s (all the books on writing tell you not to foreshadow too heavily, but sometimes life is stranger than fiction) where they sold a few genuine Italian products and lots of pseudo-Italian products (it was the ‘80s before the whole foodie movement began, so mozzarella curds from Wisconsin were considered Italian).  The place was owned by an Italian husband/Irish wife team whose domestic squalls were legendary and often involved flourishes like hurling pots of boiling coffee at each other or locking each other in the cold storage in the back.  I was never privy to one of these, but I sure heard about them the next day.

At Gino’s they made a sandwich which is one of my touchstone life foods…you know, those ten-ish dishes which flavours you can conjure up precisely in your mind for years afterwards and are inexorably tied to a specific person, place, or moment in your past.  Also on the list are my aunt Anthula’s baklava, graham crackers dipped in milk (my favorite Saturday morning cartoon breakfast), the brick burger at the Laurel Tavern in Madison, WI, the Turtle Sundae at Creamy Delight in Chicago, beef stew made in the Crock Pot (we had that every Sunday for lunch), Fannie May’s Trinidads (before the company was sold…they don’t taste the same now), spanakopita from Cross Rhodes in Chicago, Shasta, and…. Gino’s Vegetarian Special (another example of foreshadowing) which was basically a cheese sandwich with a kind of chopped spread made with spicy green peppers, olives, and artichoke hearts.  Except I didn’t know it was artichoke hearts until I had already gotten hooked on the sandwich, and the discovery of what I had been eating for lunch for months was a shock.

Now, as an adult, I absolutely adore artichokes prepared in almost every way imaginable.  When my mother-in-law has been particularly obnoxious and knows she’s in the doghouse she makes me stuffed hearts for lunch and all is forgiven.  I have been known to take the train to Rome exclusively to eat carciofi alla giudea– whole deep fried artichokes–which you can’t find in Umbria, or stick close to home to eat carciofi alla romana—stewed hearts with garlic and either parsley or mint—which, despite their name, you can find in Umbria. I’ll also take them batter-fried (mmmm, batter fried artichoke hearts…I just need a moment here…okay, I’m back), roasted, or raw (sliced paper-thin with shaved parmeggiano and balsamic vinegar…but they have to be right-from-the-backyard-garden tender).

But my favorite artichoke dish is simple marinated artichokes preserved in olive oil.  I always have a jar going in the fridge, so when I get a hankering I can just pluck a tender heart out with a fork and pop it in my mouth.  They are wonderful added to a tossed salad, chopped into a sandwich spread, diced into a cold pasta or rice salad, or simply served as part of an antipasto platter.

Some of this year's harvest.

Cleaning artichokes and reducing them to the heart is a test of perserverance and sang-froid…the weak-willed often fail to completely remove all the tough outer leaves and are forever picking artichoke fibers out from between their teeth.  It is also a test of forethought, for if you forget to wear your rubber gloves your blackened hands will remind you of your morning spent trimming artichokes for weeks.

If you've been sufficiently heartless, your cleaned artichokes should look like this.

Once you’ve trimmed them, boil the hearts in 1 ½ liter of white wine vinegar mixed with ½ liter of water, a sliced lemon, a tablespoon of salt, 3 whole cloves, 3 peppercorns, and 3 fresh bay leaves for about 15 minutes, or until they are fork-tender.  Drain the hearts and arrange them in a single layer on a clean kitchen towel, lay another clean towel over the top, and leave them to dry from 6 to24 hours.

When they’re dry, pop them into glass jars and cover with good quality olive oil.  You may need to check on the jars after a couple of days and top off the oil if the level has fallen.  The important thing is to have your hearts completely immersed in the oil.

All snug in their jars just waiting to be snarfed.

Enjoy your hearts for as long as they last…which, in my experience, ain’t that long.  Sometimes–just sometimes–it’s really great to be a grown-up!