I feel very lucky to have grown up in Chicago, though I take delight in ribbing my hometown for its spit and swagger. Chicago gave me many things: the knowledge that hot dogs are meant to be served with celery salt; the knowledge that even if your team hasn’t won the Super Bowl in over twenty years, they’re still better than the Packers; the knowledge that there is a difference between the temperature and the windchill factor, and you damned well better pay attention to the latter.
But the most important thing that Chicago gave me was a deep, broad, lasting knowledge of the arts. The Windy City may be gritty (or was when I grew up there…the past twenty years have transformed her into a jewel of pristine parks, reclaimed neighborhoods, and haute cuisine), but it is also home to some of the best architecture, music, dance, and literature of any American metropolis.
Not to mention art, of course.
Chicago’s Art Institute is a local landmark and is one of the largest and most important art museums in the world (it is second in size in the US only to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City). This is not why it was so influential in my life-long love of art, however. It was influential for these two reasons: 1) when I was a kid, it was free (kind of) and 2) the most important collection is also one of the most accessible to art newbies.
When I was a kid, entrance to the Art Institute was a “suggested donation”. So, you could pay the de facto ticket price or pretty much anything (or nothing) to get in. Which meant, of course, that when I was a penniless teenager, it was cheap option to pass a freezing Sunday afternoon. And pass, I did. I would throw my buck or two at the ticket counter and head right to the museum’s crown jewel collection: Impressionists. Which was fabulous, because Impressionism is the perfect gateway drug to an appreciation of other art periods and styles. It’s pretty, figurative, easy to decipher, and reproduced on handy posters to hang in your teen bedroom. It also, in my case and I think in many people’s, lit the flame of curiosity to explore what came before the Impressionists (which, in many cases, inspired their works) and what came after (which is, in many cases, inspired by Impressionism).
I am bored with that period now…I overdosed as a teen and when I find myself in the Museé d’Orsay spend more time looking at the fabulous architecture rather than the paintings. But I do know that if I hadn’t had that exposure at a time that I was becoming curious about art, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate Guercino or Caravaggio or—and here I come to my point—Burri.
Alberto Burri, Italy’s pioneer Abstract Expressionist, produced art from the 1950s until his death in 1995 which is the antithesis of Impressionism. Decidedly unpretty (though often majestically gorgeous), unfigurative (though viewers are hard-pressed not to have organic forms jump out from his bold collages and torched canvases), impenetrable in meaning (Burri declared, “I see beauty and that is all” regarding how to interpret his works), and almost completely uncommercialized (this giant of modern art is little known abroad; even the Tate Modern owns only a single example of his work), Burri’s works at once fierce and violent yet lyrical and evocative.
It is perhaps for these very reasons that I found myself a late convert to Burri. He had a revival, as artists often do, upon his death in the mid-1990s, and out of curiosity I was drawn to the museum dedicated to his life and work in his hometown of Città di Castello in northern Umbria. The first portion of the museum is housed in a the 15th century Palazzo Albizzini and opened to the public in 1980; the dramatic annex completing the collection opened in 1990 in a restored mid-century tobacco drying house outside of town.
Here I found some of the most engrossing and captivating works of 20th century art in Italy. Burri’s early quirky “Sacks” collages—using materials from burlap sacking, tar, pumice, PVC glue, netting, and resin—segued into the “Hunchback” period of warped canvases and the charred works of his “Combustion” series that give his art a three-dimensional look, to end in his “Cracked” series, in which canvases were thickly covered in monochrome paste left to dry and crack like the parched fields of a plain in drought. He later went on to use plastic, metal, and the industrial insulation Celotex to create works that are at once abstract yet undeniably natural in form. His paintings (if one can call them that) invoke the natural beauty of his rural home region of Umbria, the bloodshed of WWII (during which he was held as a war prisoner for 18 months in Texas), and the energy of an industrializing post-War Italy.
His works were considered subversive when first shown, but to the contemporary eye they are simply powerfully dramatic, elegantly unconventional, and, considering their dates, surprisingly avant-garde. It seems that everyone and their brother is taking a blowtorch to their canvases these days, but Burri was the first to show how precise destruction can be the most beautiful of all forms of creation.
To visit the Burri Museum and his collection, check the Burri foundation’s website for opening times and information.
There’s something about me and Narni and magic.
The last time I went to Narni, I went specifically looking for magic. I didn’t find it in the town, but in the enchanting (enchanted?) countryside nearby. This time, I went to Narni simply looking for a fun time. And guess what: magic.
The three flags of Narni's three "terzieri" by Massimo Ciancuti
Umbria is chock-full of festivals in the spring, many of them with a medieval bent. Narni is no exception, with its Corsa all’Anello, one of the longest running of them all—a full three weeks from late April through mid-May of processions, jousting, period concerts and exhibitions, taverns, and a market (all in costume). All this with the participation of upwards of 700 volunteers (in a town with less than 2,000 inhabitants in the historic center) and months of preparation, rehearsals, and—not least—equestrian training for the riders (and their steeds) competing in the jousting competition. I had never been to the Corsa all’Anello, but this year the historic race fell on a school holiday, so I packed up my sons and we headed to the south of Umbria for the day.
For an atmospheric meal, look for the "hosteria" signs! by Massimo Ciancuti
The festival culminates in a competition where riders thread a lance through a suspended ring (the challenge begins using a ring about 10 centimeters in diameter, and continues with progressively smaller rings until riders reach the final elimination with a 3 centimeter adversary); this main event is held in a stadium below the center of Narni. However, on the feast day of San Giovanale (May 3rd), a smaller competition takes places in Narni’s historic Piazza dei Priori in the center of town as part of the celebrations honoring Narni’s patron saint (and first bishop).
It's all about horns and drums at the Corsa (by Massimo Ciancuti)
The day began with High Mass, and let me tell you that if you are going to see one Mass this year, or this decade, or perhaps in your entire life, it should be High Mass on the 3rd of May in Narni. When I say the whole town is there, I mean the whole town. The bishop in full regalia, the cathedral decked out in banners, the three costumed processions representing the three competing areas of Narni (called Terzieri: Fraporta, Mezule, and Santa Maria) arriving from separate directions beating their drums and sounding their trumpets, the citizens—from small children to lapdogs—sporting the colors of their Terziere. The people-watching is fabulous, both outside the church inside inside, where the bishop’s homily is accompanied by the low-level, benign rumble of hundreds of people exchanging enthusiastic greetings sottovoce and asking after the health of their mothers/fathers/cousins/grandchildren.
Even the spectators are picturesque at the Corsa (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Mass ends in a reverse order procession: costumed corps, religious officials (carrying a bust of San Giovanale), city officials, a brass band, and citizens bringing up the rear. We all troop into the main piazza (just a block away), the bishop mounts a medieval stone pulpit to utter those 27 words he missed during his hour-long sermon in the Cathedral, and the town breaks for lunch. Each Terziere sets up a medieval-themed tavern for the duration of the festival, so we headed to Fraporta’s hosteria (my sons and I had already picked our teams: Leonardo rooted for Fraporta, Nicolò for Santa Maria, and I—on the purely esthetic criteria of their chic black and white costumes—cheered on Mezule) for a bite of lunch. The place was hopping (the patron saint’s day is a holiday in Narni, so shops and offices were closed and the town crowded into the three taverns for their midday meal), but the food was good and fast and in just an hour we were taking a post-prandial stroll to kill time until the race later in the afternoon.
Fraporta enters the Piazza (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Santa Maria enters the Piazza (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Mezule enters the Piazza (see what I mean about the chic costumes?) by Massimo Ciancuti
Luckily we ended our walk with a gelato in Narni’s main piazza, because we noticed the crowd already starting to take their places along the railing lining the course two hours before the competition was scheduled to start. Taking my cue, I grabbed a free spot and sent the boys to hunt down kerchiefs from each of the Terziere (Mostly to get them out of my hair. A word to the wise: the race is fun, but the waiting for it to start while you stand along a railing being alernately pushed, jostled, and whined at by your seven-year-old is decidedly not fun.), and then we watched as the crowd swelled, riders and their horses filed into the piazza–followed by the three Terzieri’s costumed processions—and excitement began to mount.
The adversary. So small, and yet so big... (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Missed. Damn. (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Soon the competition was on, and we were absorbed in the action as each rider made an attempt to thread his lance through the ring. As the minutes passed, riders were eliminated until it was down to the smallest ring and the last five riders. The first four missed, and we waiting as the fifth and last rider from Santa Maria made his run. If he managed to get the ring, his Terziere would be the winner. Otherwise, the final five would all make another attempt. The crowd held its collective breath as the rider galloped toward the ring and….WON!! The piazza went wild (and Nicolò with it, as he picked the winning team) and trumpets and drums and voices filled the town with celebration. I looked around at the joyful, celebrating town in the teeming medieval square under the perfect blue sky and wanted to bottle up the moment to keep forever. And that, my friends, is magic.
The magical moment of victory!! (by Massimo Ciancuti)
A huge and very special thanks to the gifted Massimo Ciancuti for the use of his gorgeous photos from the Corsa all’Anello Storica.
I like outdoor sports. I do. Even though I grew up in a large city, I always loved camping and rafting and rock climbing and such as a kid. And then I grew up and became the one responsible for the packing and prep work and discovered what a huge pain in the neck it is. (This is one of the reasons why I still harbor a love for hiking, for which preparation involves changing your shoes and throwing a bottle of water and a Kit Kat in your backpack). The last time I camped, it took a solid week of gathering equipment and rations to prepare for a sum total of two days in the woods…not to mention all the time spent cleaning and unpacking that gear once I got home. Some of it is still sitting in the garage waiting to be stored away two years later.
It’s just too damned labor intensive.
The solution for the lazy outdoor sports lover like me is, of course, the adventure park. These outdoor sports centers offer tree-top rope courses, climbing walls, zip-lines, tubing, rafting, rock climbing and a plethora of other fun activities and take care of the kitting out, so all you have to do is show up in comfy clothes and buy a ticket. A couple of excellent activity parks have sprung up in the breathtaking Valnerina (Nera River Valley) Regional Park in southern Umbria–an area known for its dramatic wooded mountain slopes, crystalline river, and tiny creche-like villages perched high above the gorge—so when you (or, more likely, your kids) get art-and-architecture-ed out, you can head here to blow off some steam for the day in one of the most pristine natural areas in the region. Here are two of my favorites:
Nahar Parco Avventura (Arrone)
This park doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but we spent a fabulous day here. They offer two tree-top rope courses (a beginner course and a more challenging—and higher—advanced course), which are lengthy and varied enough to feel like you are getting your money’s worth, and a climbing wall. The staff is friendly and professional; they take you through the climbing instructions step-by-step and watch you with an eagle eye from below to make sure that you don’t get yourself all tangled up in the ropes. The park itself is in on a heavily wooded hillside (we were there on a hot summer day, but the courses were nice and shaded) and is part of an agriturismo, so you can also lunch at their simple restaurant.
If they do have something you can count as a bell and/or whistle, it’s their alpaca farm. They raise these goofy-looking llama cousins from the Andes for their soft wool and will enthusiastically give visitors a tour (and a little petting action)…they were so convincing about the joys of alpaca ownership that I almost found myself purchasing my very own llama as a household pet. Be forewarned.
Activo Park (Scheggino)
This large park is all bells and whistles, and that’s part of the fun of it. Aside from a number of tree-top rope courses and zip lines of varying difficulty levels, they also have a tubing run, rafting expeditions, archery, mule rides, and truffle hunts. There’s a safari bus that schleps visitors from one end of the park to another, and lots of shady places to sit and catch your breath. The park is much bigger than Nahar and the feel is less homey, but the staff is affable and helpful on the rope courses and zip lines. The ticketing system is a little impenetrable, so make sure you are buying the right package which gives you access to the activities that interest you and are accessible to everyone in your group (many of the rope courses have a minimum age and/or height requirement).
The park has a fully functioning restaurant (and picnic tables, if you decide to pack a lunch) or, if you are amenible to staying for dinner, you can book an evening meal at the lodge on the mountain top above the park. They take you up with jeeps, provide dinner, and then you hike back down (with head lamps and a ranger guide), enjoying the sight of nocturnal animals and the starry canopy above.
I have never seen Auschwitz.
I have never visited the Slavery Museum, or walked through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, or sat quietly at Little Bighorn. I turn my face from these places and all that they represent not because I am a Pollyanna, but because I am the opposite. I find that I despair more and more readily over the lengths to which humans will go to inflict unthinkable suffering on their fellows. I find–especially since I’ve become a parent–that these sites steeped in violence and death affect me almost too deeply. I see myself there; I picture myself watching my sons, my family, my friends slip away and can feel a wave of hopeless desperation wash over me. I have become a sunflower, seeking out light and warmth when I travel and leaving the dark corners to others.
It took me a long time to take the Narni Underground (known as Narni Sotterranea) tour. This series of underground rooms and passages beneath the historic center of Narni was brought to light by a group of amateur spelunkers just a few decades ago–having been covered over and forgotten through the centuries as the imposing convent and church of San Domenico was built above– and the dedication (read: bullheadedness) of a local volunteer cultural association was the driving force behind their excavation and partial restoration and subsequent access to the public.
The visit begins lightheartedly enough in the gardens outside the monastery walls, as the guide explains how local speleologists in the 1970s had a hunch that something interesting might lie beneath San Domenico, and asked a local farmer permission to knock through the wall adjoining his hen coop. What they found there was at once surprising and important: an 8th century paleo-Christian church, with surviving frescoes around the apse and along the walls. The chapel is undergoing constant further excavations and restorations, but the paintings and apse are in excellent condition.
From here, visitors move into the adjoining room which holds part of a Roman cistern and is probably the remains of a Roman domus and then to the rooms which were the reason I had shied away from Narni Underground for so long.
The Inquisition. There are two rooms which are testiment to this infamous period in European history: a windowless, stone tribunal used for questioning and torture, and a small, graffitied cell which held the imprisoned. While in the tribunal, I was distracted from dwelling too heavily on the unthinkable acts which were performed here by the incredibly engaging cloak-and-dagger (with a little bit of serendipity) tale of how a team of researchers were able to track down documents referring to the trials held here through municipal and Vatican archives and, strangely enough, papers kept at Dublin’s Trinity College. The hall was still ominous (the torch lighting and reconstructed medieval torture devices didn’t exactly lighten the mood), but being the bookish research-loving nerd that I am, I was fascinated by the torturous (no pun intended) path which led to the discovery of what exactly this hall had been used as.
The second room with ties to the Inquisition is the small cell leading into the tribunal, which turned out to have an even more fascinating backstory than the tribunal itself. Completely covered in graffiti scratches, the cell was home to a soldier accused of ties to the Freemasons (the Catholic church has long considered Freemasons a threat to the Church and under the Inquisition members were charged as heretics) and his etchings and drawings (made with a paste of brick dust and urine) can be interpreted as coded messages using Masonic iconography and secret codes. Anyone who has been fascinated with the pop fiction thrillers of late and their heavy use of cryptography, keys, symbols, and medieval Christian history will be especially captivated by this real-life example of the use of these to communicate banned and secret messages. Again, the intellectual appeal of the unravelling of the historical mystery took my mind off the misery of those who were held—sometimes for years—in this tiny, dank cell.
Is the Narni Underground worth a visit? Absolutely. But despite the charming story of its discovery, the pleasant surprise of the ancient chapel and its frescoes, and the admirable research that went into uncovering its secret uses, I was relieved to return to the light.
To book a visit to Narni Sotterranea, contact them at +39 3391041645 or +39 744722292 or check their website www.narnisotterranea.it
My sons hate getting their hair cut. Hate it. They wail and protest, gnash their teeth and rent their garments, and generally cause so much mayhem that I don’t insist until I honestly can’t see the whites of their eyes. But every once in awhile—if the carrot is tempting enough—they go to the gallows with the serene resignation of sheep to slaughter. Or, at least, sheep to shearing.
Which is why I was so sure I had it in the bag this month, because I was offering up the Mother of All Carrots: an afternoon making chocolate creations at Perugina’s Scuola del Cioccolato.
The deal had to be finessed, of course. “Hey, guys, I thought it would be fun to go cook some stuff at the chocolate school this afternoon! Whaddya think? Cool, huh?” When the cheering died down, I slipped in, “We just have to make a quick stop first. Nothing important. It’ll just take a sec.” There was a suspicious silence. They’ve heard that before.
We got through their haircuts with a level of haggling and negotiation that would give Kofi Annan pause (my older son is on his fourth year of drum lessons and intent on cultivating an appropriate rock coiffure and my younger son is profoundly vain of his golden locks in this Mediterranean country of olive skin and dark curls) but without a major diplomatic incident, and were soon off to the Perugina factory on the outskirts of Perugia.
We were met by the kind staff of the Casa del Cioccolato–which includes their museum, factory tour, and cooking school–and our Maestro, Chef Alberto. (Ladies, a side note: Chef Alberto is just about as yummy as the chocolate he cooks up. But you didn’t hear it from me.) My fear that they might not be set up to handle kids was quickly put to rest, as the staff engaged them immediately in friendly banter (my little devils demanded the secret recipe to Perugina’s signature Baci chocolates so “we can make a lot of money”. Yes, those are the values I’ve been raising them with.) and asked about any special requests (they prefer milk chocolate, which turned out to be no problem).
We were sent to wash our hands and don our spiffy Scuola del Cioccolato aprons (just part of the swag we got to take home) and Chef Alberto (who, as it turns out, is not only one handsome specimen but also fitted out with the patience and good-nature of a saint. Whoever the patron saint of chocolate-mess-making seven-year-olds may be. I’ll have to google it.) got down to business, announcing that we would be making Easter eggs! Super fun, and a perfect project for kids (and—ahem—their grown-ups).
After explaining to us the importance of tempering chocolate, we were set to doing it ourselves. Let’s just say it’s not as easy as the deft Chef Alberto makes it look, and our aprons were quickly proving their worth. All I could think of was how happy I was that I wasn’t responsible for mopping up the floor after we left.
But it was great fun…I mean, what isn’t fun about pouring a bowl of melted chocolate onto a flat surface and messing around in it with a couple of spatulas for 15 minutes?…and we were soon ready to pour our chocolate into the egg and base molds and make our little heart-shaped chocolates that would be the “surprise” inside our hollow eggs.
Chef Alberto did a fabulous job keeping everyone busy, working at their own pace, and engaged in the demonstration, which isn’t a small feat with a group of such a range of ages. He is obviously passionate about his job and very much a “people person”—an apt combination for these chocolate lessons aimed not at professional chefs but simply amateur cooks looking to pick up tips for making some eye-popping creations at home.
Once our chocolate had cooled and hardened, we were able to pop them out of the molds, assemble the two egg halves with our little hearts tucked inside, mount them on their chocolate base, and decorate with white chocolate and sugar flowers—all under the careful eye and guidance of Chef Alberto. When we were done with our decorating, we packaged our works of art in plastic boxes provided by the school and were presented with our certificates pronouncing us Artista del Gusto. I’m not so sure about Artista, but we sure became hardcore fans of the Scuola del Cioccolato. And the biggest surprise: a copy of Perugina’s secret Baci recipe! (I’m waiting for the money to start rolling in. It’s time these kids start paying their own way…they are seven and ten, after all.)
The verdict from my sons? “That was worth getting our hair cut!” Well, there’s no higher praise than that.
If you are headed to Umbria for the upcoming Travel Bloggers Unite conference, you can visit the Perugina Casa del Cioccolato if you register for the “Lake Trasimeno, Chocolate, and Cashmere” post-conference blog trip.
Otherwise, the Chocolate School holds courses open to the public most Saturdays, or private classes for groups–this is a great activity for families, groups of travellers, or corporate events– can be arranged during the week. You can view a calendar here (in Italian) and request more information and/or sign up for a class on their website here or by calling 800 800 907.
Classes range in price from €30-€65/person…a fantastic bargain given the length of the class, fun quotient, and swag! As the staff told us, these courses are offered with the spirit of spreading Perugina’s passion for chocolate and thus accessible to every budget.
It doesn’t hit you over the head, so much as sneak up on you from behind. You see a quirky bench adorned with the relief of a rooster or cat, a rustic Pinocchio with a nose so long that wooden birds are using it as a handy perch, a two-dimensional tree with leaves applied in layers three deep to give the foliage more depth and you slowly realize that these works of art these must have all been made by the same hand….or, at very least, the same woodworking shop.
Indeed, it takes just a few minutes of meandering the streets and shops of Orvieto to come upon the work of the Bottega Michelangeli wood atelier. Begun as a furniture-maker five generations ago, this workshop developed its now-famous two-dimensional, almost shadow puppet look under Gualverio Michelangeli in the mid-20th century, who departed from the stodgy furniture-making tradition begun by his family in 1789 to experiment with sculpture in pinewood. The style—a quirky yet pleasing blend of folk and contemporary art–is carried on in the work of his three daughters, Donatella, Simonetta e Raffaella, who were, like so many other children of artisans, raised in the shop and bred on family history and wood-shavings.
The atelier is housed in a former theater on the corner of Orvieto’s main Corso and Via Gualverio Michelangeli (thus is the pride the city has in one of its most famous local artists), in a former 19th century theater retrofitted to hold both the workshop and showrooms. Here there are samples of hand-finished furniture (the Bottega devotes much of its work to furnishing and décor), exquisite toys (dolls, marionettes, rocking horses), and what can only be described as art—linear angels, whimsical characters from mythology and fables, solemn birds and angels.
If you’re lucky, you may get a peek into the cavernous backroom, where their one-of-kind works are still hewn and assembled by hand. The dusty antique tools hanging on wall racks, the half-finished and abandoned projects leaning haphazardly in shadowy corners, the clean smell of fresh wood and sawdust, and the quiet concentration of the artisans bent over rough boards is evocative of the backstage that this theatrical space once was.
I prefer, however, to see Michelangeli’s pieces how they are meant to be seen: here and there about town. The odd shop sign, outdoor table, wall decoration…they pop out at you from the most unassuming corners of Orvieto (and some quite stately corners: the Town Hall and theater both are decorated with their pieces) and transform a walk through the streets into a treasure hunt of sorts.
Perhaps the best place to see the grandeur of Gualverio Michelangeli’s fantastical vision is the Montanucci Café on the main Corso. Step through the doors and into a fairy tale forest of trees and flowers, populated with woodland creatures and playful elves. Settle yourself at one of their tables and sample their signature sweet: bite-sized cones of smooth chocolate dubbed Pinocchio’s Nose. Between the chocolate and the whimsical surroundings, you’ll be hard-pressed to not feel somehow transported to a magical land.
A huge thank you to Toni DeBella of the fabulousOrvieto or Bust blog for her kind permission to use these photographs!
On Tuesday, I began the tale of an outing with a new friend to a new place making new discoveries. It was a day so chock full all of the above that I couldn’t fit it into one blog post, so I’m going to pick up where we left off…
After climbing back down the trail from the Eremo di Santa Maria Giacobbe to Pale, we crossed the village and started up the opposite slope of Monte Serrone towards the historic Abbazia di Sassovivo. The climb was tough and the weather was taking a turn for the worse, but by this point we had put our trust in Paolo—he hadn’t let us down yet.
We were right to press on, as Sassovivo proved to be worth the climb (though it can also be reached by car, for those who are not inclined to hike…). Its air of otherwordly calm belies a grand history. This isolated complex, surrounded by acres of ancient holm oak wood, was once one of the most important and powerful Benedictine abbeys in central Italy, with a jurisdiction extending from Rome to the Marches. Founded by Benedictine hermits in 1070—on the site of a Longobard fortress, which in turn was erected on the site of an ancient Umbrian shrine– less than a century later the Abbey controlled a wide swath of central Italy, including almost 100 monasteries, around 40 churches, and seven hospitals.
Closed in part during the 1700s, the abbey’s holdings became property of the state in 1860 and was slowly abandoned until after the Second World War. It was restored between the 1970s and 1990s, and is now both an active monastic community and, fortunately for us, open to the public.
The monastery’s crown jewel is undoubtably its Romanesque cloister, encircled by arcades supported by delicate double columns, some fetchingly spiral-carved, and pretty mosaic detailing. Visitors can also see the monastery itself, with its Medieval frescoes and original dormitories, the outdoor loggia with fresco fragments from the 15th century, and the trails through the surrounding woods. We did all of that, and then were treated to the news that Paolo’s wife, Anna Lisa, was coming to pick us up. I think I may have fallen a little in love with Paolo right then.
I had a sandwich burning a hole in my backpack, but every time we mentioned a lunch stop, Paolo insisted we press on. By this time, it was early afternoon and we were all getting a little tetchy from sore feet and hunger; our trusty guide announced that we were all invited back to their olive mill to sample some bruschetta made with their own oil. How could we refuse?
And thus began the perfect end to an amazing day. Just as “una spaghettata” in Italian rarely means a meal of mere pasta, Paolo’s invitation for “una bruschetta” turned out to be a wonderful spread of fava paté, grilled sausages, and—yes—bruschetta. All dressed with their excellent olive oil, which was being pressed two meters from our table. We talked and laughed and relived our adventures and made plans for a next outing.
And I took a moment to feel grateful for this amazing region and its people…most of whom are not axe-murderers.
Something amazing happens when you start to write about a region like Umbria. A region, that is, populated by warm, welcoming people who have a long history and deep roots in their land. This amazing thing is that these people contact you and are like, “Hey, I’ve got something really special in my neighborhood I want to share with you!” Not because they have something to sell, or something to promote, or something to gain in any way. Just because they genuinely love their region, and want others to love it, as well.
Take, for example, the sweetest couple ever: Paolo and his wife Anna Lisa. Out of the blue, Paolo got in contact and invited us to hike an area near his home on the outskirts of Foligno. Just because, you know, there were a couple of pretty sites there he thought we should know about. And we decided that we would take the risk that Paolo was a crazy axe-murderer and meet up with him on a Sunday last fall.
Paolo was not an axe-murderer, but one of the friendliest, kindest people you’d ever want to meet. He enthusiastically led us along an itinerary in a little-known area of Umbria, introducing us to couple of places that I’d honestly never heard of with the shy pride of a kid unveiling his latest art project.
Paolo. Not an axe murderer.
We began at Belfiore, a hamlet outside of Foligno in the Altolina valley, leaving our car parked in a gravel lot and beginning our walk among the ubiquitous olive groves that cover these mountain slopes. Paolo was playing his cards close to his chest about what awaited us during our outing, and the first stretch of the trail was a pretty, but typical, olive grove hike. The kind you get inured to after twenty years of living here. Bucolic, schmucolic.
Then we arrived at our first lovely surprise of the day: the Menotre Falls. The climb began to skirt the Menotre River, and we came across a series of small, charming waterfalls, pretty wooden bridges, and wooded overlooks that had us gushing and snapping pictures. Paolo told us that the Cascate del Menotre (also known locally as the Cascatelle di Pale) are an oasis for families on hot, summer afternoons, and I could see why.
We continued uphill through the remains of a villa garden with traces of stone grottoes and carvings, passing the tiny village of Pale (and its poignant abandoned paper mill and canal system, with manual valves and weirs). Here the climb got tougher, and Paolo pointed out our destination perched high above us on the rocky cliff of Mount Pale: the Santa Maria Giacobbe Hermitage.
We puffed up the trail, stopping to place our heels in the indentation left by the Saint’s foot in the stone steps (according to legend) and the our fingers in the handhold worn in the rock wall by centuries of pilgrims climbing the same route. Our labors were rewarded by a visit to the hermitage, including its chapel covered in frescoes dating from the 14th to 17th centuries, the cistern holding waters said to have healing powers, and a moving collection of ex votos spanning more than a century.
We had caught our breath and were ready to head back down the hill, but Paolo had one more surprise for us on the cliffside. We climbed a few hundred more meters above the hermitage to a heart-stopping, palm-sweating perch in the rock, and he pointed out a number of small paleolithic markings (easily missed if you don’t know were to look) under the shelf, protected from the elements for thousands of years. I found myself almost more moved by these rough red lines than by the rich frescoes in the hermitage below. From the beginning of time, humans have felt the urge to leave some sign of their passage on this earth…from the earliest cave paintings through the history of art.
Our day didn’t finish here, but to discover what else Paolo had up his sleeve, stop back on Thursday! There are more surprises in store…
I’m competitive. It’s not a trait I’m particularly proud of, but that’s how it is. I like to be the strongest, fastest, brightest. I like my kids to be the strongest, fastest, brightest. I like my dogs to be the strongest, fastest, brightest. I like everything around me to sport bright blue ribbons and shiny trophies. Like I said, I have a bit of a competitive streak.
I’ve always been borderline smug in my conviction that Umbria is pretty much the best in everything: the art, the culture, the food, the scenery. It’s a winner of a region, which makes it easy to enthuse about and even more easy to live in. There have been two massive flies in my Chardonnay (or, more fittingly, Grechetto) over the years, however: the first is that Umbria is landlocked. No coastline, no sea air, no pristine beaches stretching for miles. That’s assumingly not going to resolve itself until the Big One comes to change the global topography, and I’ve settled with falling in love with Lake Trasimeno.
The second was that Umbria had no fantastic caves to visit (unlike our neighbor the Marches, who have the spectacular Frasassi caves), but I am happy to report that I can bump up my smug just a notch because I discovered that Umbria does, in fact, have fantastic caves to visit and they are just as spectacular as Frasassi. Take that, Marche.
The Grotta di Monte Cucco is located in the Monte Cucco Park, near the medieval town of Gubbio in the north of Umbria. The cave isn’t a new discovery (historic sources and graffiti inside the caverns date as far back as the 1500s), but has only been open to the public for the past few years.
Monte Cucco is perforated with numerous caves—the name “cucco” derives from an ancient word for pumpkin or something hollow—which together add up to more than 20 kilometers of natural cavities, passages, and drops. Some of these descend almost 1,000 meters to end in undergound waterways and springs, and most require expert spelunking skills. Fortunately, the biggest and most breathtaking caverns and passages—at an altitude of 1,400 above sea level near the crest of Mount Cucco and stretching for 800 meters into the mountains bowels—are also the most accessible and can be easily visited by anyone in decent physical shape.
I finally had a chance to visit the Grotta di Monte Cucco this week, and had been looking forward to it with such muppet-like enthusiasm that I was worried I would be somehow disappointed when we finally got there. That was not the case; Monte Cucco itself is a beautiful park—one of Umbria’s most lovely—and the climbing drive up to the mountain’s crest from Sigillo is an exercise in rubbernecking gorgeous rolling scenery and beech groves so bucolic you find yourself expecting fairies or elves to come popping out.
The road ends in a small parking lot at Pian di Monte, and from here you hike about half a kilometer to the Valcella meeting point for the cave visit. We met our guide, were given our hard hats, and continued the rest of the way down the trail (another 500 meters) together to the cave entrance. The grotta has a number of entrances, but the east entrance is used for the basic visit, for the more rigorous adventure course (which involves following along rope lines fixed to the sides of the cave with climbing gear and a spelunking guide—something I hope to do in the near future), and for the “traversata”, or crossing, course, which follows the cave through the mountain and exits through the north entrance.
The visit begins with a baptism by fire: a 27 meter drop navigated in a series of near-vertical staircases. If you can make it through that stretch, you’re good. It’s by far the most head-spinning point of the visit, which winds itself for the next hour or so through three massive caverns and a series of twisting connecting passages, all lit with floodlights so you get a sense of the soaring height and nooks and crannies along the way. The esthetics inside the caves are slightly different than what you may be used to; these caves are primarily hypogenic (formed by water rising up from below and dissolving the rock) rather than epigenic (formed by the action of surface waters descending into the ground and dissolving rock), which means that the cave-scape is much heavier on the stalagmites than the stalactites, and at times you get the feeling that you are touring a planet made of mounds of whipped cream and meringue.
Of course, there are the familiar charming names for calcium formations (don’t miss the turtle) and cathedral-like caverns, but I’ll leave those to you to discover. And I recommend that you stop by and discover the Grotta di Monte Cucco, surely the best cave around. Not that I’m being competitive or anything.
Though the visit doesn’t require any special spelunking skills (most of it is along metal walkways and staircases), you need to be in good shape and not suffer from fear of heights or claustrofobia. There’s a minimum age of ten years, and make sure you wear a jacket (the inside temperature is 6° year round) and sturdy hiking boots. For tour descriptions, prices, and times, see their website.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. It was inevitable, really. It was, in truth, just a matter of time.
Yes, a blogging blank. Because, lo and behold, creativity doesn’t really deal well with an editorial calendar. At least not my creativity. My creativity is much like Christmas fruitcake: it requires a long ripening period, preferibly wrapped up in soft cloth and resting in a warm, dark place steeped in alcohol. And the final result is often palatable to just a few loyal connoisseurs.
But here I am, finding myself locked into a schedule directing me to share Perugia with the world this week and this week only and as I turn my gaze on this dynamic, bustling, elegant town (in many ways the social and cultural epicenter of the region), I can’t think of one damned thing to say about it.
Which is when I go to Plan B, aka “beg for suggestions from Mr. X”. Mr. X is my male counterpart, in that we are both Umbrian by adoption, with a passion for exploring and writing about this region, and a tendency toward bad hair days. Mr. X is not my male counterpart in that he never seems to come up with a blank. In fact, a panicked appeal for topic suggestions predictably results in a long, somewhat entertaining list of possible sites, events, towns, and/or local personalities to dissect. This time was no different, as I knew immediately that I had hit the jackpot with the very first on his list of suggestions. (Though the second did give me pause, as it was “San Pietro and its historic organ. I used to know the organist. He’s a drag queen now.” Huh. Now that would have been an interesting blog post.)
Mr. X reminded me of something I had been meaning to stop by and take a gander at for about two years: the immense Gothic stained glass window in Perugia’s monumental—yet unfinished—church of San Domenico. The window, dated 1411, had been out of public view during a painstaking eleven year-long restoration, and was unveiled with great ceremony in late 2009. It is the second largest stained glass window in Italy (the largest is in Milan’s cathedral) and by all accounts spectacular. I had a plan.
Well. Let me just say that I am not one of those women with a hang-up about size. In fact, sometimes an instrument on the small side, delicate and relatively soft, is just what you need. I am, of course, referring to toothbrushes. On the other hand, sometimes the perfect tool to get the job done must be big, thick, and eye-catching. I am, of course, referring to telephoto lenses. But when it comes to stained glass windows, there’s nothing like a towering 23 meter-high colossus, with almost fifty individual intricately-rendered panels and a kaleidoscope of newly-cleaned jewel-toned portraits to stop you in your tracks and, tragically, make you forget you have your camera in your purse.
Notable not only for its extraordinary size and workmanship, but also for the relatively unusual (in Italy) lack of an imposing rose window at the top in lieu of a Tree of Life design motif, the window is divided into a series of five levels of panels in the lower portion, reflecting the iconography of the Domenican Order (Pipe down. I Googled it.). The lowest tells the story of Saint James of Compostela, patron saint of pilgrims and particularly well represented in the Gothic period, and the next rows depicts six female saints (Lucy, Dorothy, Catherine of Alexandria, Mary Magdalene, Margaret of Hungary, and Agnes) beneath—ahem–six male Christian thinkers and philosophers (Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome beside the Domenican pope Benedict XI who, as a side note, was killed during a visit to Perugia in 1304 by poisoned figs. That’s how the Perugini rolled back then.)
The ill-fated Pope Benedict XI at the far right.
Directly above, three of Perugia’s patron saints are included (Costanzo, Ercolano, and Lorenzo) with the martyrs Stephen, Peter of Verona, and Dominic. The final panel is, of course, dedicated to the Annunciation with the Virgin Mary and Archangel Gabriel at the center, flanked by the apostles James, Paul, John, and Peter.
The top-most portion of the window (which, by the way, is best seen with opera glasses. Remember, you are pretty much staring up five stories by the time you get to the top.) is crowded with headshots of A-list evangelists, archangels, prophets, angels and cherubs, and, in the delicate snowflake-shaped top center, Christ.
The interior of San Domenico is relatively spartan, so the perfect backdrop for the barrage of color and light from its stunning window. Just don’t become so caught in the throes of Stendhal Syndrome that you forget to take pictures. Believe me. Because you may not have a Mr. X who can save your skin on that, as well.