Because yesterday I discovered that Spoleto is home to Umbria’s insane.
Mental instability is the only possible explanation as to why someone, some eighty years ago, took a gander at Spoleto’s main thoroughfare–a torturous and steep two-lane road of death–and said, “Listen up, folks. I’m thinking we should run a go kart race right down this bad boy. I’m thinking that the only rules should be that the karts have three bare metal ball bearing wheels, a strip of tire rubber hanging off the back for a foot brake, and one guy who pushes and one who steers.”
Tension at the starting line.
The top of the line high tech starting horn. I hope Calzolari got his car battery back.
This is not why Spoleto is full of nuts. Some eighty years ago, when that suggestion was tossed out, the folks standing around all said, “Hey, that sounds like a great idea! Let’s make sure the course includes at least three hairpin curves and a couple of straightaways with at least a 42 degree incline. And let’s all gather at the most dangerous spot along the route, hoping to witness a spill.”
The cockpit. Note the tire rubber strip of brake tacked on to the back.
My kids wanted to hijack this and join the race. It didn’t happen.
This is not why Spoleto is a cuckoo nest. Some eighty years ago when that suggestion was tossed out and the folks standing around thought they’d invented fun, a whole mess of teams showed up with their rickety karts, pushed them off with a sprint, and proceeded to barrel down the center of Spoleto at breakneck speed in the hopes of bringing home a large ham and glory.
And they’re off!
This is not why Spoleto should be cordoned off from the rest of the rational world. The reason is this: eighty years on, they are still doing all of the above. (Except the ham part. Reports were vague, but I gathered that the prize this year was gift certificates. And glory, of course.)
Spoleto’s annual go kart race (called vaporetti here, though go kart is fetchingly translated go kart in the rest of Italy) has been held off and on since the 1930s, with pauses for various wars—international and local. The latest hiatus ended in 2012 after six years—in large part because the event scored an important new sponsor: the local blood bank. I’m just going to let the irony of that sit here without comment–and thus the craziness was able to commence with renewed vigor.
Fender benders happen.
Trash talk happens.
Indeed, more than sixty teams registered for the race this year and shot down the Spoleto hillside in their modern, souped-up vaporetti. No longer a simple board fitted with wheels and steered by rope, these hot rods are sheathed in fiberglass bodies plastered with their sponsors’ slogans (one has to wonder at the marketing strategy which led the local acrylic nails salon to sponsor a go kart race, but it could work), and include steering wheels and some basic safety gear (um, helmets. And some elbow pads.), though the original package of three ball bearing wheels, a rubber strip brake, and two person teams remains unchanged.
Luckily, the vaporetti set off in groups of three or four, which means that spectators can witness teams push off at the starting line (complete with running commentary and car battery-powered start horn), and then meander their way down the 1.5 kilometer course watching the groups of teams whiz past on the hills and (we all secretly hope) crash and burn in the curves, until reaching the finish line, where the crowd lingers to watch them fly through the final stretch. Competition is fierce but friendly, and it is clear that this is a deeply homespun event organized by and for the Spoletini. One of the highpoints is the running commentary, almost impenetrable with its local dialect, insider jokes, and wine-loosened language. The bits I could understand were hilarious.
Does the vaporetti race have any redeeming cultural or historic value? No, probably not. But it’s fun as heck, a kid-pleaser galore (my sons were distressed to find out that minors are not allowed to race), and a light-hearted peek behind Spoleto’s impenetrably staid facade into its crazy local traditions.
Crazy being, of course, the operative word.
A special thanks to Spoleto natives Marina and Armando Lanoce, who are crazy enough to invite friends to the race, but not crazy enough to participate!
The Medieval vibe in Umbria can be so overwhelming that it’s easy to forget that this region is just a stone’s throw away from Rome and was a thriving part of the Roman Empire for centuries before aesthetic of the Middle Ages began to dominate art and architecture. There are a number of well-preserved Roman monuments and sites–and lots of ruins requiring a bit of imagination to piece back together–across Umbria (most notably at Carsulae, Spello, and Assisi), which for Roman history buffs is always a thrill.
I, however, am not a Roman history buff. I’ve always found Roman architecture to be magnificent yet aseptic, devoid of much sense of humanity and so remote and unapproachable that it leaves me impressed yet unmoved. Roman sites come to life when I see them in some sort of context, and I can begin to picture them as they were two millennia ago, teeming with life and reference points for a vibrant community and culture.
I am reminded of this every time I see a performance at Spoleto’s pretty Teatro Romano, built in the 1st century AD and restored in the 1950s. This intimate outdoor Roman theater is used for concerts and dance performances during the annual Spoleto Festival, which is why I’ve spent the past two evenings reflecting on this telescopic sense of history—at once feeling so removed yet so immediate–against the background of Schumann and Verdi.
It’s fun to sit before the performance (A side note: either the Romans had much tougher bums, or they had the foresight to bring cushions. Those stone stands are hard on the derrière.) and watch the theater slowly fill with chatting people–dressed to the nines, as I’m sure they were two thousand years ago—buzzing with expectation and settling in to their seats.
As the sun sets, the sky fills with swallows who sweep over the heads of the orchestra and crowd– lightening the staid atmosphere with their cheeky calls, as I’m sure they did two thousand years ago–and the orchestra begins to tune their instruments, calling to attention the audience.
During the evening, suddenly it all seems to click and the place comes to life…not only for that moment, but for the past millennia of moments. Thousands of years of music and joy, couples holding hands, mothers chiding squirming children, husbands adjusting shawls over the shoulders of their aging wives, and people coming together as a community and culture.
A community and culture we hope will still be gathering at the Teatro Romano two thousand years from now.
The Teatro Romano is just one venue hosting performances during the Spoleto Festival, which takes place in theaters throughout the town. To participate in an evening at the Roman theater, check the program online.
Nothing brings out the kid in you like a visit to a chocolate factory. Maybe it’s the recollection of Curious George’s shennanigans when he stopped by with the man with the yellow hat. Maybe it’s that classic episode of “I Love Lucy”, which flashes through your mind any time you see a conveyor belt in motion. Maybe it’s the image in Willy Wonka of the majestic chocolate river and mixing waterfall (never touched by human hands!). Maybe it’s simply that irresistible scent that seeps into your clothes and hair and skin and follows you around for the rest of the day.
Whatever it is, it’s right up there with bubbles and foosball and lawn sprinklers as far as the power to channel your inner child. And, given that I’m a big believer in the restorative properties of an occasional date with my inner child, the Perugina chocolate factory and museum (officially known as the Casa del Cioccolato) outside of Perugia is one of my favorite places to visit.
Perugina (now owned by Nestlé) was founded in Perugia proper in 1907, though didn’t begin producing its signature “Bacio” (kiss) chocolates until 1922. Brainchild of Luisa Spagnoli, wife of one of the company’s four founders (you know what they say about who is behind every successful man…), this chocolate and hazelnut treat (a sphere of gianduja, topped by a whole hazelnut and glazed with a layer of dark chocolate) was originally called “Cazzotto” (punch) because of its irregular fist shape. Luisa may have been a brilliant chocolatier, but marketer? Not so much. Fortunately, the other partners stepped in to both rename the product and add the tiny slips of paper printed with pithy romantic aphorisms which make the chocolates so distinct…and such a huge commercial success.
Perugina’s Bacio chocolates, as well as their other chocolate and candy products, are still made in their sprawling modern factory on the outskirts of Perugia. A visit begins with a brief tour of their small museum, where there are sections dedicated to the history of the company, the techniques used in their chocolate production, and—perhaps my favorite—a collection of their advertising posters and marketing materials over the past century. Akin to the historic Coca-Cola ads, the progression of Perugina’s advertising images parallels the evolution of modern popular art in Italy, and, under the art direction of the great Federico Seneca, some of the Futurism-school images used to promote the company at the beginning of the century are both iconic and timeless.
Before entering the factory itself, visitors are shown a short video explaining the production (yes, okay, it’s an infomercial. But guess what. They placate you with a free sampling of their chocolates before it starts. I find that I sell my soul disconcertingly easily when chocolate is on the table.). Afterwards, the group is led by a guide into a suspended catwalk over the production floor, where the scent of roasting cocoa beans washes over you like a chocolate tide. The tour is worth it for that alone. The guide sportingly attempts to describe what is going on below, fighting a losing battle against the roar of the machinery (this is why you should pay attention to the video) and the glazed-eye distraction the intoxicating aroma produces, but it’s fun to see actual chocolates being whizzed around on actual conveyor belts and packed into actual boxes by actual white coat-and-hairnet-clad ladies. It’s just like the movies.
A little side note: I actually have a friend who works for Perugina, and when I learned that enticing bit of information I grabbed her by the elbow, steered her into a corner of the room, and asked with the urgent intensity of a drug addict having found a new source, “Can you eat the chocolates?” Well, yes and no. Employees have an all-you-can-eat policy while at work, but aren’t allowed to take anything out of the factory. Which means, according to my friend, that almost everyone overdoses the first few weeks they work there, and then go off of chocolate pretty much forever. I know. Shocking, but true.
After seeing the roasting machines, mixing vats, pouring and molding equipment, and packaging belts (What products you will actually see made depends upon the season; Baci are made all year round, but many other products only specifically for Easter or Christmas. Production also slows dramatically in summer.), visitors end in the small gift shop, where you can pick up fun Perugina memoribilia and—of course—chocolates.
Don’t let the lack of an English version of their website deter you (Really?!? C’mon Perugina. You sell in 75 countries on 5 continents and your website isn’t translated?); it is both possible and easy to reserve an English speaking tour by calling their toll-free number at 800 800 907. Opening days and hours vary by season depending upon the production cycle and pre-booking is a must if you want an English speaking guide. The factory is located in San Sisto (a suburb of Perugia), so make sure you map it out before you go.
–Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed in the factory (Corporate espionage is just like in the movies, too.). The photos here are used with kind permission from Perugina–
I don’t need a certificate to show I’m a little off. My kids remind me this every time I ask them to perform an undesirable task. “Eat asparagus?!? You’re crazy!” “Clean my room?!? Are you crazy?” “Ok, so I forgot my homework. You don’t have to get all crazy!” The fact that I’m one fry short of a Happy Meal is common knowledge in my house.
But to those of you who don’t have the good fortune of blood-relatives both driving you to your destination and declaring your arrival daily, perhaps you feel the need to officially document your mental state.
Gubbio, an austerely beautiful Medieval outpost in northern Umbria, has long held the dubious honor of being home to a populace known for not having all their screws in tight, if you know what I mean. Known as Iguvium in Roman times, legend has it that Gubbio was just that perfect not-to-close-not-too-far distance away from Rome for the city to export their lunatics there. It was the Australia of the Roman Empire, so to speak. And if you have any doubt about the lingering effects of this batty blood line on its citizens today, a visit during their annual Corsa dei Ceri is enough to convince.
During this symbolic race on the first Sunday each May, three teams devoted to S. Ubaldo (the patron saint of Gubbio), S. Giorgio, and S. Antonio charge through cheering (somewhat drunken) throngs through the steep streets of the town and up the mountain, from Palazzo dei Consoli to the Basilica of S. Ubaldo above the town. Each team carries a towering cero: a statue of their saint mounted on a wooden octagonal base, which is 4 meters tall and weighs almost 300 kilograms. The sheer force of the teams, the teeming masses, the deafening cries of the onlookers…it was enough to convince the Pope. While Gubbio was still part of the Papal State, it found itself with 19 hospitals in town, but no mental asylum. City officials sent a delegation to the Vatican to ask permission to found an asylum and the Holy Father–who had just recently participated in the famed Corsa dei Ceri–responded, “Just close the town gates with the inhabitants inside and you’ve got yourself a madhouse.”
The story may be anecdotal, but the reputation has stuck. Still today a quick visit to the town is enough to have yourself certified bonkers. Just head to the 16th century Fontana dei Matti–Madmen’s Fountain–on Borgo Bargello and run around its circular base three times (opinions differ if it matters if one goes clockwise or counter-clockwise). Finish with a quick splash in the fountain, and then head to the nearby souvenir shop where they will fill out your official Patente da Matto (Madman’s License) for you to take home and proudly frame.
The more I travel the world, the more I appreciate the beauty of Umbria. (I know, it seems like a hard sell—but it’s the truth.) And the more I travel Umbria, the more I appreciate the beauty of Assisi. Sure, there are other areas of Umbria which I hold particularly dear (the largely undiscovered Valnerina, for example), but Assisi is—despite the tourists, despite the souvenir shops, despite the glaring lack of stellar restaurants—simply, gloriously, lovely.
One of the features which makes this iconic hilltown remarkable is the lack of modern development ringing its historic center, which means that it has both remained stunningly picturesque from afar and a perfect base for walkers and hikers, who can literally step out of the city gates and in minutes find themselves meandering in bucolic solitude the surrounding undulating landscape.
The wines produced on the hillsides and valley surrounding Assisi—using primarily Trebbiano, Grechetto, Sangiovese, and Merlot grapes to make their whites, red, and rosato—are perfect walking wines: light and clean, pairing well with a simple dejeuner sur l’herbe spread, and not picky about temperatures and oxidation. These are wines to be tossed into your shopping basket alongside your marinated olives and artichokes, cheese and salame, bread and apples, and uncorked on a hillside, under an olive tree, with the sun shining on your upturned face.
Mount Subasio Park
This extensive regional park–which includes the Assisi DOC producing towns of Assisi and Spello (and the lesser known Nocera Umbra and Valtopina), a number of tiny hamlets, four country churches, three abbeys, the Topino and Tescio rivers (criss-crossed with medieval stone bridges), and a network of hiking and walking trails (you’ll need to pick up a CAI trail map at a local bookstore)–centers around the hulking Mount Subasio.
It’s worth the trek to the softly rolling peak of this mountain (often full of wildflowers and grazing horses), which offers amazing views from over the Umbrian Valley to the south and the Appennine foothills (you can spot the craggy peaks of the Appennines themselves in the distance on a clear day) to the north. I especially love the Franciscan Trail (CAI n. 51) from Assisi to Nocera Umbra, which traces the last journey of a dying Saint Francis, and the itineraries suggested by Via di Francesco.
The Bosco di San Francesco
The newly inaugurated San Francesco Woodland, adjacent to the imposing Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, is a restoration project spearheaded by the Italian National Trust, which cleared more than 30 tons of waste, cut back undergrowth and replanted native species of trees and shrubs, opened over 3 kilometers of walking paths, and restored the 13th century Santa Croce Benedictine convent and mill, (now used as a visitors’ center) over a 12 acre area of wooded land which had been neglected for centuries.
The woodland’s walking paths and corresponding explanatory notes, an audioguide, and mobile app are grouped into three thematic routes: the landscape route illustrates the history of the rural landscape in Italy; the historical route recounts the area’s historic architecture; and the spiritual route invites walkers to reflect on the relationship between nature and mankind. The Saint Francis Woodland also holds Michelangelo Pistoletto’s piece of landscape art Terzo Paradiso, using the mathematical symbol for infinity to comment on the unsustainability of the model of modern development and the union of heaven and earth.
Don’t want to muck around with trail maps and packing picnics? Saio Winery just outside of Assisi’s historic center has a pretty walking trail through its vineyards and can provide a picnic (which they drop off at one of the shady spots along the trail for you).
If I could change one thing about Italy–wait, who am I kidding? I love living in Italy, but given the chance I would change roughly 14,000 things about it. But for argument’s sake, let’s choose one thing—it would be the ethnic food situation. Italy doesn’t do ethnic food. It doesn’t even do inter-regional food that well. If I go to my vegetable guy at the outdoor market and ask for black cabbage, I get a look and a, “Black cabbage?!? I don’t sell that. That’s what they use to make ribollita in Tuscany!” as if Tuscany were a remote province in southern China and not the bordering region roughly a 20 minute drive away. In Umbria, you eat Umbrian food. Just like in Puglia you eat Puglian food and in Liguria you eat Ligurian food. And if you want anything outside of those gastro-geographical borders, you need to book a flight.
Part of me is happy about that. I believe very strongly in eating mindfully (it’s about at new age-y as I get). Our food doesn’t inhabit a cultural and historical vacuum; our food is part of a larger context of land and people, the ebb and flow of economies and conquering armies, and often there’s a side helping of religious traditions on our plates, as well. Eating locally in a country like Italy—which has a rich gastronomic history and culture currently under attack by the invasion of fast food and imported counterfeits—is both a pleasure and a civic duty.
Of all the foods that weave a seamless tapestry between culture, history, and land, wine is the most illustrative. To really get a sense of the importance of millenia of viticulture and vinification on the landscape, art and literature, and cuisine of Umbria, Italy, and the entire Mediterranean basin, a visit to Torgiano’s excellent Wine Museum is de rigueur.
Though founded in the mid-1970s, careful upkeep and curation have made this far from a dusty, arid storehouse of wine related bric-à-brac, but more a compelling walk through the history of wine in all its thousand facets: gastronomic, economic, social, ceremonial, and medicinal. The museum, housed in the the 17th-century Palazzo Graziani-Baglioni six kilometers from Perugia, displays a vast array of items from archeological artefacts, artworks, and ethnographic collections—all aimed at illustrating the history and civilization of wine from its import from the Middle East, through the Etruscan and Roman cultures, until the Industrial Revolution.
Perhaps the most charming section of the museum is the vaulted stone and brick basement holding the antique wine cellar, with its collection of reconstructed antique grape presses, immense vats, and other wine-making equipment, many of which still used in Umbrian cantinas until just a few decades ago. One can just picture a winsome Sofia Loren-esque country maid, with her skirt hitched up and a come-hither look on her face, as she stomped through grape must and captured the heart of a roomful of farmboys.
I had expected an academic vibe to this museum, but instead found it captured the light-hearted, human side of wine–and drinking. From the collection of “lover’s cups”—used to woo one with wine—to the animal-shaped flasks, to the pieces dedicated to the ubiquitous Dionysian Myth, to the hip contemporary ceramic and graphics sections, at the Wine Museum I was reminded of how such a humble chemical reaction (we’re just talking about fermented grape juice, after all) can produce something so central to an entire civilization’s history and culture.
That said…um, I’m really craving a samosa right now.
One of my favorite wineries is right down the road: Terre Margaritelli. Stop in for a tasting!
There are wines that are meant to be consumed with gravitas. They require our full attention, want to be at center stage, and pout and sulk if we are distracted from their brooding power. They need the trappings: decanters, broad-bowled stemware, exact temperatures. These are Sagrantino from Montefalco.
Then there are happy-go-lucky wines. They are light-hearted, easy-going, and just pleased you invited them to the party. They are fine sitting elbow to elbow with picnic fare or finger food and deal well with backpacks, jostling, and even—gasp—plastic cups. These are Trebbiano, Grechetto, and Sangiovese from Colli Martani.
The DOC whites—Trebbiano and Grechetto—which come out of the tiny triangle of area between the Umbrian towns of Foligno, Todi and Spoleto are produced primarily with the local sub-varietals of Trebbiano Spoletino and Grechetto Spoletino and yield two straw-colored, clean and linear wines, the former fruity with a spicy tail and the latter rounded with herb and nut flavors.
The ruby-toned Sangiovese DOC is a perfect quaffing wine when young (aged minimum 12 months), with its dry, lightly tannic mouth feel and herb and berry flavors. The darker Riserva, aged two years—and finished in oak—is more complex and structured (it can even get a little Chianti-esque), but still friendly and approachable.
All of this is well and good, but begs the question of what to pair with these wines. Well, I suggest a bike.
Ok, ok, pipe down. Hear me out. I’m not a big biker either, but if anything is going to inspire you to hop in the saddle and peddle your way from cantina to cantina, it’s going to be the bucolic rolling vineyard-blanketed hills surrounding the tiny hamlets of Castel Ritaldi, Giano dell’Umbria, Marcellano, and Gualdo Cattaneo. This is what they meant when the phrase “wine country” was coined, because nothing shapes a countryside more than a 2,000 year history of cultivation. (Oh, and big box stores, I guess. Those can really shape a countryside quickly. But I digress.). These are hills that were planted with vines by the Etruscans, followed by the Romans, followed by the noble class in the Middle Ages, followed by a group of small-scale vintners—almost exclusively family businesses—who are passionate about this land and the historic varietals they are keeping alive with an eye on the past, but their heads in the future.
What better way to savor both the landscape and the wines in this area than by taking the slow food/slow travel route and biking the wine roads (fortuitously low-trafficked), stopping in the wineries dotting these hills for tastings fo wines light enough that you will still be street-safe? A perfect starting point is the startlingly excellent Bike in Umbria website (full disclosure: I have since become friends with the folks behind this organization, but the site was fabulous long before I knew them.). You can arrange hiring bikes and booking bike-friendly accommodations through them, but where the site really shines is in their itineraries. Divided by difficulty, type of bike, and area, they give a number of great suggested routes—with maps, descriptions, and practical information—in the Colli Martani (and neighboring Sagrantino) area. By doing a quick cross-reference with the locations of the area’s cantine (see below), it’s easy to pull together a day-long bike excursion broken up with visits to wineries along the route.
Some wineries along biking itineraries near the Colli Martani are:
Any conversation about Umbria and her wines must necessarily begin at the very heart of this region, both geographically and historically, which is to say at Sagrantino.
This hearty dry red (and honeyed sweet) is made primarily (or exclusively, in the case of the DOCG) from the indigeneous Sagrantino grape varietal—though indigeneous is relative for a plant that has probably been growing in this area for centuries. Did it come from Greece? Did French friars import it? Did, as the legend goes, Saint Francis bring back a cutting from the Middle East to use for sacramental wine? No matter, it’s Umbrian now.— which is cultivated in a limited geographical area surrounding the hill town of Montefalco. The micro-climate in this undulating valley is marked by hot, dry days, interspersed with nights cooled by the Tramontana breeze from the north, a long Mediterranean growing season, and clay soil…all of which form a perfect storm to turn out the dark, tannic grapes which define Sagrantino.
Which is where we hit our first glitch. Because I am about to commit the biggest blasphemy any lover of Umbrian wine can—a stab in her heart, so to speak—and admit that Sagrantino is not my favorite wine. It’s not the complex, earthy flavor—marked by dark red fruit, spice, and smoke—or the masculine boldness (these are big wines, but I’m a big girl) that I find unapproachable. It’s the incredible, suck-your-tongue-dry, let-age-a-minimum-of-a-decade, decant-for-at-least-twelve-hours-prior-to-drinking tannins. And by tannins, I mean Tannins. Sagrantino is one of the most tannic grapes in the world, and many young Sagrantino labels are lip-puckeringly tight and really only show their true colors after almost ten years of aging…and even then, the tannins don’t beat around the bush.
Which is cool if you are drinking Sagrantino with what it is meant to be paired with. Like marinated lamb chops. Or steak. Or a big chunk of braised cinghiale. It is not so cool if, like me, you are a vegetarian (another blasphemy in the region where Pork is King) and are limited to a thick bean soup dressed with peppery olive oil or hard aged cheeses. Which may keep the tannins at bay for while, but they are still nipping at you through the bars of their cage.
The tannin question may also be behind the rise in popularity of this wine over the past generation. The traditional diet in Umbria—indeed in most of Italy, a poor, rural country until the 1960s—was light on meat and heavy on grains, legumes, and vegetables (none of which are particularly suited to a beast of a wine like Sagrantino). What is known here as la cucina povera and in the rest of the world as The Mediterranean Diet gradually began to change with a rise in standard of living through the 1960s and 1970s, with the consumption of meat moving to center stage rather than being limited to once a week or, the in poorest areas of Italy—including Umbria—feast days.
And, parallel to the growing frequency of strong meat-based dishes came the rise of Sagrantino, a wine that needs a plate of grilled sausages as its foil. Though Montefalco has a history of grape cultivation mentioned by Pliny, the Sagrantino grape itself had fallen into disuse and was on its way to extinction until the 1970s, when a number of cantinas around Montefalco “rediscovered” this historic varietal and embarked on a campaign of scientific research, rivitalization of both vineyards and wineries, and—most recently—savvy marketing and promotion. Sagrantino di Montefalco became a DOC in 1980 and a DOCG in 1992, and the prestige and quality of the region’s labels continues to grow. Combine that with the fortuitous economic reality of the rise of a meat-based cuisine well-paired to this robust wine and, voilà, a Cinderella story.
If you are like me, you may find yourself the ugly stepsister, but the meat eaters out there will probably discover themselves Prince Charming to this Princess of a wine.
Here are a few of my favorite cantine which offer visits and tastings:
There are words you are not supposed to use in quality travel writing. They are the Banned Words, and you can pretty much guess which ones they are. Gem, especially hidden. Picturesque, or simply stunning. Cozy, charming, and—close cousin—quaint. Off-the-beaten-path. Nestled. Mecca, especially foodie. And nothing must ever boast anything.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty tough to describe Norcia—incidentally, one of my favorite towns in Umbria—without dipping into the Banned Words pot. This hilltown-without-a-hill is, indeed, a hidden gem, picturesquely nestled in the stunning Sibilline mountain peaks. It’s an off-the-beaten-path foodie mecca, and simply oozes (Oops. Another banned word.) charm, with its cozy low buildings and quaint little shops. It also boasts one of the prettiest piazzas in Umbria.
But let’s pretend I didn’t just say all that. Given that a picture is worth a thousand words (Oh. One more rule: avoid overused aphorisms. Sorry.), I’ll show you a bit of Norcia and you can use your own words. I won’t judge you. Unless you use Tuscan. I hate that word.
Boar, boar, every where.
Signs of the Times
Artisanal mule balls. (Not kidding.)
Bunga Bunga cheese. (Not kidding.)
Ahem. Well, yes. This is a family show, so I won't translate these. They're pretty funny, though.
The late afternoon view from the Convento del Sacro Spreco
The thing about magic is that when you go looking for it, it doesn’t show. And then, when you’ve let your guard down, it sneaks up on you in the most unexpected places.
I went to Narni expecting magic. Perhaps even needing it a little bit. I had long heard the story of Narni being the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ mythical, magical land of Narnia—though, admittedly, the author never visited this dramatically positioned hill town himself. Overlooking the Nera River to the north (where the remains of the monumental Roman Ponte d’Augusto, so picturesque that a rendering of it by impressionist Corot now hangs in the Louvre, still make passersby draw breath) and the craggy peaks of the Valnerina to the west, Narni held the promise of bringing to life the enchantment and adventure that I so loved from Lewis’ epic, and that I had recently rediscovered in reading the novels to my sons.
The view of the Nera River valley, ca 1826.
Narni was lovely. It was. It has a fine historic center, a fetching pinacoteca with a Ghirlandaio and a Gozzoli, either of which worth the ticket price, and Narni Sotteranea, perhaps one of the most remarkable underground tours in Umbria. Plus, it had lots of lion imagery and a homegrown Lucy (the mummified saintly remains creepily displayed in the Duomo) and lush, striking countryside very much reminiscent of Lewis’ novels. But for some reason, it just didn’t click.
Perhaps part of that is the fault of Narni Scalo, a disheartening post-war industrial sprawl, complete with electro-carbon plant, which has gradually filled the valley below Narni itself (take a gander at Corot’s 1826 Le pont de Narni for an idea of paradise lost) and is the first sight to meet visitors. Perhaps part of that is the fault of my own inflated expectations for this unassuming, though attractive, town. Regardless, I left somewhat deflated and at a bit of a loss.
The cloister of the Franciscan convent in the fading light.
And then, magic. Instead of turning north towards home, I headed south on a whim in search of the Convento del Sacro Speco, a Franciscan site about 20 kilometers outside of Narni. I’m not sure why…I’m generally more of an art and architecture (with heavy doses of food and wine) kind of traveller, not a religion and spirituality sort of traveller, but this secluded sanctuary—founded in 1213 by Saint Francis but rebuilt in the 1400s—somehow compelled me, along with the legend of an ailing Francis once being soothed by an angel playing violin music here. The Saint often used a nearby cave to pray in solitude, and many of the friars who live here now do so according to the saint’s First Rule of silence and contemplation.
Parts of the sanctuary are closed to the public.
Not the friar–strongly resembling Disney’s badgeresque Tuck–who met me at the gate, and, taking my face in both hands, looked me kindly in the eyes and asked, “Daughter, why are you here? What are you looking for?” Which gave me pause, because I wasn’t quite sure of the answer myself. I stammered something inane about wanting to take a walk around the grounds, and he stepped back with a smile, easing my discomfort with a welcoming, “Stay as long as you like. This is your home.”
I didn’t stay as long as I would have liked. It was late afternoon and the sun was already low over the forested hills, but I slowly wandered through the miniature stone convent, with its tiny chapel and creche-like cloister. I paused for awhile in the inner courtyard to drink in the stunning view, from the village of Calvi perched on the mountains to the south, across the plain with its handkerchief-sized fields, woods, and stone farmhouses, to Narni to the north (and rued the fact that my camera doesn’t have a panoramic setting).
Climbing the path through the oak forest to the oratory at the top of the hill, the silence was broken only by songbirds and the sound of my own footsteps through the dry leaves. Through the glass doors of the oratory, the simple, rough chapel inside was evocative of the spirit of the Saint and so much more authentic than many of the more visited Franciscan sites in Umbria. I sat for a few minutes at the mouth of Francis’ cave—now sheltering an altar used for outdoor celebrations—and felt myself meld into the woods around, the darkening sky, the crisp evening air, the softly rustling leaves. My reverie was broken by the sound of the bells from the sanctuary below, calling visitors to Mass and me back to reality. As others headed towards the chapel, I made for the gate knowing that my spirit had been filled already and I had found, in this casual side-trip, what I had been seeking. Just a little bit of magic.
To visit the convent, set your navigator on the village of S. Urbano and follow the signs.
Opening hours are 9:30 – 20:00
Masses are Mon-Sat 11:00 ; Sunday and holidays 11:00 and 18:00