Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
Browsing category: Life in Umbria, Rebecca's Ruminations
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Winning the Lottery: My New Job(s)

I have something to tell you. Yes, you.

Either you’ve been reading my ramblings here and there online for the last decade, or you’ve stuck with me on this blog for the past year and a half, or you just happened to stumble upon this post today. Regardless, you’ve taken a minute out of your busy day to stop by, so you are the first person with whom I want to share my Big News.

I have a friend who plays the lottery with religious fervor and scientific methodology. He’s been playing for years, and every once in awhile he’ll actually manage to cash in (though, truth be told, I suspect he doesn’t even come close to recouping his losses from the past decades). He is perennially (and quite amusingly) ticked off when he reads about the blessed souls whom fortune has kissed each week. “Look at this!” he’ll snap the newspaper in front of my eyes, “Can you believe this joker won!?! Says here it’s the first time he even played the damned thing. Says here he let his little boy choose the numbers. Says here he forgot he even had the ticket in his wallet until he was searching around for some coupon.” And he’ll storm off, muttering to himself about probability and systems and beginner’s luck.

The thing is, he’s not upset that someone else has won…he’s upset that someone else undeserving has won. Someone who just plays for fun, with no foresight or mathematics or gravitas. A dabbler.

Getting a paid gig blogging, especially travel blogging, has roughly the same odds as winning the lottery. It just doesn’t happen that often, and when it does it’s because there is a writer out there who has played the game with religious fervor and scientific methodology. These writers are certainly talented, but–more importantly—they are also born networkers, motivated, and tirelessly dedicated to working the system by massaging their Google rankings and updating their WordPress plugins and attending seminars on the latest in SEO.

And then there are bloggers like me. Writers who write for the sheer frivolous joy of putting words down on a page. I couldn’t find my Google ranking if it bit me on the butt, don’t bother with plugins unless my webmaster makes an executive decision and puts them in (which often leads to a panicked phone call to long-suffering Marcel, who explains that everything is fine and I just need to keep on doing what I’ve been doing), and am so indifferent to SEO that I don’t even put tags on my posts. I am a dabbler who, if the universe were a completely fair place, would never win the lottery. But guess what.

Yep, that’s right. You are now reading the words typed by a paid travel writer and blogger (I may bill you…I haven’t decided yet.). Not only did I win the lottery, I won it twice over by picking up two incredibly fun and challenging new gigs in a way so effortless and seemingly happenstance that it still feels very surreal—and a little tenuous. This is how it happened:

This past spring a number of Italy travel apps for the iPhone were published through Sutro Media, many of which were authored by people I knew. I thought to myself, “Huh. That would be fun…to write a travel app for Umbria.” A short while later, I learned that the formidable travel writer Alex Leviton (who wrote the Umbria guide for Lonely Planet) was writing the Umbria app for them, so I went on with my life. Apparently, destiny had other plans, as I ended up meeting Alex through a mutual friend not a month later and we immediately hit it off personally and professionally…to the point that Alex said, “You know, I could really use a writing partner locally in Umbria to make this app rock.” (She actually said that. She’s from California. They say rock and totes a lot.) “Are you interested in coming on the project?”

And so, just like that, I found myself hired to co-author of the Umbria Slow:  Food, Culture & Travel iPhone app, which does, indeed, rock. Totes.

This past spring I was invited on a weekend blogging trip promoting Umbria called “Umbria on the Blog”. It was fabulous fun, and I ended up meeting other bloggers from around Italy and a few local movers and shakers in the social media marketing world. I thought to myself, “Huh. That would be fun…to write for an official blog about Umbria and be able to meet with bloggers in and out of Umbria more often.” But the weekend ended (a huge success), and I went on with my life. Apparently, destiny had other plans, as the brains behind the Umbria on the Blog project contacted me soon after to tell me about an ongoing blogging project in the works and ask if I would be interested in writing and curating their English language content.

And so, just like that, I found myself hired to blog for Umbria on the Blog in English, which has the amazingly wonderful side benefit of being able to collaborate with others just as passionate about Umbria as I am (but with much better contacts. These are people who can actually come up with press passes.).

So, what does this mean for you, dear reader? Nothing, really. (Except, of course, you now have just one more excuse to fill your glass with Sagrantino and toast to the randomness of life.) If you like the tips and suggestions I’ve been throwing out here on my blog, you may want to consider downloading the Umbria Slow app, which includes lots of the same stuff but in a much less wordy way and with groovy Google mapping so you actually know where the hell you are going. If you like the “slice of Umbria” posts here, check in at Umbria on the Blog where you’ll find more of those style posts (I post twice a week, plus there’s a photo blog and a bits and bobs section called “What I’m Loving”. There are lot of bells and whistles over at UOTB, but it’s still me behind the curtain.).

I will still be blogging here. This is my home, where I come and put on my saggy-ass sweatpants and sprawl on the couch and let it all hang out. I can do stuff here that I can’t over at the office (like swear, name specific businesses, and bitch about my in-laws). That said, I may be here a little less over the next few months while I try to get a system going with all this new writing-for-pay business going down.

In short, this post wasn’t about tooting my horn (okay, maybe just a little tooting) or trying to get you to buy my app or read my posts (okay, maybe just a little promoting) or any of that. It’s about thanking you—yes, you—for reading my words for the first time or, perhaps, for the 100th time (There are 134 posts on this blog! Yikes. No wonder my house is such a mess.). If it hadn’t been for you, I would have quit this writing pipe dream ages ago and my life would be that much less rich and full right now. So, thanks.

Now, go read my stuff.

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The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Trevi

Trevi, as hilltowns go, is Umbria’s comfort food. Trevi doesn’t challenge your palate with exotic flavours and peculiar spices. Trevi doesn’t rock your world with molecular gastronomy and new-fangled raw food diets. Trevi has nothing to prove; she is understated, unpretentious, and secure in the knowledge that she’ll stick to your ribs and let you leave the table comfortably sated. Which is why, like with any comfort food, you’ll find yourself returning to Trevi over and over again.

Trying to snap a picture of Trevi without an olive tree getting in the way is like trying to snap a picture of an elephant without the trunk getting in the way.

It had been awhile since I headed to Trevi, which is one of the those towns in my geographical slush zone: too close to Assisi to count as a day trip but too far away to bop over for lunch. But I was hankering to get back to one of my pet blogging projects, and though Trevi isn’t the next on the list of The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria –I’m on the Cs, for those of you paying attention. And don’t give me that look. Yes, it’s taking me awhile to get through the list. Things have come up, people.—fall is Trevi’s season, it being one of the most important olive oil producing areas in the olive oil producing region of Umbria.

So, on a gloriously sunny autumn morning I found myself driving up through the groves blanketing the hills beneath Trevi at that magical hour when the mist is just lifting and the ghostly outlines of the teams of pickers, spreading nets beneath the olive trees and positioning their rickety wooden ladders against the branches, are beginning to emerge from the silver grey. Just as I rounded the last hairpin turn coming up from the valley, the town itself—dramatically dribbling down the sides of its steep hilltop like gravy over a heap of mashed potatoes—caught the first rosy-gold rays of sunlight and, despite the eight cranes hovering over the jumble of rooftops, the pure beauty of it made me catch my breath. And the thought came to me, as it so often does with our favorite comfort foods, “Damn. Why has it been so long?”

I love this old-timey effect. Plus, you can't see all the damned cranes.

Trevi starts its comfort food schtick with the most basic of amenities: a sprawling, free parking lot right at the top of the hill about fourteen feet from the main piazza. To anyone who has passed any time visiting hill towns in Umbria (and, by the way, if you do want to visit hill towns in Umbria, pretty much your only option is to have a vehicle), the deal breaker importance of free, easy, accessible parking is immediately clear. Let’s just say it gets the meal off on the right foot. I stuck my car in Piazza Garibaldi, and passed under the Porta del Lago city gate into the main Piazza Mazzini, which is so film-set ready it would be a clichè…if, of course, it wasn’t real. The accommodating ladies at the tourist information office (unfortunately open only Friday, Saturday, and Sunday…but I discovered that tapping politely on the glass door and smiling winningly might score you a resigned entrance) kitted me out with a MAP and a FREE AUDIO GUIDE of the town. To anyone who has passed any time visiting hill towns in Umbria, the deal breaker importance of friendly infopoint staff who can actually provide such novelties as maps and audio guides is immediately clear.

Just one of the amazing views from Trevi. Brace yourself. You're about to see a lot of 'em.

So, remember your great-aunt Mary Margaret who came over from County Kerry fifty years ago, but never lost her Gaelic brogue and sweet-yet-schoolmarmish cadence? Well, somehow the folks over at the Trevi tourism office tracked her down to do the voice on their audioguide. It was both surreal and soothing to wander through the tiny center with Mary Margaret murmuring in my ear about the Churches of Sant’Emiliano (largely unexceptional inside, but with three pretty Romanesque apses and a 15th century portal outside) and San Francesco (built in the 14th century on the site where Saint Francis admonished an ill-mannered donkey to cut the racket during his sermon, at which point the donkey knelt in silence until Francis had finished. Thus begging the question as to why that won’t work with my kids.) and the various palazzi and piazze.

You want chicken soup for the soul? Well, check these views out.

The audio guide lasts about an hour, but honestly I cherry-picked the explanations, preferring instead to wander the warren of lanes in the tiny center in contemplative silence. As I walked, my pace slowed and my pulse began to match the easy heartbeat of this quiet town. I popped into a couple of museums—the charming and well-done Olive Museum (what else, in the olive oil capital of Umbria?) and surpising Palazzo Lucarini Contemporary Art Museum (even Trevi shakes it up a bit…a little ginger in the oatmeal, so to speak.)—and roamed languidly through their empty, silent halls. I stopped to snap pictures of odd niches, carved doors, smiling artisans in dim workshops, and the views. Especially the views.

This is the view to the San Martino monastery outside of town (temporarily closed due to restoration work).

I came away from Trevi as soothed and settled as if I had just had a big, steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup. Maybe my mind wasn’t expanded, maybe I didn’t have any spiritual epiphanies or life-changing realizations, but sometimes that’s not really what I’m hungry for. Sometimes what I’m really craving is less a question of stomach and more a question of heart.

Ok, I'm done with the views. Maybe...

If you really are hungry while in Trevi, you’re in luck. There are two fabulous restaurants: La Vecchia Posta (Careful, their site plays music at you. Scared the bejeezus out of me.) in the postcard-perfect main piazza and La Taverna del Sette, which has a charming internal courtyard.

Did you love these pictures? Thanks, but they’re not mine. They were used with kind permission by the talented (and generous) photographer Marzia Keller, to whom I am forever grateful. Because my pictures suck.

 

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Italy Roundtable: The Fall Museum Crawl

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

My favorite season has always been autumn, because I am a nerd. And the favorite season of nerds the world over is fall, because it marks the end of the nerd’s least favorite season:  summer.

Summer is the season of endless, aimless frolicking, frolicking usually involving sports and bikinis, (or–most often–sports in bikinis). Summer is the season of the beach read, the blockbuster movie, the pop anthem. It is the season made for drinking the hottest drink and driving the hottest car and hanging with the hottest crowd. It is, in short, the season which celebrates everything the nerd is not very good at.

Fall—fall, my friends—is the season when order and routine return. It is the season when schools (or–for the older nerd–night courses) begin, the season of baggy sweaters and long walks in the arboretum (nerds like their nature tagged in Latin). Fall is the season of the Nobel prize for literature, the art-house film festival, the symphonic season opener. It is a season made for quiet, contemplative, indoor pursuits during which one is fully clothed and speaking in complete, grammatically correct sentences. It is, in short, the season during which the nerd positively shines.

Fall

And one of the nerd’s favorite activities during those rainy, Sunday afternoons in late fall is visiting museums. I love museums. Love them. I grew up in Chicago, which is a city saturated with sprawling, monumental museums. I cut my teeth at the Museum of Science and Industry, with its coal mine and walk-through heart and giant model train, and the Field Museum, with its towering dinosaur skeletons filling the main hall and life-size dusty paleolithic dioramas. (I love the Field Museum so much I actually toyed with the idea of holding my wedding reception there. Alas, nerds are poor. Geeks are the rich ones. They understand computer programming.)

Umbria, of course, can’t hold a candle to Chicago’s museums size-wise; the average Windy City museum covers more square acres than most Umbrian towns. That said, a number of bite-sized local museums have popped up in this region over the past few years that are excellently curated, accessible to English speakers, and well worth the hour or so it will take to visit their singular collections…even for you cool summer people out there.

 

Casa Museo di Palazzo Sorbello (Perugia)

http://www.casamuseosorbello.org/en/

Palazzo Sorbello

There is something about human nature that draws us to the past. We trawl antique stores, hike the Mayan ruins, pore over archives searching out familiar surnames. We are constantly peering through windows into history, hoping to find some connection between our brief years on earth and the millenia that have come before.

This is especially true about the home-cum-museum. Who doesn’t love to wander through these domestic archaeological sites and learn about the quotidian routines of their occupants, so similar—or, at times, so incredibly removed—from our own?

When I visited the recently opened (and winningly named) Palazzo Sorbello “House Museum” in Perugia, I was fully expecting to be charmed. I envisioned richly furnished rooms (it is a noble family’s Palazzo, after all) arranged in artful domestic tableaux, mannequins posed in period garb, dark corners, a slight musty odor, and lots of dust. I envisioned, in short, the typical small, private, off-the-beaten-track museum.

I was not expecting to be wowed. But I was, and completely enthralled during my two hour tour (the standard visit lasts about half an hour, but I got to talking with their marketing director, Enrico Speranza, who has encyclopedic knowledge of the Sorbello family and their Palazzo and before we knew it….). If a visit to the Palazzo Sorbello is a window into the past, the view from here is one of a family with a long history–uniquely interwoven with that of Italy from the Middle Ages to the 20th century–and with an enduring passion for art and culture.

We began in the extensive library, includes a rare original Encyclopedie Française from the mid-1700s.  From there we spent the better part of the morning viewing their carefully curated selection of landscape paintings and portraits, breathtaking European and Chinese porcelain, a priceless handblown Murano chandelier, and various objects d’epoque.

Perhaps most fascinating was the collection of intricate embroidery produced at the beginning of the 20th century by the Embroidery School founded by the American wife of one of the noble family’s descendants. This enterprising Dame, Romeyne Robert, left her mark on the local economy by enrolling rural Umbrian women in the school, teaching them this disappearing craft, and giving them their first taste of economic independence.

More than a simple time-capsule, Palazzo Sorbello is a living lesson in Italy’s social and economic history and one of the most fascinating museums in Umbria.

 

Museo della Memoria (Assisi)

Palazzo Vallemani
Via San Francesco, 12
Phone: 075 8197021
Hours: Nov-Feb: 10:30–1:00/2:00–5:00 March, April, May/Sept, Oct: 10:00–1:00/2:30–6:00; June-Aug 10:00–1:00/1:30–7:00

Museo della Memoria

It’s easy to forget, in this religiously homogeneous land where politics, education, holidays, foods, given names, and kitschy tchotkes all seem to revolve around the Catholic church (the fact that I can use a yiddish phrase to describe things like holy water key chains and friar salt and pepper shakers gives me no end of etymological joy), that there are, indeed, other religious communities in Italy.

Jews in Italy have have had a tough time of it for the past two millenia, and the tiny remaining community of 45,000 which still live in the Bel Paese would have been even smaller had it not been for the work of a network of citizens—lay and ordained, private and official—who secretly collaborated under the direction of Catholic Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini and priests Father Rufino Niccacci and Don Aldo Brunacci to harbor and ultimately save more than 300 Jews (most from northern Italy) and other war refugees in the early 1940s.

I, like most local residents, had heard bits and pieces of this story through word of mouth and buzz created with the publication of The Assisi Underground, a 1978 novel built around the true story of this clandestine network. That said, for years the only remaining tangible evidence was the vintage printing press, still bolted to the floor of the typographer workshop-turned-souvenir shop in Piazza Santa Chiara, which had been used by the Brizi family to secretly print false identity cards and other documents, making it possible for Jews both in Assisi and across Italy avoid deportation and imprisonment.

When the building was sold in 2009, the new owners asked the press be removed, which spurred a grassroots movement by locals to create some sort of official display rather than let the last vestige of the Underground be packed away in storage. After a few calls to action in the local paper, I hadn’t heard much else, so figured the momentum had died away and the living memory along with it.

Luckily, I was wrong. Through private and public donations, the Museo della Memoria (Memory Museum) opened in the spring of 2011, and it is startlingly excellent. The four halls are packed with excellently displayed (and translated) letters, documents, photographs, and historical artifacts (many of which revolve around the Brizi’s typography workshop), an in-depth biography of the main characters in the story (including the German Colonel Valentin Müller, Commandant of the city and Catholic, who showed humanity in an inhumane situation), and a video loop of interviews with some of the surviving activists and refugees.

Moving, compelling, and perfectly curated, this jewel of a museum merits a visit. A final note: No Assisan betrayed the Underground and no refugee passing through was captured during its activity. So, the Jews have a debt to the city. And yet…and yet. It was the letter forged by the hand of one of these refugees, fluent in German,  purportedly from Kesselring declaring Assisi an open city, which began the evacuation of German troops under Colonel Müller and quite probably saved Assisi from destruction.

So, who owes whom, really, in the end?

 

Museo della Canapa (Sant’Anatolia di Narco)

Phone: 0743. 613149 (if you arrive and no one is there, call this number or ask around…the office is down the street)
Hours: Mon closed, Tues-Fri: 9:00-1:00, Tues/Thurs: 3:00-6:00, Sat: 2:30-6:00, Sun: must reserve.

Museo della Canapa

If you think that just one person can’t make much of a difference in this crazy world, listen to the story of a five foot tall, red haired, tinkly-bracelet-and-flowered-poncho-clad dynamo named Glenda Giampaoli. Yep, just like that bad ass of a Good Witch Glenda, who might disarm you with her ready smile and sweet voice but don’t get between her wand and whatever she’s aiming it at.

A textile archaeologist with a soft spot for her home region, Glenda had a dream: to bring to light the rich history of hemp farming and textile production in the Valnerina. And before you start pigeonholing her in with Woody Harrelson and patchouli-scented aging hippies in Berkeley, let me just tell you that hemp was once mainstream in Italy. Extremely mainstream. So mainstream, in fact, that Italy was the second largest industrial hemp producer in the world at the beginning of the 20th century. The staid women’s fashion magazine, Grazia, put out an entire issue in 1940 entitled “The Triumph of Hemp” dedicated to the latest in hemp fabrics and styles. (The lead story begins thus: “Hemp, like a woman, must be treated roughly to render it soft and pliable.” Ahem. Yes, well. We’ve come a long way, baby.)

Then, as Glenda so succinctly puts it, Italy lost the war. History is written by the victors, who also determine the course of the future. As the Allies had huge economic stakes in the success of nylon and other synthetic fibers developed during World War II, hemp was demonized. Polyester was in, hemp was out…and with it a micro-culture and economy dependent upon its production. With an admirable amount of patience and tenacity, Glenda has been working for the past few years to re-introduce hemp farming in the Valnerina and other areas of Umbria (recent EU legislation has begun legalizing the crop) and sensitize the population to the benefits of bringing back this lost product.

Part of her campaign—the most important part, perhaps —has been the establishment of the nano-sized Hemp Museum in the fetching village of Sant’Anatolia di Narco. With a bit of negotiation, flavored with diplomacy, grovelling, determination, and (one can only imagine, in this country where just renewing your driver’s license can seem more complicated than an establishing an international commission on CO2 emissions) quite a bit of luck and goodwill, Glenda was able to retrofit a section of the village’s former city hall to hold an eclectic collection of antique textile and weaving tools and looms and examples of hemp cloth donated by local families and dating from the 1800s.

The museum’s information panels are all excellently translated, but if you’re lucky you may get a tour by Glenda herself, who flavours the visit with local lore and cultural nuance (hemp weaving, for example, was key to the economic independence of women—particularly widows and single women—at the turn of the century, as it was one of the few occupations available which could be pursued without leaving the home). The pride she has in her tiny yet huge triumph of a museum is palpable…and contagious. As I watched her punctuate her impassioned explanations with grand gesticulations while she insisted on showing us “just one more thing…this is really special!” I realized that only a tiny yet huge personality like Glenda could have waved her wand at the disheartening Italian bureaucracy and conjured up this most special museum.

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

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Postcards from Umbria: I Primi d’Italia

One of the odd dichotomies stemming from the extreme regional divisions which define Italy is that you are much more likely to find a wide variety of Italian foods and ingredients in, say, New York or London or Sydney than you are in, say, Rome, Milan, or Naples. And most Italians would recognize more readily Japanese sushi or Moroccan couscous than they would Calabrian ‘nduja or Piemontese Cugnà.

Jars of red-hot nduja.

Because people interested in Italian food outside Italy are generally curious about all Italian food, but Italians themselves consider their local dishes—ideally prepared in their mother’s kitchen–the apex of their national cuisine and really only sample delicacies from other regions when they are actually visiting there. And, even then, mostly out of a sense of duty and to cement their opinion that their local dishes are the apex of Italian cuisine.

So, on the rare occasions when there is an opportunity to check out what people are eating all down the Boot, I jump at the chance. This past weekend Foligno held its annual Primi d’Italia food festival, which features pasta dishes from a variety of Italian regions. I passed on the tastings (word on the street is that the food is average and the prices high), but did check out the stands selling everything from bread from Puglia to cheese from Trentino. Great fun, lots of goodies to try at home, and a reminder of this crazy patchwork-quilt nation of histories, cultures, dialects, and—of course—foods that is Italy.

The one food that might just unite the nation: Bunga Bunga sauce.

Olives in all shapes and sizes.

Umbria holds its own in pork charcuterie.

The further south you go, the spicier the cuisine gets.

Perhaps the most picturesque booth, with its giant loaf.

 

A fun display of pasta shapes from every Italian region.

I picked up some pasta from Naples and Abruzzo. To sniffs of skepticism from the folks at home.

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Soul/Food: Hosteria 4 Piedi & 8,5 Pollici

One would think, right? One would think—what with my extensive arsenal of feminine charms, my glam slam social life here on the farm, and the household-name fame that is part and parcel of blogging—that I would be fending off dinner invitations from handsome strangers daily. It would become a chore, really. I would be rejecting them with a languid wave of my hand and an, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly take on one more engagement, darling. Honestly. I have a limit of four nights out a week.” I would be leaving a veritable trail of disappointment and heartbreak in my wake.

Ahem. Yes, well. I know this may come as a surprise to you (It certainly did to me), and I’m going to try to break it to you gently. That’s not exactly what goes on around here. Apparently the life of a working mother of two who writes an incredibly niche (that’s French for obscure) blog on the slow travel charms of one of the smallest regions in Italy is not exactly the most sought after arm candy on the social diaspora.

Which is why, when I received an email this summer from a fellow expat of the XY chromosome persuasion complementing me on my blog and inviting me out to lunch (I believe his exact words were something disarmingly elegant like, “I think you would enjoy one of my favorite restaurants in Umbria and I would be delighted to take you as my guest”), I literally glanced over my shoulder to check and make sure he was actually writing to me and not someone infinitely more attractive and interesting who might be standing behind me. But he was, indeed, addressing me and we settled on a date a few weeks hence (just because I don’t have a very refined social life doesn’t mean that I’m not, sadly, insanely busy).

I quickly came to the conclusion that the only explanation for this anomaly had to be that my new expat friend was some sort of psychopath (this is how the mind of a South side Chicagoan works). To fend off any possible attacks, I did what any responsible adult would do: I brought my nine year old son along. Apparently Mr. X had the same thought, as he informed me he was bringing along his niece. And so, our motley foursome was formed.

If I wasn’t disappointed about the woeful state of my social life before this lunch, I certainly was afterwards, as it turned out to be one of the highpoints of my summer. Mr. X is a delightful, erudite retiree who has lived in Umbria with his wife for the past few years and devotes much time and energy sussing out wonderful unknown eateries. His adult niece, visiting from Brooklyn, was a fun and funky designer who was great with my son.  The conversation was easy and engaging, and before we knew it we had been at the table chatting for three hours (and my son was officially late for his rugby practice).

But the best part of my surprise invitation was, by far, the pure find of a restaurant Mr. X had chosen. If there’s one thing I pride myself on–other than the fact that I can move my ears and I defiantly refuse to see the movie Titanic–it’s that I pretty much know Umbria, including her notable restaurants. I may not have actually been to them all (though that is certainly one of my short term goals, which conflicts with my other short term goal of weight loss), but it’s relatively rare that someone can pull a place completely out of the hat and awe me.

I believe that we put a little bit of our souls into our cooking. I mean, not in that new agey brick-heavy metaphoric Like Water for Chocolate way, but in a more down-home pragmatic human nature way. Any creative act—painting or singing or writing or love making—inevitably reflects what’s going on in our heads and hearts. That’s just how we’re wired and I challenge anyone to sit down and paint a bright field of sunflowers or bake a sunny lemon tart the day after a death or a break-up or a foreclosure. This soul/food connection is usually more direct in our own kitchens, simply because the dishes aren’t diluted with the touch of too many hands. But sometimes—sometimes—you come upon a one-man-show restaurant where alongside your pasta you find plated a little piece of your cook’s heart. Welcome to Laura’s Hosteria.

Hosteria 4 Piedi & 8,5 Pollici
Piazza del Mercato, 10
Bastardo (Giano dell’Umbria)
Tel: 0742 99949
http://4piedi8-5pollici.blogspot.com/

 

Why yes, I *do* know how to upload maps now. Expect lots of showing off in future blog posts.

I have to be honest and admit that I initially had my misgivings. The Hosteria is located in Bastardo (a wholely charmless village whose only claim to anything nearing passing interest is its name) in a secondary piazza ringed with bleak cement apartment blocks and a big box supermarket. We parked in a depressing commercial lot with its straggly grass and recycling dumpsters and my unease was lessened slightly as Mr. X pointed out the whimsical entrance to the Hosteria’s otherwise anonymous storefront, which could only be described as the result of a one night stand between an English garden show booth and the front yard of an organic co-op in Portland.

 

The eclectic front courtyards hints at the shabby chic decor inside.

The eclectic interior, with it’s meandering black and white mural decorations, fresh wildflower centerpieces, mismatched shabby chic chandeliers, vintage tableware, and—curiously—antique typewriter in the bathroom (it took me awhile to figure out why my son kept getting up to visit the loo every ten minutes), further put my doubts to rest. This was not a place which would be turning out factory-made tagliatelle with chemically-enhanced truffle sauce from the kitchen.

The small restaurant oozes personality.

Indeed, we didn’t know what would be coming out of the kitchen until our hostess, Laura, told us the specials of the day; the Hosteria is a strictly no menu sort of place. The selections are a magical alchemy of seasonal ingredients, Laura’s fancy, and customer finickiness (my son didn’t seem particularly excited about the cocoa maltagliati, ink squid tagliatelle, or ricotta and basil ravioli, so Laura took a gander at what she had in the kitchen and came up with a wonderful twist on the Roman specialty cacio e pepe, with a little guanciale thrown in for good measure. He was happy.). I was plied by the ravioli, and they were perfect…light little flavor bombs with a fresh tomato dressing. Aside from her egg pastas, Laura also makes a range of sauces to dress the dry pasta of your choice; the selection the day we visited were guanciale and zucchini, meatball and eggplant, and arrabiata.

An example of Laura's hand-shaped fresh pasta.

The meat dishes were equally diverse, ranging from a local tagliata steak, to traditionally prepared lamb chops, to the decidedly non-traditional ginger chicken or fish cakes. I asked for a cheese selection, and was treated to one of the best cheese courses I’ve had in Italy…from aged pecorino to fresh ricotta (served on a spoon with local honey), accompanied by a number of Laura’s handmade fruit mustards, relishes, and—divinely—wine reduced to an intense drizzle-able glaze.

The portions were as generous as Laura herself, so by the time we got to the dessert menu we could only handle some of her excellent biscotti (which were so good that my son managed to pocket one or two for later) and vin santo.

The Hosteria has an interesting wine list, with some off-beat local Umbrian cantine which reflect the vibe of this small (seating for about 30) restaurant and its menu. As I said, I was treated to lunch, but my gut feeling is that a couple could easily have two courses, dessert, and wine for around €50.

We had these biscotti, but without the hat.

When I asked Laura about the name she gave her Hosteria (which translates into 4 Feet & 8.5 Inches), she told me she had taken it from one of her favorite works of Brazilian author Paolo Coelho, Zahir. “The story is a parable of one man’s search for his wife, during which he is also searching for himself and the meaning of love. Four feet and 8.5 centimeters is the distance between rails on train tracks, and becomes an allegory for static nature of marriage as opposed to the constantly changing and evolving nature of love. Because the more you try to establish rules to measure love, the more love disappears.”

Kudos to Laura, her wonderful Hosteria, and the measureless love with which she feeds her clients’ bodies and souls.

These photos were used with kind permission of Laura Saleggia, who retains all the copyrights.

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Back to School: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

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

Back to School

Draw near, draw near, stranger, as I spin you an epic yarn. A timeless story of love and betrayal, of struggle and suspense, of triumph and failure. There are heroes, young friend, and villains galore. I will tell of innocents and schemers, of noble causes and fiendish designs, of the loftiest and the basest of human desires. Draw near, wanderer, and listen to my tale of fate, destiny, and—ultimately—a moral to it all.

Hear me as I sing the tragedy of How My Children Transferred Elementary Schools.

No, wait. Don’t get up. It’s a great story, I swear. It really does have all that stuff in it. Listen, your beer’s on me if you’ll just sit here for ten minutes and hear me out. Ten minutes. Seven. Seven minutes. Ok? Ok.

The school year began here in Umbria this week, and as I lightheartedly dropped my sons off to their second and fifth grade classrooms, I couldn’t help remembering this same time last year. My older son was beginning the fourth grade, and we were both anxious. He had had a particularly tough third year; his favorite teacher had retired after the second grade and he and the new teacher had locked horns for the subsequent nine straight months. I had gone back and forth about simply switching him to the other local elementary school (in Italy you get the same teacher for all five grades of primary school, so if you don’t see eye to eye you are kind of stuck), but had decided to continue where we were (and enroll my younger son in first grade there, as well).

It quickly became clear that something had to give. My nine year old was desperately unhappy, thus we were all unhappy. He started asking me if he could change schools, which gave me pause, as his best friends were all classmates. He was obviously at the end of his rope. So, come January, I took both my sons (the first grader wanted to be with his brother) out of their elementary school and enrolled them in the other public school about half a kilometer away. Thus began a golden period in their lives, and a private hell in mine.

Fine, private hell might be overkill (though I did promise you drama), but let’s just say I was completely blindsided by the social ripples caused by what was, in my mind, a relatively innocuous (and, I may add, completely none-of-anyone’s-business-personal) decision. You see, it slips my mind sometimes that I live in a small town. It’s easy to forget, because Assisi gives the impression—what with the crush of millions of visitors a year—of being a teeming metropolis. But the fact is that only around 1,000 people actually live in the historic center and–of those–999 are all up in your business.

I also tend to underestimate the dark underbelly of small town dynamics because I went to hands down the most awesome, lefty, fun, accepting, smart high school in North America. I realize the correlation may be fuzzy, but from what I understand from friends (and bootleg copies of Glee), the average American high school educates you not only in algebra and creative writing, but also in how to navigate cliques, handle gossip, recognize the mean girls, and generally hone those delicate antennae indipensible in managing the subtleties of social interaction. Because–despite all the romanticizing and idealizing–life in a small town is pretty akin to life in high school, except the median age is higher and the chaos which can be wrought more damaging.

The weeks following the school switch (I should probably add that I had been my sons’ PTA president for six years, so admittedly we weren’t the most low-profile family in the school)–during which a whisper campaign was initiated, teachers I had known for years publicly denounced my decision, families with whom we had travelled and socialized since our children were three years old stopped speaking to me, friends quickly separated themselves into wheat and chaff categories, and acquaintances whom I hardly knew by sight stopped me on the street to chat conspiratorially in the hopes I might let something slip unpolitic enough to stoke the flames of debate at the local cafè—were perhaps the steepest learning curve of my adult life. My kids went back to school, and, in a way, so did I. However, while they stopped shedding tears over their lessons, I began shedding them over mine.

It’s the Economy, Stupid.

Nothing gets people’s dander up like the specter of job loss, an aspect I had naively underestimated when making my decision. Assisi has two elementary schools in the historic center, which is simply mathematically untenable given the size (and age) of the population. This is a known but unspoken truth; every spring when enrollment begins the two schools fight tooth and nail for students, because if they don’t reach a minimum class size teachers are transferred or let go. It’s that simple. So, when students leave—especially students of somewhat outspoken, public, influential families—the school (and their teachers) immediately circle the wagons, and their first priority becomes damage control, spin, and desperate number crunching. Perhaps not the noblest of instincts, but human, nonetheless.

No One is Disinterested.

If there’s one thing you learn very quickly when you move to a small town, it’s that you can’t pick your nose in the car. Because everyone knows you. Even people you don’t know know you. They know you, they know your significant other, they know your boss, they know your cleaning lady, they know your postman. Not only do they know them, they are probably related to them. They may not like them, they may barely speak to them, but if the universal currency of information is on the block, you can be sure that there will be some exchange…and often the heftiest price paid is by you. And in a social crucible where knowledge is power, where gossips wield stunning power, and where—to be honest—very little goes down of particular interest on any given day, even the most banal of events (who had coffee with whom, whose car was seen parked where, whose kids were taken out of one school and enrolled in its rival) acquire the whiff of scandal.

Change is a Big Effing Deal.

The City is all about change. About progress. About evolution. About new horizons and frontiers. The Province is all about tradition. About history. About roots. About stability and comfort-zones. And I like that about the Province; after a life of constant movement and adaptation, I like the sense of past and belonging to a larger social tapestry. I especially like that for my children. That said, just as the dynamism of cosmopolitan life can veer into superficial self-absorption, so can the solidity of country life veer into stodgy mistrust and fear of change. Career transitions are whispered about as if they were some sign of failure, rather than simply that of a wish to try something new. Separations are akin to a death in the family, rather than an opportunity for a new beginning. New hairstyles and hobbies are viewed with raised eyebrows and pursed lips. And a change in schools—even to one that is just a few blocks away, even when the classmates are all friends from preschool, and even when the teachers are familiar faces from around town–is viewed as a traumatic, life-altering folly. (Just for the record, my sons are thrilled with their new school and have been from day one. I should have trusted my intuition and transferred them earlier. Another lesson learned.)

I’ve Been Damned Lucky.

The most positive lesson taken from all of this has also been the hardest to internalize:  gratitude. I have learned to be grateful that I can both enjoy the advantages of living in a small community, yet see beyond it to a bigger picture. I can get past defensiveness and finger-pointing when I feel censured, and take a hard look at myself and the mistakes I’ve made. I have a life that is so stimulating and joyful that I don’t need to pay much attention to the minutiae of my neighbors’ days to fill my own. The deep roots I’ve put down have favored, not stunted, my growth and I see the challenge in change, not just the apprehension. Though I smile and wave and chit-chat and trip my social butterfly way across the piazza, I know who my true friends really are…in Tucson, Bali, Piemonte, California, Castiglione del Lago, Chicago, and—a precious few—here in Assisi,  I have the extraordinary fortune to have a crowd watching my back, supporting without second guessing, and caring without judging.

And I suppose that if there is a moral to this story, it lies here. You can’t appreciate the light until you see the darkness, the loyalty until you feel abandoned, the serenity until you get lost in the chaos. The microcosm of small town society puts this into sharper relief, perhaps, but these lessons are all around us regardless of where we are. Life is full of teachable moments, but we have to show up to class with our minds open, pencils sharp, and pride tucked away in our lockers. Because life is also a tenacious bitch of a professor, and each time you flunk her class you can be sure that you’ll keep finding that same topic covered on the next final exam until you finally—finally—get the answer right.

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

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If You Have To Do It, Do It Right: Umbria Harvest Week Tour

I’m not a big lover of organized tour travel, which will hardly come as a shock to anyone who has hung around my blog for more than nine nanoseconds. I am all about indie, slow, off-the-beaten-track, sustainable, and all those other buzz words we self-satisfied hipster travellers use to differentiate us from Uncle Bob and Aunt Sue who spent ten days on a Trafalgar coach touring the European Capitals (which they pronounced dirty and their citizens rude).

That said, every once in awhile I come across a tour which is put together which such thoughtfulness and criteria that even I—even I, I say—can’t help but recognize that if I were to choose to visit Umbria with a group, this is how I would want to do it.

Fall is my favorite season to visit Umbria.

Kathy McCabe, publisher of the excellent Dream of Italy newsletter, has pulled together a fabulous itinerary for getting to know Umbria during one of my favorite seasons. This November she will be visiting the region with a small group during her Umbria Harvest Week for cooking lessons, Montefalco vineyards visits, truffle hunting, ceramic painting in Deruta, and—yes—a bit of touring (Assisi and Perugia). It’s basically what I would suggest as the perfect week-long visit in Umbria, but hassle-free.

I met up with her group last year for dinner, and it was a lively bunch—engaged and engaging, well-travelled, curious, and lots of fun. Not what I had imagined a tour group to be, honestly.

Last year's group. Fun was had.

So, for anyone bouncing around the idea of a fall trip but not keen on dealing with the logistics independently, this is a tour that even a die-hard non-tour gal like myself can recommend.

 

These photos were shamelessly nicked from Dream of Italy’s website. Don’t sue me, Kathy.

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Eight Years in 7 Links

When I was nominated by Jessica Spiegel of WhyGo Italy to participate in Tripbase’s My 7 Links project, I couldn’t say no. First, Jessica sits at the head of the Italy Blogging Roundtable (of which I am a participant) which makes her kind of my boss, if by “boss” one means “very nice person who lives nine time zones away and invents writing projects which are super-fun but unpaid”. Second, Jessica is a rarified Real Travel Writer, whereas I am Just Some Chick Who Futzes Around, so I’m thinking I should probably follow her lead.

The third–and probably most compelling–reason I couldn’t say no is that it was an excuse to go back through my old posts and indulge in a bit of nostalgia. The project has participants publish a link to one of their own past posts in seven different categories.Though I’ve been blogging for just over a year, some of the older articles on my blog are pieces that I wrote between 2003 and 2006 for the Slow Travel website (back when the word blog had yet to permeate our culture), and it had been awhile since I’d had the excuse to read through them. Almost eight years have passed since those first articles were written, and it was fun to say hello to my 32 year old self again.

So thanks to Jessica for calling me out, and to the folks over at Tripbase for coming up with these seven great reasons to shake the moths out of the archives.

My most beautiful post

Though many of my blog posts offer pragmatic information and travel tips to help visitors discover Umbria, the ones in which I tend to wax most poetic are, of course, those where I touch on my personal life. And nothing is more personal than this crazy hold Italy has over my soul—and, as I said in this recent post (this is an extra link, so it doesn’t count as one of my seven) sometimes Italy comes close to breaking me. During those times I dig out this love letter I wrote to Italy close to a decade ago and rekindle the flame that made me fall in love with her in the first place.

My most popular post

Everybody loves a good rant, and boy did I tap into a pulsing expat frustration artery with this post from last year. I was surprised and touched by all the wonderful, thoughtful comments and dialogue this post generated and realized that as isolating as the expat life can sometimes be, there is also a lot of affection and support in our community.

My most controversial post

I was actually expecting this post to spark more controversy than it did. Nothing gets folks riled up like a good religious debate, which is why I generally hold my own spirituality cards close to my chest. But, as it turns out, my blog has a passel of openminded and accepting followers. Thank god.

My most helpful post

No ifs, ands, or buts…people love an itinerary to give their trip planning some structure without the hassle of all the background research. My one week Umbria itinerary continues to be the nuts-and-bolts post readers love the most (my two week itinerary, as well. And no, this doesn’t count as one of my seven) and was also one of my favorites to write.

A post whose success surprised me

Okay, the popularity of this post was totally shocking to me. A piece that I totally pulled out of my derrier one grey January weekend when I was stumped about what to throw up on the blog ended up going as close to viral as I’m ever going to get and snagging me my first speaking engagement. Ever. Who knew that so many readers out there harbored an interest in hog butchering?

A post I feel didn’t get the attention it deserved

A dear friend turned me on to Umbria’s dragon legends, and this post remains one of my all time most entertaining (both to research and write). Unfortunately—and I know this may come as a shock—not many people are running Google searches with the terms Umbria + dragon. At least I can never be accused of writing for SEO.

The post that I am most proud of

I don’t have many redeeming qualities beyond my freakish ability to wiggle my ears and to sniff out a fib from a six year old at 50 paces, but I do concede that I am very good at finding the humor in otherwise trying situations. When our phones were out for over a month, it caused me such stress that I think I am still working the knots out of my shoulders seven years later, but I was able to write one of my funnier pieces about it and make myself laugh. And that ain’t peanuts in this tough world.

 

 

I’m sort of late to the game, which means that most of my favorite bloggers seem to have already been nominated. That said, I enthusiastically nominate my guilty pleasure: Liz from the irreverently hilarious Letters from Florence.

 

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Italy Roundtable: Sliding Doors, What-ifs, and the Cross of San Damiano

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

My Favorite Work of Art in Italy

If I were to name my favorite work of art in Umbria purely on merit of aesthetic beauty, technical skill, or creative mastery, I would be hard-pressed. From Etruscan stonework dating two hundred years before Christ to the twentieth century avant-garde artist Alberto Burri—this region has been producing breathtaking art for millenia.

Now, if I were to name my favorite piece of art in Umbria purely in its ability to inspire my imagination, give flight to my fancy, move and amuse me, and make me want to sit my butt down in front of the computer on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in July when everyone else is out swimming in the creek to share it with you, there is one piece of artwork that immediately comes to mind.

Surprise! Betcha didn't see this coming.

I like to imagine that there are tens, hundreds, thousands of parallel universes out there, populated with the anti-versions of myself. Every time I find myself at a crossroads in life where I have had to make a choice about which path to take, I like to think that a separate reality splinters off and continues on a different trajectory, spinning out a version of what my life would have been like had I taken that other, rejected road. Each time I’ve been courageous or cowardly, kind or cruel, thoughtful or hasty, a new world has spun away, carrying on it a slightly altered cast of characters and plot line. I step off the walkway, tread on a butterfly, and set off unpredictable chain reactions.

These alternate realities present a fun-house mirror of my world and myself, just distorted enough to be new but just similar enough to be recognizable. And when I’m in line at the post office, or in the dentist’s waiting room, or up in the wee hours of the morning wandering the dark rooms of my house, I like to wonder about these anti-Rebeccas in these parallel universes, and conjecture about their lives there.

In the beginning of the 13th century, young Francesco Bernardone–son of a wealthy merchant in Assisi—decided to abandon his life of luxury and war-mongering for spiritual pursuits. He took to praying in the semi-abandoned country churches around his hometown, and in 1206 knelt before an unremarkeable Romanesque rood cross in the small, humble chapel of San Damiano outside Assisi’s city walls. This icon crucifix, with its 12th century cartoonish Byzantine-style decoration based on the Gospel of Saint John (probably painted by an anonymous Syrian monk), would surely have faded into obscurity had not an extraordinary event taken place. Or, I should say, two extraordinary events:

  1. The cross spoke to Francis.
  2. Francis listened.

A copy now hangs in the church of San Damiano; the original is in the Basilica of Saint Claire

Tradition holds that Francis heard the cross say to him, “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin,” three times. Francis did just that…first interpreting the message as a call to restore the neglected San Damiano and Porziuncola chapels and later taking it to mean a tweaking of the Roman Catholic Church itself. In this vein, he founded the Franciscan Order and the Order of Saint Claire and—many hold—became one of the most influential figures in religious history, pioneering virtues of poverty, brotherhood, respect for animals and the environment. He is the patron saint of Italy and his hometown of Assisi is one of the most visited in the country, primarily because of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Basilica di San Francesco.

But it could have gone differently.

Francis could have never heard the voice, or never listened. He could have heeded the message, but become demoralized and given up.  He could have stuck to restoring churches (perhaps becoming the patron saint of general contractors) and never founded an Order. He could have continued ministering to the poor and sick and died in obscurity, as so many devout did over the centuries, or simply joined one of the many rich and corrupt orders already thriving in medieval Italy. Catholicism would be fundamentally different (as would many other religions, as Francis–with his spirit of humility and fraternity–is a figure almost universally admired), Italy would be fundamentally different, Assisi would be fundamentally different, and my life (and most likely yours, my friend) would probably be fundamentally different. All this the legacy of one young man and the choices made in one moment of his life.

This is why I—a proud Secular Humanist and largely Non-Lover of Byzantine Art—have always been drawn to San Damiano’s cross which, were it to have a less compelling backstory, wouldn’t draw a second glance. Because when I look at it (it now hangs in the the Cappella del Crocifisso in the Basilica di Santa Chiara here in Assisi), more than making me pause to reflect on beauty, or skill, or genius, I find myself pausing to reflect on choices and consequences, on caution and risk, on sliding doors and what-ifs.

And when I do, I say a little secular prayer to Il Poverello:

Francis, may I have the courage to listen to voices speaking, to walk through doors opening, to take paths beckoning. May I have the wisdom to choose the right voices, the right doors, and the right paths. May I have the serenity to one day stand on this spinning Earth, look at all those countless other planets hurtling past with all those countless anti-Rebeccas standing on them and know that of them all, I would choose to be on this crazy planet living the life of this–at times, crazy–Rebecca.

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

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Rebecca as Guest rather than Hostess: Five Ways to Explore Umbria alla Cheapo

In these tough times, even travelling has been pared down to the bare bone. That said, there are some great cheap and/or free A list attractions  in Umbria if you are keeping your eye on the bottom line but still want a memorable trip.

I was asked this week by the budget travel site extraordinaire Eurocheapo to suggest five cheap thrills in Umbria, and it was tough to whittle down my choices to just five.

But whittle I did, and you can take a look at the finalists here.