Browsing category: Perfect Picnic Places in Umbria, Rebecca's Ruminations

Perfect Picnic Places: Il Lago di Aiso (Bevagna)

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

I’m especially proud of this picnic spot, not so much because it’s extraordinarily beautiful (though charming it is) or particularly hard to find (though you’ll have to follow my directions carefully), but simply because I had to do some serious recon work to find a place that I liked enough to share.  After a long day of driving around more or less chasing wild geese and rejecting contenders with a growing sense of defeat, this tiny lake came out of left field and surprised me with its quiet grace.

But first, victuals.  This is a perfect excuse to take a stroll down the main corso of pretty Bevagna, where in the space of four or five blocks you can find all you’ll need for a meal al fresco.  Begin at Tagliavento on Corso Amendola…here you’ll find a tempting selection of handmade salame, prosciutto, dried sausage, and other traditional Umbrian charcuterie side by side with some local cheeses and the ubiquitous porchetta.  Umbrians have been coming here for their cold-cuts for three generations, so take your time and choose with care—or let Marco and Rosita suggest something special.

From there, cross over the piazza toward Corso Matteotti; along the Corso you can stop by the greengrocers at number 53, the grocery market at number 49, and the Polticchia bakery right around the corner at Via Fabio Alberti, 9.  And you can’t spit in Bevagna without hitting a wine shop, so stock up on some local Sagrantino as long as you’re there.  This is how small town shopping is done and—when not pressed for time—it’s a pleasure to finish up laden with an anachronistic array of bundles, bags, and packages from four or five different stores.

Now to reveal to you my secret spot:  From Bevagna, take the provincial highway SP 403 following the signs towards Capro and Cannara.  About two kilometers outside of Bevagna, you’ll come to an old brick bridge that runs parallel to the road (where there’s a new bridge now) which has been closed and made into a picnic spot (one of the rejects…too much traffic noise).  Where this bridge begins you’ll see a small road on the right with a sign indicating Il Convento dell’Annunziata (another reject…pretty view but no place to sit.  I’m telling you, I cased the Bevagna countryside).  Turn here, but rather than continuing uphill towards the convent, take the road which continues straight along the plain marked by an arrow reading Lago di Aiso.  After about a kilometer, you’ll come to the small fenced lake ringed by poplars and picnic tables.  For the prettiest view, walk around to the table at the far side, where you’ll have a view of Assisi.

The still lake perfectly mirrors the surrounding trees and fields

This spring-fed lake is small but deep—around 15 meters—and flows into the nearby Topino river.  Though unassuming, it has a wonderful legend surrounding its origins which has been traced back to the 1600s.  It is said that at this very spot there once stood a large farmhouse owned by a wealthy but impious and miserly farmer named Chiarò.  One year he decided to thresh his fields on the feast day of Saint Anne (the 26th of July), despite it being traditionally a day of rest.  His wife, known for her piety and charity, begged him not to work on this holy day to no avail.  As soon as he had finished threshing the last stalk of wheat, the house and surrounding fields suddenly sank into the ground and the deep pit immediately filled with water, drowning the farmer and his fieldhands.

The sound of rushing water from the run off into the nearby Topino river is perfect background music for a picnic

His wife—warned by an angel of what would soon be the fate of her husband–was able to escape with their baby son, but a small stream of water followed her and drowned the farmer’s offspring as well.  The nearby natural spring called the Asillo marks the spot where the infant drowned. Every year, on the night of Saint Anne, those who visit the lake can see the house of Chiarò under the water at the bottom of the lake and hear his cries as he urges on his threshing horses.


Get the VIP table with the view of Assisi on the far hill

Buon appetito!


Perfect Picnic Places: Fonte di Monte Lauro (Bettona)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The signs don't get better

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

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

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

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

Buon appetito!


Perfect Picnic Places: San Francesco al Prato (Perugia)

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

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

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

The historic inside of Pasticceria Sandri

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buon appetito!


Perfect Picnic Places in Umbria: San Leonardo (Assisi)

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

I’m upping the ante a little bit this week by taking you to a spot where you can barbecue!  Umbria has a long and proud tradition of great pork (the beef ain’t bad, either), so with a tad more organization and accoutrements, you can enjoy your meal hot off the grill while looking out over the rolling green hills of Mount Subasio Park.

The spot up at San Leonardo has a small pavilion with a fireplace—along with picnic tables—so you’re going to have to bring up some firewood (or charcoal, but try to get firewood if you can) and a grilling rack (you can get them cheap at any household store, the bigger supermarkets, or the weekly outdoor markets) along with your sundry picnic gear.

The fireplace and pavillion at San Leonardo

To stock up on your grillin’ meat, head to Assisi’s Macelleria Passeri on Via S.Gabriele Dell’Addolorata (right next to the greengrocer at n. 4) where pretty much anything you have a hankering for passes over their butcher’s block, but I suggest the fresh sausages and chops.  They also have a small rosticceria section (pre-prepared dishes) which are generally pretty good, so take a look and see if there are any pastas or sides you can warm up as well.

Round out your meal with any other groceries by simply walking across the street to the small local market Bottega del Bongustaio (known locally as Gambacorta) at n. 17, where they have a fabulous gourmet deli section, fresh bread, wine, and chocolate.  I suggest picking up some truffle patè you can spread on crackers to tide you over while your meat is cooking.

Now, get yourself on the ring road around Assisi (SP 444–this road eventually goes to a town called Gualdo Tadino, so follow those signs) and when you get to the top of Assisi, follow the road as it leads you under a city gate called Porta Perlici so narrow that only one car can fit through at a time.  Once you pass under this city gate you will suddenly find yourself in the mountains…continue about six kilometers until you pass by a row of houses on your right (Pian della Pieve) and come to an arrow pointing the way towards Madonna dei Tre Fossi on your right.  Turn here.

Madonna dei Tre Fossi Sanctuary. Photo by Giampiero Nottiani

You are going to follow this road for about 5 kilometers, passing the small sanctuary of Madonna dei Tre Fossi on your right. (Make a brief stop here if you’re lucky and find it open.  The painting of the Madonna inside this charming stone church is said to work miracles for the faithful.)  After you pass the church, continue on the main road following the signs towards an agriturismo called La Tavola dei Cavalieri.

The tiny chapel of Satriano

Once you reach this agriturismo, you can continue past it following the road as it curves left for another kilometer and reach San Leonardo at the peak of the hill, but I suggest you take a tiny detour to the right.  After about 10 meters, turn left and follow the road downhill to the Satriano sanctuary, where the dying Saint Francis briefly rested during his final journey home from Nocera Umbra.  This famous journey is commemorated every September with a historic reenactment by the Fraternal Knights of Assisi on horseback.

The view from San Leonardo on the hilltop

Back at San Leonardo, get your fire started and then take a quick walk up the road to enjoy some of the most beautiful views in Umbria over Mount Subasio and surrounding foothills.  And later, while enjoying your perfectly cooked pork, ponder the simple country chapel of San Leonardo which dominates this spot.  The story goes that years ago a local farmer, Rufinetto, would pass by the chapel every day on his way to town and ask the saint, “Leonardo, can I take a penny for my cigar?”  Hearing no response, according to the principle of silent consent, the farmer would take his coin from the offerings left by the faithful and use it to purchase his daily smoke.  As time went on, the story spread until one day one of Rufinetto’s neighbors hid behind the church.  Upon hearing the farmer ask, “Leonardo, can I take a penny for my cigar?” the neighbor called out “NO!” and poor Rufinetto responded “Oh, Lord, Leonardo is ornery today!” and high-tailed it out of there.  History does not record if Rufinetto quit smoking, but I would toss a coin in through the door just in case his ghost still hankers for a good cigar.

The humble San Leonardo chapel...toss in a coin for Rufinetto!

Buon appetito!


Perfect Picnic Places in Umbria: Il Monastero di San Benedetto (Assisi)

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

Go to Farmer Shop on Via San Francesco n. 4a in Assisi, where you can stock up on prosciutto and a variety of different salami, all made from an heirloom breed of pigs raised on a farm right outside of town, and some amazing local cheeses (try the aged sheep wrapped in fig leaves).  Pick up some of their freshly baked bread, as well.  And finally, the kicker, a bottle—or two—of their organic, unfiltered, unpasteurised, bottle re-fermented beers from the San Biagio estate (ask them to get you the chilled ones they keep in back.)

From there, pass over to the other side of the Piazza del Comune to Il Mercantino greengrocers on Via S.Gabriele Dell’ Addolorata n. 4 for some fruit to snack on (anything marked “nostrali” is grown locally, so try some seasonal Umbrian produce).

Finally, stop in at Pasticceria Sensi on Corso Mazzini n. 14 and choose some of their freshly-made pastries (and pick up some water).

Now, take a look at your Assisi map and find Via San Benedetto, which begins about a kilometer from  Porta Nuova off the main road 147, passes quickly through a residential area outside of the historic center of town, and begins to switchback up the slope of Mount Subasio.  There are periodic signs for Il Monastero di San Benedetto along the road, and you want to follow those.  About 6 km up, you get to the newly renovated but closed monastery on the right.

The monastery was abandoned by the order for a period during the middle ages, and used as a hideout for Assisi's banned political dissidents

Now, of course I would never condone hopping the fence into the monastery, as that would be illegally trespassing.  Which I would never condone.  But, let’s say, hypothetically, that one were to hypothetically step on the low stone wall to the left of the locked gate and hypothetically swing their legs over the wrought iron fence (being hypothetically careful to not hypothetically break their precious bottle of beer in the process).

This patio is a siren song for a new breed of "outlaws"

Inside, one would hypothetically discover one of the most peaceful spots around…the centuries-old stately stone monastery surrounding by woodland and a sunny paved patio looking out over the valley below which seems made for a relaxing picnic.

It would be a "crime" to miss out on this view of Assisi from above

Buon appetito (hypothetically)!


Perfect Picnic Places in Umbria: Costa di Trex (Assisi)

Table for two at Costa di Trex

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

Go to Santa Maria degli Angeli and find the post office (about two blocks from the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli on Via Los Angeles heading in the direction of Bastia Umbra).  Right next to the post office there is a parking lot, primarily for tour buses.  And in that parking lot there are a couple of kiosks.  Head to the one that says “Porchetta”.  Get yourself a nice towering sandwich filled with thick slices of whole roasted pig spiced with fennel and pepper—an Umbrian specialty.  Make sure you order it not too “grasso” and not too “magro”…a nice mix of lean meat and rich crackling.

Go to the fruit and vegetable kiosk next door, and choose some fruit.  Anything marked “nostrali” is grown locally, so try some Umbrian cherries, apricots, figs…depending on the season.

Finally, head across the street to Lollini pasticceria and pick out some amazing pastries for dessert.  You can also get drinks here.

Now, head up the hill towards Assisi and follow the ring road as it curves around the historic center of town (never going into town) and meets up with the provincial road marked SP 444 (this road eventually goes to a town called Gualdo Tadino, so follow those signs).  When you get to the top of Assisi, the road leads you under a city gate called Porta Perlici so narrow that only one car can fit through at a time.  Once you pass under this city gate you will suddenly find yourself in the mountains…continue about half a kilometer, then follow the road marked Costa di Trex which climbs sharply towards the right.

La Chiesa di Santo Stefano at Costa di Trex

Follow this climbing mountain road for about 5 kilometers…there are some amazing views, so don’t miss them.  After about 5 km you will come to the Santo Stefano church on the left.  Leave your car along the shoulder of the road and set up your picnic on one of the two tables in the field above the church.

"Trex" stands for "tre chiese" or three churches which once stood on this slope of Mount Subasio. Santo Stefano is the remaining one.

Buon appetito!