Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
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From Tours to Tables: Umbria’s Farm Bounty

After our annual August break, we’re back with our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable! The theme this month is “From Farm to Table”, and we have a new member to welcome…Georgette Jupe from Girl in Florence in one of the most beautiful cities in Italy! Our roundtable has grown, but don’t forget to take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our long banquet table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

Italy Blogging Roundtable

Remember in high school when you would go to Blockbuster on Saturday night? You would wander the aisles crowded with hundreds of VHS covers lined up at attention on the shelves for an hour, undecided…maybe I should get all intellectual, you’d think, and rent a French movie. Or retro and grab a Cary Grant classic. Or Film Study and watch “Citizen Kane”. Perhaps now’s the time to see the entire Bond canon, or every movie Jack Nicholson ever made.

And, finally, exhausted with the endless options, you would say, “Fuck it,” grab a copy of “The Princess Bride” for the 14th time, and thoroughly enjoy every minute. Sometimes the obvious solution is also the most satisfying.

That’s what I felt like about this month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable theme. “From farm to table” seems tailor-made for this rural region of Umbria, where pretty much everything on your table has come from a farm…yours or someone else’s. To mix things up a bit, I toyed with a bunch of crazy interpretations of the theme (one discussing my older son’s eye-opening trip to New York City this summer, during which he went from his Umbrian farm diet to sampling more world cuisines in 15 days than he had in his previous 15 years of life), but after wandering the aisles of my mind for hours, I finally came to the conclusion that the obvious solution was also the most satisfying. So, ladies and gentlemen, I offer up “The Princess Bride” of blog posts…a quick guide to how to sample Umbria’s farm bounty during your next visit.

 Umbria farm tour


Agriturismo (Farm Holiday)

You can’t get more farm to table than an agriturismo, which is a working farm which also offers accommodations and/or meals to travelers. Umbria has one of the most dense concentrations of agriturismi in Italy, which is hardly surprising given its rural history and culture here and thriving tourist economy.

A caveat, however: the more posh the farm, the less likely you will be sampling anything beyond their olive oil or perhaps wine. An agriturismo can be classified as such as long as it produces at least one agricultural product, which means that alongside the small, traditional family farm (which generally includes stock, an olive grove, a small vineyard, a kitchen garden, an orchard, courtyard animals, cultivated fields, and woods), you also have large, wealthy estates which have hectares of olive trees or vines from which they produce their label of oil or wine, but nothing else. If you are looking for an upscale relais with a spa and paved parking lot, this is where you should head. If you are looking for a mamma in the kitchen who is cooking up hand-rolled tagliatelle with goose sauce featuring a fat lady you heard honking out back just yesterday, choose a simpler, more rustic agriturismo.

Many agriturismi also offer casual cooking lessons with the family, which is a great way to both sample the farm products and learn some tricks for reproducing the simple yet unforgettable flavors of the Umbrian countryside in your kitchen back home. Very few, however, will allow guests to participate in the farm work (they’ll tell you that it’s for insurance reasons, but the truth is that nothing throws a wrench into the works like well-intentioned city folk who don’t know what they’re doing) aside from simple tasks like picking olives or grapes, but most let you pick your own produce from the home garden, gather eggs, and sample the house preserves, charcuterie, cheese, and other goodies.

farm tour umbria


Farm Visits

Even if you prefer to stay in town rather than an agriturismo in the countryside, you can work in a farm visit or two to your itinerary. Umbria is blanketed with farms, large and small, though most are not set up for visits…and even those which are open to the public are quite informal, so don’t expect a White House tour. Here are some good options:


Remember, a cantina (or winery) is a farm…it’s just specialized in a single product. My favorite area for winery visits is around Montefalco, home of Umbria’s flagship Sagrantino wine. Try the Di Filippo or Scacciadiavoli wineries, which have a good balance between down-home, family hospitality and organized wine tours.

Umbria’s wineries also have two open houses a year: Cantine Aperte in May and Cantine Aperte in Vendemmia in September. Things can get a little crazy during Cantine Aperte, but it’s also a great way to enjoy a day in the vineyards with music, food, tastings, and tours.

Olive Oil Mills

A mill (or frantoio) is really only interesting to visit during the fall and early winter when the harvest is coming in; the rest of the year, things are pretty quiet and your “tour” will consist of standing in a silent mill to gaze at machinery. That said, if you are visiting from October to December, it’s fun to stop by a frantoio buzzing with tractors pulling up to unload bales of olives and local farmers lounging around as their harvest is milled. Most have a small fireplace to grill bruschetta, so the newly-pressed oil can be sampled seconds after it drips out of the press.

For a list of olive oil farms and mills open to the public, take a look here. There is also an annual open house, Frantoi Aperti, each November with tastings and events.

Truffle Reserves

Ok, truffles aren’t really “farmed” in the strict sense, but the precious patches of woods where trufflers and their dogs forage for these buried treasures are certainly cultivated with as much care as fields of grain. A truffle hunt, followed by a cooking lesson and meal, is an unforgettable way to experience Umbria’s rural countryside and cuisine…especially for families with kids.

My favorite truffle producers who organize hunts and meals are Bianconi near Città di Castello and San Pietro a Pettine near Trevi.

Meat Farms

Umbria is the Iowa of Italy, a land where pork reigns supreme and the charcuterie is among the best in the world. I love visiting Peppe Fausti’s farm near Norcia, where he raises his pigs free-range (they come when he whistles…you can see it here at 2m 50s.) For locally-raised Chianina beef, heirloom Cinta Senesi pork, lamb, poultry, and game, there’s no better stop than Fattoria Lucchetti, which raises the stock and sells cuts from their farm butcher shop in Collazzone.

Cheese Farms

Some of Umbria’s best artisan cheeses are made by Rita and Francesco Rossi near Cascia, but I have recently fallen in love with Diego Calcabrina’s goat cheese, made with his tiny herd at the foot of Montefalco. Il Secondo Altopiano outside of Orvieto is also known for its amazing artisan goat cheeses, and Walter Facchini near Sigillo in the Monte Cucco Park has a variety of wonderful pecorino sheep cheeses.

Herbs, Jams, Saffron, and Other Special Things

A special mention to one of my favorite farms in Umbria, Zafferano e Dintorni, in the breathtaking Valnerina along the Nera river. Marta and her family (21m 30s) began with an orchard, then added saffron and medicinal herbs, and now have a number of excellent jams and preserves, herbal teas, and other goodies available to taste and purchase at their family farm right next to the San Felice di Narco church.




Farm Tours

So, yes, you can definitely go commando and just show up at the farms listed above for a walk around and tastings. That said, many of these spots are not easy to find, the hosts speak little if any English, and they don’t have a staff…so if they are busy with chores or simply not home, you may be out of luck.

By far the best way to tour Umbria’s farms are with a local guide on a farm tour. This solves all of the logistical hitches in one fell swoop: you don’t have to worry about navigating the confusing country roads, you have a translator and interpreter by your side, and your visit is arranged in advance, so the family knows you are coming and can spend some time showing you around. You can also often have a farm meal during your visit, or a cooking demonstration or lesson.

Two of the best farm tours around are those offered by Alessandra at Discovering Umbria and Jennifer at Life…Italian Style. I have been sending guests to both for years, and everyone has come away raving about their wonderful experience.

farm tours umbria

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!


Events In & Near Assisi, September 2016

Have you read Adam Grant’s work on procrastination? No? Well, to recap, there is a bell curve relationship between procrastination and creativity. Those who complete tasks immediately aren’t very creative, because they usually go with their first idea which is often not the best. Those who never complete tasks are also not very creative, because they spend their entire lives eating Cheetos and binging on Netflix. But then there’s a big sweet spot in between filled by those who procrastinate just enough to allow the creative juices to flow and the big ideas to take form. These are the “original thinkers”, and this is the magic land where we all want to live.

All this to say that those of you who think that the reason it took me four years from having the idea to throw up a quick monthly post listing events in and around Assisi to executing that idea is because I’m a lazy S.O.B. are wrong. I’m an “original thinker”.

So there.


Events In & Near Assisi, September 2016

**A note: there are, of course, dozens more events in addition to those I list below. I selected these based on their interest for those who may not speak Italian, quality, and personal experience. If you think I missed something good, please leave your suggestions in a comment below!

 By Jeffrey Bruno from New York City, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Special Events

Pope Francis – Assisi (September 21)

This may be either a reason to visit or a reason to stay away, depending upon your views and tolerance for crowds. Either way, The Man in the Tall Hat is coming to town to mark the International Day of Peace (or International Day of Prayer for Peace) by meeting with leaders of the world’s most important religions. His Holiness will land by helicopter in Santa Maria degli Angeli, and then proceed by motorcade to the Basilica of Saint Francis. If you are hoping for a peek at the pope, try waiting along the road running from Santa Maria to Assisi between 11 and 11:30 am, or his public address at the ceremony beginning at 5:15 pm in the Piazza Inferiore di San Francesco.

 Photo by Michela Simoncini via Flickr

Food and Wine

Festa della Cipolla -Cannara (September 1 to 11; closed the 5th)

I have called this the Uber-Sagra in the past, and it remains both the biggest and onioniest food festival around. September is a great month for food in Umbria – the mushrooms are in season, the grapes are picked, and the tomatoes are bottled up – and it’s still warm enough in the evenings to sit outside at a sagra and savor the authentic atmosphere (read: plastic cutlery and loud music). There are a bunch of food festivals around in September, but if you have to do one, do this one.


Cantine Aperte in Vendemmia – Wineries across Umbria (September 11)

Cantine Aperte is a huge winery festival held in late May during which producers across Italy open their doors to the public with special tastings, meals, concerts, and events. It is, quite frankly, a bit of a madhouse and in recent years rather than just wander from winery to winery – which was the original concept when the event was first created – I have chosen a single cantina to hang out at for the day, usually based on the event they were offering and the price. Cantine Aperte in Vendemmia is its quieter younger sibling, an open winery event held just one day in the fall when the harvest is in. The fewer numbers of wineries that participate and the limited fanfare make this a less of a scene and the perfect way to visit a number of area producers. This year two wineries I like, SAIO and Terre Margaritelli, are both participating, among others. For the full list, check here:


Enologico – Montefalco (September 16-18)

Montefalco is one of my favorite hilltowns in Umbria, home to my favorite restaurant and Umbria’s flagship Sagrantino wine. You can enjoy both during this weekend dedicated to Sagrantino, with tastings of both the regular and sweet passito paired with savory dishes, chocolate, and even cigars. There are also concerts, themed meals, events in area wineries, and guided hikes and bikes through the surrounding countryside. You’ll have to wade through the program in Italian, but it’s worth the effort:

sagra musicale

Culture and Music

Sagra Musicale Umbra – Towns across Umbria (September 8 – 18)

This is one of the region’s music festivals that I list among the best, and not only for the concerts. The venues are often just as much of a draw as the music, and many musicians play in churches, abbeys, and palazzi generally closed to the public. The larger orchestral concerts are held in the Perugia’s historic Morlacchi Theater and Saint Francis’ Basilica in Assisi, but check out the soloists in spots like the Museum of Saint Francis in Montefalco or Abbey of San Nicolò in San Gemini. For a full program and ticket prices, you can take a look at the official website here:


Stagione Lirica Sperimentale – Spoleto and other locations (September 9 – 25)

Spoleto is famed for its Festival dei Due Mondi, a global gathering of music, theater, and dance each July, but its excellent Experimental Opera Company is less known. That’s a shame, because if you like opera (like I secretly do), they put on quality productions that are often just enough off-kilter to be interesting; this year they are staging Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”. You can see schedules and information on the website at and purchase tickets through Ticket Italia (

Photo by Harry Wood via Flickr

Historic Festivals

Giostra della Quintana – Foligno (September 1 – 18)

Umbria is awash with historic festivals, most set in the Middle Ages around the time the local saints – Francis, Claire, Benedict, and Valentine, to name just a few – put this region on the map. Foligno’s Giostra della Quintana in September instead evokes the Baroque 1600’s, with a jousting tournament done in elaborate period costumes, elegant banquet dinners, pageants, parades, and drum corps, and a parallel Segni Barocchi festival celebrating the music and culture of that period, all of which relatively undiscovered by tourists. The high point of this sumptuous festival is the solemn procession and blessing of the horses the evening before the tournament. Check Quintana events at and the Segni Barocchi program here:

Photo by Alex Barrow via Flickr


Mercanti in Piazza – Foligno (September 10th)

An antique, artisan, and used market held the 2nd Saturday of each month from sunrise to sunset in the center of Foligno.


Mercantino dell’Antico – Perugia (September 11th)

Perugia’s monthly antique market is held the 2nd Sunday of each month in Piazza della Libertà at the far end of the main corso through the historic center. You can find antique furniture and decor, art, clothing, and accessories.


L’Antico….. fa Arte – Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi (September 11th)

Assisi’s tiny antique market is worth a stroll if you happen to be in town the second Sunday of the month. There is a small group of tables hawking antique treasures and gewgaws in the piazza along the side of the basilica in Santa Maria degli Angeli, located in the valley below Assisi.


City Vintage – Perugia ( September 9 – 11)

I went to this fun vintage market last year, and had a ball. Lots of great fashion and accessories, alongside vinyl, decor, and lots of rockabilly tattooed ladies. It’s held at he Frontone Gardens, so take a stroll along Corso Cavour to check out the great shops and restaurants in this hip neighborhood of Perugia’s centro storico.



Of Flowers and Bees, Butterflies and Dreams: Il Lavandeto di Assisi

We’re back with our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable! The theme this month is “Bug”, and you can blame any of my fellow writers for this, including Laura Thayer, Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, or Michele Fabio. Any of them. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

Italy Blogging Roundtable


Follow your dream, they say. They say it in commencement speeches. They say it on Oprah. They say it on Instagram, superimposed on romantic photos of footprints on the beach stretching to the distant sunset.

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Yeah, well. As anyone who has actually followed a dream knows, it is a hell of a lot of work…much more than one would presume from the idyllic kitten posters and wrist tats. And sometimes it doesn’t pan out, or it pans out only halfway, or it pans out much, much later than what your business plan suggested.


Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

But sometimes it does work out. Sometimes you’re just an office employee in Umbria who has a passion for plants – lavender and other herbs, to be specific – and you up and decide more than a decade ago that you are going to quit that job, rent a plot of land near your house, and plant your first rows of fragrant lavadula. You start with that first crop, and then you plant the next. You sweat under the hot sun, you start adding other herbs and medicinals, you pack up your van each weekend with pots and dried flower sachets to hit the area markets and fairs, and you begin to make a name for yourself.

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Sometimes you even open up a little shop in town, stuffed to the gills with lavender-themed gift and crafts. You start getting your husband excited about your side hustle, and he eventually quits his job to help you in the fields and greenhouses. You start to stock rare types of basil and strangely colored breeds of sage, and next to the fields you begin to stake out a lovely garden with rose-covered trellises, lush beds of herbs, and even a tiny pond with waterlilies looking as exotic as pineapples in the surrounding Umbrian countryside.

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden


Sometimes you have the grit and vision and patience of Lorena Fastellini, who founded Il Lavandeto di Assisi more than ten years ago. From a small plot of lavender, Il Lavandeto now grows dozens of types of herbs and medicinal plants – including a vast variety of lavender – and has a shop both in Assisi and at the farm. But most people know Il Lavandeto for their lovely garden in the valley below Assisi, where visitors can wander through the herb and flower beds, stroll under the trellis, relax next to the pretty pond, and snap some of the best pictures of Assisi from below against the foreground of deep blue lavender flowers.

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden


I stopped by last week, just after their annual “Festa della Lavanda” was finishing up. For three weekends in June and July, the lavender is at its most colorful and Loreno (with husband Gino), hold a market in their garden and a series of lavender-themed dinners and other events. The Lavandeto buzzes with visitors from across Italy, and is filled with stands selling lavender-related crafts. But the morning I pulled in, all was quiet. I spent a few minutes in the garden by myself, savoring the clean scent of lavender and rose, watching the butterflies and honeybees alight on their delicate blossoms, and listening to the plops of fish (or maybe frogs) in the pond. If this is what a dream looks like, then follow away, I say.

A special thanks to Lorena Fastellini, who very generously provided me with bug pictures to fit the theme of this month when it became clear that I had neither the skill nor the equipment to take them myself. You can visit their garden and greenhouse on Via dei Laghetti in Castelnuovo di Assisi, or their shop in the center of Assisi at Viale Guglielmo Marconi, 1c right next to the Giovanni Paolo II parking lot near the Basilica.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!


Lake Trasimeno with Kids: Five Suggestions for a Family-Friendly Visit

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable theme this month is “Five”, to celebrate our 5 years of gathering around the table for a virtual chat and drink. Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

Italy Blogging Roundtable

Dreamy Lake Trasimeno, located in Umbria but hugging the border of neighboring Tuscany, is the perfect destination for traveling families who need to strike that delicate holiday balance between water fun and sports (for the kids) and cuisine and culture (for the grown ups). The lake itself is ringed with family-friendly beaches and parks, a leisurely walking and biking trail, and casual restaurants and pizzerias. Further up in the surrounding hills, more active (and older) families can take advantage of a number of scenic walking trails, visit pretty Medieval lakeside villages, and sample some of the area’s excellent wine and olive oil.

Photo by Maurizio Zanetti via Flickr

Photo by Maurizio Zanetti via Flickr

For a special day in the Trasimeno area focused specifically on the kids, here are a few suggestions for the most fun-packed spots and activities guaranteed to keep the little ones occupied the adults relaxed:

Sualzo Beach
Passignano sul Trasimeno

Perhaps the best kitted out beach for a day on the lake is this long stretch near Passignano. With a nice mix of sandy shore and grassy, shaded park, Sualzo has rental chairs and umbrellas, a playground, pool, restaurant, and refreshment stand. For the more active families, there is a beach volley ball court and canoes, paddle-boats, and bikes available for rental. On weekend evenings, the place gets hopping with a DJ or live music far into the wee hours. If you have your choice of where to stop for a day at the beach, this is probably your best bet.

Fishing Trips with the Cooperativo Pescatori di Trasimeno
San Feliciano

With the beaches lining the lake, and the resort feel of the villages perched on its shores, it’s easy to forget that for hundreds—if not thousands—of years, the people of this area survived almost primarily by fishing. Though there are not that many fishermen left, those few who do continue to live off the water do so through the Lake Trasimeno Fishermen’s Cooperative, which is based in San Feliciano. For kids (and adults) who would like to try their hand at the traditional fishing techniques that the locals have used since time immemorial, the Cooperative organizes day trips on the water with a flat-bottomed wooden boat, an assortment of nets and lines, and a local expert to reveal where the fish are biting.

Photo by Roberto Taddeo via Flickr

Photo by Roberto Taddeo via Flickr

Water Park: Parco Acquatico Tavernelle

This water park is perfect for a family looking for splish-splashy fun in the sun. With three pools (swimming, diving, and wading), a jacuzzi, three fabulous waterslides for the older kids, and a separate kiddie area for toddlers who need some pint-sized slides and shallow water, there are thrills for the whole family. You’ll need to bring your own suit and towel, but the pool has caps (required), goggles, and sundry other pool gear for purchase. You can rent an umbrella and loungers in the vast, grassy surrounding park, or grab a shady spot under some trees and spread out. There is an excellent self-service restaurant and refreshment stand, or you can bring your own picnic supplies.

Autodromo dell’Umbria
Magione, Loc. Bacanella

Vroom, vroom! Sure, art and culture. Nature, too. But for a real treat for your motor-loving kids who need a break from all the bucolic sights around Lake Trasimeno, consider a day at the races. The Magione autodrome is a family-friendly sized facility hosting both auto (ranging from NASCAR to antique cars) and motorcycle races on its 2.5 kilometer circuit most weekends. It may not be the most educational day of your vacation, but chances are your kids will remember it as the most fun. For a race schedule (in Italian), check their website.

Photo by Coloriamoicieli via Instagram

Photo by Coloriamoicieli via Instagram

Coloriamo i Cieli
Castiglione del Lago

For a few days spanning the end of April and the beginning of May, the skies around Castiglione become crowded with brightly colored kites, as kite enthusiasts from across the globe gather to fly their creations over Lake Trasimeno. Located at the former airport, the festival has workshops, entertainment, refreshments, games, and lots of booths were visitors can buy the most basic to the most elaborate kites of their own to try their hand at flying. Co-sponsored by a number of environmental organizations, the festival is thick with fun kid-friendly activities promoting conservation and recycling, art projects focused on local flora and fauna, and a number of nature walks, bikes, and horse-back rides.

Five Best Towns on Lake Trasimeno

Passignano sul Trasimeno

One of the most popular villages along the lakeshore, Passignano has a Medieval castle at its head and a pretty beach and park at its feet, both fun stops for traveling kids. Their “Palio delle Barche” festival in July, when locals in period dress race through town toting boats on their shoulders, is raucous and memorable.

San Feliciano

Quiet San Feliciano harks back to the lake’s roots and a fishing culture and economy, and is one of the few spots along the shore where visitors can spot fishermen heading out in their traditional flat-bottomed wooden boats or hand-mending their nets.


This Medieval village perched on a hilltop south of the lake offers beautiful views over the lake and surrounding countryside, and an iconic “small Italian town” vibe of locals leisurely making their way between the town’s three historic piazze to shop, mingle, and gossip.


Tiny Montecolognola, near the more industrial town of Magione, is perched on the summit of an olive grove-covered hill, and has a pretty castle, a parish church decorated with frescoes spanning from the 14th to the 16th century, and gorgeous views over the lake.

Castiglione del Lago

Neatly laid out on a tongue of land sticking out into Lake Trasimeno, Castiglione’s beautiful views, picturesque castle, excellent restaurants and shops, and resort town vibe make it one of the more popular destinations for travellers to the lake.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!


For the Birds: The Lake Alviano WWF Oasis

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable takes on the theme of “sweet” this month! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michelle Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

I have, of late, discovered the small nugget of joy that is birdwatching. To be honest, what I do can hardly be called by that name. I rarely correctly identify a species—indeed, I rarely see a bird if it’s not pointed out to me by a companion. I have a hard time maneuvering binoculars, and forget about photography. By the time I’ve chosen the right exposure and focus, the flock has long migrated to Africa.


Photo by Battitoriso via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Battitoriso via Wikimedia Commons


The Lake Alviano WWF Oasis

But the silence and pace are a welcome respite from my loud, fast life, so I find myself more and more frequently retreating for a few hours to one of the number of natural bird sanctuaries around Umbria. My favorite, the WWF Oasis of Alviano in the southern part of Umbria, was hit hard by a devastating flood two years ago and my heart broke when I heard about the incredible damage to the park and its infrastructure. So when they put out the call for volunteers to come and lend a hand rebuilding, I signed right up.

Lake Alviano Umbria Italy

Photo by Il Cantore via Wikimedia Commons

The Alviano Oasis is one of the WWF’s largest, extending 900 hectares along the manmade Alviano Lake, formed with the 1960 damming of the Tiber River for a hydroelectric plant. The area had already been an established stop for thousands of migratory birds each year, but with the formation of the vast lake and surrounding wetland, the importance of the resulting ecosystem became such that in 1978 the area became a natural reserve and in 1990 was taken over by the WWF.

Lago di Alviano Umbria Italy

Photo by Ziegler175 via Wikimedia Commons

There are four kilometers of walkways and hiking paths circling the lake and marsh, broken up by bird blinds and towers. Here skilled (and, ahem, lucky) birders can spot over a hundred species, including brightly plumed kingfishers, great crested grebes, herons, cormorants, bitterns, and falcons. The area is also lush with aquatic plants and the amphibians that call them home.

Birdwatching Umbria Italy

Photo by Marco Ilari via Wikimedia Commons

Repairing the Damage

When I went to lend a hand on the first gorgeously sunny Sunday of spring last year, I was expecting scenes of destruction and despair. Instead, I found that though much of the park infrastructure had been badly damaged (the oasis also lost two of their three horses in the flood), reconstruction efforts were going well and spirits were high with both the staff there directing the work and the hearty group of volunteers.

Alviano Umbria Italy

We worked on clearing the paths, rebuilding walkways, cleaning out the blinds and towers, and repairing fencing. Ours was just one in months of volunteer weekends, and it was so heartening to see the mixed group of locals and lovers of the oasis from further afield working together to get this unique area in shape to be reopened for the 2013 season. Indeed, just a few weeks later the Alviano Oasis was able to open its gates to birding enthusiasts again (though there is still work to be done), just in time for the first spring migration.

Birdwatching in Umbria Italy

Photo by Mediamenta via Wikimedia Commons

Visiting the Oasis

The Alviano Oasis is open to the public 10 am to sunset from September 1st to May 31st (best times for birding are October/November and April/May). The entrance to the Oasis is at Madonna del Porto (Guardea) along the Alviano Scalo-Baschi road. For more information, email or call 333/7576283.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!


Christmas Markets in Umbria: A New Tradition

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is talking about traditions this month! Take a look at posts by Jessica Spiegel, Gloria, and Alexandra Korey. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

Italy Blogging Roundtable


I have to admit that I’m not completely sold on the whole Christmas market thing. An import from northern Italy—which, one presumes, imported it from the Alpine villages across its borders—these picturesque seasonal markets, composed of a number of small booths where artisans and artists hawk their wares, are starting to pop up more and more during the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays in piazzas across Umbria.

Christmas market Perugia Umbria

Christmas market Perugia Umbria


Unfortunately, a number I’ve visited have been disappointments…just a handful of booths, or poorly organized, or largely forgettable items for sale: Umbria is obviously still in the embryonic phase of its holiday market tradition.

Christmas market Perugia Umbria



There are two exceptions to this largely insipid pool: Assisi’s pretty market the first weekend of December and Perugia’s large market which takes over the whole of the Rocca Paolina for the month of December.

Christmas market Perugia Umbria


The Rocca is a fascinating place to wander through anytime—the remains of the medieval cityscape perfectly conserved beneath the modern streets of Perugia above—but is particularly suited to a meandering market, with booths tucked away in the various alleyways and niches which make up the brick and stone underground warren. The booths ranged from ceramics and leather goods, to handmade toys and accessories. There were a number of vintage clothing and jewelry sellers and a great selection of fun items for kids.

Christmas market Perugia Umbria


The biggest selling point—aside from the dramatic setting and number of sellers—was the range of prices. You can easily find a number of unique stocking stuffers for under €20, up to more expensive leather bags and coats. I’m especially heartened each year by the number of local artisans with handmade crafts and food, always something I am happy to spend my (limited) Christmas budget on.

Christmas Market Perugia Umbria


Unfortunately I’ve never snapped pictures when visiting the market, so a big thanks to Gigi Bettin from Via di Francesco for pinch hitting for me and loaning me some shots!

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!


Italy Roundtable: Partytime at Assisi’s Calendimaggio

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is talking about community this month! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, and Gloria. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.


Assisi– with its iconic Basilica of Saint Francis, picturesque twisting stone alleyways, and breathtaking views over the surrounding olive grove-covered hills–is not known for its nightlife. The atmosphere of this beautiful and stately hilltown is staid and spiritual, lending itself more to contemplative walks and quiet cappuccinos than bacchanal excess and nocturnal partying.

That is, except for those three days (and nights) a year when Assisi really lets her hair down. For the past 50 plus years, Saint Francis’ hometown sheds its normal air of peace and brotherly love to spend the first Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of May locked in intense competition as the Parte de Sopra and the Parte de Sotto put on elaborate processions, scenes of medieval life, and concerts with period music as they compete for the Palio, judged by a panel of three experts, one specialized in history, one in theater and the arts, and one in music.

Virtually everyone who lives in Assisi – and many locals who have since moved away but make a yearly pilgrimage during the days leading up to Calendimaggio – participates in this community-run festival, from building sets and sewing costumes, to acting in the Medieval scenes, to singing in the choir, to going around town each evening to light the many torches illuminating the streets (yes, there is a special group of guys who are specialized in the torches). In a town in which only about 1,000 people currently live in the historic center, almost 2,000 routinely participate in some way in the festival, which brings the town together in both solidarity and rivalry like no other event.

The festival—currently shortlisted for UNESCO World Heritage recognition—is seen best from the bleacher seats in the main piazza (tickets available in the tourist information office); Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons are filled with processions (Thursday is marked by the keys to the city being ceremoniously handed over by the Mayor to the Master of Ceremonies for the three days of festivities; Friday the two Parti compete in crossbow and Medieval games; Saturday afternoon is the theatrical procession. Perhaps the most spectacular of the three days of festivities is Saturday night when fire and pyrotechnics play a large part of the show.). On Thursday and Friday nights the scenes of Medieval life which each Parte organize in their respective areas of the town are open only to the judges, but can be seen by the public projected on screens in the main piazza.

These are magical days when flags and banners hang from each window, a taverna (temporary restaurant) is bustling to serve hungry festival-goers under the Piazza del Comune, costumed theatrical processions, crossbow tournaments, feats of physical strength, Medieval choirs with historic instrumental accompaniment, and dancing go far into the night…indeed, on Saturday the rowdiness flows to dawn, when the verdict from the three judges is announced and the winning Parte literally dances in the streets (And piazzas. And fountains.).

These photos of past editions of Calendimaggio are courtesy of Via di Francesco.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!


Umbria’s Surreal Ideal City: La Scarzuola

“Are you elastic?”

It’s a strange way to begin a tour, and our guide’s question gives me pause. I would like to think I am—aside from issues about which no moral adult could have any flexibility, like the appalling pairing of french fries with mayonnaise—but exactly how elastic does one have to be to appreciate the surreal, allegorical, esoteric “Ideal City” of 20th century Milanese architect Tomaso Buzzi, La Scarzuola?

Quite a bit, it turns out, as a visit to this mind-bending “theatrical complex”—as Buzzi defined it—with its adjoining sacred and profane “cities” which together form a vast architectural allegory for the physical and existential journey through life is a trip down a rabbit hole, transporting visitors from the bucolic hills on the Umbrian-Tuscan border to a parallel universe; both dream and nightmare, both whimsical and forbidding.

An oasis for gathering, for study, for work, for music and silence, for Greatness and Misery, for a social life and a hermitic life of contemplation in solitude, reign of Fantasy, of Fairy Tales, of Myths, of Echoes and Reflections outside of time and space so that each can find here echoes of the past and hints of the future
–Tomaso Buzzi on La Scarzuola

As do so many spots in Umbria, La Scarzuola has roots in Franciscan history and lore. The Saint is said to have built himself a humble hut on this remote hillside using a indigenous marsh plant called la scarza, from which derives Scarzuola. In 1218, Francis planted a rose and laurel bush near his shelter and a spring miraculously began to flow (still considered sacred by the locals); slowly a Franciscan community grew and a monastery was eventually built in the early 1400s—the surviving fresco in the apse is one of the few which pictures Francis levitating—which remained a property of of the Franciscan Order until the end of the 19th century.

Buzzi, an eminent architect, artist, and influential cultural figure in Italy since the 1920s and 1930s, purchased the monastery in 1957 and soon after began his most visionary project to date: the transformation of the site into his “Ideal City”. Beginning with the restoration of the existing monastery and the trasformation of the convent gardens into an intricate series of hedge mazes, dotted with statuary, fountains, and exotic plants—what he regarded as the Sacred City—Buzzi moved on to build the more fantastical (and impenetrable) “Profane City”.

The architect viewed his opus as an autobiographical work—his Città Buzziana–and to visit this theatrical mash-up of Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, and Mannerist structures built around a natural amphitheater in the hillside and adorned with bizarre and fantastical reliefs, astronomical symbols, and quotations is like a stroll through his right-brain stream of consciousness sketchbook. Seven theaters, an Acropolis, the Tower of Babel, the Arch of Triumph, meditation grottoes, pagan temples, and a monumental nude all vie for space in this Escher-esque cityscape, where staircases lead nowhere, proportion is warped, buildings are meticulously rendered outside yet a warren of empty chambers inside, and the apparent randomness masks layers of meaning and symbolism.

The site would be a mere curiosity were it not for the quirky yet fascinating guide, Buzzi’s nephew Marco Solari. Solari inherited the site from his uncle upon the latter’s death in 1981 and has devoted his life to completing the work based on prints left by Buzzi. Who better to lead visitors through this convoluted and complicated monument, with its decadent jumble of contrasting architecture and philosophies?

Solari has put his soul into La Scarzuola and his joy at peeling back the layers of allegory and symbolism which permeate every stone pillar, grotesque relief, and geometrical calculation–and adding his own colorful interpretation, full of energetic forces and third eyes and mysticism—is what brings this jarring yet somehow harmonious jumble to life. Peppering his rapid-fire, eccentric-at-times-bordering-on-bizarre presentation with his contagious cackle, Solari weaves a story of art and architecture with one of magic and miracle…leaving some incredulous, and some—like myself—simply charmed.

The difference, I suspect, is in how elastic you are.


Once More with Feeling: Finding Magic in Narni the Second Time Around

There’s something about me and Narni and magic.

The last time I went to Narni, I went specifically looking for magic. I didn’t find it in the town, but in the enchanting (enchanted?) countryside nearby. This time, I went to Narni simply looking for a fun time. And guess what: magic.

The three flags of Narni's three "terzieri" by Massimo Ciancuti

Umbria is chock-full of festivals in the spring, many of them with a medieval bent. Narni is no exception, with its Corsa all’Anello, one of the longest running of them all—a full three weeks from late April through mid-May of processions, jousting, period concerts and exhibitions, taverns, and a market (all in costume). All this with the participation of upwards of 700 volunteers (in a town with less than 2,000 inhabitants in the historic center) and months of preparation, rehearsals, and—not least—equestrian training for the riders (and their steeds) competing in the jousting competition. I had never been to the Corsa all’Anello, but this year the historic race fell on a school holiday, so I packed up my sons and we headed to the south of Umbria for the day.

For an atmospheric meal, look for the "hosteria" signs! by Massimo Ciancuti

The festival culminates in a competition where riders thread a lance through a suspended ring (the challenge begins using a ring about 10 centimeters in diameter, and continues with progressively smaller rings until riders reach the final elimination with a 3 centimeter adversary); this main event is held in a stadium below the center of Narni. However, on the feast day of San Giovanale (May 3rd), a smaller competition takes places in Narni’s historic Piazza dei Priori in the center of town as part of the celebrations honoring Narni’s patron saint (and first bishop).

It's all about horns and drums at the Corsa (by Massimo Ciancuti)

The day began with High Mass, and let me tell you that if you are going to see one Mass this year, or this decade, or perhaps in your entire life, it should be High Mass on the 3rd of May in Narni. When I say the whole town is there, I mean the whole town. The bishop in full regalia, the cathedral decked out in banners, the three costumed processions representing the three competing areas of Narni (called Terzieri: Fraporta, Mezule, and Santa Maria) arriving from separate directions beating their drums and sounding their trumpets, the citizens—from small children to lapdogs—sporting the colors of their Terziere. The people-watching is fabulous, both outside the church inside inside, where the bishop’s homily is accompanied by the low-level, benign rumble of hundreds of people exchanging enthusiastic greetings sottovoce and asking after the health of their mothers/fathers/cousins/grandchildren.

Even the spectators are picturesque at the Corsa (by Massimo Ciancuti)

Mass ends in a reverse order procession: costumed corps, religious officials (carrying a bust of San Giovanale), city officials, a brass band, and citizens bringing up the rear. We all troop into the main piazza (just a block away), the bishop mounts a medieval stone pulpit to utter those 27 words he missed during his hour-long sermon in the Cathedral, and the town breaks for lunch. Each Terziere sets up a medieval-themed tavern for the duration of the festival, so we headed to Fraporta’s hosteria (my sons and I had already picked our teams: Leonardo rooted for Fraporta, Nicolò for Santa Maria, and I—on the purely esthetic criteria of their chic black and white costumes—cheered on Mezule) for a bite of lunch. The place was hopping (the patron saint’s day is a holiday in Narni, so shops and offices were closed and the town crowded into the three taverns for their midday meal), but the food was good and fast and in just an hour we were taking a post-prandial stroll to kill time until the race later in the afternoon.

Fraporta enters the Piazza (by Massimo Ciancuti)

Santa Maria enters the Piazza (by Massimo Ciancuti)

Mezule enters the Piazza (see what I mean about the chic costumes?) by Massimo Ciancuti

Luckily we ended our walk with a gelato in Narni’s main piazza, because we noticed the crowd already starting to take their places along the railing lining the course two hours before the competition was scheduled to start. Taking my cue, I grabbed a free spot and sent the boys to hunt down kerchiefs from each of the Terziere (Mostly to get them out of my hair. A word to the wise: the race is fun, but the waiting for it to start while you stand along a railing being alernately pushed, jostled, and whined at by your seven-year-old is decidedly not fun.), and then we watched as the crowd swelled, riders and their horses filed into the piazza–followed by the three Terzieri’s costumed processions—and excitement began to mount.

The adversary. So small, and yet so big... (by Massimo Ciancuti)

Missed. Damn. (by Massimo Ciancuti)

Soon the competition was on, and we were absorbed in the action as each rider made an attempt to thread his lance through the ring. As the minutes passed, riders were eliminated until it was down to the smallest ring and the last five riders. The first four missed, and we waiting as the fifth and last rider from Santa Maria made his run. If he managed to get the ring, his Terziere would be the winner. Otherwise, the final five would all make another attempt. The crowd held its collective breath as the rider galloped toward the ring and….WON!! The piazza went wild (and Nicolò with it, as he picked the winning team) and trumpets and drums and voices filled the town with celebration. I looked around at the joyful, celebrating town in the teeming medieval square under the perfect blue sky and wanted to bottle up the moment to keep forever. And that, my friends, is magic.

The magical moment of victory!! (by Massimo Ciancuti)

A huge and very special thanks to the gifted Massimo Ciancuti for the use of his gorgeous photos from the Corsa all’Anello Storica.


Of Darkness and Light: Narni Sotterranea

I have never seen Auschwitz.

I have never visited the Slavery Museum, or walked through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, or sat quietly at Little Bighorn. I turn my face from these places and all that they represent not because I am a Pollyanna, but because I am the opposite. I find that I despair more and more readily over the lengths to which humans will go to inflict unthinkable suffering on their fellows. I find–especially since I’ve become a parent–that these sites steeped in violence and death affect me almost too deeply. I see myself there; I picture myself watching my sons, my family, my friends slip away and can feel a wave of hopeless desperation wash over me. I have become a sunflower, seeking out light and warmth when I travel and leaving the dark corners to others.

It took me a long time to take the Narni Underground (known as Narni Sotterranea) tour. This series of underground rooms and passages beneath the historic center of Narni was brought to light by a group of amateur spelunkers just a few decades ago–having been covered over and forgotten through the centuries as the imposing convent and church of San Domenico was built above– and the dedication (read: bullheadedness) of a local volunteer cultural association was the driving force behind their excavation and partial restoration and subsequent access to the public.

The visit begins lightheartedly enough in the gardens outside the monastery walls, as the guide explains how local speleologists in the 1970s had a hunch that something interesting might lie beneath San Domenico, and asked a local farmer permission to knock through the wall adjoining his hen coop. What they found there was at once surprising and important: an 8th century paleo-Christian church, with surviving frescoes around the apse and along the walls. The chapel is undergoing constant further excavations and restorations, but the paintings and apse are in excellent condition.

From here, visitors move into the adjoining room which holds part of a Roman cistern and is probably the remains of a Roman domus and then to the rooms which were the reason I had shied away from Narni Underground for so long.

The Inquisition. There are two rooms which are testiment to this infamous period in European history: a windowless, stone tribunal used for questioning and torture, and a small, graffitied cell which held the imprisoned. While in the tribunal, I was distracted from dwelling too heavily on the unthinkable acts which were performed here by the incredibly engaging cloak-and-dagger (with a little bit of serendipity) tale of how a team of researchers were able to track down documents referring to the trials held here through municipal and Vatican archives and, strangely enough, papers kept at Dublin’s Trinity College. The hall was still ominous (the torch lighting and reconstructed medieval torture devices didn’t exactly lighten the mood), but being the bookish research-loving nerd that I am, I was fascinated by the torturous (no pun intended) path which led to the discovery of what exactly this hall had been used as.

The second room with ties to the Inquisition is the small cell leading into the tribunal, which turned out to have an even more fascinating backstory than the tribunal itself. Completely covered in graffiti scratches, the cell was home to a soldier accused of ties to the Freemasons (the Catholic church has long considered Freemasons a threat to the Church and under the Inquisition members were charged as heretics) and his etchings and drawings (made with a paste of brick dust and urine) can be interpreted as coded messages using Masonic iconography and secret codes. Anyone who has been fascinated with the pop fiction thrillers of late and their heavy use of cryptography, keys, symbols, and medieval Christian history will be especially captivated by this real-life example of the use of these to communicate banned and secret messages. Again, the intellectual appeal of the unravelling of the historical mystery took my mind off the misery of those who were held—sometimes for years—in this tiny, dank cell.

Is the Narni Underground worth a visit? Absolutely. But despite the charming story of its discovery, the pleasant surprise of the ancient chapel and its frescoes, and the admirable research that went into uncovering its secret uses, I was relieved to return to the light.

To book a visit to Narni Sotterranea, contact them at +39 3391041645 or +39 744722292 or check their website