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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com or call 333/7576283.
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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.
The last time I went to Narni, I went specifically looking for magic. I didn’t find it in the town, but in the enchanting (enchanted?) countryside nearby. This time, I went to Narni simply looking for a fun time. And guess what: magic.
The three flags of Narni's three "terzieri" by Massimo Ciancuti
Umbria is chock-full of festivals in the spring, many of them with a medieval bent. Narni is no exception, with its Corsa all’Anello, one of the longest running of them all—a full three weeks from late April through mid-May of processions, jousting, period concerts and exhibitions, taverns, and a market (all in costume). All this with the participation of upwards of 700 volunteers (in a town with less than 2,000 inhabitants in the historic center) and months of preparation, rehearsals, and—not least—equestrian training for the riders (and their steeds) competing in the jousting competition. I had never been to the Corsa all’Anello, but this year the historic race fell on a school holiday, so I packed up my sons and we headed to the south of Umbria for the day.
For an atmospheric meal, look for the "hosteria" signs! by Massimo Ciancuti
The festival culminates in a competition where riders thread a lance through a suspended ring (the challenge begins using a ring about 10 centimeters in diameter, and continues with progressively smaller rings until riders reach the final elimination with a 3 centimeter adversary); this main event is held in a stadium below the center of Narni. However, on the feast day of San Giovanale (May 3rd), a smaller competition takes places in Narni’s historic Piazza dei Priori in the center of town as part of the celebrations honoring Narni’s patron saint (and first bishop).
It's all about horns and drums at the Corsa (by Massimo Ciancuti)
The day began with High Mass, and let me tell you that if you are going to see one Mass this year, or this decade, or perhaps in your entire life, it should be High Mass on the 3rd of May in Narni. When I say the whole town is there, I mean the whole town. The bishop in full regalia, the cathedral decked out in banners, the three costumed processions representing the three competing areas of Narni (called Terzieri: Fraporta, Mezule, and Santa Maria) arriving from separate directions beating their drums and sounding their trumpets, the citizens—from small children to lapdogs—sporting the colors of their Terziere. The people-watching is fabulous, both outside the church inside inside, where the bishop’s homily is accompanied by the low-level, benign rumble of hundreds of people exchanging enthusiastic greetings sottovoce and asking after the health of their mothers/fathers/cousins/grandchildren.
Even the spectators are picturesque at the Corsa (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Mass ends in a reverse order procession: costumed corps, religious officials (carrying a bust of San Giovanale), city officials, a brass band, and citizens bringing up the rear. We all troop into the main piazza (just a block away), the bishop mounts a medieval stone pulpit to utter those 27 words he missed during his hour-long sermon in the Cathedral, and the town breaks for lunch. Each Terziere sets up a medieval-themed tavern for the duration of the festival, so we headed to Fraporta’s hosteria (my sons and I had already picked our teams: Leonardo rooted for Fraporta, Nicolò for Santa Maria, and I—on the purely esthetic criteria of their chic black and white costumes—cheered on Mezule) for a bite of lunch. The place was hopping (the patron saint’s day is a holiday in Narni, so shops and offices were closed and the town crowded into the three taverns for their midday meal), but the food was good and fast and in just an hour we were taking a post-prandial stroll to kill time until the race later in the afternoon.
Fraporta enters the Piazza (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Santa Maria enters the Piazza (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Mezule enters the Piazza (see what I mean about the chic costumes?) by Massimo Ciancuti
Luckily we ended our walk with a gelato in Narni’s main piazza, because we noticed the crowd already starting to take their places along the railing lining the course two hours before the competition was scheduled to start. Taking my cue, I grabbed a free spot and sent the boys to hunt down kerchiefs from each of the Terziere (Mostly to get them out of my hair. A word to the wise: the race is fun, but the waiting for it to start while you stand along a railing being alernately pushed, jostled, and whined at by your seven-year-old is decidedly not fun.), and then we watched as the crowd swelled, riders and their horses filed into the piazza–followed by the three Terzieri’s costumed processions—and excitement began to mount.
The adversary. So small, and yet so big... (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Missed. Damn. (by Massimo Ciancuti)
Soon the competition was on, and we were absorbed in the action as each rider made an attempt to thread his lance through the ring. As the minutes passed, riders were eliminated until it was down to the smallest ring and the last five riders. The first four missed, and we waiting as the fifth and last rider from Santa Maria made his run. If he managed to get the ring, his Terziere would be the winner. Otherwise, the final five would all make another attempt. The crowd held its collective breath as the rider galloped toward the ring and….WON!! The piazza went wild (and Nicolò with it, as he picked the winning team) and trumpets and drums and voices filled the town with celebration. I looked around at the joyful, celebrating town in the teeming medieval square under the perfect blue sky and wanted to bottle up the moment to keep forever. And that, my friends, is magic.
The magical moment of victory!! (by Massimo Ciancuti)
A huge and very special thanks to the gifted Massimo Ciancuti for the use of his gorgeous photos from the Corsa all’Anello Storica.
I have never visited the Slavery Museum, or walked through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, or sat quietly at Little Bighorn. I turn my face from these places and all that they represent not because I am a Pollyanna, but because I am the opposite. I find that I despair more and more readily over the lengths to which humans will go to inflict unthinkable suffering on their fellows. I find–especially since I’ve become a parent–that these sites steeped in violence and death affect me almost too deeply. I see myself there; I picture myself watching my sons, my family, my friends slip away and can feel a wave of hopeless desperation wash over me. I have become a sunflower, seeking out light and warmth when I travel and leaving the dark corners to others.
It took me a long time to take the Narni Underground (known as Narni Sotterranea) tour. This series of underground rooms and passages beneath the historic center of Narni was brought to light by a group of amateur spelunkers just a few decades ago–having been covered over and forgotten through the centuries as the imposing convent and church of San Domenico was built above– and the dedication (read: bullheadedness) of a local volunteer cultural association was the driving force behind their excavation and partial restoration and subsequent access to the public.
The visit begins lightheartedly enough in the gardens outside the monastery walls, as the guide explains how local speleologists in the 1970s had a hunch that something interesting might lie beneath San Domenico, and asked a local farmer permission to knock through the wall adjoining his hen coop. What they found there was at once surprising and important: an 8th century paleo-Christian church, with surviving frescoes around the apse and along the walls. The chapel is undergoing constant further excavations and restorations, but the paintings and apse are in excellent condition.
From here, visitors move into the adjoining room which holds part of a Roman cistern and is probably the remains of a Roman domus and then to the rooms which were the reason I had shied away from Narni Underground for so long.
The Inquisition. There are two rooms which are testiment to this infamous period in European history: a windowless, stone tribunal used for questioning and torture, and a small, graffitied cell which held the imprisoned. While in the tribunal, I was distracted from dwelling too heavily on the unthinkable acts which were performed here by the incredibly engaging cloak-and-dagger (with a little bit of serendipity) tale of how a team of researchers were able to track down documents referring to the trials held here through municipal and Vatican archives and, strangely enough, papers kept at Dublin’s Trinity College. The hall was still ominous (the torch lighting and reconstructed medieval torture devices didn’t exactly lighten the mood), but being the bookish research-loving nerd that I am, I was fascinated by the torturous (no pun intended) path which led to the discovery of what exactly this hall had been used as.
The second room with ties to the Inquisition is the small cell leading into the tribunal, which turned out to have an even more fascinating backstory than the tribunal itself. Completely covered in graffiti scratches, the cell was home to a soldier accused of ties to the Freemasons (the Catholic church has long considered Freemasons a threat to the Church and under the Inquisition members were charged as heretics) and his etchings and drawings (made with a paste of brick dust and urine) can be interpreted as coded messages using Masonic iconography and secret codes. Anyone who has been fascinated with the pop fiction thrillers of late and their heavy use of cryptography, keys, symbols, and medieval Christian history will be especially captivated by this real-life example of the use of these to communicate banned and secret messages. Again, the intellectual appeal of the unravelling of the historical mystery took my mind off the misery of those who were held—sometimes for years—in this tiny, dank cell.
Is the Narni Underground worth a visit? Absolutely. But despite the charming story of its discovery, the pleasant surprise of the ancient chapel and its frescoes, and the admirable research that went into uncovering its secret uses, I was relieved to return to the light.
To book a visit to Narni Sotterranea, contact them at +39 3391041645 or +39 744722292 or check their website www.narnisotterranea.it
It was bound to happen sooner or later. It was inevitable, really. It was, in truth, just a matter of time.
Yes, a blogging blank. Because, lo and behold, creativity doesn’t really deal well with an editorial calendar. At least not my creativity. My creativity is much like Christmas fruitcake: it requires a long ripening period, preferibly wrapped up in soft cloth and resting in a warm, dark place steeped in alcohol. And the final result is often palatable to just a few loyal connoisseurs.
But here I am, finding myself locked into a schedule directing me to share Perugia with the world this week and this week only and as I turn my gaze on this dynamic, bustling, elegant town (in many ways the social and cultural epicenter of the region), I can’t think of one damned thing to say about it.
Which is when I go to Plan B, aka “beg for suggestions from Mr. X”. Mr. X is my male counterpart, in that we are both Umbrian by adoption, with a passion for exploring and writing about this region, and a tendency toward bad hair days. Mr. X is not my male counterpart in that he never seems to come up with a blank. In fact, a panicked appeal for topic suggestions predictably results in a long, somewhat entertaining list of possible sites, events, towns, and/or local personalities to dissect. This time was no different, as I knew immediately that I had hit the jackpot with the very first on his list of suggestions. (Though the second did give me pause, as it was “San Pietro and its historic organ. I used to know the organist. He’s a drag queen now.” Huh. Now that would have been an interesting blog post.)
Mr. X reminded me of something I had been meaning to stop by and take a gander at for about two years: the immense Gothic stained glass window in Perugia’s monumental—yet unfinished—church of San Domenico. The window, dated 1411, had been out of public view during a painstaking eleven year-long restoration, and was unveiled with great ceremony in late 2009. It is the second largest stained glass window in Italy (the largest is in Milan’s cathedral) and by all accounts spectacular. I had a plan.
Well. Let me just say that I am not one of those women with a hang-up about size. In fact, sometimes an instrument on the small side, delicate and relatively soft, is just what you need. I am, of course, referring to toothbrushes. On the other hand, sometimes the perfect tool to get the job done must be big, thick, and eye-catching. I am, of course, referring to telephoto lenses. But when it comes to stained glass windows, there’s nothing like a towering 23 meter-high colossus, with almost fifty individual intricately-rendered panels and a kaleidoscope of newly-cleaned jewel-toned portraits to stop you in your tracks and, tragically, make you forget you have your camera in your purse.
Notable not only for its extraordinary size and workmanship, but also for the relatively unusual (in Italy) lack of an imposing rose window at the top in lieu of a Tree of Life design motif, the window is divided into a series of five levels of panels in the lower portion, reflecting the iconography of the Domenican Order (Pipe down. I Googled it.). The lowest tells the story of Saint James of Compostela, patron saint of pilgrims and particularly well represented in the Gothic period, and the next rows depicts six female saints (Lucy, Dorothy, Catherine of Alexandria, Mary Magdalene, Margaret of Hungary, and Agnes) beneath—ahem–six male Christian thinkers and philosophers (Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome beside the Domenican pope Benedict XI who, as a side note, was killed during a visit to Perugia in 1304 by poisoned figs. That’s how the Perugini rolled back then.)
The ill-fated Pope Benedict XI at the far right.
Directly above, three of Perugia’s patron saints are included (Costanzo, Ercolano, and Lorenzo) with the martyrs Stephen, Peter of Verona, and Dominic. The final panel is, of course, dedicated to the Annunciation with the Virgin Mary and Archangel Gabriel at the center, flanked by the apostles James, Paul, John, and Peter.
The top-most portion of the window (which, by the way, is best seen with opera glasses. Remember, you are pretty much staring up five stories by the time you get to the top.) is crowded with headshots of A-list evangelists, archangels, prophets, angels and cherubs, and, in the delicate snowflake-shaped top center, Christ.
The interior of San Domenico is relatively spartan, so the perfect backdrop for the barrage of color and light from its stunning window. Just don’t become so caught in the throes of Stendhal Syndrome that you forget to take pictures. Believe me. Because you may not have a Mr. X who can save your skin on that, as well.
Because yesterday I discovered that Spoleto is home to Umbria’s insane.
Mental instability is the only possible explanation as to why someone, some eighty years ago, took a gander at Spoleto’s main thoroughfare–a torturous and steep two-lane road of death–and said, “Listen up, folks. I’m thinking we should run a go kart race right down this bad boy. I’m thinking that the only rules should be that the karts have three bare metal ball bearing wheels, a strip of tire rubber hanging off the back for a foot brake, and one guy who pushes and one who steers.”
Tension at the starting line.
The top of the line high tech starting horn. I hope Calzolari got his car battery back.
This is not why Spoleto is full of nuts. Some eighty years ago, when that suggestion was tossed out, the folks standing around all said, “Hey, that sounds like a great idea! Let’s make sure the course includes at least three hairpin curves and a couple of straightaways with at least a 42 degree incline. And let’s all gather at the most dangerous spot along the route, hoping to witness a spill.”
The cockpit. Note the tire rubber strip of brake tacked on to the back.
My kids wanted to hijack this and join the race. It didn’t happen.
This is not why Spoleto is a cuckoo nest. Some eighty years ago when that suggestion was tossed out and the folks standing around thought they’d invented fun, a whole mess of teams showed up with their rickety karts, pushed them off with a sprint, and proceeded to barrel down the center of Spoleto at breakneck speed in the hopes of bringing home a large ham and glory.
And they’re off!
This is not why Spoleto should be cordoned off from the rest of the rational world. The reason is this: eighty years on, they are still doing all of the above. (Except the ham part. Reports were vague, but I gathered that the prize this year was gift certificates. And glory, of course.)
Spoleto’s annual go kart race (called vaporetti here, though go kart is fetchingly translated go kart in the rest of Italy) has been held off and on since the 1930s, with pauses for various wars—international and local. The latest hiatus ended in 2012 after six years—in large part because the event scored an important new sponsor: the local blood bank. I’m just going to let the irony of that sit here without comment–and thus the craziness was able to commence with renewed vigor.
Fender benders happen.
Trash talk happens.
Indeed, more than sixty teams registered for the race this year and shot down the Spoleto hillside in their modern, souped-up vaporetti. No longer a simple board fitted with wheels and steered by rope, these hot rods are sheathed in fiberglass bodies plastered with their sponsors’ slogans (one has to wonder at the marketing strategy which led the local acrylic nails salon to sponsor a go kart race, but it could work), and include steering wheels and some basic safety gear (um, helmets. And some elbow pads.), though the original package of three ball bearing wheels, a rubber strip brake, and two person teams remains unchanged.
Luckily, the vaporetti set off in groups of three or four, which means that spectators can witness teams push off at the starting line (complete with running commentary and car battery-powered start horn), and then meander their way down the 1.5 kilometer course watching the groups of teams whiz past on the hills and (we all secretly hope) crash and burn in the curves, until reaching the finish line, where the crowd lingers to watch them fly through the final stretch. Competition is fierce but friendly, and it is clear that this is a deeply homespun event organized by and for the Spoletini. One of the highpoints is the running commentary, almost impenetrable with its local dialect, insider jokes, and wine-loosened language. The bits I could understand were hilarious.
Does the vaporetti race have any redeeming cultural or historic value? No, probably not. But it’s fun as heck, a kid-pleaser galore (my sons were distressed to find out that minors are not allowed to race), and a light-hearted peek behind Spoleto’s impenetrably staid facade into its crazy local traditions.
Crazy being, of course, the operative word.
A special thanks to Spoleto natives Marina and Armando Lanoce, who are crazy enough to invite friends to the race, but not crazy enough to participate!
The Medieval vibe in Umbria can be so overwhelming that it’s easy to forget that this region is just a stone’s throw away from Rome and was a thriving part of the Roman Empire for centuries before aesthetic of the Middle Ages began to dominate art and architecture. There are a number of well-preserved Roman monuments and sites–and lots of ruins requiring a bit of imagination to piece back together–across Umbria (most notably at Carsulae, Spello, and Assisi), which for Roman history buffs is always a thrill.
I, however, am not a Roman history buff. I’ve always found Roman architecture to be magnificent yet aseptic, devoid of much sense of humanity and so remote and unapproachable that it leaves me impressed yet unmoved. Roman sites come to life when I see them in some sort of context, and I can begin to picture them as they were two millennia ago, teeming with life and reference points for a vibrant community and culture.
I am reminded of this every time I see a performance at Spoleto’s pretty Teatro Romano, built in the 1st century AD and restored in the 1950s. This intimate outdoor Roman theater is used for concerts and dance performances during the annual Spoleto Festival, which is why I’ve spent the past two evenings reflecting on this telescopic sense of history—at once feeling so removed yet so immediate–against the background of Schumann and Verdi.
It’s fun to sit before the performance (A side note: either the Romans had much tougher bums, or they had the foresight to bring cushions. Those stone stands are hard on the derrière.) and watch the theater slowly fill with chatting people–dressed to the nines, as I’m sure they were two thousand years ago—buzzing with expectation and settling in to their seats.
As the sun sets, the sky fills with swallows who sweep over the heads of the orchestra and crowd– lightening the staid atmosphere with their cheeky calls, as I’m sure they did two thousand years ago–and the orchestra begins to tune their instruments, calling to attention the audience.
During the evening, suddenly it all seems to click and the place comes to life…not only for that moment, but for the past millennia of moments. Thousands of years of music and joy, couples holding hands, mothers chiding squirming children, husbands adjusting shawls over the shoulders of their aging wives, and people coming together as a community and culture.
A community and culture we hope will still be gathering at the Teatro Romano two thousand years from now.
The Teatro Romano is just one venue hosting performances during the Spoleto Festival, which takes place in theaters throughout the town. To participate in an evening at the Roman theater, check the program online.
I don’t need a certificate to show I’m a little off. My kids remind me this every time I ask them to perform an undesirable task. “Eat asparagus?!? You’re crazy!” “Clean my room?!? Are you crazy?” “Ok, so I forgot my homework. You don’t have to get all crazy!” The fact that I’m one fry short of a Happy Meal is common knowledge in my house.
But to those of you who don’t have the good fortune of blood-relatives both driving you to your destination and declaring your arrival daily, perhaps you feel the need to officially document your mental state.
Gubbio, an austerely beautiful Medieval outpost in northern Umbria, has long held the dubious honor of being home to a populace known for not having all their screws in tight, if you know what I mean. Known as Iguvium in Roman times, legend has it that Gubbio was just that perfect not-to-close-not-too-far distance away from Rome for the city to export their lunatics there. It was the Australia of the Roman Empire, so to speak. And if you have any doubt about the lingering effects of this batty blood line on its citizens today, a visit during their annual Corsa dei Ceri is enough to convince.
During this symbolic race on the first Sunday each May, three teams devoted to S. Ubaldo (the patron saint of Gubbio), S. Giorgio, and S. Antonio charge through cheering (somewhat drunken) throngs through the steep streets of the town and up the mountain, from Palazzo dei Consoli to the Basilica of S. Ubaldo above the town. Each team carries a towering cero: a statue of their saint mounted on a wooden octagonal base, which is 4 meters tall and weighs almost 300 kilograms. The sheer force of the teams, the teeming masses, the deafening cries of the onlookers…it was enough to convince the Pope. While Gubbio was still part of the Papal State, it found itself with 19 hospitals in town, but no mental asylum. City officials sent a delegation to the Vatican to ask permission to found an asylum and the Holy Father–who had just recently participated in the famed Corsa dei Ceri–responded, “Just close the town gates with the inhabitants inside and you’ve got yourself a madhouse.”
The story may be anecdotal, but the reputation has stuck. Still today a quick visit to the town is enough to have yourself certified bonkers. Just head to the 16th century Fontana dei Matti–Madmen’s Fountain–on Borgo Bargello and run around its circular base three times (opinions differ if it matters if one goes clockwise or counter-clockwise). Finish with a quick splash in the fountain, and then head to the nearby souvenir shop where they will fill out your official Patente da Matto (Madman’s License) for you to take home and proudly frame.
If I could change one thing about Italy–wait, who am I kidding? I love living in Italy, but given the chance I would change roughly 14,000 things about it. But for argument’s sake, let’s choose one thing—it would be the ethnic food situation. Italy doesn’t do ethnic food. It doesn’t even do inter-regional food that well. If I go to my vegetable guy at the outdoor market and ask for black cabbage, I get a look and a, “Black cabbage?!? I don’t sell that. That’s what they use to make ribollita in Tuscany!” as if Tuscany were a remote province in southern China and not the bordering region roughly a 20 minute drive away. In Umbria, you eat Umbrian food. Just like in Puglia you eat Puglian food and in Liguria you eat Ligurian food. And if you want anything outside of those gastro-geographical borders, you need to book a flight.
Part of me is happy about that. I believe very strongly in eating mindfully (it’s about at new age-y as I get). Our food doesn’t inhabit a cultural and historical vacuum; our food is part of a larger context of land and people, the ebb and flow of economies and conquering armies, and often there’s a side helping of religious traditions on our plates, as well. Eating locally in a country like Italy—which has a rich gastronomic history and culture currently under attack by the invasion of fast food and imported counterfeits—is both a pleasure and a civic duty.
Of all the foods that weave a seamless tapestry between culture, history, and land, wine is the most illustrative. To really get a sense of the importance of millenia of viticulture and vinification on the landscape, art and literature, and cuisine of Umbria, Italy, and the entire Mediterranean basin, a visit to Torgiano’s excellent Wine Museum is de rigueur.
Though founded in the mid-1970s, careful upkeep and curation have made this far from a dusty, arid storehouse of wine related bric-à-brac, but more a compelling walk through the history of wine in all its thousand facets: gastronomic, economic, social, ceremonial, and medicinal. The museum, housed in the the 17th-century Palazzo Graziani-Baglioni six kilometers from Perugia, displays a vast array of items from archeological artefacts, artworks, and ethnographic collections—all aimed at illustrating the history and civilization of wine from its import from the Middle East, through the Etruscan and Roman cultures, until the Industrial Revolution.
Perhaps the most charming section of the museum is the vaulted stone and brick basement holding the antique wine cellar, with its collection of reconstructed antique grape presses, immense vats, and other wine-making equipment, many of which still used in Umbrian cantinas until just a few decades ago. One can just picture a winsome Sofia Loren-esque country maid, with her skirt hitched up and a come-hither look on her face, as she stomped through grape must and captured the heart of a roomful of farmboys.
I had expected an academic vibe to this museum, but instead found it captured the light-hearted, human side of wine–and drinking. From the collection of “lover’s cups”—used to woo one with wine—to the animal-shaped flasks, to the pieces dedicated to the ubiquitous Dionysian Myth, to the hip contemporary ceramic and graphics sections, at the Wine Museum I was reminded of how such a humble chemical reaction (we’re just talking about fermented grape juice, after all) can produce something so central to an entire civilization’s history and culture.
That said…um, I’m really craving a samosa right now.
One of my favorite wineries is right down the road: Terre Margaritelli. Stop in for a tasting!
The late afternoon view from the Convento del Sacro Spreco
The thing about magic is that when you go looking for it, it doesn’t show. And then, when you’ve let your guard down, it sneaks up on you in the most unexpected places.
I went to Narni expecting magic. Perhaps even needing it a little bit. I had long heard the story of Narni being the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ mythical, magical land of Narnia—though, admittedly, the author never visited this dramatically positioned hill town himself. Overlooking the Nera River to the north (where the remains of the monumental Roman Ponte d’Augusto, so picturesque that a rendering of it by impressionist Corot now hangs in the Louvre, still make passersby draw breath) and the craggy peaks of the Valnerina to the west, Narni held the promise of bringing to life the enchantment and adventure that I so loved from Lewis’ epic, and that I had recently rediscovered in reading the novels to my sons.
The view of the Nera River valley, ca 1826.
Narni was lovely. It was. It has a fine historic center, a fetching pinacoteca with a Ghirlandaio and a Gozzoli, either of which worth the ticket price, and Narni Sotteranea, perhaps one of the most remarkable underground tours in Umbria. Plus, it had lots of lion imagery and a homegrown Lucy (the mummified saintly remains creepily displayed in the Duomo) and lush, striking countryside very much reminiscent of Lewis’ novels. But for some reason, it just didn’t click.
Perhaps part of that is the fault of Narni Scalo, a disheartening post-war industrial sprawl, complete with electro-carbon plant, which has gradually filled the valley below Narni itself (take a gander at Corot’s 1826 Le pont de Narni for an idea of paradise lost) and is the first sight to meet visitors. Perhaps part of that is the fault of my own inflated expectations for this unassuming, though attractive, town. Regardless, I left somewhat deflated and at a bit of a loss.
The cloister of the Franciscan convent in the fading light.
And then, magic. Instead of turning north towards home, I headed south on a whim in search of the Convento del Sacro Speco, a Franciscan site about 20 kilometers outside of Narni. I’m not sure why…I’m generally more of an art and architecture (with heavy doses of food and wine) kind of traveller, not a religion and spirituality sort of traveller, but this secluded sanctuary—founded in 1213 by Saint Francis but rebuilt in the 1400s—somehow compelled me, along with the legend of an ailing Francis once being soothed by an angel playing violin music here. The Saint often used a nearby cave to pray in solitude, and many of the friars who live here now do so according to the saint’s First Rule of silence and contemplation.
Parts of the sanctuary are closed to the public.
Not the friar–strongly resembling Disney’s badgeresque Tuck–who met me at the gate, and, taking my face in both hands, looked me kindly in the eyes and asked, “Daughter, why are you here? What are you looking for?” Which gave me pause, because I wasn’t quite sure of the answer myself. I stammered something inane about wanting to take a walk around the grounds, and he stepped back with a smile, easing my discomfort with a welcoming, “Stay as long as you like. This is your home.”
I didn’t stay as long as I would have liked. It was late afternoon and the sun was already low over the forested hills, but I slowly wandered through the miniature stone convent, with its tiny chapel and creche-like cloister. I paused for awhile in the inner courtyard to drink in the stunning view, from the village of Calvi perched on the mountains to the south, across the plain with its handkerchief-sized fields, woods, and stone farmhouses, to Narni to the north (and rued the fact that my camera doesn’t have a panoramic setting).
Climbing the path through the oak forest to the oratory at the top of the hill, the silence was broken only by songbirds and the sound of my own footsteps through the dry leaves. Through the glass doors of the oratory, the simple, rough chapel inside was evocative of the spirit of the Saint and so much more authentic than many of the more visited Franciscan sites in Umbria. I sat for a few minutes at the mouth of Francis’ cave—now sheltering an altar used for outdoor celebrations—and felt myself meld into the woods around, the darkening sky, the crisp evening air, the softly rustling leaves. My reverie was broken by the sound of the bells from the sanctuary below, calling visitors to Mass and me back to reality. As others headed towards the chapel, I made for the gate knowing that my spirit had been filled already and I had found, in this casual side-trip, what I had been seeking. Just a little bit of magic.
To visit the convent, set your navigator on the village of S. Urbano and follow the signs.
Opening hours are 9:30 – 20:00
Masses are Mon-Sat 11:00 ; Sunday and holidays 11:00 and 18:00