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.
I had, until recently, been living under the false assumption that Gubbio was the town of crazy people in Umbria. That is what I had been told, and I believed it. Until yesterday, that is.
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!
There are words you are not supposed to use in quality travel writing. They are the Banned Words, and you can pretty much guess which ones they are. Gem, especially hidden. Picturesque, or simply stunning. Cozy, charming, and—close cousin—quaint. Off-the-beaten-path. Nestled. Mecca, especially foodie. And nothing must ever boast anything.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty tough to describe Norcia—incidentally, one of my favorite towns in Umbria—without dipping into the Banned Words pot. This hilltown-without-a-hill is, indeed, a hidden gem, picturesquely nestled in the stunning Sibilline mountain peaks. It’s an off-the-beaten-path foodie mecca, and simply oozes (Oops. Another banned word.) charm, with its cozy low buildings and quaint little shops. It also boasts one of the prettiest piazzas in Umbria.
But let’s pretend I didn’t just say all that. Given that a picture is worth a thousand words (Oh. One more rule: avoid overused aphorisms. Sorry.), I’ll show you a bit of Norcia and you can use your own words. I won’t judge you. Unless you use Tuscan. I hate that word.
Boar, boar, every where.
Signs of the Times
Artisanal mule balls. (Not kidding.)
Bunga Bunga cheese. (Not kidding.)
Ahem. Well, yes. This is a family show, so I won't translate these. They're pretty funny, though.
Huh. Peter Rabbit's black sheep cousin.
Food, Glorious Food
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
Never was a room painted happier than this Sol Lewitt work. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)
Spoleto is a mecca for history buffs, the city a mash-up of architectural epochs from the Umbrii through the middle-ages. Strolling through town, you are as likely to have your eye caught by the austere Roman Arch of Drusus as the whimsical 17th century Mascherone Fountain.
But you know what? History, schmistory. Sometimes I get a hankering to see what’s coming next, not what came before, and Spoleto has a unique window into the future, as well. The excellent Palazzo Collicola Arti Visive contemporary art museum, completely renovated in 2010 (and, luckily, with a brand-new website, as the previous version was both graphically stunning and completely impenetrabile), is one of several collections of contemporary art in otherwise artistically stodgy Umbria, and perhaps its best.
Go on, blow on these Calders. You know you want to. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)
The permanent collection (Museo Carandente) on the ground floor houses fifteen rooms of modern and contemporary painting and sculpture, heavy on the Calder (I blew on a couple of mobile sculptures to see them spin and no alarms went off, so go right ahead. You didn’t hear it from me, though.), including scale models and period photographs of his monumental Teodolapio sculpture from 1962, which sits in front of the Spoleto train station, and the Sol Lewitt (I challenge you to stand in the Rainbow Room and not get a silly grin on your face. Try it.).
Unfortunately, the collection is light on explanatory notes; there are few posted in the individual gallery rooms and the map upon entering is a simple postcard with a floor plan. They would be doing themselves a service to invest in more complete descriptions (posted, printed, and in audioguides) so visitors would have a better historical and cultural context for the works. In the meantime, I can just talk at you like a normal person and tell you that it’s a lovely collection—the perfect size for a visit that doesn’t lead to art overdose and happily juxtaposed with the stately Renaissance palazzo with its original cotto floors and painted vaulted ceilings.
Leoncillo's massive ceramics are lovely and unsettling (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)
I was especially charmed by Calder’s lighthearted tiny wire people twisted from champagne cork cages (Yes, I can hear you saying, “But I coulda done that!” Well, chump, you didn’t. Which is why you are now paying €6 to see those who did.) and the beautifully disturbing (or disturbingly beautiful) Leoncilla ceramic works.
The ornate piano nobile upstairs is used to house temporary exhibition–primarily through the summer months–for a real look into the future of art. And don’t miss the works in the courtyard, which are easy to overlook—though the crazy graffiti-art-on-existential-high Santiago Morilla mural is an eye-catcher.
Whoa. This Santiago Morilla will stop you in your tracks. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)
From this maelstrom of color and forms, it’s a bit soothing to step back into the historic stone streets of Spoleto and drink in its past. But a quick, bubbly sip of the future can be had in this stately city, as well. So, drink up.
Looking for more contemporary art in Umbria? Here are some suggestions from Arttrav: Contemporary Art in Umbria
The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.
Cities–like people–have a face they show the world and a hidden, intimate side, where the scars of time and trials are revealed to those who have the patience and sensitivity to look past the surface and discover all the fascinating complexity beneath.
In Orvieto, this metaphor comes to life in a poignantly literal way. This stately town—proud of its outstanding Cathedral, crisp Orvieto Classico wine, and general cosmopolitan vibe—dominates the surrounding undulating countryside from atop the dramatic volcanic stone outcropping it has inhabited on and off since the time of the Etruscans. But to really get a feel for Orvieto and its millenia-long history, more than wander its streets and piazze you need to head underground to visit its caves—more than 1,200 of which honeycomb the cliff below the historic center.
Almost all of these man-made underground caverns and passageways are private property and not open to the public, but the Orvieto Underground tour takes small groups to visit the two which are owned by the city. I had been hearing about this subterranean tour for years and had been curious to check it out, being especially partial to exploring the quirky side of Umbria and unearthing offbeat museums and tours like these. And Orvieto Underground didn’t disappoint.
One of the largest caverns has been used over the centuries as an olive oil mill.
During the hour-long visit, we saw the very first underground tunnelings by the Etruscans in search of water roughly seven centuries before Christ. The precisely cut rectangular wells (with incorporated hand and foot-holds for climbing in and out) and peaked cavern ceilings resembling rooftops (probably remnants of pagan temples) are testimony to the engineering skill and aesthetic sensibility of this still somewhat mysterious people.
After defeating the Etruscans, the Romans sacked the town and Velzna—as the Etruscans called their city–was abandoned until the early middle ages, when the next signs of human life appear underground, as well. As Orvieto began to rebuild at the strategic top of the cliff, its citizens once again found themselved digging out the soft rock beneath their homes in search of water, temperature-controlled storage (the caves maintain an average 12-13° C), and—most picturesquely—pigeon cotes. The walls of these square rooms are pocked by orderly, square pigeon holes and have a small window for the birds to fly in and out during the day. Thus began a tradition of roast pigeon in Orvieto, which you will still find on most menus today.
The pigeons raised in these cotes kept Orvieto fed for centuries.
In the late middle-ages, as the city began to stabilize and prosper, these underground caverns were expanded and converted to also house workshops for the local ceramic production (cooling cisterns and the remains of a kiln can still be found) and quarries to excavate the soft stone to mix as cement (which continued into the early 20th century). One of the biggest caverns was most recently used as an olive oil press, and the massive millstones and presses still on view make it easy to imagine the room crowded with pickers and workers pressing out one of Umbria’s most prized product each fall.
The final cavern of the tour was used as a WWII bomb shelter.
The final cavern of the tour brings visitors to modern Italy, as the bare room ringed with a low bench hewed from the stone was used as a bomb shelter during WWII. Orvieto proper was declared an Open City, thus spared from the most destructive raids, but the valley below was crisscrossed with rail- and road-ways and often the target of both the Allies and retreating Germans. I can’t fathom what it must have been like to sit for hours in the blackness of a cave meters below the ground, hearing the muffled sounds of explosions and the quiet rattle of tiny stones dislodging from the ceiling and walls…hoping desperately that the rock would hold.
Though the digging of further tunnels under modern Orvieto has been banned for years, almost all the palazzi in the center of town still use their private, undergound caverns–in most cases as a cantina—left for them by centuries—if not millenia—of previous inhabitants. Walking through Orvieto now, I know that the facades lining the streets are just the town’s game face…the true soul of the town lies in its secret labyrinth below.
A view over the surrounding countryside from the Orvieto Underground caves.
The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.
The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.
The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.
The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.
The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.
The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.
Museum of Olive Oil Culture in Trevi. Umbria (Copyright Marzia Keller)
Remember when you’d just have a cup of coffee? You didn’t bother yourself with its country of origin and how many times it had been roasted. You just sloshed it boiling hot from the Mr. Coffee and sucked it down along with all the chemicals leaching out of the styrofoam cup it was in.
Remember when you’d just eat a tomato? You didn’t ask yourself about its carbon footprint or whether it was heirloom or hothouse. You just sliced it onto your iceberg lettuce, drowned the whole cabash in Thousand Island, and got on with it.
Remember when you’d just drink some wine? You didn’t hold forth on varietals and terroirs and Super-thises and thats. You just unscrewed that cap on the old Lancer’s bottle and poured with gravitas into two chunky cut-glass goblets and felt very sophisticated.
Before I start sounding like Andy Rooney, let me just be clear that I hold no particular nostalgia for those times. I am a foodie (though I lean less towards murmuring about tannins and undertones over a mellow glass of Sagrantino and more towards a loud, “Damn, that’s crazy good! Pass that bottle back over here a minute.”) and this growing culture of caring about where our food comes from and what it tastes like is just fine with me. I do, however, watch with amusement as wave after wave of ingredients that were once somewhat quotidien show up on the fickle foodie radar to get exalted, examined, and ultimately abandoned for the Next Big Thing by hungry hipsters.
Right now it’s all about olive oil, folks. Friends whom I know for a fact were dressing their salads with generic supermarket corn oil just minutes ago are suddenly armchair experts on cold-pressing and mono-cultures and phytonutrients. Olive oil tastings andgastronomic tours to the mills are all the rage, and travellers seem to be packing less wine and more olive oil in their suitcases for the trip home.
Traditional olive oil dispenser, Trevi, Umbria (Copyright Marzia Keller)
Anyone who loves Umbria as I do couldn’t be anything but thrilled at this trend; olive cultivation and oil production is one of the most fundamental threads running through the historic and economic fabric of this region. And no better place to understand just how important this 2,000 year old culture is than the delightful hilltop town of Trevi.
Museum of Olive Oil Culture
Trevi is a charmer of a village even for wanderers who have no particular interest in olive oil…but for those who do, you’ve hit paydirt. Your first stop should be the small but excellent Museum of Olive Oil Culture in the museum complex of San Francesco (if you stop first at the tourist info office in the main Piazza Mazzini, you can pick up a map and free audio guide of the town). An ecclectic mix of archival photographs, historic farm and mill implements, horticultural explanations–and heart-warmingly old-timey displays like scale models of the town and surrounding hillsides and a life-size diorama of an 18th century mill and kitchen, just the fact that an entire museum dedicated to the culture and history of olive oil exists (and a well-curated one, at that) is testimony to how fundamental this fruit is to the entire region. They offer an audio-guide in English (included in the price of your ticket) which is a must to really enjoy the displays.
Olives from Umbria ready for pressing by olive oil tours www.discoveringumbria.it
Olive Oil Mills
From here the next logical step is to visit an olive oil mill itself and taste what is often referred to as this region’s “liquid gold”. The impressively organized Olive Oil Road lists mills open to the public in each of the five subzones in Umbria; Trevi is included in the Assisi-Spoleto area and I used the listings to visit two local mills. At the first I was greeted by Central Casting’s “Italian Grandmother”, complete with thick specs, flowered housecoat, and carpet slippers…who was mortified to find a visitor on the day they were cleaning out the mill and apologized profusely that I had caught them with things in disorder. She did ask me in for tea and cookies, but I pressed on to the nearby Frantoio Gaudenzi.
As soon as I stepped into their pretty new mill and shop (they’ve been producing oil for 50 years, but recently built a new press along the Via Flaminia in the valley below Trevi), the pungent odor of freshly pressed oil hit me in a wave–setting off the Pavlov slobber common in any olive-oil enthusiast. Stefano, grandson of the founder, showed me the shining modern presses working the heaping mounds of freshly harvested olives (they are pressed within hours of picking) into the bright green, cloudy-thick new oil filling the vats. The Gaudenzis, like many mills, make a variety of olive oils: their basic oil, their higher-end regionally specific oil, an organic variety, and—my favorite—“Fifth Moon”, an oil made exclusively from olives harvested within the fifth moon of the flowering (meaning the month of October). Dribbled over a piece of local, unsalted bread, the fruity smell and flavour of this intriguing oil made me lick my foodie chops.
Freshly pressed olive oil from Umbria by olive oil tours www.discoveringumbria.it
I came away from my visit to Trevi with a feeling of having somehow connected the past to the present to the future. The Roman terracotta urns in the olive museum, the mills churning out oil under the bright October sky, the third generation producer passionately exploring new blends and techniques. Over two thousand years of history condensed into the thin, bright stream of oil soaking my bread and warming my heart.
There are lots of olive oil soaked events in Umbria in the fall and winter–for a complete list, check the program at Frantoi Aperti. Also, I highly recommend the olive oil food tours offered by Dicovering Umbria!