Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
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The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Bevagna

I am quickly coming to realize that this little quest of mine to visit all the Umbrian villages listed by I Borghi Più Belli dell’Italia (to see how the whole crazy idea came to be, read here) is a total win-win (-win) situation.  I either get to visit a town I don’t know well and discover its charm (win-Bettona) or have an excuse to spend half a day in a town I already know and love (win-Bevagna) …or finally make it to a town I have only heard about but never actually seen (win-Arrone.  No, I haven’t made it to Arrone yet, but it will be a win when I do.  I just know it.)

Right now is the perfect window in time to visit Bevagna, I town I already know and love, and this is why:  remember that girl in high school who was nice and everything but nobody really paid much attention to her Freshman and Sophomore years, but suddenly and inexplicably Junior year all the cute guys suddenly seemed to discover her and she completely flowered under the attention but was still very approachable and just wandered around bewildered by her sudden luck but by Senior year had dumped her friends and fallen in with the popular crowd and become one of those stuck up bitches who always have the right jeans and spend all their time in the bathroom combing their hair and talking smack?  Well, Bevagna is in her Junior year.

I remember ten years ago I had to beg people to visit Bevagna.  “It’s lovely, it has a Roman mosaic in this lady’s garage, it has the prettiest piazza around, it’s flat (a big selling point in a region where the vast majority of towns are built on a 60 degree slope),” I would say.  Now I have guests who pop out of their car upon arrival and announce that they want to visit Assisi, Perugia, and Bevagna.  Which can mean only one thing: Rick Steves.  But, hey, if it took the biggest jock in school to get the rest of the class to sit up and pay attention, I certainly can’t begrudge him.  Now the town has dusted herself off, prettied herself up, organized herself a bit better, and welcomes her new admirers with a friendly, if slightly baffled, smile.  She’s known all along what a gem of a town she is.

If you can, begin your visit by entering the city through the southern city gate, over a small bridge spanning the Clitunno River…to the left you can still see the public fountain where women once came to do their wash.

The bridge over the rushing Clitunno River at the southern gate is a perfect starting point.

Once you have crossed the river, stop for a morning cappuccino at one of the outdoor tables in this sleepy piazza (One reason you know Bevagna hasn’t yet sold its soul to the popular crowd:  this is a town that still completely shuts down at 1 pm.  You need to get there first thing in the morning or you’ll find the place deserted and the all shutters closed half an hour after you start poking around.  I was there at 1 pm and it was as if the wizard behind the curtain suddenly threw a big switch at exactly 1:10 and the town shut off.) and watch the locals come and go.

From there, walk one block to Piazza Silvestri, Bevagna’s pride and joy.  And rightly so—this delightful little piazza is home to two of Umbria’s loveliest Romanesque churches: the small, serious, hewn stone San Silvestro (take a peek at the crypt under the raised presbytery, typical of 12th century churches) and the larger, lighter, soaring San Michele Archangelo.

The interior of the church of San Silvestro uses columns with Egyptian-style papyrus leaves on their capitals--a bit of an historical mystery.

San Michele Archangelo--if you look closely at the stone work around the central door you can see clusters of grapes growing on vines. Bevagna is smack in the middle of historic wine country.

Begin your peramble down Corso Matteotti, where you can see Bevagna’s delightful Junior year mix of hipster sidewalk cafés, small historic workshops, artsy antique stores, and commercial establishments of the variety which serve real residents: butcher, baker, candlestick maker (or, more precisely, beauty salon)– glaringly missing from the more touristed hill towns in Umbria, tragically. (Another reason you know Bevagna hasn’t yet sold its soul to the popular crowd: they still have the completely charming and almost extinct Small Town Unofficial Municipal Council sitting in ancient wooden folding chairs along the Corso, holding forth loudly and passionately about sports, politics, and any passing female under the age of 82.)

Bevagna's Small Town Unofficial Municipal Council meetings are held on the Corso every day from dawn to dusk, excluding meal times. And the seating is assigned.

About halfway up the Corso, stop in at the Museo di Bevagna to get two tickets: one will get you into the museum itself, the Roman mosaic, and the Francesco Torti Theater.  A guide from the museum escorts you to the second two, so you can first take a quick look at the museum.  The staircase is lined with remnants of stone tablets and random pieces of sculpture mortared right into the stucco…a fetching show of creativity which apparently exhausted the artistic vein of the museum architects, as what follows is a pretty anonymous series of square white rooms with not much to engage a visitor artistically.

It's not a good sign when the most interesting thing in the museum is the stairwell. That said, the archaeological collection is currently closed to the public, so maybe there's still hope.

When you come back downstairs, your guide will walk you the two blocks to the marine-themed mosaic (now in a neat well-lit room with a raised walkway and explanatory tablets.  When I first visited years ago, it was the floor of someone’s garage with a big iron padlock on the door, the key to which the nice lady across the street would toss into your hand from her second floor window, with the admonition to remember to turn off the light when you were done and leave the key in the door…she’d come down later and get it.  Ah, that was Bevagna her Freshman year.)  Afterwards, follow your guide for a peek into the pretty little 19th century Torti Theater, with its red velvet seats, gilded boxes, and richly decorated ceiling.

Bevagna's surprise gilded lily of a theater.

Whew, lunchtime.  Now’s when you really realize Bevagna is edging into her Senior year, as the town is chock-full of great places to eat.  For a casual, hip atmosphere try La Bottega di Assù on Corso Matteotti, which is part bistrot/part bookstore/part art boutique all crammed into a space the size of my bedroom.  For something more upscale, but worth every penny, dine at one of Umbria’s hottest restaurants right now: Redibis.  Offering nouveau-Umbrian cuisine in a section of Bevagna’s restored Roman amphitheater, this unforgettable restaurant is on every foodie’s A-list. Otherwise, for traditional Umbrian cuisine head to Piazza Garibaldi, lined on both sides with the outdoor tables of the trattorias which have popped up like mushrooms over the past few years.

Spend a little time after lunch wandering the backstreets of Bevagna, making sure not to miss the curving Vicolo del Amphiteatro, tree-lined Piazza Garibaldi with its medieval city gate (Porta Cannara) and bricked-in facade of a Roman temple, and quiet cloister of the Dominican convent (now converted into a hotel).  At 3:00 (or 2:30. or 3:30.  It changes month by month.) head back to the Museo di Bevagna for your second ticket, the one which will get you entrance into a number of historically accurate workshops where artisans demonstrate their crafts using methods and tools from the middle ages.  I prefer by far to see these workshops during Bevagna’s wonderful medieval festival–Il Mercato delle Gaite–in June, but if you can’t make it then this is a good substitute.  To hear more about these amazing workshops, see here.

Once you’ve seen the mestieri, your visit is done.  Stay for just a few more minutes to have a relaxing glass of wine (you are in the heart of Sagrantino country) at La Bottega di Piazza Onofri on Corso Matteotti, and toast to Bevagna.  You had the amazing luck to meet her during her magical Junior year moment—here’s to hoping it stretches out for years and she remains forever lovely and warm, just as she is now.

A pretty view over Bevagna from the Santuario della Madonna delle Grazie outside of town.

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Postcards from Umbria: Spoleto’s Spectacular Sunset

I like balance and symmetry. It gives me a sense of calm when things come full circle, as if some bigger, universal equilibrium has been restored and the galaxy can once again continue ticking away like a precise cosmic clock.

DSCN1970

I am going to be spending the next two weeks in a total culture immersion at the Spoleto Festival, now in its 56th year and, like many who reach middle age, starting to dab its toes into social media. There are a group of travel and culture bloggers who are guests of the festival, and I am one of them….peeking into the corners of Spoleto and behind the curtains of its most important annual event.

Duomo, Spoleto, Umbria, Italy

It seemed especially fitting for me to kick off this experience by stopping by the city’s spectacular Duomo last night at sunset—hands down one of the best spots to enjoy dusk in all of Umbria (other sunset picks: Lake Trasimeno and the Rocca Maggiore in Assisi).

Copyright Armando Lanoce

When the sun lowers over Spoleto, it illuminates the magnificent 12th century Romanesque facade–with its shimmering golden Byzantine-style mosaic of Christ Enthroned with Mary and John the Baptist topping an elegant Renaissance portico—with a pulsating orange glow that makes you stop and wish you had a better camera. The sky deepens to a deep cartoonish azure and the swallows begin to circle the soaring belltower as if sent in by central casting. It is truly one of those magical moments that stops you in your tracks.

Spoleto, Umbria, Italy

And the folks at the Spoleto Festival know it, which is why the traditional closing concert is held dramatically at dusk in the Piazza del Duomo on the last evening of the Festival. I will be there, two weeks from now, on the final night of what promises to be a memorable 15 days, enjoying my last sunset and remembering my first.

Copyright Spoleto Festival

Restoring balance and symmetry to the universe.

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The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria: Trevi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Italy Roundtable: The Fall Museum Crawl

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

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

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

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

Fall

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

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

 

Casa Museo di Palazzo Sorbello (Perugia)

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

Palazzo Sorbello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Museo della Memoria (Assisi)

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

Museo della Memoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Museo della Canapa (Sant’Anatolia di Narco)

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

Museo della Canapa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Postcards from Umbria: I Primi d’Italia

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

Jars of red-hot nduja.

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

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

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

Olives in all shapes and sizes.

Umbria holds its own in pork charcuterie.

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

Perhaps the most picturesque booth, with its giant loaf.

 

A fun display of pasta shapes from every Italian region.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

The small restaurant oozes personality.

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

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

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

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

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

We had these biscotti, but without the hat.

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

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

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

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

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

My Favorite Work of Art in Italy

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

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

Surprise! Betcha didn't see this coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it could have gone differently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Italy Roundtable: Driving in Italy

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

Driving in Italy

When “Driving in Italy” was selected as this month’s theme, I have to admit I was a bit nonplussed. Not because I don’t think it’s an interesting topic—indeed, rivers of ink have been spilt discussing the ins and outs of navigating the Bel Paese’s much less Bel Traffico—but because I simply couldn’t think of anything new or compelling to add.

My history of driving here has more or less followed the typical expat trajectory: driving with my American license for the one year legal grace period after relocating, letting those first twelve months pass without getting around to applying for my Italian license, driving for an—ahem—undisclosed period practically illegally, finding religion (in my case, through the nascient sense of responsibility that comes with pregnancy), finally sitting down to study the daunting Italian Driving School Manual (roughly the size of the Manhattan White Pages) and taking the written exam, passing that and taking the practical exam (my oven was full of bun thus that I had to slide the seat back so far I was working the brake pedal with my tippy-toes), passing that and officially becoming a smug licensed driver to all the newly-minted expats who were still back at stage one.

My feeling about driving here is that Italian drivers display roughly the same measure of aggressiveness, attitude, and skill as the Chicago drivers with whom I came of age behind the wheel, the only difference being that they are unlikely to resolve traffic altercations with automatic weapons.

And then I had an inspiration. A creative epiphany. A comic stroke of genius. I would write a haiku about driving in Italy! It would be hilarious. In an ironic hipster sort of way.

Coleridge’s knock at the door arrived in the form of the realization that I’m not smart enough to write a haiku about driving in Italy, ironic or not. (I was so enamored with the idea that I was momentarily tempted to have someone else write the haiku for me. However, after a quick reality check, I decided that though I haven’t signed any sort of contract with my fellow Roundtable bloggers, my gut feeling is that farming out the second post in the series to a ghost writer is smack in the middle of the ethical grey area and would probably speed my inevitable ousting.) So, no haiku.

Serendipity being what it is, however, the same afternoon in which I discovered I am a literary dunderhead I ran into an old friend who told me he’d been spending his evenings in the garage restoring his father’s vintage Vespa. I realized that despite having lived Italy for almost 20 years, I had never driven this icon of Italian culture and history. And, boom, there it was. I was going to drive a Vespa.

I challenge you to look upon this and not smile. It's like a smile machine on two wheels.

I may lack the basics for composing poetry, but I do have access to the basics for driving a Vespa: my friend, Claudia, who rents out bright yellow scooters from her “Vespa Oasis” on the shores of Lake Trasimeno. When I called her up, she said, “Sure! Stop by anytime and I’ll loan you one for the day. You know how to drive a Vespa, right?”

Oh.

Well, a writer can only have so many knocks interrupting the creative flow before she starts to take extreme measures, so I did what was only necessary. I lied.

“Sure! I mean, a long time ago. Long. Probably rusty, but it’s just like riding a bike, right? It’ll come right back to me. A snap. I’ll be fine. No worries. Be there on Monday at nine. Kaythanksbye!”

(Sorry, Claudia. I know you’re only finding out about this now.)

Huh. How hard could it be?

Huh. How hard could it be?

 

It turns out that Claudia is right about checking first with drivers about their experience, because though the average Italian manages to navigate a scooter through Roman traffic whilst smoking, talking on a cell phone, and balancing his entire nuclear family and their weekly grocery purchases on the back with effortless finesse, apparently it is a talent included in the Italian genetic package that the rest of humanity—or, at least, me–lacks. To wit, it’s not as easy as it looks.

Further complicating the matter, when you hop on and buzz out of the Vespa Oasis toward Castiglione del Lago (Luckily I faked it enough to convince Claudia that I was good to go. Sorry, Claudia. I owe you a drink.) you undergo an immediate baptism by fire: the ring road around Lake Trasimeno, which has a heavy, steady traffic flow. After about ten minutes of erratic weaving, sounding the horn instead of the turn signal, braking instead of accelerating, and taking bugs in the teeth (I had forgotten to lower the visor on my helmet and was too terrified to let go with one hand to do it while driving), I turned off at a scenic overpass and realized I had my shoulders up around my ears, my elbows out like chicken wings, and my chin resting on my sternum. This was no fun.

The scenic overlook where I stopped to take stock and rethink my plan of attack.

Luckily, Claudia is not only cautious but also well organized and supplies maps and itineraries. I had envisioned toodling around the perimeter of the lake (the most popular itinerary), but upon further thought realized a) I didn’t really care that much about going around the lake since I’ve already done that drive and b) I was very close to the turn off for Panicale and Paciano, two hilltowns I had never visited and that were along a much quieter country road.

With newly gathered courage, I jauntily flipped down my visor, sounded my horn-uh-put on my turn signal, had a near miss with a Peroni truck (Sorry, Claudia. I’ll make it up to you.), and was off.

It became immediately and dramatically clear that I had chosen the right road. The gently climbing country highway winding its way to Panicale was deserted, so it took me just a few minutes to feel comfortable with my new ride and relax enough to enjoy the lovely countryside and views of the lake below. In fact, I was almost disappointed when I arrived at the city gate leading to Panicale’s pretty piazza less than 15 minutes later. I did need to fill up the old cappuccino tank, however, so I pulled in for a break. And quickly learned two things:

  1. If you are one of those people who frets about blending in, roaring into a quiet, provincial piazza on a shiny Vespa the color of egg yolk with little duckie stickers decorating it and proceding to make it very clear to one and all that you have no effing idea how to put the kickstand up may not be for you.
  2. Old geezers love Vespas. Love them. Crowd around you and regale you with stories of their first Vespas, which leads into stories of their first love, which leads into stories of their subsequent marriage, which leads into stories of their grandchildren, which leads into snapshots being busted out and compared. Which leads to a much longer cappuccino stop than intended.

The short drive between Panicale and Paciano was one of the prettiest, and I was finally relaxed enough to enjoy it.

I finally did break away and continued the short drive along the tree-lined lane to the tiny medieval walled village of Paciano. Map consulting–aided by a quick gelato–ensued, and I decided to dive into the uncharted (for me) territory to the north, trying to make Castiglione del Lago by lunchtime. It was perfect…the hills were just hilly enough and the curves just curvy enough to really start having fun on my trusty Vespa and I began to understand why the scooter has had such staying power over time. The softly undulating countryside (Tuscany is just a few kilometers from here, and the landscape reflects that) is a patchwork of tilled fields, vineyards, and woods and there was almost no traffic as I buzzed through tiny hamlets like Villastrada and Vaiano, Gioiella and Pozzuolo.

Choices, choices. Ah, what the hell...left.

The thrill of the open road.

My frequent stops to snap pictures (and dig the insects out of my cleavage…next time no V-neck t-shirts) meant that I barely made it to Castiglione before it was too late to grab a plate of pasta. I chose an outside table where I could enjoy my lunch while keeping my cheery Vespa in view, and gazed upon it with newfound affection.

“Damn,” I thought. “It sure is lucky that I can’t write a haiku.”

Toodle-oo!

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

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Rebecca as Guest rather than Hostess: Five Fabulous Festivals in Umbria

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million (or, at least, seven) times…there’s no better time to visit an Umbrian town than during their annual festival.

Umbria is chock full of great ones (almost every village has their own), but I was recently asked by the wonderful European travel guide, blog, and community Europe Up Close to pick my five favorites…and it wasn’t easy.

Take a look here to see which made the cut, and consider working in at least one on your next trip to Umbria!