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.
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)
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)
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
- The cross spoke to Francis.
- 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.
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.
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?”
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?
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:
- 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.
- 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.”
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.
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!
It’s that time a year when everyone is all a-flutter about Cantine Aperte, mapping out their favorite wineries and designating drivers and such. This is only as it should be, since the last Sunday in May–when cellars across Umbria throw open their doors to the public–is one of the most anticipated events of the season. And it can be great fun with a little advance planning and the right weather (for a helpful how-to guide for enjoying the day, take a look here).
Unfortunately, family obligations prevent me from participating in the bacchanalian festivities this year (These damned kids…they’ve been coming between me and wine since I got pregnant. Which is ironic, actually, since this whole parenting adventure started quite by accident due an incident involving some atrocious Czech wine in Prague one weekend in November, 2000.) but in keeping with the spirit of the season I wanted to mention a few area vineyards with a particularly high wine/fun ratio.
Some visit wineries because they are true aficionados, but many—if not most—are simply curious about the wine-making process and the culture and people behind it. In short, they are looking for an enjoyable day with some nice swill thrown in. There’s nothing wrong with that (in fact, I count myself amongst those numbers) and if you recognize yourself in this description, here are three wineries that offer something beyond the tasting room and cellar.
A mood setting shot, from the Monte Vibiano cellar.
Mercatello di Marsciano (PG)
Open every day, reservation required
Don’t let the Napa Valley winery on steroids aesthetic of this cantina–with its chic outdoor patio winebar and designer tasting room–fool you. Beneath the Armani suit, Monte Vibiano dons hemp underwear and Birkenstocks.
Monte Vibiano produces both award-winning wines and olive oil.
The first in the world to be certified at zero greenhouse gas emissions according to international standards, the winery at Monte Vibiano boasts a groundbreaking cantina especially fascinating for science buffs. Photovoltaic electricity, biofuel, organic fertilizer, managed forest, albedo roofs, sustainable mobility, and general energy efficiency–no one has more ecological street cred than these folks, and with their award-winning wines have shown that world that the best whites and reds are those tinged with green.
Toodling through the olive groves and vineyards.
But the crown jewel of their eco-bling are the small electric jeeps visitors can use to toodle around the estate. The winery itself sits on the plain, but their olive groves and vineyards cover the picturesque hillsides above and can be reached in a few fun-filled minutes of buzzing up the hill on your souped-up golf carts. After a visit to the grapevines themselves, you can come back and relax in Monte Vibiano’s stunning new wine bar and sample what those vines have to offer.
This small family winery in the plain under Assisi is relatively new: the vineyards are still young and the converted farmhouse housing their modern tasting room was restored in 2005. That said, they already attract their share of visitors both for the quality of their wines and for the warm and welcoming reception of the Mencarelli family, which has gone to great lengths to make their mom-and-pop cantina a destination in itself.
Saio's labels are inspired by the famous arches on Assisi's Basilica di San Francesco.
Aside from the basic tour-and-tasting, Saio offers three unique ways of visiting their winery that combine passion for wine with passion for the outdoors:
From Vine to Glass: An informal, user-friendly vintner course, in which guests learn basic cultivation and pruning techniques along with their tour and tasting, and finish with a certificate declaring them “apprentice wine growers”.
Hiking Among the Vines: From the farmhouse, a 2.5 km walking path (they provide you a map and explanations of each variety of grape) winds its way through the vineyards and olive groves and offers a beautiful vantage point for viewing Assisi perched on the hill above. Finish your preamble back at the starting point with a tasting and chat with the family.
Picnic Among the Vines: Along the walking path, the Mencarellis have built two pretty picnic gazebos, and they will provide you a quaint wicker basket (you can either take it along on your hike, or they will deliver it to you at lunchtime) stuffed with local cheeses and charcuterie, traditional flatbread, biscotti…and wine, of course.
Yep, these arches. This is the lovely view from one of the picnic spots along the walking trail.
Miraduolo di Torgiano
This extensive winery (52 hectares of planted vineyard) has been growing grapes for years, but only started producing and selling wine under the Terre Margaritelli label recently. Their growth has been exponential, however, with a production of around 50,000 bottles a year, including four IGT and two DOC Torgiano labels. With almost half their land set aside for experimental vines and an emphasis on innovation in their wine laboratory, this is a producer to watch. But how best to visit a cantina of this size? On horseback, of course.
Exploring the vineyards around Terre Margaritelli on horseback...the only way to go!
A visit at Terre Margaritelli (managed by the charming and effusive Federico) begins with a 45 minute guided tour on horseback–no experience necessary–through the undulating countryside surrounding Torgiano. Once you’ve dismounted and shaken off your saddle butt, you take a quick peek at the cantina itself, and then sit down to a wine tasting/lunch prepared by professional chef American Jennifer McIlvaine (as destiny would have it, wife of the charming and effusive Federico).
The cantina overlooks some of the most beautiful wine country in Umbria, and lingering over your lunch and wine is de rigueur. If you’re lucky, you may stretch it out to watch the sun setting over the medieval rooftops in the distance. Alla salute!
Spring has arrived–in a teasing, come hither sort of way–and with it the unmistakeable signs of the change of season: a desire to get the hell out of the house, a bloomingly photogenic countryside, a waning of winter’s lethargy (affectionately known in our family as “an acute case of the lazy asses”), and bored, whining children off of school for two long weeks of spring break. All of which are the basic ingredients for mixing up a killer batch of Day Trip. And—given that my project of visiting The Most Beautiful Villages of Umbria had been shelved during the last, ahem, six months—it seemed serendipitous that the next village on the list (in alphabetical order, which I have more or less been sticking to) has two of the key features any parent with kids under the age of twelve know will be an instant hit: a castle and a large body of water.
Two elements guaranteeing kid fun: a castle (foreground) and a lake (background).
So, having run out of duct tape and rope, I tossed my sons in the general direction of the back seat and headed to the village of Castiglione del Lago, which perches on a small promontory on the shores of placid Lake Trasimeno. (I’m joking. About the duct tape and rope, I mean. Castiglione really is on the shores of Lake Trasimeno.) I hadn’t visited its tiny historic center for years; truth be told, the area around the lake (and the lake itself) has never held much fascination for me and when I do head to that area it is almostly exclusively to eat. But I quickly realized I was in for two pleasant surprises:
1) Castiglione del Lago is actually quite lovely, in a lighthearted, resort town-y sort of way.
2) Kids give you a completely different perspective on what you are seeing. Like a monkey-cam.
Some say that the promontory on which Castiglione sits was originally the fourth island in Lake Trasimeno, but over time blended into the shoreline. Huh. Well, I read it on the internet so it must be true. Photo by Andrian Michael via Wikimedia Commons.
Immediately upon passing under the largest of the three medieval gates along the town wall at the base of the Corso, my nine year old grasped my six year old’s hand tightly and said, “You have to hold my hand because we’re in the city now and bad people can come and take you.” To give you an idea of the size of Castiglione, let me just say that its expansion has been limited by the topographical confines of the promontory on which it rests, so it has remained the same 2 by 6 blocks for the last 900 years. And, though Wikipedia lists its official population at roughly 15,000—which includes all those who live in the quite extensive modern suburbs of the town along the plain below—my guess is that there can’t be many more than a couple hundred souls who actually dwell within the city walls. We weren’t exactly in Manhattan.
That said, the town was hopping as we had inadvertently stopped by on Wednesday during their weekly market, which was the usual mish-mash of small town Umbrian markets: vegetables, housedresses, rubber boots, flower pots, frying pans, camouflage jackets, and an amazingly well-stocked stand of dried and candied fruit. We got a big bag of mixed ginger, mango, coconut, and pineapple to fortify us for our visit. Thus armed, we set off toward the two notable monuments for which Castiglione is known.
My younger son was pleased to learn that this noble palace--commissioned by Duke Ascanio della Corgna and built by celebrated architect Vignola--once hosted his namesake, Leonardo da Vinci.
It took us a few minutes to wind our way through the vacationers and shoppers, past the market stalls and small shops and restaurants lining the main street, but in a short time we were in the circular Piazza Gramsci at the far end of town, which is dominated by the 16th century Palazzo Ducale, or Palazzo della Corgna. After a quick review of acceptable museum behavior, I took my sons inside and immediately undermined my own dictates by having a loud debate with the woman selling tickets as to why it is unfair that a “family” ticket (for two adults and two children) cannot be applied to a “family” of one adult and two children, so single parents end up having to pay two euros more entrance fee for three separate tickets.
We wandered through the stately halls with our noses in the air, enjoying the prefectly preserved late Renaissance frescoes still decorating the ceilings (my sons’ sniggers and hissed commentary, “Look! You can see their naked butts!” echoed in the largely empty rooms) until we we reached the covered walkway which was built to connect the palace to the imposing castle for which Castiglione is named: the Rocca del Leone.
The long--and very narrow--walkway on the left connects Castiglione's two noteable monuments: Palazzo della Corgna and Rocca del Leone. Stop to check out the views over the lake along the walkway, and hope you don't meet a large German coming the other direction.
The pentagonal shaped Rocca has a tall triangular keep and four outer towers, all of which can be explored by walking the perimeter along the top of the castle wall. Not for parents faint of heart (the signs warning visitors to hold children by the hand are crazy talk for anyone with boys from 6 to 12), kids love the conqueror’s view over the lake and surrounding countryside. While gazing from one of the towers, my six year old wondered aloud what it would be like to fly. “Like Icarus!” my nine year said. “Who’s Icarus?” “A deity.” “What’s a deity?” “Remember those naked guys painted on the ceiling in the palazzo?” “Yes.” “Those are deities.” And before I could point out the difference between mythical figure and deity, they were off running along the parapet to check out the view from the next tower.
In keeping with the universal danger/fun ratio, let's just say this is off the charts on both counts.
Having completed our exploration, we headed back down through the streets in search of some lunch. The market was packing up; the restaurants lining the Corso looked inviting (especially for anyone curious to try Lake Trasimeno’s local specialty: eel), but having checked off the “Castiglione” part of the town’s name, we decided to we wanted to visit the “Lago” part, as well, and picnic on the shores of the lake. Within minutes (really, anything is within minutes in Castiglione. Have I mentioned the town is 2 by 6 blocks?), we found ourselves in Piazza Mazzini, with its pretty tinkling fountain, Bar Centrale, aging dame of a grand hotel, and—most importantly—picnic supplies heaven.
When you dial Central Casting and request a Small Town Italian Main Piazza, this is what you get. Complete with porchetta truck parked next to the fountain.
In a tiny shop next to the clock tower, we were greeted by perhaps the friendliest shopkeepers in Umbria, who happily sliced up some local pecorino, salame, and prosciutto and made us three thick sandwiches on local flatbread (torta al testo)—having first basically fed my children lunch in free samples of charcuterie. Oh, and cookies. Oh, and one son changed his mind halfway through the sandwich assembly? No problem, Signora, he’s so cute we’ll just make him another. Oh, and they want juice? But this juice is too cold for them to drink on this hot day straight from the fridge so we’ll just run into the storeroom in the back and move about fifty boxes to come up with the one bottle of apple juice that is perfect drinking temperature. My kids worked it.
The picnic jackpot. Lots of local wine and liqueur, too, but I stuck with juice since I was en famille.
We meandered along the remaining two unexplored streets, lined with pretty flowerpot-decked facades, ancient wooden doors, and ivy-festooned garden walls and then drove down through the olive groves to the lakeshore beneath the town. Near the dock where ferries make their run between Castiglione and the lake’s pretty islets (our hopes to make a quick trip to Isola Maggiore after lunch was dashed by the news that ferries only run on the weekends in low season), we spread our picnic blanket and ate with the town at our back and Tuscany’s rolling countryside across the lake in front of us. Looking over the quiet waters, my son leaned against me and said (through a mouthful of biscotti), “This was nice, Mamma. We should do this more often.”
Yes, we should.
If in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, in the dog days of icy February he is most likely thinking about his next vacation. Preferibly to warmer climes. If the drifting snow and slate-colored skies have got you dreaming of your next trip to central Italy, here’s a quick overview of what you can expect in springtime in Umbria.
Spring Weather in Umbria
Spring, specifically April and May, is one of my favorite times to visit Umbria. The crowds haven’t yet begun to bunch up around the major monuments, hotels, restaurants, and anyone working in the travel industry is just coming off a winter rest so happy to see you, the days are longer (many churches and monuments are open until dusk, so a longer day is conducive to getting more bang for your buck), and the lovely Umbrian countryside comes alive with blossoming trees, blooming gardens, and meadows of wildflowers.
That said, being properly kitted out for an Umbrian spring involves a little packing savvy. Make sure you bring clothes you can layer, since the weather may go from chilly and rainy to sunny and warm in a matter of days (if not hours). I would include a jacket, a sweater (or fleece), shoes that can take rain, a scarf (or pashmina), and an umbrella. Obviously March through mid-April will require heavier layers, while the end of April through May warms up considerably and you can get by with lighter clothing. For some average temperatures, try this handy graph here.
Also, make sure you have both indoor and outdoor sights on your itinerary so you can work around anything the sky might toss at you. The weather is, of course, spottier than it would be at the height of summer, but generally has cool, sunny days (good for walking or exploring a hill town) interspersed with some showers (a great excuse to duck into a museum or church). …and gets steadily warmer and sunnier the further you push forward into May.
Spring Holidays in Umbria
If you are planning your trip on a strict budget, by choosing a “shoulder” season (those buffer months between high and low season), you will be more likely to find deals on flights, accommodations, and car rentals. Shoulder season for Umbria generally includes the months of March and some or all of April, but you need to keep an eye on when the national holidays are, as you won’t be likely to find discounted rates during those times.
8 March: Festa della Donna (National Women’s Day)—This isn’t likely to flip rates into high season, and may even save you some money if you are of the fairer sex. The Ministry for Art and Culture has periodic discount days for state museums and monuments across Italy, and on the Festa della Donna women have free admission. Beware of trying to dine out, however, as restaurants will be packed with tables of girlfriends out for a night on the town and many places will offer only a fixed menù dinner option.
17 March: Festa Della Unità dell’Italia (Unification Day)—Word is still out as to whether this holiday is a one-off for 2011 or will stick around for awhile. Some museums and monuments will be closed, as will offices and businesses (most restaurants and shops catering to tourists should remain open). As it falls on a Thursday this year, many Italians may take advantage of the ponte (“bridge” between a holiday and the weekend) to head out for a mini-break, so hotel prices may reflect the surge in demand.
19 March: San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph’s Feast Day, celebrated as Father’s Day)—This doesn’t really have any effect on anything, but if you happen to be in Italy with your favorite Dad, you might want to buy him a plate of zeppole (a custard-filled fritter) or frittelle (a sugar-dusted rice fritter) traditionally eaten today to show him your love.
Pasqua/Pasquetta (Easter weekend–from Good Friday through Easter Monday)– One of the most popular times for Italians to take advantage of their schools and offices closing and head out on vacation. Definitely high season prices, and availability may be scarce. On the upside, however, visiting around Easter offers an opportunity to participate in the many rituals and traditions surrounding this solemn yet joyful holiday.
25 April: Festa della Liberazione (Liberation Day)—Some museums and monuments (along with all offices and schools) may be closed, and if it falls near a weekend you may run into a ponte peak. This year il 25 Aprile (as it is colloquially known) is the same day as Pasquetta, so see above.
1 May: Festa dei Lavoratori (Labor Day)– Some museums and monuments (along with all offices and schools) may be closed, and if it falls near a weekend you may run into a ponte peak. The Ministry for Art and Culture has periodic discount days for state museums and monuments across Italy, and on Il Primo Maggio (as it is colloquially known) many offer €1 admission.
Spring Festivals in Umbria
Hand in hand with holidays come festivals, and one of the biggest selling points to visiting Umbria in spring is the plethora of wonderful traditional local festivals, during which the region awakens from its long winter hibernation and welcomes spring with open arms. For a list of those worth checking out, take a look here. (The list ended up so long that I made it into its own blog post. Sorry about the detour!)
Spring Sagre in Umbria
The sagra season really begins to gain traction in spring, so if you are looking for a festive atmosphere, a traditional meal, and a great window into Umbria culture, stop in to one of these:
Scheggino: Festa del Diamante Nero (mid-March) When they say the Black Diamond Festival, they are not talking about the gems you wear, but those you eat: truffles!
Bevagna: Arte in Tavola (end of April – beginning of May)–A celebration of traditional Umbrian cooking, with a little art and history thrown in, along the streets and piazze of one of Umbria’s loveliest towns.
Eggi: Sagra degli Asparagi (end of April – beginning of May) This hilltop village in the beautiful countryside near Spoleto is all about asparagus one week of the year.
Pietrafitta: Sagra degli Asparagi del Bosco (end of April – beginning of May) In a variation on the theme, this village near Piegaro concentrates on wild asparagus.
Spring Food in Umbria
Affettati (charcuterie): One of the mainstays of the Umbrian diet is pork, and the region is famous for its salame, prosciutto, dried sausage, corallina, and pancetta. Traditionally, pigs are butchered during the winter, and by spring the cured and salted charcuterie is at its prime.
Wild asparagus: Umbrians are diehard foragers: mushrooms, berries, field greens and, come April, the wily wild asparagus. Local markets sell them by the bunches, and the sharp flavor is perfect with fresh tagliatelle (egg noodles) or in risotto.
Easter food: Easter is the biggest spring holiday, and, like most Italian holidays, food plays a principal role. Breakfast is traditionally the contents of the specially prepared and blessed Easter basket, including hardboiled eggs, new salame (see above), wine (yes, the breakfast of champions), a savory cheese bread (torta pasquale or torta di formaggio), and the dove-shaped colomba sweet bread. At lunch, expect egg-based pasta in all shapes and forms, lamb or young goat, artichokes, asparagus, fennel, and other spring vegetables, and the first strawberries of the season. Afterwards, merrymakers break open their hollow chocolate eggs to find their surprise inside and eat the remains as dessert.