I sure got into the Christmas spirit over the last week while writing articles for two of my favorite Italy websites: Dream of Italy for a general overview of the holiday season in Umbria and About.com’s GoItaly for some specific suggestions for not-to-be-missed sights and events if you are celebrating Christmas in Umbria.
Enjoy, and Buon Natale!
Sometimes I discover something so amazing, so unique, so share-worthy, that it immediately plunges me into a schizophrenic episode. Yes, because I have had two women warring inside my head for the past, oh, 39 years and nine months.
One of them wears her hair loose and flowing, dresses in organic cotton flower-print yoga pants, has tantric sex, and urges me to eat according to my dosha and do my daily affirmations. The other pulls her hair in a tight bun at the nape of her neck, wears Hillary pantsuits, hasn’t gotten it on since, oh, forever, and tisks about fat content and carbohydrates with her lips pursed like a cat’s butt.
The first says, “Look at you, aren’t you a star! You found a hidden gem, you. Go, go and shout it from the mountain tops! You are fabulous!” The other says, “Well, it certainly took you long enough. Seventeen years in Umbria and you’re only blumbering on it now. Humiliating, really. Always the last to know. Keep it quiet so you won’t make a fool out of yourself again. And put that cupcake down.”
They slug it out for awhile, but the first woman always ends up coming out on top. Because, as we all know, tantric sex always kicks pantsuit’s ass.
So, here I am, a couple of weeks later, telling you all about one of the best kept secrets in Perugia. And I really do mean best kept, because, despite it being just steps from both the Corso and the main parking garage in the provincial capital and despite me having passed directly in front of the nondescript sign probably a thousand times over the years, I had no idea what was in store for me when I stopped by their open house a few Sundays ago.
Studio Moretti Caselli has been producing hand-painted stained glass windows for cathedrals and monuments all over the world since its founding in 1860 by Francesco Moretti, who began by studying chemistry and glass art texts from the 12th and 13th centuries (glass art had declined to the point of becoming almost extinct after the 1400s) to become one of the greatest modern restorers of stained glass windows. Now in the fifth generation of the same family of artists, the studio is still an active artelier and offers guided visits through its museum-workshop.
This rendering of Perugino's Incoronation of the Virgin rivals the original. Loaned for a museum exhibit, it was returned with four cracks in the delicate glass.
The studio is housed in a 15th century palazzo originally belonging to the once powerful Baglioni family; the modest plaque near the heavy wooden front door belies the soaring and lightfilled vaulted rooms with their immense windows inside. A visit begins in the archive, where instead of computers and file drawers, the shelves are filled with cracked leather volumes containing more than 150 years of commissions, sketches, and family documents.
The Moretti Caselli archive, with its historic ledgers of commissions, collections of sketches, and family documents.
From there, the charming Maddalena Forenza—the last of the Moretti Caselli family, who continues to run the workshop with help of her sister, Elizabetta—leads you to the historic laboratory, where tiny glass jars of powdered pigment line the walls and 19th century chemistry equipment used to prepare the paints (now subsituted by modern pigments which are much less toxic) are still on display.
The Moretti Caselli Studio's founder died relatively young, quite probably from the effect of toxins commonly found in pigments at the time.
The highlight of the workship is without a doubt the two main halls; the first was used to recieve clients and is covered in pretty period frescoes restored by Moretti at the beginning of the 1900s. From here, visitors pass into the captivating second hall, with monumental life-sized displays of pencil sketches and final drawings of many of the finished works still mounted in windows across Italy and the world. Two of the most precious works produced by the Moretti Caselli Studio are on permanent display here: a full sized portrait of the Queen Margherita and a tondo copied from a Perugino painting. I never knew how enchanting a stained glass window could be until I found myself utterly entranced by the delicate and flawless brushwork and the luminous effect created as the light passes through layers of pigment applied and fired repeatedly. These are truly works of art.
It's hard to capture the breathtaking luminosity of these works in photographs. Stained glass is meant to be seen with the light behind, not in front.
The visit ends in the workrooms of the studio, where I was aghast at the time and effort involved in producing each piece. From the initial drawings and sketches, to the selection and cutting of glass, to the actual painting (which can only be done by daylight, as the secret to a masterpiece is the alchemy of correctly mixing colours and light), the pieces then begin the baking process to fix the colour. Often pieces pass through the kiln—the studio uses a modern electric kiln now, but until just a few years ago was still using the original wood-burning kiln which takes up an entire room–three or four times, applying a new delicate coating of color between each firing. Finally, the glass pieces are assembled on their lead mountings to create the stained glass window.
This wood-fired kiln, which required two to three people to bake glass pieces, was used until 1993.
Have I mentioned how often pieces break? Often. Incredibly often. So often I begin to think that the Moretti Caselli clan is either extraordinarily patient or slightly off. I, for example, dropped one stitch on my son’s baby blanket and disgustedly stuffed it unfinished into the back of the closet, where it remains nine years later. But the pride this family has for their work, and the passion with which they still talk about both their windows and their history, explains it all. They put their whole hearts into their work, and those hearts are made of glass.
Now that I've seen the workshop, my next quest is to travel across Umbria to see some of their masterpieces in situ.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see one of the most fascinating historical artisan workshops in Umbria, which is open to visitors upon appointment. The Studio continues to produce hand painted glass windows and panels, hand etched glass, and Tiffany glass, and also offers day workshops and longer courses in the art of painted and stained glass.
These photographs were used with kind permission of the Studio Moretti Caselli, who hold the copyrights.
I am actually okay with death. By death I mean, of course, Death…not death. In fact, the absence of any conviction regarding the existence of an afterlife has freed me up to fully appreciate Mother Nature’s warped sense of humor, as she seeds the universe with our molecules to produce the next generation of stars and aardvarks, sequoias and spores, saints and Republicans. On the other hand, becoming a parent has made death all the more terrorizing. Though I have always admired Ayelet Waldman’s sentiments, they also somewhat perplex me. If I imagine the film of my life, my husband’s death would be followed a period of muted colors which would, over time, return to their former brilliance. The death of one of my children would mark the place where the film suddenly becomes black and white, and there would never be color again.
But the abstract concept of Death doesn’t freak me out. I don’t get the heebies at the cemetary, have any particular aversion to blood and gore, and the few times I have seen bodies have been struck more with a clinical fascination than a sense of horror. So when I headed to the Valnerina to see the mummies in the 12th century church of Santo Stefano–now the crypt of the 15th century church built on top of the original–that I had been hearing about for years, it was with the lighthearted mood of adventure (and playing hooky from the office).
The tiny village of Ferentillo tucked into a crag between two looming peaks.
As I neared Ferentillo, however, the fluffy white clouds overhead were suddenly run out of town by a black, ominous storm front. The temperature plunged several degrees in a matter of minutes, daylight faded, and the dramatic craggy peaks which loom over the town on all sides began to seem ominuous and windswept in a way that made me think of Jane Eyre and crazy ex-wives locked in attics. By the time I had parked, rain was pelting the tiny village pitilessly and the rolling thunder had become deafening. I ran to the entrance of the crypt, which is now a museum, and darted past the massive wooden door into the vaulted stone entry just as lightening struck close by and its blinding flash lit up this welcoming inscription:
This warm and fuzzy inscription welcomes all visitors to the museum.
Oggi a me, domani a te.
Io fui quel che tu sei
tu sarai quel che io sono.
Pensa mortal che il tuo fine è questo,
e pensa pur che ciò sarà ben presto.
Today me, tomorrow you.
I was what you are
and you will be what I am.
Consider, mortal, that your end is this
and consider also that it will be quite soon.
When the cheerful young guide suddenly popped out from around the corner to sell me our tickets and take us through the crypt, she pretty much scared the bejeezus out of me. My nine year old son was, by this time, trembling like a Labrador puppy at the prospect of 1) seeing mummies and 2) seeing his otherwise unflappable mother visibly rattled, so we stepped inside.
This process of mummification only takes about a year. There are two mummified birds on display, the result of more recent test runs by skeptical locals.
The crypt-turned-museum is quite small and there are probably no more than twenty mummies on display, so the visit didn’t take long. Our guide explained how the combination of a microfungus and mineral salts in the soil and a unique air flow (there are openings along one wall where the cold storm air was gusting in) resulted in the natural mummification of many of the bodies buried here over the centuries. The mummified remains were discovered at the beginning of the 19th century, when a Napoleanic edict ordered the emptying of crypts and the trasfer of remains to cemetaries outside of the town walls. This being the Valnerina—an impenetrable area which held out against Christianity, Napoleon, and a united Italy long after the rest of Umbria—they continued to inter their dead here until 1871, when the last coffin was placed in the crypt (it’s still on display, though the surviving relatives have forbidden its opening).
Some of the most intact of these mummified corpses are displayed behind glass, and the guide’s chirpy commentary—with gruesome backstories of torture and hangings (You can still see where his neck is broken!), disease and plague (Notice how the sores are still visible on her skin!), human tragedy (The baby looks as if he is merely sleeping!), and grim details (If you step closely enough you can see the whiskers, teeth, eyeballs, and hair!)—was both surreal and compelling in a Tim Burton-esque sort of way. Add to this the muffled sound of thunder and flashes of lightening that periodically made the lights flicker, and you pretty much had the making of a nine-year-old boy’s perfect excursion.
There are also neatly shelved skulls and bones on display in the dimly lit crypt.
Is it macabre? Sure, but in a fascinating way. Unlike the Egyptian mummies we are so used to viewing, these are recent enough that the details surrounding their lives and deaths resonate more and make them more human and less monstrous curiosities. Their stories are told matter-of-factly, yet with great decorum and respect. Death is, after all, a part of life.
That said, is it a little spooky? You bet.
Over the past thirteen—Gulp! That can’t be right!—years welcoming guests at Brigolante, I have come to realize that about 95% of their queries are repeat questions. Some of these I have template emails for (i.e. Do you have driving directions to reach you?), some of these I have pages in our welcome packet for (i.e. How does the washing machine work?), some of these I have Slowtalk for (i.e. Which is the best credit card to use in Italy?), some of these I have local friends for (i.e. Where does one buy an accordian, anyway?). And some of these I am gradually trying to answer here on my blog, which is why there is a drily-yet-concisely-entitled category called Trip Planning Tips for Umbria.
Umbria, Italy by Armando Lanoce
One of the most common travel advice guests require is help in planning an itinerary for Umbria, which is also one of my favorite questions to answer. Here is a week long suggested itinerary for visiting Umbria which throws in the crème della crème of the region: art and history, towns and parks, food and drink, people and shopping. It may not suit everyone, but feel free to use it as a guideline for planning your trip.
A couple of caveats:
A week is not enough time to properly visit Umbria, but I recognize that guests have minor inconveniences like Jobs and Families which restrict their holiday time. Come back soon for a two week itinerary, which will be much more complete.
I am writing primarily for our guests, so I presume your base is Brigolante or, at very least, Assisi. If you are staying in another town in Umbria, you will have to make some adaptations.
I presume you have a car.
I am neither for turtle nor hare travel, so each day has enough to keep you busy, with enough time left over to add/linger/meander/get lost/come home and relax.
(And one last note…I know, I know. Blog posts must have pictures. After much deliberation, I decided that pictures would just be a pain for folks wanting to print out this itinerary as a reference. So buy a guidebook.)
Day One: It’s Sunday so it must be Gubbio
Yes, I know you are chomping at the bit to visit Assisi, but believe me, Sunday is not the day to do it. This is the most crowded day of the week, when day trippers from Tuscany and Rome fill up the parking lots and churches. In fact, not only do I suggest you avoid visiting Assisi proper…I suggest you avoid driving through town altogether. Instead, follow the winding provincial highway 444 from Brigolante to Gubbio (make sure to enjoy the beautiful drive through the Appennine foothills between Assisi and Gubbio). This archetypical medieval walled town is a perfect place to begin to get to know Umbria. Its roots are steeped in the ancient Umbrii people (the town houses the most important example of the Umbrian language on the Eugubine Tablets in the Civic Museum), passes through Roman civilization (there is a wonderful view of the town from the Roman Theatre in the valley below), and remains largely architecturally frozen in the middle ages. Be sure to dine on truffles while you’re there, and work off your hearty lunch with a climb (or, if you’re feeling lazy, the funivia car…no one will ever know) to the top of Mount Ingino where you can visit the sanctuary dedicated to Gubbio’s patron saint and enjoy the amazing views from the Rocca fortress.
Day Two: It’s Monday so it must be Assisi
Ah, now we’re talking. Assisi can get crowded with coach tours from late morning through the afternoon, so get yourself to the Basilica of Saint Francis as early as you can to enjoy the view, the church, and the famed frescoes virtually to yourself. From here, leisurely spend the rest of the morning exploring the town (don’t miss the Roman temple in the Piazza del Comune and the surprisingly lovely museum under the Cathedral of San Rufino) and partaking in a little Italian culture by having a slow lunch. In the afternoon, climb up to the dramatic Rocca fortress (be sure you make it to the “highest room of the tallest tower” for the best photos of your holiday), then hop back into the car to visit San Damiano and the Eremo delle Carceri. These two shrines will give you a much better sense of who Francis was as a man and Saint than his opulent basilica ever can. If you are a sunset person (I’m a sunset person), continue along the road past the Eremo to the top of Mount Subasio. A little luck, the right weather, and a bottle of wine may just be the perfect storm for one of the most stunning sunsets of your life.
Day Three: It’s Tuesday so it must be Nature
You’ve had two towny days, it’s time to see the other side of Italy’s Green Heart: her lovely parks. Umbria has seven regional parks and one national park…a surprising number for one of the smallest regions in Italy. You’ve already visited one of the regional parks…in fact, you’re sleeping in one as Brigolante is within the borders of the Mount Subasio Park (as is the entire town of Assisi) Today I suggest you go further afield and visit one of the other parks in the region…two of my favorites are the Sibilline National Park with its breathtaking plateau Piano Grande (you can work in a visit to pretty Norcia…don’t waste your time with Castelluccio, which is much prettier from afar) and the Nera River Regional Park, winding your way along highway SS209 which skirts the Nera river and runs under steep mountainsides where tiny villages perch precariously. Stop by the beautiful Marmore waterfalls (check times when the falls are running here) and the gorgeous San Pietro in Valle abbey…two of the best kept secrets in Umbria.
Day Four: It’s Wednesday so it must be Perugia (and then some)
Umbria’s provincial capital may seem daunting, with its modern suburbs surrounding the historic center, but don’t be put off. Find your way to the Piazza Partigiani parking lot and take the series of escalators passing through the underground remains of the medieval center, which now form the foundation for the modern city above. Have a good guide on hand; Perugia is full of interesting churches, monuments, and museums. My favorites are the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria and the Oratorio di San Bernardino. After lunch and a post-prandial stroll (and a caffè and pastry at Pasticceria Sandri on the Corso), you may still have the time and energy continue touring. I have two suggestions to fill your afternoon: 1) Deruta. If you are interested in seeing this famed artisan majolica production, head here. Shop, walk, have dinner at the elegant Forziere Antico. 2) Lake Trasimeno. If you are more enthusiastic about a pretty drive or walk, head to the lake. Castiglione del Lago is a lovely town to visit, and one of my favorite spots for dinner in Umbria is Rosso di Sera in San Feliciano.
Day Five: It’s Thursday so it must be People
You’ve seen the towns (and the City), you’ve seen the nature. Now it’s time to see the people. Unfailingly, my guests name the day they took a tour and/or course as their most memorable day in Umbria and I can’t speak highly enough of some of the guides and instructors in this area. When you spend time with someone familiar with the local history and culture it gives you a chance to really get to know Umbria and its people in a way you wouldn’t be able to by simply visiting monuments. So plan a day preparing a traditional meal with a local cook, touring the small family-run vineyards, learning to hunt truffles (and how to use them in the kitchen), or painting your own majolica ceramics. Alternately, get under the skin of a town or area with a knowledgeable guide. I especially like Discovering Umbria for food and wine tours, and native Umbrians Marco Bellanca (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Elizabetta Federici (email@example.com) for cultural visits. You won’t regret it.
Day Six: It’s Friday so it must be Todi and Orvieto
Okay, I was kind of stuck on Friday because it’s the last guaranteed day of daytripping (some of you won’t be able to squeeze in your last stop somewhere on Saturday because your spouse pounced on cheap airline tickets while late-night online surfing nine months ago and didn’t notice until it was too late that it involved being at the Rome airport at 4 am tomorrow) and there are still about 50 wonderful things to visit. See caveats. However, after much soul searching I decided that I can’t possibly send you home without having seen Orvieto’s cathedral. It is, simply put, one of the most stunning churches in Italy. You will be tempted to stop in Todi first, as it’s just off the highway, but push on to Orvieto past tranquil Lake Corbara. Once there, first book your time for the Orvieto Underground tour in the Piazza del Duomo’s tourist office, then backtrack to visit the sumptuous Duomo. Explore Orvieto under- and above-ground, don’t miss the curiosity of San Pietro’s well, and make sure you have some excellent local white wine with your lunch. Afterwards, head back to Todi and spend the afternoon in the small but surprisingly cosmopolitan center of this friendly hill town. Have dinner here, because it’s an easy highway drive back to Assisi.
Day Seven: It’s Saturday so it must be the Village of your Choice
This is your last day, and a bit of a wild card since you may have all the time in the world or you may have to make a dash to your next destination. Fill this last day/half-day/quarter-day/final two hours by choosing one of the Most Beautiful villages in Umbria in which to say goodbye to this enchanting region. My favorites are Spello (which has much of the charm of Assisi with about 1/100th of the tourists), Bevagna (a good final town to visit if your calves are aching; it’s in the valley!) or Montefalco (perhaps my favorite small town in Umbria. Art, architecture, food, wine, views, textiles…Montefalco is all that is wonderful about this region in one convenient little package.)
You’ve come full circle–from your first Umbrian town to your last, with the best of the region along the way. May you bring back a little piece of Italy’s Green Heart in your own. Arrivederci!
I love to get off the beaten path and discover things in Umbria that aren’t listed in every guide book under the sun.
Alexandra Korey gave me a chance to do that on her wonderful art/travel/lifestyle blog Arttrav this week, where I talk about some of the great contemporary art in Umbria.
I recently spent a day with the delightful Saverio and Gabriella from Tartufi Bianconi in Città di Castello.
Saverio took us along on a truffle hunt (with real truffle dogs and real truffle hunters) and showed us his fascinating private collection of truffle related memorabilia and curiosities. His wife, Gabriella, welcomed us into her kitchen for a tasting of the precious local tubers and a truffle-themed home-cooked lunch.
To read a more detailed article about truffles in Umbria and my day spent with the Bianconis, check out the November 2010 Destinations Travel Magazine–but in the meantime here are some outtakes from our absolutely perfect day.
Meeting our pooches (and their pets) at the edge of the woods.
Asia The Truffle Dog gets right down to bizniz.
Score! Showing the humans how it's done.
And now she wants her Scooby Snack!
Sandy doesn't want to be outdone...she's on the chase now!
Giving us the goods...
Mmmm. That's what we're talking about.
Gabriella and I look over our haul, about to be sorted and weighed at the Tartufi Bianconi processing rooms.
Saverio shows me his unique private collection of truffle-related memorabilia
While we were preparing lunch, some local truffle hunters brought in some precious white truffles.
Gabriella prepares our tasting of the four different kinds of truffles found locally.
The perfect day ended with a perfect truffle-infused meal!
A special thanks to photographer Carlo Franchi for his wonderful shots of our adventure.
The other night at the dinner table I noticed that my husband had picked out all the carrots from his Peas –n- Carrots and left them on his plate. When I asked him why, he told me he doesn’t like cooked carrots. Which gave me pause, because I’ve known him since 1986 and, though I haven’t kept a log or anything, my rough estimate is that I have prepared Peas-n-Carrots more or less four thousand times over the past 24 years (I like peas. And I like carrots. And I think the green and orange look pretty together on the plate. And I like any phrase that involves substituting ‘n’ for ‘and’, because it seems kind of anachronistic and Rockwellian, like E-Z and Quik.) and this little detail about him not liking cooked carrots has never, ever come out in casual conversation. Which just goes to show you…you think you know everything about something, and then it turns out you know nothing.
Which is the same earth-shattering—though somewhat uncatchy—conclusion I came to the other day when I discovered Citerna. Despite living in Umbria since 1993, this little button of a town—one of the villages listed with The Most Beautiful Villages in Umbria—was completely under my radar. Now, remember the high school analogy that served so well for Bevagna? Okay, Citerna is still in her Sophomore year. She is about to get her braces off, has taken up jogging, is mustering the courage to get her hair layered and highlighted, and has been trying to talk her cousin from LA into taking her shopping the next time she’s in Des Moines so she can get a little style makeover. Junior year is just around the corner and look out, because Sandra Dee is about to put on the disco pants.
Citerna surrounded by the soft hills of the Tuscan-Umbria border. So romantic that I start understanding why everything in town is dedicated to innamorati. Photo by Adam Whone.
I discovered Citerna by accident, in an serendipitous sort of way since I am on the Cs on my quest to visit all the villages listed in I Borghi Più Belli d’Italia. I went on a truffle hunt last week (Wait…hold the phone, you say. Truffle hunt?!? I want to hear about the truffle hunt. Well, pipe down. That blog post is coming.), and our meeting spot with the guide was Citerna’s pretty piazza which looks out over the Upper Tiber Valley. You can tell this town sits right on the border between Tuscany and Umbria, as the landscape is much more reminiscent of Tuscany’s soft, rolling hills than the more dramatic and rugged peaks you find further south into Umbria.
A piazza with a view....
The piazza is also home to pretty much the only businesses in town: a bar, grocery store, restaurant, and—oddly—tiny silversmith. Grab an outdoor caffe table and enjoy the view across the piazza for awhile before you head off to explore the rest of town. Citerna is a one-street village, so once you leave the piazza head down the main Corso Garibaldi toward Porta Romana. You’ll pass the City Hall on your right in the recently restored former Franciscan convent, which sits above the medieval cisterns–currently under restoration (remember this phrase…you’ll be hearing it again. As I said, Citerna is going through a complete makeover.). The name of the town probably derives from the word cisterna, and the town sits above a complex network of channels, vaults, and tanks used for collecting and storing rainwater. Citerna’s claim to cultural fame is a prestigious annual collective photography exhibition each spring, and the warren of restored underground rooms will be used in the future as a unique exhibition space to house this show.
The warren of underground vaults and cisterns is currently "having work done". Photo by Carlo Franchi.
When you get to the city gate, pass through and make a sharp right. One of the most delightful details of the town is the vaulted passageway which circles much of the town at the base of the fortified city wall—part of which is known as the Via degli Innamorati, or Sweethearts’ Way. From these medieval walkways you can peer through the arched openings onto some of the prettiest views over the Tuscan (to the west) and Umbrian (to the east) countryside around. When you’ve had your eyeful, climb back up the gently sloping Corso Garibaldi, noticing the brick walkway which crosses the street about halfway up which was once used by the noble Vitelli family to access their private theater (Teatro Bontempelli –currently under restoration) from their family palazzo across the street without having to bother with socializing with the plebs. They must not have been so awful, however, as their Palazzo Prosperi-Vitelli is home to a fabulously carved 16th century fireplace, again dedicated to Innamorati.
One of the most romantic strolls in Umbria...along the fittingly named Via degli Innamorati
When the folks from Citerna weren’t getting it on, they managed to find time to fill their main Chiesa di San Francesco (currently under restoration) with frescoes by Signorelli, paintings by Raffaellino del Colle, and a graceful terracotta Madonna and Child recently attributed to Donatello (currently under restoration). Continue on with a brief visit to Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo, home to some della Robbia and lots of gloom.
She really is "getting some work done". After the restoration, this work by Donatello will be on display in Florence's Pitti Palace before coming home to Citerna.
Finish your visit by climbing to the highest point in town, at the far end of the Corso. Here stand the ghostly remains of Citerna’s castle, bombarded by the Germans during World War II: stark stone walls, a brick tower, and a large window suspended in space framing a romantic Tuscan landscape (innamorati, indeed). Citerna knows which of their monuments will become more attractive with restoration, and which are heartbreakingly poignant left just the way they are.
Some broken things aren't meant to be fixed. Photo by Carlo Franchi.
Many of these photos were taken by Assisi photographer Carlo Franchi, whom I thank for letting me use them here. To see more of his work, visit www.franchicarlo.net.
What fun I had researching Umbria’s chocolate scene, from the behemoth Eurochocolate festival in Perugia every October to the smallest local producers.
You can satisfy all your chocolate cravings virtually by reading the article in Italy Magazine here!
If I only had one summer left to live and had to choose a single last sagra to attend, (Yes, I realize it’s an unlikely scenario. Humor me.) I would choose Cannara’s over-the-top-out-of-control-mother-of-all-sagras Festa della Cipolla at the beginning of September. Hands down.
There's a big sign. Just in case the smell of cooking onions doesn't clue you in.
This year I went on a Saturday night at 8 pm. If there is a night that one should not attempt to eat at the Onion Festival, it’s Saturday night. If there’s a time one should not attempt to eat at the Onion Festival, it’s 8 pm. But there are days—stretches of days, sometimes—out here in the Umbrian hills during which I do not see another human being who is not a blood relation, so I get a little starved for human contact. And if there is a place to be in Umbria if you are looking for human contact, that place is the sagra in Cannara on a Saturday night at 8 pm.
As I parked my car (so far away that the guys directing traffic spoke with Roman accents), I thought Wouldn’t it be funny to say in my blog that despite parking roughly 25 kilometers from the sagra, the smell of cooking onion hit me as soon as I opened my car door for comic effect. Then I opened my car door, and the smell of cooking onion hit me. These folks are serious about onion, and their onion gravitas stays with you for days. I speak from experience.
This is what I'm talking about.
The reason I love the onion festival so (aside from the fact that it is one of the few sagre where a vegetarian can eat to her little piggy heart’s content) it that it embodies the essence of all that a sagra should be:
At a time where sagre are multiplying like mushrooms, and disappearing with the same speed, La Festa della Cipolla is in its 30th year and still going strong. From a tiny little block party-esque communal dinner, this annual event now feeds around 60,000 people during its two week run. Just to put that in perspective, keep in mind that the population of the entire region of Umbria hovers around 900,000. This festa has put Cannara on the map, and it’s fun to be a part of it.
Sorry this picture is a little blurry. I was being jostled by roughly ten percent of the population of Umbria.
Nothing bugs me more than these young whippersnapper sagre serving foods that have absolutely no cultural value whatsoever. The Beer Sagra. The Nutella Sagra. The Seafood Sagra. In Cannara, the main food celebrated is a genuine local delicacy. Cannara’s red, yellow, and flat onions are unique to this area (their flavor influenced by the type and humidity of Cannara’s marshy soil) and have been noted by Slow Food and various famous chefs.
Onions. Consume them on site, or purchase for home. Either way, you'll be sleeping alone.
How much of the real stuff is actually used in the menu is debatable (that would be a heck of a lot of onions to serve 60,000 people for a tiny area like Cannara), but you can buy rustic braids of onions from the stands set up along the streets of the town and taste them for yourself.
The onions go like hotcakes.
I love a sagra where I get the feeling everyone and their brother (and sister, mother, father, cousin, and car mechanic) is involved…and that is definitely the vibe for two weeks in Cannara every fall. There are six “stands” set up in various courtyards and squares in the town–by stands, they mean entire piazzas crowded with long tables and benches under canvas tents—which can serve a total of 2,500 people at a sitting. Given that Cannara is home to less than 4,000 residents, to keep an event going of that size–between the planning, cooking, serving, cleaning, organizing, and entertaining—it’s pretty much a whole town affair. And then some.
The stands are hopping on a Saturday night. Or any night, for that matter.
At one end of the spectrum, there are sagre set up underneath anonymous tents in the middle of some wheatfield, then come the ones set up in a gravel and concrete paved community park, then come the ones which are in the main piazza of a town, then comes Cannara, where the town and festa exist in perfect symbiosis. Every courtyard is occupied with tables, the streets are crowded with booths hawking wares, the larger squares have main stages set up with band playing music or clowns entertaining the kids, local shops are open until after midnight. This is Cannara’s moment to shine, and it goes all out.
Onions, spices, mushrooming baskets, art, crafts, disco lights, jewelry, antiques, pet rocks. I saw them all on sale in Cannara.
There are doubtless naysayers who do not love the Onion Festival. It’s crowded (though if you hit it at 7:00ish on a weeknight the crowds are much more manageable), overblown (lots of people attend the festival. See above.), overpriced (expect to pay pretty much trattoria prices for your food), slow (hey, they’ve only got 4,000 people working there) and leaves you gassy (no denying that). But the food is delicious. Some stands are better than others (for the record, I’m a Giardino Fiorito abituè), some years are better than others. But I have never been disappointed by my dinner, and that’s a big plug for a meal that is being prepared inside camp kitchens by volunteers. Don’t miss the onion desserts. I’m not kidding.
Il Giardino Fiorito is the oldest stand and housed in the cloister of an ex-convent. It is also my stand of choice.
If you have a rare onion intollerance and have to choose just one thing to eat, get the onion pizza. Trust me.
La Festa della Cipolla is held the first two weeks of September every year in Cannara. For a complete program, list of stands and their menus, and map please see their official website.
Stop by Go Italy’s blog to see some of my suggestions for planning a visit to Umbria in the autumn when the grape and olive harvests are in full swing.
Wineries and olive oil mills are open to the public, and you can walk or bike the vineyard and olive tree covered hills to see first hand the care and labor that goes into making Umbria’s wonderful wines and olive oils.
A special thanks to Marsha Bakerjian for letting me contribute to her informative blog!