There are words you are not supposed to use in quality travel writing. They are the Banned Words, and you can pretty much guess which ones they are. Gem, especially hidden. Picturesque, or simply stunning. Cozy, charming, and—close cousin—quaint. Off-the-beaten-path. Nestled. Mecca, especially foodie. And nothing must ever boast anything.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty tough to describe Norcia—incidentally, one of my favorite towns in Umbria—without dipping into the Banned Words pot. This hilltown-without-a-hill is, indeed, a hidden gem, picturesquely nestled in the stunning Sibilline mountain peaks. It’s an off-the-beaten-path foodie mecca, and simply oozes (Oops. Another banned word.) charm, with its cozy low buildings and quaint little shops. It also boasts one of the prettiest piazzas in Umbria. Vacationing here is nothing like being in the private villas Phuket, it’s a lot more wild if you know what i mean.
But let’s pretend I didn’t just say all that. Given that a picture is worth a thousand words (Oh. One more rule: avoid overused aphorisms. Sorry.), I’ll show you a bit of Norcia and you can use your own words. I won’t judge you. Unless you use Tuscan. I hate that word.
Boar, boar, every where.
Signs of the Times
Artisanal mule balls. (Not kidding.)
Bunga Bunga cheese. (Not kidding.)
Ahem. Well, yes. This is a family show, so I won’t translate these. They’re pretty funny, though.
Huh. Peter Rabbit’s black sheep cousin.
Food, Glorious Food
Tucked away on the slopes of Mount Solenne in the Valnerina lies one of the best kept secrets in the region: San Pietro in Valle. This former Benedictine abbey—now a four star historical residence—was established in 710 on the site of a Syrian hermitage (One fun curiosity: among the stone fragments mounted on the interior walls, look for the bass relief of a monk with Asian facial features. Legend holds that this is a rendering of one of the two Syrians who founded the original hermitage in the 6th century.) and was home to abbots for the next 800 years.
The outside of the abbey is breathtaking; the church and cloister are surrounded by thickly wooded fields and look out over the steep river gorge and the gradually receding mountain peaks along the horizon.
Directly across the valley from the abbey sits the walled fortress town of Umbriano, completely abandoned since 1950. Founded in 890 to defend the abbey from advancing Saracens, popular tradition holds it to be the first city of Umbria.
Though locals hold that the citadel of Umbriano was the first Umbrian town, in truth it lies across the river from the ancient Umbrian territory, in the land once ruled by the Sabines. But it’s a good story, and a fascinating ghost town to explore.
Guided tours take visitors through the interior of the church, covered in frescoes from the 12th and 13th century (note the portrait of the Three Wise Men, one of whom apparently had second thoughts), and filled with stone work including an Etruscan altar, an 8th century Lombard high altar, and a Roman sarcophagus holding the remains of Duke Faraoldo II of Spoleto, the abbey’s founder.
The frescoes inside the church have recently been restored and are a fine example of the leap from Byzantine to the more natural Umbrian school.
My favorite detail: the original altar (now to the left of the central Lombard altar), with its semi-circular corridor which passes behind the tiny nave. Symbolizing the purification of the spirit, it begins with the wide opening level with the floor, and gradually rises to end in a tiny doorway a step above floor-level at the other end. I’m not sure if my spirit was actually purified, but having to squeeze my bulk through the final aperture sure made me ponder how often I commit the cardinal sin of gluttony.
One of my favorite corners of Umbria is the dramatic and wild Valnerina, where craggy mountain peaks loom, tiny creche-like hamlets perch precariously on cliffs, and the serene Nera River meanders its way through the valley.
The abbey is open to visitors October through March Saturday and Sunday only (10-12:30/2:30-4) and April though September every day (10-1/3-6). The church is not well lit, so be sure to choose a sunny day to visit otherwise you will not be able to see the frescoes well.
I like balance and symmetry. It gives me a sense of calm when things come full circle, as if some bigger, universal equilibrium has been restored and the galaxy can once again continue ticking away like a precise cosmic clock.
I am going to be spending the next two weeks in a total culture immersion at the Spoleto Festival, now in its 56th year and, like many who reach middle age, starting to dab its toes into social media. There are a group of travel and culture bloggers who are guests of the festival, and I am one of them….peeking into the corners of Spoleto and behind the curtains of its most important annual event.
It seemed especially fitting for me to kick off this experience by stopping by the city’s spectacular Duomo last night at sunset—hands down one of the best spots to enjoy dusk in all of Umbria (other sunset picks: Lake Trasimeno and the Rocca Maggiore in Assisi).
When the sun lowers over Spoleto, it illuminates the magnificent 12th century Romanesque facade–with its shimmering golden Byzantine-style mosaic of Christ Enthroned with Mary and John the Baptist topping an elegant Renaissance portico—with a pulsating orange glow that makes you stop and wish you had a better camera. The sky deepens to a deep cartoonish azure and the swallows begin to circle the soaring belltower as if sent in by central casting. It is truly one of those magical moments that stops you in your tracks.
And the folks at the Spoleto Festival know it, which is why the traditional closing concert is held dramatically at dusk in the Piazza del Duomo on the last evening of the Festival. I will be there, two weeks from now, on the final night of what promises to be a memorable 15 days, enjoying my last sunset and remembering my first.
Restoring balance and symmetry to the universe.
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.
Salve, Umbria verde, e tu del puro fonte
nume Clitumno! Sento in cuor l’antica
patria e aleggiarmi su l’accesa fronte
Hail, green Umbria, and you, Clitumno, genious of the pure spring!
I feel in my heart the ancient fatherland, and the Italic gods
alighting on my fevered brow.
So often human history is intrinsically intertwined with water—floods and drought, navigation and exploration, the rise and fall of nations—and a visit to the crystal-clear springs which form the source of the Clitunno river is a reminder of this symbiosis.
Le Fonti del Clitunno's landscape of shallow lagoons and weeping willow planted islands
This idyllic spot has been the inspiration for writers, poets, artists, priests, and emperors for over 2,000 years. In Roman times the spring was considered sacred for the river god Clitumnus, and white oxen were raised here to serve as sacrifices (legend had it that bathing the animals in the river rendered their color immaculate).
Try to visit on a weekday late afternoon, when traffic is at a minimum on the nearby Via Fliminia and the bus tours have left
A severe earthquake in the year 444 a.D. changed the river’s depth, leaving it no longer navigable, and muddied the area around the springs. In the middle of the 19th century, a careful landscaping project restored the springs and surrounding park to their former splendor.
Writers from Virgil to Pliny, from Carducci to Byron have paid homage to these springs
Continue a kilometer down the Via Flaminia to visit the Tempietto del Clitunno, a truly fascinating piece of architeture which straddles the centuries of the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Christianity.
The colored marble columns and pediment on the elegant facade are just some of the pieces pilfered from nearby abandoned Roman buildings
Dating somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries a.D., this early Christian church was built with architectural elements plucked from abandoned Roman villas and pagan chapels which once stood in the sacred area along the Clitunno river. Here in this one tiny building you can see one of the last architectural works of antiquity, now adopted to make a Christian church rather than pagan temple. Soon Christian architecture would take over, and this world would be lost forever.
The tiny indoor chapel is decorated with 8th century Byzantine frescoes
Italians have an inexplicable penchant for bitter digestive liqueurs made with infusions of either curious vegetables (i.e. Cynar, made with artichokes) or a complex mix of herbs and spices (i.e. Fernet Branca, with its top-secret recipe of 27 ingredients). All are guaranteed to put hair on your chest (bartender Logan B. describes drinking Fernet Branca like this: “You shoot it, immediately getting a strong hit of mouthwash – drying the mouth out, stinging the tongue. It’s kind of like getting hit in the nose. Your brain hurts, your eyes sting and water, you cough a bit.” Yum.), but the king of them all is Nocino.
Green walnuts ready to be harvested for Nocino
The primary ingredient of this traditional liqueur is unripe green walnuts, infused in alcohol with various other flavourings depending upon the recipe and the region where it is made. Nocino is found all over Italy—made either industrially or at home–but is most popular in the center and north of Italy.
Make sure you wear gloves when chopping...this innocuous looking fruit will turn your hands black for weeks. Take my word for it.
Of all the liqueurs we make at home, Nocino is my favorite, mostly because of the quirky family recipe which has been passed down through the generations:
20 chopped green walnuts, picked from the tree at dawn on the Feast day of St. John the Baptist (24 June) before the dew dries (What’s up with the dew? you ask. See here.)
30 petals of a scarlet rose, dried in the shade
6 whole cloves, crushed
¾ of a cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
the zest of one lemon cut into strips, not grated
Add these all to 1 liter of alchol in a large glass jug, seal it, and place it in the sun for 40 days, making sure to shake it every day.
After 40 days, prepare a sugar syrup with 500 g of sugar and 500 g of water. Add this syrup to the infusion and strain through filter paper.
We think that Nocino improves with age, so tend to keep it bottled for 6 months to a year before drinking it, but that’s the young whippersnapper technique. Our older relatives start drinking it the day after it’s filtered.
And they all have very hairy chests. Cin-cin!
The last few vintages of our Nocino
The beauty of many grande dames of a certain age is only enhanced by low lighting, and the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi—amongst the Grandest Dames of them all—is no exception.
Occasionally the doors of the Upper Church are opened to the public for “after hours” classical music concerts and when I get wind of one of these—there seems to be no rhyme or reason in the scheduling—I always try to seize the opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful buildings on earth at her finest.
As evening progresses and darkness deepens, the richly frescoed interior becomes both more majestic and more intimate. Giotto’s famous frescoes soften in the twilight and the famed “giotto blue” ceilings seem to richen in color.
The concert is an excuse to sit and contemplate the art and architecture with more care…there are no noisy crowds to distract you from the humble beauty of Saint Francis’ life as told through the fresco cycle. On the contrary, the echoing cathedral acoustic—surely a bane to the musicians who perform there—only make the music seem more etheral and otherworldly and lends itself to reflecting on the lessons of the Assisi’s “Poverello”.
The whole effect is both uplifting and simultaneously calming…certainly the intention of the artist when he first put his brush to palette over 700 years ago.
When I heard that there was an olive tree somewhere in Umbria purported to be 1,700 hundred years old—the oldest olive tree in the region, in fact—I knew what I was looking at. I was looking at a quest. I had to find it.
Is a quest really a quest when there's an explanatory plaque?
As it turns out, the tree—near Trevi in a little hamlet called Bovara—isn’t that hard to locate. Legend has it that the martyr Emiliano, the first bishop of Trevi, was tied to the tree and decapitated in the year 304…Emiliano became a saint, and the tree seems to have become immortal.
Still looking good at 1,700 years old
Despite late freezes which have killed off generations of trees in the surrounding grove over the centuries, l’Olivo di Santo Emiliano continues to flourish and produce fruit which the nearby Benedictine abbey uses to make their extra virgin oil.
The tree bears its catalogue number on the trunk
The trunk has become twisted and gnarled, the bark black with age, and the catalogue number painted on its side (the tree is listed in the regional register of protected flora) seems somehow insulting. But still some majesty—the kind that only something which has witnessed almost two millenia can claim—remains.
Yes, a quest is a quest if you feel like you come away with something ennobling.
It had been awhile since I had been to the main galleries in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia, and I had forgotton how beautifully done the 2006 restoration was. I was back this past weekend, and fell in love all over again.
Even if 14th-16th century religious art isn’t your thing (the bulk of the collection is concentrated around that period) the building itself is worth an amble through.
Putty colored walls, soft lighting, a warren of oddly shaped rooms and corridors, exposed original stone and brick architectural details…simply stunning, and strangely soothing at the same time.
My favorite room: the clocktower! Stand inside behind the enormous working clock four stories above the Corso and listen to the ticking which has marked the time in Perugia for more than 100 years.
The clocktower is now used as the museum's multimedia center.