Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.

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Bottega Michelangeli: Making Magic from Wood in Orvieto

It doesn’t hit you over the head, so much as sneak up on you from behind. You see a quirky bench adorned with the relief of a rooster or cat, a rustic Pinocchio with a nose so long that wooden birds are using it as a handy perch, a two-dimensional tree with leaves applied in layers three deep to give the foliage more depth and you slowly realize that these works of art these must have all been made by the same hand….or, at very least, the same woodworking shop.

Indeed, it takes just a few minutes of meandering the streets and shops of Orvieto to come upon the work of the Bottega Michelangeli wood atelier. Begun as a furniture-maker five generations ago, this workshop developed its now-famous two-dimensional, almost shadow puppet look under Gualverio Michelangeli in the mid-20th century, who departed from the stodgy furniture-making tradition begun by his family in 1789 to experiment with sculpture in pinewood. The style—a quirky yet pleasing blend of folk and contemporary art–is carried on in the work of his three daughters, Donatella, Simonetta e Raffaella, who were, like so many other children of artisans, raised in the shop and bred on family history and wood-shavings.

The atelier is housed in a former theater on the corner of Orvieto’s main Corso and Via Gualverio Michelangeli (thus is the pride the city has in one of its most famous local artists), in a former 19th century theater retrofitted to hold both the workshop and showrooms. Here there are samples of hand-finished furniture (the Bottega devotes much of its work to furnishing and décor), exquisite toys (dolls, marionettes, rocking horses), and what can only be described as art—linear angels, whimsical characters from mythology and fables, solemn birds and angels.

If you’re lucky, you may get a peek into the cavernous backroom, where their one-of-kind works are still hewn and assembled by hand. The dusty antique tools hanging on wall racks, the half-finished and abandoned projects leaning haphazardly in shadowy corners, the clean smell of fresh wood and sawdust, and the quiet concentration of the artisans bent over rough boards is evocative of the backstage that this theatrical space once was.

I prefer, however, to see Michelangeli’s pieces how they are meant to be seen: here and there about town. The odd shop sign, outdoor table, wall decoration…they pop out at you from the most unassuming corners of Orvieto (and some quite stately corners: the Town Hall and theater both are decorated with their pieces) and transform a walk through the streets into a treasure hunt of sorts.

Perhaps the best place to see the grandeur of Gualverio Michelangeli’s fantastical vision is the Montanucci Café on the main Corso. Step through the doors and into a fairy tale forest of trees and flowers, populated with woodland creatures and playful elves. Settle yourself at one of their tables and sample their signature sweet: bite-sized cones of smooth chocolate dubbed Pinocchio’s Nose. Between the chocolate and the whimsical surroundings, you’ll be hard-pressed to not feel somehow transported to a magical land.

A huge thank you to Toni DeBella of the fabulousOrvieto or Bust blog for her kind permission to use these photographs!

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Surprising People, Surprising Places: The Menotre Valley, Part Two

On Tuesday, I began the tale of an outing with a new friend to a new place making new discoveries. It was a day so chock full all of the above that I couldn’t fit it into one blog post, so I’m going to pick up where we left off…

After climbing back down the trail from the Eremo di Santa Maria Giacobbe to Pale, we crossed the village and started up the opposite slope of Monte Serrone towards the historic Abbazia di Sassovivo. The climb was tough and the weather was taking a turn for the worse, but by this point we had put our trust in Paolo—he hadn’t let us down yet.

We were right to press on, as Sassovivo proved to be worth the climb (though it can also be reached by car, for those who are not inclined to hike…). Its air of otherwordly calm belies a grand history. This isolated complex, surrounded by acres of ancient holm oak wood, was once one of the most important and powerful Benedictine abbeys in central Italy, with a jurisdiction extending from Rome to the Marches. Founded by Benedictine hermits in 1070—on the site of a Longobard fortress, which in turn was erected on the site of an ancient Umbrian shrine– less than a century later the Abbey controlled a wide swath of central Italy, including almost 100 monasteries, around 40 churches, and seven hospitals.

Closed in part during the 1700s, the abbey’s holdings became property of the state in 1860 and was slowly abandoned until after the Second World War. It was restored between the 1970s and 1990s, and is now both an active monastic community and, fortunately for us, open to the public.

The monastery’s crown jewel is undoubtably its Romanesque cloister, encircled by arcades supported by delicate double columns, some fetchingly spiral-carved, and pretty mosaic detailing. Visitors can also see the monastery itself, with its Medieval frescoes and original dormitories, the outdoor loggia with fresco fragments from the 15th century, and the trails through the surrounding woods. We did all of that, and then were treated to the news that Paolo’s wife, Anna Lisa, was coming to pick us up. I think I may have fallen a little in love with Paolo right then.

I had a sandwich burning a hole in my backpack, but every time we mentioned a lunch stop, Paolo insisted we press on. By this time, it was early afternoon and we were all getting a little tetchy from sore feet and hunger; our trusty guide announced that we were all invited back to their olive mill to sample some bruschetta made with their own oil. How could we refuse?

And thus began the perfect end to an amazing day. Just as “una spaghettata” in Italian rarely means a meal of mere pasta, Paolo’s invitation for “una bruschetta” turned out to be a wonderful spread of fava paté, grilled sausages, and—yes—bruschetta. All dressed with their excellent olive oil, which was being pressed two meters from our table. We talked and laughed and relived our adventures and made plans for a next outing.

And I took a moment to feel grateful for this amazing region and its people…most of whom are not axe-murderers.

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