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Weeks 55-56: Umbria (Italy)

We knew very little about Umbria before we arrived for our two-week stay on June 25. I knew it was adjacent to Tuscany and similar in some ways, but I hadn’t really done any research and didn’t even buy a guidebook. Other than Assisi, I’m not sure I could have named any famous towns or cities in Umbria. But a few Slow Travel friends had highly recommended the area, several even preferring it to the more-popular Tuscany. At some point in our trip planning I decided to look into spending a week in Umbria.

In part we ended up in Umbria because I fell in love with a rental apartment I found on the internet. I never even sent out any other inquiries for Umbria rentals. Once I saw this place, I knew I wanted to stay there and that we would go to Umbria… in fact, we would stay there two weeks.

Umbria was an unexpected delight, the apartment even better than I had expected.

We traveled only two hours from our month-long base in the village of Chiusure, in an area of Tuscany called the Crete, to reach our new home in Umbria. Our route took us through familiar territory near Cortona, the landscape changing from rolling hills to rocky, more mountainous terrain. We passed into Umbria on a modern freeway, along the north shore of Lake Trasimeno. Charley was interested to be at the site where Hannibal defeated the Romans in 217 BC. Our route took us past Perugia, the capital of Umbria, a large city that blended the ancient and the modern worlds. As we traveled south down the freeway, picturesque towns clung to the sides of mountains—Assisi, Spello, then Trevi. The steep mountainside around Trevi was covered with olive trees, quite unlike anything we had seen in the olive-growing regions of France. We later learned that some of the best olive oil in Italy is produced in this area. Huge fields of sunflowers seemed to be everywhere, in full bloom… masses of vibrant gold. I felt happy just to be around so many sunflowers. We liked what we saw of Umbria.

Roccia Viva

The house is in the mountains near the village of Campello sul Clitunno, between Trevi and the famous festival town of Spoleto. Although the owner, Karen, had e-mailed us very detailed directions, we made several wrong turns on our initial journey, possibly because it seemed so improbable that a house could be located there… up such a small road, on such a steep slope, among all the olive trees. Beyond the small village of La Bianca, along a road that twists by the mountainside, and through dense groves of olive trees, we reached the Castello di Campello Alto, a 10th century walled castle, now a small hamlet with about 15 residents. From there the narrow road continued upwards, finally reaching the old farmhouse, which hangs off the mountainside at 1900 feet. The house looks down on the old castle and then out to the southwest across the wide expanse of the Vale di Umbra, once an ancient lake. The mountain rising behind the house—Monte Serano—is over 4500 feet tall. In the distance across the valley, at the base of mountains, is a large town with a distinctive castle towering over it: Spoleto. The view from the house is absolutely phenomenal. I especially like it at night… the night sky above and lights all across the valley, surprisingly populated for an area that seems quite rural. The Campello Alto castle is illuminated just below us, as is the Rocca in distant Spoleto.

Our apartment is the lower floor of a 16th farmhouse, restored just a few years ago by our hosts Karen and Martin, who live in the upper level. (They also rent a separate cottage on the hillside above the main house.) Martin is German—an architect—and Karen is American, a ceramicist who has her studio in one area of the house. The house is called Roccia Viva, which means “living rock,” a technical term for surfacing of natural rock formations within an interior or exterior space. The artistic style of both Martin and Karen is clearly evident in the design and decoration of the apartment—it’s a beautiful restoration. Karen’s ceramics and Martin’s artwork add special touches to the décor.

The apartment is spacious and light and extremely comfortable, a house that’s a blend of the very old and the very modern, right in the space where farm animals were once stabled. The long house is built along a narrow terrace on the mountainside, actually built into the mountainside. The back wall incorporates the natural rock of the mountain…. in the entranceway, the bathroom and the large living/dining room. In the living room, the old hay manger extends in front of the rock, creating an extremely unique effect. The opposite wall faces out to the valley… several windows and doors leading to the outdoor terraces and our own private view of the panorama of the Vale di Umbra. We’ve spent many hours on the main terrace, even eating most of our meals outside.

The kitchen is modern and well equipped, with blond wood cabinets—quite a contrast to our tiny old-fashioned kitchen space in Tuscany. The appliances are beautiful and new: a large refrigerator, a glistening range, a microwave, a small dishwasher. Like our kitchen in Provence, this kitchen makes me want to cook. We even have a pasta machine and a library of cookbooks… and we’ve used what we learned in our cooking class to make homemade pasta a couple of times.

The two bedrooms (Kelly’s room with a single bed is off of ours) are simple and clean. We share one spacious bathroom (complete with rock wall) with a great shower and plenty of hot water. The house also has some unexpected treats for Kelly: three cats and a friendly young dog named Argo whose head and body don’t quite match. Kelly and Argo quickly bonded, and Argo seemed excited to have a young friend to play with. Karen and Martin went away for a few days during our stay, and Kelly was thrilled to feed the cats for Karen…and disappointed that Argo went off to a kennel. A few afternoons ago Kelly and I both fell asleep while reading in the living room. I had left the terrace door open and awoke to find a wet Argo nose touching mine.

We really enjoy spending time at this house. Several days we’ve stayed close to home, lounging on the sunny terrace, daydreaming across the view, and reading good books from the selection in the living room. I’ve probably read ten books since we’ve been here. Kelly and Charley have even gone out without me a few times… I’ve just been happy to stay here at this special place.

But the pull of Umbria has also been strong. We’ve also been anxious to explore the beautiful countryside we can see from our terrace.

Friends in Umbria

We’ve shared part of our Umbrian experience with a friend from Knoxville, my former co-worker Scott McDonald. He had planned to visit us in Provence over Christmas, but his flight was cancelled and couldn’t be rescheduled. Instead he ended up coming to stay with us in Umbria over the 4th of July holiday weekend… all the way to Italy for four days with the Wood family. He arrived on the train from Rome with a suitcase full of treats: pop tarts, candy, pancake mix and syrup, Mexican food kits, stuffed animals for Kelly, and a Knoxville t-shirt for me. He also brought a load of books I had ordered for Kelly on Amazon… an early birthday present and hopefully enough to last her for the rest of our trip.

We had a wonderful time during Scott’s visit, and he was an ideal guest: easy-going, flexible in his diet, and open to new experiences. He also had no problem sleeping on the foldout couch or sharing a bathroom. We saw beautiful towns, mountains and countryside during our four days together. We had good food and wine, in restaurants and at home. We had a fun evening on the 4th of July, when Kelly organized some special activities. But most of all, we enjoyed the conversations and the quiet times, admiring the view from our terrace. Scott’s visit definitely helped whet our appetite for being back with our friends in America in just a few weeks

We’ve also gotten together with several Americans who live permanently in Umbria. Karen Bamonte and her German husband Martin Stubenrauch are the owners of Roccia Viva. Martin has been away for part of our stay, but we’ve gotten to know Karen quite well. She’s been extremely friendly and helpful, even making me an appointment with her hairdresser in Spoleto for a much-needed haircut, my first in over three months. I had been intrigued by Karen’s story on the website (another attraction of the house), and she’s really a remarkable person. We couldn’t believe it when she told us she’s in her mid 50’s… I would have been much less surprised if she told me she was 35. She was educated in the fine arts and was a dancer and then a choreographer and dance company director. She only shifted to ceramics in the last several years, and now sells and exhibits her work. We visited her studio while Scott was with us, and he bought a beautiful piece to take home. Last night we invited Karen and Martin downstairs for a drink, and it was interesting to hear their stories and learn more about the restoration of this house. This was the first real conversation we’ve had with Martin, who has his architectural office in the village. When Karen and Martin bought the house about five years ago, it was a ruin. No one had lived here for over 30 years and even then it was very rustic. There was one electric light bulb hanging from the ceiling and no indoor plumbing. They had to park down on another road and access the house by foot, later building the small road that now leads to Roccia Viva.

We also got together with a couple other friends from the Slow Travel website. During our first week we drove north of Perugia to visit Judith Greenwood at her home near Citta di Castello. Judith’s name on Slow Travel is “Decobabe.” She was a great host, fixing us a wonderful lunch (lemon pasta, turkey and beans) and making special efforts to entertain Kelly. It was interesting to learn about her decision to move to Italy and her new life in the Italian countryside. Kelly spent much of our visit outside, playing with a couple of sweet kittens. This was the first time Kelly had ever been around a kitten.

Then this week we drove west to the village of San Venanzo (near Marsciano) to visit Barb and Art Skinner, other Slow Travelers who moved to Umbria from Louisville, Kentucky about two years ago. They gave us the grand tour of their house, a very neat place right in the village. They even have a little garden area in the back that adjoins a small park. We especially loved their kitchen, which had a woodburning fireplace at counter-level and the pull out storage drawers that we like so much. We had wine in the garden and a wonderful lunch—a pasta dish that Kelly just raved about. After lunch we went for a drive. Barb and Art took us to a mosaics workshop hidden away in a cave-like space in a small neighboring hamlet called Rotecastello. We would never have found this place on our own. The son was the artist, and his parents seemed to run the business side of things. They were all so friendly and even showed us a few pieces in their home upstairs. Kelly loved the mosaics and bought a beautiful little wall hanging—they gave a special price just for her. (She claimed at the time that she would not need an allowance for the rest of the trip.) Barb and Art also took us to a local winery where Charley filled a five-liter jug… hopefully this will get him through the next few weeks. By the end of our six hours together, Barb and Art seemed like old friends. We’ve been fortunate to make so many new friends on this trip, many of whom I feel sure we will see again. (Barb’s blog gives a more detailed story of our visit, including photos… it was interesting to find ourselves in someone else’s blog!)

Exploring Umbria

One of our most interesting experiences in Umbria was “Il Mercato delle Gaite” in the village of Bevagna near Montefalco. Our first full day in Umbria coincided with the last day of this ten-day medieval festival. Bevagna is organized into four districts or “gaites” and the festival is a type of competition between the districts. Each district created an authentic medieval environment. The streets and houses were decorated and all the villagers—even small children—wore medieval costumes; many people really seemed to take on a medieval persona. In certain special places, old medieval crafts were demonstrated. We saw a blacksmith at work, visited a papermaking operation, and watched two men make rope. Other villagers made candles and spun wool, and there was an archery competition. Even though it was a Sunday afternoon, all the local merchants were open and participating in some way. Each district had a special “gastronomic” area where food was served, apparently also part of the competition. We felt like we had stepped back in time five hundred years or more.

We visited the town of Spoleto a couple of times, just a 20-minute drive from our house. The town’s history dates back over 2500 years to the Iron Age. In 241 BC Spoleto became a Roman colony and in the 9th century was one of the most important cities in Italy. Today it is probably best known for its annual arts festival, which involves a month-long program of drama, music, dance, art, and film events. This year’s Spoleto Festival coincided with our visit. We went to the festival office and got a program of events, but didn’t end up going to anything. Our first visit was on a Monday, and we weren’t too impressed with Spoleto. The parking was confusing, the streets were too steep, and nothing was open. We should have remembered that in many towns, most of the stores and restaurants are closed on Monday. On our subsequent visits, we got more comfortable with the town and wished we had made our major sightseeing trip on a different day of the week.

We did our most aggressive sightseeing during Scott’s visit. On Saturday we drove 30 minutes north to the walled hillside city of Assisi, best known as the home of St. Francis, one of the most beloved of all the saints. St. Francis was born in Assisi in 1182, the son of a well-to-do draper. He chose instead to pursue a simple life of poverty and founded a religious order. Today Assisi is a major pilgrimage destination, and the basilica is one of the most impressive we have seen, on the exterior and interior. We had not remembered that Umbria was hit by a major earthquake in 1997. The St. Francis basilica was seriously impacted and its restoration (now complete) was a major priority. There are actually two separate basilicas on two different levels, both decorated extensively with beautiful old frescoes. One series of frescoes in the upper basilica (painted by Giotto between 1296 and 1304) tells the story of the life of St. Francis. Adjacent to the lower basilica is the dimly-lit crypt where the remains of St. Francis and a few of his closest followers are buried in a simple, thought-provoking environment.

After our hour at the basilica, we walked the length of the old town. There are beautiful buildings, art galleries, lots of shops, even some Roman ruins. The town was busy, but not as touristy as many other places we have been. Scott made several purchases for friends back home.

That evening we went out for a special dinner at Il Castello di Poreta, a small hotel/restaurant on a neighboring hillside in the ruins of an old castle. We ate on the outdoor terrace, watching a beautiful sunset across the Vale di Umbra. To the north we had a clear view of the Castello di Campello Alto and our own house just above. This was one of the best meals of our trip…. the right combination of environment, food and dining companions…. topped off by that perfect sunset. We had four courses and shared two bottles of wine.

On Sunday we left early and drove up into bigger mountains to the Parco dei Monti Sibillini and the town of Nórcia. This national park has over 50 mountain peaks that are over 6500 feet high. Nórcia is an old Roman town, and St. Benedict (the patron saint of Europe) was born here in 480. The Basilica di San Benedetto is built on the ruins of an old Roman forum, supposedly also the spot where St. Benedict and his twin sister St. Scolastica were born. (We have sure learned a lot about the Catholic saints on this trip!) We were able to walk in a section of the church where the Roman ruins have been excavated.

We enjoyed our few hours in Nórcia, a busy place on Sunday at midday. Most of the visitors seemed to be Italians. The town is filled with food shops called “norcineria” selling sausages, hams, truffles, cheeses, dried pasta and other local delicacies. Cinghiale (wild boar) is definitely a specialty and many of the butcher shops were adorned with stuffed boars or mounted boar heads. We ate at a local place—Taverna dè Massari—a restaurant recommended by one of the shopkeepers. The owner was a bit surly, but our waitress was friendly. Scott and I both had pasta dishes featuring truffles (tartufo). The truffles here are considered among the best in the world and were much cheaper than they were in Provence. I finally feel like I’ve really tasted truffles.

From Nórcia we continued winding through the mountains to the Piano Grande, an immense and very beautiful green plain (five miles long and three miles wide at 4100 feet above sea level) ringed by mountains and filled with flowers. We stopped the car on the edge of the mountain to watch a man and his dogs herd a large flock of sheep and a couple of goats. We looked down across the huge grassy plain. It was simply beautiful, but we weren’t quite sure what was happening down there. Midway across the plain, stretched across the vast field of green, we could see a long line of white stretching almost all the way across to the mountains on either side. As we headed down into the Piano Grande on the narrow road we were surprised to discover lots of cars pulled off the road… their owners sitting on lounge chairs and picnic blankets in the big grassy field as if they were at the beach, romping through the flowers with dogs and small children. The line of white turned out to be a long line of campers and RVs—at least 100 and maybe more… apparently weekenders from the Italian cities coming out to the countryside. A few vans even sold drinks and snacks.

At the other end of the Piano Grande we reached the hilltop village of Castelluccio, the highest village in Umbria (4790 feet) and known for its production of lentils. Although I had read that the village has a population of only 40 people, it was so crowded that we didn’t even stop. We later learned that we probably should have made our visit to the Piano Grande on a day other than a weekend, especially in early July. It was still absolutely beautiful—especially all the wildflowers—but it was so very crowded on that strange Sunday… almost a carnival atmosphere. At least the tourism seemed temporary. There weren’t any billboards, fast food joints, theme parks, t-shirt stores, or miniature golf centers like we find around the beautiful Smoky Mountains in our home state.

On the way home, we made a detour at Spoleto to take the twisty mountain road to Monteluco. The winding road passes above the big Spoleto castle (the Rocca de Papi) and the 13th century aqueduct and continues all the way to the top of the mountain. Much to our surprise, there was also an enormous Sunday crowd at Monteluco… and some kind of flea market. We decided not to get out of the car but did find a quiet spot farther back down the mountain where we could stop and admire the remarkable views over Spoleto. From this point we also looked back up the valley toward Campello and could see the Campello Alto and the tiny speck of our own house on the mountainside.

On Scott’s last day with us we drove back over to Tuscany. We wanted him to see something of that beautiful region too—and we wanted a few final hours there ourselves. Cortona was just an hour away. We had lunch, walked around the village, checked out the big church, and visited a few shops. Then we drove over to Montepulciano so Scott could experience a Tuscan wine town.

I really wanted to go to the town of Deruta, famous for its ceramics. There are over 200 ceramics shops in and around Deruta. My mother has a large collection of rooster pitchers, many of which come from Deruta. She would find much of Italy a rooster-pitcher paradise! I was determined to visit Deruta in her honor—and to buy some ceramics for both of us. We stopped by for a quick hour on our way to Barb and Art’s, just enough time to visit a couple of shops and—at one large shop that really caught our interest—buy several things we could have shipped home.

Our last major day trip in Umbria was to Orvieto, which was highly recommended by Art Skinner. We were so glad he did, because we really liked it. We took a long route over—through Spoleto and then across the mountains. The drive along Lago di Corbara was especially beautiful. Orvieto is one of the old Etruscan cities and sits high on a rocky plateau, actually on top of an extinct volcano. We parked at the bottom of the town, took a funicular up, and then walked through the narrow streets to the famous cathedral. We have seen so many wonderful churches and cathedrals in Europe this past year… and Orvieto is near the top of the list. It was built between 1290 and 1600 to house some important relics (a blood-stained cloth from the Miracle of Bolsena) and stands on a big square surrounded by other important-looking old buildings. The exterior is decorated with mosaics. We just peeked through the bars into the side chapel with the frescoes of the Apocalypse by Signorelli, who also painted many of the frescoes at Monte Oliveto Maggiore near Chiusure. There was a separate charge to see the frescoes, which required going over to the Tourist Office to buy tickets. There we learned that we would have to buy a combination ticket that also included another art exhibit, so we decided to pass on the frescoes. I should know better by now. Of course, I’ve regretted not paying the five euros to see the Signorelli frescoes. I should have let Charley and Kelly wait outside. I didn’t even need to go to the other art exhibit.

We had lunch at a good pizzeria near the cathedral and then wandered around Orvieto for the rest of the afternoon. There are lots of tourist shops, many selling pottery and wine. Before taking the funicular back down to the parking lot, we walked along the walls of the old 14th century fortezza, looking out across the valley and the surrounding vineyards. We had hoped to visit Todi (another hilltop town) on this same day trip, but we just ran out of time and will have to see Todi on another trip to Umbria. We took a shorter route home across the valley, passing through the unusually named village of Bastardo. We had an interesting discussion with Kelly about that one!

A famous Umbrian tourist spot was actually in Campello—the Fonti del Clitunno, a natural spring and lush garden spot from Roman times. There’s also a fifth century temple nearby. Charley and Kelly stopped by one day, hoping it had a playground, but I never even made it to the tourist spot closest to our house. We also never made it to the upper town of Trevi. So we have several things on our list for another visit….

Unexpected Umbria

We didn’t know what to expect from Umbria… and we certainly didn’t expect to like it as much as we have. We love our unique house, which has added so much to our experience. We’ve enjoyed more special times with other people. And we really like the environment—the rugged and rocky mountains, the olive trees, the vineyards, the ancient hilltop towns, the fields of sunflowers.

It’s probably natural to compare Umbria to the neighboring region of Tuscany. Although we were only two hours away from our previous home in Tuscany, we found Umbria quite different. At least where we’re living, it seems more rural and primitive. We’re staying in a place where other English-speaking tourists don’t go. But we can drive just 15 minutes and we’re in an Umbria that definitely feels more modern than the Tuscany we knew best. Maybe it’s just that big freeway cutting right through the valley or the factories near Foligno. Or maybe it’s the big American-style shopping mall and supermarket just south of Foligno. It’s quite a culture shock to bump down our mountain road, past the 10th century castle, through the sleepy village of La Bianca, then to the freeway and the Piazza Umbra mall! But then this is one thing I enjoy about Europe: the ancient and the modern sit side by side and it somehow works.

St. Francis, St. Benedict, Hannibal, the Etruscans, the Romans… we’re in the midst of thousands of years of history, surrounded by mountains and olive trees, hilltowns and castles… and masses of happy sunflowers. Umbria has been an unexpected delight.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 25, 2005 11:05 AM.

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