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Report 1084: A Springtime Slow Travel Prize: Ten Glorious Days In Umbria And A Little Bit Of Rome

By Stella from New York, NY, Spring 2006

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Page 2 of 12: Arrival, the Alfa, the Autostrada and Our Abode

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The olive trees of Le Case Gialle

We arrived in Italy on April 1st. There are no airline horror stories to report, other than the standard degree of horrible involved in long-haul economy class travel. The Alitalia plane was new, but oh-so-cramped. Both C. and I had aisle seats, but it was impossible to get comfortable and get any kind of restful sleep; I think we both managed about an hour. But the crew was nice and the flying itself smooth. C. was able to watch a DVD on my laptop, which killed about ¼ of the flight for him. I was stranded, constantly caught in that netherworld of drowse, in between awake and asleep, painfully aware of the limitations of the standard airline seat.

The sensations, sounds and smells of being back in Italy washed away any bad flight memories. It was warm at Fiumicino by the time we landed, already about 75 degrees at noon. Lines for baggage and passport stamping were relatively quick, and we groggily traversed one terminal to another to get to the Europcar rental counter. Within minutes, we were given our key to our silver-gray Alfa Romeo 147, which was also part of my Slow Travel prize. The key was handed over to C. immediately; I wanted no part of Italian driving and was happy to let him live out some fantasies behind the wheel. C. turned out to be an Italian driver at heart. He had no trouble following the unwritten rules of the Autostrada, and I have to confess that I was thoroughly impressed with this prowess behind the wheel of that Alfa. Sorry, Mazda, but the shifting of an Alfa Romeo defines the meaning zoom, zoom, zoom.

I did my best to navigate, which wasn’t much of a contribution; nonetheless, our time on the Autostrada was easy. When we exited at Orte, I told C. to go in the credit card lane to pay the toll. It was momentarily confusing, but in the end, we were impressed with how easy the transaction was. We simply inserted our toll ticket, followed by a credit card and through the gate we went. Painless! We quickly met up with a very road-worn Volkswagen Beetle circa 1972, which was stalled in front of us, having just exited the toll. The driver was a bespectacled, silver-haired lady with lots and lots of beads around her neck and numerous stickers on her bumper. We dubbed her the Aging Italian Hippie. As we passed her, I turned around to make sure she got going again, which she did, puttering along in the right lane. She wasn’t the only one with an aging vehicle on the Autostrada; C. fell in love with every old Italian car we passed. Fiat Pandas, Puntos, aging Renaults, and the occasional Cinquecento held a special charm for him. We spent the remainder of our time in Italy pointing them out to each other with a shout.

Once we exited the Autostrada, things became a little bit more complicated. The secondary road was fine; winding terciary roads were another story. This was our first introduction to the twisty curves and hairpin turns of the countryside, through towns and hamlets that were not even on our map. As we ventured further into the Umbrian hills, breathtaking vistas opened in front of us. C. experienced the thrill of shifting the Alfa, but I think I had the best end of the stick, so to speak. I gazed and oohed and ahhed, thoroughly neglecting my duties as navigator. ‘Twas no surprise, then, that we missed the turn to Le Case Gialle - at least three times. Thank goodness C. was driving. I don’t know if I was just groggy, confused or excited but I was absolutely no help. C. finally navigated us to the proper turn for the farm and we found the sign pointing us to our lovely agritourismo. Triumph!

We followed a white gravel road past a pretty yellow farmhouse built on the slopes of the hillside, and parked under a car park built from twisted wood and winding vines. Just as we exited, a small SUV pulled up behind us and I recognized the driver as Mauro, the owner and olive oil producer I had come to know him from his picture on Le Case Gialle’s website. He stepped out and greeted me warmly; the tedium of our arrival was officially over and I finally felt like I was on vacation! Mauro explained he was off to take his son and daughter into town and that his wife Silvana was on her way to check us in. He had been waiting for us to arrive, and was happy to hear that we had made good time from our landing to our arrival at Le Case Gialle.

Silvana waved at us from the pathway that led from her farmhouse to the apartments. She is a very cool lady, clad in Birkenstock gardening clogs, casual and full of charm. There was an easy familiarity around her, and she eagerly told us about the ongoing progress of maintaining and improving the farm and apartments. We were led down a stone path, past blooming plants and flowering herbs that filled the air with heavenly scents, around a vine-covered stone well, and into our own charming little stone farmhouse apartment, named Il Portico. The glass door with carved wooden shutters led into a main room, sparse and sweet, with an antique farm table and sideboard, a small kitchen line and a stone fireplace. The sofa bed looked cozy and inviting. A small hall led to the roomy bathroom and then the master bedroom. The bedroom and main room both exited onto a wide porch, which we had all to ourselves, with huge wooden chairs made from tree trunks lined with deep, soft cushions. There was also a long, narrow table for dining, and the view led our eyes to Montefalco, the surrounding hills, and in the distance, the Appenines. It was simply breathtaking.

Silvana showed us the olive trees that sloped sharply down the side of the hill upon which Le Case Gialle sits, leading us to the pool area, which was undergoing a bit of pre-season renovation. She was excited about the lovely tiles they had selected to line the pool, and the new solar panels that would heat both the pool and the apartments come next fall. We also learned that we were sharing our accommodation with a menagerie of roosters, geese, a couple of chickens, a pig, a donkey and some sheep. Silvana told us, sadly, that a fox had recently killed nine of their chickens. Mauro would be going to an animal fair tomorrow to get some new chickens and other mystery animals. C.’s eyes lit up. I could tell that he wanted badly to go to the animal fair with Mauro.

Silvana bid us a good afternoon, leaving us with a bottle of fine Montefalco Rosso wine and some of their award-winning olive oil. About two minutes after the door closed, we found some thick, luscious blankets and collapsed into a very long nap. Around 6:00, we shook ourselves awake, although I think we could have both easily slept through the night. Hunger was the true motivation, and we decided that we would try the nearby town of Bevagna for dinner. After some quick freshening up, we shut our apartment and headed for the car. It was 7:00ish and still wonderfully light, but dusk was quickly approaching. Once again, C. was not only an excellent driver but a wise navigator; after a glimpse at the map he had seemingly memorized every turn.

We found the centro storico of lovely little Bevagna with no trouble whatsoever, parking in a lot just outside the medieval gate. Bevagna was pretty and peaceful as we strolled along in the twilight. I noticed an alimentari that was still open and dashed in for some provisions for our morning breakfast. I realized quickly that I needed to brush up on my Italian; to my surprise, I stammered and stumbled over words that usually came quite easily to me. I clearly annoyed the young lady behind the counter who was trying to cut me a piece of cheese. Jet lag, I kept telling myself, wishing she would cut me some slack.

We wandered around Bevagna in the dusky light; by now it was about 8:30 pm and the locals were out and about, having early drinks at a few bars, spilling out onto narrow, stone streets with conversation and cigarettes. An arrow pointed to one of the restaurants on both mine and Silvana’s lists, Ottavius. Down a block and around a corner, we found the vine and flower covered entrance. It was still early by Italian standards, and there were about four other parties in the restaurant. We were seated and quickly presented with a bottle of aqua minerale and handwritten menus, and started with a bottle of white, the local Grechetto from Antonelli; it was crisp, tasting of minerals, soil and flowers.

Our first dinner was very good. We started with “Uova con Tartfufo,” which was basically a plate of softly scrambled eggs, with a copious amount of grated fresh local black truffles and lots of Umbrian olive oil. The texture was soft and creamy and the color was intensely yellow. Everything just dissolved in your mouth. The flavor of the truffles was not overpowering, just earthy and perfectly present. The other plate was a mixed antipasto; little tastes that we shared: Bresaola with pecorino, a small eggplant rolletino stuffed with tomato and herbs, tender and perfect slices of barely sautéed zucchini bathed in olive oil (our favorite thing on the plate!), a crostino of diced artichoke bathed in olive oil and a crostino of roasted garlic and olive oil puree. There was also a little “sandwich” of sautéed greens and thinly sliced sausage, and a thickly sliced wedge of warm mortadella which, quite simply, tasted like a pig. I now think that mortadella should always be served like that, about half an inch thick and grilled. It was less like bologna and more like a piece of meat, and the flavor just went on and on and on.

Next we had pasta. Picchietti con guanciale and pecorino di fossa. Ooooooooh. The pasta was handrolled, perfectly al dente, and the guanciale was sweet. The other pasta was billed as Tagliatelle “of the season,” so it came with more black truffles, which is never a bad thing. This pasta was made with plenty of egg, so it was bright yellow, and bathed again in olive oil and lots of black truffles. No cheese to disturb the flavor of those two components, We devoured both plates.

We shared our last course. It was a mixed grill that included a charred, very intensely flavored fresh sausage, one grilled lamb chop, veal wrapped in pancetta and pan seared, and an unknown cut that was rolled, breaded and fried. The portions were small; just enough for two bites of each for both of us. It was all a bit well done for our taste, but nothing was dry, and C. marveled at how flavorful the actual meats were. Next to the meat was a blob of fresh fava puree. Again, everything was bathed in fine Umbrian olive oil.

Basta. Enough. There was no room for dessert. Two orders of espresso and we were perfectly set. As a neighboring table of Americans departed, some gentlemen stopped to say hello and asked us where we from. They were retirees from California, sweet as can be and we chatted about our mutual travels. It was very kind of them to stop and say hello and wish us well – one of the little moments that make traveling so utterly satisfying. By this time it was about 10:30 pm and Ottavius was packed with a lively all-Italian crowd, both the large outer room and our smaller room were fully seated. We were perfectly happy to linger with our wine for another half-hour and soak it all in.

As we strolled back to the car, I insisted we stop off for some gelato at a very sweet little bar. We had some homemade hazelnut and amarena flavors mixed in a small cup. A perfect, tiny amount to share as we slowly walked through the old, charming center of Bevagna. The drive home was great; C. proved to have a mind for directions like a steel trap. He remembered every turn and I knew I could rest easy for the rest of the trip. We would not get lost again, and if we did, he would surely get us out of it.

Back at the farmhouse, the hillsides twinkled with towns that we could see in the distance: Montefalco and Bevagna, with Spello peeking out from a corner. Time to snuggle under our blankets again, read, and finally, sleep.

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