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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 3 of 12: Perugia, Spello and Sleeping Through Dinner

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Le Case Gialle has a wonderful menagerie, as I mentioned before. Add to the mix of roosters, turkeys, geese, sheep, pigs, dogs and a donkey the varied wildlife and birds that live in the hills in which this place is nestled, and you have a lively chorus of animal voices. C. and I were both awakened on our first morning around 4:00 am by what seemed to be a terrible row. It sounded as if a cat was being strangled outside our door, but after shaking off the initial shock and sleepiness, we realized that some birds were having a very loud argument, and the sheep were joining in. It was an interesting way to wake up. I was uncharacteristically able to fall back asleep, but C. could not. When I finally emerged from the bedroom, he was on his second round of coffee.

As promised, a loaf of fresh bread from a local bakery had appeared on our porch. We dug in, slicing it, toasting it and slathering it with very good Italian butter, Silvana’s homemade jam and honey. Coffee from the stovetop moka pot was excellent, as I discovered that C. is quite good at making it perfectly.

Since it was Sunday, we decided to visit a larger city - all of the hill towns would likely be closed up tight. Perugia would fit the bill, so we showered, got dressed, and were out the door by about 10:30. The trip to Perugia was utterly wonderful; for the first half we took the scenic back roads, which were filled with amazing views. Once we reached Perugia it was fun to follow the twists and turns up the steep hillside upon which the city is perched. Much to my surprise, we found ourselves quite near to the top, and after a few more turns, I looked up from our map, ready to provide some insight about where to park, when I recognized Piazza IV Novembre and Perugia’s Duomo right in front of us! Egads! How did we manage to get this high? Thank goodness it was still quite early, and nobody in a uniform was around to chase us out of the restricted traffic zone. We quickly looked for parking and found a car park at the bottom of a steep, steep, decline. It was like driving down a roller coaster.

We parked the Alfa, took our ticket and headed back in the same direction. Now it was like walking straight up a rollercoaster, over rough, cobbled steps, dodging cars all the while. If you think of the layout of the streets as concentric circles, we went up about two “levels” to get back to the Duomo and Palazzo dei Priori. It was brilliantly sunny, blue skies filled with big, puffy clouds. Lots of young people and families were out and about, enjoying a Sunday morning in Perugia. We joined the crowd that strolled along Corso Vannuci, and took in the views from a park at the end of the street that overlooked the valley below. I tried to pop into the Duomo, but mass was still being held. As I headed back out the front door, one of the pigeons hanging out overhead decided to take a pee, right on me. Pigeon pee is green, by the way.

I shook it off, literally, and we headed for the Gallerie Nazionale dell'Umbria. This collection is on the upper floors of the Palazzo dei Priori and contains numerous important works from Umbrian and Tuscan artists. On display was an exhibition, works by Piero di Cristoforo Vannucci, or as he was known, “il Perugino,” the man from Perugia. Nontheless, we plunged in, and spent an enjoyable hour in the nearly empty gallery.

We emerged hungry for a good lunch. Many of the recommended restaurants I had researched were closed on Sundays, so we settled for one that was not, Il Falchetto. We were the only Americans joining some locals who were just finishing their Sunday lunches.

We started with their mixed anitpasto selection and their plate of “Norcerie” meats and cheese. Now, let me state for the record that I am not usually tempted by the thought of "antipasti misti." It seems like a plate destined for the confused person who cannot make a proper decision. But C. really seemed to be into anything that offered a sampling. It made every meal seem like Christmas morning to him - lots of surprises under the tree.

Falchetto's mixed antipasti was quite good; bresaola was on top of dressed arugula and topped with shaved Parmigiano; there was a hot little sandwich of bread and ham and melted cheese, a savory pastry shell filled with truffled cream, two bruschetta – one was chopped black truffles and the other was pureed chicory or fava bean (we weren’t really sure), melon and proscuitto, and a stuffed, gratineed tomato and grilled eggplant. The mixed salumi were fabulous: more of that sweet proscuitto, coppa, salami, and something that looked like pancetta but wasn’t.

Next we had two pastas: Garganelli with a white veal sauce….very good but a tad salty, and an absolutely wonderful stuffed pasta: Tortellini stuffed with pureed squash and sauced in a saffron cream with bits of speck and basil. The smokiness of the speck was just subtle enough, and the sweetness of the basil ... ahhhh. It was a flavor combination to remember. We also shared a plate of broccoli bathed in olive oil spiked with peperoncino. For dessert, a wedge of super-sweet pineapple was just enough.

Well fed, we were off. Aside from the main square, much of Perugia was closed too, so much for my theory of spending Sunday in a big city. We wanted to perhaps head west towards Panicale, but it was hard to figure out which way to get there. We knew we would have to exit the city of at the proper gate to head in the proper direction. Ultimately we wanted to head west, but we exited east. After a few shots in the dark at re-charting our course, we gave up and decided to head for another town, pretty little Spello.

We reached Spello pretty quickly, passing Assisi on the way. Every time we passed Assisi, I became more and more excited to finally see it. In the meantime, Spello was utterly charming; all of the buildings are made of pretty pink stone. We were able to park about halfway up to the top, and hoofed it to the summit, where the views were wonderful, prompting another session of picture-taking. On the way down, we passed a doorway at the top of some stairs, where a pretty, plump Calico kitty was holding court. I could not resist, and began speaking to it in my best Italian kitty-talk. Spello Kitty, as we dubbed her, responded, and came down from her perch at the top of the stairs and proceeded to crawl straight into my heart. C. knew he was in trouble; there would be no tearing me away, so he was content to snap some pictures of our new friend and some of the surrounding streets.

I finally bid a misty farewell to Spello Kitty. The streets of Spello remained almost completely empty as we slowly made our way back to the car; it was almost eerie. We passed in and out of churches, turned onto as many side streets as we could, and we passed maybe ten other human beings in total.

Nontheless, Spello was apparently not as quiet as we thought; when we came upon the Alfa, C. immediately noticed that someone had clipped us pretty well, leaving some huge scrapes on the rear driver’s side of the bumper. Like the pigeon pee, we had to shake it off. By now it was pretty late in the afternoon, and we had nothing at home to eat or drink except bread and butter. We hit a few of the towns nearest to Le Case Gialle – Bastardo and Gualdo Cattaneo - hoping to find a market open, but, as I knew they would be, all the shops and markets were closed tight.

At that point, it didn’t matter. We were both tired, hoping to get a nap in before dinner. My feet were crying out from the new shoes I was foolishly attempting to instantly break in; I was sure that they were bleeding in a few painful places. By the time we got back to Le Case Gialle, it was about 6:30. I had my doubts that we would get a good nap in before having to leave again by 8:00-ish for dinner, but we were both horizontal as soon as we got in the door. C. sacked out on the lounge chair on the porch, and I curled up on the bed, trying to read so that at least one of us stayed awake. I was completely unsuccessful and passed out cold. We remained like rocks, lulled into a deep sleep by the chirping birds and buzzing bees that created a peaceful hum outside our porch door in the twilight. When I finally woke up, it was completely dark, and the night outside was silent and still. C. heard me stirring and woke up as well.

Neither of us even wanted to think of leaving to get something to eat. Jet lag had really thrown us for a loop, and combined with the thoroughly comfortable setting, we were like two limp rag dolls. It was late, past 9:00. The outlook for our tummies was grim. We sat at our empty table, silently pondering our hungry fate. I peered outside at the porch and my eyes suddenly focused on the sheen of some cellophane. Sitting on our porch table was a gift from our host! Mauro Colonna had graciously left us his version of the local Umbrian “Easter morning breakfast,” which consisted of sliced coppa and salami, a small dried sausage, some olives, two hard-boiled eggs and a rich, egg-y bread made with local pecorino. A veritable feast! Did Mauro see us sacked out, somehow knowing we would miss dinner? Did he have some sort of super-intution? From then on, I thought of Mauro as a knight in shining, salami-clad armour. My hero.

We set the table, opened the bottle of Montefalco Rosso, and dug in. I highly recommend mashing a hard boiled egg with some olive oil, pouring more olive oil on top, and sprinkling with sea salt. We raised our glasses to Mauro and toasted him for saving our tired, hungry butts. After our fabulous dinner, we wrapped ourselves in the huge, thick blankets from our beds and sat outside on the porch in the stillness of the night, talking and trading tales with our wine before turning in around midnight.

And we slept really, really well.

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