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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 5 of 12: Assisi, and The Friendly Rosticceria

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The Rocco Maggiore - My nemesis

By day four, we had settled into a routine. C. liked to get up early and go for a run; he usually accomplished this before I could even get out of bed. I would get up and make the coffee, which was done by the time he got back, and we would then attack our warm loaf of daily bread, slathering it with butter, jam and honey. After tidying up, C. would visit Silvana’s compost heap with our waste, visiting with the animals for a bit. I would take a luxurious shower and sit on the porch, he lingered over the IHT crossword puzzle. Then we would look at each other and decide if it was time to go out the door. No rushing, no timetables, no agenda.

We decided today would be Assisi day. So into the car we went, onto the roads that were now entirely familiar to C. He hardly needed to look at the map anymore. Along the way, we passed through a pretty little valley town and on the outskirts, a walled cemetery. C. wanted to see it, and I reluctantly followed him in, hoping we would be alone. There is something about wandering about a cemetery with no reason that makes me feel disrespectful. Thankfully, it was peaceful, quiet and empty, but since it was a rather modern cemetery, I got the feeling it was not what C. had expected. Oward to Assisi.

We followed the mass of cars entering the upper town to a parking lot outside the gate nearest to the Basilica di San Francesco. I think Assisi is one of those towns that grabs you right away, provided you can get beyond the throngs. We deliberately took the path that led away from the Basilica, climbing our way up the steep, steep streets that lead to Assisi’s center from that direction.

The Piazza del Commune is the lovely medieval epicenter of Assisi, presided over by the beautifully preserved Temple of Minerva. The steps outside are a perfect spot to pause and enjoy the parade of tourists and pilgrims while you get your bearings. I was very keen on seeing some of the major churches of Assisi, so we headed off to visit the San Ruffino Cathedral next. From there, we made our way down the the Basilica di Santa Chiara, which was made a little difficult by some major construction on the streets leading to it. What a sight it was to behold when we finally reached it; a huge, lively piazza, with the insanely beautiful Basilica built frome pretty pink stone.

We paused to admire the view over the valley below and rest in the warm spring sun. C. kept eyeing the Rocco Maggiore, set majestically in the blue sky, with obvious lust in his heart. I knew he wanted badly to climb up to it, and I wanted badly to find a gift for my mother. We were both up for some quality time apart; I could shop and wander and he could climb his mountain. We would meet at the other end of Assisi, at the Basilica di San Francesco, in a few hours.

I took advantage of the time to leisurely stroll back to the Piazza del Commune, stopping in many stores along the way. I was happy to find a shop with a large selection of antique rosaries, and selected a beautiful one with hand-painted beads that I knew my mother would adore. Along the way, I stopped into every church I came across. I lingered for a while in the Chiesa Nuova, a church built in 1615 by King Phillip III of Spain, upon the supposed childhood home of St. Francis.

After a quick pizza snack on the stairs in front of the Temple of Minerva, I then made my way slowly towards the Basilica di San Francesco. Being the first to arrive, I had to resist every impulse to sneak in on my own, opting instead to wait for C. so we could enjoy it together. C. showed up soon enough, flushed from his bracing climb up to the Rocca, which I now viewed as my Assisi nemesis. C. is incredibly fit. I am incredibly not. He told me happily that he climbed up to the Rocca Maggiore not once, but twice, loving the view so much, he had to do it all over again. He got some beautiful pictures and even firmer glutes, and I got seven different jars of mostarda.

The moment had arrived to explore the Basilica. We started with the Upper Church, which all the guide books tell you not to do. I couldn’t help it; I wanted so badly to see Giotto’s fresco cycle of the Life of St. Francis. When we entered, the first thing that came to mind after I caught my breath was the devastation caused by the earthquake that rocked Umbria in 1997, and the incredible effort it took to restore the Basilica. It was unimaginable to picture the cathedral filled with piles of fallen rocks and beams. We tread softly and in silence. I don’t think I even came close to taking it all in.

In the Lower Church, we both were overcome with what we saw, especially Cimabue’s Madonna Enthroned with Four Angels, as well as the Cappella della Maddalena. The Lower Church was quite crowded, and there were numerous pilgrims who were visibily moved to tears, or knelt in intense prayer. It was hard not to feel like an intruder, or to feel intruded upon. We chose to simply sit quietly for a spell, before creeping out into the brilliant sunshine. Our time in Assisi had been perfect, and C. was hungry. As we drove away, I stared behind me in the Alfa, vowing to return one day to do it all again and more.

On the way back towards our home base, C. looked at the map and decided to take some of the roads through the Valle Umbra that we had not yet explored. Along the way, we passed through some small villages that ranged from quietly cute to very nondescript, and whizzed past many, many farms. C. loved taking pictures of farm equipment, and we constantly pulled over to snap what we hoped would turn out to be the ultimate tractor shot. We passed by more flocks of sheep, some guys fishing in a rushing stream with tremendous poles, and accidentally found ourselves on private property by mistake, where some startled dogs began chasing the Alfa as we made our U-turn.

Hunger motivated C. to head towards Bevagna again. But on the way, he screeched the car to halt when he spotted a roadside rosticceria, with a huge sign posted that said “Porchetta.” He announced, “I need a porchetta sandwich.” We pulled in, but I had my doubts that it would be open in the afternoon; the place looked deserted. I called out to see if anyone was around, and very friendly fellow popped out instantly. He had an odd, black-striped shirt, similar to what a gondolier wears in Venice, and his curly hair was tied back into a long, bushy ponytail. I asked in Italian if we could get a porchetta sandwich. He paused noticably for a moment or two, confirming my suspicions that they really were not open for business.

Our intention was to simply get a porchetta sandwich to go. But before we knew it, we were being ushered into a tiny stone structure, with a very low ceiling, a small fireplace, and a teeny, tiny bar. There was one communal table in the center of the room, with three smaller tables along two of the walls, and a sweet-faced, younger girl was setting them up for the night. Our new friend in the striped shirt told her to put us at the big table, and before we knew it we had a huge pitcher of water and an even larger pitcher of house red wine plunked down in front of us, follwed by colorful cloth napkins and two forks. We laughed and looked at each other, wondering what would come next.

We drank some water, and then some wine from jelly-jar glasses, noting that neither of us would be able to simultaneously enjoy both water and wine unless we designated one glass for each and shared. While giggling over that fact, a huge platter of sliced, roasted meat was deposited between us, and a basket of crusty rolls. The meat had been rubbed with spices, coarse salt and crushed pepper. It was decidedly pink. I knew it wasn’t pork, and C. asked the friendly fellow, “Porchehetta?” He replied back that it was lamb, with a wide smile. The pair of them both went back to setting up the place for the night. They were clearly not open, they didn’t have what we asked for, yet there we were, enjoying a feast.

The roasted lamb was delicious, perfectly seasoned, and made a damn good sandwich. The wine was equally wonderful, light-bodied and highly quaffable. The urge to chat with our charming hosts was irresistible, and soon a conversation began with my best efforts in Italian and their very limited knowledge of English. We did not learn the name of the establishment, but we learned that the pretty young lady, Caterina, had a boyfriend who had just moved to Chicago, and the fellow, Andrea, had never been to the U.S. but was thrilled to learn that we were from New York. We asked them about the upcoming Italian elections, and they both expressed their dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Berlusconi, but thought that he would win again. Andrea then said it was somewhat like our situation with President Bush, an astute observation that proved he knew more about our politics than most Americans knew about his.

We polished off that pile of meat pretty handily, and all of the wine. It was difficult to leave this friendly little scene, and when we were finally able to tear ourselves away, there were hugs and kisses all around. The bill was something utterly ridiculous for the huge amount of food and drink we had consumed. Andrea handed me a slip of paper with €10 written on it. C. and I drove away from there, not even knowing the name of the place, but knowing we had a unique Italian experience.

From there, we had the brilliant idea of going back to Montefalco - we could admire the view without the fog, and if we hung around long enough, have a meal at the much-anticipated L’Alchimista. So off we went, and this time, we drove right up to the main piazza of Montefalco. But, alas, there was the enoteca/restuarant, shut tight and closed for the day. Drat.

Here is where the loosey-goosey style of travel bit me in the butt. Not really knowing what else to do, we thought we should at least decide where we would eat that night. C. thought he could easily fit another meal down; he seemed to have a tapeworm that particular day. I consulted my notes that I had gathered from Slow Travel and noticed that I had jotted down a recommendation from Letizia of Alla Madonna del Piatto for a restaurant in Matigge di Trevi. So back to Trevi we headed, thinking Matigge di Trevi would be a town in the valley below Trevi. Amazingly, we found Mattige, which was not even on our map, but we could not find the restaurant. It grew dark, the jubilation from the roasted lamb experience had worn off, and we were cranky.

C. decided to ask someone for directions, and miraculously, they knew of the restaurant and within minutes we pulled into the gravel driveway. Hip-hip-hooray!! It lookd cozy, the kind of place where you have an amazing, spontaneous meal; two tiny dogs ran out to greet us, yapping loudly as we approached the front door. Their owner, an attractive woman, apologized, and said that the restaurant was closed. Utter dejection once again. We had come all this way for nothing, it was now close to nine o’clock. Back in the car, we looked at each other and started laughing. We were not even hungry. It had become more about a quest unfulfilled than a real need for food, perhaps fueled by the five pounds of roasted lamb and two quarts of red wine we had consumed a few hours before.

There was no dinner that night, but we did take a nice drive, and the stars were shining over the Valle Umbra as we made our way home.

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