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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 6 of 12: Norcia, The Piano Grande, and the Very, Very Scary Ride

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The baby animals are the best thing about Spring

We woke up to a chilly, gray day. As we swung into our toast-and-coffee-and-crossword routine, we pondered whether or not we should go to Norcia and the Piano Grande. The weather could get worse, and then we would miss it. We only had three days left in Umbria. This was one of those moments when I was acutely aware that I had no internet connection. A quick check of the weather on the computer would have answered our questions. Throwing caution to the wind, we decided it just felt right to do Norcia today. It was settled.

For this particular jaunt I thought I was actually well-prepared, armed with complete instructions for getting to Norcia the fastest possible way. I handed them over to C., hoping to make up for my lack of planning faux pas the night before. But C. had spent some time studying the map while I was in the shower, and he proudly told me that he had found a more interesting way to Norcia, through the hills. C. had proven himself to be a master of navigation, so I had no reason to question him. Off we went.

What followed was a truly amazing two-hour drive into mountains, otherwise known as The Long Way To Norica. C. was an excellent driver, and I was a terrible passenger. My fear of heights - more specifically, the fear of death by tumbling down a steep hillside - reared its ugly head once again. I must say with all honesty that I have never been more terrified in my life than I was on that drive. But I was thrilled and excited and in complete awe of what I was experiencing at the same time. Up and up we drove, into the hills ... or were they mountains? At some point they definitely became mountains. Our Alfa wound its way on twisty roads that went vertical, with no guardrail. Sure, there were two lanes, but they were so narrow, it was laughable, unless you were too busy hyperventilating as I was. The possibility of plunging down the side of a hill and/or mountain seemed certain. Yet it was all so incredibly beautiful.

I cried. I didn’t mean to, but it was a very necessary release of the terror building within me. I tried not to be hyseterical; quite the contrary, I cried as quietly as I could. In between, I would exclaim, "Oh, how beautiful," followed by a "Ooooooh, myyyy gosh, ooooohhhh." I felt bipolar. C. tried to soothe me, then transitioned into simply putting up with it, attempted to rationalize my fears every now and again, and finally took to telling me to shut up. That made me get louder.

At one point, he pulled over to take some pictures, and I got out too, on shaky legs, clinging to the trunk of the car. C. noticed a little sign on a tree. He walked up to it, and then walked back with a huge grin on his face. The sign said we were driving through a black truffle preserve. Those signs appeared everywhere for miles and miles. Even I had to admit it was pretty cool.

Driving along in a relatively flat place for a spell, I calmed down, but was jolted when C. stopped suddenly, slamming on the brakes and putting the Alfa into reverse. I started to whine, and he said, “Shhh. You are going to like this, I promise.” The next thing I knew, we went careening down a small hill dirt road and landed near clearing of trees. And there they were. Horses. They were beautiful, long-maned, auburn horses, small and shy, gathered near a wire fence. There was nothing in sight to indicate that we were on a farm, the land looked untamed and wild. Next to the horses was a babbling stream, running fast and clean and crisp, with a very small waterfall. The rushing water pierced the silence; the only other sound was the breath and movement of the horses.

It was amazing. They were the lovliest creatures I have ever laid eyes upon, more curious than scared of us, and seeming to want some company. We tried our best not to disturb them; C. moved around the horses, trying his best to get candid pictures, but the horses followed him wherever he walked, looking straight at him and coming as close to posing as horses can. We tried to pet them, but they were much too scared for us to ever touch them. It was utterly charming that they seemed so very much to want to be near us, constantly edging closer and closer, always staying together. It was as if they had been waiting for us to arrive.

C. waded into the stream; it was icy cold. I spotted some blue-bells poking through the dead leaves that carpeted the banks. The horses watched over us the entire time. I wished we could stay with them all day, and I felt like they wanted us to stay with them too. But eventually we had to leave, and the perilous drive up the mountain continued. It seemed to never end, and just when I was about to hit my limit we came to the end of the twisty mountain road, reaching a secondary road leading to Norcia. It was wider, well-signed, and straight; the pounding in my heart stopped and I was able to breathe again.

We soon reached charming and pretty little Norcia, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It was a quiet day and we were able to park very close to the Porta Romana. Entering the old Roman gate, we slowly made our way through the main street and towards Piazza San Benedetto. One of the things you notice immediately about Norcia is all of the buildings are no taller than two stories. The second thing you notice is the famous butcher shops whereever you look; they are numerous and resplendent. It was impossible not to enter each one, and for two chefs with an admitted addiction to pork products and cheese, this was heaven.

On the way to the San Benedetto square, the main hub of Norcia, we encountered a huge St. Bernard. He followed us for about a block, trotting along, weaving in front of us and being generally entertaining. Eventually, he simply decided to plunk himself down in the middle of the street. It seemed very much like that dog was a Norcia character, and that we were not the first visitors to take a stroll with him.

Because the buildings are only two stories tall, no matter where you stand in Norcia there is a backdrop of snowy mountains framing the scenery. I am sure it must be spectacular in the sunshine, but on this gray, early spring day, the atmosphere was sleepy and unhurried. We wandered about the churches that lined or were just off the main piazza: the Basilica di San Benedetto, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria, and the Chiesa di San Lorenzo. Unfortunately “La Castellina,” the civic museum of Norcia was closed for several hours for lunch, which reminded us that we were both quite hungry.

We decided to have lunch at Taverna de’Massari, not far from the Piazza, and were the first customers at just past 1:00 pm. It was a pretty little restaurant, and we had it all to ourselves. We began by sharing an order of Bresaola, with olive oil and shaved truffles. Since it was a chilly day, I ordered faro soup, which had a pool of olive oil in the center and grated truffles on top; C. had gnoccheti “dello chef” - a plate of tiny gnocchi that were light as pillows and napped in a truffled cream sauce. It was a lot of truffle for one meal, but then again, we were in Norcia. We both agreed that we could never have enough black truffles on this trip, omnipresent as they were. Just for good measure, we split an excellent steak, slathered with Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, and shared a bottle of Morellino di Scansano, Moris 2004, which was quite good.

On our way back through the main piazza, we could not resist stopping in a gorgeous, tiny butcher shop directly opposite the statue of St. Benedict, Da Marco. Behind the counter was a kind, friendly Norcerino, clad in his spotless white coat. His shop was small, and the walls were covered, floor to ceiling with photos, stuffed game, and, of course, cured meats. It was so visually stimulating, we were utterly silent for at least five minutes while we took it all in. Eventually, the proprietor broke the silence by slicing off some boar salami and handing it to us. The floodgates opened, and we all started talking at once. Marcello was his name, and Marco was his brother. Marcello was a proud Norcerino, and he proceeded to ply us with samples of his fine meats and cheeses, one after another.

I did my best to translate back and forth, as C. asked him many questions about curing meats and hunting boar. Marcello pulled out a pile of pictures from behind the counter of past boar hunts; he explained that all the hunters of Norcia would break off into groups and venture into the mountains for days and days. The pictures were both gruesome - rows and rows of slain wild boar - and fascinating. Marcello showed them to us with obvious pride, telling me the year and the number of boar killed, and always pointing himself out with a wide smile. After sampling way too much salumi and cheese, we shopped like warriors, purchasing lentils, cheeses, various salumi and other cured meats, faro and beans. All the while C. and I snapped pictures of nearly every corner of the store, and C. even took pictures of Marcello’s pictures! Marcello insisted on posing for me with a wheel of pecorino, and at that point we were sold: Montefalco was out, Norcia was in. How can we rent an apartment here, we wondered out loud? Marcello looked puzzled.

By this time it was getting pretty late and we wanted to see the Piano Grande, so we bid a sweet farewell to Marcello and hauled our provisions back to the car, taking some of the side streets off the piazza that cut the city into an attractive patchwork of neighborhoods. All the while each hoped to ourselves that we would have a chance to visit Norcia, and Marcello, again someday.

Once in the car, we followed the signs out of town towards Casteluccio, where I knew we would find the Piano Grande. Higher and higher into the mountains, we drove, so high that we were surrounded by snow and C. had to turn the heat on in the car. It was amazing, and, once again, terrifying for me. The road wound all the way around the outside of a mountain, it almost seemed like we were in a cartoon. This time, I was quietly terrified, gripping the door handle, gasping every so often, trying not to look down, but unable not to. At one point, the road left the side of the mountain and simply went straight up, and there was nothing but snow around us. We reached a point where it seemed like we had gone right into the sky, but were actually on a ridge, and as we went up, up and then over, there it was: The Piano Grande. The most magnificent site I have ever laid eyes on.

Down we went into it. Down, down, down. Suddenly, we were flat, and as I looked past, I could clearly see the winding road along the side of the mountain on which we had just been. In front of us, we were surrounded by a vast space. It was a cold, gray sky, and we were utterly entirely alone, except for a herd of grazing cows. It was the sweetest sense of isolation. Casteluccio loomed in the distance, very dramatic, perched upon a hill, framed by snow-covered mountains.

We parked the car and ventured among the cows and calves. It was completely silent except for the jingle of a few cow bells and the sound of the chilly breeze. The cows looked up, noticed our presence, but for the most part did not pay much attention to us, unless C. got a bit too close to a calf. Oh, those calves. They were adorable. They had obviously been born just a few days, maybe weeks before; their umbilical cords still hung from their bellies. They looked at us with big, brown eyes that melted my heart. After a while, I just sat on the ground and took it all in. I had heard so much about the Piano Grande; that it was carpeted with wildflowers and could be lined with cars for miles in the summer. I looked at the grass and saw hundreds of little purple flowers poking through the earth, a promise of a full blossoming to come. I was so happy we came on this gray day. It may not have been sunny, and the wind was decidedly chilly, but it was majestic and silent; during our time there, the Piano Grande was all ours.

Castelluccio, which looked so dramatic and tiny in the distance, proved to be utterly creepy when we drove up to it. We had every intention of checking it out, but the streets were crumbling and the few people we saw peered at us suspiciously, with an irritation that we had not seen in Italy. I had read that Casteluccio was an angry place, and at that moment, I agreed, at least partially. We turned around and made our way down the snowy hillside, but not before C. decided to do some off-roading, plunging the Alfa into some snow banks.

Winding our way down the mountain was not quite as scary for me as the ascent up had been, but I was still a little tense as C. sped his way down the winding road. He clearly no longer cared that I was terrified; he was having too much fun on that road, and really, I knew I had nothing to fear since he was an excellent driver and always in complete control. After passing Norcia, even C. agreed that the back road we had taken there was too strenuous of a drive, so we used the highway to return to the Valle Umbra and made our way home, taking C.’s favorite, route, up and down the hills surrounding Montefalco.

As we approached Gualdo Cattaneo, we noticed that every kilometer or so, there were groups of older folks foraging for something along the higher roadsides. We even spotted them just outside the entrance to Le Case Gialle. When we parked the car, we met up with Silvana; Mauro had left for Verona and VinItaly, where he would accept his award from SlowFood for the best organic olive oil in Italy! We told her about our day in Norcia and the Piano Grande, and she congratulated us for making the trip through the mountains. C. asked her about the folks who were foraging, and Silvana explained that they were searching for wild asparagus, which were in season for a nanosecond. Some of the folks we saw on their property lived very close by; she and Mauro had foraged for their share earlier in the week. She doubted that there were many left, which C. took as a friendly challenge. Off he was to forage, promising to return with something for dinner!

I emptied the trunk of our purchases and found proof positive of the winding nature of that mountain road…one of the packages of wild boar salumi we had purchased from Marcello had tumbled around the trunk of the car, and there were slices strewn everywhere! I figured my insides had been equally tossed about. Inside, I put everything away, poured myself a glass of wine, and settled on the porch for some solitude, listening to the buzz and hum of the wildlife around me, and watching Silvan’s chubby sheep munch away on the herbs and flowers that covered the top of the hill where our apartment was perched.

C. returned about an hour later, revealing his treasure: a small handful of delicate, olive-green asparagus, flecked with purple and impossibly thin. I poured him some wine as he excitedly explained how some of Silvana’s neighbors taught him how to spot the asparagus, and lent him the use of their clippers, fitted with handles that extended one’s grasp several feet above your head for those hard-to-reach areas.

It was my turn to prepare dinner, so I began with the asparagus. I trimmed them and sautéed them in our precious olive oil from Le Case Gialle, seasoning them with salt, pepper and a squirt of lemon juice. I also made a small tomato salad with herbs from Silvana’s bushes, and arranged it all on a platter with our array of sliced meats and three different kinds of pecorino from Marcello’s shop. There were olives, and plenty of bread left over from the morning; we also sampled some of the delicious mostardas I had purchased in Assisi. With a bottle of Montefalco Rosso, it just may have been our best meal yet.

It was too chilly out to hang out on the porch, so we decided it would be movie night, using my laptop and sacking out on the sofa bed. We both fell dead asleep before The Life Aquatic had even finished, though ...

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