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Report 236: Our Italian Sabbatical

By Trishmael from Louisiana, Fall 2003

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Page 6 of 10: Proceno and Hilltown Heaven (cont.)

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Proceno View

So my intuition about Proceno was right (okay, I had also noticed that it was in a good place for us to have access to both Tuscany and Umbria, and was less steep in price because of the anti-Lazioian prejudice so many people seem to have--their loss).

The kitchen table under the loggia was both better than pictured and better than imagined. Proceno turned out to be heaven largely due to our hostess at the castello, Cecilia Bisoni (aka "Pucci"). She's in her early 60's with an old soul and a young heart and boundless energy. And yet she doesn't come across as "energetic" or overbearing in any kind of way. She's very calm, listens carefully to her guests, then later you discover that she not only listened but arranged something quietly that she knew you would love: lunch at a place that does amazing things with fennel, a trip to a tiny tiny winery to taste her friend's Brunello, a visit to "the best fabbro in Tuscany " (he was!), and the list goes on.

Pucci had two Canadian couples booked for the week we were there. They had some sort of package with excursions to hill towns. We had planned to walk, bus, and train, but we were invited to tag along, and since we had already hit it off with everyone, we didn't feel like we'd be imposing. Pucci and I very discretely worked out the charges for the day trips, and it was very reasonable. Mostly we were very glad to have her as a guide. She became a good friend.

I've given the Castello a glowing review on the site, so I won't dwell on it here, but just reiterate what heaven it was. Every morning while I got the moka pot going Gary would roll down the steps to the street entrance to the apartment and go 2 doors down to the bakery for our rolls. After 2 days of this, the woman who worked there had our favorite rolls ready for us before he got there. One morning he forgot to roll down with money, and she waved him away, with "Domani." The town is like that--very small. If you needed something and the grocery on our end of town was closed, you could yell upstairs to the proprietor or his son and they'd come down and open up for you. One day, the entire town closed down for a funeral. There are more cats than people, including one who came to the courtyard door early every morning to beg, whose name was "Quatro Calzini" (four socks).

With Pucci and the Canadians, we went to Montalcino, Montepulciano, Pienza, Bagno Vignoni, Sorano, Sovana, Ptigliano, Bagnoregio, Orvieto, Bolsena. Gary and I would get up early, have breakfast and take a morning hike, then meet the rest of the group at around 9:00 AM and Pucci would drive us to various hilltowns. We'd have a lunch prearranged at one or another very good little restaurants, many of which were owned by friends of Pucci. We'd usually make one more stop after lunch, then back to the Castello in the late afternoon. The Canadians had signed up for cooking lessons with their package. Gary and I would nap, read, and/or hike until time to dress for dinner, which we took in the castello's very good entoca. A few nights we just stayed in, built a nice fire, and cooked. On the day the group went to Siena, we stayed behind and took a long hike down into the valley.

I think we had it a little easier than the Canadians. The lunches were so incredibly good, Gary and I could eat much more than they did, because they were going back to cook themselves huge evening meals. We might have enjoyed one cooking lesson, but I was glad of the open time. One day I had asked Pucci several questions about Proceno during WWII, and she had recommended Iris Origo's war journal to me to read. I was hooked, and it was great to have some reading time for it.

We saw so much during this week and ate so well it has all turned into a lovely blur. We're going back the end of this year to stay 2 weeks and this time with a car, so we can explore further some of the places Pucci introduced us to, and go further into Umbria (with the help of ST advice, of course). I'll just list a few favorites.

1) "Dolce far niente" After a week spent trotting all over Florence, it was wonderful just to build a fire in our beautiful apartment and sit quietly, reading and toasting bruschetta over the fire. We (ahem) drank a lot of wine in this way, including a memorable Vino Nobile.

2) One day Pucci took us to a tiny winery run by friends where they make around 1000 bottles of Brunello per annum. Two from the 1998 vintage are now nesting quietly in our home. The vintner signed them for us. We hope that a few weeks spent in a backpack didn't ruin them.

3) Lunch at Il Tufo Allegro in Pitigliano We ate in many splendid places, but this one stood out for me (so much so that I remember the name!). I was fascinated by fennel on this trip--how useful a plant, it grows wild all over in the area, and every part is useful to eat, even the seeds. At Tufo Allegro I had a fennel tart and pasta with a sublime white truffle sauce. We had another great meal at Entoca Bacchus in Pienza.

4) Bagnoregio What a strange place the Civita is, dangling there in the air from the footbridge. I almost didn't go because of a bad experience with Rick Steves acolytes in Vernazza a few years back, and I remembered Civita di Bagnoregio was on his tour. But no Stevesians were in sight, and I wouldn't have missed seeing this strange, sad, dying city for the world. Pucci told us that the story is when the worm-eaten crucifix in the church falls apart, so the city will die. At the end of the bridge on the Civita side, a white dog perched on the wall rather precariously, but proudly, wind ruffling through his fur, overlooking the tufa hills.

After we toured the Civita, we had lunch in Bagnoregio at a wonderful new inn, Locanda Romantica Pucci, owned by another Pucci, friend of our Pucci. They had laid out a buffet for us that was incredible, I think I ate at least half a dozen kinds of pecorino. Pucci II's husband, who cooks, kept bringing out courses to add to the groaning buffet table. This place was so wonderfully funky: we were invited to use spoons from Pucci's collection, and the place has elephants all over that she also collects. After the biggest lunch I've ever had, we looked at the rooms they had just opened, all very lovely.

5) The civic museum in Montalcino It was CLOSED when we got there, but Pucci made a phone call and magically someone appeared at the door, and in we went. After touring so many duomos and basilicas and chunking coins into light boxes to peer up through murk at a painting or fresco, it was lovely (if strange) to see objects in an airy, light-filled environment.

6) The Proceno museum Ask Pucci and she'll call the man who keeps the key. The museo is in a palazzo formerly kept by one of the popes--I've forgotten which. I love tiny museums, like the one near home in Jackson, LA--all kinds of odd relics all jumbled up in a local curatorial logic. I thought this one would be as whimsical, and it a way it was, but it was also unexpectedly moving and gorgeous, and visiting it became one of my favorite afternoons of the whole trip. Pucci explained that the building was in limbo due to some local politics (and we kept urging her to run for mayor next time).

Some art students have partially refinished some of the grand upper rooms, which have frescoes, some clumsy, but all the rooms have that sort of deteriorating grace that appeals. The lower rooms are stunning: filled with artifacts from the rural and village life, all donated by locals. My favorites were the room Pucci proudly revealed-- "These are things for the women"--and some German and American WWII helmets that had been refashioned into scoops for grain and water vessels.

7) The castello We saved Pucci's tour of the castello itself for our last afternoon. She showed us her private rooms. One contained a harpsichord, another a Reniassance printing press rescued from Siena. Her family has lived in the castle for many centuries. Then up we went into the tower, pausing to see implements of castle life collected and displayed along the way. The view from the top was extraordinary, out across the valley and with Mt. Amiata in the background.

Leaving Proceno was difficult. We didn't want to go. But we had a place booked in Cortona....

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