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Report 508: Small Town Couple Takes Small Towns Trip, May 1-31

By B. Dupree from North Carolina, Spring 2004

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Page 5 of 7: May 15-18, Umbria - Torgiano, Bevagna, Montefalco, Norcia

May 15, Saturday

Thank heaven we're through with fast travel - two days here and two days there. This morning we're leaving for the Poggio alle Vigne for a blessed week, all in one place!

Left Urbino about 9:15 and were near Gubbio about two hours later. Since we'd enjoyed Gubbio so much the last time we were here we briefly discussed stopping for a couple of hours, but decided we were eager to push ahead to Torgiano.

Just as we were passing the town, I remembered today is May 15, the day of the Corsa dei Ceri, a medieval festa in which three tall towers (candles) are carried to the Piazza Grande and topped with three saint sculptures. They are paraded around town and then are raced by ten bearers each through the town to the mountain-top church of Sant' Ubaldo. I've seen pictures of the event when thousands of people descend upon the town for the celebration. We were soon able to substantiate that as we met a continuous stream of cars filled with supporters and spectators headed north to Gubbio. All of the houses and businesses along the way were decorated with banners supporting their choice in the race.

An interesting, though puzzling side note seemed to be that there must also be an antique auto show there as well since we met a great many quaint and beautiful old cars. It just doesn't seem to fit that owners of these beautiful and rare cars would risk them on this winding mountain road among thousands of raucous revelers. The drive from Gubbio to Perugia is one of my favorites. Each curve reveals stunning views of the mountains and the valleys.

At Perugia we joined the crowds on the autostrada and my heart beat a little faster because I knew we'd soon be getting to Torgiano and the Poggio alle Vigne, one of my favorite vacation spots. Oh, I've seen many more thrilling sights, great art and architecture, spectacular landscapes, but I'm talking about vacation here, which is different from travel. When we turned off the autostrada I had this sensation of returning home, silly I know, since I'd spent only one week here three years ago.

Torgiano itself is not an exciting town. It isn't walled, isn't a hill town, and doesn't have a central piazza. Its main claims to fame are the very good wine museum, the olive oil museum, and the expensive Le Tre Vaselle hotel and restaurant. All of these claims to fame are owned by the Lungarotti family as are most of the vineyards around here and the Poggio alle Vigne itself.

Since SiRo, the one good, yet reasonably priced restaurant is closed for lunch on Saturday, we decided to treat ourselves to lunch at Le Tre Vaselle. Despite the fact that we stood out among the smartly dressed couples in our rather bedraggled travel wear, we were treated royally as were all the diners.

I began with zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta and served with lightly sauteed cherry tomatoes. Jim began with tartufo stuffed ravioli served in a tartufo sauce. We both had peppered baby lamb slices served with a ratatoulle timbale for secondi. We chose a Lungarotti Rubesco 1988, which was very good with the lamb. The service was faultless and the entire meal was exquisite. I've heard that both food and service are spotty here, so perhaps we were fortunate to catch them on a very good day.

After lunch, although it was a bit early for check-in we drove the one kilometer or so to the Poggio and Gabriella opened the gate. The drive to the farmhouse is lined with olive trees on one side and grape arbors which form shaded parking spots on the other.

The 16th century farmhouse sits on a plateau, a hillock, a poggio above the flat green valley below covered with vineyards. The edge of the plateau is lined with olive trees and umbrella pines. On the hills beyond the valley is the city of Perugia with its towers and spires. The farmhouse itself is a two-story stone building which has been converted into ten apartments.

The one we stayed in, Rosmarino (Rosemary), had a bedroom, bath, kitchen, dining room and living room. Although the kitchen was tiny, it had all of the necessary accoutrements, a gas range with oven, a small refrigerator and plenty of dishes and good quality pots and pans for the meals we fixed there.

We followed our usual custom of traveling to a different town each day, having lunch there and returning to Torgiano in the late afternoon. We stopped in the local alimentari or Conad grocery for tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, proscuitto, bread, and some asparagus with only slight variations each night. This was our dinner, along with a bottle of wine.

The best part of the day was just before sunset when we sat at a table on the flat lawn, sipping a glass of wine, gazing out at the view of Perugia, and mulling over the wonders of what we saw (and what we ate) during the day. Bliss!

The Poggio was looked after by Gabriella, a sweet, attractive woman with a 13 year-old son and a beautiful six month-old daughter, Catarina. Gabriella didn't speak English, and my Italian was limited, but we managed to communicate anyway. Francesco enjoyed practicing his English with me three years ago, but at thirteen, who knows. I remember he helped me with the intricacies of the "lavatrice", the washing machine last time.

We were happy to see the Rosmarino looking just as neat and clean as before. We spent an hour or so settling in, walking around the grounds and enjoying the view, then returned to town to the Conad which was open following siesta.

As is our custom we had caprese, salumi, proscuitto and pane for a light supper - all of this after watching the sunset, of course. The only thing marring this in the least was a northerly wind which chilled us as evening drew near. Fortunately we had our cold weather gear from Switzerland and so were able to endure.

May 16, Sunday We both slept late, had a leisurely breakfast and decided to lunch in Bevagna. Ha! So did everyone else in the Valle Umbra. All of the parking lots were filled and in the Italian way, people were parked in every available spot along the way, even on the sidewalks.

Not to worry, there is always something else good down the road, and so we drove on to Montefalco. Parking here was also a little tricky because the main lot was closed to repair the surface, but we were able to find a spot against the wall a little farther on. A good spot because the street leading up to the piazza gave us a lovely view of the valley below. We explored the enotecas surrounding the piazza looking for bargains and trying to choose a Sagrentino. We did find a bottle of 1986 Lungarotti Rubesco which we hope will be as good as the 1988 we had yesterday. And we chose a bottle of Perticaia Sagrentino based on the advice of the vendor.

Then we walked down one of the streets that radiate like spokes from the Piazza to see the Gozzoli frescoes in the apse of the church of San Francesco which is now a museum. They depict the life of St. Francis and have been restored since the earthquake. Perugino's fresco of the nativity left me cold. His figures remind me of illustrations in a child's coloring book.

Back up to the Piazza and down again to Il Coccorone Ristorante where we had a delicious lunch. Il Coccorone is a lovely restaurant both inside and out. There is a great wine selection and beautiful table linens with hand crocheted edges. We both had tagliatelle with tartufo which I liked and Jim felt was the best he'd had anywhere. I followed with pork chops that turned out to be grilled backbones, but very good. Jim had sausages with a truffle sauce. I think he's determined to try truffles and sausages from every menu.

Back to Bavegna where we had no trouble finding a park since everyone had had lunch. The town was quiet because it was Sunday and siesta time. We wandered around a bit until we came to the piazza where some kind of demonstration was taking place. Large banners were hung around the piazza. People in the group were setting up an audio system and some large boards with pictures. At first we thought it was some sort of protest because they set up on the fountain a large blue and black cross entwined with a fat blue and black serpent. Then, to our puzzlement, another cross was added, this on black and white stripes with a zebra cutout in front. Finally down the steps of the public building were laid cardboard shields of red, white and green with the bottom one having a large picture of the Milano soccer team celebrating their success. A sign above said "Grazie, ragazzi". So we assumed the whole thing was a celebration for the Milano team.

On the way back to Torgiano we could see rain pounding the mountain ahead, but when we arrived at the Poggio it was clear. Another light supper as yesterday, an Italian TV program on US movies about war and the military, little of which we understood, then to bed.

May 17, Monday I'd like to add to our dishes from Geribi and also to see if they will replace the two that have cracked, so we drove over to Deruta, but couldn't find a park near the center. Geribi down below was closed, so we'll return later this afternoon after siesta. Lunch at SiRo. I was startled when we walked in to see at least 50 men and only one woman! I had spaghetti all'arrabiata and Jim had gnocchi. Again he chose sausages and for contorni we had spinach and green beans. I had a mixed grill of way too much, but very good meat.

Following such a heavy meal a walk was in order so we walked through town to the cemetery. Nice place for a stroll. I find the Italian cemeteries fascinating. Then back to the Poggio. Nice place for a nap. After our nap, we drove back to Deruta where I bought two more place settings of dishes and they're going to replace the two plates that split.

The wind was a bit too strong to enjoy sitting outside, so cocktail hour was inside. The dinner menu varied only in that we exchanged proscuitto crudo for proscuitto cotto and added insalata mista. I read a couple of chapters of Vanilla Beans and Brodo while Jim dozed through a couple of Italian TV shows.

May 18, Tuesday What a terrific day! First of all, for the first time the weather is pleasantly warm - blue skies, bright sunshine. We left around 8:30 for Norcia an hour and a half to the east. The drive from Spoleto to Norcia was beautiful, a curving road in a gorge between the mountains all shades of green. The road never went up or down, but snaked around seeking the low places between the mountains.

I've heard people say that Norcia itself is cold, but I certainly did not find it so. I found it to be charming. Soon after we entered the gate we could see far down the street the statue of St. Benedict in the piazza.

Norcia is the birthplace of St. Benedict and his twin sister, Santa Scholastica. The statue, of white marble, is a commanding one that has St. Benedict with a globe and books at his feet. He is gesturing to his right.

The piazza is round and surrounded by lovely buildings, expecially the Palazzo Communale and the Castellina which is now a museum housing a fine collection of Etruscan pottery and 12th and 13th century paintings and sculptures - none by artists familiar to me, but many of which I liked a great deal. I forgot, there are terra cotta statues of Mary and the angel at the Annunciation by della Robbia.

Piazza Vittorio Veneto nearer to the gate commemorates the war dead. Unlike most war memorials this one has, in addition to the soldier in battle dress, a statue of a grieving woman with baby, very appropriate. Fronting this piazza is the beautiful Teatro Civico, newly rebuilt.

We had a great lunch at the Granaro del Monte (Grotta Azzura). Although the restaurant is large, the outside tables on a narrow pedestrian street just off the Piazza St. Benedict are the most popular and the most pleasant. We both had tagliatelle with cinghiale sauce. I had a medley of veggies of the season while Jim had a mixed salad. We finished with caciotta, a local cheese and shared a half bottle of Sagrentino.

The most special treat, however, was yet to come. I had read in the Cadogen Guide about a drive to this beautiful meadow, the Piano Grande, east of Norcia. I couldn't find it on my map, but a map I picked up the TI showed the road. The drive was absolutely magnificent. We wound up and up the mountain, perilously near the edge, far above the verdant, quilt-squared valley below. Up and up, until we were above the tree line and still climbing.

After miles of seeing no houses, no buildings, we came upon a beautiful stone building which is apparently a hotel or a retreat - The Refugio di Perugia. Shortly thereafter we drove over a rise and both of us gasped. There below was the huge flat meadow just beginning to flower, and behind, the most magnificent snow-capped mountains, rising seemingly from nowhere and completely unseen until we topped the rise. What a sight! And just thirty minutes from Norcia. This is a not-to-be-missed place.

On a hill across the meadow is the little town of Casteluccio, once home to 700, now reduced to about 40 because of its isolation. We didn't drive there because it seemed a little sad. Directly behind Casteluccio were the snow-capped mountains which we realized later were Monti Sibillini.

Back to the Poggio where we ate our usual supper. A day to remember.

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