Sunday 28 September 2014

Montefalco snapshots

Montefalco was a wonderful Umbrian discovery - a quiet, warm, unspoilt medieval hilltop town, centre of the Sagrantino wine-producing area.

Steep narrow roads lead upwards like radials to the central Piazza del Comune at the very top of the town, where on Sunday it was market day.

Tables were laid for dinner on the piazza  (black truffles with pasta, crispy vegetable lasagne, ricotta & honey, all locally produced, and Sagrantino wine) - with blankets ready to take the edge off the chill of a September night.

Montefalco, Perugia, September 2014

Sunday 21 September 2014

Monti Sibillini

Much of Umbria looks very like Tuscany ... think olive groves, vineyards, fields of sunflowers and cypresses, dotted with ochre villages. 

But further east, and dropping down to the Adriatic, is another totally different Umbria, the region of the Sybilline mountains and national park.

It's a long drive winding up through mountains ... and unlike the hills of the rest of Umbria, these are proper mountains, part of the Appenines ... 

to the town of Norcia, the gateway inscribed with the name the Romans gave this ancient, pre-Roman town: Old Nursia. 

Recent history: a square dedicated to Norcians who died in WWII

Norcia is famous in Italy for its food, especially the Norcian salumi (not to be confused with salami): cured meat from pigs and wild boars. (Not a huge carnivore, I did buy some good local wine, bread and olive oil here).

In the central Piazza San Benedetto stands St Benedict, below, gesturing towards the basilica that was built over the spot where he was born. (I only realised here that Umbria gave rise to the two founders of western monasticism: the Benedictines and Franciscans). 

Benedictine monks look after the basilica and are very much in evidence here, but rather austere looking compared to the jollier Franciscans of Assisi (I didn't dare snap a picture of any of them).

I liked this simple basilica though, compared to the grander one built for St Francis. The crypt marks the place where Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica, also a saint, were born in 480. (Twin saints must be quite rare? And naturally Scholastica, like Clare of Assisi, is the lesser feted and recognised saint compared to her male counterpart).

Apparently if you're here at 7.45 pm in time for Compline you can hear the town's Benedictine monks singing Gregorian chants in this little crypt.

The real surprise comes after Norcia, if you're willing to persevere along the road through the Monti Sibillini. 

For someone like me who gets car-sick at the sight of a bend in the road, it says a lot that I thought it so totally worthwhile to drive further into these mountains. 

Hanging out the car window for air, I distracted myself from nausea by snapping the incredible views and communing with the occasional Sibillini cow - beautiful creatures they are.

We were headed for Castellucio: Italy's highest inhabited village, which overlooks the Piano Grande, a vast plain, divided like patchwork into fields of lentils in shades of green and yellow.

We had lunch in this friendly little town that has the most basic amenities and less than 200 inhabitants, but an unforgettable setting.

In spring the Piano Grande is covered in wild flowers and visitors bring a living for a few months to the town's inhabitants. In winter it's deep under snow, making the winding roads leading to Castellucio almost inaccessible. There are wolves in these mountains, and a few wild cats and bears still left roaming around.

And finally there was the road back from the Sybilline peaks down to the vineyards of the other Umbria ...

Friday 19 September 2014

Terra dei santi

Assisi is one of those picture-perfect medieval hilltop towns in the Perugia region, like so many others but with a unique claim to fame. 

St Francis/Francesco was born here, to well-off parents (his father a silk merchant) but turned his back on the good life to take a vow of poverty, roaming Umbria in a tunic of sack-cloth and preaching even to the birds according to legend. 

He was perhaps the original hippy/eco-warrior (though unwanted memories of Zeffirelli's pretty awful musical biopic Brother Sun, Sister Moon did come flooding back to me).

Assisi attracts hordes of visitors and religious tourists through the summer, but is crowd-free now in September. And thanks to being a UNESCO world heritage site, the town is beautifully preserved and free of tacky tourist and souvenir trappings. 

Together with Clare of Assisi, Francis established the Franciscan monastic order and the Poor Clares. Friars and nuns are everywhere in the town today. 

I liked how these two, carrying their bottles of mineral water, still seemed to be so impressed by the views of Umbrian countryside.

Even monks and nuns enjoy a spot of window-shopping it seems, and this elderly nun was on point with a baseball cap and trainers.

The town is laid out so that one must walk the entire length of the pretty town, as all good pilgrims ought,  to reach the Basilica di San Francesco at the far end. 

Its foundation was laid in 1228, the day after Pope Gregory IX declared him a saint, and Francis was laid to rest here in a tomb well hidden beneath the lower Basilica, to protect it from invaders, surrounded by Giotto frescoes.

Assisi, September 2014

Saturday 13 September 2014


From Lake Como the route south bypasses Milano on the network of motorways running through northern Italy's industrial heartland. Past Parma, Modena and just beyond Bologna, almost on the east coast, we turned west into the centre of Italy - now hilly and green with ochre villages - heading for Perugia and beyond.

By mid afternoon there was a view of a slice of Umbrian hillside from a bedroom window in a house surrounded by olive groves.

The sunflowers are drooping and finished by now, in mid-September

but the hillsides and vineyards are deep green from Italy's rainy summer that has done wine production no good.

Vineyards at Tenuta Castelbuono winery, producers of Montefalco Rosso and Sagrantino wines

Avenue of cypresses at the Fattoria Colsanto in the Montefalco DOC

And the sun's shining in the little walled Roman town of Bevagna in Umbria's wine producing region

Simple good food at a taverna in Bevagna: panzanella, truffle omelette, gnocchi with Sagrantino wine sauce.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Road trip

When the journey is at least as much the point as the destination, when you can see three countries in one day, isn't a road trip just the best?

France: misty dawn at 6.30 am on the road from Épernay, leaving the capitale du champagne's vineyards behind and heading north-east into Alsace-Lorraine.

Via Nancy and Metz, the road climbs into the mountains of the Vosges, before we turn south before Strasbourg, through historically German territory, hugging the German border.

Crossing the border at Basel, we're in Switzerland and suddenly it's a different territory altogether: neat A-framed houses and the cleanest cows you'll ever see, dotted against the greenest meadows. They seem to polish the grass here and line up the trees in tidy rows. Ordnung muss sein.

Spotless, efficient motorways bisect picture postcard scenes of mountains and lakes.

No winding detours here - wide, well-lit tunnels cut straight under the mountains. (A road tax demanded at the Swiss border ensures you pay for the privilege of using, and maintaining, these beautiful roads). 
The Gotthard tunnel is 17 kms long, making it the third longest in the world. Boring directly through the Gotthard mountain, it gets you from central Switzerland to within a whisker of Milan in 15 minutes.
And before you know it, you're in Italy ...

... and marvelling again at how striking the difference can be from the moment of crossing a border - from the gently chaotic infrastructure to the faded romantic houses clustered haphazardly on winding roads.

Late afternoon there's a haze on Lake Como and the day's driving is over.

Time for a campari maybe, with a view over the lake 

Resident kitten, lake views and Italian design at Villa Nina B&B, Carate Urio, Lago di Como

Ristorante La Baia, Moltrasio, Lago di Como

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