Apart from some driver related scares we arrived in Gualdo Cattaneo without too much problem. We were too early to check into our accommodation and ended up in the hill town of Montefalco for lunch. This turned out to be our favorite town, close to where we were living, and with an absolutely wonderful atmosphere. It sits on a big hill overlooking the Umbrian countryside. On a good day you could see Spello, Assissi and Perugia one way and the snow covered Apennines the other. The streets are very narrow with one way in and out through the main square, the circular (sic) Piazza del Comune. As a result, traffic is restricted to residents. Visitors park in lower car parks and walk through one of the five gates in the wall up (always up in hill towns!) to the town centre. There are some Roman remnants here but the town is basically medieval with buildings from the 13th and 14th century. The square has a few restaurants, food shops and wine and olive oil shops (Enoteca) as well as the usual community gathering centers including the ubiquitous church. Here we found a great place to eat. The L’Alchiminstra served innovative food as well as supplied gourmet food items, olive oil and wine. A young lady who spoke a little English and was a qualified sommelier appeared to be the owner. She was always willing to explain what we were eating or drinking. The mixed ham and salami platter, mushroom lasagna as well as other regional dishes and a daily change of dessert had us eating there many times. In fact it was here that our three hour lunch was born. Well, there was nothing else to do. Rural Italy shuts down between 1pm and 4pm!
Despite our lack of communication skills, the man in the small grocery store went out of his way to be helpful as did the butcher and the wine shop owner. I think the latter’s turnover doubled while we were there.
There were a number of churches in the town. Just outside the wall was Santa Chiara, where a mummified nun with bare feet lay in a glass case which lit up with a fluorescent light as you approached. VERY disconcerting the first time it suddenly appeared.
The Umbrian landscape was quite different to what I had imagined. It varies from rolling green hills to flat plains and lakes to quite high rugged snowed capped mountains. The plain country is used for growing crops, the hills for vineyard and olive groves, the rest is covered in forests of beech, oak and chestnut. If there were one word to describe the area it would be “green”.
The most famous wine of the region is the Montefalco Sangrantino which is a DOCG red wine made from the native grape of the same name. It comes in both dry and sweet versions. It is expensive but worth it with the dry wine having a great fruity nose and rich berry characters on the palate as well as a touch of French oak and subtle tannins. Another red is the DOC Montefalco Rosso made up of 15% Sangrantino and 85% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is much more reasonable in price and a lovely wine to drink by itself or with food. A white is made from Grechetto, another native variety, and is also a DOC wine. We really liked this but most people obviously preferred the reds. As a result the Montefalco bianca was extremely cheap. The vineyards are meticulously maintained. Mid rows are cultivated bare earth and I even saw manual weed chipping going on between the vines. The older trellises are made from cement end posts and mid posts but the newer ones are up to date layback timber end assemblies and slotted steel mid posts. Vines seemed to be generally bi lateral spur pruned although I did see some four cordon vines. Row spacing appeared to be 2-3 m and vine spacing 2m. The canopies were usually supported by movable foliage wire systems. Narrow tractors were being used for cultivation and spraying operations. Farmers were busy spraying both copper and sulphur.
Our accommodation was in a farmhouse that had been divided into four apartments. It sat on a hill overlooking its own as well as other olive groves and the host of vineyards that
make up the “Sangrantino Road”. We were on the ground floor which had a sunny patio surrounded by a huge cottage garden overlooking the quite big swimming pool. The two roomed apartment was quite large with a nice bathroom and was fully self-contained. The owners spoke good English and were very helpful. We had a fresh loaf of warm bread and a newspaper delivered every morning. Apart from Montefalco, the nearest centre for food purchases was Bastardo about 5km away where there were two supermarkets (if you managed to be there when they had decided to open). The pretty little hill town of Gualdo Catteneo just up the road had no real facilities other than a great medieval atmosphere and a smiling baker who made great pizza slices and apple cake.
Before I go on, I have an admission to make. My travel partner and I have no longer any desire to see every tourist icon in every city or region of every country we visit. Therefore tours of churches, palaces, ruins and museums etc. to see every statue, work of art, artifact or fresco are not specifically on our itinerary. We like to read up on a place we are going to visit to get some background information and then just walk around at random, get a feel for it, sit a while with a coffee to people watch and then if we come across anything interesting, we then have a look. We met many physically and mentally exhausted tourists on this trip who were attempting to see everything in 10 days that was recommended by their DK Guide or Lonely Planet. One lady had had to plead with her husband to stop for meals.
So ours was basically a philistine’s tour of Umbria.
The first trip from our base was to Spoleto. Founded around 4th century BC, this hill town now spills out of its ancient walls in a modern sprawl. We had a devil of a job finding a park after getting lost in the maze of narrow streets of the old town and maybe it was this, or the many renovation sites (repairs to damage caused by the 1997 earthquake continues across the region) or just plain old jet lag but we were not too impressed with what is supposed to be a major Umbrian attraction. There seemed a frantic atmosphere prevailing with lots of noise, lots of pollution and a great number of tourist groups even at this early part of the season. However parts of the old town were interesting and the Romanesque Duomo (Cathedral) was impressive as was the Ponte delle Torri, a ten arch bridge dating from Roman times that spans the River Tessino.
After lunch we headed north along the old Via Flaminia and “found” Trevi. Our faith in exploring hill towns was restored! This town sits on top of a conical hill and the road spirals around it to the top. It is one of the few towns that has adequate parking near the town centre. Here is a collection of three really beautiful 12th –14th century churches as well as one of the best gelato shops in Umbria. The very narrow cobblestone laneways meander all over the hill with the ancient houses giving the impression of leaning in over you.
Just down the road from us in a valley stood the town of Bevagna. This area has been occupied since the 7th century BC. The town was also occupied by the Romans and then by the Lombards. It has now a 12th century appearance but the Roman walls still exist as do small parts of their temple, baths and theatre. Very little has been built outside the walls in the last 900 years. The main square, Piazza Silvestri with its pretty fountain is surrounded by three churches and a palace. We were there on a Sunday morning where obviously a lot of young ladies were attending confirmation. There was a huge crowd of extremely well dressed men and women with them. What surprised us, however, was that the majority of men “retired” to the outdoor coffee shops and waited there until the service was over. Then we were treated to a “battle of the bells” from two of the churches. I liked this town. It was flat and easy to get around and the people had decorated their houses with window boxes full of flowering plants. We found a great little restaurant there that served good food and reasonably priced Sangrantino and with staff who didn’t mind us ordering in our very bad but gradually improving Italian.
Todi is a classic hill town with a stunning setting. The square, Piazza del Popolo is a really beautiful surrounded by three palaces and the cathedral. The labyrinth of narrow streets and laneways are really great to explore and the hilly terrain handy for walking off the previous day’s meals and snacks. San Fortunato is a magnificent church of mixed Romanesque and Gothic styles. Begun in the 13th century it is yet to be finished with a very plain facade. Rumor has it that when the good people of Orvieto found out that this church may be grander than theirs they had the commissioned sculptor “dispatched”. The main high Gothic hall of this church is surrounded by a great number of beautifully decorated chapels.
Here we took our guide book’s recommendation and had lunch at Jacopone, a restaurant named after the man who lies in a huge tomb under the crypt of San Fortunato. The place was full of noisy locals and the food was excellent. Here we experienced our first taste of Orvieto Classico Secco, a DOC white made from a blend of native varieties with just a touch of chardonnay. It was slightly more bitter than the Montefalco white and to our taste not as good.
Outside the walls is a stunning round church, Santa Maria della Consolazione, with its statues of the apostles lining the interior walls of its huge dome.
Foligno is a large town of around 55,000 and was to be our departure point by rail for our overnighter in Florence so we decided to do a bit of a snoop a few days before to find the railway station and ascertain the parking situation. After three unintended additional trips around the wall, we felt we had a pretty good picture of the place. The “old” town was quite vibrant with pedestrian shopping streets that also had cars and trucks in them (only in Italy!). We finally found an internet café and had a light el fresco lunch (pizza and beer) in the Piazza della Republica bordered by its 12th century Duomo (with a lovely interior), the Palazzo Comunale and Palazzo Trinci. It was the former palace which featured on TV with its tower collapse after the 1997 earthquake.
On the Friday, we headed across country on small back roads (the dreaded “white roads” on the maps) towards Lake Trasimeno and the town of Castiglione del Lago. We certainly saw diverse countryside, most startlingly, fields of wild red poppies stretching into the distance. I think we only got really lost once but even that led us through some of the tiniest villages where people stopped what they were doing to watch us drive by.
Lake Trisimeno is the fourth largest, but shallow and marshy lake in Italy and was where Hannibal defeated the Romans in 217BC (on 21st or 24th June, according to which guide book you read) inflicting16000 casualties. There are castles, towers and fortified villages all over. It was a magnificent day with a high blue sky and no wind. The lake looked like a mirror. Castiglione del Lago sits high on a promontory protected by a 16th century fort. The village itself has two main streets and a quaint little square with a small but impressive neo-classical church, young at only 170 years. It is obviously a tourist town with many restaurants and bars but was basically deserted the day we were there.
We had a great lunch of fresh asparagus and a bottle of cold white wine and then walked around the lake shore soaking up the sunshine and the peace and quiet.
Then it was home via the supastrada with its usual allocation of maniac drivers ie. 99%
So that was the first part of our trip. We did get time just to sit back and relax at “home” and we did cook in although you mightn’t think so. We managed to get some decent meat and some really good cheese (all by sign language) and of course the vegetables and fruit were the freshest. The tomatoes had to be the sweetest we have ever tasted. Sliced up with mozzarella, put on fresh crusty bread with a drizzle of good olive oil and a garnish of basil washed down with a cold glass of Grechetto and we were in heaven.