We flew into a shimmering 36 degree Florence and spent a glorious 24 hours reacquainting ourselves with why we love Italy so much (the people, the food, the wine, the scenery). We were looking forward to exploring rural Italy, the hill towns and endless green fields and the best way to do this is by driving. Our Fiat Grande Punto was tiny (one suitcase on the backseat, one in the boot) but perfect for zipping down country lanes.
Umbria is a region of central Italy known for its agriturism. It is the only Italian region having neither a coastline nor a border with other countries.
Our friends Sharon and Fred had booked a 5 bedroom Villa just outside Citta di Castello, so we were excited when we arrived at the town, just in time for a late lunch. We found a place that made delicious piadinewith prosciutto, parmesan, rocket and tomato. While we were stuffing our faces, we bumped into Sharon and Fred, who were also exploring their new neighbourhood.
The historical part of Citta di Castello is still surrounded by the ancient medieval walls dating back to the 16th century. We decided to take a closer look at The Bell tower which dates back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The base is the oldest part while the upper floors in gothic style were added in 1283 – 1284. It is 43.5 metres tall. On top of the tower is a cone-like structure which holds the belfry.
We were delighted to find ourselves in the middle of a medieval folk festival in the centro storica of Citta di Castello. Known as the annual International Festival of Chamber Music, performances are held in the churches and piazzas of the town. It was fantastic to see the effort to which everyone went to dress up and participate. They created such an authentic effect, even covering the street signs in hessian and setting up the stores with the activities of days gone by like making chainmail or weaving baskets. Men, women and children were dressed in period outfits and we just loved seeing a guy pushing a wheelbarrow with a bunny, kitty and chickens inside. His German Shepherd flanked him closely, his doves flew overhead and he was followed by his geese, goat and sheep. Something fantastic to observe!
Il Casale, Le Burgne is an old farmhouse villa from the 800’s built on the hillside above a tiny town called Lerchi, on the border between Umbria and Tuscany and our home for the week. It overlooks the Tiber valley and has characteristic stone walls, wooden beams and terracotta fireplaces. The established fig trees were dropping sun-ripened fruit and we couldn’t believe the flavour, especially when combined with a swirl of prosciutto or a slither of gorgonzola. At this sweltering time of the year, the enormous swimming pool was where we spent a great deal of our leisure hours.
Gradually the other guests arrived. We met Rosella and Neville and their friends David and Maritcia. It was good to catch up with an old work colleague Michelle and her Mom, Wendy, and sisters Dale and Cindy.
Getting things off to a good start, Sharon had booked us for a wine-tasting at the nearby vineyards of Cantina Goretti.
The history of Cantina Goretti spans over four generations of the same family who passed the business down from father to son since its founding in the early 1900s. The setting is exquisite, rolling green lawns and lovely views of the setting sun across the vineyards.
Wine tasting in Italy is akin to a feast. The wine samples are more than generous and special snacks are brought to enhance the flavours of each type of wine (breads, hams, cheeses, honey). We also tasted brandy and their own olive oil and balsamic vinegar. All most delicious!
On the way home we stopped at a Farmacia to buy anti-mossie lotion, but when we were leaving, the Ford Focus Fred was driving refused to start. We were stranded an hour away from our home and had to wait for the car retrieval truck! Luckily Michelle (and her car) were still with us. As there was no clarity from the car rental people about a possible replacement and much confusion due to the language barrier, we decided to squeeze all 8 of us into the remaining car. Fred and Geoff got relegated to the boot, where with entangled limbs, they got to bond extremely closely.
Meals in the villa were outstanding. Rosella is of Italian heritage and a passionate and accomplished cook. Sharing our delight over the amazing fresh ingredients, radicchio, braseola, tartufi, peppers, cheeses and figs, mealtimes were an adventure. On the way to our villa we would drive past a buffalo mozzarella farm – Fratoria Montelupo. On a daily basis we would pick up the creamy balls of deliciousness and eat them generously sliced with basil, sun-drenched tomatoes, peppery green olive oil and then mop up the juices with chunks of ciabatta. Rosella’s home made pillows of gnocchi drowned in black truffle and parmesan was pure heaven!
Monte Santa Maria Tiberina
This charming hilltop settlement could be seen from the vantage point of our villa. We took a drive with Sharon and Fred for a late afternoon ‘passeggiato’. All the little fortifications and churches and houses all melded together to form a peaceful and delightful place that makes you want to stay forever.
Assisi is best-known as the birthplace of St Francis who was born into a wealthy family in 1182, but after a spiritual awakening, left it all for a lifetime of poverty. He was believed to communicate with animals and felt deeply about the natural world around him, which is why he is my favourite saint.
The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi is the oldest Gothic church in Italy. It is more than just a church. Even if you aren’t religious, you cannot ignore the importance and the beauty of this construction. The interiors are simply stunning, with ancient paintings decorating the walls. Underground is the tomb of the Saint, built at the beginning of 19th century, 600 years after his death (in 1226).
Assisi is a place of pilgrimage and the sight of monks and pilgrims strolling through the steep streets contrasts with casually dressed day trippers vying for trinkets or St Francis memorabilia.
Another gorgeous medieval town with a rich cultural history. We drove past Perugia, the capital of Umbria on the main highway before taking a winding road to Spoleta. The town is very pretty with a Baroque style Cathedral originally built in the 12th century. Sharon and I were drawn into the Cathedral di Santa Maria Assunta (dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary). Inside were beautiful works of art and bronze sculptures. We lit candles for our little brothers Michael and Clive (both lost to us in 2001 through suicide. A sad and poignant moment, that only surviving sisters can truly understand.
The beautiful town of Norcia is famous throughout Italy for its incredible butchers and charcuterie. It’s also the birthplace of St Benedict, who founded the Benedictine monastic system. Norcia is an ancient town that is still surrounded by walls that date back to the fourteenth century. Unlike many ancient towns, it is located above a wide, sweeping plain, known as Grand Piano – once a lake. The area is known for its scenery, and is a base for mountaineering and hiking. It is also widely known for hunting, especially of the wild boar, and for the sausages and ham made from wild boar and pork. Such products have been named after Norcia; in Italian, they are called norcineria.
One of our favourite food memories was when we spent the morning at the Citta di Castello weekly market. Aside from all the great shopping (Italian shoes!) we grabbed a delicious pulled pork sandwich. The husband and wife team had a newly roasted whole pig and juicy chunks of meat were shoved into a still warm bread roll together with bits of crispy crackling. We retreated to a nearby park bench to eat our sandwiches, just like the locals. We had to do a lot of walking to off-set that meal!
A week was over too soon, but we had the most incredible time. Amazing times with old friends, made wonderful new friends and traversed the hills, valleys and villages of Umbria thoroughly. We were excited for our next destination in Italy – Venice!