Friday, August 30-Sunday, September 8, 1996
LA BADIA: 8th century monastery turned into a hotel. Stately building with long, dark corridors. Surrounded by rolling hills and farmland and olive trees everywhere. Orvieto produces some of the best olive oil in Italy.
Lunch in La Badia restaurant was not especially good. But olive oil was unlike anything I’ve had in U.S. It was bright and fruity, a surprising taste!
Dinner at Volpe e L’uva (Wolf and the Egg) recommended in Fred Plotkin’s book (without his guide I would’ve been lost gastronomically): also not great. Concierge at hotel recommended Trattoria Etrusca. What a wonderful dining experience! Thin slice of steak grilled rare and smothered in herbs. Followed by three dessert sampler: delicate cake, tiramisu and rather gooey fruit/pie sort of thing. Waiter was helpful (no English!), impeccably professional. Recommended wineries to visit (one where a relative was the manager) but they couldn’t take me because they were in the middle of a harvest.
Orvieto Duomo: amazingly huge scale and ornately decorated. Inside, however it is very simple box-like structure. Heard powerful cathedral organ. Most shops closed on Sunday.
Never in my wildest dreams did I believe Umbrians would know so little English. I thought only in remote, “primitive” places they knew no English! Here all TV stations are in Italian. Sometimes there is no CNN, no BBC, no Sky TV, no Herald Tribune and certainly no New York Times. All signs, even in museums are Italian-only. It doesn’t help that I left my excellent guide book somewhere at home. I bet it’s on the stairs or in my car, one step away from joining me on this trip, where it’s supposed to be…alas!
I suppose I should be happy about the lack of English. It means these people are still fully native Italians, not under the spell of some international, cosmopolitan influence which would dilute whatever makes them Umbrian.
Driving through the narrow alleyways of Orvieto yesterday night, trying to make my way back from the restaurant to the hotel, I tried to turn a corner and scratched the paint on the rental car. Disaster! I seem to have a knack for damaging cars (my own car is in the body shop back home waiting to be repaired after a nice fellow cut me off on Lexington Avenue). It’s nothing that a little touch up paint wouldn’t fix. I know exactly how I would go about getting it done in the States (parts department of auto dealer). But who knows where you go here? Something to worry about…just what I need on a wonderful Italian vacation.
La Badia is somewhat disappointing. Soft, cheap mattresses, no shower heads. It does have a beautiful pool on the hillside with comfortable lounge chairs. Nice to laze about under the warm Umbrian sun. There is a cool breeze on the Orvieto plateau. Down below at La Badia there is less breeze and stronger sun.
Found a carnozzieri (auto body/paint shop) to fix scratches on car. They mixed paint for an hour, applied it, cleaned off my scratched mirror and sent me on my way. No charge! What a blessed, unspoiled country!
Drove to Todi and saw interesting Duomo. Church organs seem to always be ornately and sumptuously appointed. Had good meal at Ristorante Umbria: wild boar and polenta. Rucola (arrugula) salad so salty almost inedible. Very good torta with pine nuts and cream. Umbrians don’t seem big on desserts—usually fruit salad, torta, tiramisu or maybe gelato. That’s it. Fairly disappointed in restaurants so far. Mike Rose (co-owner of Semifreddi’s Bakery) cooks better than 80-90% of chefs I’ve sampled here. That’s a compliment to Mike, but a real insult to Umbrian chefs. Is it possible that Italian food and chefs have become so sophisticated in the States that our Italian cuisine rivals or even surpasses theirs?
Ubaldo Grazia shop (Deruta)
World-renowned for majolica ceramics. Plotkin recommended Grazia & Co. Walked there in the rain (why did I think Italian summer weather would be as dry as Israel or California?). Grazia has many rooms…first was modern garish garbage. God, why does he feel he needs to “keep up with the Joneses” by commissioning a “Toucan” parrot/jungle theme? The 15th century designs and colors are the best and will always be. Saw beautiful dinner plates with floral motif. Outer rim filled with luscious looking fruit—pears and pomegranates (with skin peeled back to reveal ripe red seeds within—connected by yellow vines. Asked price of four plates. They don’t sell them that way. Only in sets. Talked with Mr. Grazia about set of four. He said: “$146” and I thought he meant for a set of four, but he meant for a single set! Full set of four and shipping would come to (get this!) $1,000!! Yikes!
Bought small teapot for Suzanne and painted tile which came to $90. That’s the last I buy of majolica for a while—that’s for sure. Majolica museum closed…as everything is in Italy on Monday.
Now staying in Lo Spedalichio (which in the past had something to do with being a hospital) in old elegant hotel in a drippy little town halfway between Perugia and Assisi—but really in the middle of nowhere. Hotel sits next to dumpy little highway. When I booked the reservation, I thought it was much closer to Perugia than it actually is. Hotel sent me to wonderful restaurant where I had a soup made with small white beans which I’ve never seen before—extraordinary!
Called La Badia in AM and asked them to search for missing CD player and—guess what?!–they found it! Umbria…what a place! Unspoiled by wealth and privilege, people live by a simple honest code.
Drove to Gubbio this AM. Market day with wonderful foods sold, mostly salad greens and lots of flowers. Huge priory building with beautiful view from balcony overlooking city. Mountains, mountains everywhere! Had wonderful lunch at Federico de Montefelcro (named after medieval duke): turkey breast scaloppini with caper-parsley sauce (delectable!). For dessert, waitress called it pane cotta, but to me it seemed like smooth as silk crème caramel. Orgasmic!
Afternoon to Perugia: most cosmopolitan city thus far in Umbria. God, they even sell the Herald Tribune at the kiosk! A really big town compared to Gubbio, Deruta, etc. More English in evidence, but not much. Rained again…man, do I need an umbrella! That’ll be the last time I assume Italy’s climate is like Israel’s or California’s.
Sat in Cathedral of San Lorenzo for one hour while it rained and before restaurants opened. Here restaurants don’t open in PM till 7:30. Hard to adjust to. Had gnocchi with tartuffo nero (black truffles) and cheese (Mmm!) and minestrone filled with small pasta and legumes.
Sitting in church I realized that for me Italy is delightful mix of sacred and profane. Italians are planted firmly in the earth (hence the wonderful cuisine, farming and gardening) and their heads mount up to heaven (hence the serene cathedrals and sacred art).
Watching Italian TV: how weird to watch Hollywood Westerns with the cowboys and Indians speaking Italian! What would Geronimo and Sitting Bull make of that!
Assisi—city of churches even more so than other Italian towns…full of them. Saw wonderful sanctuary, Hermeo del C ? , hillside convent with beautiful walking paths.
Read in Assisi guide booklet that you can hike 15km from Assisi to Spello (seven hours) and take train back. If I ever did this I might reserve hotel room in Spello and train back to Assisi next day.
Basilica of San Francesco is so big, reminds me of Pentagon. Isn’t it strange to take a simple down to earth man like St. Francis and build a whole spiritual industry around him? I read in the Assisi booklet that when St. F. lay seriously ill messengers were sent from the town to where he lay, asking him to return home so that no other town could lay claim to his remains. How odd!
Le Silve (Armenzano) nestled into mountains
Staying at Le Silve (2000 feet up) near little hillside hamlet of Armenzano. Way out in God’s country. Drove in yesterday on roads barely wide enough for one car, let alone two. Also, rainstorm lashed at me. Kept mumbling to myself: “you must be crazy…this is insane.” I was angry at hotel and my hotel guidebook for not making clear how remote a place it is. But when I arrived I saw how spectacular the scenery is. High up on flanks of Mt. Subasio. On a sunny day it must be like sitting on flanks of Garden of Eden. Unfortunately, it’s been overcast, but you still get idea of how perfect it can be. Great place for honeymoon or “love tryst.” One quibble…there is hotel-wide PA which plays romantic jazz standards—mostly dull piano-style ballads. How odd to hear Georgia in the middle of the Umbrian mountains. I’d rather hear Umbrian folk music.
For breakfast, tasted freshly made ricotta cheese. What a wonder! Cheese by the same name in the States is a pallid imitation. This was so delicate in flavor, so light and moist in texture that it almost fell apart as soon as it touched the fork. What a pity I can’t bring it back with me to the U.S.!
Just now had breathtaking visual revelation. Here on Mt. Subasio looking across small valley to another hillside with undulating line of trees rippling across it. Sky filled with enormous, hightop clouds. Sunlight towards sunset is crisp and bright, flashing off clouds. Reminds me of Italian Renaissance painting (which I never really liked that much because it seemed so ornate and embellished—but this is real!) filled with heavenly figures enveloped in sun-drenched clouds. Now I see where that bright light came from! As sun sinks lower, tops of clouds are orange and bottoms are dark blue. Off to the western sunset the sky between clouds is most delicate shade of light blue. Ah Italy! Ah Umbria!
Being in the mountains is so invigorating. The senses are heightened. You’re on the edge of the world and also at the edge of existence. The struggle to live is more intense here than down below. That makes life that much more rewarding. The quiet, the simplicity, the purity of air…all make for a bracing, life-enhancing experience.
Spoleto didn’t seem to agree with me today. I arrived just as everything closed for afternoon siesta, and when I say closed, I mean closed. The whole city shut down tight, unlike other towns like Assisi or Perugia where some businesses and institutions stayed open all day. I couldn’t find the tourist office which wasn’t clearly marked. Automobile traffic in Spoleto is more intrusive than in any other place I’ve been. Cars are everywhere. What about a little traffic and city planning here?
Decided to take off early for Norcia
Norica Piazza del Popolo
because road was winding and also spectacular. Wanted to arrive with plenty of daylight. Spent several hours sitting in Piazza Benedetto outside the Norcia Duomo dedicated to him. It was delightful to watch Italian families, both local residents and tourist visitors promenading in the Piazza, communing with each other…girls walking their puppies, boys giving each other bike rides, and older men standing by St. Benedict’s statue and joking, talking. Italians are a social people, communitas is a central value to them.
St. Benedict and Norcia Town Hall
Ate at Tric-Trac (the Italians delightfully pronounce it: Trica-Trata) for lunch in Spoleto, just outside Festival of Two Worlds office, which is in the piazza in front of the Duomo. Italians sure know how to grill vegetables: tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, etc. Dinner at Granaro del Monte (Norcia)…wonderful pork sausage stuffed with black truffles and wrapped in prosciutto and cheese. Got my monthly supply of salt in the process. Dessert was sfogliatine , light pastry shell smothered in custard, raspberries, blackberries and berry sauce. Wow! Watching waiters scurrying around ensuring each customer was either eating a course, cleaning up after finishing a course and preparing for a new one. It was like ballet—a very strenuous ballet, but ballet nonetheless. Head waiter racing in and out of kitchen shouting at his assistant: “Mario! Mario!” This wouldn’t do in France or America, but it’s fine here.
Hotel reception useless for advice on how to entertain myself. Sent me to Cassa del Parco—the Sibilline Mountain National Park office. Wonderful young woman advised me to go to Castellucio (4,500 feet), crowning the Pian Grande (Great Plain), which produces the best lentils in the world. I bought a bag, and at $4/lb. They ought to be best in the world! Thousands of acres of them are grown and harvested in summer. As I drove over the mountain pass from Norcia to Castellucio, the great bowl of the Pian Grande spread before me as far as the eye could see. It looked something like the Great Salt Lake plain in Utah. An impressive sight.
Park guide also directed me to Mt. Vettore (7,500 feet) near alpine lake. Began the hike, but dark, cold clouds and vendi furiosi came up with light lashing rain. I thought better of going on, especially without warm coat or raingear. Instead I went to another town, Perci, with a cloister, Abbazio de St. Eustizio. There was a wedding in progress which I snuck into (otherwise it would have been closed). In Perci, every single person, except one boy riding his bike, was off the afternoon streets. Eerie quiet broken only by a dog and cat lurking in the street.
Returned later in day to Norcia to give update to lovely National Park ranger. Turns out one can rent an English speaking ranger guide for 12,000 lire/day. That would’ve been a great plan that would’ve enabled me to learn a great deal more about flora, fauna and geology of the region. Asked her name and she said something that sounded like “Juicy.” I asked: “Like the orange?” incredulously and disappointedly; to which she replied: “Yes like fruit.” She learned English at the University and during a month she spent in London two years ago. She charmingly thanked me before I left for allowing me to help her practice her English.
Up at 6:15 AM Sunday in order to race from Norcia to Orvieto to pick up CD player and sweater which I left at La Badia (and which, of course, no one stole after I left). Then raced to Rome Airport to make 12 noon flight home.
I had endless bags of food, wine, and majolica to bring back and which weighed me down terribly. Bag broke on plane. Thank God car and driver met me at Kennedy. Just as I emerged from terminal with my bags, the heavens opened and the remnants of Hurricane Fran descended. Driver drove car through three foot high lakes on Grand Central Parkway. Finally, home and to bed at 11 PM (New York time) or 5 AM (Italy time), meaning I was up 23 hours in a row!
What a wonderful journey!