THE ROADS LESS TRAVELED
by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
Americans have a love affair with Italy. Three million Yankees cross the Atlantic every year in search of la Dolce Vita and fantasize about kicking back and growing wine grapes on the sunny slopes of their renovated Tuscany farmhouses. The reality of Tuscany, however, is another bowl of pasta. Although it is still charming, beautiful, artfully presented and dripping with art and antiquity, prices have escalated dramatically, visitors are often packed in like penne, and you’re more likely to hear “cheese” than “formaggio” from camera-toting tourists.
A few hours away from Tuscany, on roads less traveled, lies the region known as Umbria. For less than the cost of a hotel, you can rent a villa and become part of the daily life of villages that existed when Caesar was an emperor, not a salad. If you can spring for a rental car (not cheap) and bite the unleaded bullet for European-priced gas, you will become a discoverer rather than a tourist. You may even toss your guidebook into the back seat as you shop at local markets, meet native Umbrians, and perhaps even get invited to someone’s home for drinks, lunch or dinner.
The landscapes of Umbria look like the backgrounds of great Renaissance paintings. Virtually every hill is dotted with a medieval village which sits on top of Roman ruins. Just look for the ancient duomo or cathedral on top of the hill, and head towards it. You may get lost as you wind through labyrinthine streets, but follow the animated gesticulations of friendly inhabitants and eventually you’ll be gasping at frescos, friezes, stone houses, narrow passageways, cisterns, carved doorways, curved and vaulted arches, marble floors and cobblestone walkways.
One of the most spectacular of the larger towns is Gubbio. When you arrive, head right for the tramway (unless you have a fear of heights and open spaces, because you are whisked up the mountain in a small, open cage). After gaping at the tiled roofs of the old stone city below and the impossible green of the surrounding landscapes, the funicular deposits you at the base of the Basilica of Saint Ubaldo. A short climb takes you into the church where the body of the saint is embalmed and visible above the altar.
Down in the town, the stately and classically-proportioned l4th century Piazza Grande complex is a marvel of early religious and civic architectural integration, and it influenced the construction of piazzas or town squares throughout Italy. Inside the Palace of the Consuls museum are the seven bronze Eugubian tablets, which were found in 1444 and written by the mysterious Atiedici brotherhood between the first and third centuries B.C.E.; they have been compared to the Rosetta stone in importance. Incised in an early language derived from the Etruscan alphabet and also in Latin, they reveal precious information about mystical religious rites that would otherwise be lost in the veils of history. They tell us about auspices that are based on the flights of birds, lustration (purification) of the town through animal sacrifice, and offerings made to keep enemies away. In the same museum there are also ancient tombs, ceramics, and a breathtaking gallery of Renaissance art.
If the ceramics whet your appetite for brilliantly designed and colored kitchenware, head to Deruta. The town is crowned with a medieval village, but the streets below beckon to visitors with the famed majolica ceramics that are a fraction of their cost stateside.
Spoleto is well-known for its summer music festival, but on top of the hill is an old fort and castle complex where Lucrezia Borgia, the woman who probably poisoned more husbands than anyone else in Italian history, was said to be imprisoned. An ancient stone walking bridge connects two sides of the town, and students come from around the world to study manuscript restoration at the local institute. Visitors can stop at a sumptuous Roman house with mosaic floors, or visit an archeological museum whose treasures go back to archaic times.
Each Umbrian town has its own charms. In little-known Corciano, craftsmen meticulously piece together art made of inlaid wood and a man named Massimo Seppoloni makes and sells medieval armor–from full suits of mail to gloves and helmets, bows, arrows and daggers. Todi is identified by the stone carvings of its emblem–the eagle with a tablecloth in its talons. It was said to have torn it from a banquet table. Perugia, which is more of a city than a town, boasts a brilliant National Gallery with masterpieces by Duccio, Fra Angeligo, Signorelli, Perugino, and many others. A fifteen-minute walk from the center of town takes you to the Etruscan tombs of the Volumni –not to be missed. The Etruscans pre-dated the Romans, co-existed with them, and were eventually conquered by them. The multi-chambered burial vault of the Volumni family and the many carved Etruscan sarcophagi on display are evocative links to the long, brilliant, culturally- layered past of modern Italy.
Throughout history, traders, travelers and pilgrims have always made their way to and through the boot-shaped Mediterranean country. At “Le Due Torri” in Rocca Deli, a passionate pilgrim scholar named Fabio Ciri shows visitors the ancient holy trails, prepares pilgrim food and can even be prodded to dress for his guests in authentic pilgrim garb. There are rooms for vacationers, hikes can be arranged with Ciri’s sister Manuela, and visitors come away with a deeper understanding of why people walked the pilgrims’ path and what they might have experienced along the way.
After sightseeing, you’ll probably long for in-depth experiences in the local villages. An American company has just begun a program called Actividayz, where visitors can opt for everything from wine tasting to cooking classes in a castle to trekking (a minimum of two people required ). The truffle safari they offer is sure to be a favorite. An Umbrian fireman named Luciano Becaficco is a truffle hunter, and his dog Birillo has been trained to sniff and scratch for the pricey fungi. Beccaficco regales visitors with wonderful information about truffles as Birillo follows his nose, scratches in the earth, and scores mushrooms. And at up to $2500 a kilo for some truffles, that’s an amazing bargain. The $60 fee includes lunch of antipasti, boar stew, omelets with truffles or whatever the cook dreams up. Another activity, in Castel Ritaldi, involves cooking lessons and dining with chef Stephano Zaffrani in a 12th century chateau.
No matter what else you do by day, the nights (and mid-afternoons) are for eating. Everywhere in Umbria there are affordable, amazing restaurants with specialties like strangozzi (pasta), arrostocini (meat grilled on skewers), and crescionda (a dessert with sambuca or anis liquer). If you have opted for a villa rental, the landlords and ladies will sometimes cook for you. At the small Castelana villa in Solomeo (sleeps 3 people for $645 to $795 a week, depending upon the season), Wanda Palletta hauls out her rolling pin and saucepans and whips up gourmet fare with rabbit, guinea fowl, pasta, freshly-picked herbs and the ever-present spelt (a grain used in Roman times that is now very chic in Italy). For twenty dollars, you can dine like royaltySor Romans.
On a more spiritual note (although, arguably, food is spiritual), the tiny village of Cancelli, in the hills near Spello, has a history that goes back to the disciples of Jesus. Local legend says that apostles Paul and Peter came through the region to spread the gospel, and they were given hospitality by the original Mr. Cancello, who suffered from rheumatism. In the morning, one of the apostles cured him and also taught him how to do hands-on healing. The technique has been passed down from father to son for two millennia, but if the healer moves from the village of Cancelli (population: 8), the skill is lost. The current practitioner is Maurizio Cancelli, who has already passed it on to his son.
Even if you don’t need healing, the restaurant is fabulous, inexpensive, and has the freshest ingredients this side of the Adriatic as Cancelli is a shepherd and most of the fare is grown and produced right there. Also look on the walls at his colorful, fanciful, light-bathed neoclassical architecture paintings that seem logical but are Escher-esque in their whimsy.
For those who want to experience a part of Italy that is even less well-known than Umbria, head to nearby Abruzzo (there are also villas-for-rent there). You can pick fresh organic fruit and vegetables at remote Le Magnolie, near Loreto Aprutino, and hop in owner Mario’s van for an affordable day of touring ($40 for adults and $20 for children, including lunch) if you don’t feel like driving. Mario not only grows his own crops, but makes his own wine and prosciuto and cheese. It’s an ideal spot for families with children and includes a swimming pool, farm animals, and an unobstructed view of snow-tipped mountains.
Abruzzo is hardly ever mentioned in Italian guidebooks, and most Italians know very little about it except that it has spectacular mountain ranges (the Maiella and Gran Sasso), natural parks, skiing and endless opportunities for hiking. What they don’t know is that it is full of unexplored cultural treasures.
The Maiella mountain range was home to early Christian hermits, and one refusenik pope (Pietro da Morrone was chosen to head the church because, in an age of rampant corruption and infighting, he was seen as pure and uncorrupted. He became pope Celestino V, but he lasted only six months in the intrigue-riddled papacy before running back to the hills–literally.) The hermitage at Roccamorice, which Pietro da Morrone carved out of the mountain rock to honor St. Bartholomew, is only accessible by climbing down a mountain and then up a set of hand-hewn rock steps. The breathtaking and desolate cave of St. Bartholomew is still visited by the pious who come for blessings and healings. Other, even more elaborate hermitages can be visited in the spring and summer, when the Maiella snows have melted.
The village of Scanno is unique because of its 9th and 10th century houses (the Barbarians who ravaged the country after the fall of Rome didn’t make it to these remote areas for a long time), women who still wear traditional clothes (they vowed to do this in 1543, during the plague, when their prayers for the healing of their menfolk were answered), and beautiful filigree jewelry. Although the rest of the world is rife with divorce and rocky marriages, traditional customs in Scanno mandate long engagements, the involvement of the families, and marriages that are made to last forever. Several local jewelers also sell unique engagement rings (called cicerchiata), pendants (called presentosa), wedding rings (called manucci) and rings or brooches (called spola) adorned with angels to honor the birth of the first male son.
In Lanciano, where two Eucharist miracles reportedly took place (the host literally turned to flesh and can still be seen in the main church), visitors can also tour the old Jewish ghetto (the narrow, crowded street is still named Via del Ghetto street). In 1535, a law was passed that required Jews to wear a “T” on their clothes, and then they were all forced to relocate to the Sacca area. Today, locals point out the sites of the old synagogue, mint, and Jewish houses–right next to the contemporaneous churches. The two communities, Christian and Jewish, were heavily intertwined and the latter has disappeared today, although many people are aware of their dual heritages.
In Loreto Aprutino, there is the first painting ever done of the Last Judgment (in Santa Maria in Piano church), the fabulous and comprehensive Acerbo ceramic collection (he was undersecretary and minister of agriculture under Mussolini), and masterpieces of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
Cieti is home to the stunning National Archeological Museum of the Abruzzi, where life-sized, terra cotta Italic (pre-Roman) statues are adorned in outfits that look like South American gauchos. There are also cases full of jewelry, weapons and recent finds from ancient burial sites.
Sulmona is famous for its confetti (visitors can tour the Pelino confetti factory), which has nothing to do with the paper kind. Confetti are sugar-coated almonds that come in a dazzling array of shapes, sizes and colors. They are formed into single flowers, bouquets, or just sold in multi-hued assortments. They are given out to guests at all important life celebrations–births, confirmations, weddings. There is such a demand for them among Italian Americans that they are now available in some pricey stores and catalogues in America–for a much higher price, of course.
If you think people are friendly and the food is great in Umbria, you will be bowled over in Abruzzo. Strangers come up to you to give you directions, and shop keepers take you by the hand to introduce you to special produce and products. The food is dangerous because you may never want to eat in your favorite American Italian restaurant again. Everyone seems to make his own wine, cheese and prosciutto (which is aged up to 3 years). Arrosticini is grilled directly in the fireplace. Sheep is served on skewers. Chitarra pasta is hand-made by pushing the dough through the strings of a guitar-string metal apparatus. Gnocci are hand-rolled and served in fresh tomato sauce. Peppers dot the food. A meal can take hours and can cause grown people to cry out with childlike glee.
From Easter through the summer, many towns in Abruzzo and Umbria have singular festivals whose origins go back to the Middle Ages, Roman or even pre-Roman times. The explanations and iconography may be Christian, but they have the unmistakable whiff of pagan festivities. In Gubbio, huge, phallic, wooden towers are carried up the mountain on the backs of strapping young men. In Loretto Aprutino, the droppings of a bull are read to make predictions for the coming agricultural year. In Sulmona, doves are released and a veil falls off the head of a statue of Mary; both are read and interpreted as signs for the future.
Umbria is on the cusp of being discovered and Abruzzo won’t be a secret forever. If your favorite trail is off the beaten path, you may want to start planning now.
IF YOU GO:
For all sites in Italy, call ahead for information on hours of operation and reserve whenever possible. Many places are closed during extended lunch hours.
For villa rentals go to www.the parkercompany.com and request their amazingly beautiful and complete catalogue
For one-day activities: www.actividayz.com
For information on Abruzzo:
To learn more about Umbria:
Le Due Torri: www. Seeumbria.com firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 39-0742-65149
Pelino confetti factory in Sulmona: http://www.pelino.it Cancelli: Restaurant dei due Apostoli Tel: 0742 632600 or fax: 0742 632590 Driving: From Foligno go to San Eraclio and follow the signs to Roviglieto or Cancelli
One of the best Deruta ceramics stories: Gialletti Giuliowww.ceramichegialletti.com
In any of the villages or towns, find the tourist information bureau and get free information, or buy small, local guidebooks. Alternately, just ask the locals what’s important to see.
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