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ITALY Winter 2001 - Umbria (2)

Rome and Naples | Umbria (1) | Umbria (2) | Tuscany (1) | Tuscany (2)

Capodacqua di Assisi

Our destination as we drove north from Baschi on the No. 3 bis highway was Malvarina Agristurismo where we would spend the next three nights. At Perugia, we took highway No. 75 east toward Assisi and twelve kilometers beyond Assisi, we exited at Rivotorto.

Following the Malvarina signs, we wound our way up enjoying the captivating scenery. Olive trees, rosemary bushes and the smells of nature surrounded us as we neared the property. We spotted several beautiful horses as the road circled the corral just below the large, stone farmhouse that is the family residence. There, nestled on the slopes of Monte Subasio, between Assisi and Spello, we found a bit of heaven.

Maria Maurillo was on hand to greet us. She does not speak English but sweet, warm and welcoming come through without words. We had no problem understanding each other as she showed us to our room, at the far end of the main house with its own entrance. We were soon to discover that she and her family - her son Claudio and his wife Patrizia and their sons Filippo and Giacomo - were dedicated to making us feel perfectly at home in their home.

The name Malvarina is derived from a strip of land that was once part of Castle San Savino, which became the seat of the Accademia del Monte, one of the cultural centers of the Perugia area. Nowadays Malvarina keeps the cultural tradition alive by offering alternative programs for your free time. Claudio loves the outdoors and the beauty of his beloved Umbria and Monte Subasio. If you enjoy horseback riding, hiking, biking, whitewater rafting or canyoning, express your interest to Claudio before you get there and he'll be ready with a program for you. When you just prefer to relax, you can take a dip in the swimming pool.

Claudio never stops thinking of new ways to present the Umbrian countryside and he was just finalizing the details for a historical and culinary horse and carriage tour, which will follow the ancient via Flaminia and be called "Rediscover a Roman Route, a Step Back in Time". Two carriages, each carrying five people, will go from one venue to the next through the heart of Umbria. We regretted that we were there before the season as it sounded like something we'd have enjoyed tremendously.

Our large room was beautifully decorated in blue and yellow with a king bed, two upholstered antique chairs and a lovely old chest of drawers. Antique lamps (pretty but not great for reading), Deruta pottery and a decorative divider made it feel very homey, despite the lack of TV and phone. The sloping wood beamed ceiling and the rose colored floor tiles completed the cozy, country picture. There was plenty of space for our toiletries on an antique table in the large, well-equipped bathroom with stall shower.

There are a variety of accommodations available at Malvarina all of which can sleep up to four: Casa Angelo, studio apartments situated in the middle of greenery and oak trees with a view of the beautiful valley below, Casa del Gallo with a kitchen/dining area also in the woods with a trellised terrace for al fresco dining, La Ginestra, a restored old barn with a pretty private garden and Fienile, surrounded by greenery with a kitchen/dining area and a private garden.

The most important building on the property is La Taverna. The rustic dining room is dominated by a huge stone fireplace and communal tables invite conviviality. In the cucina, on the level below, Mamma Maria prepares ancient and traditional Umbrian recipes from the agricultural produce of the farm. When she is not preparing meals for the family, workers and guests she teaches Umbrian cooking to small groups.

Assisi

Assisi is perched high on the slopes of Monte Subasio. We left the car in the reasonably priced, attended parking lot below the city walls and road the covered escalator up to Porta Nuova, at the far eastern end of the city. St. Francis was born in Assisi and the spectacular Basilica of St. Francis, dedicated by faith and art to his memory, is located at the extreme western edge of Assisi. This allowed us to explore most of the town, checking out the north side when heading west and the south side on our return. The beauty of Assisi is that there is no order to the layout. Streets and alleyways wind and twist at various levels ending in surprising cul de sacs as often as not.

Adding to the adventure is the monumental task of repairing the damage from the earthquake. What has been accomplished thus far is nothing less than a miracle. Getting the cranes and heavy equipment through the narrow, intertwining streets is no small feat. Workmen and artisans are everywhere. When we stopped for a cappuccino and rocciata (fabulous local strudel filled with apples, nuts and raisins) at Bar Sensi at Corso Mazzini 14, the cafe was filled with young women in white jumpsuits who were identified as artists refurbishing the damaged artwork. The Basilica of St. Claire dominates the eastern end of town and contains many precious paintings. Unfortunately major reconstruction was underway and we were not able to enter.

Piazza del Comune is home to the impressive first century Roman Temple of Minerva, the thirteenth century Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo and the fourteenth century Palazzo dei Priori. The Roman Forum is located below the piazza.

Via San Francesco leads to the Basilica of St. Francis. We passed the thirteenth century country house of the Maestri Comacini (behind is the Vicolo St. Andrea, which leads to the medieval quarter of St. Giacomo), the Oratorio dei Pellegrini with fifteenth century frescoes, the thirteenth century corn market Monte Frumentario and the 16th century Oliviera Fountain.

The enormous piazza in front of the basilica was filled with visitors from near and far milling about looking for the best vantage point. All are determined to take the perfect photo, which is a real challenge considering the size of this complex. Two churches built one above the other, the lower dating from 1228-1230 and the upper from 1230-1253 with a crypt dug beneath in 1818, containing the tomb of St. Francis.

Considering that no part of the complex had escaped damage, it was amazing just to be able to enter. A select group of specialists has been working feverishly with the help of computerized technology to restore or replace the fallen fresco masterpieces. What has been restored thus far is just incredible. We were overwhelmed by the beauty of what we saw.

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Back at Malvarina, we got to the dining room at 20:00 and were greeted by our host family and some of their close relatives and friends. With a delicious smelling fire in the fireplace, the beautifully set dinner table was decorated with a symbolic sprig of Mimosa at each place. They were gathered to celebrate Women's Day and Linda and I were thrilled that our visit coincided with this very special occasion.

Claudio, his son, Filippo, and niece, Federica, sat near us to be our interpreters and converse in English. Being thoughtful, warm and caring comes naturally to these wonderful, hospitable people. It was stimulating chatting with two mature, intelligent teenagers and learning about life in Umbria from their perspective.

Bottles of delicious Umbrian wines were opened as the first platters of appetizers were brought to the table. The first, scrambled eggs and fresh asparagus, one of our favorites, with the most delicious eggs we have had in a long time. This was followed by pickled artichokes, chunks of Parmigiano and red pepper. Chewy, toasted bread with homemade olive oil was the perfect match. A first for us was a fabulous risotto made with fava beans, tiny sweet onions and that fantastic olive oil.

During the welcome break before the next course was served, the family and friends did their best to communicate and make us part of the celebration. When the meat course arrived, there were platters of tender involtini, thinly sliced meat rolled and stuffed with special fat and spices, and superb quality lamb chops, flavored with fragrant homegrown herbs. There seemed to be no end as the side dishes kept arriving and I barely had time to write them all down (Do you think it's easy to use a fork with one hand and write with the other?). Bowls of marvelous mashed potatoes, artichokes, fresh chicory and fava beans with olive and escarole salad were a vegetarian delight.

Maria finally emerged from the kitchen and came to sit with us anxious to know if we were pleased. Pleased? Linda declared that she had just eaten the best meal of her life and she meant it! Maria is just so dear, she was overcome with delight.

After a much needed break, the luscious desserts appeared. Pasticceria Napolitana was a delicious pastry filled with assorted dried fruits and Crostada, a gently baked tasty dough topped with prunes and apples. The meal concluded with excellent coffee and icy limoncello with a hint of cinnamon. It was an evening we will not soon forget.

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It was a nice, brisk morning as Maria joined us walking up the path to the adorable breakfast room in Casa Angelo. We were greeted by a crackling fire and the smell of delicious coffee. A table was set with the still-warm breakfast cake that Maria had baked before we woke up, biscotti, fresh fruit, bread (which she toasted for us over the open fire), and a huge basket full of homemade preserves, which she makes from fruits grown on the farm. Deciding which to have was just too big a task at that early hour, so we just helped ourselves to tastes of this and that. These very special preserves are for sale along with the wonderful Malvarina olive oil at the tiny shop next to the cucina.

Spello, Bevagna, Montefalco and Foligno

Monte Subasio links Assisi and Spello. It was a five-minute drive from Malvarina to Spello. Before entering the fortified walls of the old city, we passed the impressive Villa Fidelia, the adorable San Claudio church and the nearby Roman amphitheater. The Roman gates of Spello are special, each with its own architectural appeal. The winding streets of this typical medieval town are lined with pastel-colored limestone houses and the views across the lush Valle del Topino and the surrounding hills are exhilarating. Don't miss the Pinturicchio frescoes in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Just down the road from Spello, we drove into the parking lot of Forno S. Feliciano and were immediately assailed by the aroma of freshly baked bread. The shop was filled with folks buying breads and pastries as if a shortage was looming. We found the owner, Walter Silveri, who was happy that we dropped by and whisked us to the rear to see how the breads are made. We were not surprised to learn that Claudio had phoned ahead to tell Walter to expect us. It's a large facility that sells both retail and wholesale but this does not mean mass production. They use only natural ingredients in their preparations and their products are baked with care and skill.

Dr. Lodovico Mattoni of the winery Terre de Trinci was equally welcoming and after taking us through the winemaking process insisted on driving us through their nearby vineyards to point out the various varieties. The hills surrounding this land are historically ideal for red wine production, mainly Sagrantino, but today attention is given also to the excellent white wines, the most important being Grechetto and Trebbiano. We tasted all varieties at Terre de Trinci, bought some to take with us and very happily drove off to Bevagna.

Bevagna is a sweet, ancient town of Roman origin. The walls were built between 1249 and 1377 over the old Roman walls. Besides Roman remains of a temple, baths and a theater, there is a wonderful museum and archeological collection set on the walls along the stairway of the city hall. The main square, Piazza Silvestri, is a real gem of medieval architecture. This small town has a rich heritage, is unspoiled and should not be missed.

After driving over Mt. Pennino, we passed through the huge town walls of Montefalco. We climbed up to the center of town and parked in Piazza del Comune. Its lofty position makes it easy to see why Montefalco is called the Balcony of Umbria. Between the buildings surrounding the square, there were stunning 360 degree views of the vineyards and olive groves that cover the countryside below.

We tried in vain to find Torontonians Luigi and Nadia, who not long ago returned to Montefalco to open a restaurant. In our mail yesterday, was a postcard from them, advising that "Il Feudo is coming along great." Should the restaurant be open for business when you get there, Luigi told us that his mother's cooking is the reason he moved back to Italy. If you meet Luigi and Nadia, we'd be grateful if you'd send our regards.

Maria had invited us to lunch with the farm family so we drove back to Malvarina anticipating another wonderful experience. At the family kitchen table, ten of us shared a delicious lunch of crisp green salad with graponzolo (wild radish) and flavorful olive oil, pizza with onion, rigatoni with tomato sauce and luscious Parmigiano, grilled homemade pork sausages and chicory with fava beans. Wonderful wine and crusty bread completed the feast. The family and the men who work on the farm have a special relationship and we enjoyed their playful banter, camaraderie and warm rapport.

On the road again, this time to Foligno. Just down the road from Spello, this town is built entirely on a plain in the shape of an egg. Maybe that's why there were so many bike riders; no steep inclines to challenge the gears. It seemed to be a very social place. The streets were filled with people who all seemed to know each other and the cafes were busy with folks chatting away. Of course I noticed this because we were told that the most beautiful women in Italy are found in Foligno and one has to keep a sharp eye when armed with this information.

Foligno's neglected buildings were ameliorated during the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Further rebuilding was necessitated by economic changes and World War II and then came the 1997 earthquake. Major reconstruction is in progress and much has been accomplished. The medieval remains are intact and this beautiful town will be stunning when the work is completed.

Piazza della Republica is the main square with the Duomo San Feliciano, Palazzo Comunale (ancient town hall), Palazzo Orfini, where one of the first versions of the Divine Comedy was printed (Foligno is famous for its long history of printing.) and the handsome, historic Palazzo Trinci. This was once the home of the Trinci family, who governed the city from 1305 to 1439. An outstanding example of both Romanesque and Gothic architecture, the palace was built at the beginning of the 15th century. In 1439 the church decided to end Trinci's power and the entire family was killed. The palace became the Papal Governor's residence.

We took a detailed tour of the palace for special insights into its magnificent frescoes and striking interior design. We started at the Gothic stair, which joins the ground floor to the first floor in the oldest part of the palace. On the ground floor is a gorgeous well and the ancient private entrance. The Loggia frescoes depict the founding of Rome and the Liberal Arts and Planets room is decorated with splendid frescoes representing the seven liberal arts, philosophy and the seven planets. In the passage which joins the palace to the cathedral, the frescoes deal with the seven ages of life and nine traditional brave men in history. The Giants' Room is so named because of the dimensions of the twenty men painted on its walls. Sisto The Fourth's room is named in honor of the Pope who did so much restoration work to the palace. This room was once open air. The symbols of his family (oak tree and pontifical keys) adorn the ceiling and the frescoes on the walls represent allegoric figures and the symbols of the Papal Governors. The sixteen frescoes in the Chapel represent Virgin Mary's life. If you love art and design, the Trinci Palace is a treasure.

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There's never a dull moment in the Malvarina dining room. Tonight there was a group of people enjoying a celebration in the front area of the room and we settled in with the family and two other guests in front of the fireplace and proceeded to enjoy a long, leisurely evening of exquisitely prepared Umbrian delights.

Sipping an excellent red and enjoying a variety of starters including crostini with truffles, lamb giblets with onion and tomato, luscious dough topped with Parmigiano and tomato, and zucchini slices and mushrooms seasoned with herbs and olive oil, we brought the family up-to-date on our touring.

The family works very hard all day so it's easy to understand why so many courses are served. Tonight there were two pastas and two meats and Maria let us know it was not a matter of choice. We are pushovers. Tagliatelle al sugo with Parmigiano and spaghetti with divine parsley, pecorino, egg whites and olive oil.

During the break between courses we discussed our itinerary for the next day and settled on Gubbio and Perugia. Piera Onofri, who works at Malvarina, told us she had errands to do in both towns and would be happy to join us. This was a big plus for us because she is a delightful person, speaks English and, of course, is familiar with the territory.

Back to the pleasure at hand. Roasted faraona (guinea fowl) with sweet, delicate roasted onions was followed by roasted lamb and thick cut fries, served with both green salad and red cabbage salad. The freshness of each and every ingredient cannot be overstated. Light, fluffy sponge cake with layers of cream and fresh strawberries, topped with chopped nuts, brought the orgy to a close.

Despite the fact that its weird to talk about what we were served for breakfast at this point, it would be awful not to mention the incredibly delicious breakfast cake with dried fruits and nuts that Maria whipped up the next morning. She served it warm with fresh ricotta cheese, which Linda adores, along with her incomparable jams and jellies.

Gubbio

Taking highway 3 north toward Gubbio, we passed Nocera Umbra and Piera brought into focus the devastation caused by the earthquake and its aftershocks. She explained that the center of this town is still totally vacant because they have yet to determine how to tackle this massive project. As is common in ancient construction, the homes support each other and if not done correctly, the results could be catastrophic. In the end, this and other similar towns may, tragically, never be restored to what they were before the quake.

Piera told us that the government had immediately moved the displaced families into trailers and slowly the affected families are being provided with log cabin-type homes of more permanent construction. There are camps of this temporary housing all around. Although our media concentrated on Assisi when reporting the earthquake, we were not aware of the totality of the devastation.

Gubbio, which climbs up the side of Monte Ingino, was founded by the Umbrians. Its houses seem to be cut right out of the limestone in a single wash of color that expresses the ancient character of the town. The splendid Palace of the Consuls and the huge town hall in Piazza della Signoria are fine examples of the towns Gothic architecture. Climbing up to the next level of the town, there are spectacular views and two other important buildings, the Palazzo Ducale and the Duomo.

Gubbio is most famous for the Festa dei Ceri on May 15th. Huge crowds gather with unbridled excitement and enthusiasm as the Ceri, three colossal wooden structures, are carried by competing teams during a mad race through the streets of the town and finally up to the top of the hill where the Basilica of the patron saint of Gubbio, Ubaldo, is situated.

Perugia

Perugia is the regional and commercial capital of Umbria. Home to two universities, one for Italians and another for foreigners, the ambiance of the city is very cosmopolitan. Sitting atop a clover-shaped hill, its ancient Etruscan and Roman roots remain intact. Descending along its ridges are the medieval quarters and the well-preserved Etruscan Arch into the old city distinctly depicts three historical periods.

Escalators took us up through layers of the ancient castle, Rocca Paolina. This subterranean world with stone streets and arching brick ceilings and walls is spectacular. On reaching the summit, we were in the heart of town at the Piazza IV November in the center of which is the sculptured masterpiece, Fontana Maggiore. The Cathedral, palazzos and museums surround the lovely square. There were people of all ages about and an abundance of university students who went happily about their daily routines.

At night the family, as usual, had several friends for dinner. It's a good thing we had a light lunch. Superb bruschetta was served alongside fried artichokes and mushrooms, deep fried meat, chicken, cheese and bread balls, and eggs scrambled with onions and eggplant - all sensational, as was everything that followed. In case we needed to nibble between courses, there were bowls of fresh fava beans in their pods with sea salt nearby. This evening the pasta was rigatoni with sausage ragu. As we were finishing our pasta, organic pork steaks were being placed on the fireplace grills to be followed by homemade sausages. Platters of vegetables and salads accompanied the meats. A delicate apple and nut cake served with fresh pineapple and strawberries and a luscious limoncello polished us off.

After breakfast and fond farewells, we were off to Tuscany.

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