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Travel with us to Umbria, home to lush river valleys, full-bodied wines, pristine medieval hill towns, flavorful black truffles, and the monasteries and churches of a host of home-grown saints.
Italy is filled with surprises; all you have to do is turn off any beaten path and, I promise you, you'll find adventure. For example, years ago, my German friend Ira and I spent the day exploring the wonderful Umbrian town of Orvieto, then sat at an outside table in the main piazza admiring the splendid cathedral for which Orvieto is famous, and raised a glass or two of their inimitable white wine with some locals. At sundown, we headed for Rome.
I was used to Ira's unbounded curiosity about all things Italian, so I didn't even comment when, after a few minutes, she looked to her left and said, "Hmmm... I wonder where that road goes?" I knew we were about to find out. She swung her Volkswagen bug onto a narrow country road and after some moments we passed a small sign that said, "Monastery." We turned into the entrance and found ourselves on a long, dark, mysterious-looking path, so thickly lined with trees that their limbs joined overhead, forming a natural vaulted ceiling.
After the car was brought to a halt, we got out and stood in the utter silence and darkness, staring with delight and wonder at the huge old villa silhouetted against the black sky.
"Buona sera," a low, musical voice said.
We almost jumped out of our skins. How in the world had he avoided making a sound on those crunchy pebbles?
Feeling like the trespassers we were, and females at that, we started to explain to the tall slim monk. But it was unnecessary. Before we had time to wonder if women were allowed, this warm, kind, generous Italian led us inside the monastery and gave us the grand tour. The walls were filled with splendid old paintings and maps and artifacts. Word must have spread, because an inordinate number of monks, clerics and seminary students suddenly found it necessary to speak with our guide as he led us from room to room. Each smiled shyly and shook hands with us.
Our guide then asked us to stay for dinner!
he dining room was row upon row of long wooden tables and benches. As we took our places amongst a sea of males, I leaned in to Ira and whispered grimly that it was too bad such a wonderful day was going to end with bread and water. She laughed and murmured, "We'll stop for a bite later, outside Rome."
Then, to our amazement, out came a veritable feast! Huge bowls of an absolutely delicious pasta, followed by salad and beans and chicken, and freshly baked peasant bread, veggies, fruit and wine, wine, wine. All these from the monastery gardens and ovens and vineyards.
Before we left, I begged them to explain why the pasta tasted so scrumptiously different, and was told that the tomato sauce was made exactly like an ordinary one except that Umbrians often replace basil and/or oregano with bay leaves and add to it, of all things, a couple of pinches of cinnamon! You see? Surprises, always surprises.
The Balcony of Umbria
Everyone has his or her favorite discovery: some little hill town or village that brings to mind memories of breathtaking panoramas, wonderful art, divine meals or all three. Mine is Montefalco. It is one of those hidden gems that give the discoverer a true sense of satisfaction. Only 30 kilometers from Perugia, the town has existed since Roman times, when it was called Coccorone. But I discovered it only recently.
Like so many ancient towns, Montefalco was built atop a hill so that the position itself could be an element of defense. Today, one must pass through the nondescript modern town at the base of the hill to reach the medieval hub at the summit. Stepping past the ancient walls is like walking through a time warp and ending up 600 years in the past. The street climbs fifty meters up the slope and opens into the center of town, the Piazza del Comune or della Repubblica, which literally crowns the hill. In the spaces between the church, the old town hall and other locally important but architecturally uninteresting buildings which line the circular piazza, one can glimpse a 360-degree view of the superb Umbrian landscape. Because of its fine vantage point above the Umbrian plain, Montefalco has been called La Ringhiera d'Umbria. Literally translated, this means "The Balcony of Umbria." Piazza del Comune offers travelers a front row seat.
Montefalco's star attraction is the Museo Civico di San Francesco (St. Francis Municipal Museum), housed in a former church. Erected for the Franciscans between 1335 and 1338, the church was decorated primarily by such local artists as Perugino, Giovanni di Corraduccio and Tiberio d'Assisi. But its masterpieces, the main apse and triumphal arch, were frescoed by the then unknown Tuscan artist Benozzo Gozzoli, in 1452. The vibrant colors, always Benozzo's trademark, are stunning. Twelve scenes from the life of St. Francis decorate the walls, figures of saints and saintly historical personages adorn the vault, and still more saints hover around the window arches. St. Francis and his twelve disciples appear in the ovals. Even the most blasé visitor cannot help but be moved by these scenes.
The church originally had a single nave with six side chapels, but the latter were destroyed in the 17th century, along with portions of the frescoes that had embellished them. The chapels have been replaced by a second nave. This area is now used for itinerant exhibitions, such as last year's wonderful retrospective of fashion designer Roberto Capucci's creations.
The church also hosts a small but expertly maintained picture gallery, entirely restored since 1990. The delightful collection features paintings by Umbrian artists; my favorite is Antoniazzo Romano's canvas depicting St. Vincent, St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Anthony. The crypt below the church has been converted into a lapidary museum containing objects of archeological interest, including a charming little statue of Hercules dating from the 1st century AD.
Nearby (everything is nearby in Montefalco), the church of Sant'Agostino is worth a quick glance. It too dates from the middle ages (13th century) and is an interesting example of gothic architecture, which is not common in central and southern Italy.
Spectacular views and art are not the only points of interest that can uplift the spirit. On a more hedonistic level, one absolutely must taste the local wine, called Sagrantino. It grows only here. Legend has it that a Franciscan monk introduced this particular type of wine to the region in or around the year 1200. Sagrantino is a robust, full-bodied red. Together with the other local wine, Passito, it is the main reason that many connoisseurs visit the area.
Per finire in bellezza (To save the best for last), one should sample the local wine and cuisine in any of several delightful restaurants. My favorite is Coccorone, located just behind the main square. Try the menu degustazione, which is quite different from the menu turistico. Don't confuse the two. The last time I was there it cost 30,000 lire. per person and included several samples of local pasta dishes, a mixed grill, dessert and several local wines. All of it was memorable. If you have room in your suitcase, stop at the local co-op (located on the main square) and buy a bottle of wine to take home as a souvenir of your front row balcony seat.