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ITALY Winter 2001 - Umbria (1) and Tuscany

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

Known as the Green Heart of Italy, Umbria is right in the center of the country. We knew we would find forested hills and fertile valleys, rivers and lakes, centuries old stone villages with colorful tile roofs crowded together above narrow, twisting streets steeped in history, a gold mine of art and culture. We knew we would taste exquisite extra virgin olive oils and drink extraordinary wines along with simple preparations of home grown foods. What we knew did not do justice to what we found because the good, hard working people of Umbria are the soul of the Green Heart and make it the special place that it is. Their character, strength and courage are best exemplified in the way they have dealt with a year of earthquakes. Seeing the extent of the damage and the degree of reconstruction that has been done and is ongoing is a tribute to the faith, patience and organizational skills of these resilient people.

We left Hotel delle Muse at 10:45 and following Giorgio's directions we took Via Salaria to the A1 (autostrada) north toward Firenze. Our destination was Agriturismo Pomurlo Vecchio in Baschi, which is between Orvieto and Todi. Following instructions that were sent with the confirmation of our reservation, we arrived at noon.

Baschi, Umbria

The 200 hectare estate with green hills, olive groves and vineyards (and rolling, twisting dirt roads that had Linda hysterical) overlooks nearby Corbara Lake from an altitude of 300 meters. The farm is home to cows, sheep, chickens, ducks and rabbits and produces organically grown fruits and vegetables as well as wheat. The guest facilities are housed in several traditional stone houses that have been attractively renovated and comfortably furnished with the fixings for making continental breakfast in each room.

At Le Casette, which was still closed for the winter, there's a swimming pool, tennis court and bikes for the use of guests. With two lovely stone structures, one with 6 guest rooms and the other with 9 plus a large kitchen and dining room, this is a particularly wonderful spot for large parties. The views are lovely, the air fresh and there is nothing like waking to the sounds of nature.

The proprietors, the Minghelli family (charming father Lazzaro, daughter Daniela and her husband, Carlo Micu) live in the towering Pomurlo Vecchio, which sits atop the property. Daniela was on hand to greet us and showed us a splendid apartment at ground level in their home. She told us that dinner would be served in a lower property, Canale, which houses a large kitchen and dining room as well as several apartments. Since this would have meant driving back after dinner on a steep, narrow, twisting, dirt road for about three kilometers in the black of night, we opted to change to accommodations at Canale, much better for our peace of mind.

We settled into a lovely apartment of stone, brick and wood beams. Before and after dinner each night, we enjoyed the fireplace in the combination living, dining room and kitchen. The bathroom was good sized with a window and stall shower. The bed alcove was a bit tight but the mattress was firm and after a day of touring and feasting, we didn't need a lot of room. There was no television nor telephone.

Orvieto, Umbria
We would be here for three days and planned to visit Orvieto, Todi, Pitigliano (in nearby Tuscany), Torgiano and Deruta. Today we started with Orvieto, about twenty kilometers west of Pomurlo Vecchio. Rather than park below to take the funicular, we drove up the high cliff to the parking lot opposite the funicular arrival station. There is both free and paid parking, side-by-side, the former designated by white lines and the latter by blue. There were empty spaces in the free lot, an off-season luxury, so no contest!

We were immediately struck by the incredible views of the surrounding countryside and as we stopped to take it all in, we saw a fellow sitting in a van who looked like he knew good food. He directed us through Porta Rocca to La Palma (Tel: 0763-340840) at 326 Corso Cavour, the main shopping street through the center of town. This simple, white walled trattoria turned out to be a perfect place to enjoy the delicious cuisine of the region. We were greeted by a friendly, young woman who seated us and presented the menu. Oh, where to begin? The temptation to have multiple courses was overwhelming. Some semblance of reason prevailed and we started by sharing a mixed salad and carciofi. The plump artichoke was stuffed with bread, cheese and garlic and baked with a drizzle of olive oil. Linda had tagliatelle con crema di tartufi and I the same pasta ai funghi porcini. The noodles were homemade, the mushrooms local and the preparation outstanding. We were off and running.

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To the rear of the dining room is the small family dining area just outside the cucina, where Mom and Dad were having lunch. Their son showed us the adjoining bar and outdoor patio. It's a real family affair, with the potential to prosper as the younger generations take the helm.

Orvieto, the cliff city, developed from within, one phase atop the other. At first Etruscan, then medieval and in the 14th and 15th centuries the transformation to what it is today got underway. Orvieto's story is told in the dark, twisted bowels of the city; as the city was rising a companion city was dug below. Tours of the underground city are available at the tourist office.

After lunch, we continued along Corso Cavour to via Duomo, then onward to Piazza del Duomo and Orvieto's renown Gothic Cathedral. The brilliant facade is awe inspiring both in size and design while the interior is filled with famous masterpieces of art and decoration.

In the Piazza del Duomo one will also find Museo Nazionale Archeologico, Museo Opera del Duomo and Museo Faina e Civico as well as the tourist office with its extremely helpful staff.

Further west along Corso Cavour is Piazza della Republica and a neat journey through nearby medieval streets. Many shops of Orvieto highlight the famous high quality handicrafts of the region such as ceramics, woodwork and lace.

Of course there's no shortage of Orvieto wines and particularly the fine, delicious wine produced in the older zone, around Orvieto, classified as "classico".

Back at our apartment we took the chill away and relaxed by a crackling fire before dinner, which would be served at 20:00, the usual dinner time throughout the region.

The open cucina and dining room are informal and welcoming. The family was gathered to greet us and we were soon joined by three other guests. It was early in the season and we did not expect to find many guests along the way and this proved to be the case. However, this provided another treat in that our hosts had more time to spend with us and, as in the case of our next stop, their friends and family. Keep reading.

Crostini, thin sliced, toasted bread with various toppings, is the region's typical first course at dinner. On our first night, two versions, topped with anchovy butter and pickled vegetable paste, were served accompanied by slices of homemade salami. Be careful not to eat too many crostini because there is going to be a pasta course next; tonight's was a superb lasagna, made with fresh, homemade noodles. Luckily we didn't take the offered seconds of lasagna because the meaty, tender, roasted chicken, with potatoes and mixed salad, was just too good to be too stuffed to enjoy. Homemade red and white wine was enjoyed from beginning to end. Dessert was tozzetti (the local biscotti) and cherry liqueur, homemade and delicious. Each night the selections at dinner varied but the format remained the same.

Pitigliano, Tuscany
A leisurely 60 km drive west through farmland and vineyards brought us just over the Umbria line into Tuscany and the breathtaking sight of Pitigliano. It appears that the entire town has been painstakingly sculptured out of volcanic tufa rock, with its characteristic yellowish and reddish hues. The medieval center is perfectly intact, with the beautifully designed and constructed terra-cotta roofed tufa houses appearing to rise from the rock in all shapes and sizes.

After passing through the gate into the Piazza Garibaldi, we walked a short distance along via Cavour to enter the main square, Piazza della Republica. The Orsini Fortress dominates the square with a sculptured lion guarding its entrance.

The layout of the town follows the ancient plan in which the buildings are organized around two main streets running parallel to each other with narrow passageways linking the two. Via Roma and via Zuccarelli are the two stunning main streets and a third, via Vignole or via delle Fratta, runs along the northern perimeter. Attractive passageways from via Zuccarelli lead to neat terraces and gorgeous views to the south.

The tufa stone artisans who built this town were caring and meticulous. The skillful blending of shapes, sizes, textures and colors creates a soft, magical, alluring feeling throughout the town. The design of passageways, as impressive as that of the homes, combine harmoniously to delight the visitor with the unique and special character of the surroundings. We hope this genuine medieval town never modernizes and forever maintains its present beauty.

Pitigliano has a long, Jewish history and via Zuccarelli was where the ghetto was located. At the end of the 16th century, a synagogue was constructed in the heart of the ghetto. After a succession of restorations, it was fully restored and opened to the public in 1995. A security guard opened the large iron gate and guided us inside. The interior design and furnishings are a duplication of the original. Fragments of plaster friezes on the rear wall are the only remains of the original baroque structure.

Below the homes in Pitigliano there is an authentic underground city of interconnecting tunnels, ancient wells at various levels and remains of Etruscan tombs. Every house has a basement that served three purposes - wood store, store room and wine cellar. To visit one of those wine cellars is to gain entrance to the subterranean world. Capisotto, at the westernmost point, is the oldest part of town with the largest and most beautiful wine cellars and interesting Etruscan remains and walls.

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Pitigliano is also home to Roberto and Annalisa who operate the local tourist office in Piazza Petruccioli. These lovely people were extremely helpful in enabling us to have a quality visit. Annalisa owns and operates a charming guest house, Locanda Il Tufo Rosa, located above the tourist office, with beautiful, individually designed rooms with ensuite bathrooms. Send an email for further information.

Todi, Umbria

Legend has it that the building of Todi started at the foot of the hill along the left bank of the Tiber as it flowed downhill, when the cloth spread with the workers' breakfast was seized by an eagle who, flying high, let it fall on top of the hill. This was interpreted as the will of the gods and the builders abandoned the site on the plan in favor of building at the very top of the hill. We followed the same course, parking the car at street level and starting our climb up through the narrow steep streets. After a few blocks, our eagle appeared in the form of a nice woman who told us we were crazy not to drive to the top and use our energy to enjoy the town. We followed her good advice, retreated and drove to the top.

We found a metered spot right in front of the impressive Gothic church of San Fortunato, protector of the city. The meter was broken - was this a good or bad thing? Back home it's bad as broken means don't use or get a ticket. The police station was nearby so we went to check. Not to worry, they knew all about it and it was certainly okay to park. We found that whenever we had occasion to deal with the local police, they were pleasant and eager to help and in most cases did speak English.

We took via Mazzini from Piazza Jacapone, passing the beautiful Teatro Comunale, which hosts theater, opera and concerts, into the celebrated Piazza del Popolo. The Italian middle ages are represented by the civil and religious buildings around this square with the Cathedral to the north, the Palazzo del Capitano and the Palazzo del Popolo to the east, and the Palazzo dei Priori to the south. The symmetry, design and stonework of this piazza are the reason that it is considered one of the most beautiful in Italy.

We wandered through the narrow streets behind the Duomo enjoying the well maintained, medieval character of this ancient Etruscan and Roman town atop the steep Umbrian hill.

Torgiano, Umbria

Torgiano and Deruta are just north of Todi on the highway No.3 bis toward Perugia. Our first stop was Torgiano, the further north of the two. This peaceful, hospitable town is in the center of the DOC and DOCG wine growing area and is famous for having one of two reds that stand atop the quality pyramid of Umbrian wines, the Rosso Riserva DOCG.

Torgiano's wine museum documents the many aspects of the great wine culture in Umbria. The wine museum, Corso Vittorio Emanuele 11, was created and founded by Giorgio and Maria Grazia Lungarotti to support the local wine producing economy. It is housed in the lower levels of the 16th century Graziani-Baglioni mansion using the basement, mezzanine and first floor, once used for the storage and processing of farm produce. Considered to be the most important of its kind in the world with a unique collection ranging from ancient wine presses and wine jars to historical engravings, drawings and impressive ceramics by classical and modern artists.

The same family created the olive oil museum at via Garibaldi 10. The museum is housed in a complex of restored medieval dwellings that were formerly the site of an oil press active until just a few decades ago. There are ten rooms on three levels with detailed information relating to the botanical characteristics of the olive tree and techniques for cultivating and manufacturing oil from the old way to the new.

Both museums are located in the center of town and provide worthwhile insights into two of the most important products of Umbria.

The tourist office was closed but an officer at the nearby police station found the key, supplied us with a map of the city and pointed out the location of our lunch destination, Ristorante Siro, via G. Bruno 16. The large dining room was packed with local workmen and business people chatting away and obviously enjoying the local wine and multiple courses of wonderful smelling foods. An excellent beginning, our two salads, one of sliced tomato on a bed of shredded rucola covered with thin slices of Parmigiano, the other of thin slices of raw zucchini covered with shredded Parmigiano and pine nuts, were drizzled with delicious Lungarotti Cantico olive oil. The house white wine was luscious. The pastas were just okay.

Deruta, Umbria

The rich and varied Umbrian ceramic art has always intrigued us. We were looking forward to visiting the shops in Deruta. Oh, where to begin? Shop after shop filled with glorious pieces. The blue and yellow windows of Geribi Ceramics stopped us cold and we pulled into the parking lot. The company specializes in the traditional Deruta patterns from the 15th century. Josephine Durk, the company business manager, was on hand to guide us through the store and was kind enough to call Gerardo Ribignini, the owner, to make an appointment for us to meet him at one of his workshops. Josephine was a doll and Gerardo a true gentleman artisan. We were able to watch the artists painstakingly painting the ceramic pieces and to appreciate the skill and labor that goes into preparing each piece. The intense color, intricate designs and amazing, bright glaze finish of Geribi ceramics caught our eye and after Gerardo described his commitment to quality, we understood why his ceramics stand out above the crowd. We regret that we bought just one piece - but we are so happy to have it.

Back at Pomurlo Vecchio in Baschi on our last night before moving on, Carlo offered to show us his woodworking shop and we were fascinated by the creativity of his intricate designs. If you are fortunate enough to meet him, be sure to have him show you his outstanding photography. Carlo is a multi-talented man.

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