Travel: Earthquakes and eating in Umbria
- Credit: Archant
Charlotte Smith-Jarvis explores Umbria and gets all shook up…
It’s not a common question to be asked on holiday….”Did the earth move for you?”
But with not one, not two, not three, but five earthquakes trembling central Italy during our recent visit, the enquiry (mostly from worried friends and family) was to be expected.
Fortunately we were unaffected- although we did feel them strongly.
Mr Jarvis was in the bath when the first one struck and thought the tremors were the result of a few too many glasses of vino!
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Would it put me off travelling to the region again? Don’t be silly.
The quakes were felt in Rome, Florence and elsewhere – and the tourism industry is highly unlikely to be felled in either of these places.
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During our five days in Italia, we were based in the country’s green heart (cuore verdi) of Umbria.
Forget about earthquakes. Our memories are of ancient golden hillside villages framed by a tapestry of verdant vineyards, silver-green olive trees, and freshly ploughed farmland. Of the warmth of the people, who had a real generosity of spirit and a passion to share their love of their culture, history, food and wine.
Umbria is, as we discovered, ideal for families. From door to door the travel time was just three hours from our south Suffolk home (it’s only a two hour flight from Stansted) and there is loads to see and do. Waterfalls, trekking, the new cycle track connecting Assisi to Spoleto, food workshops, and chocolate, art and music festivals.
You will need to hire a car to get around. But that’s just part of the fun!
We were based at the rather swanky resort of Valle di Assisi.
The entire complex has been designed to take in the jaw-dropping views of Assisi and mount Subasio so, wherever you are, that vista is never out of sight. Our suite had nifty touch operated lighting and blinds, which the kids thought were pretty cool. Both beds were more than comfortable. And we had two terraces overlooking the mountain – now that really was a vision I could get used to seeing every morning.
We also loved the spa jet bath in the bathroom – much-needed after a day trekking around the local sights. I don’t recommend pressing the ‘jet’ button until the bath is filled with water – from personal experience you’ll get wet!
On the grounds of the hotel are an enclosed football area, tennis court, golf course and pool (too chilly when we were there) and there are bikes to use to get around the grounds, which include a vineyard, farm and olive groves.
The fruits of all these plantations can be enjoyed in the hotel restaurant where we loved the modern take on Italian cuisine, and the fabulous wines – Canto in particular.
During our last day we indulged in a couple of hours in the underground spa here. It is just fabulous. Two jazuzzis (with hot water jets propelled from above), a pool, two relaxation rooms, mood showers infused with mint and lemon, and three heat experiences with cool lighting effects. Perfect.
Where to go
Known locally as the Rose of the Umbrian Valley, because of the pink stone from the mountains used to construct the buildings, Assisi glows blush under the setting sun.
Ethan (8) and I had our first view of the town from the mountainside national park of Assisi. This ethereally quiet place is where locals and visitors head to escape the heat of the summer sun, bringing picnics, cycling the pathways, hiking, watching the stars.
We were fascinated by hermitage where St Francis used to isolate himself, believing that this particular spot (almost in the clouds) would bring him closer to nature, closer to God.
You can still see the tiny hidey hole St Francis used. Admittedly, I only just made it inside (my curvy hips are obviously much bigger than the hermitage’s most famous resident). Ethan was fascinated by the miniscule proportions of the place and couldn’t quite believe the doll-sized ‘bed’ of St Francis.
A taxi ride (or two hour walk) up here is a must during any visit to Assisi – but don’t be tempted to pick any of the wild herbs, asparagus or flowers, the whole national park is protected. You can’t even pluck a leaf from a tree!
Back in the heart of Assisi we made a stop for gelato and spent a while rambling the historic centre, where artisanal shops and restaurants are tucked into the tiny alleyways. You’ll find loads of touristy shops, but traverse the lesser-walked paths and you’ll discover artisans selling famous Umbrian pottery, art and (as I obviously discovered) deliciously naughty cakes.
Look out for the majestic columns of the Temple of Minerva while in Assisi.
And you simply cannot ignore the Basilica of St Francis, which is, of course, one of the reasons this is such a popular destination, with thousands making a pilgrimage here every year. The gargantuan Papal building is in fact three churches, one on top of the other.
Underground, an austere but beautiful crypt reveals a shrine to St Francis. The lower church is feted for its ‘golden corner’ of art, with one of the most important collection of frescoes by Italian artists in the county from greats such as Giotto.
The upper, gothic part of the basilica would not, many say, have been appreciated by the frugal saint, due to its ostentatious décor, but it was my favourite part – from the soaring ceilings, painted in blue and green with golden stars, to the artwork along the length of the walls depicting the life of St Francis.
Did we want to visit a chocolate factory? Erm, silly question. We hopped at the chance to visit the Perugina headquarters on the outskirts of Umbria’s capital city.
Based in San Sisto, the unmistakable scent of cocoa permeates every part of the building. It is here that over 2million much-loved Baci (a chocolate gianduja mixed with crushed hazelnuts and topped with a single nut) are created. Each one is topped with a ‘love note’ (or carti) before being enveloped in its foil casing. In the chocolate museum we learnt more about the history of Baci and the Perugina factory.
We saw a recreation of the world’s biggest ever Baci, created for the 2003 Eurochocolate Festival in Perugia.
And of course, had the opportunity to try many of the factory’s amazing choccies.
Afterwards there was a skyline tour of the building, which is currently in high season, getting ready for Christmas, Valentine’s Day and even Easter. No sightings of Willy Wonka unfortunately, but the children were captivated by the whole process of making and packing, and we really did have a bird’s eye view.
Perugina has its own school of chocolate with a variety of workshops. We had a great (and very messy) time with the brilliantly funny master of chocolate making truffles in a totally hands-on session and came home with two packs of homemade, glossy truffles each, a certificate, recipe and even our aprons!
A trip up into Perugia itself is an obvious must when in Umbria. Although home to a whopping 35,000 students (it’s a very important university city), the streets of Perugia aren’t chaotic. You won’t find yourself darting in and out of traffic avoiding scooters, or ebbing in huge swathes of crowds.
Our guide Michele took us to the city’s highest point, which he called the Door to the Sun, as you can see the celestial globe rising from the mountains every morning.
Perugia has always been an important strategic place and is 500 years older than its Roman counterparts, with Etruscan origins. Visit the north entrance of the city, built 2,300 years ago, the exceptional round-framed Temple of San Michelangelo, the fountain in the main square with its intricate carvings.
Traverse the long narrow aquaduct that links the university to the city centre.
And look up at St Laurence Cathedral to see the crucifix adhered to its climbs – stolen and placed there by the people of Perugia in defiance of the War of Salt.
History is all around you.
But that’s not to say life stands still or looks back. Perugia hosts many music festivals, including an important jazz festival. And we had only just missed the chocolate festival the week before (darn it).
One of our favourite parts of our day here was delving down into the catacombs – because the Romans actually built on top of the original city! I, being a total wuss with heights, couldn’t face the escalator to the bottom (which seriously isn’t even that high), but happily there’s another entrance within walking distance.
It’s incredible to walk about the catacombs on the original city paths, venturing into ‘rooms’ that may have been shops or houses. The children were in awe.
If ruins are your thing, then plan for a few hours at Carsulae near San Gemini (known for its therapeutic waters). Flanked by hills and mountains, and surrounded by greenery, it’s difficult to comprehend just quite how big this ancient Roman town was. Even more difficult to grasp that what has been uncovered is only approximately 23% of its entirety.
We walked on the bumpy Roman road. Saw the still-standing north entry gate, which would have been an essential lookout post. Peered into a sink hole where pottery and more has been found. Stood in the remains of the forum. It’s incredible to think that decades ago this was a plant-festooned ramble of a place, where families would come to relax and picnic – having no idea on earth what they were surrounded by.
There are hopes for next year that more excavations can be carried out. And work has started on the Roman theatre, which is being added to to enable outdoor performances in the spring and summertime.
Cascata delle Maramore
Byron described these waterfalls as “horribly beautiful”. An apt observation of the urgency and power of the water as it tumbles from one of the highest falls in Europe. Seven dams control the cascata, and the sound of the water crashing and swelling in the pools below changes throughout the day and depending on where you are standing. We were told that the falls have their own microclimate, and this is so evident as you walk close to the water. The air around you becomes cooler, fresher, invigorating, making this a full sensory day out, rather than just a bit of sight-seeing.
Fifteen years ago paths and lookouts of various lengths were built for visitors. But Maramore has always been popular. Poets, artists, writers of the romantic ages would go there to find inspiration. And in the 17th century the Pope even ordered a viewing tower to be built at the site.
A good few hours can be spent wandering around – just take a coat because there are plenty of places where you will get wet. Poor Ella’s beach shoes got drenched!
Si Filippo Vineyard
Having grown up in rural Suffolk, living next to a farm, I’ve always had an affinity with the outdoors and agriculture so it was refreshing to spend time with a visionary, passionate farmer at this vineyard not far from our hotel.
Roberto and wife Emma grow their grapes organically or biodynamically, with the second generation vines producing varieties such as Trebiano Sporantino, Grechetto and Sangiovese.
Our tour began with a cornucopia of cured meats and cheeses, many produced by friends of Roberto’s, followed by the farm’s own goose rolled with pistachio, and a sticky fig crostata. We had the opportunity to try lots of the wines, and to get an insight into grapes and wines we’d never have considered drinking before. Montefalco is typical of the locality and although I was more than a bit tipsy at the time, I think that was my favourite.
Roberto has an inherent love for what he does which was more than apparent as we toured the vineyard with him on his horse-drawn cart (because the farm favours these over tractors). This was the kind of romantic vision we probably have in our minds of rural Italy. Roberto has managed to combine modern farming knowledge with time-honoured and tried and tested traditions that have improved his production by a whopping 40%. Instead of pesticides and fertilisers, a flock of 150 geese snuffle about the grounds, picking off bugs, leaving behind their own brand of manure and clearing the land in a perfect little piece of symbiosis.
It would take an hour to circumnavigate Italy’s fourth largest lake. Its banks conceal tiny villages and towns, pontoons surrounded by sailing boats. This is where Perugians come to walk with their lovers, escape the sun, dress up and enjoy lunch in one of the many restaurants and cafes. At the centre are three islands, one of them a national park, and another, Maggiore, lived on by population of just 17.
We didn’t have time to take a trip on one of the boats that departs regularly from Passagnano Sul Trasimeno, but that is a definite must as you’ll be able to get much closer to the islands, may see a variety of birds flying overhead on their way home to Africa, and can even stop off for lunch at one of eateries on Maggiore.
A short drive from here and with incredible views over the lake, is the olive oil mill of the Palombaro brothers, just outside Monte de Lago. Being a massive foodie we had to drop in. The action around us was frenetic. Apparently if the olives don’t make it to pressing within 24 hours they’re no good, so everywhere you looked there were farmers dashing with boxes of the fruit, hurrying them into the mill to ensure they made it in time.
Choosing olive oil is serious business here. In the open season of the mills in late October/early November, it’s not uncommon for locals to try out a few different places before they settle on what to buy. The oil here must have been good as our driver waddled off with two massive containers of the golden liquid – apparently enough for a few months!
Having tried the Castello di Zocco oil in the tasting room I agreed with him, although I definitely would have been over my luggage allowance if I’d tried to smuggle back what was frankly enough to run a small fish and chip shop.
It was interesting to see the oil in production, in a process that takes just two and a half hours. The olives are crushed and churned into a paste then spread on nylon rounds before being compressed together under intense pressure to extract the goodies. I confess, I’ve been drizzling it on toast every day since we get back. I’m not getting on those scales until after Christmas!
After our plans were changed due to the earthquakes, we found ourselves spending an evening in this miniscule village. I can’t put into words how utterly perfect Corciana is. Several times I asked our guide if it was a movie set because every little part of this triple fortified village is pristine. It is quintessential rural Italy painted in real life. Dreamy streets, two magnigicent towers, petite squares, arches, alleyways.
What made me fall head over heels for Corciana is its annual Christmas tradition. As we walked around we noticed pieces of wood perched on the sides of some of the buildings, some structures halfway through being made. When I commented one of them looked like the nativity I was told I was totally right. Apparently for around a week at Christmas time the whole village becomes a living, breathing nativity scene with people in traditional dress, set pieces, animals and more – how wonderful is that?
Where to eat
Testano, nr Assisi
A short drive from Assisi at first glances this spot might not look appealing, being as it is by the road in an industrial area, but it is renowned for serving some of the best torta al testo around and was thronged with locals. Torta al testo is a typical Umbrian snack that involves a type of flatbread being filled with whatever you like and toasted over a super hot fire. At only 5 Euros for a huge slice and a drink, what’s not to like. Try the barbozza (meaning beard) which is deliciously cured pig’s cheek.
Yes I know what you’re thinking, ‘Umbro’s a brand of trainers’ but in this case it’s a lively eatery/shop. Underneath is a market selling regional specialities as well as daily essentials. Above is a bar, grill and deli counter like I’ve never seen before. The never-ending counter brims with cured meats, cheeses, hot dishes, and more. Take a ticket, join the queue and try to make a selection. The pasta is great (huge portions too) and the sharing platter of salamis and hams is to die for.
La Rosetta, Perugia
From the outside, this hotel and restaurant looks a little tired (think 1970s). But, you know what, it’s not all about looks. The restaurant here is incredible, with an old-fashioned charm and hospitality uncommon today. The head chef is dedicated to using fresh, local Umbrian produce and demonstrated exceptional skill and flair in the seven (yes, seven) course feast he presented to us – all brought over by trolley I have to add! There was a tiny beef tartare (meat sourced from local supplier Etrusco) sitting on top of black rice with the sweet tang of pomegranate seeds. Home-cured duck prosciutto drizzed with local honey. A risotto of Umbrian saffron, grayfish from lake Trasimeno and melting lardo draped over the top. Crisp pumpkin tartlets crowned with burnished onion and truffle, and served with a blue cheese cream sauce. Al dente pasta with wild boar and rosemary ragu. Pork loin in a sticky wine reduction with dried fig and tiny sweet plums. And…phew…baked chocolate mousse with vanilla cream. A gastronomic experience for sure.
Ristorante il Convento, Corciano
Found in the depths of a former convent, this elegant restaurant, with its arched ceilings and historic brickwork, is fabulous and a great place for typical Umbrian food. I tried Umbricetti (the local eggless pasta) served with hot chilli, truffle and layers of lardo. The porchetta, filled with spicy garlic and herbs was gorgeous. And the lentil soup was excellent. Staff are more than happy to make recommendations. Service is friendly. And there was enough choice to satisfy even the fussiest of kids – I should know, we had two with us!
To find out more about the hotel Valle Di Assisi, click here.
Discover more about Perugia by clicking here.
Fancy making truffles at Perugina? Click here.
If you liked the sound of the dishes at La Rosetta click here.
Book a table to sample Umbracetti by clicking here.
Learn about the islands and villages of Lago Trasimeno here.
View the trails around the waterfalls by clicking here.
Buy wine from or book a vineyard tour at Di Filipo by clicking here.
For a calendar of events, plus activities, places to stay and more in Umbria click here.