Umbria=Vermont (Sort of)

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We’ve been asked more than once, why Umbria/Perugia? A lot of American friends assume it’s where our families come from, and a lot of Italians, knowing that it’s not where our families come from, ask why there. To the second part, it’s nothing personal, people, it’s all about accessibility. Well, a lot of it is.

My father’s Sicilian, born and raised in Palermo. It’s a fantastic city, full of art, life, great food, a beautiful setting, and tons of my cousins, aunts, and uncles. I love to go there and I’m sure that when we live an EasyJet or Ryanair flight away, we’ll do it more often.

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Palermo, as seen from the town of Monreale

But it’s a port city—done that, being a New York City boy. And it’s in Sicily, which is wonderful, but it’s far. To get anywhere else in Italy and Europe is a bit of a schlep and at our age, we want to get in the car, or hop on a train, and be somewhere else.

Then there are the charms of Umbria, the only landlocked region on the boot. Italians often call it the “cuore verde,” or green heart, of Italy. It’s relatively uncrowded, with a population of under 900,000. Its capital city of Perugia has only about 170,000 inhabitants, but it’s a pretty sophisticated place, being a college town and possessing a long, proud, and often bloody history. The countryside for the most part is rolling hills, and is very, very green, from blindingly bright kelly green to the silver green of olive groves.

I sometimes compare it to Vermont, which is also landlocked, green, and full of rolling hills. Vermont’s got even fewer people, 626,000 and its biggest city has only 42,000, so you can’t go strictly by population as a comparison. But you when in terms of being highly agricultural, mountainous, green and, last but not least, being progressive politically.

But enough of these facts and descriptions. There are other reasons we’re there, the people we know, love, and have met along the way, for one thing. But a dog-walking friend of mine asked for more pictures this morning, so here goes.

IMG_1933.jpgHere’s Perugia, from the roof of the Mercato Coperto (covered market). Until the recent construction, it was a great place for an aperitivo. New Yorkers, eat your hearts out: Aperol spritzes for €5, or about $5.25.

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Lago Trasimeno, the largest lake on the peninsula. Towns on the lake, islands in it, ferries to take you to them. There’s great hiking on the islands; one, Isola Maggiore, is really hilly and gives you a great workout, not to mention views and restaurants for decadent post-hike lunches; the other one, Isola Polvese,  is a working environmental research center.

 

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And the mountains… This is up in the Apennines, past the renowned gustatory center of Norcia, above the Piano Grande di Castelluccio. A sad note: This area was severely damaged by last year’s earthquakes, so we were lucky to get up there a couple of times last year, when the wildflowers on the plain were on full display in a riot of colors (I never thought that I would ever write that).

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Can’t forget the sagre. This may look like a fast food court, but it’s a big town gathering place, outside of Perugia. The feast is ostensibly to celebrate the frog, but most of the attendees were there to eat the Umbrian specialty umbricelli. It’s a thick hand rolled pasta with, usually, a sauce strong enough to go with it.

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We do like our festivals in Perugia. The biggest of the Big Three is Umbria Jazz in July. (The organizers have a pretty loose idea of “jazz,” suffice it to say it’s mostly jazz with a lot of other good stuff thrown in). Mid-spring brings the International Journalism Festival (above, Amazon’s Jay Carney and Mario Calabrese, editor of the Italian daily/site La Repubblica, last year). I’m plugging this because I’m doing a session there next month, with my pal Fabio Bertoni of the New Yorker, and Richard Samborn, a British journalism prof. And October brings Eurochocolate. I haven’t been yet, but it sounds insane. Why chocolate? Because Perugia is the home of the Bacio, the Italian version of the Hershey Kiss. Being Perugian, the Bacio is a lot more decadent.

Next: But it’s really about the people.

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