Francesco Was Here

IMG_1926.jpgOne of the selling points of this house was its proximity to the Sentiero Francescano, a trail from Assisi to Gubbio that San Francesco (St. Francis of Assisi) took hundreds of years ago. The trail happens to pass through Valfabbrica and, happily for us, through and around the hills near the house.

We were sitting around having coffee and I got restless (hmm, coffee, restlessness, connection?). “Let’s go for a walk,” I told The Spartan Woman. For once, now that it was safe to walk without having a stroke, she agreed. We got in the car, just to avoid the boring walk to the trailhead, ditched the car, and set off.

And oh.my.god. It’s just stunningly beautiful. The views, the blue sky, the ruins, the little country church, the olive trees, the sound of rustling leaves. See for yourself:

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The trail is actually a “strada bianca,” or white road at this point, fairly wide with some gravel. There’s a steep incline to start, but it levels off somewhat and there are enough vantage points to take in the view. This was our first exploratory walk, so we weren’t sure how far we’d go. We did it on a lark, so no water, etc. But every corner urged us to go further.

At one point, we got a closer view of a ruin that we’d seen from across the road from our house. I was wondering what it was—from afar it could’ve been another farmhouse on a ledge. Of course we had to climb the hill and round the curve to check it out.

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We met hikers coming from the opposite direction, one of whom seemed nervous about the sheep further down the path and the sheepdogs. We had to assure him that the dogs were harmless and they were only interested in guarding their charges. Their human is Luciano of our neighboring agriturismo, Ca’Mazzetto.

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The Sentiero, we’ve learned, is just part of a network of trails that run through this area. The trails are well-marked, and there are periodic info signs that tell you what you’re seeing—even in English.

IMG_1947One of the trails, the Via Francigena is actually a long series of trails that, incredibly enough, connect Canterbury, England, to Rome, and onward to Puglia. We decided that that was a tad too ambitious for this Wednesday morning. Its site looks pretty good, and offers all sorts of advice for those who want to tackle at least part of the route. Eric Sylvers, a reporter who wrote freelance pieces for my old magazine, actually followed the route through much of Italy 10 years ago. You can see some of his videos here.

 

A Long Day of Doing Nothing Much at All

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We’ve been running around a lot. The first month, for me, was a whirl of flying, metro trains and a small hotel room in Milan, meetings and meeting friends. Then home to Perugia, where I rented a car and drove right away out to the house in Valfabbrica, where a small army of workers was practically camping out. They were rushing to finish a pool because they knew we were coming, and the weather was just getting hotter and hotter.

I practically have to look at the pictures I took to remember July. I vaguely remember driving to Rome to pick The Spartan Woman (TSW) up from the airport, and the next day we drove out to Ancona to the big IKEA store there. We had a deadline: Our daughter and her cousin were coming in soon and needed beds to sleep in, and we needed tables to sit at and cooking utensils.

Most people come here to sightsee or to sip Aperol spritzes while watching the sun set. We got to know the local big box hardware store, the French furniture store and various housewares emporia. One of these days, if I have the stomach for it, I’ll tell you about cisterns, water pumps and hot water heaters.

Then the young ones came (and so did a bunch of friends to play in the pool and have dinner and…etc.)

Phew. So here, finally, a day of nothing much at all. We did get out to buy a lawnmower, but that was a quick run (to another French retailer, no less). Otherwise, nothing. Feeding the feral cats who come by for food. One likes spaghetti; the other potato chips. We give them cat food, too. Wine for me. Maybe we’ll fix some dinner in a couple of hours.

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We’re sitting at our patio table watching stupid bugs fly into citronella candles and listening to planes occasionally land and take off somewhere over the mountains, where there’s a gently used regional airport. If I were in New York, I wouldn’t even notice, but the noise disturbs the rustling of the leaves on one of the few temperate days we’ve had this summer. I’m playing with Siri, summoning her—it?—with the command, “hey, Siri” and telling her/it what song to play (So far, Bowie, Travis, R.E.M.’s “Wichita Lineman” cover, Daft Punk).

Oh, and we passed up being at a party at Sting’s estate in Toscana, sorry, Tuscany. A big part of me wanted to go. No, really. I’ve seen previous years’ videos, where he does a killer acoustic version of “Message in a Bottle.” But it would’ve meant dressing like a grownup, getting into the car, driving a couple of hours. (Plus, I had to think to about mowing the lawn, maybe tomorrow. Exhausting!) Sally, I’d love to do it next year, but today just didn’t feel right.

It’s taking me awhile to get used to this relative quiet. I’ve been on the go for decades, going to an office every day or working at home and staying in contact for fear of being forgotten. Living with TSW has always been akin to being near the eye of a hurricane: not always frantically spinning around but being sucked into the vortex often enough.

Italians have a word for it: La dolce far niente, the sweet do-nothing. I guess I’m not just doing nothing. I’m sitting here writing about doing nothing, which I’ll admit is a contradiction. While I’m writing this, TSW is reading me news headlines about this exotic land across the ocean run by, get this, a failed real estate developer. She chortles at words like “fake news” and “Bannon.”

In the back of my mind, it’s all a prelude to going back to what some think is the real world. I’ll be getting back to work, and some home improvement back in New York. We’re having visitors from here in October, and we’d like to show them more than our usual chaos. But first, I’ll do some more travel writing. I wanted to write something today, but I didn’t want to put much energy into it.

Tourists Wanted

There’s been a spate of stories in places like The New York Times and the Guardian about anti-mass tourism demonstrations and laws to curb tourism in European cities like Barcelona, Venice, and Rome. I can’t say that I blame the local authorities and demonstrators. Large groups of selfie-wielding tourists take a toll on a place and its inhabitants, who have to move around and get to work and home. Plus, mass tourism deforms the local economy: If you go to the popular haunts in a city like Florence, you’ll see that nearly every shopfront is either a pizzeria, gelateria, currency exchange, or snack bar. These businesses push out the tailors, bars, and bookstores that cater to residents.

But I’ll make an exception to the anti-tourism mood. Come to Umbria. We need you. Not all of you, and we’d prefer that you don’t travel in large packs. But last year’s earthquakes in the mountainous zones in the Valnerina scared a lot of people away from Umbria. It’s hard to get an exact count, but I saw estimates immediately post-quake of as much as 30-to-40 percent.

The ground has stayed solid lately, and, as a friend said, traveling in Umbria no more risky than going to California or Japan. And it’s a lot more relaxed. Sure, the Catholic faithful mob Assisi, but otherwise, it’s cool runnings. And I’ll tell you that you’ll have a more authentic Italian experience. Why? Here’s the thing: You can find pictures of monuments everywhere. But it’s really easy to have chance encounters with really nice, warm people here, people who haven’t been made cynical by an onslaught of visitors.

In the next few posts, I’ll show you why. First up, Isola Maggiore (“big island”) in Lago Trasimeno. “Lago” means “lake.” It’s the largest lake on the Italian peninsular, and it’s where Hannibal met his defeat during the Punic War in 217 BC. The place can fool you; it looks as big as an ocean from certain vantage points, and it’s a cool shade of turquoise on a sunny day.

IMG_1777It’s got islands, too. One of them, Isola Polvese, is an environmental research center. If you want to see what they’re up to, you have to sign up for a walking tour. Isola Maggiore (big island) is an easier experience. Go to Tuoro’s marina and take the ferry.

Isola Maggiore is hilly and has lots of well-marked hiking trails. There’s one big climb, but it’s not a hard slog. You won’t have to climb any rock faces. And once you’re up there, you’ll encounter an ancient church with frescoes and a friendly guide. Groves of olive trees fill the island, and you can’t really get lost. If you want to get back near the ferry landing, just head down the hill. The views of the lake from up there are pretty stunning, as you can see.

In a way, being there reminds me of an Italian version, in miniature form, of hiking on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. You’ve got a neat combo of water, trees and hills, with decent hiking and great views.

And just like Mt. Desert Island, there’s a payback: a good meal at the end of your hike. Isola Maggiore has the same lazy hedonistic feel to its big Maine counterpart, and pleasure is part of the experience. We always head to Da Sauro, a hotel/restaurant near the ferry dock. There’s a dining deck and room as you get into the little village, but walk a bit further and there’s a garden on the right. The garden has a splendid view of the lake, and friendly pheasants come to visit.

The food’s pretty good. There’s a bargain lake fish menu, featuring, for the most part, lake perch, or persico in Italian. We usually embellish the two courses (pasta, second perch skewer or fish stew course, vegetable) with an antipasto, like a mixed fried fish platter to share. Wash it down with cold, local white wine, have a coffee, and relax.

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They’re really sweet there. Last week, I was talking to one of the owners while paying the tab. I mentioned that we went back every year to Da Sauro and that it’s become a family tradition. She thanked me, and as I started out the door, she ran after me with a chilled bottle of the white house wine. “This is to thank you for coming back with your family. We hope to see you soon,” she said in Italian, as we shook hands.

Now doesn’t that sound better than running from monument to monument on a hot Roman day?

 

It Takes a Village…

Nope, I’m not writing about HRC’s book way too many years ago, but our little village here. Or I should say, about 4 or 5 kilometers below, the town of Valfabbrica. And more precisely, about the people we’ve met along the way.

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Debora Bazzucchi, left, with Angela Gorietti

First up is Bazzy, real name Debora Bazzucchi. She’s the real estate agent who sold us our  house here, and she’s a full-service friend and businesswoman. (Should you ever want to buy a place around here, I’ll put you in touch, but you’ll have to buy us dinner.)

Debora is energetic to the max, funny, and fierce. She’s a great cook, and we’ve spent a few evenings at her place somewhere up in the mountains across the valley from us. She likes good bubbly, has friends who traffic in black truffles, and drives an Audi cabriolet, usually with the top down. Don’t try to follow her if you want to hold onto your license.

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One country house, three Euro hatchbacks (friends came over)

Here’s the reason for the headline: We bought a house with great bones and an incredible location. But it needed some TLC before we could move in. We aren’t neophytes when it comes to Italian real estate, having a little apartment in the city. But having a house on a mountaintop is a whole ‘nother deal. Okay, so some of the work is self-inflicted. We wanted a pool, which is, I’ll concede, completely optional, if not irresponsible and decadent. Sue me. (By the way, with Debora in the photo above  is Angela, her pal who supplied the stone surrounding the pool. It’s amazing to look at and walk on, and it comes from a local quarry. It’s a family company, and she came every couple of days for quality control.)

When Italians move, they take their kitchens and light fixtures with them. Kitchens in the land of great food are, oddly enough, not a big deal in terms of installation. They’re plug and play, and not as big a project to design as they are in the U.S. We bought ours at Mondo Convenienza, which is sort of like IKEA, except that they don’t do flat pack, and deliver and install the stuff as part of the deal. Debora came into this by supplying the necessary guys to do the plumbing and electrical work. Plus, she watched the installation like a hawk. Installations, actually; the house has two kitchens, one upstairs in our living quarters, and one in the ground floor guest quarters, which serves as our summer kitchen since it opens onto the garden.

I won’t bore you with the wonders of places like Mondo Convenienza. Suffice it to say that they translate high design for popular consumption. We sat with someone who went through the dimensions we had to work with and we came up with the designs. They sent someone to measure and figure out whether it would work.

So back to the village. Simone was our plumber in this, and I suspect he will be forever. The guy just figures things out and makes it work. That included modernizing a manual water cistern/pump system (don’t ask) and making it so we really don’t have to think about how the water gets to the house.

Then there’s Luigi and his assistants. We bought a bunch of lighting fixtures. The previous owner, a good guy but a chef who works too many hours, did a lot of the electrical work himself in between shifts as a professional chef. Luigi, a pro, cleaned it up and installed all sorts of clever lights and switches around the house. I’m still trying to memorize what controls what, but it all works and I keep being struck by the thoughtful touches.

We can’t forget Enrico, who is Debora’s ex. He’s an incredibly kind and sweet guy who came in, patched up walls and painted. The place looks like new and without Enrico’s help (and his and Debora’s son, Nicolò, pitched in), I wouldn’t be sitting in my office here writing this. And there’s Gianni, a stonemason who worked through the hottest days to get the pool border done. Many hot days; the guy’s an incredible perfectionist.

Our village here wouldn’t be complete with mentioning Marco Ferramosche, who is our architect. He started the work on the pool on a dare, and served as the general contractor. He sent us almost daily photos when we were in New York, and coordinated the work of Simone, Luigi, the excavators, geologists, environmentalists, town officials, concrete workers, pool suppliers, etc., etc. He nagged me (nicely) when I had to do something like pay a bill, be there to make a decision, or talk to the pool guy about how to do things.

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The Spartan Woman, ricotta from Pasquale

Wait. I’m almost forgot our neighbor, Pasquale. He’s one of the brothers and their mother who sold us the place. He owns the agriturismo next door, Ca’Mazzetto. It’s certified organic, and they raise sheep, grow olives, and make cheese and fabric from the sheep milk and wool. He drops by to say hi regularly. And when we first started sleeping over here, he brought us a plate of delicious fresh sheep’s milk ricotta.

Phew. You can come visit now.

[Copyedited by Judy Lopatin]