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.


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.


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.


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.


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]