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.
It’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?