You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows

Call me a montanaro. You can translate it as a highlander or mountain dweller. That’s what my Perugian brother Federico called me last night. Our house perches atop a ridge that overlooks the valley of the river Chiascio, and across the valley we see the various hills leading toward the big daddy of the area, Monte Subasio. Because the house is built on a hill, it’s almost as though we have two ground floors: There’s an upper level, which is where we live, and a lower one, with its own entrances and even its own driveway.

This upper level has a driveway, too, and a front door. But it’s almost as though that side doesn’t exist, because your attention is drawn to the other side right away, with big windows and terrace doors that overlook the yard and the valley. We have a few linden trees lined up i the yard, so being here is like living in a treehouse. Right now I’m sitting at my desk looking out at the top of one of the lindens, and the mountains beyond.

Move along; nothing to see here

One of the dining room windows looks east toward the mountain chain that forms the spine of Italy, the Apennines. They’re pretty high and in the colder months, they’re snow capped. We learned this up close once when sometime in March last year, we drove up one peak, Monte Cucco, and encountered snow and ice that scared the daylight out of us. The
Apennines are fairly recent, as geological features go, and can be dangerously seismic.

All of this is a long way (a too long way? Sorry.) of saying that we see weather systems. In fact, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing the last week and a half or so. This early autumn has not been the golden sunlight Italy of people’s fantasies. It’s been the omigod it’s dark in here look at the curtain of rain approaching and shit the lights just went out again Italy. Most casual visitors to the Bel Paese don’t get to encounter this version of the country. Thankfully, we have decent windows, working furnaces and a fireplace that supplements the heating system and actually does a better job of heating the house once you get a good one going. (Note to self: Order more wood. On a sunny day,)

Subasio, meet storm

I wouldn’t normally write about the weather. But it’s curtailed some activities and meant that when the sun comes out, I drop everything I have to do and run outside to take in some sun.

Curtailed activities? Last Saturday I was supposed to help Franco, the neighbor of some friends of ours, pick his grapes. Franco (right, with cap) is 80 and has more energy than I do, but he does have a lot of vines. So we were going into his field. He makes a pretty decent white wine from those grapes—if you ever visit you will taste the wine and there are no excuses. And I thought here’s a chance to connect with some imaginary past, although my ancestors came from Sicily and fled their backbreaking farmwork. Unfortunately, last Saturday, while sunny, came after a couple of days of when will this stop thunderstorms, and if we had tried to do some picking, we would’ve been knee-deep in mud. And this Saturday looks no better.

So, dropping everything. A few days I took walks up the road and back. I’d wanted to go “trekking” or hiking in the woods to try out my spiffy light walking sticks, but it’s been too muddy. I’ve seen other hikers emerge from the woods with tons of dried mud on their boots, So I took to the road, which has some stunning views, some neighborhood dogs who follow me—actually, they’re following the doggie biscuits I carry for them—and Bernardo, his girlfriend whose name I forgot, and his pup Chai. If I pass as Bernardo and crew have risen and look out from their house, I get invited in for coffee.

I’ve also been prowling around some tombs of the Etruscan variety. I’ve been fascinated by this pre-Roman civilization for awhile, and decided to incorporate them into some work I’ve been doing. They’re fascinating; they didn’t leave tons of words, but they did leave a lot of funerary work, which shows how they lived. They amazed contemporary Romans and Greeks, too, who wrote about their sexual laxity, sybaritic ways, and lavish banquets. The visitors were amazed and a little scandalized by the fact that women participated in the banquets, not as servers/cooks and prostitutes, but as intellectuals who had a lot to contribute to the discussions. I like to think that a lot of that spirit lives on here today.

There are a host of tombs where Perugia meets Ponte S. Giovanni, one of its bigger suburbs, and the location is kind of strange. It’s right under a huge highway viaduct and next to the main rail line into the city. There’s a parking lot up the hill from the entrance. I couldn’t find said entrance when I left the lot so I called. The woman who answered said wait a second I’ll go outside. Just look to your left and meet me. Nice.

The tombs are set into a hill, and they vary from Greek style (single entrance) to full-on Etruscan, with multiple entrances and even timbered ceilings and other features meant to duplicate the deceased’s world in the afterlife. A separate building houses statues and other artifacts, and it’s easy to see how the Etruscans led a sensual life. Unfortunately, the big tomb was closed. The docent said that it was too enclosed a space for a safe visit during the Covid-19 pandemic.

My other sunny day gotta get out trip was to the domineering Subasio (there’s even a local radio station named after it, Radio Subasio. It’s got an iPhone app that works pretty well and when we’re in New York, we plug our phones into the car stereo and pretend we’re here). I’ve been a little obsessed about going to its summit for awhile, since I look at it every day. So yesterday I jumped in the car and went. I usually look at maps before I go, but this time I remembered that there’s a park up there and that the summit is past the Carcere di San Francesco, a place the saint would go to chill. I followed the road to the Carcere and saw signs for the park. A few, no, at least a dozen hairpin curves later, I was there, along with a few Dutch and German tourists in small Euro RVs and a smattering of young Italian hikers.

I see you: Upper left, our house; marker at the bottom, Subasio

Like every mountaintop, the view is breathtaking (the Italian equivalent is one of my favorite words: mozzafiato) and the air is cool and fresh. I looked at the map on my phone and found our house, and pointed the camera that way. Just ‘cos I could.

Somewhere out there is home.

50 minutes to paradise and back

It’s been awhile since we’ve done anything to further the St. Francis brand. So as good, upstanding part-time Umbrians, we scoured our social media feeds (yes, they know where we are) and saw an organized walk to the Bosco di San Francesco (St. You-Know-Who’s Forest) this past Sunday.

Well, scratch that. We don’t do organized things, and in the morning? On Sunday? Still, the place is intriguing, and I’d seen photos of the sylvan woods with a stream running through it, and I’m a sucker for a good walk. So off we went toward Assisi. This place has the added advantage of being outside the city walls, so I didn’t have to deal with parking and other hassles of going into a town’s historic center.

There’s a cool reception center, and there’s a suggested donation of €5 a person. The woods are administered by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI), the Italian Environmental Fund. The acronym’s pretty neat; it means “do”–and they, indeed, do throughout the country, cleaning up sites and opening big natural areas to casual walkers and serious hikers alike.

The Bosco has two main hikes. One takes you up, up, up to the Basilica di San Francesco, the towering cathedral that dominates Assisi’s skyline and features frescoes by Giotto, among others. The art inside is breathtaking, as can be some of the crowds. We didn’t take this hike. By the time we got there, the relatively benign September sun was shining ruthlessly. And did I mention that it’s a steep uphill climb?

So, wimps that we are, we took the “Terzo Paradiso” or Third Paradise walk. Hey, how could we resist it with a name like that? The paradise in question is a “land art” work by Michelangelo Pistoletto. It’s in a clearing in the woods and is overlooked by Assisi’s fortress. The artist used oxen to inscribe three circles, a large one in the middle surrounded by two smaller ones. The length is infinite since they’re interconnected. Then FAI and the artist planted a double row of 121 olive trees, and there’s a steel shaft in the middle that symbolizes the meeting of heaven and earth. (Now this is a real olive garden.)

Paradise, found

I know this sounds awfully conceptual and, like, deep. But to experience is both awe-inspiring and fun. First off, it’s a beautiful place. Walking around it is just plain enjoyable. If you haven’t been near olive trees, they’re silvery green and reflect sunlight in a particular way. So when you’re walking around the circles, the trees shimmer around you.

Olive trees and cypresses up there, where we didn’t climb
Water, water, nowhere, except in a plastic bottle

Third Paradise isn’t the only attraction. The woods themselves are beautiful, with outcroppings and the usual central Italian mix of vegetation. Despite the four or five (I lost count) heatwaves we had this summer, everything is still amazingly green. FAI has thoughtfully put benches throughout, so you can take a break and, like the F-man did, contemplate the universe, or the bug circling your head.

The only thing is the stream that runs through these woods, is, to paraphrase Monty Python, a former stream. A stream that is no longer. It has ceased to be a stream, at least for now. We’ll come back after the fall rains to see if that’s changed. And just maybe we’ll scale the hill to the Basilica. Hey, the parking’s free down by the woods.

If you’re around and want to walk where Francis walked—or one of the places—just look up on your sat-nav or phone “Bosco di San Francesco.” FAI also has directions on its site. And there’s what looked like a nice restaurant adjacent to the site, but we didn’t try it out.

Polish dulce de leche and a serendipitous wedding

I haven’t written much since we’ve been back in New York—and I haven’t posted what I wrote. Too busy with the usual stuff, work and (ugh) taxes. Truth is, it’s been kind of dull, except for good things like seeing the kids and having the dog around.

But this past week was different. Nope, not talking about the Mueller report. This is about me, remember?

First up: The Spartan Woman had to go to a teacher’s union meeting near Wall Street. She’s retired, but they keep the alums in the fold. I tagged along, having nothing better to do and wanting to get out of the house. I used to work in the neighborhood, so I have my favorite walks. One of them took me to Eataly, where I used to enjoy a mid-afternoon espresso with one of my deputies most days. It may be a semi-pretentious temple of Italian gastronomy, but they actually make good coffee there and it’s not ridiculously priced. Then I walked through the Oculus, which I love in spite of the $4 billion price tag. The passageway under West Street took me nearly out to the river, where I started to head downtown along the Battery Park Promenade. The harbor’s my thing. After living on a mountaintop, the crush of people on the street is a bit much.

One of the few places to get a decent espresso in the city.

So I walk, and I see a tent. There’s a party going on, apparently thrown by the I Love Poland Yacht. People have gathered, but it’s not a huge crowd. “Help yourself to the buffet,” someone told me. I was tempted, but I wasn’t into sausages, sausages and huge balls of stuffed cabbage. But the drinks stand called me. “Some vodka or beer?” Yes, please, the vodka being herb flavored and delicious over ice. A young woman was walking around with a tray, while kids were getting helium-filled balloons. “This is a traditional Polish pastry,” the woman said. “It’s filled with something like dulce de leche.” Thus fortified, I continued my walk and saw views like this:

New Yorkers sometimes forget that they live on a beautiful harbor.

The next day, we walked the Avenue. We live a few houses up from Forest Avenue, the neighborhood’s commercial strip. A few months ago, I walked up and down it with one of the kids, who, looking around, said something like “When did this go all Brooklyn on you?” It’s true–we always had bars, but now we’ve got cafés, cool restaurants, including my favorite local Syrian place, hipster barbers, a bakery that has a gelato stand when it gets warm…you get the idea. We stopped in for breakfast at the On Your Mark Café, a breakfast and lunch place that employs people with special needs. The servers are super-attentive and food’s decent. I’m not a breakfast person but I couldn’t resist the chocolate chip pancakes, made with chocolates the organization makes next door in its chocolatier.

Chocolate, the breakfast of champions

The best adventure, though, was on Friday. I was heading into Manhattan to have lunch with an old friend who was in town the same time I was. We’d been missing each other for the past couple of years when it came to being in New York at the same time. The bus to the ferry was slow and I started to hustle to get the 11:30, just to have a little walking around time in Union Square. But another friend, Joan, intercepted me. “Want to see a wedding on the boat?” she asked. What? Her son was going to tie the knot on the next boat. I guessed that that explained the young woman running around the terminal in a wedding gown. We went over where the other guests were hanging out; I saw another old friend and a former co-worker from 20 years ago.

Making a vow or two.
Meet Gary and Joan, parents of the groom

We boarded, went downstairs and, yeah, this was an official wedding, with a bridal party decked out (and sporting similar retro sneakers). The officiant gave a little speech, saying he didn’t have many profound things to say, but that we were all gathered there because of love. “And that’s a good thing, right?” Right.


Just another Spoleto Sunday

We have certain rituals—Sunday afternoon dinners, fires in the country on winter nights, morning walks with the dog on Staten Island. Here in Umbria, we’ve got certain towns that we just like to check out every so often. One of them is Spoleto, home to the classical music event Festival dei 2Mondi, and a strategic city-state hundreds of years ago, and a strategic city-state hundreds of years ago.

We just like the place. It’s different enough from Perugia to be interesting. It’s kind of aristocratic, and it’s got a great archeological museum, which, I must confess, The Spartan Woman likes to visit more than I do. (Once is usually enough for me, though I’ll concede that the Roman amphitheater is molto cool.)

So we pointed the red Clio south, with Radio Subasio putting out tunes. One wrong turn looking for the Spoletosfera parking garage, but we got back on track. Note: If you’re coming from the north on SS3, go through the tunnel first, then hang a right.

Like all of the bigger Umbrian towns, Spoleto makes visitors park on the outskirts. And then they have various ways of getting you up (it’s invariably up) into town. In Spoleto’s case, it’s a multilevel parking garage followed by what feels like a metro or subway, except there are no trains. Instead, there are long moving sidewalks, like you find in airports. The town tries to entertain you along the way with big portraits of musical and cinema stars who’ve been at the Spoleto Festival.

I am a train, I am a train.

Before you know it, you’re in the center of the old town, Piazza della Libertà. There’s a long shopping and cafe street leading away from it, with decent window shopping. (And I didn’t get to buy that cashmere sweater I’ve been coveting yet again. Foiled by Sunday….)

We have our Spoleto spots. We walk to the Duomo. It’s more an aesthetic thing, not a religious pilgrimage. There are some excellent frescoes from the 15th century by Filippo Lippi. I confess that I’m easily seduced by nice colors, and these frescoes do the job admirably. I’m a fan of the pinks, blues, teals, and the background scenes that look like what we see when we walk down our road.

Eye candy

When our older kid was a baby, she had an uncontrollable nosebleed outside the cathedral, for some reason. I’ll never forget the people who rushed up and tried to help. When we last went to Spoleto with her, she marked her return triumphantly.

Watch out, Spoleto, Martina’s back!

We weren’t through playing tourist. Suckers for a great view, we took advantage again of the city’s system of passages and elevators and went up to the Rocca Albornoziana (fort), which presides over the city. You can easily imagine how people repelled invaders. For one thing, on one side of the fort you can see up the valley forever. If an army was stupid enough to take that route, you can bet that the Spoletani were prepared.

Culture to the left, food to the right

After all this traipsing around, we were hungry. Luckily, we reserved a table at Apollinare. After a decade of restaurant reviews, we’re pretty jaded and don’t go out to fancy places much. But Apollinare is worth it, and is a steal by New York standards. Like L’Officina, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, Apollinare takes some liberties with traditional Umbrian food. Unlike L’Officina, Apollinare has an old-school vibe in its decor and service, the latter being scrupulously correct and discrete, while being friendly.

Everything is how it should be.

You can order a la carte, but Apollinare has theme menus, too. We opted for the vegetarian one. It’s always interesting to see what a top restaurant does given a no-meat challenge, and the place was up to it. I wonder if a carnivore would even notice, given the creative and delicious food presented to us. Here are some shots.

Fava bean crème brulée
Lasagna of a sort
Eggplant parm, not the kind that NYC Italian delis sell

Last year around this time, we came to Spoleto with our friends Wendy and Vicky. After a great meal at Apollinare, we stumbled up the street and onto Spoleto’s Carnevale parade. It was great fun seeing all the floats, and dancers, and we had confetti and silly string in our hair and clothes for hours afterward. We didn’t get to see it this year, but here’a sample of last year’s fun.

The road taken

A few days ago, we were doing our usual morning walk up the road when we bumped into a neighbor, who introduced himself as Claudio. He was out for a walk, too, telling us that he just retired. He told us about his walk, which involves walking down the road and making a turn into a “strada sterrata,” which is an unpaved road. He said that he makes a loop and comes around after being on the Sentiero Francescano. This trail is a series of trails that trace the steps of St. Francis of Assisi when he left his family home and riches, and walked to Gubbio through the woods. A mystical, rebirth ritual walk, in other words.

Curious, we wanted to see if we could replicate Claudio’s walk. (Francesco’s walk is well-marked and in warmer weather, sees waves of pilgrims.) A few days ago, we walked on some of the Franciscan path, and I was looking at the map on my iPhone. I saw as we were walking back down the hill another road that, if you looked uphill, veered left. Hmm, we didn’t remember that. But as we descended, we saw an opening and yes, a path that was carved into the side of the hill. That’s one of winter’s advantages; without the overgrowth and weeds, it’s easier to make out the paths that wind all around here. We took it and saw that it followed a higher trajectory than the Sentiero and then sort of curved around the hill. That must be Claudio’s route, we figured, and made plans to come back the next day.

The turnoff, not that you’d know it. Apple Maps showed it; Google didn’t. But for some other stuff, Google shows details Apple doesn’t. Guess you need both.

So we did. And O.M.G. We’re suckers for a good view and on this path, they just kept coming. Unlike on the Sentiero, you don’t really plunge into deep woods. The path—it must have been a road of some kind at some point—just hugs the hill, carved into it as it follows the basic path of the Sentiero, but about a tree higher. So we got to look into the ruin that we’ve passed many times (we hear that it’s for sale, if anyone out there is interested). As the path curves to the left and westward, the views are pretty stupendous.

Looking into the ruins of a farmhouse. An old timer neighbor told us that the family that lived there farmed the area until the 1960s. Their olive trees are nearby, still producing fruit.
On top of the world! Those are the snow-capped Apennines in the distance.

And then, we thought we hit a road block. Or, at least, a gate shutting us off from the rest of it. Luckily, though, as we got closer, we saw that the path veered left then curved around a large house with a pool and gardens that we soon realized was the Agriturismo Val di Marco. An agriturismo is supposed to be a working farm that welcomes guests, but this one does not look remotely farm-like. It’s just a big comfortable house in the Umbrian tradition that happens to be in the country.

Agriturismo Val di Marco, waiting for summer’s guests

Enough fun, though. What went down had to go back up. Our road, which we knew was south, or to the left, follows a high ridge. And the path did indeed go up. And up. And up. We were panting, okay, I was panting as we neared the top.

There was a payoff, though. We were met at the crest by our usual canine welcoming and escort service. But we disappointed them–The Spartan Woman had forgotten to pack the doggie biscuits. I guess they forgave us, though, and followed us most of the way home.

Casa, dolce casa (home sweet home)



Italianese

When we’re in Italy (which we aren’t right now), what do you think we miss most about living in the United States? (Hint: It has nothing to do with language, shopping, movies, or our city.)

It’s the food, but not hamburgers or anything else typically American. We miss the easy access to Asian food. Gotta say first that Italy in general and Umbria in particular is getting better. Sushi (spelled “susci”) is a thing, from just-okay sushi in the nearby IperCoop (hyper Coop in English) supermarket, to really good, inventive sushi at Perugia’s Crudo (in the photo below). And it’s not only Japanese food. At the end of our inner city street, there’s a Taiwanese takeout, a Chinese noodle shop and another Chinese place whose focus I’m not quite sure about.

An expensive lunch for two on the Corso Vannucci

So we aren’t totally deprived. As far as I can tell, though, we don’t have much in the way of Thai food.

In any event, when we come back to New York, we eat less Italian-type food and more Asian, either out or at home. It’s gotten cold pretty quickly this November—the weather here seems to have gone from a prolonged, extended summer into a cold, grey and brown pre-winter. Luckily, the Spartan Women has become pretty adept at making Japanese-type big soups. With our current we-must-reduce regimen, she’s the main cook in the house (she doesn’t quite trust me to wield an easy hand with the olive oil, and my preference for a big spaghettata for lunch is something to be avoided for at least a few months.) So I’ve been treated to big miso ramen-type soups. I never know quite what I’ll find, whether it’s buckwheat noodles, a soft-poached egg, tofu in various forms, bok choy, etc.

Like this:

I do go out, too. Lately, I’ve managed to avoid most business meetings and lunches and instead meet up with friends or one of our kids. Daughter No. 2 works where the eastern reaches of Soho start to blend with the northern border of Chinatown and Asian stuff in general. “We have to go to Cocoran,” she told me when I mentioned that I needed to escape the house one day to avoid terminal cabin fever. She was right. It’s a smallish place, painted black inside, and quite eccentric. In a good way. Most of the seats are at the counter or at long, high communal tables, and the menu promises health and satisfaction. It delivers. (Beware, though, the menu also admonishes that it’s cash only and there’s no takeout and no doggie bags.)

This Japanese soup fanatic could not resist the spicy vegan soup, while the more spice-shy Liv opted for the unspicy vegan version.

I know this sounds strange, but sometimes when we get back to New York after a long day of flying across the ocean, the first thing we do is call the local Chinese takeout joint. When I was a kid, we’d only go out to Chinese restaurants. My father said it only made sense to go to a place that served food you couldn’t really cook at home, but I thought it was mainly because they were cheaper than most of the other restaurants in town.

Whatever. Following in dad’s footsteps, I opted for Chinese food for my birthday a few weeks ago. We have this family tradition–the birthday boy (me) or girl (The Spartan Woman, two kids) gets to pick a restaurant to celebrate. The birthday boy/girls usually pick an expensive place. But eh, I’ve had enough. Plus, I’d become really curious about this huge Chinese place on the Sunset Park/Bay Ridge border that I’d driven past a few times, East Harbor Seafood Palace. It looked good nosing around on the usual sites, so one blustery Saturday morning (I broke another rule, that the meal should be dinner), we convened the fam, including the boyfriends. And boy was it fun. 

We managed to beat the crowd, luckily. Within a half hour after we got there, people were lining up outside. The cart ladies are a riot there, pretty aggressive in a self-aware, humorous way. “You want this! You want this!” We did. The food was definitely a couple of levels above the usual dim sum dumpling experience, and service, even to us non-Asians, was friendly and efficient. You should go.

Anyone feel like pizza? We do all go back to where we’re from, right? I actually didn’t like pizza much until I was well into adulthood. But now….Amid the Asian food, we had a home pizzathon. The Spartan Women, a pretty good bread baker, invited the family and again, it was good times. One with onion, zucchine, or if you prefer, zucchini, an orthodox Margherita, and an unorthodox purple potato and truffle one. Talk about a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Short, cool summer (so far)

This year is not like last year. It’s been kind of nice, cool and breezy with bright sun and some rain, like the other day. That lasted all day and refreshed the greens that surround us up here on the hilltop. It’s definitely different from last summer, which basically was an outdoor oven. The all-summer European heatwave even had a nickname: Lucifer.

We’ve been lucky, although I’m jonesing to go swimming. The relative chill most mornings means it’s time to walk. This zone is full of places to do that, from steep gravel and dirt paths in the woods, to level riverside walks (the Chiascio, which winds past the town) to, even, our road. The road connects the hamlets of Coccorano and Monteverde (“green mountain”), which we call home.

We wake up decently early most days. It’s good enough for us to have some coffee, zone out skimming the headlines and our Facebook feeds, and then head out. We usually just head up the road. It’s hilly, to be sure, but the relatively easy footing is good for someone like me, who’s basically a klutz hampered by a torn meniscus that I can ignore most of the time. Besides, when we walk up the road and back, we get to talk to neighbors (they’re 1 km. away, but a mother and daughter pair usually sets out the same time we do), and we often get a canine escort. There’s a little terrier that likes to keep us company. I’m sure the biscuits that The Spartan Woman packs for him have nothing to do with it.

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Our little bodyguard

So we walk. Today, we covered 5 km (a shade over 3 miles) and my watch tells me an elevation difference of 119 m (250 feet, give or take). I’ll share.

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We see vistas like this every time there’s an open area.

When we first started doing this, I was struck by the big panoramas. To this New York City boy, though, most of the plants were, you know, plants. That’s nice. But I didn’t really notice their diversity and how they unfolded as June progressed. The other thing that takes awhile, and still surprises me, are the houses and outbuildings. It takes awhile to scope them out, because the gorgeous views are so distracting. Like this house, perched high on a ridge. They must have an amazing view.

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At some point, we came across signs telling us that the road traveled over a city—okay, town—aqueduct. Is it accidental that there’s a mini-oasis here? Does the aqueduct leak, or is this from the other day’s rain?

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Finally, on a clear day, you can see Perugia, some 25 km away.

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