Posts Tagged ‘Umbria’

Postcard From Orvieto




Hi from Orvieto! I’m here for two days exploring this unique and historic Umbrian hill town. To say it was built on a hill doesn’t do it justice. Orvieto sits atop a bluff 1000 feet above the valley floor on a cushion of volcanic tuffa. It was an Etruscan center, prosperous some three thousand years ago. When traveling in Italy, it’s difficult to get away from the fact that you are treading on some seriously old dirt!

The evidence is all around…and below. Because the tuffa is porous, water seeps through, settling on the layer of sand and silt deep, deep, deep down below the city base. The Etruscans were an industrious lot, they needed water, so they designed and dug some forty wells and a virtual city of caves beneath the town streets and buildings. The caves provided security, storage space, an endless supply of porous material to turn into cement and brick for construction above. They even raised pigeons and crushed olives for oil, as explained by my tour guide. The best perk is that the caves hold a constant cool temperature – the perfect wine cellar. The underground tour is well worth doing, by the way. You can buy a combo ticket at the cafe at the train station or at the main tourist information office on Piazza Duomo.

People come to Orvieto for the geography, the wine, the pottery and ceramics, but mostly for the Duomo. The grand cathedral is a mighty presence with its zebra stripes of marble and Signorelli’s masterpiece, the depiction of the Apocalypse in the Chapel of San Brizilo inside. The frescoes are dynamic, packed with figures, woven in a myriad of gestures and richly colored. It looks like all his models worked out at Golds Gym. Makes sense to know that Michelangelo studied these works, inspired by this elder master painter.

I highly recommend the three-mile hike along the Rupe Trail, circling the town along the tuffa. It provides an escape to nature and spectacular views to the surrounding hills and valley. You can see the villas amidst the vineyards, an enticing romantic vision. It’s on so many postcards its become a cliche. But it’s real, and so abundant to this region.

Orvieto has much to offer. The tourists here aren’t predominantly American or from other European countries. I was impressed to see that this is a place Italians young and older visit. And why wouldn’t they? It has all the traits of a perfect weekend getaway – good food, wine, history, shopping, gelati and natural history. I wish I could stay and be like the tuffa, soak it all in. But alas I am off to the next leg of the pilgrimage.

As the saying goes…wish you were here!!

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Today I leave Spello, my home away from home for these last two weeks. I begin slowly heading west, toward the last leg of my European journey. As I pack and clean and assess the “stuff” of travel, I always become introspective. A transition is happening both physically and emotionally with the feeling of something quite rich and wonderful coming to an end, and the anticipation of what is around the next corner building. This is maneuvering through the liminal space, a feeling of in between. It is disquieting for some, puts you on edge. There is a great wide open space of unknown.

I tend to think of it as a mourning process. Not saying good-bye necessarily, I certainly plan to be back here many times to come, but more of an acceptance that with the inevitable movement of time and us with it, there is a letting go. I try to take the “live in the now” approach. I’m happy where I am in the moment. It’s a piece of practicing mindfulness, being present, that we often forget to do. We get so caught up in train schedules and passport requirements, worry and wonder if we’ll get there on time, will we know where to go, what if we get lost?!

But the truth is, we are maneuvering through the liminal space all the time. In fact, even when we are just sitting, thinking, a memory triggered, a sound heard – no matter what, our neurons are interacting to create thoughts and that process requires a space over which to travel. Essentially we are traveling by just being, physically and psychologically through time. This form of travel is just as important as the getting on a plane kind of travel. We’re just not so aware of it. And I certainly don’t have the quantum physics knowledge to begin to explain the how’s and why’s but I feel a part of it and that’s what matters most to me.

I was reflecting on all the forms of transportation I will have utilized in these eight weeks. Planes, trains, cars, boats, elevators, bicycles, escalators, trams, gondolas and buses. I could have taken a zip line at one point as well as gone paragliding but I preferred staying on the ground. My feet have carried me the most, miles and miles of hiking, exploring and lugging up and down beautiful hills and roads.

The most travel I’ve done so far on this trip has to be time thinking. I remember trips with family, the first time I was ever on a plane, the time I got off of a train in a town in Spain that was not where I expected to be. I have moments that I wish my friends were with me, seeing and experiencing what I’m experiencing. I think of all the paintings and art that I want to create just to honor the colors and landscapes amassing in my head.

Today I will try to enjoy the packing and cleaning and getting to the train station on time. Did I really bring all this stuff? I will check to make sure my passport is in my purse side pockets, probably thirty times, just in case a magical fairy decides to steal it or put it somewhere else just to stress me out. And I will step into the liminal space bidding “see ya soon,” or “a presto” in Italian. But I never say “good-bye.” With all this traveling and moving about, there’s no end. Just new beginnings.

Buon viaggi!!

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Ahh, Assisi




What do you get when you mix one part religious icon/saint, two parts tourist kitsch, and three parts Italian zest?

Did you guess “a biscuit?” I didn’t think so. But it would have been a correct answer. I’ll start with the end of the story first…

As I was waiting to catch my afternoon train from Assisi, home of the incredible St. Francis Basilica, back to my “home town” of Spello, I noticed the station gelateria was selling biscuits and cookies wrapped up with a simple ribbon with a St. Francis bakery label to anyone who may have some how missed the hundreds of opportunities to purchase St. Francis – inspired souvenirs. I was drawn to the fact that they looked oddly like Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookies which was quite appealing at that moment considering good chocolate chip cookies don’t exist in this country. A trade off I’m learning to accept. I’m not sure those were actual chocolate chips as I was a bit delirious from hiking the town on its notoriously stunning perch in the center of the Umbrian hills (Italy’s version of the stairmaster) and I chose the hottest day this week to do it.

But back to the marketing ploy…I had been to Lourdes, France some years ago and seen how a whole tourist industry is built around millions of people making a pilgrimage to a place etched by miracles and sacred powers. It’s inevitable that these holy places end up becoming commercialized. The spirit of St. Francis, the fact that this place is the crossroads of art history and spirituality of the highest power and boasts endless views helps me to overlook the kitsch. Granted, modern man certainly reminds us with the key chains, the rosaries, the books, postcards and bakeries lining the three main streets leading to the monumental church built in his honor that St. Francis was a special soul. If buying a key chain makes you feel more closely connected to him, why not? The alternative is to give up all worldly goods and take a vow of poverty. So ironically, the majority of us support a commercial system that honors a man who did just that by screaming buy, buy, buy!

A friend recently posed the question, what might he have thought of all this? Maybe he would have been fine with it. He knew humans were humans. He, along with St. Clare made the sacrifices that the rest of us could never muster or begin to contemplate. And regardless of faith, you can’t overlook the appeal and lastingness of the Franciscan message – be nice, to each other and the environment, live simply, treat all God’s creatures with equal respect.

And so on a splendid day in August, I arrived in Assisi at 9:30 a.m. and had a pilgrimage of my own. I hiked to the top of the town, to the old castle ruins of Rocco Maggiore, visited the Church of St. Rufino (oddly the patron saint of Assisi), the Church of St. Clare, soaked up the Umbrian views, working my way down to the grand basilica on the west end of the hill. This monument and school not only honors the saint, it honors the dawn of art-making like the world had never seen before. This is an artists’s place of worship, too, so I spent the remainder of my time, a few hours, sitting, listening, sketching, and meditating on all those who came before me. I highly recommend a visit, Assisi is not easily forgotten.

And so what of the cookies? Apparently Francis had a weakness for a special almond cookie, called Moastaccioli, the one and only earthly food he loved. The story goes that a young widow named Jacoba, became a follower of Francis and upon hearing he was dying, brought him his favored cookie to his deathbed. To this day, many bakeries in this region make and sell almond pastries in his honor.

From now on I will always think of the almond as Italy’s chocolate chip!

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After refilling the well on the Istrian coast of Croatia, I returned to Italy, to the familiar and beloved hills of Umbria. I spent a summer here two years ago and the country mouse in me was ready to reconnect to the farmland and medieval hill towns. Although neighboring Tuscany gets all the glitz and glory, thanks in big part to a certain book and movie, it is Umbria that has heart.

Actually, I haven’t traveled here enough nor will in my lifetime for this undiscriminating eye to appreciate the idiosyncrasies that make these two regions differ. If you are drawn to the ochre and green fields that form a quilt of hay, olives and grapes against the lavender hills and deep green cypress trees, then you’ll love Umbria. If you marvel at the charms of Cortona, Montepulciano, Siena and the granddaddy Firenze (Florence), then you’ll want to visit Orvieto, Spoleto, Assisi and the little daddy, Perugia.

My home for two weeks is Spello, sitting on a hilltop just south of Assisi. This is small town Italian living. I pass the corner gelateria each morning on my way to my daily hike. The locals are drinking espresso, playing cards, wondering who this American is bopping about. There are several family-owned markets, enotecas with their stacked shelves of wine, art galleries, tourist shops selling the pottery this area is known for, and a selection of cafes with spectacular views to the valley below. I see Assisi with its Basilica honoring St. Francis gleaming in the sunlight.

As I venture through the maze of archways and alleys, past churches and houses, I see centuries of history in the limestone and brick. There is an amazing contrast once you step outside any of the Roman “gates” that mark the entrance to Spello as the realities of modern life begin here. I walked to the SuperConti, a mini Walmart of sorts the other day. It was amazing how quickly I was sucked back into the lure and convenience of prepackaged food and all-in-one shopping. As I worked my way back to my apartment in the old city center, the sky opened up in a much needed glorious rain storm. I ducked into a pizzeria to wait it out. For just a millisecond, I felt a frustration that I couldn’t jump in my car and drive home,

And then I remembered, that is not why I was here. I don’t need a car, I don’t need prepackaged food, or prepackaged anything for that matter. If for only two weeks, all I need are the hills.

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