It was quite the nerve-wracking experience to land at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, pick up a hire car and then be catapulted straight into the hurly-burly of a Roman autostrade. I’d driven in Italy before a few years ago, but on both occasions I’d had the gentler immersion of driving across the border from Switzerland and had stayed in the somewhat more orderly north of Italy. Now, the capital’s arterial routes presented us with a sudden jolting welcome to this more chaotic central portion of the country. With great extremes of velocity between the fastest moving traffic hooning along and the (more hazardous, to my mind) slowest puttering along at well below the speed limit, others merrily occupying two lanes because no-one is really too sure if they’re just about to overtake or not but having a bet each way just on the off-chance, mad tail-gating, not to mention the haphazard signage which didn’t seem to indicate which exits I needed to take until the slip lane was already branching off the motorway and I was generally one or two lanes away (keeping as much width as possible between us and some of the slower crazies), it was a great relief to have successfully survived Rome’s Great Ring Road and be heading north on the A1 autostrade in the direction of Florence.
I had a two day conference in Rome to come in the middle of the week, but as both my wife and I had previously been to the capital independently we decided to make a long weekend in mutually undiscovered territory somewhere relatively nearby. With Florence similarly earlier crossed off our to-see lists before we had met and the rest of Tuscany overrun and romanticised to death (or least that’s what those supposedly in the know are saying), after a brief look at a map I had suggested the neighbouring province of Umbria. With Katie finding a pretty flash looking B&B to the west of Perugia that had taken her fancy, we were all set for a couple of days roaming the only province in Italy that doesn’t either border the sea or another country.
I certainly wasn’t expecting any balmy temperatures at this time of year during our little escape from what had been a particularly cold Swiss winter so far, but I was at least hoping for some blue skies and a little sunshine, as it seemed like I hadn’t been acquainted with the bright yellow orb for weeks. With dark clouds and rain to our right and the sun beginning to set in a slightly clearer sky to our left giving me a little bit of added enthusiasm, we had barely left the Roman province of Lazio when a couple of walled villages huddled on the tops of narrow hillsides clearly visible from the motorway announced our arrival into Umbria.
In no great hurry to get to our B&B, we left the motorway at the large town of Orvieto and easily found a parking spot within the city walls at Piazza Cahen. Orvieto had come highly recommended as an attractive example of a quaint Umbrian hilltop town, though as we began to wander in the fading light I was initially a little sceptical. It certainly wasn’t an unattractive old town, and the sheer number of restaurants (generally closed) pointed to it being popular tourist place in warmer months, but the winding alleyways and jostling stone townhouses just didn’t quite seem to have that postcard perfect magic that is bestowed on the towns of Tuscany. But then we caught sight of the Duomo and my jaw dropped. I have my well documented theological issues with the perceived necessity for ridiculously ostentatious cathedrals as functioning gathering places for those of us who are Christians, but I am usually able to at least appreciate their exteriors from an architectural perspective. And in terms of size and grandeur Orvieto’s Duomo must be second in this part of the country only to Florence’s in my book.
I was taken by Orvieto much more after that, though it can’t all have been due to the cathedral. The higher we went the more charming the town became, the medieval Piazza della Repubblica in particular. In this part of town the pedestrian streets were absolutely rammed with groups of teenagers, young families and elderly women enjoying their early Saturday night out, all speaking at once in loud and enthusiastic tones. When a couple of short showers dumped heavy rain on us we took shelter under the awnings of different shops, which worked out well for Katie as she found a matching set of three wall hangings for the second bedroom of our flat ‘that perfectly complement the existing décor’ (no, that doesn’t actually make much sense to me, I’m just paraphrasing what my resident interior decorator said). Each one contained a basic Italian exhortation: ‘Amo Tanto’, ‘Ridi Spesso’ and ‘Vive Bene’ (‘Love Much’, ‘Laugh Often’ and ‘Live Well’), though I couldn’t find the expected fourth one to finish the set, ‘Avoid Tax’. Maybe that reminder is so popular it sold out all of its own.
Orvieto probably deserved more time but it was now well dark and there was a definite chill in the air, so we returned to the car and continued along the motorway. At Lake Trasimeno we took a right and then continued on to the town of Magione. On a hilltop outside the town, at the end of a long unsealed and rutted driveway sat our accommodation, and once unpacked in the large, rustic and poshly furnished room we returned to Magione in the search of something to eat.
We found a local neighbourhood bar/restaurant that was just my kind of style, all plastic-top tables and florescent lighting that offered a cheap but surprisingly long menu. While Katie and I were the only ones eating in the front of the restaurant, there were a hardcore bunch of regulars drinking espressos in a back corner intently watching a blaring TV, which broadcasted one of those same inane panel/variety shows which seem to dominate much of the Italian TV channels we also pick up in Switzerland. It’s like Hey Hey it’s Saturday every night of the week but without the Pluck-a-Duck style segments. I don’t get the appeal, but then I don’t get the appeal of coffee either, so what do I know?
In the daylight, the Relais Il Cantico della Natura looked just as perfect as the web site photos had promised. Set amongst olive trees, the stone buildings had been renovated or reconstructed meticulously. It must have been a huge project, possibly deserving of an episode of the British TV series Grand Designs, and after an included buffet breakfast of cake and biscotti amongst other slightly healthier alternatives in the classy internal restaurant, we enjoyed a lazy wander around the grounds. Although, to be a bit critical, the incessant yapping of the operators’ small dogs right outside our room on both mornings did take away from the serenity somewhat, especially when we were trying to get a nice, late sleep in.
The rest of the day was spent exploring further afield in the shadow of the snow sprinkled Apennines, setting out across green ranges to the town of Gubbio in the very north of Umbria. Halfway up a hillside between Perugia and Gubbio we stopped at a terrace restaurant for lunch, where I tried the local strangozzi pasta. I had never come across this before, and it happened to look and taste just like Chinese hokkien noodles. Not that that is intended as any form of criticism, I really like hokkien noodles, but it’s interesting how two far removed regions of the world have been eating largely the same food staple for centuries without any established links of a common origin.
Meanwhile, Gubbio, its stone buildings rising up the rocky slopes of Monte Ingino, could not be confused for anything from the Far East – the remains of the first century Roman theatre at the base of town makes that pretty clear.
Other than a few pretty sorry piles of junk – old doll heads, broken light fixtures, yellowing paperbacks and the like – posing as a small bric-a-brac market by the traffic roundabout of Piazza Quaranta Martiri, there wasn’t a whole lot going on here, and we happily enjoyed the solitude as we tackled the steep incline up to Piazza Grande. From there, Katie smugly predicted my natural inclination to continue climbing upwards (she was correct of course, it’s funny how when given the choice I’m always subconsciously drawn to clambering uphill – I can only surmise I’m always tempted by the possibility of an expansive view), along cobbled stairways and laneways with occasional glimpses into small walled courtyards of olive trees.
After enjoying the sunshine in a large terraced park, we headed back downhill again to a narrow network of flat cobbled streets, with the stone exteriors liberally covered in years of soot and grime and washing hanging on lines outside upper storey windows. I really liked Gubbio a lot; it was a sleepy, lived-in town, slightly off the beaten track and generously endowed with heaps of character and charm.
Our chosen Umbrian hillside town for what remained of the afternoon, Assisi, was anything but undiscovered. The popularity of pilgrims and tourists following in the footsteps of St Francis meant this town was playing host to a noticeable number of fellow tourists (and a number of monks) even now in the middle of winter. A huge amount of money has been poured in towards the upkeep of the town as there was not a single sign of dust or grime, and each wooden shutter, piece of impossibly rustic stone or roof-tile looked like new. And yet, it would be unfair to say this was all due to the popularity of St Francis, as discounting its most famous son Assisi was simply stunning and thoroughly deserving of World Heritage status.
From the bottom side of the city walls we unhurriedly climbed up an enticing series of alleys, echoing with the constant peels of church bells from behind and below us and kept company by a series of friendly neighbourhood cats, to the remains of the fortress Rocca Maggiore. From there it was a nice vantage point to look down on the town rooves and square church towers as daylight turned to dusk. Taking a different route slowly back down, we happened across an area of what looked like modern houses and flats using original stone, but renovated or remodelled within the existing network of ancient passageways. Some had small private yards set behind large front gates, others had car garages built into their homes in much the same way as an Australian suburban house, and yet they had all been done so sympathetically with the area that it looked as if they offered the impossible dreamlike duality of practical, new fashioned internal open plan living spaces set amongst all the exterior historical charm of a cobbled European old town. To complete the picture, four young boys played a noisy game of soccer around parked cars, their shouting and the thump of the ball into the walls, echoing through the labyrinth.
When we had first arrived in Assisi and were waiting to exit the multi-storey underground car park where we had left the car, a group of four guys in monk garb had passed us in the opposite direction going towards the car park stairs. I noticed one in particular had glanced at Katie and then soon after had crossed himself, which had me pondering if he had confessed to a lustful thought about my wife. Considering she was wearing a large coat and an extremely unflattering beanie to keep much of her head warm, she thought the possibility of that to be hilarious – in her opinion she’d even pass the public modesty restrictions in Saudi Arabia. But if I was honest now I had a lustful thought of my own to confess. While part of what I love about travelling is see the multitude of settings people in different circumstances in various countries happen to live, I am never usually envious of any of these places and generally count myself fortunate just to be in position to be able to visit. But this particular part of Assisi was so fetching, nay, so perfect, I couldn’t help but lust that I could have a property like this.
With the last of the daylight having disappeared, we milled around a happy crowd spilling out into Piazza Vescovado as an evening mass had concluded in the adjacent Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore, and looking up at the now brightly spot lit fortress, I could see how easily Umbria could become a byword for romanticism in much the same way that Tuscany has.
The weather had become grey and miserable making it less enticing to be outside, and after checking out of the B&B we headed for nearby Perugia. Having passed around it twice the day before, not to mention stopping off for a quick meal there on our return journey from Assisi the previous evening, we had both been surprised by its large urban sprawl and Katie guessed it might be the easiest place find cafés or shops to stay inside if the morning drizzle became more persistent. In theory there were no shortage of other ways of passing our time in Perugia (the rather sensational death of an English student in 2008 and the subsequent trial of her American flatmate and another man last year showed off some of the mind boggling possibilities), though while navigating the endless hills of the busy and worn-looking city centre unsuccessfully looking for a parking spot, we both agreed we hadn’t caught sight of anything worth stopping to look at, so we chose to formulate a Plan B instead.
Plan B became Spello, another characteristic Umbrian town perched on a hilltop, a little to the south-east of Assisi. The smallest of the places we visited over the weekend, Spello’s ancient laneways had much of the lick and polish of Assisi coupled with the peace and tranquillity of Gubbio. But what set Spello slightly apart from the rest (other than the unexpected bonus of free parking at the base of the town) was the residents’ penchant for placing green leafy pot plants along their hilly streets in order to add a bit more colour to the all encompassing white-pink stone. The town’s passageways would have looked stunning on a clearer day, but the cold and damp had soon seeped into our bones and after an adequate but appreciative poke around we were on a lookout for lunch.
There were a few restaurants around, but lunchtime on a Monday in the middle of winter was hardly a lucrative time for them to be open. Eventually we found one that was, a cavernous series of sleekly renovated dining rooms connected at atmospherically unpredictable angles that clearly gave away the building’s great age. It was all empty save for us, an elderly priest dining alone at a nearby table, and a rather unhurried young waitress tapping away at her laptop in the front room (the regular, hollow sounding pops from the laptop were a dead giveaway she was currently engrossed on Facebook chat). My pasta and pork mince portion was a bit smaller and pricier than elsewhere but it filled me up well enough, and after waiting for what seemed like half the afternoon holding on for the waitress to tear herself away from her earnest virtual conversations so she would bring us the bill, we were at a bit of a loss as to how to escape from the inclement weather for the remainder of the day.
I tend to deliberately ignore dining recommendations in guide books, but when our Lonely Planet promised the best gelato in Umbria, if not the world no less, in the town of Todi, and that this wasn’t so far out of our way on our impending return drive to Rome, the prospect of that raised our spirits somewhat after only having previously found (with great difficulty I might add) limited flavours of gelato in two shops in Orvieto and Assisi. So with Katie soon asleep in the passenger seat, I continued to the south along the quasi-motorway in the bottom of a long valley, with the occasional ghostly crane or church tower the only shapes pervading the dense grey cloud clinging to the hillsides beside me. After the road tunnelled through Spoleto (a place I should have turned off at to take the shortest route to Todi), it narrowed and followed a picturesque mountainous gorge. With a police van and other traffic pulling out to overtake two semi-trailers struggling up the incline, and the oncoming traffic hugging the road shoulder to make this possible, I followed suit, and almost gave my poor wife a heart attack as she awoke to the sight of a semi trailer to our right and an oncoming car in the middle distance in front of us. As she rightly pointed out, if the situation had been reversed I’d have had an absolute hissy fit, so I’ve got to hand it to her for continuing to trust me in the driver’s seat.
With the rain mostly stopped, we made it to Todi without further incident and, after parking directly outside the lower city walls, embarked on the calf bursting climb up several blocks of steps. With no apparent tourists other than us, Todi was largely quiet and peaceful, though the dusty streets wide enough to fit cars seemed to be continually under strain by the pressures of modern traffic, as the townspeople noisily headed up to and back down from the post office and handful of other shops open around the Piazza del Popolo and adjoining Piazza Garibaldi at the crest of the town’s steep hill. Not to mention the coloured paper confetti littered around on the ground suggested we had just missed out on this area’s Carnivale (as it happened, being here this week meant we were also missing Fasnacht, Switzerland’s largest Carnivale in our relatively new home of Basel, the few days each year when the otherwise restrained industrial city goes absolutely bonkers).
Todi was probably the least charming and interesting of the towns we had stopped at, though my indifferent opinion may in part be put down to the disappointment of finding our hopes for a gelato fix dashed, with a sign on the shop indicating it would not open for another few weeks.
With darkness falling once again, this time marking our weekend over, we returned to the autostrade bearing for the Italian capital. Umbria, particularly on the Sunday, had offered up everything we needed for a relaxing weekend away, and we’d gladly return for another stay at Relais Il Cantico della Natura, though next time perhaps at a slightly warmer time of year (and with Katie offering to improve their quasi-English guest information for non-Italians into native level English, we may well have a reason to come back). It’s just the getting there from Rome that frazzles me a bit, with our return to the Great Ring Road marked by more confusing signage, psycho traffic and an extra stop at a toll-booth while unsuccessfully trying to get to an Autogrill. It was with a thankful heart we safely returned the car at the airport and then took a taxi to our hotel near the location of my upcoming conference – it felt slightly safer being in Rome’s traffic sitting in the back seat.