Sunday, December 27, 2009

Viaggio in Umbria

In this post I'll describe the trip to Umbria that I took with my family last summer. You may not believe it, but I had never been to this wonderful Italian region before, even though many foreigners coming to my home country add at least a one-day tour to Assisi during their visit. So, I was very much looking forward to this trip.

Umbria is also known as 'the green heart of Italy', due to its location and its luxurious vegetation.
We split our stay in two cities: Orvieto and Perugia. You can see where they are more precisely here:
My mom found some bed and breakfasts in these two towns. I highly recommend this type of lodging if you're traveling to Italy with a group of people. The apartments are usually really nice, and they are unbelievably inexpensive compared to hotels. Plus, they have a kitchen, so you don't have to eat out every meal if you don't want to. This was the main room of our B&B in Orvieto. There were two more rooms, with a single and a double bed.
I fell in love with Orvieto--after the whole trip I think it is one of the nicest cities in Umbria and maybe in Italy in general. It's built on top of a volcanic hill and you can see it in its splendor from many hills around. This is a picture I took on a bike ride going towards Bolsena lake. It's been on my computer desktop for the past three months.
Orvieto has one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Italy. When you're close to it, you're in awe, anywhere you approach it from. Moreover, it changes color depending on the time of the day.
Here you can see it in its splendor over the city (look at the top center of the picture).
This is the facade in the morning...
..and here it is at sunset.
Here are a few details: the eagle and the bull, symbols of the Evangelists John and Matthew, looking at us from the facade.
Eve's creation, still on the facade.
The central 'rosone', surrounded by sculptures and mosaics representing saints, and with the central Lamb (I took this pic from a store in front of the cathedral).
From inside you can see the black and white stones that the whole church is built with, and there is a wooden ceiling, that reminded me of a boat.
There are some windows in alabaster through which the sun enters creating a beautiful warm light.
The chapels are amazing. One of them is particularly famous, completely painted by Signorelli's school. We spent a long time admiring the apocalyptic murals. No pics were allowed, but you can see some of them on Wikipedia. One could spend months visiting this Cathedral, and still find something new to discover.

The whole city of Orvieto is a mix of Etruscan, Roman and Medieval remains. It was originally built by Etruscans, who were able to keep up with a siege by the Romans for three months. They survived thanks to wells that were dug all the way through the volcanic hill, reaching to the water at the bottom. A lot of wells are still visible. Look inside one of them and imagine the people digging out the dirt and going lower and lower, using the holes you see on the sidewalls as stairs.
During the siege apparently people survived on pigeons. They dug nests in the underground rock for them, and the pigeons flew out to get food, and came back to rest. Here is one of the hundreds of 'piccionaie', which we saw during a visit to Orvieto underground:
The piccionaie are just one of the uses of the hundreds of caves that are excavated under Orvieto. People used these caves to keep animals warm in winter and cool in summer, and to mill grains or store food, for example.

One of the things I really enjoyed of Orvieto was its location. Surrounded by hills and lakes, it's the perfect place to start bike rides. I found out that, unlike in Japan, in Italy it's very easy to rent beautiful bikes for weeks at a time for very cheap. I got a carbon-frame race bike for 10 Euros a day, and I kept it for 4 days, as long as we were in Orvieto.

I went for my excursions in the late afternoon, after visiting places with my family.

I went twice to Bolsena lake. It's in Lazio, the region bordering Umbria (you can see it in the map at the beginning of the post). Depending on how much time you have, you can choose to get there going up and down only two hills or as many as you want. The hills are not extremely high (maximum ~600 m) but altogether they make for a good exercise. And the best part is obviously the landscape! Seeing Orvieto from far away, at the sunset, is just amazing (see the first pictures of this post). And every hill has vineyards, with a castle or a farm on top:
Their green is intense, and the bales of hay generate a vivid contrast. Being there makes you feel alive and peaceful at the same time.
Moreover, most roads are quite smooth and not very heavily trafficked, so biking is very pleasant.

I went all the way down to the town of Bolsena during one of the bike trips. It's a really beautiful Medieval town, with the typical narrow streets.
The lake shore are used as beaches in summertime.
And here is a view of Bolsena lake:

I really enjoyed these bike rides. Biking is a great way to tour, I decided, and biking in Italy is particularly good: you see beautiful landscapes, and cross small towns filled with character and history, which are not too far from each other.. not to speak about the food and wine, of course! So I'm hoping I'll be able to go back in not too long, hopefully with Matt.

We went back to Bolsena lake with my parents and sister, to visit its southern part. We stopped for lunch at Montefiascone, another Medieval town on the hills. That day, people were parading in Medieval costumes. We arrived almost at the end of the parade, so here you can see one of the ladies resting with her hat off--it was very hot!

For lunch, I finally tried the stuffed pigeon, a specialty in Umbria.

Quite good, even though there's not a lot of meat. The stuffing was made with potatoes and olives.
For dessert, we had another typical food:
The wine you see is 'Vin Santo', and in some places they serve it with cantuccini (the typical hard cookies with almonds), whereas here it was served with a soft cake made with corn flour, which was really good. We tried vin santo at almost every restaurant we went to, and we got to taste the different flavors this sweet wine can have.

If you climb to the top of Montefiascone, you get a wonderful view of Bolsena lake and the surrounding hills.
I love the roofs of the churches and houses in these Medieval towns, often decorated with lines of drying clothes, and some satellite antennas that contrast with the historical picture.

After lunch, we drove to Marta. Yes, hard to believe, but there is a town called Marta on Bolsena Lake! So here is my favorite picture of Marta@Marta:
And here I'm in front of an official car from the city, with 'Town of Marta' written on it.

On another day we visited Todi. Todi is not a typical touristic destination in Umbria, but it's a fantastic Roman and Medieval town, with a relaxed atmosphere. Mmm... maybe I shouldn't advertise it or this quiet will be lost, eheh. It has a beautiful main square..
Narrow streets climbing up and down the hill..
Small courtyards where you can imagine secrets are shared..
And of course, beautiful churches. My favorite was San Fortunato, with an unfinished front.
The details in the finished part of this front were some of the most beautiful I've seen in a while. Here is Isaac's sacrifice, for example.
And can you see here this man, holding the whole column with his back?
I climbed all the way up the belltower. The view from the top was worth the exercise.
We asked for suggestions for a restaurant, and we were sent to 'Gli scalini' (I hope I remember the name right). We sat outside on the terrace, and we had a wonderful view of the hill.
We tried the mixed appetizer plate, which is usually one of my favorite things of Italian cuisine. We weren't disappointed:
Different kinds of meats were alternated with cheese, fried rice ball, crostini (bread with tomatoes and spreads of liver and olives), focaccia, cheese flans, frittata.. This and the filetto were the best part of the meal.
Filetto (fillet) is very tipically served in Umbria and Tuscany, big meat-eating regions. It can be served just grilled, like in the plate shown above, or with pepper or other sauces (as you will see later in the post). It's delicious, as you can easily imagine.

I still haven't shown pictures of my family! So, here are my sister and mom after lunch.
And my dad and I.
We were quite happy because of the good meal and day we were having together.

Before leaving Todi, here is a typical detail of this and all small towns in Italy: a beautiful belltower.

Todi was our last day trip from Orvieto. Then, we moved to Perugia, where we stayed in another really nice bed and breakfast right downtown. Perugia is much larger than Orvieto, and has really majestic and beautiful squares and buildings. This is Palazzo dei Priori (pretty much the town hall), as an example:
And a detail of another side of it:
As well as all the other towns I described so far, Perugia is clinged to a hill. It's surrounded by a set of massive walls, some of Roman and some of Etruscan origin. Here is one of the many gates to the city. It's an Etruscan arch, but there are some Roman parts to it.
I really enjoyed walking around Perugia. I couldn't rent a bike this time, so I spent some of my alone time just exploring neighborhoods of the city. There are so many churches, small alleys, arches, stairs, gardens with views, so that each walk has some unique surprises. I'll show here some of my discoveries.

This first set of images comes from streets close to Corso Vannucci, the main promenade of the city. So, here is the touristic starting point, with the Palazzo dei Priori on the right, and the Fontana Maggiore (Major Fountain):
But as soon as you leave this main street, everything becomes quiet. Here is a stairway leading to an acute arch..
A little courtyard:
A small street:

I found another interesting neighborhood past the church of San Pietro, close to the botanical garden: here the small church of San Costantino attracted my attention for this beautiful detail.
Is the animal to the left a representation of what the sculptor thought a lion? If so, we would have the four symbols of the Evangelists, holding each other in a position I never saw before, surrounding the represenation of Jesus as a king.

Another wonderful religious detail I saw was this piece of a fresco in front of Santa Maria di Monteluce:
Such a sweet portrait.

And another area I really liked was the neighborhood surrounding the Tempio di Sant'Angelo, a round church with a quiet and majestic interior that reminded me of a Roman temple:
The neighborhood is not touristic at all, and you can see families gathering in the beautiful park in front of the church, or kids just sitting outside on the streets to chat:
Even the name of the streets make you feel welcome and in a good mood: here you can see 'Via graziosa', or 'Pretty street'
'Via gentile' -- 'Kind street'
And 'Via curiosa' -- 'Curious street'

Food in Perugia is also quite nice. Here is a typical dessert, a snake made of almond paste, really good. I brought one back for Matt to taste, and he really liked it too.
And this is a Perugian homemade pasta, with a square section. Unfortunately I can't recall its name.. somebody out there knows it?? [Later addition: Simona reminded me they were called 'stringozzi', see comment below!]

We took two day-trips from Perugia. The first one was to Gubbio, stopping by Umbertide. We chose this mid-way stop because my dad's name is Umberto, so we really wanted to take a picture of him in this town like we did for me at Marta:

was quite nice, even though maybe we didn't spend enough time to fully appreciate all its beauties, also because it started raining on us. This is the main street.
The landscape from one of the main squares was really beautiful, especially with the threatening sky we encountered:
And here is a fountain, framed by an arch:

One thing we surely appreciated in Gubbio was the food. Again, we had an appetizer platter of salumi (a general term that includes salame and prosciutto of various kinds). I wouldn't be able to tell you the names of all of these salumi; Many of them are local and it would be hard to find them outside Umbria.
These salumi were to be eaten with 'torta al testo', a very typical Umbrian flat bread made with just flour and water.
My main course was this delightful filetto with white truffles.
These summer white truffles are not as flavorful (and expensive) as the fall truffles, we learned; However, you can imagine they weren't too bad on the filetto...

Our second day-trip was to Assisi and to the Trasimeno lake. Assisi was for sure the most touristic place we visited, even though luckily it wasn't too crowded when we went. The Basilica's frescoes are amazing, but I can show you here only the outside, which is also quite impressive.
The church of Santa Chiara is as beautiful, with its pink and white stone and arches:
The whole city is filled with gorgeous architecture... Just to leave the religious theme for a moment, here is a picture of a fountain; The writing above it says that if you wash your clothes in it you'll have to pay a one 'scudo' (an old type of currency) fine and your clothes will be taken away from you!

I also enjoyed our final walk on the side of the Assisi hill, which allowed me to take a few pictures of the nature around, such as these olives against the sky:
Few trees are as beautiful as old olive trees.

Our final destination for the day was the Trasimeno lake. We went to Castiglione del lago, and enjoyed a late afternoon on the lake. This was also the final destination of my trip to Umbria with my family. I had to leave and go back to Berkeley, to pack everything up and get ready for the next adventure.

Take this picture of me on the Trasimeno lake as a warm goodbye from Italy and to Italy. It was a really nice trip, maybe the best my family and I took together. I hope you enjoyed reading about it, and I look forward to questions, comments, and seeing my family and Italy again!

Later addition: this post has been featured on 'Been in Umbria', a blog that shows experiences from tourists been in Umbria. Thanks, I feel very honored!


Simona Carini said...

Ciriole, I think (or maybe they used stringozzi?).

chemcookit said...

Ciao Simona! I think they used stringozzi, thanks for reminding me!

UmbriaLovers said...

Wow, what a review, really well done and complete. So, Orvieto was the best place for you? We were there past week for Umbria Jazz Winter event, we made some pics that you can see here, there's a nice shot of the Duomo.

We run a blog about Umbria, would you like to do a guest post of your experience? If yes, send us your email and we will send you the idea scheme of the post, it would be nice!

Here's the link to the blog:

UmbriaLovers said...

Hi there, we've had few lines of your articles on our "beeninUmbria" blog and put a direct link to your site. Is it ok for you? Great pics!

chemcookit said...

Hi guys!
Sorry, for some weird reason I didn't see these comments up to now!

It's very much ok with me and I'm so honored about being featured on beeninumbria! I'd love to guest post on your blog as well! Thanks a lot, I'll drop you a line soon.