I T I N E R A R Y
DAY 1: Assisi
DAY 2: Norcia & Castelluccio
DAY 3: Orvieto
In late July, I attended the wedding of two very good friends in Italy. This was my first time in Italy so TK and I decided to make it into a 2 week road trip. We started the trip up North in Lake Como where the beautiful wedding was held, made our way further up to the jaw dropping Dolomites (Italian Alps), then several days in Florence, and finally south to Umbria. Rather than traverse the well traveled roads of Tuscany during peak tourism season, this time around we decided instead to go to neighboring Umbria, a region that is not as well known and thus not as developed for tourism. There is a certain rawness that harkens back to the agricultural past of Italy. Medieval towns dot the region, rising up in all their splendor atop ancient hills, while all around green and gold farmland stretch as far as the eye can see. While we were there the the whole of Europe was going through a dramatic heat wave, so everywhere you looked there seemed to be a golden haze clinging to the landscape adding to the mystery of the place. It is here that I am starting my posts for Italy.
Along with this post, I shot and wrote a piece for food and travel magazine, SAVEUR. I spent an unforgettable morning with the farmers of Norcia and Castelluccio. We were introduced to the black banded pig of Norcia and got the chance to try some of the legendary pig charcuterie of this town. We then joined a little festival the farmers were having to celebrate the first successful lentil harvest since the town was devastated by an earthquake in late 2016. Situated at over 1452 m above sea level on a little hill within the folds of the Sibillini Mountains, Castelluccio is one of the most breathtaking places I have ever been to. The lentils that are grown here are, in my opinion, the absolute best in the world. They are even better than the French puy lentils that everyone loves. I am so excited to share this piece with you. Head over here to read the article!
Plains of Castelluccio di Norcia
The deep greens of the Umbrian countryside
This photo, one of my favorites of the trip, was taken in the Cathedral of a town called Todi that we briefly stopped in.
I’m so glad I turned around away from the interior of the church to see the sunlight angling down the carved door at just the right spot.
The open door served as a perfect frame for the palazzo across the square.
A S S I S I
View from Rocca Maggiore Fortress
Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi
The city at dusk
The Chianina cow
A short drive away from Assisi, I was able to meet a family of butchers raising one of the oldest and largest domestic breed of cow, the Chianina cow. Run by three brothers, I was struck by how young they all were. In my ignorance, I was totally expecting men my father’s age. It is not often that you find young people so deeply interested in preserving tradition. The beautiful cows are gorgeously white and absolutely massive. I have not had that much experience being around cows but I definitely don’t recall the normal milk cow being anywhere near so big as the Chianina. If you are in the area definitely seek out this heritage breed.
Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi
N O R C I A & C A S T E L L U C C I O
Pigs of Norcia
Though accessible, Norcia was badly damaged in the earthquake. This place is still well worth a visit to get a taste of their world famous cured pork products and learn about the very old illustrious butchery tradition here. Unfortunately the 14th century Bascillica di San Benedetto was badly damaged and it sounds like it will not be rebuilt.
O R V I E T O
Duomo di Orvieto
Beneath the burnt sienna rock of the town lies another wonder that you must visit if you find yourself in this part of Italy. A network of caves that date back to the pre-Roman Etruscans, honeycomb through the city’s underground. While most of the system of 1,200 caves is still owned and used by the private citizens of the city, there a small section of it that is open to the public for visits with a local guide. I typically do not do tour groups but this was well worth it even if it wasn’t required I would still recommend. Our group was very small and the guide was very knowledgeable about the history of the tunnels. As she led us around, she spoke to us at length about the many ways that these tunnels have served the people of Orvieto. Because of the cave’s ability to stay at a regulated temperature of 12-13° C, these caverns were the perfect place to press olive oil. One of the largest caverns still contains the massive millstones and presses that were once used to produce one of the most important products of Umbria. In addition to olive oil, at the height of papal power in Italy, the caves were also used to raise pigeons. The walls of one of the rooms that we visited were pocked by square dovecots and I could easily picture the cooing birds flying in and out of the little room. These pigeons were raised for meat and since they basically fed themselves, they were especially crucial during times of siege. At one point we even saw a well from roughly 7th century BC that archeologists believe is the very first underground tunnelings by the Etruscans. If you look carefully, there are even hand and foot holdings for climbing in and out of the well. The final cavern of the tour brought us to the 20th century, when the tunnels were used as bomb shelters during the second world war. Its amazing to think all the life that has passed through these tunnels.
W H E R E T O S T A Y
If you are a history buff like me, you will want to stay at San Pietro in Valle. We stayed in the gorgeous abbot’s suite of this 10th century monastery turned hotel. A steep drive up a mountain side in the comune of Ferentillo, pass a row of elegantly upright cyprus trees brings you to this secluded little heaven. It is an easy driving distance from most of the major sites so very convenient. We didn’t have time to do this but right across from the monastery on a different mountain is even a ghost town called Umbriano that you can hike up to.
The food of Umbria is proudly touted as food of the common man. Largely unchaged over the centuries, the cuisine here is a true example of everything that pure Italian food stands for, hyperlocal, seasonal, and grown largely out of necessity. The food at Hora Media restaurant, the small gem of a restaurant tucked underneath this monstary, sticks firmly to this tradition. Simple and light fare that showcased all the beautiful local food of Umbria, it was possibly my favorite place of the whole trip. Their maltagliati pasta was the best pasta I had during this trip. Made with fava bean flour and cooked very simply in best of the season fresh tomatoes, finished with wild mint and local cave aged pecarino. The proprietress told me that they had waited patiently for the fava beans from a local farmer to reach peak seasonality before finding a mill to grind it into flour. Maltagliati, which literally means poorly cut in Italian, is a pasta made with the excess parts of the dough, generally the edges. The uneven thickness makes for a wonderful texture and optimal sauce adherence. My description of it does not in anyway do it justice. How can something so simple be that amazing you ask? Well it was simply that magical situation were every single element was at the height of perfection. I absolutely adored this dish.