Tag Archives: Italy
This is the fourth summer we have spent at our modest home in Umbertide. By this time little rituals have sprung forth. At the Wednesday market we chose from the various multi-colored petunias and geraniums deciding on the perfect ones to sit outside in the window boxes located on each floor of the building. This year we were offered pink and white speckled geraniums. They go in the planter outside the kitchen window. The frequent thunderstorms have yielded water but the blossoms have suffered a bit from the winds.
Less fun is paying yearly taxes. First we have to find out where to pay them. Each year seems to hold a different location. 2016 – the post office. This is a short drive away. Once there we have to decide which button will give the correct ticket for service. Luckily a young woman was able to help. We then had to stand for about thirty minutes until our number was called. Surprisingly many numbers were called and no-one showed up. I am not sure whether the machine had problems or people got tired of waiting. We again lucked out as the person helping knew what he was doing and our transaction took little time, not so for several others.
After that we hurriedly left to return some extension cords (wrong plug size) to a department store about 30 minutes away. Traffic road work held us back and I wasn’t sure we would make the 12:30 closing. Many stores in Italy close from 12:30 to 4:00. We made it to Casagrande in time but another thing typical of Italy is that many businesses are closed on Monday morning, Casagrande being one of them. We decided to take a photo so information will always be close.
One man’s disappointment can be another’s opportunity. Turning around to go back, I noticed a sign to a store I had never heard of before. We followed the signs and ended up at a new shopping centre. It was shopper’s haven, many different kinds of stores, most being in the modest price range, including an assortment of eateries. Yum.
Due to the large lunch, we returned to another ritual and that is gelato for dinner. There are two shops in walking distance. One offers a nice patio, friendly owners, and generous portions. The other is a shorter walk and a bit richer offering.
While the rituals keep one grounded, it is the unusual that keeps one attuned. As a joke to keep me from enjoying half a pastry for breakfast one morning, Mike said, “Look at the band coming down the street.” Of course I looked, as Mike stole the treat. I looked because it is not unusual to see a band coming down the street and sure enough the next evening, I heard music and there was the band. What got me laughing though, was they played “When the Saints Go Marching In,” – not an expected selection on an evening in Umbria!
Today is a holiday in Italy. It is the day that commemorates Italy becoming a republic. Somewhat like our Fourth of July. In Umbertide they celebrate with a dog show. No it is not Westminster.
The dogs and there were many of them are family pets, most of indistinguishable breeds. Italians are just as foolish over their dogs as Americans. You can find many families out and about walking their dogs in the early evening, even during winter.
The piazza was filled with dogs of every size and shape acting like well, dogs. In fact during their waiting time in the corral, one competitor decided that he needed to show who was boss and got a bit ugly. Others tried to hold their own with him until eventually the show off was moved to a corner. The owners got a work out just keeping the pets entertained. I watched for about an hour and the show was still going on when I left.
I am not sure what it takes to win but everyone seemed to be having a good time.
After a challenging and mostly stressful year, we arrived much too tired to our home away from home in Italy.
The house has not changed and we welcomed the serenity it offers. After a couple hours of restorative sleep, our first thought was of food. Laura, a neighbor, has a wonderful restaurant a block away, Locanda Appenino, so off we headed.
While the low 60s drive most Italians indoors, Mike and I asked if the patio was open and were guided outdoors for a view of the Tiber River, flower blossoms, and the smell of jasmine. Anticipating our first meal of pasta, the menu for the night included roasted chicken and potatoes. I have learned it is best to go with the specials AND chicken (pollo) is rarely on the menu. It was simply divine.
The next morning, we awoke early and walked along the river until it wound back into town ending up at a local bar for breakfast. Not a huge meal in Italy, we were pacified with freshly squeezed orange juice, a breakfast sandwich of prosciutto and omelet, ending with a chocolate filled croissant.
We are settling into to our summer routine – reading, writing, and sleeping, with a few errands for good measure. Our next-door neighbors welcomed us back and we stopped and chatted with an English artist we befriended who went native many years ago. He caught us up on all we missed throughout the last year.
Umbertide doesn’t have the children, grandkids, or pets. There is no television or movies. Internet has to be rationed. Despite this it offers a much simpler way of life, one that starts off feeling strange but rejuvenates and helps to live productively thought the rest of the year.
We received an invitation to an art show about 45 minutes north of Umbertide. The exhibition was located in a palazzo (palace) in the center of the historic district. It is only open to the pubic once a year, so in addition to seeing paintings, we were able to glimpse a little bit of an upper class Tuscan home.
The artist, Vincenzo Calli, has a unique style, blending old techniques with new. I especially enjoyed how he created a “3-D” element by adding sculpture to the painting.
Upon leaving the exhibition, we noticed that the narrow street in front of the building had been barricaded for what looked like a race. The runners were two and three-year-old boys and girls. The organizers walked the children about a block away and in corrals separated by gender, they raced their way back to the finished line, seeming to enjoy the cheers from the sideline crowds.
Our next stop was the number one restaurant (according to TripAdvisor) in the walled city of Citta di Castello, an Umbrian town about 20 minutes north of us. The friendly owner server us over sized plates of pasta so I was only able to enjoy one course.
When we arrived back in Umbertide, the town was lit up for a festival. At the base of the Rocco (a former guard tower now an art gallery), a stage was set up with inflatables and fair like vendors. We stayed for a bit watching what seemed to be a warm up acts for something else. We had been told that Cuban dancers were expected. Unfortunately the hour was late and so we left (not before Mike stopped at the local bar to check out the ongoing World Cup game between Germany and Ghana).
Several minutes after we readied for bed, I heard the unmistakable sound of fireworks. Our bedroom window points toward the Rocca and we were treated to a show.
All of this is to point out that when the evening began, we were going to an art show. As it turned out there was much more to see and do. This was not a special holiday; it is how these people live.
Across the street from our house in Umbertide is a piazza. It is nice place to walk to see people, enjoy a coffee, or a glass of wine. Recently I discovered the area is actually made up of two piazzas. The second one looks like a parking lot but upon inspection, this seemingly common area is actually much more.
On April 25, 1944 allied bombers aiming for a bridge over the Tiber River, a short distance away, missed and dropped two bombs into the small neighborhood of Borgo San Giovanni, killing seventy people and displacing hundreds of others. The homes were never rebuilt.
Today, the area has been renamed Pizza April 25th. Those who died are honored with a permanent plaque of their names. Among the stones of the parking lot are red bricks, which signify the places where buildings once set. A number inside the brick identifies the particular house.
I wonder at the idea of never rebuilding and replacing a neighborhood with a parking lot. I am sure what was done was best. Perhaps it is the way to remember.
I am a list maker. I can’t get through my day-to-day life without them, experiencing an exquisite thrill as I check off each to do. I am making progress.
Therefore despite the fact that there is now time to do nothing, beauty abounds, and the culture encourages the art of enjoying the moment, I am somewhat lost. It is not easy to shed the habits of the other eleven months. In other words I don’t know how to do nothing easily.
Yesterday, I decided that we needed to travel to a town thirty minutes away for Saturday market. Several years ago, I found local cookies that I have neither a name nor a flavor to describe them, only a place. I wanted the cookies. There was Saturday market but it has evolved to street after street and bin after bin of clothing. No cookies. I was disappointed and could not check cookies off of my list.
We have been hunting for a fire extinguisher since we arrived over a week ago. Despite trips to many different places, we have none. The market town had a hardware store. Surely success would come but alas no fire extinguisher and no guess as to where to buy one. Can’t check fire extinguisher off of my list.
The heat has risen and with no air conditioning, ninety degrees is something new to experience. I curled up under a fan, slept and read, still discouraged.
Later that evening, I received a text to join Mike in the piazza for a glass of Prosecco, my favorite wine. I was tempted to decline as I had already drunk a glass but something told to me to accept. With no plan nor list and a sweaty body, I walked across the street.
Mike was delighted as he is able to take pleasure in any small thing that life offers. I envy his optimism and child like enthusiasm. He had met several locals, gave and received a language lesson, as well as was treated to a glass of wine. He also had learned where you could refill water bottles for 5 cents a bottle. What a find!
I received my glass of sparkling wine from Mary, an extremely friendly bar owner and settled in to people watch. Everyone was coming out to enjoy the Saturday night. I willed myself to just relax and after a fashion, I realized I had. I tried out my Italian with a few people and admired the many dogs that accompany their owners into the piazza. Later we took a walk and learned some interesting history of our lovely town (will share in a later posting).
Dinner was eaten in a local Ristorante owned by a young woman and her mother. Almost everything we ate was home grown and homemade, and quite delicious. Another walk through the neighbor hood brought us back to the piazza where at eleven o’clock in the evening, it seemed like they were having a sidewalk sale. We met an Artisan, whose medium is glass, purchasing a set of earrings and a sunflower plate of sculpture.
It was on our walk home, that I realized how the real magic of the night was in my allowing it to unfold, without a list. No plans had been made. All I needed to enjoy the evening was a partner to share it with, time, and the willingness to relax. Grazia Umbertide.
Coming to Italy while always special is now a regular part of our traveling. This is the first winter trip for both of us and it is the first time we have spent alone in our new home in Umbria.
Unlike the summer, the “Green Heart of Italy” is wet, dark, and cold in winter. An umbrella stays at our side. Sunlight is a brief friend. The days are short. Life’s discomforts make one appreciate its beauty. I now understand the Italian love of sunlight and long days in which to do nothing but take a walk or savor the taste of fresh fruit.
But we are here now and there is still beauty to be found and had. In the town square is a large Christmas tree; it towers the buildings beside it. I can’t begin to imagine how it was transported and placed there. It lights up the piazza at night and is the centerpiece for the people who still take walks, despite the weather and savor the taste of a fresh tangerine.
There is fog. The fog settles over the Tiber River and forming a frame for the old stucco apartments that pepper the hills that overlook the waterway. Looking through this mist creates a different form of beauty but beauty nonetheless.
Inexpensive lighting and plastic Santas climbing up plastic ladders suggest the Christmas holiday. A red carpet is tacked down on the narrow streets of the old city square welcoming one and all to come end give praise to God’s gift, the chance to enjoy a day whether it be the one hoped for or the one given.
Tucked atop a mountain in central eastern Italy is the tiny republic of San Marino. Considered to be the oldest republic in the world with a constitution dating back from 1243. The people of San Marino chose not to become part of unified Italy in 1861 and Giuseppe Garibaldi honored their wishes.
A winding road leads us to San Marino, a mere 25 miles or so away but taking an hour and half due to the climb and speed limits. Once there we parked for a fee, that only be paid with coins, and continue the upward climbs walking. We were guided safely into the city by a uniformed guard. What I found most impressive were the panoramic views of Italy. You can see across the plains of the province of Emilia-Romagna all the way to the Adriatic Sea.
San Marino protected itself with the help of three towers. You will see these towers as a symbol of the country on seals, postcards, etc. The towers are still standing and 3 euros will allow you to visit one of them. Again it is the view rather than the tower that seems to make the money worth it. The travel books suggested eating a Torta Tre Monti or “Three Tower Cake.” After discovering that this could only be bought, packaged in a store, my dreams of towers of chocolate were dashed when I found a flat box on the shelf. It is a large, layered wafer cookie dipped in chocolate. Mike said it was a good cookie; my disappointment hasn’t allowed me to take a bite yet.
There are many shops and eateries. We found most of help staff to be unfriendly, not so with the numerous Italian places we have visited. One in particular was the lady who staffed the tourist office. You can go there to get your passport stamped after paying 5 euros. I gave her a twenty and she seemed most put out, asking if I had anything lower. I wanted to break the twenty because you need smaller bills or coins for parking machines, restrooms, tips, etc., so I told her no. She responded with a warning that I was getting all coins in return. I told her that was great. She then barked back that they would not have San Marino on them. I explained again, that it was fine. I was pleased with my stamp and she seemed pleased when I left.
Umbria is a very beautiful province adjacent to Tuscany. Its hilltop towns rival any in Italy. My favorite is Perugia. You can walk the perimeter of the old city and view the vast green and terra cotta vistas. Having previously toured Perugia, we stopped only for lunch on our way to Deruta.
A one-line excerpt from travel book headed us this direction. Deruta is known for its ceramics. We collect ceramic tiles in hopes of one day creating a back splash for the wall behind our kitchen sink. So off we went to see what could be found. In making such plans you must consider the Italian workday in non-tourist places. From 1:00 – 5:00 many work places are closed. Since we took time for lunch, such was the case for us. As soon as we left the highway, large warehouses of practically anything that could be imagined in ceramic, greeted us but all were closed. We decided to at least drive up to and see the “old town.”
Luckily there were several small shops open and we were able to see artisans at work and well as a large sampling of their crafts. Due to the fact that this is not “made in China” kind of pottery, prices were somewhat steep but quite lovely. Many of the places offered to ship pieces to the U.S. for very moderate fees.
On our way back, we observed what seemed to be a small, old hilltop town. Wondering what it might hold, we wound our way up to the top, only to discover what would be the equivalent of a subdivision. No shops, no pizza parlors, just a neighborhood of quaint homes, two cats, and an elderly lady who was convinced that if she repeated herself enough we would eventually understand her Italian.
Our next trip to Umbria was to Assisi, an old town that honors the patron saint of Italy, St. Francis of Assisi. In his honor there is a large Basilica that contains many pieces of Renaissance Art. We decided to buy a guidebook and tour the holy place in that way. Despite several tour groups headed by monks of different backgrounds and languages, the pilgrims were respectful. There were no loud voices or people sneaking photographs. I mention this because every time I have visited the Sistine Chapel, I have been disappointed by the regular admonishment from the guards for “Silence,” and the Americans who think that rules don’t apply to them and use their children as photographers, as they block the path of chapel personnel. All this takes away from the spirit of the place.
We left the Basilica to wander the streets. If there is a modern part of Assisi, I never saw it. The entire town still holds the architecture of the 1400’s. There are numerous shops and with a little bit of know how, you can find authentic arts and crafts amidst the tourist plastic. We passed a pastry shop with what appeared to large mounds of a chocolate mousse type cake. When presented with a slice of it, the cake turned out to be fudge, quite good but very rich, surprising to me as the Italians prefer more subtle sweets.
We finished our day with a visit to a second Basilica that honors the lesser-known Saint Clare. Hers is a more simple dwelling but also displays numerous Renaissance frescos and paintings.
After more than a half dozen trips to Italy, it was with great anticipation that I planned a family trip to Tuscany. Renting a three-bedroom villa, I imagined my son, daughter, their spouses, and my grandchild enjoying trekking through small mountainous towns and viewing the cultures that began in medieval times.
I learned a huge but important lesson; everyone perceives vacation in a different way and when you expect one thing but get another, you must adapt. My perceptions of what a vacation should be began with my childhood. A prolific reader, I learned of the history of Italia and became familiar with the particulars of its provinces. Frances Mayes of “Under the Tuscan Sun” fame helped to build numerous pictures in my mind. This kind of background information helped to have an appreciation for what I see.
The Coliseum is not just an old ruin; it is the site of Romans enjoying human combat as sport. As I troll down the steps of the ancient arena, I see the animals waiting below to come out and enjoy their prey, I hear the excited roar of the crowd, and can almost feel the vile pleasure that this place endured. Those feelings are a result of MY personal experiences.
But I forgot that vacation is about family. While all of our immediate family members live within five miles of each other, our busy lives prohibit long visits. Therefore dining al fresco with a view of the Tuscan Valley was one of my daughter’s favorite activities. We all pitched in, especially our chef son-in-law, to use the fresh produce of the area and a few spices to create some wonderful home made meals. My son reminded me that vacation means rest and some of us required long hours to sleep and rejuvenate for the work weeks to come. Again, as in many times since his birth in December, my grandson forced me to focus on the moment. I will remember his delight in seeing Nana first thing each morning. He was kind enough to allow us to take him for a car ride up the mountains, even becoming the center of attention for the owners of a local café. His beautiful blue eyes and inviting smile, encouraged the café owner to take him for a walk so that we could eat.
Vacations are not just sites to be visited; they are moments in a family’s journey. I forgot that and am truly sorry. My family forced me (in a kind way) to refocus and realize that I am indeed a very fortunate Mama/Nana!
P.S. The children left for home today but we are here for two more weeks. I am still looking forward to those mountainous Tuscany towns. 🙂