Saturday 11th June
I’d checked the train timetables, and picked the 8:43 departure to get me to Chiusi-Chianciano with some contingency before the Hertz office closed, it being a Saturday. I wheeled my luggage the five-minute walk to the metro station and got the train to Termini.
From the day before, I’d reminded myself of the route from metro to railway, and got to the platforms with ample time to spare, nearly 20 minutes. Then I began to follow the signs to my platform, 1e, the signs helpfully explaining in Italian and English that 1e and 2e are at the end of Platform 1. What they don’t mention is the distance. It actually took me almost fifteen minutes before I was seated in my first-class compartment. I know that’s still easily in time, but I’m neurotic. I had been beginning to fret.
The train was a “local” service between Rome and Florence, with many stops at small stations, but fortunately the majority of those were after my destination station. It’s called Chiusi-Chianciano, but it’s not in either of those towns. It’s in Chiusi Scalo, a modern satellite on the valley bottom of the old town of Chiusi on the hill top. But the Hertz car rental office is only 20 metres from the station door, which was why I’d chosen it.
I had vaguely expected to be the only customer turning up on a Saturday morning to a small branch in a small town in Tuscany, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, I was fifth in line to be served, the preceding customers all being American or British. The Americans, of course, had no idea what a Fiat 500 was, or a Lancia Ypsilon, and had to have it explained. One annoying group couldn’t make up their minds whether they did or didn’t want to pay for an additional driver.
Making up for the slight delay, I found that the car I was getting was an upgrade. Instead of the little Panda I was paying for, it was a larger Punto, and a sporty-looking model too, with chrome and alloys. And brand new as well. (The 1.2 litre engine couldn’t match the sporty appearance. I found I had to change down gears to climb hills much more than I’m used to.)
It’s an easy 20-minute drive from Chiusi Scalo to my destination on the shores of Lake Trasimeno, from Tuscany into Umbria. Being amazingly well-prepared, I had identified a supermarket on the route, and made a stop there to stock up on some essentials. When I was a more naive traveller, I had once made the mistake of arriving at a self-catering accommodation quite late at night, with no food at all. And the next day was a Sunday.
I arrived at the apartment before the owner, Marco, but when I phoned, he was only five minutes away. In fact, he had just gone to buy some things for me: tomatoes, onions, fizzy water and a bottle of wine. Plus there were cans of beer in the fridge already. A nice welcome to Umbria.
Marco showed me around the apartment, which didn’t take long, it not being large. Like many holiday conversions in Italy, the accommodation has been carved out of an old building which had a different layout, leading to compromises in design. The previous year in Lucca, for example, my apartment had obviously once been a single, large vault at street level, probably open at the front – perhaps a stable or storeroom. The front had been walled in, and a mezzanine bed platfrom installed, but it was still basically one big space.
In this case, Marco’s apartment comprises a segment of a medieval “townhouse”; ground floor and first, with the floor above belonging to the apartment next door. The ground floor probably wouldn’t have been living space originally; more likely a storeroom. It has only two small windows and so it’s dark unless the door is open. In the current conversion, it has a living room and bathroom. Upstairs, there’s a kitchen and large bedroom. I say “upstairs”. In fact, the kitchen can be reached by an external staircase, and in reality is the main entrance to the house. Internally, the two floors are connected by a very narrow spiral stair. Very narrow. Fat people would have a real problem with it, and I wouldn’t fancy trying to negotiate it when drunk.
If I owned the apartment, I’d probably redecorate and convert the bedroom to living room, with bedroom and bathroom downstairs. It could actually be used like that now, since the sofa is a bed-sofa, but the current bedroom is a very nice bedroom and I stuck to it.
After tramping all over Rome for four days, I was determined to take it easy and didn’t even leave the house all day. I cooked dinner that night — a real luxury. And I had wine.
Sunday 12th June
Still taking it easy, easy like a Sunday morning, I did nothing until after lunch, and then strolled down towards the lake shore. The little cluster of old houses where the apartment is located is situated off a street that runs up, away from the lake and the main road that forms the axis of the village. It’s a couple of minutes’ walk to the main road, and then straight across it down a straight road to the jetty that sticks out into the lake. Say ten minutes in all.
Almost all the houses in the other parts of the village are new, many of them probably holiday homes. Then down at the end of the road to the lake, there’s a campsite, with full facilites. That probably gives a flavour of what the place is like: modern, holiday-based, a little trashy (although not cheap). There’s a shop on the main street with a display of beach balls and flip-flops.
But actually, the lakeshore is still peaceful and very pretty. The lake water is green and murky, making swimming unlikely, even for hardy tribes like the Germans. They have a blue pool at the campsite anyway.
I sat there for a couple of hours, took photos, and, er, used the Internet. Internet had been a matter of investigation, experimentation and improvisation up until then. The 3G SIM I’d bought in Rome was working fine, except, typically, of the four 3G networks detectable from the apartment, mine, Wind, was the weakest. I’d put the USB dongle outside the window and got a sporadic connection. Then I’d put it into a metal cutlery drainer from Ikea, like a perforated tin can, and got some improvement. Down by the lake, it was proper broadband. There’s line of sight to Castiglione del Lago, which could account for it.
Getting on towards dinner time, I walked back up to the apartment, making a short detour along the main road where there are a couple of shops, a bar, and a pizzeria. I would try the pizzeria some time, but not tonight. I was doing the cooking again. I enjoy it.
Monday 13th June
In the morning, all I did was check out Marco’s “shed”, which he’d given me the key to. There are three bikes which I was allowed to use, although only one at a time, but what I was really interested in was any junk that I could recycle into a better 3G antenna. An old colander or pasta strainer would have been ideal, but there was nothing suitable.
After lunch, I went for more shopping to supplement the few basics I’d bought originally. From Google Street View, I knew that there were two supermarkets facing each other on the way to Magione. When I got there though, one of them, the Lidl, had been closed down and put up for sale since the Googlecar had passed. The other served my purposes well enough though.
Rather than turn around and come straight back, I thought I’d drive on towards Magione for a look, and came across another supermarket, Penny Market, very much in the style of Lidl (in fact, you’d have sworn you were in a Lidl store). I gave it a look, even though I’d bought what I needed, and couldn’t resist a bottle of DOCG Chianti at just 99c. Unbelieveable.
I took a quick tour by car through Magione, just a taster, with the intention of coming back some time and parking and exploring on foot. There didn’t seem to be much of historic architecture, unlike Castiglione in the opposite direction from home.
Tuesday 14th June
I planned a proper excursion, to the South, to Citta della Pieve and Orvieto. The fast way to Orvieto would have been to drive to Chiusi Scalo and take the main Florence-Rome autostrada, but I could see that there was also a “scenic route” running parallel through the hills. Citta della Pieve was on the way.
The first time I’d visited the town, several years previously, I’d wondered if “della Pieve” meant “of bricks”, because there’s a very unusual look to the place, quite different from the hill towns around: almost everything is made from red brick, allegedly because of a lack of local building stone. I looked it up when I got home: “pieve” is an old word for chapel or church.
It’s a quaint, twisty, higgledy-piggledy warren of a town, but very clean and smart — lots of civic pride. One particular feature is the network of narrow alleyways, or “vicoli”, including what is claimed to be the narrowest street in the world: Vicolo Bacidonne, or “Kiss-the-Ladies Alley”. It is just about as wide as my shoulders. If you were to meet a lady coming the other way, then fraternisation would be inevitable. It didn’t happen in my case, however.
The other claim to fame of Citta della Pieve is that it is the birthplace of the painter Pietro Vannucci, known as “Il Perugino” (The Perugian, which obviously, he wasn’t.) In the cathedral there are some of his frescoes, but the most stunning one is in the Oratorio di Santa Maria dei Bianchi, with a great sense of depth and perspective. Trailing round Italy looking for “must see” artworks isn’t really my thing, but this was well worth the two euros I paid to get in to the small chapel.
I had a pizza for lunch and returned to the car for the hour or so’s drive to Orvieto, sticking to the scenic route. The Punto didn’t have much puff for climbing hills, although in low gear it was fine. At Orvieto, I remembered that there is a big car park up at the old city itself, although getting there means driving up the sinuous, climbing route to the top of the hill. The alternate arrangement is to park in the low town, Orvieto Scalo, and get the funicular rail car up. I chose the upper car park option.
The obvious and striking feature of Orvieto is its cathedral. Its size and ornate, golden facade are grandiose for the scale of the town. Inside, the passion for rich decoration continues. My guidebook says: “The frescoes of the San Brizio chapel appear so modern that in many ways they are nearer 20th century graphic novels than traditional renaissance style. As flying demons send down red beams of fire, naked, muscle-bound figures writhe in agony, falling utside the frames of the picture. Meanwhile, tsunamis carry away ships, the moon turns red, the undead arise from their tombs and the world ends, while angels gaze calmly down from above.”
The rest of the town is pleasant and quite tourist-friendly, although not tourist-crowded. Although that was my third or fourth visit, I still didn’t take advantage of the “Orvieto Underground” tour. Since Orvieto was founded in Etruscan or Umbrian times, the inhabitants have been drilling into the knob of volcanic tufa which the city sits on. There are many tunnels, galleries, crypts, wells and tombs. It all sounds quite interesting, but you know, I’m more of a sunshine kind of guy. I’ll see them some day, perhaps in Winter.
Since time was getting on when I’d had enough of Orvieto, I took the autostrade route back home. Rather dull and monotonous.
Wednesday 15th June
An idle day to compensate for travels the day before. I’ve often reduced the relaxation aspects of holidays by doing too much driving off here and there to sightsee, and I was making a conscious effort not to let it happen. Hence enforced stays at home.
In the afternoon though, I departed on foot, taking the road up away from the coast and the town. It very soon became a “white road”, no tarmac, just surfaced with gravel. I was hoping to get a better view of the ancient fortified abbey on the hill, the Badia di Sant’Arcangelo, but that didn’t quite work out.
At first the path ran through flattish farmland, with olive trees and vines, and even some rows of vegetables. As the slope increased, the woodland started to close in, meaning that there was little opportunity for the views that height should have given me. I got as close to the Badia as was possible; that is, nose pressed to the locked gates. Privato. I could see a Swiss-registered car parked outside, although not the grand style you’d expect from castle owners. Perhaps you can stay there on holiday.
A little lower down the hill from the Badia were two villas, one particularly grand with a large and exquisitely tended garden, full of flowers. I could hear voices, one male and one female, from the garden or house somewhere. Probably the servants. I went back to the fork in the road where the other path climbed up the hill. Maybe I’d get a nosy good look from above.
Getting steeper still, and very, very hot, every corner was a decision point: have I had enough, or shall I have a look at what’s round the bend? Somehow, each time, I chose to go on. The woodland had closed completely around the path, so I couldn’t see much. The occasional glimpse of the coast or the lake far below. I eventually came to a flatter, scrubby area, which was open enough to get a peek at the top of the Badia’s castle tower, but no more. No more. I turned and started to descend.
When I got home, my shirt was sopping wet. I don’t sweat much, even at 30 degrees, during normal activities, but the hill climbing was something different.
After dinner that night, I took another walk, the easy one down to the lake shore this time. There was to be a lunar eclipse, and I’d looked up the timing on the Internet, and was expecting moonrise some time after nine, with the moon already red from the edges of Earth’s shadow. Well, it was a nice walk in the warm evening. Lots of people were doing it. But no moon. I now think the times I got must have been in UTC rather than the local CET as I had assumed. (It was a German website.) I came back after my excursion and watched some television. On the way to bed some time later, I looked out the window and there was the crescent moon.
It was only the following night when I saw the full disc of the moon that I realised that a normal crescent moon the night before was impossible. What I’d seen was the almost-eclipsed full moon.
Thursday 16th June
On a previous holiday, I had eventually worked out that my daily pattern didn’t match Italy’s. Being on relaxing holiday, I was having a nice lie-in and getting up about ten. Pottering around with breakfast and so on, I’d be ready to go out somewhere after eleven, say. And if I was driving a fair distance, it would be after noon when I arrived. And everywhere would be shut until three.
Well, not everywhere, obviously. In the more touristy areas, shops often stay open. But that’s such a novelty for them that they advertise the fact. Imagine! Such convenience!
Anyway, that was my realization: I had to either get up and get out earlier, or leave it until afternoon. My trip to Citta della Pieve and Orvieto took the former course, with lunch in between, but this time I planned to go to Castiglione del Lago around three o’clock.
I’d been there on another day trip some years previously, and remembered free parking just outside the walls of the citadel. In the event, I followed parking signs and came to a different one, a little further from the gates, but still perfectly satisfactory. And still free.
I climbed a broad flight of steps to the Porta Senese. Castiglione’s walled old city is tiny; really a large castle, not a town. It’s somewhat given over to tourists, with lots of restaurants and specialist food and wine shops, but it wasn’t crowded at all, and is very quaint and pretty.
The walled town sits on a high promontory sticking out into the lake, and at the pointy end is a small fortress with an unusual triangular tower. The good burghers of Castiglione have it stitched up though. You can’t get into the castle without going through the museum in the lord’s palazzo, and that’s five euros.
Actually, the palazzo has some sixteenth-century frescoed ceilings that are worth a look, and then you reach the castle through a long (a couple of hundred metres) stone corridor. I couldn’t help questioning the utility of that idea though. If you were under such perilous attack that it wasn’t safe to run two hundred metres across the courtyard, then being in a little stone tunnel wasn’t going to be much better.
When I got to the battlements I noticed that the curtain wall wasn’t particularly thick, and the pathway on top far too narrow for soldiers to fight from effectively. Admittedly, there’s a stone balustrade which takes up some of the width, and it may not be original (stops you losing too many tourists) but I suspect the whole thing was more for show than real defence.
I walked back through the old town and down into the new town, which sits around the castle rock on the lake shore. I followed a sign for the “beach” and indeed there was one, with sunbathers and even swimmers. I relaxed for a while, before finding the car and driving the short distance home.
Except, I drove off in the wrong direction and had to turn the GPS navigation on once I realised I was lost. The result was an interesting drive through local territory, roughly doubling the distance I should have travelled. No problem. Bit of exploration.
Friday 17th June
Friday was going to be a no-drive day, but the breakfast croissant was the last one in the pack. I didn’t really need to go shopping for other supplies, but I couldn’t do without a croissant with my morning coffee. I decided I’d use the opportunity to try out a different store, the big Co-op I’d seen on the way to Castiglione the day before.
In the event, the big building with the Co-op logo proved to be something other than a supermarket. A factory, a distribution centre? It was hard to tell. But the only thing for it was to continue the remaining few kilometres to Castiglione del Lago. There, in the modern part of town, was an actual Co-op.
I managed to spend about twenty euros on shopping I didn’t need, and returned home, resisting the temptation to visit the delights of Castiglione’s beaches.
The day marked the end of my first week in Sant’Arcangelo, and I’d cooked dinner for myself six times. I thought I’d eat out. The pizzeria at the bottom of my road was called La Perla Negra, the black pearl, but didn’t seem to be pirate-themed. On the evening I’d missed the eclipse, I’d passed and only two tables had been occupied, one outdoors and one inside. I hadn’t checked out the menu, but I was cautiously optimistic. I was in Italy, after all.
From that crossroads, it’s only a couple of hundred metres down to the shore, and the camp and caravan site. I’d picked up that they had a restaurant on site and assumed it couldn’t be residents only. Then there was another bar-pizzeria on the main road, another signposted a little further on, and there was a really classy-looking establishment about a kilometre out of town.
But the convenient black pearl was first option. I walked down to the main road, turned left to go to the bank and ATM, and returned. Three tables were occupied. In the hour or so I was there, nobody else turned up. Unless custom picks up remarkably in higher season, the business must be marginal. A couple of hundred metres down the road, there were lots of holidaymakers in the camp site. Maybe campers like to eat in.
It was principally a pizzeria. Last Summer, I remember going out, feeling like a pizza (crispy round the edges) but being seduced by the non-pizza part of the menu. That didn’t happen this time, but pizza was OK. I ordered a cappriciosa, and enjoyed it. Good value, too. And just a short walk home.