Mountains of Umbria

In 2009, I got a very good deal on an off-season holiday apartment in the Italian national park of the Monti Sibillini. I didn’t know anything about the area, but it was too good an offer to miss. The apartment was in the converted farmhouse of Casale Carocci, high on a hill facing the mountain village of Preci.

Norcia panoramaMy first trip out in the car from Preci was something of an accident. Another of the national park villages is Visso, and without checking the map, I set out in the direction I guessed it would be in. I hadn’t driven through it on the previous day, so surely all I had to do was take the opposite road.

Well, no. I soon realised from the road signs that I was on the way to Norcia. But that was fine, since I’d intended to visit that town at some point anyway. It was less than twenty minutes away, along a wriggly mountain road, with excellent views of the historic walled town as I came over the final ridge, at about 1000 metres above sea level.

Norcia is known for a few individual characteristics. One is that it sits on a quite high, elevated plain at about 600 metres (2000 feet). Another is that the medieval city wall is still intact (and many of the medieval buildings within). But perhaps most famously, it’s the birthplace of St. Benedict, who founded the Benedictine monastic order, and of his twin sister, St. Scolastica, who didn’t.

NorciaScolastica and Benedict were very early Christian saints. According to the semi-mythical account of their lives, their parents were Roman pagans. The current basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia is said to be built over the twins’ original Roman house, and indeed, you can go down into the crypt and see obviously Roman remains, with opus reticulatum walling.

As it happened, my first visit was on Easter Monday, known as “Pasquetta” in Italy. Not being religious, I hadn’t thought about this in advance. It was late afternoon and there were no formal parades or anything of that sort (I’m sure they have them on Easter Sunday at least) but the town was full of well-dressed locals doing the “passeggiata”, the stroll where you show off your fine clothes and the fact that you have a beautiful boyfriend/girlfriend. It is compulsory to wear sunglasses on the head.

I returned to Norcia several imes over the next few weeks — partly because it had the nearest supermarket, a Co-op — and I never saw it so busy again. But it’s a nice town, welcoming to visitors without being touristy.

The thing which makes Norcia famous which I haven’t mentioned yet is the food. It is an important centre for salami, sausages and cured meats; to the extent that a shops all over Italy selling those products often label themselves as a “Norceria”. It seems as though about half the shops in town are in that market, and most of them have unfortunate wild boar, stuffed and mounted, standing guard outside. One of the delicacies, “mule’s balls”, is neither mule nor testicle. It’s just a small, spherical form of salami.

On my drive home, with the sun about to sink behind the mountains — still snow-capped (it was March) — I saw my first ever snow-bow, a rainbow made by light reflecting off the snow crystals. It was saying “come back soon”.

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