Sunday 17th June
The medieval fest in Bevagna was to have stuff going on all day, but I thought I’d go specifically for the medieval food. The competing teams had two types of rustic establishment, the “taverna” for snacks and the “locanda” for full meals. The programme said that they’d be open 17:00 – 19:00 and 21:00 – 23:00.
I should have learned my lesson about punctuality. When I arrived at about five, I was able to see the last few shots of the archery competition, which had been due to end by three. And there were no tavernas open (apart from ordinary, non-medieval, commercial ones).
Eventually one taverna started to serve sandwiches and that sort of thing. I got one on crusty bread with a genuine medieval ceramic cup of wine. The first bite into the bread broke off my temporary front tooth topping, leaving me disfigured.
I think that accident made me rather grumpy, so rather than wait and have more substantial food in Bevagna, I went home and cooked my own.
Monday 18th June
I followed a similar pattern: enjoying the bright morning, taking cover from the midday sun, and then later venturing out. This time it was to Trevi.
Trevi is a neighbour of Spello, and something similar, clinging to a steep hillside. But Trevi is a little more scruffy and unkempt than Spello, probably because the latter has a better developed civic pride, with a constant flow of initiatives, such as “best flower display on the steps of your house” competitions.
But I like Trevi. There were signs of refurbishment going on, both private and civic. I hoped that they didn’t overdo it.
After Trevi, I went to the big supermarket and bought some supplies, including superglue. Back home, I glued my errant fake tooth onto the real half, and it seemed to stick. It survived dinner anyway, which was a very unusual one in a way.
I’d never stayed anywhere in Italy previously where I had a working oven. Some tiny apartments simply don’t have them, with very basic cooking facilities in a “kitchen corner”, and some don’t have the electrical supply to power an oven anyway. But I had an oven, and used it to heat a supermarket frozen pizza. Just for a change.
Tuesday 19th June
I waited until after the midday peak in the heat before leaving for Orvieto. Even so, the car’s display showed forty degrees at one point. I’d managed to take a wrong turning by trying to second-guess the satnav, and took the longer main-road route rather than the shorter, more direct one.
At Orvieto, you can park for free in the ugly, modern part of town and get the funicular up to the old city above, or you can drive up and pay a modest parking fee in the large car park. I took the latter course.
I’d been to Orvieto a few times before, and had no particular objective. The frescoes in the cathedral are very famous, but you only need to see them once. I just wandered the town, and managed to find bits of it that I hadn’t seen before, as well as the parts that I knew.
One thing I did which I’d missed on previous visits was to go down St. Parick’s Well, il Pozzo di San Patrizio. It’s named after the one on St. Patrick’s island in Lough Derg which tradition claims to be bottomless. The one in Orvieto isn’t, but it’s pretty deep, and fitted with a double helix of staircases which were intended for small donkeys to carry barrels up and down.
Actually, in retrospect, the donkeys plan doesn’t seem that progressive. They had the technology to drill a big well through solid, if rather soft, rock (it was in the 1500s) but couldn’t come up with a barrel hoist, or a series of archimedes screws, or something else? (Brunelleschi had huge, ox-driven cranes for building the dome of Florence cathedral a hundred years before then.)
After St. Pat, I took to the roads for home, the direct roads this time. I’d considered a stop-off in Todi, but decided I was too tired for it and just drove home for dinner.
Wednesday 20th June
This was an official “do not drive madly off somewhere” day. I spent the whole day in the garden at home.
Looking down into the valley below — wheat fields, olive groves, vineyards, woods — I felt my chest go tight. Perhaps for the first time on this holiday, I was feeling the desperate longing to be in Italy always. I can’t explain it.
From a practical point of view, there’s a lot to be said for living up in the hills, in Summer anyway, with cooling breezes and probably a five degree temperature difference with the valley floor. Though from where I was staying, it was a fifteen-minute drive down to Bruna, the nearest shops, petrol stations and so on. It’s a trade-off.
I found that the bread I’d intended to use for dinner was already spotted with mould, another disadvantage of a warm climate, and had to improvise something different. But all was well in the end.
Thursday 21st June
I got up “early” at nine, and was able to depart before ten. This was to be my final big trip of the holiday in Umbria, and I’d had trouble deciding where to go: too many places I’d like to see and too little time. At first I’d considered Norcia to be too far, but when I checked out the actual distances with some route planning, I found that I could be there in little over an hour. I could even make the onward journey to Castelluccio.
I was very familiar with part of the route, from Spoleto to Cerreto, including the long tunnel through the mountain, from my stay in Preci for two months in 2009. I tried to guesstimate how many times I’d driven it back then. Probably a couple of times a week, given that Preci is quite remote and Spoleto marks the start of “civilization”.
Traffic was slow as far as Cerreto because of a big, foreign-registered, dual-trailer truck, although I did eventually get round him when my turn came, with a fully Italian suicide overtaking manoeuvre. Oddly (perhaps) when I returned down the same road later in the day, I was held up by another foreign heavy truck (I couldn’t make out the country of origin in either case). I couldn’t work out why there should be heavy transport traffic on such a twisty valley road in the mountains that doesn’t go anywhere significant. Maybe their satnavs are flawed, or perhaps there’s some scam going on.
I still got to Norcia before the midday heat, parked the car in a familiar spot, and entered the town through the Roman gate (fancifully reconstructed in the 1800s). When I’d stayed at Preci, Norcia’s Co-op, just outside the walls, was my nearest big supermarket, and I’d visited several times for shopping; and also just because I like the town. The architecture is quite distinctive — earthquake-proofed by thick, sloping walls on the ground floor — and the main piazza is very picturesque, with a relatively modern statue of San Benedotto in the middle, surrounded by the castle, the town hall and St. B’s basilica, and the mountains towering beyond.
It was to the mountains I was bound next, driving up twisty little roads stuck precariously to the hillsides. I get a distinct physical sensation of fear in such situations. There is a crash barrier, but beyond it a long, long drop. The road tops out on a high pass that must be about 2000 metres (I’ll check that), and then the incredible high plain of Castelluccio comes into view below. The altoplano is completely flat and mostly given over to agriculture, tiny Castelluccio being famous all over Italy for its lentils.
Rectangular fields define their form by the colour of the flowers growing in them, purple and yellow and red. The display of colour is better a little later in the season, say mid-July, but I was impressed enough. I had actually visited the town once before, even earlier, well out of tourist season and the snows still thick on the mountain, and had the inescapable feeling that there was something of the Wild West about it. There were even donkeys running loose in the main street.
No donkeys this time, just foreign and Italian tourists (quite a few bikers, and some obviously heroically determined cyclists). The place seemed scrubbed cleaner than I remembered it, although the tradition of writing epigrams on the walls of the buildings had been maintained. All the restaurants were doing good business, and there are quite a few for such a small place. I still got that Western feeling though. (There is a ‘Monti Sibillini Ranch’ on the valley floor where you can rent a horse and a cowboy hat. Honest.)
I drove onward from Castelluccio, up the hill and then twisting a long way down, to Visso. Visso is quite near to Foligno as the crow flies, which would have been a nice circular route taking me home, but when I consulted the map I found there was no reasonable way to drive it if you weren’t a crow. It meant I had to go back to Cerreto, via Preci, and back through the tunnel.
Friday 22nd June
With the long drive up to Lucca the following day, this was definitely one to take it easy. So I did. I only ventured away from home to put some petrol in the car and to buy a bottle of wine for dinner. That was my only visit to the supermarket in Bruna, and if it hadn’t happened that I’d bought enough when I was at the big one at Piazza Umbra, then this one would certainly have served my needs.
The only problem was that the wine was all too cheap. When you’re fairly ignorant, as I am, of all the multitudinous varieties of Italian wine, you can at least use price as a proxy for quality. It doesn’t always apply, of course, but it’s some kind of guideline. The Italian system of quality and regional labelling is even less useful.
The cheapest bottle was €0.99 and it was labelled DOC. The most expensive was a Brunello at €14.99 but I went for the second-most expensive, a very local Sagrantino di Montefalco at a reassuringly expensive €6.99.
When I got back it was late afternoon, and Michelle and Lewis very kindly invited me to partake of some antepasti and wine. That stretched out pleasantly quite a long time, so that it was almost nine o’clock before I was making my dinner: the last thing I had left in the fridge, a supermarket pizza. But I dressed it up a bit with some extra toppings, and I had the nice wine to go with it.
Saturday 23rd June
I took my leave, quite regretfully, at about eleven-thirty and hit the road. I’d decided on a direct, shorter but slower route than the motorway one recommended by Gooogle and TomTom. Well, less of it on motorways, because the first leg was up the familiar Flaminia route past Assisi and Perugia. I had selected Siena for a major break in the driving, at about two-thirds of the total distance, but after passing Perugia, I realised that a break at one third would put me at Passignano sul Trasimeno, giving me a chance to see the lake properly for the only time on this holiday. The previous year, I’d been based in Sant’Arcangelo on the southern shore.
I spent over an hour in Passignano. Stretched my legs and took some photos. Looked at the water. That sort of thing. Then I got back in the car and got back on the road.
For Siena, I’d tried to remember how to get to the underground car park called “Il Campo”, since it is just a stone’s throw from the town’s ancient piazza of that name. In the event, it was very well signposted. It’s expensive for parking, but the convenience and the coolness of the underground make it worth it for the occasional visit.
I didn’t have much time, but I did make a point of paying my way in to the town hall museum, mainly so that I could go up to the open loggia to enjoy the view. It’s my custom when I go to Siena.
In the town hall itself, there was a wedding and one room was filled with coloured ballons. I don’t know if those two facts are connected. Maybe not. The balloons could have been an art installation.
I bought a sandwich for late lunch, went and looked at the cathedral, watched the people in the Campo. The Palio was still over a week away, but the wooden barriers and some of the grandstand seats were in place. I don’t think I’d be interested enough to see the Palio as a “groundling”. A nice seat at the window of one of the overlooking palazzi and I’d consider it.
I left Siena on a direct-line route to Lucca, the latter part of which was on quite minor roads, but I was following instructions from the satnav. Sure enough, I eventually emerged onto the major route into Lucca and the hotel sits right on it. I’d picked it for ease of access and having a car park, although I could only afford an “economy” single room. The hotel people very kindly put me into an executive double instead.
The manager had also recommended a couple of restaurants in the city centre (about a ten-minute walk, or fifteen in the heat), and after taking a general wander round to check out the competition, I picked one of the recommended ones and had a very tasty dinner.