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Cooking In Umbria, Romance in Rome: A Trip Report.

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Oct 3rd, 2008, 08:01 AM
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Cooking In Umbria, Romance in Rome: A Trip Report.

We’re back from a successful trip to Italy, and as I’ve done with previous trips, please find the latest trip report of Eric & LaNita Hazard detailing our 10-day journey through Umbria and Rome.

I’m a bit wordy. The report will be posted in sections as they are completed. So sit back and enjoy. Feel free to ask questions along the way, I’ll try my best to answer them as they come up, though their may be answers in forth coming report sections.

Ok, housekeeping out of the way, let’s begin, and at what better place than at the beginning.

The first day of Italy began in the early hours of Sunday in the chaotic ring road of Rome. Being New Yorkers, we wanted to start this trip as far away from the city as we could get, and the rural roads of Umbria fit that bill perfectly. To get there though, we’d need to put ourselves behind the well of a five-speed, Italian subcompact Fiat. Sure the train runs to Assisi, but Assisi was not what we were looking for. Instead we were searching for a rural, forget-all-of-your-worries, hideaway. Thanks to Lonely Planet’s Tuscany and Umbria guidebook and Trip Advisor, we found what we were looking for in Alla Madonna del Piatto, the inn-cum-cooking school run by Letizia Mattiacci and her Dutch husband Ruurd de Jong, two entomologists who threw off a life of bugs to open this agiturismo, or farmhouse for those not versed in Italian hotelier lingo, in the hills above the pilgrimage site. A few e-mails, and a mailed deposit check to Letizia later, we were all confirmed.

To answer some basic questions that are asked about renting a car in Italy. The international driving permit is a waste of $15. The rental car counters could care less and if you are pulled over, Italian police officers are smart enough to figure out what address to mail the ticket to. As for insurance, we knew our American Express would not provide coverage in Italy, after reading through the very fine print on the insurance Web site. We ended up purchasing supplemental insurance through Hotwire when we rented the car. I think it ran us about $65, and provided up to $40,000 worth of coverage should I have crumbled our tin can on the Italian speedway. And yes, the drivers are as crazy as advertised. It is not so much that there is a blatant disregard for the rules of the road, it is just the sense of road etiquette is different than in the U.S. Close following of slower drivers is the norm and passes are executed within feet of your bumper on both ends. The speed limit in the left hand lane is merely a suggestion, while the right hand lane can be a gantlet of hard charging traffic entering the highway. In short, be ready to be terrified.

Navigation through Italy was done through a combination of resources. At home I purchase the Michelin road map of the Rome/Umbria/Tuscany region, which I marked with our main destination and key spots we may wish to stop at along the way. Supplementing this purchase, I logged onto viamichelin.com and printed out point-by-point driving directions to each of our main stops along the auto tour portion of our vacation (Rome to Assisi, Assisi to Civita, and Civita to Rome). These in turned were three-hole punched and shoved into the three-ring binder which would hold all of our confirmations, directions, suggestions, notes, etc. It is a system that has served me well for our trips.

But I digress; please allow me to return to our first experiences of Italy on the motorways of death around Rome and the first stretch of the A1. I was tired. Leaving JFK at 5:00 pm the previous day and arriving in Rome at 7:00 am the next morning lent itself to nary a moment of sleep on the flight. Like it or not, I’d have to drive around for a few hours as we made our way to Umbria for a 4:00 pm check in. This was the least fun of the trip.

Despite the drivers of Rome’s best attempts to eliminate me from the roadways, we made it around the Rome ring road and onto the A1 toward Florence. We’d spend about an hour making our way north before veering right to the Umbrian countryside. Forty-five minutes into the drive and the weariness crept in. What I needed was a jolt and what better place to find it than on the ubiquitious roadside gas and cafes along the way. We picked with the one represented by a fire-breathing demon.

To those unfortunate souls who find themselves on the small side of noon, jet-lagged, disoriented, and in need of caffeine on the Italian A1, here’s how the systems works at the road side cafes. First, line up at the register. Well, perhaps line up is not the best phrase to use in described how the Italians queue for caffeine. Rather, crowd, push, glare and sneak your way to the register and before the guy next to you has a chance, shout your order to the clerk. Dua cafés will buy you two motor oil thick espresso shots, so perhaps café Americano will be most familiar and fitting to your palate. Or cappuccino, if you are one that takes your milk with a bit of coffee.

Two espresso shots later, and like an Eddie Rabbit, we were shot up, jacked up and flying back down the highway on our way to Umbria. As I said before, I had made notations of a few places to stop on our way to Assisi. The first stop along the way would be the waterfalls at Marmore. After death defying driving through the barely signed streets of Terni, we found our way to the narrow, winding path to the cascading cataracts in the southern fringes of Umbria. We arrived early enough to find ample parking and a free flowing waterfall. The latter statement may seem a bit odd for those unfamiliar with the waterfalls, but the artificial Niagara is switched on and off during the day. It is best to arrive early for the full-on effect, and a nice effect at that, because the afternoon sees the spigot turned down to allow for rafting on the lower reaches, before it is cranked back up to satisfy the viewing habits of those in the later afternoon. For five euros apiece, we then took a couple walks through the waterfall park, finding a nice vista at the top of the falls, and some well-shaded paths with quieter streams in the lower fringes. This being a sunny Sunday in latest summer, we were joined by a gaggle of Italian families, which tended up slow the hike up the hill a bit. But otherwise, it was a pleasant detour.

Our location lent itself to back roads travel from the waterfalls to Assisi, where we would spend the next few days cooking, hiking, relaxing and photo taking in the picturesque setting of the medieval Italian hilltown. The back road drive was pleasant, scenic and an all together more enjoyable experience than the speed limit be damned A1. We took our time, seeing no reason to rush and enjoyed the clinging to the top of a hill towns which this region of Italy is famous for.

Assisi was not hard to find, but Alla Madonna del Piatto did not exactly have neon signs pointing to the check in desk. With help from the inns Web site, I had directions. But directions go only so far when you don’t really have road signs once you’ve arrived, so we made a few mistaken turns in our honest attempts to find Letizia’s house. For starters, we didn’t arrive directly from the A1 the road from Peurgia as suggested by the driving directions. Rather, we came at Assisi from the other approach, throwing the whole thing out of whack. Then, there is manner of trying to find the place even with the best laid plans.

The hills above Assisi are life done in second gear. Steep and narrow roads lend themselves to cautious driving. For a New Yorker, getting used to operating a clutch again can prove tricky, so it was no surprise when I smelled the tale-tell sign of burned clutch while ascending the wrong dirt road path up the main street.

Eventually we found the road to Pieve, as Letizia’s directions say; we passed the yellow building, and then the dirt road on the right hand side. A downshift into first gear, the laboring of the engines up the dirt road, squinting for numbers on a road with no name, then into reverse, and we found our way to Alla Madonna del Piatto, our home away from home for the next five nights.

And indeed, this place deserves the cliché too often subscribed to places that provide lodging rather than a hearth and a heart. From the moment we arrived, we were not simply staying at some hotel, or even something as anonymous as a bed & breakfast, we were staying at Letizia’s, as the inn would soon be referred to by us. It was like staying at someone’s home in every sense of the word. Need a glass? Feel free to use on from the pantry. Have something you’d like to store in the fridge? No problem, we’ll make room. Need anything, just ring the buzzer.

We opted for room Number One, having our choice between that one and a room on the upper floor with a bit better view. Rather, we like the history of the 500 year old tower-turned-living space and the timber beam ceiling. It reminded us fondly of a converted monastery we stayed in a few years back in Antigua, Guatemala, which to date is the most relaxed we’ve ever been on vacation. Who wouldn’t want to recreate such a feeling?

All checked in, unpacked, settled in and breathing easier after the first part of the trip on the road, it was time for us to think about getting something to eat. Rather than a dinner at a restaurant, we opted for nibbles from the local terroir. We were tired, and knew a bottle of wine would most likely do us in. Thus, we wanted to remain close to home. Plus the view is, in a word, outstanding, so why not watch the sun descend in the western sky as we nibble on pecorino cheese, local salamis while sipping native vino.

To satisfy these cravings, we wound our way back down the hill, through the southern end of Assisi into the bedroom community of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Anyone staying in Assisi for any length of time beyond a package bus tour will no doubt find themselves in this pleasant little town. There is a large cathedral of some importance to Catholics and services such as a supermarket and internet café. We would get to all of this soon enough but for tonight we were interested in a few vittles to tide us through the first evening. One half of our hosting duo suggested Terra Umbria in Santa Maria. We found this little shop without too much difficult on the main drag, where we purchased a representative sampling of local food stuffs. A thirty minute drive back up the hilly terrain, pop the cork, slice the cheese, oh and ah, and that was the first night.

The trick of us to beat jet lag is to try and outrun it. Stay up to a reasonable hour the night of our new location and sleep through until the morning. The idea is to get a good night’s sleep, which slingshots you into the next day, and the rest of the trip. This trip put that theory to the ultimate test. Normally, we arrive in our destination at a reasonable hour in the afternoon and have only a few hours to survive until the early evening. This time, we had essentially 8 hours to fill before we could check in, and then a few more before it would have been acceptable to go to sleep. Thank goodness for second winds, and third, and fourth. We made it, but it wasn’t easy. Thus, after arriving at Letizia’s, we managed to make it until 7:30 and slept right on through to the next morning.

Installment number 2 coming on Monday.
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Oct 3rd, 2008, 08:25 AM
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Hi travelbear. Always enjoy your reports! Could I please suggest that this time you keep them in a single thread? It is easier to follow and read in the appropriate sequence. I will read along anyhow you decide to post.
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Oct 3rd, 2008, 01:13 PM
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Yes, please keep it all on one thread. Looking forward to more.
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Oct 3rd, 2008, 05:03 PM
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Hello travelbear, I am so enjoying your report. Driving after the over the pond flight is difficult. How lovely you so enjoyed the inn you had reserved. It sounds lovely. Having stayed at similar out of the way places in Italy where one is immediatly made to feel at home I sure understand your delight with your lodging.

I would like to comment however as in that the Italian law requires one to have a International Driving Permit imo opinion the $15.00 fee to acquire one is not a waste of money. If for any reason you are stopped by the police or involved in any accident having the IDP plus of course one's own US states driver license makes one in compliance with the Italian law.

Looking forward to your next installment!
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Oct 3rd, 2008, 06:06 PM
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LoveItaly,

Mea culpa! I didn't realize the IDP was required by Italian law, so please strike earlier comments to the contrary. Our experience in France the year before was it was not necessary, and again this year in Italy. But the experience is only based on who asked, and/or requested proof.

As to your other question, this was our first trip to Italy, so we have not stayed at any other out of the way places on The Boot. We have stayed at similar places in France, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Armenia, Thailand, and throught the US. We tend to seek these kind of locales out when traveling.

Thanks for reading. More to come next week (and I'll post in the same thread, so folks don't have to search all over for the continuation).
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Oct 3rd, 2008, 11:35 PM
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Hello travelbear, yes adding all your installments to this thread you started is a good idea as that way we can all follow your journey and adventures.

Well I am glad that I mentioned the Italian law regarding the International Driving Permit. I almost didn't but thought it would be a good idea to do so for others that plan to drive in Italy. Italy and Austria law requires the International Driving Permit. I do not know about the other European Countries however. But my opinion is (based on other people's experiences) is that even if one is driving in an European country that does not require the IDP it is still a good idea because as you know the IDP translates ones driver's license information into something like 15 languages so if one does have an encounter with law enforcement for whatever reason it makes the sitution a bit "easier" so to speak.

I so enjoy your style of writing travelbear, and your style of travelling and consequently look forward to reading more when you have time to post! Best regards.
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Oct 4th, 2008, 02:56 AM
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Thanks. Looking forward to future installments.
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Oct 4th, 2008, 03:09 AM
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What a terrific writing style and a very informative first installment. I can't wait to read installment #2 on Monday.
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Oct 6th, 2008, 04:43 AM
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Saint Frank

Why Umbria? This seems to be the most common question we received from our well traveled friends and folks who are kept abreast of our vacationing habits. The short answer is because it wasn’t Tuscany, which is where I thought I wanted to see originally. But, the more I read about the Sienna, the less I wanted to see it. Assisi seemed to be a bit more off the well traveled path, plus the photos of Umbria were beautiful, and I enjoyed reading about the outdoors opportunities in Mount Sibillini national park. Lonely Planet then sealed the deal for us, after reading about the agiturismos in the area, generally, and Letizia’s place specifically.

One restful, jet-lagging combating night of sleep behind us, and I could see this was the place for us; quiet and comfortable, with just the right mix of folks who like to meet other folks. Our inaugural breakfast provided us an opportunity to meet some of our fellow travelers. With us were Zeke and Halley, an Earthy couple from Maine, Cecil and Donna, the semi-retired folks from Fresno on a six week grand tour of The Boot, Jennifer from Seattle traveling with her mother from Berkeley, who was scouting out possible living arrangements in the area.

Letizia’s feed a communal atmosphere of sharing, and experience. Where are you headed? Where have you been? Any recommendations in Rome? Florence? Orvieto? These were the questions which fueled our conversations, oiled by the flavorful café mocha flowing from the kitchen and fresh bread and granola on the table every morning.

As well planned as this trip was, I hadn’t counted on how tired we’d feel after a 36-hour no-snooze fest. So with our first full day, our ambitious schedule was dialed down a notch. Gone were grand dreams of a 10 kilometer hike through Mount Sibillini national park, or even a hike up the face of Mount Subiaso lurking behind Assisi. Rather, we took this day to be a day of rest and headed for a relaxing stroll through Assisi, famously the former home of a guy named Francis who decided all his wealth would be better distributed to those less fortunate than him. You may have heard of him.

Please allow me up front to offer a little more color about LaNita and me. We are not Catholic. We both grew up in Protestant households. The stories I know of the saints come vis-à-vis a childhood in South Texas, something like, if you loose your baseball glove, pray to Saint Christopher and he’ll help you find it. Or I suppose you could just pray to Saint Nick and he’ll bring you a new one. LaNita grew up in an even more Protestant religion. Thus, when I show indifference toward certain Catholic religious icons or figures, I mean no disrespect; it is perhaps that they mean less to us than someone of the faith.

So here we are in the town of deep religious importance to those of the Catholic faith and we are left to say…well this is nice, but it isn’t great. Let’s face it, if you are going to travel all the way to Assisi, you’re going to go into the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Catholic or not. The same way you go to Notre Dame in Paris, or Westminster Abbey in London, mostly because it is there.

The problem, perhaps problem is a bit harsh, so rather the difficulty, is that unlike Paris, or London, Assisi doesn’t really have a place to put all the people who travel there to see the Basilica. They motor in on a bus, get dumped off at the front steps and just kind of linger there. After lingering, they then crowd into the church, where they are struck by a momentary dumbness about things like no photos, and silence. Thus, all the monks are left to “sssshhhhhh!” the crowd and repeat “Silence!” and “No photos!” every 30 seconds or so, when the next Babel Tower of language barges through door. Not really my idea of enjoyment.

Like I said before, perhaps if we were Catholic we would have enjoyed the Basilica more, but to us, it was too crowded, too noisy and not very respectful. Please, don’t take this as an indictment on the whole town. Once you get past the bused-in crush around the Basilica, Assisi turns into a peaceful, quiet little town. And we like peace and quiet. We started at the top of town, and wandered our way through the little back streets, finding a stop for coffee along the way and some adorable photos which needed taking. After our rush through the church we headed to the top of town, to explore the Rocca Maggiore castle, the highlight of the town for me. A five euro entrance fee per person allowed us unfettered access to the ruin, with fantastic 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside. While we may have spent 30 minutes in the Basilica, we spent a solid two hours poking our noses in the nooks and crannies of the fortifications. My inner 10 year old really enjoyed running through the darkened rampart to climb the hexagonal tower on the north end of the compound, while LaNita enjoyed the history and peace of the place. Gone were the crowds.

So what is my summation of Assisi? We found it to be a bit too crowded for our tastes and at the end of the day, there is a certain sameness about it. Is it an adorable hill top town with a rich history? Yes, absolutely. But you know what, so is just about every other town, on a hill, in Europe. After trips to a lot of these towns over the years, the stories and the history begin to run together.

Sorry if I sound a bit jaded. We knew this on the outset, and so this trip was less about seeing these little towns and more about different experiences. Cooking classes and hikes were more in order. And we’d get to those soon enough, today was our recharge and reorient day. A full day in the town, and we made our way pack up the corkscrew road to the inn.

If our experience during the morning was ubiquitous, we made up for it that night at dinner. Staying at Letizia’s is a bit like living on the sixth floor of a walk-up building. By the time you get up there, you better have some place to go if you plan on leaving. So, when it came time for dinner there are really two options in the immediate area. The kitchen at the bed & breakfast down the road or the restaurant down the other side of the hill known simply as “the farmhouse,” the directions to which are given like this:

Drive down the dirt road until you come to the pavement. Make a right, and drive for about five kilometers. You will see two buildings facing each other that look identical. The restaurant is in the building on the right.

Really? How can you go long with a place like that? If we need any other assurances, they were given to us by Zeke and Halley, the couple from Maine we met that morning. They had gone the night before, and stumbled into a local wedding. After some deliberations between the kitchen staff and the wedding staff, which I took to be mutually inclusive, they were allowed to stay. And they said the dinner was worth the effort.

So we were off around 7:30 and believe it or not, managed to find the place exactly were the direction said it would be. As we pulled up, the quiet place sprang to life, with the local youth stopping in for a few drinks, and shortly the table of locals and the owner were to join us for dinner as well. In no time, the quiet restaurant we arrived to was filled with life.

For dinner we started with a pecorino and pear antipasto, followed by a tortellini in broth, and entrees of scaloppini and lamb. Dessert was a tiramisu I have seen heard described as “to die for” and “the best I’ve ever had,” depending on which dreamy-eyed diner tells the story. Washing dinner down was a litter for local red wine. Total bill: 50 euro. So, if anyone happens to be in the area, it is highly recommending stopping by for dinner at this place one night. It sits in the town of Valfabbrica, in the building on the right.

Back to Letizia’s and another quiet night in the hills high above Assisi. We needed to rest up, for tomorrow would be a hands-on experience in Letizia’s kitchen.

In the meantime, if you promise not to jump ahead, here are a few photos of Alla Madonna del Piatto, aka Letizia’s.

http://picasaweb.google.com/erichaza...September2008#

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Oct 7th, 2008, 05:09 AM
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Num…num…

Lonely Planet told us one of the big draws to staying at Letizia’s was to partake in her cooking classes. So did a write up in Food & Wine magazine. Classes are taught on Tuesday and Thursday, only, so when I initially started e-mailing with Letizia, I ended up extending our stay by one day to sign up for two classes. She agreed the courses would be different enough. At 110 euros per person, per class, they are not exactly cheap, but we considered the experience, the recipes and the knowledge we’d bring back to be part of our souvenir buying budget. Some folks purchase knick-knacks for their walls, on this trip, we purchased souvenirs for our stomachs. Upon returning to New York, I claimed exactly $40 worth of purchases: chocolates and olive oil.

We signed up for two cooking classes; today’s installment is an amalgamation of the two separate and distinct experiences. Letizia did a good job of mixing up the curriculum for us. The first course was focused on pasta, while the second course we worked on two vegetable dishes and a saltimbocca, little pork cutlets with sage. Both classes began off site, one day at Terra Umbria in Santa Maria, where we sampled local cheeses, olive oils and salamis. The second tasting was exclusively for LaNita and I at a small store in Assisi. This time we focused on chocolates, wines and coffees, only to rejoin the main group later back at Letizia’s.

The courses are taught in small batches of about six people. This provides everyone a chance to get their hands dirty. Both times we had a great mix of people, from mother daughter teams on Italian heritage tours, to retired couples, to a 10-year old boy in the class with his mom.

Letizia focuses on class on making traditional Italian cooking simple. As she will tell you, she likes gadgets, and gadgets when properly used can make the kitchen experience so much better, so why not take advantage of modern convenience. Pasta dough is prepared in food processor, and then rolled out with a hand-cranked pasta maker. The end result is simple, good pasta. Since returning, LaNita and I whipped up a batch of fresh pasta based on her recipe, and were pleased with the result.

The cooking classes are about the lessons, here are some of the key points we picked up on:
• There’s no such thing as Italian seasoning. Pick on herb and tear it into the food before serving. Note, my Italian friends in New York don’t see anything inherently wrong with using two herbs, but everyone can agree that the idea of Italian seasoning is an abomination.
• Who would’ve ever thought to cook potatoes in a salt crust? They come out deliciously stemmed.
• Pannacotta is my new favorite Italian dessert. Simple to prepare with a result that will wow your dinner crowd. Try it with a sour cherry topping for a nice mix of tart and sweet to compliment the creamy flavors.
• Traditional Italian cooking does not have to be complicated.

Perhaps the best result the class is the end result: the food. Having spent the better half of the day in the kitchen, it stands to reason there would be a meal awaiting us on the flip side and sure enough there was. As we were working on the latter half of the preparation, Letizia arranged for a helper to arrive and begin the set up. During our first cooking course, Letizia’s help set out the local cheeses and meats we had sampled at Terra Umbria and we slowly found our way to the dinning room to begin the first courses as the pasta quickly cooked. Then settled into our chairs, the various preparations of pasta were brought to us, wine was poured and eventually dinner was served.

How’d we do? Magnificent! The pasta was the best we would have on our entire Italian trip. Before our trip and class, I’m not sure I could have identified Umbrian pasta versus a non-Umbrian variety, but I could see how the local noodles tended to be thicker than what we in the States are used to eating. The distinction was particularly easy to see compared to the more traditional fettuccine noodles she prepared to the satisfaction of the American palates.

As for the second class, the saltimboccas we prepared on the second cooking class were out of this world. Overall, I couldn’t point to a single food item we cooked that I didn’t enjoy. Pannacotta was the perfect mix of creamy and sweet with just the right helping of sour cherry topics, while the crustada was the toast of Umbria. Aside from the tiramisu we had at the restaurant down the street, the crustada we prepared was our favorite dessert of the trip.

After the first meal, heavy on the pasta, lubricated with local red wine, I was in need of a stroll to help the digestion process. We decided to wander down the dirt road in front of Letizia’s to see what lies on the other side of the hill. The hillside was quiet, save for the clanging of the sheep bells in the distance, and the sun set peaceful in bright hues of oranges, magentas and purples. After about a kilometer, we found our previously unpaved road soon to be topped with asphalt. I’d like to report what was beyond this discover, by cannot, as the sheep dogs were there to meet us, and notify us in no uncertain terms that we were suddenly encroaching on their flock.

Seeing no need to tussle with the canine protectors, we ambled back to the cozy confines of our room, taking in the fleeting sunset, anticipating another bottle of whatever red I had picked up at the supermarket, and getting ready for a change of pace. Gone would be the lazy first few days. Tomorrow we were tackling the mountains.

And for those of you interested in the photographic record of our cooking classes, those pictures are here:

http://picasaweb.google.com/erichaza...September2008#
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Oct 7th, 2008, 05:42 AM
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This is a wonderful report! I almost feel as if I'm in the class with you. We are headed to Turkey come February and are considering a cooking class in Istanbul...after reading this report I think we may have to go for it.

Umbria is beautiful. We loved Assisi, but we were there in March and crowds were, luckily, nonexistant.

Thanks for sharing!
Tracy
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Oct 7th, 2008, 07:37 AM
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Hello travelbear, I love your photos! And the food, oh the photos make me wish I was having dinner in Italy tonight. And some good Italian wine too of course. Thank you for sharing your adventure in cooking. Everyone looks so happy and relaxed.
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Oct 7th, 2008, 09:11 AM
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sac
 
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Nice report, Eric! And great photos.

I'm also a big fan of Letizia's (and I see you got a shot of Google, the family dog, and a glass of Letizia's home-made limoncello!)
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Oct 7th, 2008, 05:26 PM
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Thanks sac for the kinds words. I was proud of the way the photos of the cooking classes came out. It was just the right combination light diffusion, and the right lens on the camera (85 mm f/4.0). I gave Letizia copies of my photos before I left and I think they may find their way to her Web site in the near future. We'll see.

Again, I cannot offer a high enough recommendation for Alla Madonna del Piatto. This was the best 85 euros a night we spent on the entire trip. Anyone looking for an agiturismo in Umbria should give this inn high consideration.

I'm working on the next installment now. Check back soon.
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Oct 8th, 2008, 03:47 AM
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Wonderful report! Thanks for the amazing pictures. The cooking class certainly looks as something I might want to add to our trip in May.

I must apologize as I had you confused with ExplorerBear who does his reports on individual threads which get a bit troublesome to read.

Please continue....
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Oct 8th, 2008, 05:16 AM
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Marigross, High, high recommendation for the cooking class. Great experience and an incredible setting.

Anyway, onward and upward as they say....

Ribbon Roads Through the Mountains

Before I dazzle you with tales of Italy’s own purple mountain majesties I have a, I’m-sure-it’s-happened-to-everyone, tale from the road. Sometimes it is the little stories that make travel fun. Here’s one of those.

It came that time in the trip when I had to do my best to figure out the refueling situation. So I pulled into the gas station represented by the fire-breathing demon (as an aside there is no greater gas station logo in the world that Agip’s) to pour some petrol into the belly of our Fiat.

Come to find out, our five-speed gas can with wheels came equipped with a locking gas cap. Why? Not really sure.

Perhaps the more important question to ask is, how, because I couldn’t quite figure it out. It wasn’t as simple as turn clockwise, with the key inserted. Nope, instead, I had to put the key in one way while turning the cap the other way. This took me a few minutes to get the hang of it, all the while my fat fingers are punching all the door unlock, trunk opening, horn honking buttons on the key fob, creating a circus cacophony of noise and lights at the gas station.

Ok, gas cap is off. Diesel pump is on. Nozzle is inserted. But the pump wouldn’t just pump gas directly into the tank. If I depressed the handle all the way, it would immediately click to a stop. Rather, I had to squeeze the handle just so, while simultaneously holding the nozzle about 1/8 of an inch out of all the way, taking me a really long time to pump a full tank of gas.

But I got there eventually. Time to put the gas cap back on, should be easy enough. Nope. Again, something to do with turning the key before the cap is on the car, then turning the cap a certain way.

Mind you, this whole spectacle has taken at least 20 minutes. Seeing me struggle putting the cap back on, the attendant finally had enough. Something around my tenth try at putting the cap on and locking it into the car, again with lights and horns going off, I feel a tap on my shoulder, only to turn around and see a disgruntled Italian gas station attending motioning me in the international language of frustration to hand over the gas cap. With one fluid motion of key and cap he had it back on the car and I was on my way. No doubt, on Fodor’s Italia there the tale of the idiot New Yorkers who could figure out how to put gas in the car. At least I wasn’t wearing a sweat suit and fanny pack.

Gassed up, we resumed our journey. Today would take us about an hour and a half southeast from Letizia’s in the Mount Sibillini National Park—Monti Sibillini as it is spelled in the linga Italiano. A mountainous park where one doesn’t expect to find a mountain park. Mountains this soaring, this beautiful, this majestic and this remote are only in the Alps, right? They surely aren’t a two hour drive away from Rome.

If that is your thought of mountain parks in Europe, you are wrong. Don’t feel bad, I had some ideas that were very similar until I began doing my research for this trip. As I said in a previous post, initially I thought our trip would be Tuscany, but the more I read about Umbria, the more I loved the thought of a holiday here. Soaring mountains, cascading waterfalls, ancient towns, wonderful food and the same distance from either Rome or Florence. I don’t understand how this area remains as unpopulated as it does. But for at least this one moment, I’m glad that it is.

When we travel, we like to do at least one big day hike. The exercise is always welcomed after a few days of feeding our fat faces, and let’s face it, sometimes to see the cool stuff you have to wander off the pavement. Today, I decided on a hike through the Piano Grande region. This is a large grassy plain carved out by a glacier and surrounded by impossibly high mountain peaks of the Northern Apennines. We learned of this hike through the book 50 Hikes In and Around Tuscany by Jeff Taylor. When describing the hike we were to take today, he said it reminded him of the Brooks Range in Alaska, rather than a mountain range in the middle of Italy. He was some smitten by the beauty of Mount Sibillini; he devoted a number of hikes to this park alone, vowing to return again soon in the near future. He was far from alone in heaping mounds of praise on the mountains park. Lonely Planet put it thusly: “This area is really, really, really beautiful. Really. Go.”

The base of the hike is Rifugio Perugia neatly placed on the road between Norcia and Castelluccio. Not that road signs will do you much good here, as there isn’t room for them on the mountainside, but to reach this road, take the SS685 out of Norcia for about 5 kilometers. You’ll see a turn-off for Castelluccio. Then head straight up.

Even if you are not the walking type, the drive on this road is worth a trip. Imagine all those cool car commercials where a little ribbon of asphalt is sliced in the rock. In the foggy scene, a sleek car emerges. An announcer's voice comes on “The new Car 1000 is so advanced, it can sense the road before it turns.” Cue the racing sound of an engine. Maybe a downshift now. There’s a seductress in the passenger seat giving the camera a certain stare. Her hands grip the side of the leather seat ever more tightly as the engine revs higher and higher around ever bend. Cut to vapor rising off the road as the only evidence of a car having been there.

Yeah, it’s one of those roads. And it’s in Italy. Is there anything cooler?

Now imagine how incredible the hike was.

For those of you who are so motivated by my prose as to strike out and look for the trailhead, a few words of advice. In all of the hairpined, barely guardrailed, narrower than politician’s mind, turns on this sliver of pavement stapled onto the mountainside one may begin to wonder if you already passed Rifugio Perugia. Italy is not exactly known as the best signed country in the world, so it may enter your mind that the base camp has passed. But believe me when I tell you couldn’t miss Rifugio Perugia if you tried. Just when you think the views can’t get any more stunning, just when you think your car can’t possible climb any higher, you emerge on a treeless landscape crowned by a cattle pasture. On your left, in gigantic façade lettering is Rifugio Perugia. Park your car in the back and start the walk.

Our hike was 11 kilometers round trip, about 7 miles. We figured on five hours for the trek, and packed a day pack accordingly, filled with fruit, nuts, plenty of water and a treat for the end. This being the end of September, it was a wee bit nippy up on the summit. We were both dressed in a couple layers and were plenty comfortable.

Following the red and white blazes from Rifugio Perugia, proved to be tricky at first. The instinct is to walk across the cattle pasture on the only distinguishable trail you see. Rather, walk up the road about 300 meters and you’ll see a large trail descending from the mountain top toward your left. Our walk took us to the right.

After a kilometer or so the trail leads right to a ski resort, Most of the next kilometer of so of the walk is through the off-season ski trails. Only instead of two-planked speed demons, we were joined by a herd of sheep and a couple guys thinning the trees ahead of the first snow fall. After a mostly level first half of the walk, the trail switchbacks down onto the floor of the Piano Grande.

And it is grand. Really grand. As deer raced through the alpine meadow, and hawks soared above, we realized how remote we were. When I’m telling you there was no one around, I mean no one. Not a soul. We had God’s cathedral all to ourselves, save for a few flocks of sheep and one lonely paraglider at the end. This entire glacial expanse was ours for the taking. For about four kilometers, the trail meanders along the grassy alpine floor of the valley, eventually connecting to a large circuitous route around the entire mountain park. Our hike ended at a grassy hill, which Taylor said in his book, is just begging to be scaled. We faced this hill to sit atop with the mountains to keep us company. An hour of soaking it all in, and we were went back the way we came.

As is the case with most long hikes, it definitely seemed like it was uphill both directions, but upon further review I realized we started mostly at the summit had more down than up on the way to the valley. This led to a slightly exhausting trek back to the car. Gone was the flock of sheep, but the cattle were there to greet us, complete with the clang-clang of their alpine bells. What a great trip.

The skies grew ominous as we finished the hike, so rather than drive over the other side of the ridge toward Castelluccio; we instead wound our way back down the spiral pasta road of the mountain, through Norcia and back to Assisi. As we reached the halfway point of the descent, we broke free of clouds, giving us a beautiful view of the valley floor below, with a ceiling of cloud shield the mountain peaks above.

And to see why God gave us wide angle lens, take a look at the photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/erichaza...September2008#

That evening, we opted to stay in for a “cleansing” meal, read: we wanted to put some greens into our system. The day before, we had found the grocery store in Santa Maria and stocked up on easy to assemble salad items: bag lettuce, tomatoes, vinegar, oil, and walnuts. Combined with the local cheeses and salamis from the first night, and the ubiquitous bottle of wine, we were all set. It provided a nice refresher meal in the land of cured pork products, and it helps us save money. Some folks may find this hard to believe, but we were able to stay on a budget of $100 per day throughout the trip. Most places we stayed offered breakfast, and we could get a quick lunch on most any street corner. That left only dinner. Some nights we’d go out. If we exceed the budget, we’d do a simple bread/wine/cheese/salad dinner the next night. This was one of those spending buffer days which allowed us to enjoy nice meals in Rome later in the trip.

Is there any greater feeling in the world that settling down in a comfy, just cool enough room after a long days hike and the shower that comes after? Not for us. Tonight would be our last night at Letizia’s and in Umbria. But we done what we set out to do, and we did it right. Umbria is incredible. Go. Just go.

Now, to see what sits between us and Roma.
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Oct 9th, 2008, 05:15 AM
  #17
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Orvieto and the Dying Town

For those folks planning on staying at Letizia’s (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t) please note, you’ll need to have cash on hand. She doesn’t accept credit cards. We were prepared. That morning we handed Letizia a wad of well traveled bills and made our way to Orvieto.

I had deliberated whether or not we should stop here. On the one had, there was much to be said about the town’s location, and its large cathedral received rave reviews. But, I also read about large tourists crowds, owing to its proximity to the A1 and I just didn’t know if I had the wherewithal to endures hordes of flash-popping, tourists in a town really too small to hold them.

LaNita convinced me we should go to the see the town. It was smack dab in the middle of our route and we heard so many great things about Luca Signorelli’s fresco cycle The Last Judgment, located in a chapel attached to the main cathedral.

Orvieto is easy enough to find and it took us about an hour and a half to reach the town proper from Letizia’s. Once there, we parked in the first signed parking lot we came to and ascended a series of subterranean escalators until we reached the town situated on the tuffa rock plateau above. Turns out, we were in a pay parking lot. Apparently there is free parking if we had continued to the town. Oh well, I think we spent 2 euros or so, not that big a deal.

Much to my surprise, we found a town not overrun at all, but surprisingly quiet and really enjoyable. The cathedral, generally, is interesting and Signorelli’s frescos, specifically, are awe inspiring. The guidebooks like to draw a comparison between this work and the Sistine Chapel. Having seen both, I enjoyed Signorelli’s work immensely more. One reason owes to the peace and tranquility of the chapel and the other is the sheer artistic force of the work.

In addition to access to the chapel, our admission ticket also got us into the onsite Papal museums. I’m glad we didn’t pay extra for this. The museum felt more like rummaging through your grandparents trunk of old knick-knacks, rather than a curated display of artifacts.

The rest of our time in the town we spent walking along the rampart walls, taking in the nice scenery, enjoying a leisurely pizza lunch and noting how, yet again, we managed to find a town “known for its ceramics.” This has become an inside joke for LaNita and I, as we think “known for its ceramics” is international lingua for “tourist trap.” More than 30 countries visited, and amazingly, every single one of these has a town, or district, “known for its ceramics” or even better “internationally known for its ceramics.” I mean, if you’re going to be known for something, why not footstools? Look what that recognition has done for Blaine, Missouri. But enough of that, let’s carry on.

The whole reason we found ourselves in the western fringes of Umbria was an intriguing report I read from Rick Steves about a town on the verge of death: Civita di Bagnoregio. Steves had a lot of great things to say about the town and its inhabitants, all 14 of them, and suggested it would make a wonderful place to stop and see if you are in to that sort of thing.

Over the past five years or so, LaNita and I have found our way to the some really remote locations (here’s an example, Google Khor Virap, Armenia); one thing we love is remote. So, Civita was on the list. If it was remote we were looking for, it was remote we found. Tethered to the world by a narrow bridge, Civita sits defiantly above the crumbling volcanic rock which surrounds it. From a distance, it would appear almost impossible that this little town would have ever sprung up. But a reading of his history reveals a long, intriguing story of rushing against the forces of nature. The Etruscans lost the battle, as did the Romans, as did subsequent civilizations. If it is not erosion, it is an earthquake, something always seems to get the best of Civita. Despite the hardships, the town was always rebuilt. Until the most recent, devastating plague: convenience of modern life. Today the residents are the hard-core old timers, or folks with weekend places from the city. I wouldn’t say it is dying. But it’s definitely in need of a blood transfusion.

Being about an hour from Rome, and close to Orvieto, it is not that it is geographically remote; more it is spiritually removed from the mass-tourist infested Italy so many once charming towns have become. Civita is the Italian hilltop town in Godfather Part I, preserved in amber and wrapped in prosciutto. You know the one. Mike, in exile in Sicily after revenging his brother’s death, is walking through Sicily with his two companions. There ahead of them is Corleone, the name sake of Mike’s family. This being a hot day, they stop by for a drink, and make chit chat with the bar keep about the local town women. Unbeknownst to our wayward tourists, have insulted the owner by referencing his daughter. He threatens to kill them all before Mike coolly, calmly takes control of the scene, making a request to court his daughter in the traditional Italian ways.

That scene etched into my mind, walking through the lonely streets of Civita, I couldn’t suppress whistling the first few bars of “Speak Softly Love.”

Fortunately that is where the similarities end. There were no horse heads, car bombs, or Sicilian messages. But, that town, dying, perched on a cliff, seemingly a part of the world that no longer exists. That’s Civita.

When you are in a town of 14 people, balanced on a pinhead of rock in the middle of volcanic badlands, there isn’t much to do, so you are left to explore, quite literally, ever nook and cranny. Civita is blessed with lots of interesting tid bits around town, including the home of Saint Bonaventure, the original, not the school of the same name which plays A-10 hoops. We also enjoyed tasting locally pressed olive oil besides a fire warming the elderly backside of 14% of the population and poking our head into the most authentic looking knick-knack shop you are likely to find.

LaNita observed that even though the total population could be counted on one’s fingers and toes, the homes looked really well maintained. Indeed, the town feels more lived in than its remoteness and lack of services would suggest. It is a very interesting experience one definitely worth a stop over if you are traveling between Rome and Orvieto.

For those planning on staying in Civita, you have exactly one option: the Civita Bed & Breakfast. I’ve read there are three rooms available here, but I think one room is served for staff, leaving only two rooms really available for the night. We had no trouble booking a stay through the Web site.

At 68 euros a night, it is more affordable than places in nearby Orvieto, but it is definitely down in the heels. The room basically looks like the illegitimate love child of a wild affair between the worst parts of 1980s and 1970s interior design. LaNita flat out refused to take a shower there, deciding to wait it out until Rome. But the view down on the square is lovely and the door locks, so it fit the bill for one evening. And if you are going to Civita, one evening is more than enough time.

With two guest rooms in the inn, and really only one restaurant, dinner is served at whatever time you want it to be served. So we ate at 7:30. That evening we had a discussion that was much better than the meal with the other couple staying the night: Sol and Lara. The wine flowed freely and frequently, to the point where the kitchen and hotel staff, and by staff I mean both of them, gave up waiting, changed into their pajamas and asked us to lock the front door before we turned in for the night. It may have been because I had A LOT of wine that evening, but I don’t remember having any trouble sleeping in the room.

The next day we’d have the complete opposite experience. We’d be in Rome.

Of course there are photos, first my Umbrian collection:

http://picasaweb.google.com/erichaza...September2008#

Next, Civita:

http://picasaweb.google.com/erichaza...September2008#
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Oct 9th, 2008, 06:06 AM
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Still loving your report!

Okay, I must ask two questions. First, I've seen the bear turn up in several pictures so I'm assuming there is a story there. Would love to hear it!

Second, I am intrigued by your trip to Armenia and curious what your overall thoughts were? This is a country I would love to visit one day, and definitely doesn't get much mention on this board.

Keep up the good story...anxiously awaiting the rest!

Tracy
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Oct 9th, 2008, 06:12 AM
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Eric, I really enjoyed this installment. I have Civita on my list for our next trip and was very interested in reading your details of it. Great pics too, thanks.
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Oct 9th, 2008, 06:21 AM
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This is a great report! I love the cooking class photos,look forward to reading more.
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