Sunday, June 28, 2009


Just over the Tuscan border lies Umbria, a region of hilly countryside settled by the Etruscans long before Romulus and Remus suckled at the teats of the she-wolf. The region is bordered by Tuscany to the west and la Marche to the east, and locals hunt the hills for wild boars and delicious mushrooms. They also grow grapes, which are made into world famous wines.

Asissi is an Umbrian town famous for St. Francis, a monk who challenged the materialism of the all powerful church and founded an order of monks known for their vow of poverty. The 12th century mystic is perhaps the most beloved of the Catholic saints and visitors come from around the world to pay their respects.

We stayed in at an Umbrian agriturismo. "Agriturismo" is an Italian term for "agricultural tourism," or what we might call a farm holiday, where rooms are provided for travelers as a way to help family farms survive. We stayed in a cabin on the farm overlooking the vineyards. It wasn't as rustic as you might think--we didn't exactly work on the farm. In fact, there was a swimming pool and a bocce court. Playing bocce in this setting made up for losing. Wendy's all-women team defeated every men's team that dared challenge it.

This is wine country. The grapes growing outside our door were used to produce six different wines, three whites and three reds, and we tried them all. We ate hearty Umbrian food and had a wine tasting one evening. We were near the border of Tuscany, and a local noted that the hill we facing a hill we faced was Montepulciano. Montepulciano, home of the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, one of Italy's best wines (for a cheaper, but excellent wine, try the Rosso di Montepulciano). Another nearby hilltown is Montalcino, famous for it's remarkable Brunello. Wine snobs could go ape here, but the Italians seem to appreciate wine as part of the meal, which is part of la dolce vita. To them, it's excellent, but it's the local wine. Of course it's good!

Orvieto is a beautiful Etruscan town that rests like a crown on a mountain of volcanic Tufa rock. The high position helped it defend itself against marauders. Orvieto is famous for its beautiful church, covered with frightening apocalyptic visions, and its gorgeous fortress-like town. We walked through the town and soaked up the local beauty, touring the church and thanking God we weren't suffering the eternal torment of the damned.

We had lunch at a remarkable little spot, Trattoria dell'Orso, where we ate homemade tagliatelle served with wild mushrooms--and with cherry tomatoes, basil, and scamorza. The secondo was roasted chicken stuffed with truffles. Ciro Cristiano, the kindly co-owner (with Chef Gabriele di Giandomenico), recited delicious details of the food they were preparing (as opposed to breaking out a menu) and was an extremely gracious host.

We chatted about our travels. He asked if I was Italian, and I told him about my ancestry (Southern Italian, and Sicilian) and he told us about his trips to those areas further south (he is originally from Napoli) and insisted I visit them. After each course, he asked if we were full or if we'd like to hear what else was cooking. Afterward, we exchanged business cards, and he laughed at my cartoon self-portrait. The food, by the way, was extraordinary, and I had no better in Italy. It's not surprising this little out of the way trattoria was written up in the New York Times.

Tuscany and Umbria are absolutely beautiful, but Umbria is more remote and untouched. Umbria is probably what Tuscany looked like before it was "discovered" by Frances Mayes and "Under the Tuscan Sun" brought people in droves. Now the world has caught on, so it's not surprising to find "Tuscan-style" pizza advertised at Pizza Hut, or "Tuscan Tacos" at Taco Bell. As terrible as that may sound, this area will endure. It has survived countless invaders and it will survive the latest wave of tourists and tacky Americanized imitations. Still, you should get there as soon as you can because it would be a shame to miss this for too long.

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