A Trip Through Umbria
by Bethany Ludwick
Italy’s Umbria region
is a land rich in spectacular scenery, rolling hills, cultural treasures and historic landmarks. Bordering Tuscany
to the south, Umbria is similar in nature, topography and culture yet relatively undiscovered. Join Wimco’s traveling team on their fact-finding mission through the Italian countryside – a learning experience they will never forget.
The adventure began once the Team reached Rome. With the sun quickly descending behind Italy’s rolling hills, the Team packed into the rental car and proceeded to Mercatale to find their villa, Salicotta. Advised that the drive was little over an hour, they soon realized an Italian must have estimated the time. Four hours later, with Fiats and Renaults whizzing by as if they were standing still, the Team was still en route. An approach from Florence would have been only a two hour drive, they later learned. Upon reaching the village of Mercatale, the trio had to find the villa. Even with accurate directions in hand, this, too, proved to be challenging. Navigating by landmarks like the “cypress tree between two oak trees” and the “goat farm at the end of the village” were just one of the challenges of finding their way; driving through in the dark was even more interesting. Once they reached villa Salicotta, the group received a warm welcome from the villa’s owners, Aldo and Alda, who served as “key-holders” for that night. Villa caretakers, who are called key-holders, greet you upon arrival and orient you to your surroundings.
In need of gastronomic care, the Team was advised by Alda and Aldo to drive back into Mercatale and dine at Mimmi’s. After a mere 10-minute drive (American driving time), the group meandered their way back into the village. Matt, feeling overly confident, rolled down his window to ask a group of Italian teenagers “Ciao, buona sera. Dove è Mimmi’s?”, only to have one of the better-educated youths respond, “Hello, good evening. It’s that way.” And, rather than point the way, the group of 10 kids proceeded to run down the middle of the street to escort the trio for the remaining 20 meters to Mimmi’s. While dining at Mimmi’s, guests are served what Mimmi has cooked for the evening. Mimmi’s has no menu, though every night she includes her special cannelloni and tiramisu, which are part of every meal. With the help of her son Giovanni, they prepare each meal themselves. Additionally, they grow their own olives for oil, grapes for the table wine, and lemons for the traditional Italian digestif, limoncello, all of which are produced at the local village co-ops and served nightly. A long day of connections and white knuckle driving was finished with a spectacular five course meal, which for the three of them (including wine and tip) amounted to no more than $60 US.
After a much needed slumber, the team awoke to the sounds of a distant dairy farm. First stop Spoleto, to inspect the Hotel San Luca
and this magnificent tourist destination. Spoleto, home to the Festival of Two Worlds, attracts tourists from all over the world with its cultural and musical events. The magnificent Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, a venue for the international music festival, is a fascinating example of three periods of history: the building incorporates materials and design from the Roman, medieval and Renaissance periods. Dating from the 1st century A.D., a Roman theater that had remained buried until the early part of the 20th century has been excavated, totally restored, and now serves as another venue for the international music festival.
After a 90-minute drive, the group arrived at the Hotel San Luca and were greeted by owner and General Manager, Daniella Zuccari. Daniella, sometimes affectionately referred to as the Martha Stewart of Italy, is a most gracious hostess who takes great care of her guests and hotel. This beautiful four-star hotel is located on the site of a fountain that Pope Innocent III visited in 1198. Legend has it that, in his presence, the fountain miraculously began spouting clear, plentiful water. After an inspection of the various room styles, the team agreed that the Hotel San Luca would be perfectly comfortable for their discerning clients. An indication of the quality of the bathrooms at the Hotel San Luca is the fact that Paolo Zuccari, husband of Daniella, manufactures bathroom fixtures.
Over the next four days, the Wimco Team inspected more than 20 villas in the Umbrian region, in locations stretching from Orvieto, Terni and Todi, to Umbertide. Spring had just arrived and the fields were green with grain and tobacco. Beautifully large splashes of mimosa accented many of these fields. Wisteria was also in full bloom. One day while approaching a villa in Orvieto, they came across none other than a peacock. The subject of color is cause for pause. Italy is world-renowned as the pinnacle of fashion, and the Umbrian countryside lives up to the Italian standard. The importance of appearance pervades every aspect of life. Roads are spotless and pristine. Whether in the villages or in the more touristed cities, not a trace of litter is evident. Should a driver be pulled over by police (a rare event), they would be met by the most well dressed law enforcement official in the world. It was apparent to the group that Armani probably designs the Italian motorcycle police uniforms. Even the most novice bikers on the side of the road are dressed to the nines in multi-colored spandex. Gas station attendants, too, wear their uniforms with a pride that rivals World Cup soccer teams.
The wonderful thing about trying to determine where in Umbria you would choose your villa is that wherever you ultimately decide upon you are seldom more than a 60-minute drive to the most interesting cultural attractions. In Umbertide, where villa Salicotta is located, the towns of Cortona, Gubbio, and Perugia are a 30-minute drive away. Siena is a 60-minute drive and Florence is 90 minutes. Spoleto, Todi, Assisi, and Orvieto are all a 60 – 90 minute drive (American driving time). If you choose to rent a villa in Todi or Orvieto, the opposite applies. You win either way.
Friday – Feeling seasoned and looking forward to a new groove, the trio set out for Gubbio to meet with a new contact, Valeria Bosi. Valeria, a “Consulente” for a hotel group headquartered in Perugia, invited the group to inspect a 4-star deluxe hotel, the Relais Ducale
. Gubbio is known as “the most beautiful of medieval towns”. Gubbio’s streets, monuments, churches, and houses are still perfectly preserved. Gubbio is famous for the annual Corsa de Ceri (Race of the Candles) and the world’s tallest Christmas tree. The Race of the Candles, celebrated every May 15, dates back to the 12th century and recognizes the pagan rites of spring and the town’s patron saint. Three teams of men carrying 20’ tall wooden candles on their shoulders run through town as part of this very important festival. The largest Christmas tree is 15-mile cable of colored lights stretching nearly 400 feet up the side of Mt. Ingino.
The group parked their car outside the walled city and walked the five minutes to the Relais Ducale. Totally restored in 1997 and located in the heart of Gubbio, the hotel is the annex of the Ducale Palace, where the Duke of Montefalco used to welcome his own guests. The Relais Ducale is a delightful 30-room hotel and makes the perfect accommodation for a one or two night stop on an Umbrian tour. After their inspection of the property, the trio had lunch at the Taverna del Lupo, also owned by the same family. Valeria ordered for Matt, Bethany andLidy. The group ranked this the best meal while in Umbria – the Taverna del Lupo is a must while in Gubbio and is certainly worth the 30-minute drive from Umbertide.
After lunch at the Taverna del Lupo, Valeria Bosi gave the contented trio a tour of Gubbio’s shop-lined streets. Matt was after truffles, ceramics and linens. Lidy was on the hunt for tassels, and Bethany was after a nap. What a traveler can expect to find in Umbria are the finest table linens, colorful ceramics and, in Deruta, a town ten minutes south of Perugia, find terra cotta at a tenth of the cost in the States. Matt, a gastronomically motivated traveler, returned home with the finest olive oil imaginable and homemade limoncello from Mimmi’s, as well as table linens and truffles. Even the most rural villages have shops for provisions and household goods, and, while ATMs are not commonly found in rural villages, most towns have a bank to help fill the wallet with copious lire. However, shoppers beware: in the European tradition, many shops close in the middle of the day for siesta. Most restaurants do remain open, however, so visitors are welcome to sit back, relax, and enjoy la dolce vita.
The most wonderful thing about Umbria
is the Italians. Many European countries are graced with beautiful vistas, cultural and historical treasures, excellent food and wonderful places to stay. The Italians embraced these three Americans affectionately with kindness, generosity, and infinite amounts of patience. Never once did the Wimco Team encounter any snobbishness or intolerance, in either the city or the countryside, from anyone. The Team had little difficulty communicating with the Italians. With rudimentary Spanish or French skills, communicating in Italy is not as hard as one would believe. Many Italians speak English. More importantly, as befits traveling in most European countries, eye contact, a little humility, some hand gestures and a warm smile will afford you a lot of help. A small translation book wouldn’t hurt either!