This year I spent most of May in my favorite spot in Italy, the northern Lazio area that just touches Tuscany and Umbria. I can visit all three regions in a matter of minutes during my stay, which makes for a bit of diversity and assures that I won’t tire of the area.
Spring was much in evidence when I arrived. A little rain, a chill in the evening air and then a few days later, heat, sun and bright, blooming red poppies everywhere. Not quite swimming weather until the end of the trip, but certainly poolside was a good place to hang out.
This year I had tour guests who were interested in hiking. We found a great moderate level hike at Civita di Bagnoregio. It seems the first Etruscan settlers had dug a tunnel under the city, which was later expanded, that leads to a trail down the hillside into the valley below and ends at the river stream. It’s quite an incline, so even though going down one must watch one’s step on the narrow trail, that’s not the difficult part. Hiking back up is where endurance comes in handy!
It ends up being about a two hour hike and when you reach the top you are ready for lunch and a long sit with wine and bruschetta in one of the two cantinas at the top. Both are located in cool cave like atmospheres. The one being the city’s old olive mill that was carved out hundreds of years ago to house the donkey that drove the mill that made the olive paste. (Sounds like a children’s song I used to know).
Another new event that we experienced on this trip was a visit to Bagnoregio’s local sommelier, Mauro di Laurenzo. Mauro is actually one of the main barista’s of the town but has always had a great interest in wine. I’ve known him for some years now and had no idea he had so many other talents, like playing in an Afro-Cuban band with his seven children!
He agreed to host wine tasting and dinner for each group in the dining room behind his bar. What a wonderful surprise. Our first group was treated to six wines from the Piemont area of Italy. The second group got to experience wines from several areas around Rome. Mauro’s English is not extensive and my Italian is about as good, so we had a terrific time miming and theatrically figuring out what we were tasting. We learned about what parts of the tongue are used for tasting different flavors and how the food affects the wines, as well as what different properties each wine held. And the food!!! Mauro’s wife, Cesarina, cooked some of the best dishes we had on the whole trip. She used seasonal foods, herbs and spices and surprised everyone. She selected cheeses from local producers that were distinct and paired perfectly with the wines. Fava beans happened to be in season when we were there, so we had them as the locals eat them, both raw and in a lovely soup. Fresh fruit compote for dessert and a bit of grappa for a few of the bolder guests, finished us off. Lucky me, I got to attend both evenings, each distinctly different from the other.
One afternoon, two of the local farmers roasted a fresh side of lamb and a bit of fresh pork for us on a spit in the yard. There was enough bar-b-que lamb to feed an army. Ferdinando, a farmer from Sardegna, who settled in this area two decades ago, raises organic sheep and a small herd of 100 cows for cheese making. It’s so comforting to drive down the valley road and see the beautiful cows walking along the road or grazing in one of the fields. And can you imagine milking 1500 sheep twice a day? That’s what this farmer and his family do to make a living. (Yes, they do use milking machines, but what a daunting job).
It’s such fun to go into town for supplies and see Ferdinando hailing us from his jeep on the other side of the street with a big wave and a “buona serra, Cheryl“. The folks who live in these little villages are so friendly, especially when they see me returning year after year. They are very patient while I try to converse with them in Italian, making suggestions for cheese or wine choices, as well as grammatical corrections.
This year we also visited with the Mottura family who run a beautiful hotel and organic winery in Civitella D’Agliano. And the high point of our evening with them was when Sergio took us down into the wine cellar of the eight hundred year old palazzo/hotel to see how they ferment the spumonti. It’s a ten year process and they had just begun a new one. I had no idea what was involved in making a sparkling wine. I won’t go into it here because you may decide to join us on one of our tours and I don’t want to spoil the experience for you. Besides, it so much more enchanting to hear Sergio tell all about it.
After the wine tasting and the cellar visit, we went upstairs to the intimate elegant dining room for an incredible six-course meal paired with the appropriate wines. Because we were staying in a villa near the hotel, we just walked to and from dinner that evening under the moonlight.
We had many other wonderful experiences in restaurants, villages, underground caves that were thousands of years old. Every trip has a different flavor and something new to discover. The seasons also play a part in changing the experience of the trips. There will be different foods, wines, color and light, as well as flora and fauna. When I visit in the Fall there won’t be brilliant red poppies or sunflowers, but the figs will be ripe and ready to pick off the trees for breakfast, as well as the grapes in many varieties and colors. Chestnuts will be falling all over the forests and if you’ve never seen a chestnut well you just haven’t lived! They are gorgeous and complex after they make their ripened fall from the tree, split open and offer the smooth brown nuts inside.
Once again the undiscovered treasures of Italy have enchanted me. I hope you will be intrigued enough by these scant renderings to think about joining us on one of our trips to a part of Italy that reflects and retains so much of what is special about this beautiful country. Or just “slow travel” there yourself!