Italy is full of food festivals. It’s awful. Through every season of the year they celebrate with chocolate, cheese, chestnuts and wine that flows from fountains (no joke, I don’t joke about wine flowing from fountains). So when I arrived I searched for what festivals I’d be bumping into on my travels. This is what I found in Tuscany that matched my plans…
So, after grabbing a tub of yogurt and rearranging myself on the couch, I researched my options for when I’d be in Umbria. I’d be staying in Perugia, smack bang in the middle of the boot and the area known as the Green Heart of Italy. And things looked brighter. I would be there for the National All Saints public holiday, a day that celebrates the dead where Italians go to cemeteries to visit relatives and friends. It would also be celebrated with a gigantic market in Perugia, of over 600 stalls, with artisans, crafts, food, wine, clothes, Christmas decorations, antiques (nearly bought a 30kg door knocker, but pictured trying to get it through Ryan Air check in and changed my mind. Sigh. )
It was delectably fabulous! I feasted my way through olive ascolane, wine, chocolate treats, gelato, salami and cheese tasting. Damn I love Italy.
Once I’d got my groove on for the festival scene I found myself in Citta di Castello for the annual truffle festival. After 20 minutes I’d spent 60 euros and was carrying cremes, salsa’s, truffle infused salami and somehow about 2kg of olives (something got lost in translation there). So I left quickly before my monthly budget had been spent in a white tent, on shavings of white truffle worth 5000 euros per kilo.
Perugia is a university town, perched high on a mountain range, with undulating hills and streets which climb and drop and make your calves burn 20 meters from the front door. The arch leading into the old city (L’Arco Etrusco di Perugia), was built by the Etruscans in the third century BC and is for the most part, in tip-top shape after 2000 years of watching the world go by. The views over the valleys of Umbria below are extraordinary, and the sunsets and sunrises kept me practicing my watercolour drawing. There are perks to getting up at 4:30am for a skype meeting when the sunrises are that magical. Ah the glamorous digital nomad life.
I had hired a car again and drove one day to Assisi, a pink stoned city comfortably sitting on the side of a mountain surveying the Umbrian countryside. Assisi was the birth place of Saint Francis, and the whole city is an UNESCO world heritage site. Saint Francis, for those like myself, not in the know, was the founder of the Franciscan Order, and is one of the most celebrate saints in history and the patron saint of Italy. Thousands of pilgrims come from all over the world to visit Assisi and the church where Saint Francis is buried. Assisi is a city steeped in history, culture, beauty and faith, and even for the non-religious, is a must visit on a trip to Italy.
On my last day, I decided to drive south, into the Umbrian mountains. The great thing about the roads in Italy is that mountains are a non-issue, we don’t go over, we don’t go around, we go through, 3km of tunnel through…get…it…done.
After popping out the other side into the valley filled with autumn leaves and a fast-flowing river, I snaked along the road to discover the town of Norcia, where the earthquakes had caused major damage on the 30th of October 2016. The cathedral and many shops had been destroyed and the town is slowly rebuilding. They have built wooden shops along the roads, so the towns businesses can remain open as they try to rebuild.
I had heard about another town, on the other side of the next mountain rage called Castelluccio, which had also been damage in the earthquake but was suppose to be quite beautiful. So, I started the steep drive up the mountain road, which took much longer than expected because in parts, half of the road had fallen away in the earthquake so I’d sit waiting at removable traffic lights without another car in sight. I’d spent an hour climbing and was almost ready to spin around and give up when I came over the crest of the mountain into the enclosed valley below.
And for the second time this trip, I burst into tears. It was one of the most unexpectedly stunning sights I’ve ever seen, and given I’m in Italy, after a year of travelling, that’s a statement, but I’m sticking to it. The valley is bare, just grass. There are small farmed paddocks climbing up the sides of the snow-capped mountains, with groups of horses lazily going about their business in the sunshine. In summer, the valley is full of wild flowers. It can’t be farmed because in spring the snowmelt floods the valley below, which in turn, feeds the flowers.
The town of Castelluccio has been completely destroyed. Four caravans, three army trucks with armed soldiers and an elderly gentleman selling postcards and panini’s are all that remain. It’s devastating to see, but the man, when he realised I was from Australia was so overjoyed he gave me free postcards to take home to show my family. It’s a strange juxtaposition of emotions to be in such a remarkable place, with so much devastation, a person so happy in his life, surrounded by armed soldiers protecting the rubble from looters. It was surreal.
I took my lunch and parked on the side of the road in the middle of the valley. And for the first time in as long as I can remember, there was absolute silence. Which given the vastness of the space I was in, was extraordinary. I don’t just mean human silence, I mean everything silence, no birds, bugs, cars, people, planes, animals. I sat for about 15 minutes watching a hawk hunting the valley, without a single sound. It is a moment I will remember for the rest of my life, and it gives me a lump in my throat and goosebumps even now. So I’ll stop. Enjoy the silence, it is truly golden.
Number of gelatos: 14
Number of pizzas: 11
Number of pasta dishes: 12
Number of “wow” jaw dropping moments: 130
Nugget of Wisdom
Don’t take a credit card to a truffle festival, it can only end in a deliciously bad debt.