For those with a sense of adventure and a lust for discovery there are bountiful wonders to be enjoyed beyond Florence’s historic old city. It starts with a southerly trip down Via del Serragli to the massive wooden gates of the Porta Romana. This, the old gate to Rome, serves as a modern day portal between the bustling streets of Firenze and the Tuscan countryside. As we set out to explore, accompanied by a group of local representatives from the Tavarnelle Tourism Board, our goal for the next three days was simple – to discover and wander the often overlooked wonders, tranquil beauty, rich history, and succulent flavors of the Chianti countryside. Our destination was the commune of Tavarnelle Val di Pesa, which falls under the Province of Florence due to its close geographic proximity.…
Roused from our beds by the golden rays of the Umbrian sun we began what would round out our two and a half-day adventure through Umbria. Slowly rubbing the last traces of sleep from my eyes I found myself once again staring out the gently tinted windows of the bus as we wound our way past Lake Corbara and made our way toward the town of Narni. Little did we know that the 6 hours remaining as part of our adventure promised interesting epiphanies, rich culture, and a walk through the mists of fantasy.
When our guides told us we were heading to the town of Nari we said, ” Narni? Sounds a lot like Narnia.” We chuckled and then went back to watching pristine hilltop town after town drift past our windows. After the week or so I spent in Umbria I now stand convinced that one could easily spend a year exploring the region’s wealth of small towns and still barely scratch the surface. Each seems more picture-perfect, more inviting, more…charming than the last.
…and then something happened. The rolling hills and the small settlements precariously perched atop them suddenly gave way to the blur of lights and curving gray walls. Some might say we had entered a tunnel, though I now find myself somewhat suspicious. You see, as we raced along at a furious pace it felt as though things had changed. Not by much, just ever so slightly.
So, it may come as little surprise that when we finally reached the end of the tunnel, I’ve come to theorize, we may have been transported to a parallel place and time. Sure it looked similar. The cars were still there, the roads were there, but the clouds were slightly different. It reminded me of a story I once read only in place of a tunnel through a mountain, in that story the characters entered an old dresser in an attic and were spirited away.
I shrugged off the sensation for a while, but it soon returned as our destination came into view. A partially fortified town a bit larger than most and carefully situated on top of an impressive nearby hill.
As we drew closer to what I would later learn was the city of Nari our path led over a large bridge, passing long collapsed though still impressive Roman stone works, and then up a narrow road just barely large enough for our bus. Luckily the road opened up at the base of the hill into a fairly large, but no less jam-packed, parking lot which seemed to be the de facto parking lot for all of the city’s residents.
As I stood staring up at the city, I took note of its skyline. While many of the cities in Italy manage a set uniformity for their skyline, the steep hill where Narni resides and the general approach to raw stone and cured plaster gave it a somewhat random appearance. Now in most cases describing the skyline of a city as random, unorganized, and somewhat confused would be anything but complimentary. In the case of Narni, however, it is quite the opposite. It adds to the charm and offers a depth to the city which is both unusual and quite flattering.
Our trip from the parking area to the city was no less interesting. It consisted of a series of stairways, a funicular, several beautiful cobblestone streets and a square or two thrown in for good measure. The walk provided a chance to talk to several local guides and learn a bit about the city. As we walked I quickly found myself winded by the steep steps and conversation was slightly more challenging than normal. We eventually passed a group of wise women engaged in delightful banter, turned one more corner and found ourselves walking along a slightly larger road which seemed to line the spine of the hill. That’s when it happened.
It quickly became evident that the strange sensation I had while passing through the tunnel had been far more than the idle result of one too many nights sampling local Italian wine. You see, as we turned a corner we were suddenly and quite obviously transported back in time. It would seem that we had stumbled onto a formal event. A festival of sorts that paid homage to the city, its rich history and culture.
As we slowly made our way down the street we were greeted by a noble lord and lady of what I can only imagine to be some stature. Their serfs handed us beautiful scrolls and gestured for us to relax and to enjoy a bit of music, dance and contest.
It was about this time that the city’s youth assembled in crisp lines. Adorned in the city’s regalia and with instruments in hand they faced down the day’s beating sun and after pausing long enough to fire off a series of fierce glares, they washed all emotion from their face and began to play. They beat their drums mightily sending waves of sound crashing from cobblestone street to storied stone wall, and then the trumpets began. As the crowd stood mute they performed for us an impressive array of pieces from a time (and place?) long past but clearly not forgotten.
Suddenly, just like that, they stopped and turned looking to their left at mounted men of note. Men who with ease and grace lifted scrolls before them and began to read aloud. Their words announce the start of the next event… A contest of strength, of precision and of speed – an archery contest.
Just like that the youths who were still assembled and standing in formation let forth a blast to commence the archery competition and the assembled archers – men of all ages – nocked arrows to bows.
Bows were drawn to cheeks, breath inhaled and then quickly exhaled. Fingers released and in the beat of an eye arrows seemed to leap from lazily resting against the archer’s bows to sitting quivering embedded in the distant target.
As each round passed it was a delight to watch both seasoned archers and boyish novices stand side by side performing their craft. By the end of the contest the target stood riddled with arrows and while one or two had found their way to areas beyond the target, nearly all struck squarely in the target’s center.
As the silence of the crowd slowly began to replace the twang of vibrating bowstrings Narni’s next treat began. The silent roar of the assembled crowd was quickly replaced by a medieval melody. It was cheerful and energetic…music of a type that we all recognize, but rarely hear and almost never in person. As I turned to find the source of the music I quickly discovered several local women engaged in a graceful dance. As they bowed, stepped, bowed again and twirled I enjoyed their graceful movements and leaned slightly to the left, engaged in a muted conversation with my guide.
As it turned out, our idle musings and chatter earlier in the trip had been far more spot-on than we expected. The wonderful world I had entered when I left that country-tunnel did in fact mirror the magical wardrobe found in C.S. Lewis’ series describing a far off place called Narnia. The city I now stood in, Narni by name, had served as official inspiration for the author. Though, one can only wonder – was he inspired, or just recounting the experiences he stumbled on during his time in the city and surrounding area?
As the women bowed to each other the drums and trumpets resumed their powerful song. Then, with surprising organization all of the assembled nobility, squires, archers and dancers formed into a line and paraded out and off into the depths of the city. Just like that we found ourselves transported back to our own time and making our way down the spine of the hill to see portions of the city’s underground town. But first, we paused at a beautiful overlook to take in the site of a fortified structure, the Abbey of San Cassiano, located across the ravine but still just outside of bow-shot from the city.
Eager to explore the underground church which we had been told about, we made our way down and across two small terraces to the obscure doorway which modestly led into the side of the hill.
After ducking through the tiny portal we were greeted by a 12th century benedictine chapel which was only re-discovered some 20 years ago. In a fun twist of fate our guide was actually one of the individuals who participated in the initial discovery and exploration of the complex. The chapel which is simple but beautifully preserved and eerily still contains human remains buried in its floor is part of a series of rooms, including a nearby area which was used as a foreboding dungeon.
The entrance to the dungeon’s main cell is small. So small in fact that I found myself nearly bent in two to get through it. The room isn’t much larger with room for a bed, and a little space to stand and stretch. The walls are decorated with graffiti from at least one of the room’s unfortunate residents. It is an odd thing to experience as you stand there staring at carvings made by a desperate soul hundreds of years past.
With the prison cell behind us and our visit winding to a close we wandered the streets and learned more about the city’s history. The location where the city currently stands is thought to have been settled in at least 600 BC as the city of Nequinum.
By the 4th century BC the Romans had conquered and reinforced the city which sat upon the Via Flaminia, an essential artery between Rome and the Adriatic. Around 300 BC in a failed attempt to gain freedom from Rome the Romans fully incorporated the city and renamed it Narni. While having claim to a number of historical greats, the city was the birth place of Marcus Cocceius Nerva Caesar Augustus, or more simply put Emperor Nerva of Rome who assumed position as emperor in September of 96 AD.
After the morning and early afternoon events we had worked up a mighty hunger. Luckily, the city had decided that a traditional feast was an absolute must! So, off we went down winding cobblestone streets through a town that drips character like authentic spaghetti drips the rich colors and flavor of fresh tomato sauce.
Now, this is normally where I’d post shot of the meal. Unfortunately, it looked REALLY good and we were starving. So with reckless abandon we set to are simple, but delicious meal of pork-chops, sausage, pasta, fresh beans, and salad. It was all served by local volunteers and in/on traditional earthen plates and cups. The local red wine was every bit as delightful as one might imagine and the venue (Terziere S. Maria) was a great little tavern-like space located down a side street. The room we were in consisted of crude wooden benches and in a sparsely, but historically themed room with vaulted brick ceiling and and rough brick walls. In short, it had a wonderful ambiance and fit the day’s theme perfectly.
I had a wonderful time getting lost in Narni and dreaming of the role it played in the mythical lands of Narnia. I’d like to extend a hearty thank you to the people of Narni who offered us such wonderful hospitality while wining and dining us. It’s a wonderful city, and one with a distinct personality of its own.
Have any of you been? I’d love to hear your stories in a comment below!
During my time in Umbria I had the opportunity to enjoy a number of absolutely fantastic meals. The local tourism board wined me and dined me until I was bursting and could barely move. Needless to say it was a great chance to engage with Italian food in a way I had not previously experienced. As a lactose intolerant traveler with a light gluten allergy, Italy had always been a culinary destination I eyed with suspicion. Granted, most of the food I enjoyed on this trip wasn’t the usual low-cost eats and street food that aligns with my budget, but it still managed to completely change my relationship with Italian food. Of the places which treated us to a meal, the absolute best of the lot was Sala della Comitissa in the small picturesque town of Baschi.
The restaurant sits near the far point on a hill that looks out over the nearby valley. Access is gained through a long stairway off a small street that is just wide enough for a car to carefully navigate. The entrance is simple, clean, and cozy. With less than 15 tables, Sala della Comitissa makes no pretense about the experience they offer. Their aim is a cozy, elegant meal prepared and served with care and love. Some of the sparsely decorated stone walls are laden with old swords, candles and other distinctly medieval decorations. Others are painted in a natural beige plaster which helps highlight the beautifully set tables that fill the room.
While relatively new, the restaurant was opened in 2010, the approach to tradition and culture is not. Each table has three types of chairs at it. Of these, one is gilded and ornate. This chair is reserved for the guest of honor. To further allow for guests to honor members of their group, two other chairs offer a second level of distinction in the form of arms, while the remainder of the chairs are comfortable and elegant but lack both the arms, ornate gilding, and rich upholstery of the seat of honor.
Our meal started with a delightful toasted bread with a rich liver pate alla grappa and crushed hazel nuts. The pate was creamy, pungent and awash in flavor.
Next up was a fresh and wonderfully healthy/velvety carrot and ginger puree with rosemary and olive oil-flavored croutons. This dish was a universal hit around the table and it was fun to watch each of us eye our empty cups strategically, carefully analyzing if (and hoping that) we’d missed a small spoonful that might be reclaimed.
This was followed by a light and flavorful zucchini flan served with gently salted, perfectly ripened tomatoes, olive oil and crushed fennel. The small flan (though I’m likely misnaming it) was surprising in both its creaminess and lightness. Where I expected it to be dense its texture had more in common with whipped cream. Unfortunately, due to the high dairy content, all I was able to do was sample the dish. Luckily, in anticipation of my cursed lactose intolerant limitations they had a special surprise in store for me.
In place of the dairy-heavy third dish, the chef prepared this special salad for me. What I initially thought was a purely vegetarian (and blissfully dairy free) plate ended up actually being a succulent mixture of shaved wild boar (what looks like cabbage), fresh oranges, olive oil and what I believe was fresh orange all topped with fennel. While I enjoyed all of the plates I had over the course of the meal this one was definitely the most surprising. The flavor was fresh, slightly zesty and simultaneously sweet and salty due to the wild boar. It lit my palate on fire and prepared it perfectly for the next course.
Before we dove into the next course, however, our host graciously invited us into the kitchen for a quick peak. The kitchen is small, cozy, and has just enough room for the three people who were hard at work on the meal. It was clean, orderly, and the focus on quality and freshness was obvious. Greeted with gracious smiles, the kitchen staff was in the midst of preparing a special type of traditional spelt pasta.
The spelt pasta dates back to ancient Roman times and was served with fave beans, little tomatoes, salted ricotta cheese, bacon and a fresh sprig of parsley. The relatively neutral/subtle taste of the spelt highlighted the flavor of the fave beans, tomatoes and bacon creating a well balanced meal that was both delicious and felt slightly earthy and organic.
This plate was followed by a more easily recognizable ragu. The traditional ragu was based on the chef’s grandmother’s recipe and featured tagliatelle pasta accompanied by meat raised and butchered nearby. It is worth noting that all of the ingredients used over the course of the meal were local and seasonal. The plates we were served were designed to represent both Umbria and the area’s seasonally native foods. It showed in the freshness of the ingredients, their complex flavor, and the well rounded design of the meal as a whole.
Starting to feel more than a little stuffed, the final main course was served. As a major fan of meat in general I was excited for the opportunity to try what the menu informed us would be pork neck-bones cooked and served in a light sauce with fresh pepper. The pork was so tender it virtually melted on my fork and as you might expect was jam-packed with flavor. I traded my usual large fork-fulls for small delicate cuts to make each piece last as long as I could. The neck meat was served with a mixture of local greens. While they tasted a bit like well-buttered spinach, I believe it was a mixture of wild greens harvested and then steamed for the meal
While the others were served what was by all accounts a wonderful local interpretation of the traditional zuppa inglese I dove into the house’s interpretation of traditional specialty pastries. These were super sweet, light, and the perfect way to round out what had been a positively delightful meal.
Now one thing I haven’t given nearly enough attention to – but which savvy observers may have noted on the menu – was the wine. Each course was accompanied by a different local wine! Each of the wines was everything you would expect from a well-selected local Italian wine and went wonderfully with the meal. The final wine, however, was the one that really caught my attention. The Calcaia Dolce 2006 from Orvieto was, we were told, a mold wine. Yep, that’s right, mold. An incredibly potent and sweet wine with an almost brandy or mead-like flavor and feel. The candy wine comes from grapes which are left to ripen on the vine to the point where a special type of grape mold called ‘noble rot’ sets in. This helps with the fermentation process and results in a sweet desert wine that is the perfect way to round out a meal.
As we carefully stood to thank our hosts for their wonderful hospitality I think more than a few of us secretly loosened our belts a notch. The meal had lasted for three hours and we had delighted in every second.
As we made our way back to the bus we slowly meandered the streets of Baschi. The town embodies the picturesque nature that marks the region and despite a light rain was alive with people going about their daily business.
Situated on a hill, the views out over the nearby fields, forests and countryside quickly left me feeling like I was walking through a dream. Everywhere I looked I was greeted by fairy-tale images which seemed more like the fanciful oil paintings of blissful life in small-town Italy than reality.
With lungs full of fresh humid Italian air I found myself humming happily to myself as I snapped photos and walked the length of the town which took all of five minutes. Once back at the main road we climbed back on the bus and headed off to our next destination for the day: Orvieto…but that’s a story for tomorrow!
What is the best Italian meal you’ve had? Where was it?
The city of Citta della Pieve sits a few miles south of lake Trasimeno and to the west of the regional capital of Perugia. Perched on a hill 500 meters above sea level and overlooking the nearby valley, the city evolved as one of the region’s important network of hilltop towns responsible for monitoring and policing nearby trade routes. Our visit began with a guided walking tour of the city which provided an excellent opportunity to see its famous brick buildings, narrow alleyways, and a series of paintings by city native Pietro Vannucci more commonly called “the Perugino”.
Palazzo della Corgna
Our walking tour began with a visit to the Palazzo della Corgna – an old palatial residence that showcased a series of beautifully decorated rooms. Each featured extremely fine detail work, that majority of which consisted of fanciful creatures being ridden, and cherubic figures hard at work or play.
The attention to detail and care that went into crafting the building was obvious in the fine detail work. Though much of it showed signs of aging and wear – understandable for authentic decorations and accouterment dating back hundreds of years – it did little to detract from the feel of the place and seemed to add to the attractiveness and character of the work. In addition to the native artwork and decorations, a local photo exhibit had been set up along the naked walls and in the center of the empty rooms. These photos, framed and displayed as they were, served as small portals into the Umbria countryside and a pleasant contrast to the historic shapes and lines that gave each room life.
The building also provided a large balcony that overlooked the street below and provided a wonderful view of the nearby rooftops and countryside beyond. Known for its brick and fabric work, Citta della Pieve embodies the appearance of a traditional Italian town. A sentiment that I found was magnified significantly by the constant presence of pigeons. While the pigeons may walk the line between vermin and welcome resident, I can’t help but feel that they do a lot to foster and warm the ambiance of the city’s rooftops. After all, their curios antics, bobbing, hopping, and periodic cooing often serves to liven up what might otherwise be a landscape devoid of life.
As we enjoyed the view of the valley below our guide recounted some of the city’s history. Outlining the city’s allegiance to Perugia and the historical conflicts with Assisi that came with it. She also shared with us brief background about the region’s Etruscan roots, and a bit of history about the small Etruscan Obelisk located in the stairway to the Palazzo della Corgna. You can find a more in-depth of the city’s history on the Citta della Pieve official website. Unfortunately, it’s mostly in Italian.
St. Gervasio e Protasio
From there it was off to a nearby cathedral. The cathedral was well maintained, and embodied what you would expect; It included artwork from a number of local/famous painters, the chief of which was Pietro Perugino. The decorations in the Cathedral also showcased an amazing attention to detail. Particularly interesting for me, however, was the fact that the marble walls you see in the photo seemed to be mostly painted. While I’ve run into similar work in the past, the extent and quality of the paintings really caught my attention. The cathedral also harbors one of the other oddities I’ve always found weird/fascinating about European cathedrals: preserved/mummified human remains. I believe the remains on display in St. Gervasio e Protasio are of the 17th century poet Francesco Melosio. The body is laid out at rest on its side, fully dressed and with a wax death mask in a sealed glass compartment built into the tomb. Frankly, this type of thing gives me the chills. I just don’t get the appeal for any of the parties involved.
A Light Rain
Despite a very light rain we continued our walking tour of the city which led us down a zig-zag of historic streets lined by rich red bricks and small doorways. As we passed one such side street I caught these two nuns leisurely making their rounds. The view triggered momentary confusion as I asked myself, “Am I in a movie, or really living this?” before snapping back to reality and enjoying the moment completely.
I find that one of the secrets to truly enjoying an Italian street is an attention to detail. The grand beauty is one thing. The overall ambiance another. But, it’s the rich details that really flesh out the experience. One of my favorites are doors and doorways. I think far more attention and care go into doors in Europe than most Americans realize. Many are small works of art and more than a few showcase beautifully carved or cast shapes ranging from general patterns to wild animals. The doorways in Citta della Pieve were no exception.
The Oratorio di Santa Maria dei Bianchi
One of Citta della Pieve’s must-sees is the Adoration of the Magi. A wall-sized piece of artwork that was done by Perugino in 1504. Though the piece is over 500 years old it still features vibrant color and is in beautiful shape. It also does a wonderful job exploring perspective and offers a fun insight into what the region must have looked like in the 1500s. The work is especially interesting because of two letters which were discovered in the 1830s and outline negotiations over price in the lead up to the commissioning of the wall fresco.
The piece is also significant because it offers a glimpse into the fashion and styles which were likely popular among the upper classes in Citta della Pieve in the 1500s. The painting serves as a great source of inspiration for people fascinated by the period and eager to re-create the clothing and hairstyles of the time. They had quite the flair for color, don’t you think?
Wonderful Winding Streets
With the Adoration of the Magi behind us it was time to wander the streets once again. Our path cut across the winding roads taking us through small alleyways and across larger streets carefully paved with large flat stones.
Our next stop was a small courtyard that held a variety of historical creations. One of the objects was a massive ballista. The fully functional ballista stood nearly 6 feet tall, and was mounted on wheels so that it could easily be re-positioned. Our host proudly informed us that it was one of the ballista used during the city’s archery competition, a time when the region’s various areas would all come together for a grand contest.
Located immediately to the left of the ballista was what looked like a massive canon. It was mounted on what appeared to be a full sized wagon, and was more than a little imposing. In addition to being at least 8 feet long, the mouth was nearly the size of a basketball. Upon closer inspection it turned out that the “canon” must have served as an early gunpowder precursor likely designed by Leonardo Da Vinci. The cylinder was actually made out of wood and open at both ends. It was designed in such a way that it could be cranked back, and a large bolt could then be inserted, which would in turn fire…much like a canon. Despite having spent time in numerous military museums, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Fascinating!
Our path from the courtyard took us down a number of beautiful brick streets clothed in a half hazard mixture of multi-colored shutters and blooming flowers. At one point we found ourselves at a wonderful little alleyway called the Baciadonne which is so tight that only one person can fit through it at a time…and even at that it is necessary to turn sideways towards the end. It has to be one of the narrowest streets in Italy, and is a definite must for visitors to Citta della Pieve. It also has a certain romantic charm, so lovers – be warned!
Our last stop on our walking tour was the historic Diocesan Museum. The museum is housed in an old church which dates back to around 1260. Over the years the church has been renovated and expanded several times. Many of the renovations changed the structure completely. The end result is an odd mishmash of styles and artistic forms. Today, the majority of the interior has been painted white, giving it an incredibly unique feel. A feel compounded by the presence of several life-sized plaster cast-based statues which are set up in the middle of the hall. The photo you see above is of a fresco which was discovered during a renovation, and is of some of the church’s early artwork. The art was later covered over during one of the countless renovations where it lived on, hidden, while the rest of the world raced about its daily business. While far from the largest or most impressive physically, the Museo Civico-Diocesiano is highly unusual and a wonderful spot to visit.
Dinner at Terziere Castello
Exhausted from a full day spent exploring the city we retired briefly to our hotel rooms, located on the far end of the city, before responding to a dinner invitation from the city’s mayor and a number of the town’s influential personalities. The meal was hosted in a wonderful old tavern that embodied everything you might think of when hearing the term “medieval meal”. The doorway dumped us into a long hall with a low, vaulted brick ceiling that left me feeling as though I was inside the city walls – perhaps I was? Though the rooms were sparsely decorated the walls were lined with old suits of armor, shackles and a mixture of different weapons and regional banners. We were seated on long benches set with earthen mugs and bottles of local red wine, where we settled in and began to chat about the day’s activities.
The first plate we were served was a wonderful mixture of local cheese and wild boar served in several different ways. It was accompanied by a delicious liver paste smeared on coarse bread and went perfectly with the red Sangiovese wine we were provided. The next portion was a special pasta, normally only prepared on festival days which was bathed in a light olive oil sauce and served with meat. The flavor was fantastic with a wonderful balance between the pasta, meat, olive oil and with just enough salt and garlic to really set it all off.
The pasta was followed up by chunks of beef in a heavy sauce served with what I initially thought was mashed potatoes. You can imagine the surprised look on my face when I mouthed the first spoon full only to discover it was, in fact, polenta. It was a silly mistake given my love for polenta, though admittedly it had been a while since I had found any. The polenta accompanied the somewhat heavily spiced meat well and softened the flavor nicely leaving us all stuffed…but, this was an Italian meal and we should have known it didn’t end there.
Our final course was dessert. A somewhat dry and very hearty cake that had a light chocolate flavor and was perfectly accompanied by a wonderful local dessert alcohol. I believe the drink was the local version of candy sweet mold wine, but am not positive.
My time in Citta della Pieve was rich and wonderful, albeit brief. I look forward to an opportunity in the future to return and to explore the city in greater detail…ideally in time for the Renaissance festival. The costumes, competition and food offer a tantalizing promise of wonderful experiences and adventures!
A special thank you to the people of Citta della Pieve for the opportunity to sample the local food/experience and their hospitality. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the city and the opportunity to be their guest.