Italy Day Six: Montefalco and Bevagna Redux

30 05 2010

May 30, 2010

Today we were greeted for our tour of Montefalco by an amazing tour guide, Annalita Pollicchia.  To explain how amazing she was I would have to add that I am currently eating traditional cookies from her hometown of Bevagna and her mother’s bakery.  Despite the rivalry between the towns of Bevagna and Montefalco, Annalita was still very fair in representing both cities fairly and in fact we spent a bit more time in Montefalco than Bevagna.

Bevagna (the city we visited earlier in the week, home to the Nocineria and Bottega Assu, was the second town on the Flaminia Road built after Spello and as such is considered a Roman town while Montefalco, built later in the Middle Ages, is from that time period.  Annalita described Montefalco as the “Balcony of Umbria” and spectacular views can be seen from all angles along the ramparts of this walled in town.

We got to town around 10 and the museum opened around 10:30 (i.e. 10:45 Italian time, add 15 minutes) so we grabbed an espresso and sat in the town square (unusual for a town square since it is round!) to see what life is like in the town on a Sunday morning. In fact it was rather quiet, but the coffees were great (four espressos and a plate of Italian style cookies for less than 4 Euros).  Then off to the 14th century church of St. Francis (San Francesco) where you can see the amazing frescoes painted by Benozzo Gozzoli as well as the “Nativity” by Perugino.  Apparently this cycle of frescoes was comparable only to Assisi but contains twelve images only.  The colors of these frescoes are really amazing and some criticize their restoration saying that they cleaned them too much and that the green colors are exaggerated, but the impact is significant.  Gozzoli was painting these in a much different style than the frescoes painted at the Basilica of St. Francis and so the figures are much more attractive and often blond and fair skinned which was the trend at the time.  The museum that houses these gorgeous paintings also houses the ancient monk’s wine cellar with channels cut into the stone to catch the wine as it comes out of the presses and collect it into a trough.  We strolled through the medieval town noticing the incredible pride people have in their flower pots that surround the entryways of their homes.


Off it was to Bevagna, where the two Roman churches face each other across the square.  Bevagna was a border town between the empire and the papacy and as such there are thirty-five churches within the town walls.  While the population has grown to 5,000 the space within the town has not really expanded, so these churches have been reused as supermarkets and cinemas over the years.  The church of San Silvestro built in 1197 was consecrated at the time by an emperor, which was a challenge and an insult to the papacy, so they basically abandoned it and used it as storage.  This luckily means that it is in very good condition.  It also features very unique architecture thought to be brought by the Benedictines as they travelled on their pilgrimages.

The area of Bevagna is fortunate to be at the confluence of multiple rivers and was able to sell their production of hemp, eggs, and bricks to neighboring towns.  Within the town there is an amazing excavation of the Coliseum area.  This former stadium was in ancient times closed and divided and turned into what we would today call work lofts, craftsman’s shops on the ground floor and living quarters above where they were safer from attack.  We visited this Casa Medioevalle with our guide Annalita who helped restore one of these ancient work residences with a friend.  Amazingly they have recreated a water wheel machine that would have either pounded materials to make mortar, felt or paper or run a wheel that would grind flour or olive oil (here the machine does both just to show us, but this would not have been the case back then).  Upstairs you can visit a traditional Roman home where the kitchen it attached to the rest of the room in order to conserve heat.  Hearty stews were made with small pieces of lard that hung from the rafters, in fact everything was hung, meats, cheeses, etc.  Bedrooms were painted bright colors in the spring since throughout the whole winter they burned animal fats for warmth, you can imagine the smell, and most had tuberculosis so they actually had a tiny bed where they slept sitting upright in order to prevent suffocation.  These structures actually date back to the 2nd century AD, it was really interesting to try to imagine life back then.

After our tours it was off to a picnic at Arnaldo Caprai to celebrate the day of Cantine Aperte for Umbria (May 30, 2010)www.movimentoturismovinoit  The winery was bustling with lots of people there to taste and eat and overall the crowd was very young and seemed very excited to be there.  It apparently happens around Italy offering a chance for tasters to visit wineries for the day.  We enjoyed some amazing super fresh mozzarella, like Burrata, but small, super orange and sweet yet firm melon and some amazing prosciutto.  Lunch was of course a repeat of these items plus a pasta with tomato and chicken livers, super al dente in texture and delicious, then grilled local lamb and sausages from Bevagna, and Chianina beef.  We tried some of the experimental trials at the winery, a Syrah, Petit Verdot and Tannat, all 100% and all really amazing.  I was a real fan of the Petit Verdot which although tannic was really delicious and not as herbaceous as you might imagine.

Lunch was followed by a jaunt through the vineyards, and then some time spent relaxing and investigating the local style as we spent some time watching the attendees and enjoying some Grecante.   Arnaldo Caprai winery also hosted a jazz concert with Marco Marconi which was a great endcap to the day as the sun set behind us.  A quick saber of some Billecart Salmon by Marco and then our journey was basically, and sadly, over.  We had a quick bite in Foligno and an interesting beer (!) called 32 Audace and now it’s off to the airport for the grueling journey home.

Hotel Villa dei Platani Viale Mezzetti, 29- 06034 Foligno 39 0742 355839 f 39 3281654025

Bottega di Assu Via Gabriele Crescimbeni, 3- 06031 Bevagna, 39 0742 360059

Arnaldo Caprai Loc. Torre- 06036 Montefalco 39 0742 378802 http://www.arnaldocaprai.it, imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners http://www.foliowine.com

Transportation in Umbria: http://www.Autonoleggio-Umbria.it Gianni 347 3236404

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Journey to Italy Day Five: Perugia, Assisi and Montefalco

30 05 2010

A leisurely morning was spent at the hotel before we embarked to Perugia and met up with a tour guide who showed us the local sights there.  Sylvia, our guide showed us the sites and commented on the town that benefited from their proximity to the Flaminia Road, a Roman road and major connector between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Adriatic over the Apennine mountains.  A unique sight within the town is a gorgeous fountain with carvings that depict the daily life of man at the base of the fountain.  To represent each month of the year there is a carving showing the activities such as pruning vines and tending sheep along to more intellectual pursuits towards the end of the year.  The idea is that over the course of the year through daily life humans move from action to intellect and eventually to spiritual enlightenment represented by the more saintly beings at the next level of the fountain.   The town church is modest compared to richer towns, with only faux marble columns and their one relic is the ring said to be that given from Joseph to Mary.  The town was so lacking in relics back in the day that they tried to actually steal the bodies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, but were unsuccessful.  Apparently relics were vital as they were a source of tourism, so without them your town suffered.

Perugia was a source of some of the best painters in Italy as home to both Perugino, Raphael and Pinturrichio.  The history of the town is rather violent as f conflict between the popes and emperor creating a great deal of turmoil over its history.  One leading family of the town, the Baglioni.  The Baglione family lived in this town but opposed the pope and as such he destroyed the towers that housed their family.  In its place a fortress was built where he sent delegates to control the town, but of course the locals of Perugia hated this as it was an insult and eventually also destroyed most of the fortress and in the process destroying much of their history.  We were shown the ruins of the ancient town that lie under the Piazza Italia as well as the escape route these delegates would take to leave town.  The weirdest thing is that you reach these ruins through a series of escalators, it feels like you are going into the NY Subway, but you are surrounded by ancient stonework.  Nowadays this leads to the underground parking structure (weird!).  One of the folks in our group got her dress caught in the escalator and luckily survived unscathed, but we joked that maybe this was the miracle the town was waiting for and she should sell them the pink shroud of life as their new relic.  We left the town hearing nothing about the chocolates that are named for the town but someone did ask Sylvia about the “Baci” made by Perugino, she said that basically the Baci was a great marketing idea since they used to call the little chocolates “fists”.  Really?

Off we headed for a quick jaunt to Assisi.  I could have stayed in that town all day.  While it seems a bit touristy it was really amazing to see all the incredibly narrow streets running throughout the town.  Our van driver expertly navigated some really tight turns, I wouldn’t even drive a Smart car through this town, it was crazy tight.  We visited the main Roman square where columns of the Minerva temple still sit.  Built in about 100 BC this site has always been a religious site despite the fact that the religion changed over time.  The city of Assisi was a bit smarter than Perugia and never adversarial towards Rome, which means that much of it is preserved.  This square also housed the market and the old metal measures used for silk and bricks can be seen on the wall next to the temple.  Assisi is famous of course for St. Francis, and also St. Clare, and the whole town’s names really resonate to me considering I am so familiar with California and the names of cities inspired by these saints, San Francisco, Santa Clara and even Los Angeles named for the church where Assisi found his inspiration, Santa Maria dei Angeli.  St. Francis was born at the end of the 12th century to an upper class family.  He had an easy life and was given the benefits of education and financial comfort.  He determined that he wanted to go to war at the age of 19 but was captured and imprisoned and his father bailed him out.  Then he decided to follow the Crusades, but got ill not far from home and again had to regroup.  It was at this time that he discovered his path and decided to live by the Gospel.  He had the benefit of being able to address the nobles as well as all levels of society and received entree to talk with the Pope due to his status.  The Pope was being challenged by the Emperor at the time and so the new Franciscan movement that St. Francis proposed seemed like a good option so he actually gave it his blessing.  The tenets of the religion 1. Poverty 2. Chastity and 3. Obedience to the Church, the last two are the longer lasting ideals…  St. Francis was of course also famous for his respect for animals and the environment, he spoke to all creatures calling them all brothers and sisters.  The Basilica of St. Francis is pretty incredible.  The top story is where the public would attend mass, the next level down you find a more spiritual chapel and at the bottom level is the area in which St. Francis is interred.  You can make an offering an buy a candle to be burned at a later time.  It was really moving.  Amazing also to think that here is the birthplace of a religion that ultimately spread across the world and brought winemaking to California with the Franciscan missionaries.  While they were apparently from Spain they evolved from the teachings of St. Francis, and as our guide said, really a missionary has no home but the figurative home of the church.

Off we went to lunch at Hotel La Bastiglia in Spello, a gorgeous restaurant with an incredible view where we dined on a panzanella salad, fresh ricotta, free range pork prosciutto, herbed pecorino cheese and those were just the starters!  I am getting used to this.  These were of course followed by Tagliatelle with Chianina beef as well as a “mixed grill” of pork, beef and sausage.  Just when I thought I could take no more in comes a molten chocolate cake that was incredibly decadent with strawberry sorbet.  We also met Marco’s amazing family including Arnaldo Caprai, he seems ready to take over now…

A quick jaunt through our local town of Foligno and a 20 minute power nap and it was back to work at Arnaldo Caprai where Paolo Biccheri led through a tasting of Montefalco Rosso and Sagrantino de Montefalco from numerous local producers.  My highlights were Tabarrini and of course Arnaldo Caprai.  Then we tasted seven of the latest new wines from Arnaldo Caprai and were met with a gorgeous sunset over the vineyards while we discussed their latest clonal trials.  They are working both with the traditional propagation of Sagrantino as well as using seeds to breed new clones in order to get the best vine material possible.

We headed off to the gorgeous town of Montefalco as the bats were coming out and the sky was a deep indigo and were greeted by Sylvia Santificetur and her husband Achille, who just happen to be parents of Maria Assunta’s grandson, the couple we met at lunch the day before.  They own Spiritodivino, a gorgeous restaurant that has been getting incredible press lately http://www.spiritodivino.net.  It was another one of those nights when the food and company were so wonderful it was hard to take notes, but highlights were an artichoke served with cauliflower puree and a poached egg as well as a 1996 Sagrantino de Montefalco.

Now it’s off to Montefalco and back to Bevagna for a tour and then onto the winery where they are having an open house and concert!