Strolling Spello and Foligno

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Tuesday morning we hung around the house and Spello through the morning light drizzle. Larry and Evan took a long walk down, up and around town. From the top near the Rocca you can see the outline of where the Roman theater was.

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We had a nice long lunch at La Cantina in Spello. The antipasti of salads and the roast lamb were outstanding.

 

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I had been wanting to get to the Palazzo Trinci, a Romanesque building that had been rebuilt in the Gothic style in the 14th century. We parked in the Porta Romana garage again, and walked through the pedestrian zone to Piazza della Republica. The Duomo has a gorgeous façade, with highly stylized Romaesque carvings. Find your zodiac sign above the door.

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From the street, you enter into the Palazzo’s large brick courtyard, with a tall Gothic staircase to climb to the ticket office. (The staff were very accommodating about leading me to elevators. With no other visitors that we could see, it at least gave them something to do!)

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The top floor has a large picture gallery, which we quickly went through, not finding much of great interest. But after enduring a few rooms of dreary low-level religious art, you get tot he heart of the Palazzo–a series of rooms decorated in the 15th century with secular themes, very unusual. Documents discovered in the Trinci family archives led to the discovery of the artist, Gentile da Fabriano and his workshop. There’s a loggia illustrating the story of the founding of Rome, and up a little flight of stairs a jewel box of a chapel with the life of Mary.

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And then a fascinating room featuring the Liberal Arts on two walls; and the Planets on the others. (the people in this room were having a meeting–the only other people we saw inside!) The Liberal Arts are all women working at assorted tasks with props, it is fun to find Geometry, Arithmetic, Philosophy, Music, etc.

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Here’s a corridor which leads to the Duomo. On one side are heroes from antiquity, and the other, Ages of Man. How’s this for a cozy room? Enormous emperors staring down at you.

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Downstairs are several rooms of Roman bits and pieces, a wonderful little gothic stairway with original geometric decoration (ask the staff to let you in there if it’s closed off), and black and white Roman floors in the basement. We also wandered and found a series of rooms about the Foligno Quintana, with a few fun videos of the parade and joust.

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We walked out into the late afternoon, hearing nothing but Italian around us. Another marvelous regional museum, in a non-touristy town, with no one inside. Do go!

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Valnerina Wandering

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Evan was arriving in Rome Monday morning. The plan was for him to take the train from Fumicino up to Orte, where we’d pick him up. There were several places I wanted to get to in southern Umbria, so this worked well.

Another beautiful sunny day. We drove down past Trevi, the headed on to the sp 209, a road which climbs up, over, and occasionally tunnels through the mountainous landscape. We stopped to wander some tiny hilltowns, church hunting with the aid of Bill Thayer’s website. We never did find San Felice di Narco, and the churches in tiny Vallo di Nera were locked up tight., with Santa Maria looking quite the worse for wear (or earthquakes). Wandering around the five medieval streets of Vallo, we found two little kittens playing in a flowerpot. Larry would not let me take them home, happily they looked well fed and healthy. Scheggio was a particularly pretty town, with a river underneath the hilltop town.

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One of the churches high in my list was San Pietro in Valle. It was founded in the 8th century, and the present Abbey was built in the early 12th century, with some of the earliest frescoes in Umbria. To get there, we took an extremely steep, winding road up and up and up, praying that we’d not meet a car coming down the other way. The road ends at the Abbey, where the church and cloister have been preserved and are open, the other Abbey buildings are a small hotel. You’ve got to love peace and quiet to stay there!

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Now this is what I’d been looking for. What a wonderful old church. On the left side are Old Testament scenes; with New Testament on the right. All along the walls are Roman sarcophagi and other bits and pieces; there are 15th century frescoes in the apse, a Medieval Lombard altar, all kinds of fascinating things. And amazingly, the custodian has a pamphlet with a map and details on everything inside the church.

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The simple cloister has been preserved, along with a Roman carved pedestal where the monks had ground off the naughty dancers. There’s an early Christian inscription above a doorway.

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Afterward we briefly stopped in the pretty hilltown of Arrone, but it being Monday, were having trouble finding an open restaurant. I was about to settle for a bar panini when we found a place on the road, featuring fish. After a week of meat and pasta, fish sounded great. Simple place, simple food. We shared an antipasto of prawns in salsa verde, and then a pasta with spicy tomato sauce, and I had trout with truffles. We struck up conversation with a family at the next table, who had just been to the Marmore Falls. We had just enough time for a visit before needing to heat to Orte, so we set off.

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Cascata delle Marmore were initially devised by those clever Romans, who cut channels to divert water away from flood plains. There are three levels, and now the water is used by industry and for hydraulic power. The flow is turned on and off periodically, so visitors should probably check to see when it will be at its strongest flow. When we arrived shortly before 3, we heard a loud siren–the sound of the falls being turned on. At first the falls were pretty but not overwhelming, but within a few minutes it had grown to a thunderous flow, with spray and mist enveloping us on the walkway. You can take paths all the way up to the top, which I would love to do someday with a stronger knee.

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Drove to Orte, scooped up the jetlagged Evan, stopped at Lufra for more bufala and a few pastries, and went home. Dinner was cheese and salumi, and defrosted lentil soup. And I seem to have developed a gross cold, ugh.

Slowly Sunday

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We slept in Sunday morning, so wanted a lowkey late morning excursion. The sun was shining, promising a beautiful day after last night’s storm. We headed out to Bevagna, a sweet little town with a charming medieval core–and unusually, a flat topography. It was a Roman town, and has some interesting traces left in its walls, some mosaics and the remains of baths. Today, we parked just outside the gate. There were a few “antique” stands set up, with lots of local nonna’s attic leftovers after the family has finished squabbling over the good stuff. We strolled around, admiring the pretty Piazza Silvestri with fountain and Roman column, going down narrow streets, ducking into churches–the 12th century San Silvestro, the Baroque San Domenico. There was a service going on inside San Michelle so we didn’t go in, just enjoyed hearing the singing from outside. But I loved the exterior carvings of an angel, dragon and saint.

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More wandering, stopping every now and then to look around. We were too late to see the Roman baths and Mosaics, so we’ll come back another day for those. For lunch, we followed Letizia’s recommendation for Antiche Sere. We sat at one of the outside tables next to two sweet older guys who were fun to talk with, they’re running two of the antique stalls. As is our usual, we split two courses. What was unusual was that the restaurant actually plated each separately on pretty little plates, instead of plunking down the dish with a side plate as an afterthought. We started with the day’s pasta special, strongozzi with an fantastic sauce of duck. I think this was the best pasta we’d had so far. Then we had excellent rabbit, stuffed and served with roasted potatoes and tomatoes. We also had a crisp green salad. All delicious well executed rustic cooking. We couldn’t resist, and shared a slice of fragrant lemon torta for dessert.

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We wanted to go over to Montefalco for the harvest festival, but it seemed like everyone in Umbria and Rome had the same idea. We drove all around town looking for parking, none to be had. People were even parked on fragile looking edges of hillsides, in corners of parking lots so no one could get by, all down the long steep roads into town. It looked jammed, and so we gave up, deciding to just drive around the area.

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By luck, we chanced into finding a local producer open, where a nice couple from Rome were in for their “usual”–a case of wine and a few cans of olive oil. The wife very seriously told me his oil was the best thing for the skin. And I will say, she had a beautiful complexion. Anyway, we enjoyed tasting and talking, explaining again that no, we don’t have Italian family, we come to Italy because we love it, and thank you for complementing Larry’s Italian. Francesco Botti, via Todi 37, Montefalco. Francesco is sweet and speaks a bit of English, and his Sagrantino and Passito are gorgeous.

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Back in Spello, went church hunting for S. Claudio, a Romanesque church just outside the Spello walls that supposedly has some nice frescoes. Closed up tight. (and after calling in at the tourist office, we were told that it only gets opened for weddings. )Spent time hanging out on the porch , then raided the fridge for a light dinner.

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Stormy Weather

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Saturday morning before the forecasted rains set in, we drove out to find the Abbey of Sansovito. High on a hill overlooking Foligno, the Abbey is a 11th century Benedictine monastery that in its time had significant holdings. It is now partly owned by a religious community, and partly by the state. There is a large archeological work underway, but you can still see the magnificent cloister and some of the other parts of the buildings.

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The graceful cloister was built in 1229, with pieces brought from Rome. And amazingly, the stonemasons name is known–Pietro de Maria, whose name is on a plaque on the cloister. There are 158 double rows of columns, many twisted, with pretty lily decorations. Above, there are remnants of gorgeously detailed geometric mosaics, which shine in the sun. One side has Romanesque terra cotta carvings, and an inscription. The floor has an odd shape, and we realized that there is a cistern underneath the elaborate well. One wall has a charming 14th century fresco of the Madonna.

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Walking underneath, there is a loggia with fresco fragments (rather clumsily enhanced) from the 15th century. Further on, you can go into the crypt and some recently restored rooms,used for meetings and functions. There’s an overgrown garden, and views up to the olives and pines, or down to the busy valley. Absolutely silent, it’s a wonderful spot.

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We drove through Foligno, then Santa Maria de Angeli, then drove up the mountain behind Assisi to Letizia’s house. Letizia is a cooking teacher who with her husband owns a B&B named Madonna del Piatto, after a ceramic plate painted with a Madonna was found on their property. Letizia and Ruud are entomologists who left academia for a rural lifestyle. I’ve known Letizia online for years, and hosted a cooking class by her when she was on a book tour in the spring. (Her cookbook is marvelous, and her B&B charming, by the way)

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We had a wonderful afternoon, with of course fantastic lunch and conversation with the family and some repeat guests, also New Englanders with passion for Europe. A dramatic rain and hailstorm came through hopefully replenishing some of the water supply after this years drought.

We left, and along the way stopped at the fruit and vegetable shop Letizia told us about, and then found a very nice fresh pasta shop in back of her butcher. Tomorrow nights dinner sorted. We headed into Foligno for the Cortea , the medieval parade held the night before the Giostra di Quintana , a traditional horseback and jousting contest. Foligno is a rather ugly-around-the-edges town which does not get much tourist attention, which is a shame, as the old centro is interesting. It has an attractively “real” atmosphere., with teens flirting and business people striding home or shopping in the shops along the main street.

In Foligno, we were lucky to find parking in one of the lots that ring the old center of town. Many people were filling the town. Each neighborhood competes in the Giostra, and also has a parade of horses and people in renaissance costumes. That night, the order of the competitors are announced, and each neighborhood hosts a taverna of food and drink. In walking around, we found that most of the taverna tables were already reserved, and at 8 weren’t nearly ready to open. We figured we’d just grab a light dinner, and took a chance on a little place. It was fine, but nothing special. Meanwhile, periodic showers would start and stop. By 9:30, masses of people we’re heading to the Piazza near the Duomo. We followed, stopping for a gelato from Crispini (pistachio and chocolate) along the way.

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There was a huge screen showing the horses, floats and costumed marchers entering the square, lots of mysterious announcements, and everyone milled around waiting for them to start circling through the streets. Finally, the drumming sounded like it was moving, and the procession of neighborhood groups started moving out. Colorful, elaborate costumes, decorated horses, drummers and musicians–it was quite a show, though rather difficult to photograph with a cellphone.

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All of a sudden, the light drizzle turned into a torrential downpour. The marchers continued for a few minutes, but with buckets of rain, and most Italian’s dislike of wet weather–people started scrambling for whatever semi-dry spot they could find. Here’s a short video of a part of the parade.

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One handsome drummer sheltered with us against a building, muttering “Disastro!” It quickly became obvious that people were going to give up in order to save their costumes (many of which would be worn for the Giostra tomorrow), and so marchers and bystanders started dispersing. It was a wet walk back to the car.

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But, yes, it was a slice of Foligno

Friday

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On Friday, the only thing on the schedule was meeting some people for lunch in the hills above Marsciano. We decided to take the highway up and around instead of the small roads across to the western part of Umbria. In my trip research, I had found mention of an Etruscan archaeological site near Perugia. Always happy to look for something offbeat, we located it on Google Maps, once again braving the Bermuda Triangle of roads surrounding Perugia. After a few roundabots and underpasses, we saw a little brown sign for the Ipogeo di Volumnii near where the train tracks go under an underpass. We pulled into the little parking lot, looked around uncertainly, and then found the little building on the road. Inside was a young woman only too delighted to have visitors, who gave us some printouts in English.

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Discovered in 1840 was a set of 2nd and 1st century B.C. Etruscan tombs, containing many funerary tombs with wonderful carvings. All around the new stairs leading down to the main tomb are arranged the urns, grouped by design–medusa heads, carvings of mythological figures, battle scenes, matrimonial figures, floral designs, etc. Worn by time, but exceptionally beautiful. You can go down the steep stairs to see the tomb, which was arranged into rooms with some inscriptions remaining on the walls.

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After climbing a path up the hillside above the tombs (with a trucks whizzing by on the overpass) we found an area of more recent excavations, including one where you can go down the earth stairs into a small tomb, which still has the fain carved roof lines that were made to look like wooden beams, and the designs of columns and acorns on the walls.

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Down another path is a small museum, which contains more finds, including fragments of metal shinguards, vessels, even an ancient large spinning game. Also here are some particularly well preserved urns, featuring mythological scenes, reclining married couple portraits, and even traced of the original paint. (and oh, a nice clean bathroom)

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This is a wonderful place to visit, I highly recommend it.

As we headed toward Deruta, I wanted to revisit one of the churches I had most enjoyed , Santuario Madonna dei Bagni. It is off the E45 highway down a little side road–which has a “road closed” sign on it. We tried accessing the road from the other side, and found another road closed sign. We decided to be Italian and ignore the sign, and found the road continued across the highway, and over to the church–but from the other side, the road was indeed under construction. In any case, we were able to get there.

According the legend, in the 17th century a man found a broken ceramic tile with the picture of the Virgin, and nailed it to a tree. A few years later his wife got ill, and he returned to the tre to pray for her recovery. Upon returning home, he discovered his wife recovered. He had a tile made to thank the Virgin. Since then, people have commissioned ex voto tiles which have been put on the church walls. An Ex Voto was a physical form of prayer to ask for healing, or give thanks after a recovery. All sorts of calamities can be seen on the tiles, which date from 1643 to the present. Prayers for recovery after falls out of windows or off horses, fires, childbirth, farming accidents, war, childhood illness, even car accidents.

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Many of the tiles were stolen or broken during a break-in in 1980, but since they were so well documented, they were recreated. You can find the first, original one under glass at the back of the altar. The church is generally open in the mornings, call if you want to be sure of entry. The buildings around the Sanntuario are also home to an organization which helps people, rebuild their lives, you can leave a donation with them.

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We drove the short distance into the low hillsides about Marsciano, to the agriturismo restaurant owned by friends of Barb and Art’s. Barb and Art lived in this area for 7 years before moving back to the US a few years ago. Also at the long, fun lunch were Andrew (former fellow Moderator from SlowTrav who has a place in Umbertide) and wife Margaret, and Mac and Karen. Lots of good food, good conversations.

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We had made an appointment with Giaccomo at Ceramiche Mori in Deruta at 4, and after some driving back and forth along the road, found the factory door along the side of a building. They don’t ordinarily sell retail, but as we were “friends of friends” we got to see their workshop and look over the display room and commission some pieces. I loved a delicate design of flowers and fruits, which they will use on two platters and a bowl. All at very good prices–as a matter for fact, shipping would be the same cost! They’ll try to finish them before we leave next week so we can take them with us. We also went to Sberna and Ubaldo, two places where I’ve bought in the past. Nothing jumped out at me at Sberna, but I did leave Ubaldo with a bowl and a nice conversation with the owner, who I remembered from our last visit.

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Back home, I made some eggplant parmesean using Letizia’s recipe, with a simple salad, a lovely light dinner.

 

Assisi and Around

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On Thursday we drove the short distance to Assisi, and parked at the S.Pietro lot. As we were walking toward the Basilica SanFrancesco, we found that the street leading up to the Basilica was blocked of by security officials and police. We were told to climb the stairs, along with hordes of grumpy tour groups. When Larry pointed out my cane, they agreed to let me walk up the street. Though in true Italy fashion, the security people at the top would not let me go, so sent me back down the hill. No one quite knew what was happening in the Piazza outside the Basilica, eventually an officer told us it was a political event, with an audience of school children.

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Anyway, I climbed the series of stairs, hooray for me. Well worth the trek, as the structure is immense and amazing that it simple supports itself, all that stone. The fresco work inside is dizzying in its amount, variety, and mixture of artistry and artistic near-misses. No photos allowed, so I’m using some I found online. The lower church is completely enveloped in frescoes, with bands of geometric designs separating the paintings. Add to that patterned floors, rich color and pattern, heavy shadow, crowds, and a guard who periodically shouts “silencio !” Over a loudspeaker. It’s a bit overwhelming. But once we sat ourselves down in different areas and took the time to really look at discrete sections with the obsessive details from an Assisi guidebook, it was wonderful. My favorites were the 14th century Saint Martin Chapel, the Giottos in the right transept and the Cimabue Madonna. Larry went down to the Crypt, I elected to spare my knees.

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I was struck by how quickly the tour groups were moved through the place, although it was good to see some of them seated listening to a leader who knew the art. We walked up to the relatively airy Upper church, and found it almost deserted. We walked the circuit of the Giotto St Francis frescoes, trying to guess the narrative of each for a little fun, then looking at the guidebook. The frescoes are lovely, chock full of details and imaginatively rendering of the story of St Francis.

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Back outside, we walked up the street to the Piazza Commune, stopping in two tiny churches along the way, the Oratoria dei Pelligrini  and one other. Old houses, fountains, lots to admire as nuns, priests and monastics walk by. Many shops selling junk, but sone interesting ones as well if you look around corners.

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The Piazza is charming, fronted by the facade of the first century Temple of Minerva, turned into the Church of St Mary in the 15th century. The interior is heavily Baroque, with huge gilded angels smiling down at you. Inside is heavy Baroque, and I liked the gilded angels looking down at us. . Also surrounding the Piazza are several palaces. Larry particularly liked the official measures used in the day, at the bottom of the 13th century tower of the Palace. Oh, and a fascinating fresco “grotesque” under a loggia, a 16th century take on the Domus Aurea, complete with naughty bits. Since it was such a beautiful day, we decided to not go to the several museums, saving them for a wetter day.

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We stopped into Chiesa Nuova, supposedly the site of the house of St. Francis’ parents. We found most notable a little cell where supposedly Francis’s father imprisoned him when he renounced his wealth and family position. Kids, don’t piss off Papa. I had really wanted to get to the Domus excavations down the hill, but it was closed. Another time. We found Santa Maria Maggiore down another hill, with some lovely early frescoes.

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Unfortunately the crypt was closed. It was obvious that many of the “lesser” sights were closed for the lunchtime pausa, so we decided to do the same. We walked down the long but mercifully easy to walk street from Santa Maria back to the parking lot, and headed to Santa Maria degli Angeli.

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Our local friend Letizia had recommended La Basilica for simple, traditional cooking. We shared a wonderful antipasti of perfectly friend vegetables, crunchy and not at all heavy. Zucchini, eggplant, beans, cauliflower, olives, zucchini flowers, all delicious. Then I had pasta with cherry tomatoes and porcini; and Larry had pasta with a Norcina sauce (sausage, truffles, cream) Good food, lovely host.

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After lunch we toured the not terribly charming Santa Maria, where nevertheless  I adored the tiny little hut inside, a reminder of Francis’s huts and supposedly where he founded the order. Google “Porziuncola Chapel” to see the wonderful photos of the exterior and the interior frescoes. Obviously a venerated space, people were sitting in contemplation and prayer inside. If you follow the little corridor, it leads to a rose garden  of thornless roses, and a little chapel with some lovely frescoes.

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We though a nice drive would be a good plan for the afternoon, so took the 444 out of Assisi. It winds and twists as it skirts the mountain ridge, giving great views way over to the Appinenes and down into valleys. It’s a good road, and you pass through a couple of small isolated towns.

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We then turned south at Cerqueto, and got off at Nocera Umbra. This is an off the beaten path town with a long history and an archaeological museum we’d like to get back to. I had read in Bill Thayer’s journal of a Roman wall and bridge in the area–in spite of crisscrossing a few times, we never found them. We did chance across a Museum of Textiles in little Valtopina, unfortunately, you guessed it, closed.

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We stopped in Foglino to scope out parking for Saturday night’s Medieval parade for the Quintana, and to see of Gelateria Crispini, who recently was named as having the best pistachio, really is all that. Foglino has a large underground garage at Porta Romana, and while the outskirts are ugly as sin, the old centro is full of life and charming–kids hanging out, business people having a drink before heading home, real shops for shoes and vacuum cleaners. And while I don’t know about the gelato being the best, the pistachio and bacio were pretty damn good.

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Back home, we stopped by the store to get a few groceries, and I was delighted to find zucchini flowers in great condition. I used the recipe I learned from a cooking class in Bologna, stuffing them with a bit of ricotta and lemon zest, and then simply sautéing them instead of frying in batter. Very delicate this way, and you can actually taste the vegetable.

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Rest Day

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Wednesday morning was beautifully clear, and we wanted to do less running around. So after a lazy morning at home, we first stopped by Spello’s weekly market at the bottom of the hill. Many trucks with clothing and housewares, plants for gardens, a porchetta truck, and some stands selling “antiques.” No produce, sadly.

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We then drove south. just past Trevi, and found the Tempietto del Clittuno. It is on the old road that parallels the highway, near the Fonti del Clittuno, an ancient spring that is now a pretty park. The Tempietto was built in the 4th or 5th centuries using Roman fragments from the area. It’s a darling structure, with the weathered columns set high. If you squint, you can see that two of them were carved to look like palm trees. Climbing the stairs, you enter into a tiny chapel with carvings and 7th century faded frescoes of Jesus, and Saints Peter and Paul. Set above the river, near an old mill with no one around but the bored girl in the little ticket office, its an evocative place.

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From there, we drove the short distance to Trevi, a hilltown that rises dramatically from the valley floor. There are some interesting churches and sights up there, which we decided to save for another day.

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We did stop at the Renaissance church of Madonna delle Lacrime, to see the Perugino frescoes. Closed up tight. Larry called the local tourist office, and was told someone would open it at four.

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We took a drive up the hillsides around Trevi, which are thickly blanketed with olive trees. I had considered renting a place up in these hills, and wanted to check out the area to see if it was as remote as I’d thought..  The road was quite good, except for the final stretch up to Campbello Alto. A miniscule town, stone buildings, deserted but for a small dog who thought we were the best thing he’d seen in weeks. Beautiful views down to the valley, with slopes of olives and some villages perched on hillsides. I noticed that the olive trees on one slope were browned and dead, wonder what happened to them?

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By now we were hungry. I found on the map a hotel ad restaurant up the hill, we called, and were told they were open for lunch. La Fontanella had a pretty terrace under the trees, where a group of business people were eating huge platters of antipasti while simultaneously talking on their phones. We had a long, wine-drenched lunch, accompanied by a friendly old dog who looked like he’d been eating pasta four times daily. As usual, we split everything. One house antipasto platter of local salumi and crostini with assorted toppings, a pasta with truffles, a simple salad, and grilled lamb, which came out on its own tabletop grill.  All this, and the owner didn’t think we ordered enough! Good food, nice place to spend time on a lazy day. And I got to admire the owner’s infant granddaughter.

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It was nearly four when we finished, so w headed back to the church outside Trevi. Still closed. We were going to meet some online acquaintances in Spello, so we figured we’d try another time, and headed back home.

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Back in Spello, we enjoyed hosting Mac and Karen from Texas for conversation and wine in the garden. Larry walked them back down the hill, and I did some reading and writing, then threw together a salad for dinner. After dinner, we spent a fun evening chatting with the Canadians in the other apartments, contributing to the enormous bin of empty wine bottles accumulating.