Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

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Italy’s Heart Beats in Umbria

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PANICALE, Umbria — Umbria is comfortable perched in the shade — not the shadow, the shade — of its more renowned neighbor, Tuscany.

While the Etruscans fashioned a culture that became identified as Florentine, Umbria wove its history through such hillside towns as Assisi, Gubbio, Orvieto, Perugia, Spello and Todi, all within an hour from this castle-cum-village plunked atop a hill midway between Rome and Florence.

Umbria wraps around most of Lake Trasimeno, the fourth largest lake on the peninsula, on the edge of the Pisa-Florence-Sienna triangle. Hills quilted with chestnut, oak, olive and grape roll away from its shores and house dozens of villages.

Panicale is also called the Balcony of Lake Trasimeno because of its panoramic view of the lake.

It also offers a peek into both medieval and modern living. Piazza Umberto I is built around the town’s 500-year-old fountain and is the town’s living room.

Newlyweds have wedding photos taken here. Locals begin and end their days here over espresso and wine. They stop gossiping only to stand up for crucifix-led funeral processions chanting the Pater Noster (Our Father) on their way down from the massive 1,000-year-old Umbrian gothic Church of St. Michael the Archangel that dominates the town.

Most of their city shopping in the Tuscany town of Arezzo, less than an hour north. Sometimes they shop in the capital and commercial hub of Umbria, Perugia, just 30 minutes away.

On a hillside within viewing distance from Perugia is Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, the founder of the religious order that established the string of 21 missions forming the backbone of California.

His remains are housed in the basilica named after him, as are those of St. Clair entombed in the church named after her at the opposite end of town. Both churches are decorated with heart-stirring frescoes, which are everywhere — inside and outside buildings in every community throughout the region.

A small church in Panicale (the town once had seven) houses a famous fresco – The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian. It was painted in 1505 by Piero di Cristoforo Vanucci, known as Il Perugino, whose most famous pupil was Raphael.

There’s a bit of local history story attached to this painting.

On each side of this landmark Renaissance work are two small groups of faceless bystanders watching Roman soldiers fire arrows into the martyr’s body. To make a fresco, the painter puts in the colors while the plaster is still wet. The people in these groups were the patrons of the painting and Il Perugino found out they weren’t going to finish paying him, so he painted their faces after the plaster dried. That’s why they have no faces now.

Il Perugino was summoned by Pope Sixtus IV in 1481 to paint a portion of the Sistine Chapel. His “Charge to Peter” is still on view in the Vatican.

This artistic bent has filtered down to artisans. It’s evident everywhere but you can see it clearly just an hour away in Deruta, the ceramic capital of central Italy. Its shops offer baked and glazed clay in all shapes, sizes, designs and colors.

Gubbio, tucked into Umbria’s northeastern corner at the foot of the Apennines, gives you a look at what medieval life looked like. People still live in 1,000-year-old houses and work in 1,000-year-old workshops. And they attend outdoor productions at a 2,000-year-old 15,000-seat open-air Roman theater.

You can drive here, of course, but trains are best for taking you into the heart of Italy’s major cities.

Taking to the road is not the nightmare some would lead you to believe. Motorists tend to tailgate but all you have to do is get out of the way. There are many roadside pull-over areas to let drivers get by. They’ll even give you a beep-beep “thank you” as they pass.

Rather than drive, we walked four kilometers (about 2 1/2 miles) to the neighboring village of Paciano for lunch. And that’s another part of what fun things to experience besides the heart and history of Italy– the cuisine.

The food merits a story in itself — local pastas, regional salamis, veal, gelato, wild boar, roast rabbit, truffles, guinea fowl, fresh produce and salads, piquant olive oil, wine without additives, the list is endless.

A Yorkshire resident who visits Umbria regularly, said it all: “You just can’t find bad food here.”

Written by Cecil Scaglione

December 6, 2021 at 3:00 am

Posted in Italy

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Roman Festival Brightens Umbrian Hillside

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“Why not drop around on Sunday,” Riccardo suggested, “We’ll have a few artichokes.”

The retired Alitalia pilot was our landlord when we arrived in Panicale, a medieval central-Italy castle-town. He and his wife, Mariolina, were friends when we left.

This fortress overlooks Lake Trasemino, the peninsula’s fourth largest lake, to the north, the manicured Tuscan countryside to the west, and the rolling Umbrian hills to the south and east. This body of water still soaks some 25,000 thousand Roman soldiers drowned here by Hannibal more than 2,000 years ago.

Our landlords opted out of big-city living in Rome several years ago and occupied our spacious apartment while they built a picture-book home in a hill-clinging olive grove just below the town’s centuries-old walls.

“I bought this apartment because when I look out that (living room) window, that’s Umbria,” he said.

The Umbria you see is the reddish-yellow brick-and-rock front of the Church of St. Michael the Archangel (one of seven churches in this village) leaning on a restaurant by an archway that frames the main piazza with its 500-year-old fountain and bars, hair salons, stationery and gift shops, and small groups of standing and sitting locals sorting out the various problems of the day.

We knew we were in for something special as we approached the lane sloping into their farmyard. It was like breaking into an opera.

About three dozen people wearing the full array of bright yellows, reds, greens – pick a color – were milling about chittering, chattering, and chanting in that Italian sing song from which arias emerge. The accompaniment was provided by Riccardo’s tractor as it hauled dead olive branches to a pile resembling a titanic tumbleweed.

“You don’t work, you don’t eat,” was Mariolina’s mandate.

Our immediate chore was to gather mint leaves off the plant stems and chop the stocks off the artichokes – shopping-cart-sized mounds of them. Then the mint leaves were minced with garlic and olive oil. The artichoke are given a good slam on the ground to soften them so their hearts centers can be opened up and crammed with the mint-leave-garlic-oil mixture.

Through all this, you had to balance wine with oil-soaked bread, cheese, fresh fava beans, and more wine before the fire is ready.

It was at this point that Mariolina explained these artichoke afternoons are a traditional Roman ritual because the plant originates in the region south of the capital.

The giant pile of shrubbery is burned and the ashes raked into a flat lava-like bed of coals.

Then you have to tuck your artichoke into the coals to cook. You only get to eat the one you cooked.

Again, the operatic metaphor arose as each person displayed a distinctive dance pirouetting around the blistering mound. It takes about 45 minutes for the artichokes to cook in this manner, which gave everyone time to sample more wine with the sausages and pork barbecued on a fire fed with larger chunks of trimmed olive wood.

Then flowed the desserts, all of them home-made.

This operatic event marked the end of our five week stay that included jaunts to the nearby cities and towns that dot our imaginations and the Italian landscape – Assisi, Siena, Orvieto, Cortona, Spello, Perugia, all within an hour’s drive of here – and Rome, Florence, and Pisa, each a couple of hours away.

But we also took a harder look out our window. There it was Panicale. Umbria. Italy.

Written by Cecil Scaglione

November 4, 2021 at 5:00 am