Sunday, 4 August 2013

Our House in Umbria

In 2003, author William Trevor published a novella called ‘My House in Umbria’ that was later produced into a tele-movie staring Maggie Smith. The film was highly successful and received a host of Emmy awards. However more significantly, the spin-off from all this publicity was that it suddenly resulted in a much greater awareness of Umbria. Up until then this relatively small region of Italy had tended to be overlooked, being somewhat overshadowed by nearby Tuscany, which had provided the idyllic setting for so many popular books and movies. The fact is that Umbria was always just as picturesque as Tuscany and to anyone other than the Italians, it had tended to remain a hidden treasure. Having spent a little time in Tuscany a few years ago, we were now keen to discover a little bit more about Umbria for ourselves. So Jules set about finding a little house where we could base ourselves while exploring the region and also allow us to experience just a taste of Umbrian life.

The most obvious choice was the regional capital of Umbria, Perugia. As we were to discover later, it is a very picturesque old town that sits high on a hill, with an impressive array of grand buildings and chapels overlooking the beautiful Umbrian countryside. Its central piazza is wide and impressive with a large central fountain in the centre that looks much like a very large wedding cake. Perugia is essentially a university town that attracts students from all around the world and as a result it is quite large with more modern suburbs stretching out from its centre. While it certainly had some appeal, we thought that it might be a little too big for us and as it turned out it was. We were looking for a town that was smaller, a little more intimate and with the original classical architectural features you would expect in this part of the world but with some of the more modern conveniences. Somewhere that was a bit like us … with a love for good food, fine wine and a healthy appreciation for the arts … in other words, the perfect Italian town! Not surprisingly, Jules with her exhaustive research managed to find just such a place … Spoleto!

Having selected the town, the next trick was trying to find the best place to stay. Fortunately Jules managed to find a little gem! Set on several acres and tucked away on the hillside overlooking the town was a rustic little house that was simply advertised as an ‘artists retreat’. From here we could enjoy the stunning views and find a touch of isolation in the Italian countryside, while still being within easy walking distance to the town … perfetto! It was only shortly before our arrival that we learnt a little more about the significance of this particular house which would further add to its appeal. It turns out that it had once been the residence of the celebrated American abstract artist Sol LeWitt who had moved to Italy during the 1980’s. He had clearly been attracted to this town not only for its beauty but also by its progressive acceptance to modern art. During the early 1960’s another great artist Alexander Calder had set the trend by building and donating an enormous sculptural piece entitled ‘Teodelapio’, which still stands like a large black sentinel in front of the railway station. Later in 1967 the progressive American designer Buckminster Fuller also visited to supervise the construction of what he called the ‘Spoletosphere’, which was a work based upon his theories of geodesic dome construction. Over the years many other modern sculptures have appeared in and around the town, often providing a stunning contrast to the backdrop of classical renaissance architecture. Of course Spoleto’s association with the arts has not just been limited to the fine arts and it certainly was way ahead of it’s time during the 1950’s in establishing a world renowned music festival that still continues to draw big crowds to this day.

So it was with much anticipation that we finally arrived in Spoleto in the height of summer, although you wouldn’t have known it looking at the green shades of the countryside. The house and the town was everything that we had imagined. Both had the type of character and beauty that only seems to come with age and having witnessed numerous significant passages of history. The elevated views of the town were quite something, as were the outlooks provided by the walking trails at the back of the house that took us up through the woods to the tiny town of Monteluca. Another well worn track led us down toward Spoleto itself, where we would cross the 13th century aqueduct (an engineering marvel in itself) and past the imposing Rocco Albornoziana Fortress, both of which look particularly evocative at night under lights.

In the town the excitement of its annual music festival had subsided and life was now settling back into its regular laid back mode. At this time of year there were far fewer tourists and those who did come were quite happy to just marvel at its celebrated frescoes or wander the streets photographing the many picturesque laneways. For Jules the attraction was, as always, the food. There was an outstanding range of restaurants where the local pasta specialty ‘strangozzi’ could be washed down with a deep red Sagrantino wine from nearby Montefalco. She particularly enjoyed the freshly carved ‘porchetta’ on baked bread, as well the overwhelming selection of cured meats. This is also the home of the prized black truffle, which seemed to be added to just about every dish, much like we would use salt or pepper. Naturally the gelati also figured prominently during our many walks around the town, although we never did manage to work our way through all the flavours.

Some days we wouldn’t even leave the house, but would be quite satisfied to just live the life of ‘would be Italians’. Inspired by freshly bought produce and some newfound knowledge about cooking truly authentic Italian dishes, Jules would enthusiastically take to the kitchen. I on the other hand, would head for the garden to paint, inspired by both the setting and the creative energy that the house itself provided. Our time in Spoleto would be all too brief, only three weeks, but so eminently memorable. We will no doubt reminisce about the time we spent here for many years to come and I suspect that we will not be able to resist the temptation of referring to the place in which we stayed as ‘our house in Umbria’.

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