Green and peasant land
Ah, the joys of unspoilt Umbria. The perfect place to get back to basics: ciabatta, olive oil, pecorino and truffles washed down with a rough country red, says Jeremy Atiyah. But it takes a certain type of Brit to appreciate these simple pleasures, of course
Monday 12 May 2003
Hi. I'm a Brit, on holiday in Italy with my woman, looking for wines and olive oils and truffles and mushrooms and all that. Nothing fancy. Just good honest, simple food. You see, people like us, we understand the secrets of Italian life. And peasant food, I can tell you, is one of them, alongside a jolly good dollop of culture, such as church frescoes and medieval villages and crumbling abbeys and what-have-you. With no plebs, anywhere. This is what I call a holiday. You see, we are on an
Hi. I'm a Brit, on holiday in Italy with my woman, looking for wines and olive oils and truffles and mushrooms and all that. Nothing fancy. Just good honest, simple food. You see, people like us, we understand the secrets of Italian life. And peasant food, I can tell you, is one of them, alongside a jolly good dollop of culture, such as church frescoes and medieval villages and crumbling abbeys and what-have-you. With no plebs, anywhere. This is what I call a holiday. You see, we are on an organised walk.
And it starts here, in this awfully nice town called Spoleto. I admit it's covered in rain and cloud at the moment, and the centre of town is scruffy and clogged with funny little cars. But look here, these medieval stones are cracked and bleached to perfection. Everything is mouldy and rotten, but characterful as hell. Guttering gurgles. Dank lanes wind through the town. Shops offer giant dusty cheeses the size of tractor tyres, stinking truffles and hairy legs of dried ham. Stepping under a 2,000-year-old archway, we enter the main square, where some Spoletano in a van is cutting slices from a whole wild boar stuffed with rosemary. My woman and I, we love all this primitive, authentic stuff.
The next morning it's time to get going, with our maps and route instructions, while a terrific character called Luca takes charge of our luggage. "We Italians wouldn't walk it, you know," he keeps chortling. "You are sure you want to walk? Sure you don't want a lift?" What an amusing fellow. We praise him and pat him on the back for his guileless charm.
Meanwhile, the weather has rather gone to pot. In truth, it's a let's-go-back-to-sleep sort of day. Except that my woman and I are not the types to lounge in bed. Instead we march off through Spoleto's dripping lanes to grab a few items for lunch. Just the usual stuff. Ciabatta baked with olive oil and rosemary? Throw it in. Vine tomatoes? No, let's take those colossal knobbly ones instead. A bottle of Montefalco red? It's anything we can find, really.
Off we go. Luckily we aren't bothered by the rain. In fact let's be honest, Italian rain has unique qualities. Before long we are shuffling through wet leaves in the forest, with porcini mushrooms erupting from beneath our feet. Important signposts announce areas reserved for the collection of truffles. Hamlets, orchards, groves and copses compose themselves on fog-shrouded hillsides. Splendid fissures open in the heavens, allowing shafts of light to ignite distant ruined forts and towers. Good God, I tell my woman, this is simple beauty of a kind that only simple people like us deserve.
She agrees. In fact it will be raw, native pleasure all the way until lunchtime, when we find ourselves approaching a dot on the map called Cese, population about 25. The landscape round here is a droll fusion of the Alpine and the Mediterranean. Cows with bells round their necks chew grass beside hillsides covered in olives and vines. In Cese, a classic mountain peasant woman, wearing army boots and a table cloth tied round her waist, is standing in a doorway, filling large barrels with chopped tomatoes. "Mamma mia," she screeches, at the mere sight of us. "No umbrella? No car?"
"We are British," I say, with a knowing smile, before asking if she can direct us to any sheltered spot. In the end we find a mouldy barn in which to eat our lunch. Mud squelches and rivulets trickle. The cheesy stench of manure is a pleasingly genuine touch. A mangy dog puts a wet tongue on our pecorino. "But good God," I am forced to exclaim to my woman, "this ciabatta is perfection!" She thoroughly agrees. At that moment we turn to see two ancients under huge umbrellas creep into our line of vision.
They too, bless them, seem worried about our safety and our sense of direction. I inform them that we are walking over the hills and through the forests to the Abbey of San Pietro in Valle. We have maps and instructions. " Dio mio," one of them grunts, "you'll get lost!" Such are the quaint concerns of the Italian peasantry. They imagine that spirits of the forest, or perhaps wild boar or wolf, will whisk us away. We smile and continue on our journey.
It takes a few more dank hours to find our accommodation for the night and by then my knees will be suffering from something jolly near to rigor mortis. But pain means nothing to my woman and me. How so? Because we know that the Abbey of San Pietro in Valle, when we get there, will embody that unique Italian fusion of culture and beauty and taste and class and decency that suits people like us so well.
We are proved right. As we finally step into the grounds, monkish chants come echoing out of the chapel. We are shown past medieval cloisters to our bedroom, a vast baronial hall with a rough stone floor, commanding views across a green, deep, rain-swept valley. A sense of my true merit seizes me. Suddenly I feel transformed into a courtly knight, while my woman acquires the characteristics of a comely maid. I shall give her a jolly good rogering tonight, methinks.
But first it is time for dinner. A German woman called Anna, an employee of the abbey, drives us to a nearby restaurant. "I am living here for 20 years but still this is not enough to be accepted by the people," she complains. "There is no reading here, no culture, no opinion." She seems to be distressed. But these are a peasant folk, I want to remind her, who drive mules and feed their dogs on cheese and bread. Why expect the world from them? She need only adopt the simple life, and she too can be happy, like us.
Then, moments later, while stepping from the car into the restaurant, I become the unexpected victim of a diabolical act. A ticklish buzzing in my hand is followed by searing, stabbing pain. An enormous, no, a gigantic wasp has stung me.
I spend the meal with a blob of cold cream soothing my swollen red hand and a string of well-dressed ladies from nearby tables approaching to ask if I can still breathe. "Perfectly," I reply, having regained my composure, while our waiter is prattling at speed, about the next course. "This is a very traditional Umbrian dish of cured meats and cheeses which we would like you to savour," he recites. Or, "now we would like you to try our dessert wine, with these very traditional biscotti". One of the courses comprises a boiled egg with soldiers, into which truffle sauce can be added. This would seem terribly charming if my hand didn't hurt so much. In fact the truffle tastes mulchy and soily. As I have said, I am a man of simple tastes.
That night, in my baronial bed, beside my woman, I lie awake with shooting pains extending up my arm, worrying about the giant centipede that has also been spotted in the bathroom. In the morning, the clouds reach right down to our window.
But these are minor troubles, trifles, hardly worth mentioning. In general, the coming days will pass splendidly. Each seems to start with wind, rain and a punishing ascent; each eventually climaxes with cured meats, artichokes, lentils, chestnuts and vino rosso della casa. We cross upland meadows where boar, deer and even wolf have been spotted; we espy lone, stubbly shepherds, guarding their flocks. "These men," I assure my woman, as we sit astride windy ridges to eat salami slices and pears, "know many things that supposedly superior peoples have forgotten." And let me tell you that my woman and I feel a rich sense of kinship with these uncomplicated types.
At the end of the fourth day we stagger up steep lanes into the earthquake-cracked village of Preci. Freezing fog, impregnated with wood smoke, hangs over the church steeple. But these signs of winter do not deter us. We now resemble two mud-splattered peasants. Our pastas are becoming heartier by the minute, our cheeses stronger and our red wines heavier.
Then on the fifth day the sun comes out. Under old oak trees, a path described in our walking notes as "lovely and ancient" leads us through a valley towards the monastery of San Eutizio. Acorns crunch underfoot. But hang on: this path looks almost English. What's more, we will later spend several hours walking through an immensely long valley that resembles the Blenheim Estate, where lone apple trees stand on slopes of smooth grass, where sheep bleat and faint mists rise. You could almost wonder whether some bloody bastardo didn't design Umbria just to flatter British tourists.
But when we reach San Eutizio we find ourselves looking at an ancient building that grows endearingly from a cliff-top. It is obvious to me and my woman that you couldn't build that if you weren't Italian. What's more, as we picnic later under a walnut tree, we find nuts crashing to the ground beside us, conveniently cracking open as they land. "The natural abundance of Italy!" I exclaim, as my woman forages for bounty.
We finally creep into our last destination, the tiny walled city of Norcia, at the time of the twilight passeggiata. Happy children scamper. Happy adults stroll. Happy shopkeepers stand in doorways. Happy pilgrims pay homage to the local hero, Saint Benedict. As for the happy tourists – that is to say, us – we go in search of souvenirs. Before the shops close, we'll pick up some olives marinated in walnut oil; pecorino cheese matured for two years; wild boar prosciutto; truffle-flavoured grappa; dried porcini mushrooms. It'll be rough, peasant stuff of course, and nothing you would appreciate, unless you were blessed by the same plain Italian tastes as me and my woman.
Jeremy Atiyah's walk was courtesy of Inntravel (01653 629010, www.inntravel.co.uk). The week's independent walking tour, called "Umbria: Italy's Green Heart" costs from £735 per person based on two sharing. The price includes return flights from Heathrow to Rome, transfers, seven nights B&B, five dinners and two picnics, six days walking with maps, and luggage transportation.
You can cover the same ground by finding a cheap flight from Stansted to Rome Ciampino on easyJet (0870 600 0000, www.easyJet.com) or Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com); Ryanair also flies to Ancona on the Adriatic coast. Alternatively, fly on Alitalia (08705 448 259, www.alitalia.co.uk) or British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) to Rome Fiumicino. Rail connections to Spoleto are slow, but cheap.
More information: Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes St, London W1B 2AY (020-7408 1254, www.enit.it).
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