Thursday, August 5, 2010

My house in Umbria

What makes a great vacation? Simple food, warmth of family, and small-town laughter.

I would love to call this graceful seven-bedroom villa, nestled among vineyards and olive groves, my house in the Italian countryside. But I don’t think Signora Patrizzi, of a patrician Roman family and owner of everything my eye rested on in this part of Umbria, would approve. However, for two weeks last year, I felt this graceful house, with its flower-laden awnings, wooden shutters and terra cotta floors, was truly mine.

My husband and I invite our parents to join us for August summer holidays in Europe every year. Once, it was for a cruise from Athens to Venice along the picturesque Dalmatian coast. This year, we stayed in Gleneagles, Scotland, where the men teed off on the famed Scottish courses while the rest of us explored the historic villages and castles—including Glamis Castle, childhood home of the late Queen Mother Elizabeth and reportedly the most haunted castle in the United Kingdom.

Last year, we rented Signora Patrizzi’s villa in Umbria, 90 minutes out of Rome, and experienced authentic Italian country life. With the house, it was love at first sight. It had large terraces on the second floor, two living rooms below that opened up onto stone patios, a flowery pergola for outdoor dining, and sprawling grounds that provided a closeness to nature impossible elsewhere. There was no other house within neighborly distance, although we did make out some lights from a farmhouse across a couple of hills.

During the day, we visited nearby hilltop towns including Spoleto, Assisi, and Perugia; and at night we cooked pasta dinners and ate al fresco under the stars. This family summer in Umbria remains my husband’s favorite holiday to date.

My own memories of our Italian summer consist of this: incredibly blue skies and the smell of flowers everywhere; scorching afternoons when the world shuts down for a nap, and cool evenings when entire towns reawake for the traditional passagiatto—which is basically a walk around the neighborhood square—and a drink at the local bar; long lines at the gelateria stands where people sought relief from the heat; and homegrown wine pumped like gasoline into large vats at five euros a pop and drunk by the locals like water.

I've been to Umbria in all sorts of seasons, and in the summer I can say that it's an entirely different animal. Outside of the famous hilltop villages, which are -- thankfully -- still more colorful vignettes of local life rather than tourist traps for scrapbook photo ops, this provincia is very much a "salt of the earth" type of place all year-round, with none of the glamour and energetic frenzy of its fancier rural cousins on both sides, including Tuscany further North and the Amalfi region down south. But in summer, it temporarily sheds the heaviness and coarseness of its usual sensible agricultural existence for a mantle of carefree-ness and vitality.

Italy’s summer calendar is filled with lively celebrations of food and music in every town, large or small, and Umbria is no exception. During our stay, both Spoleto and Assisi had their world-famous music festivals where operas and classical music concerts are performed nightly right in the cathedral squares.

And even in our own town of Montoro, a village so tiny that it only has one sleepy restaurant, the highlight of summer is the Sagrada di Fritata, an annual three-night extravaganza of outdoor dining in the school fields to raise funds for the village. Of course, being foreigners, we were oblivious to this social event of the year—although we did suddenly notice an extraordinary number of handwritten signs posted throughout the area, many with crude drawings of a potato man holding a frying pan.

Fortunately, in rapid Italian, our housekeeper invited us to join the fun—and we managed to figure out that we needed to be in town at 8:30 pm and that she was going to be cooking. For the Sagrada di Fritata, tables are set up cafeteria-style with the whole community in Sunday best, raring for a good meal and a night of dancing. The children are tasked with welcoming guests and serving food, and they do so with surprising adult seriousness. Six-year-old Marina, our housekeeper’s daughter who sometimes came along to the house and played by the pool while her mother tidied up, welcomed us with the gravity of a hotel maître’d. She led us to our reserved table and announced the menu with a little bow afterwards.

Meanwhile, the food is simple—wine is in plastic cups, and only basic spaghetti pomodoro and assorted fritters (thus the festival name) are served, both edible but certainly nothing to write home about—but the event is lots of fun. After dinner, the tables are cleared for the local band so that the hardcore salsa dancing can begin. Everyone from the aging grandmother wiggling her hips supported by a cane and the local flirt in a flowery strapless gown dragging the single men to the dance floor, to the little girls in their First Communion dresses, joins in. Long after we had gone home, music and laughter still echoed through the rolling hills and vineyards and olive groves around my house in Umbria.

This originally appeared in the Frequent Flier column of the November-December 2007 issue of Travelife Magazine. Travelife Magazine is available by subscription and in all major bookstores, magazine stands and newspaper outlets.


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