What makes for a great vacation? Two weeks in a villa in Umbria, with simple food, warmth of family, and small-town laughter.
I would love to call this graceful seven-bedroom villa in Umbria my home in Italy. However, I don’t think Signora Patrizzi, daughter of a patrician Roman family, would approve. She owns everything my eye rested on in this part of Umbria. And this is her favorite family holiday home, nestled among vineyards and olive groves in the Italian countryside. However, for two weeks in the summer, I felt this graceful house, with its flower-laden awnings, wooden shutters and terra cotta floors, was truly mine.
MY VILLA IN UMBRIA
We rented Signora Patrizzi’s villa in the hamlet of Montoro. This is a village in Umbria, 90 minutes out of Rome. Here we experienced authentic Italian country life.
It was love at first sight with this stone house. It had large terraces on the second floor and two living rooms below that opened up onto stone patios. There was also a flowery pergola for outdoor dining. The sprawling grounds provided a closeness to nature impossible elsewhere. There was no other house nearby, although we saw some lights from a farmhouse across a couple of hills.
During the day, we visited the famous hilltop towns of Umbria including Spoleto, Assisi, and Perugia. Meanwhile, at night, we cooked pasta dinners and ate al fresco under the stars.
SUMMER IN ITALY
My own memories of our summer in Italy consist of incredibly blue skies and the smell of flowers everywhere. I also recall scorching afternoons in Montoro when the world shut down for a nap. Then there were the cool evenings when entire towns reawoke for the traditional passagiatto. This is basically a walk around the neighborhood square and a drink at the local bar afterwards, by the way.
There were long lines at the gelateria stands in Umbria where people sought relief from the heat. In towns, too, homegrown wine was being sold pumped like gasoline into large vats at five euros a pop and drunk by the locals like water.
RENTING A VILLA AND TRAVELING TO UMBRIA
I’ve been to Umbria in all sorts of seasons. It’s very much a “salt of the earth” type of place all year-round. Even the famous hilltop villages of Perugia, Assisi and Spoleto offer pretty vignettes of local life rather than tourist traps for scrapbook photo ops.
There is 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 the summer, it temporarily sheds the heaviness and coarseness of its usual sensible agricultural existence. Instead it takes on a mantle of carefree-ness and vitality.
SUMMER FESTIVALS IN ITALY
Italy’s summer calendar is filled with lively celebrations of food and music in every town, large or small. 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. These events are eagerly awaited by visitors to Umbria.
THE SAGRADA DI FRITATA IN MONTORO
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. This is 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. However, we did suddenly notice an extraordinary number of handwritten signs posted throughout the area. Many had crude drawings of a potato man holding a frying pan.
Fortunately, in rapid Italian, our housekeeper invited us to join the fun. And with my shopping Italian, I managed to figure out that we needed to be in town at 830 PM and that she was going to be cooking.
ABOUT ITALIAN SUMMER FESTIVALS
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. The villagers serve wine is in plastic cups. They serve only basic spaghetti pomodoro and assorted fritters — thus the festival name. But the event is lots of fun.
SALSA DANCING IN ITALY
After dinner, the tables are cleared for the local band so that the hardcore salsa dancing can begin. Everyone joins in.
The aging grandmothers are wiggling their hips supported by canes and the local flirts in flowery strapless gowns are dragging the single men to the dance floor. Even the little girls in their First Communion dresses join in. Long after we had gone home to my villa in Umbria, music and laughter still echoed through the rolling hills and vineyards and olive groves around.
Read more about summer festivals in Umbria in Travelife Magazine.