Io amo l’italia – my week in Umbria

I first moved to Houston in July 2017.  Having been from Colorado, the only severe weather events or natural disasters I had experienced were blizzards, forest fires, and hail.

I was lucky and moved to Houston just as another friend from over 5 years prior moved here.  Yay, a friend in my new city! We had never really hung out before, but that all changed when Hurricane Harvey rolled into town.

I was from Colorado and she was from Wyoming.  We were certainly out of our element.  I have a large apartment, so she asked to crash at my place – better to go through a Cat 4/5 hurricane with someone else than alone, amirite?

Well, we were basically locked in 900 square feet, continuously, for 5 or so days.  Besides dreaming of all the things we could do or foods we could eat when the waters receded, we talked about work, guys, and travel.

Jessica mentioned that Italy had always been on her bucket list and I said I would go there without hesitation.  Fast forward about a month, and a killer (too good to be true, really) deal popped up.  Airfare, rental car, hotel, daily breakfast, wine tasting, cooking class, and one 4-course dinner for less than the cost of airfare at that time.

Uh, yes please.  We booked it that same day.

Fast forward to April.  While sipping beers during our connection, we pulled up our weather app and noticed the weather was going to be unseasonably warm.  When we booked, we anticipated 45-65 deg F weather.  The entire week, however, looked like it would be 60-80 deg F.  She idly mentioned that it’s perfect convertible weather and I agreed… so we decided to ask for a convertible upgrade at the counter.

We arrived in Rome, snagged an espresso at a counter, and walked over to Hertz.  After talking to the counter agent a bit, he let us know he could rent us a Fiat 500 Cabrio convertible.

Che perfetto! What is more Italian than a Fiat 500?

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With the top down, we departed Rome.

If you imagine the Italian countryside, what do you think?

I think we were both expecting something like Under the Tuscan Sun, but less romanticized (Hollywood makes everything look better, after all).  Let me tell you:  Umbria is even more beautiful than the Italy pictured in that movie.

Despite being jet lagged & exhausted, we marveled at the scenery & the experience.  What could be more perfect than a 70 degree day with the top down on a Fiat 500, driving through the Italian countryside singing to Tom Petty?

2 or 3 hours later, we roll up to our hotel.  Abbazia dei Collemedio is a converted monastery overlooking the tiny town of Collepepe.  Words cannot do this beautiful albergo justice:

From our room we could open up the windows and listen to the breeze gently brush the trees or wake up to birds chirping in the distance.  There was no traffic noise except that in the small parking lot, no noisy piazzas or hordes of tourists… it was perfect.

Our first day we just napped, read books in the sun, and drank wine with our decadent Italian dinner.

The rest of our week was spent blissfully relaxing under the Umbrian sun.

(See what I did there? We should make that a thing…

…. Or not – I would prefer we keep this little escape more or less a secret.)

Assisi

We spent our first full day in the hilltop town of Assisi. Despite driving one of the smallest cars I’ve ever been in, we were surprised at how small the roads are.  Some roads felt like skinny single-lane roads, but they were, in fact, two-way streets!  Luckily we never came head to head with another driver, but it did get a little nerve wracking at times.

Eventually we found parking without violating any ZTLs (limited traffic zones).  If you ever drive in Italy, be mindful of these.  Only permitted individuals can drive in ZTLs, and it’s usually restricted to residents or those staying in local hotels.

We meandered with no direction.  I knew nothing of Assisi, nothing of the attractions, nothing of the “must see” sites – we just had a free afternoon to explore and see what we found.

I was immediately struck by how beautiful the town is.  It was exactly what I imagined an Italian town would look like.

After wandering through some hills, we popped up by a beautiful church – the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.  There appeared to be some sort of school tour, so we sat on a ledge and people watched.  Eventually we wandered down a side street lined with vendors.  We walked up and down the street and met some walking travelers who were sharing a baguette and cheese overlooking the valley.

As the sun shone high in the sky, we realized we were hungry for lunch (or pranzo, as the Italians say).  We wandered into a shop and asked if they spoke English.  A perfect Italian grandmother came out, exuberantly speaking rapid Italian.  She had stylish glasses, a smart sweater with slacks, and well styled hair.  Her exclamations were joined with large hand movements.  She was exactly what I imagined a loud Italian grandmother would be like, and I loved it.  She didn’t speak much English, but I managed to ask about pranzo and was able to hear sinistra and orologio.  Coupled with her pointing, we figured a good lunch spot was to the left of the clock up the hill.

At the crest of the hill we discovered the Piazza del Comune.  A quaint but bustling square, the Piazza del Comune was lined with restaurants, shops, locals, and tourists.  We meandered down a a shadowy staircase to the left of the clock and found a crowded trattoria.  Sitting amongst loud Italian conversations, we ordered a delicious lunch coupled with an entire bottle of wine and marveled at the Italian way of life.  It was, presumably, a work day, but no one batted an eye at us indulging in a bottle of wine at lunch.  Although we lingered over lunch, we were one of the quickest tables to clear out.  This seemed to be the quintessential Italian way of life, and I found I was falling more and more in love with Umbria with each passing minute.

After lunch, we returned to the piazza and looked across the fountain to find a leather & ceramics store.  Michelangelo is a family owned shop and, if you’re lucky, you may walk in as they are crafting their wares.  The owners were delightfully friendly and discussed their craft at length.  When we left the store, each of us had purchased multiple beautifully crafted leather goods and handmade ceramics.  We both loved this store (and Assisi) so much, in fact, that we returned another time in our trip to purchase more gifts for family.

We continued down the hill across the piazza and walked by more shops and some enticing geleterias.  We made one final stop at Assisi Jewels where I purchased a lovely pendant made to look like the Basilica we first saw.  When I travel, I’m not interested in low-quality souvenirs.  I wanted high-quality goods that I could have for years.  This is why I chose to purchase leathers, ceramics, and a silver necklace.  If you find yourself in Assisi, I would recommend the same.

Perugia

We spent another day in Perugia, the capital of this province.  After a splendidly relaxing day in Assisi, we didn’t know what to expect.

Nothing about Perugia (puh-roo-jia, in case you were mentally pronouncing it “puh-roo-gee-uh” as I shamefully did in a cafe) was researched before we got there.  We found a parking lot and walked in the direction of noise and activity.  I’m fairly confident we did not pick the most optimized parking spot because the walk was TOUGH.  It felt like at least a mile across steep, cobblestone pathways.  This was our first reminder that this is a region of hilltop towns.  Pack the right shoes and, if you’re driving, be mindful of where you’re parking, especially if you have limited mobility.

We came up a hill upon the Piazza de Noviembre.  This seemed to be the hub of Perugia so we decided to explore the square a little more.  We came upon a cafe and, being hot from our jaunt up the giant hill of Perugia, I ordered an iced coffee.  Something was clearly lost in translation because I actually received a Bailey’s coffee martini.

Don’t mind if I do.

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Our bistro table was immediately adjacent to the main roadway.  We cheerfully sipped and watched as nuns, angry cab drivers, and foreign exchange students made their way around us.  We watched as agile motorcyclists and new-to-us tiny Euro cars drove by through the otherwise apathetic crowd.

After finishing i nostri caffè, we wandered around what seemed to be the main drag.  Piazza de Noviembre was beautiful and the panorama at the end of the pedestrian zone was quintessentially Italian.

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We meandered back towards the car and enjoyed some pizza on the way.  Perugia wasn’t quite as magical as Assisi, but we didn’t want to miss the Umbrian capital.

Lago Trasimeno & Surrounding Towns

Cortona & Magiore

On a whim, we headed away from Collepepe in search for the villa in Under the Tuscan Sun.  A quick google search indicated that Bramasole in Cortona was our destination.  Top down, Tom Petty playing, we decided to venture that way.

We drove around Lago Trasimeno and turned north towards Cortona.  Although Cortona is technically in Tuscany, it’s right on the Tuscan/Umbrian border.  We followed my European GPS app somewhat blindly and stumbled upon Bramasole.

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It looked nothing like the movie and was honestly somewhat disappointing.  The drive home, however, was an adventure.

We ended up going down streets so narrow that we wondered if they were secretly bike paths.  We hoped we were at least going in the right direction in what clearly had to be a one way, only to see someone drive by in the opposite direction indicating it’s a two-way street.  I had to get out of our little Fiat to make sure we could squeeze through one tight passageway.

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And, at one point, we had to do a four point turn (in front of some judgmental looking diners!) to round a severely tight hairpin turn.  It was one of those travel experiences that felt terrible in the moment but ended up being a fantastic story after the fact.

Luckily I wasn’t driving, so I promised by friend she could drink a bottle of wine at dinner and I would drive us back to the hotel … once we made it out of this hilltop town.

I had read that there was a wonderful restaurant just off the lake that, if timed correctly, was the perfect spot to watch the sunset.  We set our GPS to the Osteria Rosso di Sera in Magione and headed back towards Umbria.

We parked just as the sun kissed the lakeview edge.  The internet was right: this was the perfect spot to watch the sunset.

Despite Magiore being a small, sleepy town, discovered we were lucky to be sat without a reservation.  A crowd very quickly filled up around us.  A friendly waiter came over and spoke to us in good but broken english with his recommendations.  I remember the entrees were delicious, but the appetizer was what stole the show.  We ordered a black truffle poached egg over some sort of crispy bread.  I regrettably didn’t snag a picture (it was too delicious to pause for!) but I still dream about this appetizer.

Once dinner was complete, we returned to Collepepe.

Umbrian Mini Adventures

Montefalco Rosso, Deruta, and a cooking classs

The rest of our time in Umbria was spent on what I call mini adventures – snippets that were wonderful in the moment but truthfully somewhat uneventful.

We met up in Deruta with an Italian friend we had made in our adventures.  He brought along a friend who spoke almost no english, so most of our conversation was broken Italian (on my end), pretty good english (on his end) and translation to his Italian friend.  We laughed as we passed Google Translate back and forth amongst each other.  I remember being asked why we decided to come to Italy and I re-told our hurricane story.  Imagine trying to describe what a hurricane is to someone who doesn’t speak your language and has never even heard of a hurricane!

We spent one afternoon at a local vineyard sampling Montefalco Rosso and Orvieto Bianco.  I’ve never been someone who enjoys red wine, but Montefalco Rosso changed my mind.  If you find yourself in the Umbrian region, promise to try Montefalco Rosso.  I’m not a wine connoisseur, but for me, it’s smooth, slightly sweeter than most reds, with none of that “dry mouth” feeling I get after drinking other reds.  Plus, with no sulfites, you won’t get as bad of a hangover!

We spent one morning at the hotel taking a cooking class.  We prepared fresh pastas and various sauces and delicious tiramisu.  I’m not going to make homemade pasta at home, but learning how to cook with love and meeting other travelers made for a quintessential Italian morning filled with laughter and new friends.  Enjoying wine with our newfound companions after the fact was a cherry on top.

We sidetracked one evening to visit Florence.  Florence is a lovely city but was comparatively crowded and touristy.  Of course, we had to enjoy some delicious food and we discovered the San Lorenzo market, a wonderful food hall buzzing with activity and local Uni students.  And my friend finally was able to find some cannoli (it doesn’t seem to be a thing in Umbria!)

We loved the history and the architecture, but we were ready to get back to Umbria.

With our last remaining evening in Umbria, we decided to get dinner in Todi.  We stopped at Ristorante Umbria.  Although the food was delicious, the views were even better.

The final day we adventured back to Rome.  Our little Fiat 500 was stuffed to the gills.  As we loaded it up, I felt emotional, which completely took me by surprise.  I’ve never been truly sad to leave a destination.  If I felt sad, it was because I didn’t want my time off of work to end yet.  Umbria, however, changed that.  It sounds cheesy, but this region touched my soul.  I loved the food, the people, the pace of life, and the views.  I would live here if given the opportunity.  I cannot wait to return.

Because we had an early morning flight, we wanted to stay nearby to make the morning just a little less stressful.  We opted not to return the car until the morning of our flight and it ended up being slightly chaotic.  We got to the airport around 5:00 am but found it nearly impossible to return the car.  We followed the directions to the rental return garage but it was double gated.  After some stressed conversations, Jessica ended up sneaking around the gate to try and find someone to help us.  The Italian police showed up… oops!… and we tried to explain what we were doing.

We ended up not getting in any trouble, but I would recommend you ask your rental agency how car returns work when you pick up the car.  Even better, try and return it specifically during business hours.

My week in Umbria was life changing.  If you visit, I recommend you slow down, focus on food, friends, and family, and enjoy the Italian way of life.  A cute little convertible and Tom Petty helps, too. 🙂

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