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Canalicchio in Umbria, May 2018

Updated: May 10, 2021


Are the Fates conspiring against us? We spent three days in an unusually cloudy, even rainy, Umbria, at the same time as London was sweltering in a heat wave. Despite this, it has to be said, it was all fun and enjoyable, the clouds and the rain not stopping us from doing anything we wanted to do. The hilltop towns and villages of Umbria are beautiful even if the sun doesn’t shine on them all the time.


There was another recurring feature of our stay that can always be frustrating in Italy, but which became so repetitive that it became a joke: the dreaded refrain “Sorry, it’s closed”. Either it’s ”chiuso le lunedi”; or closed for restoration; or simply closed to allow the custodian to enjoy his two or three hour lunch break.


We were staying with our friends Martin and Tessa in their house just outside the village of Canalicchio near Perugia. It is a real, unspoilt Umbrian house (see above) with a glorious view out onto the famous rolling hills. They have also built (not in any particularly Umbrian style, I would guess) a wonderful house opposite the main one, from what was a pigsty – which is what they now call it! It is comfort and elegance itself, and also is positioned to have even better views of the Umbrian countryside.


Gualdo Cattaneo


On our first evening we drove to the tiny hilltop village of Gualdo Cattaneo for some dinner. The very dominant feature of Gualdo is the massive round tower, said to have been built by the Borgias and definitely well-designed to repel boarders. We did a little walking tour. Everything was, needless to say, closed. Maybe a premonition of the future, although it was after all Sunday evening.


The restaurant, in the main piazza and looking onto the Borgia tower, was excellent except that the tagliata di manzo was by our standards a little over-cooked and we wondered whether we should have said we wanted it rare and that the Italian custom is normally to have it well-done. We decided, I think, that, no, the chef had got distracted.


Perugia


The next day – Monday, please note – we decided to revisit Perugia. We identified two or three objectives: to see again the lovely Collegio del Cambio for the Perugino paintings; possibly also to see something we hadn’t seen before; and (for me) to buy a shirt.


I should deal with the shirt first. So far as I am concerned, Italy is the place to buy shirts and the last time we were in Perugia I had found an excellent shirt shop in the main street opposite the Collegio del Cambio. But, oh dear, it was shut and boarded up – presumably not enough customers with my view about Italian shirts. Happily I found another.


For something new, we had identified a church. But, of course, it was closed – “chiuso le lunedi”. The good news was that the Collegio del Cambio was open, so long as you could get there before the custodian’s generous lunch break. It consists of just two small rooms. The main one has frescoes all round the walls by Perugino, possibly assisted by his precocious teenage pupil Raphael. They are beautifully preserved, as are the carved wooden seats on which the good merchants and moneychangers of 14th century Perugia sat as they ruled the place.


We also made a dangerous discovery – the Aperol Spritz – dangerous in that it is moderately alcoholic though you can easily knock it back like fruit juice. There was much discussion about its content, followed by detailed research on the internet. Aperol itself is a sort of mild Campari and is, in fact, made by the same people. It contains bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb (curiously) and a plant called cinchona (No, me neither). It is only 11% alcohol (about half as much as Campari) and has a mild Campari-ish bitterness. To make an Aperol Spritz, you add prosecco and fizzy water. Very pleasant and, as indicated, more alcoholic than it seems.


Spello



The next day, Tuesday (perhaps protected from the chiuso le lunedi problem), we made an expedition to Spello, another glorious town perched on the top of a hill; dating back to Roman times and still boasting Roman remains.


The main objective was to visit the Baglioni Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, famed for its frescoes by Pinturicchio, a pupil of Perugino. But, how did you guess? It was all closed, this time for restoration. It was at this point that it all became a joke. Would anything be open?


Some of the party had got to our selected lunch destination via a long trek further up the mountain and along a Roman aqueduct. Others (that is, me) went to the outskirts of the town to see an excavated Roman villa with its mosaics. Very impressively displayed. Not as extensive as Piazza Armerina in Sicily, but still wonderful to see.


Assisi



On the way back, Mary and I had time for a very minor detour to Assisi to do a repeat visit to the Basilica of San Francesco - at this time of year not too much overrun by tourists. It’s not that easy to pick out the best things to see. Is it best to concentrate on the lower church that you enter first? Or the upper one, built on top of it? The key man is Giotto, reputed to be the painter of some of the frescoes. But which? The recently published Blue Guide (which we had with us) hedges its bets and has a lot of wording like “usually attributed to” and “may have been involved”. Anyway, the lower church has two wonderful side chapels: one with frescoes of the life of Mary Magdalene, “thought to be” by Giotto and, incidentally, properly lit so you could actually see them; the other with lovely frescoes by Simone Martini, which you only see if you put some money in a lighting machine. The upper church frescoes don’t look very Giotto to me (the Blue Guide seems hesitantly to agree) but do include the famous image of St Francis preaching to the birds.


Cerqueto


On our final day, Mary and I went to Cerqueto, a very small village close to Perugia, with a Perugino fresco in the local church. We had already driven through the village on our way back from somewhere else (probably Perugia), but – surprise, surprise – the church had been closed. It was during the afternoon and a helpful local had said it would be open in the morning and indeed it was.


The fresco is of a single figure, that of San Sebastian with the arrows sticking into him. Beautifully drawn. The fresco had been immaculately detached from wherever Perugino had painted it and set up in a side chapel. It did put me in mind of Dr Johnson’s famous comment on seeing the Giants’ Causeway, “Worth seeing, Sir, but not worth going to see”. But that hardly applied to this particular expedition involving only a short drive across the delightful Umbrian countryside.


Todi for dinner


On our final evening we went to an excellent restaurant in Todi, the Cantina del Mercataccio. The chef is a Scotsman, John Paterson. Not easy to find, particularly in the dark and the rain. We had parked, probably illegally, in a back street in the city centre, having failed to park where we should have done outside the centre, taking the finicular up the hill. Needless to say – we were getting seriously used to it now – the finicular was closed for restoration. As was the magnificent High Renaissance church of Santa Maria della Consolazione. The Italian food cooked by the Scotsman was delicious.


We had an interesting wine discussion. The wine list had a good selection, including a Brunello di Montalcino, which I have always understood to be a so-called “Super Tuscan”, normally priced way above any sensible budget; but here, expensive, but not exorbitant. We chose a bottle, as well as a bottle of a local house wine. The waitress thought we were mad when we told her that we wanted to do a comparison. “But there is no comparison”, she assured us. The result: some of the party preferred the cheap one; others couldn’t persuade themselves that the difference was worth the extra 25 euros. What would Jancis Robinson have said? - probably that the waitress was dead right.



Tony Herbert

11 May 2018


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