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Episode #065: Uncovering Umbria’s Towns and Villages

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This week we are headed to Umbria, an un-sung region wedged between Rome and Tuscany, to discover more about the regions beautiful towns, rolling hills, delicious food and fascinating festivals.

Show notes

In this episode, we are joined by American author and traveler Michelle Damiani who wrote a book, Il Bel Centro: a Year in the Beautiful Center, about the year she and her family, spent in the pretty Umbrian town of Spello, which was listed as one of the “Top 10 Fascinating Books about Living in a Foreign Country” by Huffington Post.  With a planned trip around the world scuppered by the pandemic, she has now returned to spend time in the town which is home to the enchanting Infiorate flower festival, which will have us all putting Umbria on our bucket lists.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Buona Domenica (Happy Sunday) is a wonderful Umbrian tradition where Sunday is a day where people leave their towns and villages and head out for family meals and family adventures. People will actually say ‘Buona Domenica’ on a Friday as they leave work/saying goodbye. They don’t say happy Saturday, because Sunday is the important day that the weekend should be all about.
  2. Spello, the Umbrian town, and Michelle’s base of choice, is home to the awe-inspring Infiorate flower festival. Held in late May or June every year. The tradition originally began with displays made of fennel and ginestra and has grown into a stunning display of floral art, the spirit of which is carried into the every day by the residents of Spello and their flower-pot filled streets.
  3. Another fantastical festival in Spello is L’oro di Spello, the olive festival. Where you can see olive trees pulled through the streets on tractors laden with a multitude of interesting decorations including dried fish, oranges, and sausages.
  4. There are some gorgeous waterfalls and gorges just outside Spello, which make for wonderful hiking and the water from this area was, a couple of thousand years ago, funneled into the amphitheater in Assisi to be used for the ancient Romans beloved boat races.
  5. Piegaro, a small town, not far from Lago Trasimeno, has become a center for glass-blowing. Way back in the past, Venice kicked out the glassmakers, as the island was getting too many fires. So they sent them off to Morano, but many, who did not want to head to Moran, head for Piegaro.
  6. There are a lot of Etruscan cities in Umbria. The Etruscans were the precursor to the ancient Romans, but they were way more advanced /ahead of their time in a lot of ways. Women in ancient Etruria could, for instance, do things that they couldn’t in ancient Rome, like riding horses, read, have parties and even just leave and be their own boss!
  7. Lago Trasimeno is well worth a visit during a visit to Umbria. While it doesn’t have the infrastructure of some of the Northern lakes, it’s a beautiful, large lake surrounded by charming ancient villages. There’s a great deal of history, including lots of battles and Hannibal coming through with his elephants.

About our guest – Michelle Damiani

Michelle Damiani is a freelance writer, clinical psychologist, and food lover, who spent a year in Spello, Umbria with her family growing accustomed to being fish out of water, grappling with the hardships of parenting on foreign soil, and ultimately cleaving into the soul of Italian village life. While in Italy, she used the time that her children were in Italian public schools to write a blog about their experiences. The blog, Il Bel Centro, was awarded the bronze award for best Italian blog by Expatsblog.

Once back in Charlottesville, Virginia, she transformed the blog into a book, Il Bel Centro: a Year in the Beautiful Center, now available in print and e-book. Missing Spello, she began writing a 4 part novel series set in Italy. Four of the books, “Santa Lucia”, “The Silent Madonna”, “The Stillness of Swallows” and “Into the Groves” have now been published. In addition, Michelle accumulated the collective wisdom of traveling families into a comprehensive guide called, “The Road Taken: How to Dream, Plan, and Live Your Family Adventure Abroad.” When the family’s planned year-long trip around the world was de-railed by the pandemic, they headed back to Spello where they are now happily and heartily ensconced for the time being.

 

You can find Michelle on these channels:

Michelle’s books:

The Santa Lucia Novel Series:

Food & Wine

  • Montefalco – the famous Umbrian wine
  • Vin brulé – Italy’s answer to mulled wine
  • Colomba – a Spring/Easter cake with a similar dough to panetone
  • Frappe –  a typical Italian Carnival treat of sweet, fried dough
  • Pan al Mosto – bread made with grape must made during the grape harvest season
  • Sagrantino – an ancient grape discovered by Pliny the Elder
  • Gnocchi al Sagrantino – an Umbrian dish of gnocchi in a cream and red wine sauce with pancetta or guanciale
  • Guanciale – an Italian cured meat prepared from pork jowl or cheeks. The name is derived from guancia, the Italian word for ‘cheek’
  • Cinghiale – wild boar, often cooked as a ragu with tagliatelle or in stews
  • Grechetto – white wine
  • Goose – popular in Umbrian dishes
  • Castagne – chestnuts

Places mentioned in the show

  • Spello – where Michelle spent a year and has now returned – a small, pretty town
  • Assisia town in Umbria that is the birthplace of St. Francis
  • Ponte Marchetto – an ancient bridge in the Mount Subasio Park
  • Orvieto – wonderful hilltop small city roughly a great day trip or halfway stop from Rome or Florence
  • Norcia – located in the Valnerina Valley, where Umbria skirts the Le Marche region
  • Mount Subasio – a mountain of the Apennine mountains, in the province of Perugia, Umbria
  • Trattoria del Moro Aronne  – restaurant in Orvieto, a favorite of Michelle and family – try the goose or the gelato!
  • Piegaro – a small town specializing in glass-blowing – where they made the tiles for the Orvieto cathedral
  • Lago Trasimeno – large lake in Umbria, surrounded by charming old villages
  • Bevagna – a village in Umbria on the flatlands which has a great medieval festival
  • Montefalco – characterful Umbrian village known for its wine
  • Foligno – an ancient town on the Topino river which has lots of festivals including it’s own neighborhood horse-race

Resources

Resources from Untold Italy

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Transcript

Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.

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