Tuscany and Umbria

assisi, sunset, umbria, tuscany, umbria

Rich food, rolling fields, world-class wine: few regions sum up la dolce vita more than Tuscany and Umbria. This travel feature covers the vineyards of Chianti, the Garfagnana mountains, the hilltop towns of Assisi, Orvieto and Spello, the cowboys of the Maremma, and  truffle-hunting in the hills above Norcia in the Sybillini national park.

It was originally commissioned by Lonely Planet Traveller and published in the May 2015 issue of the magazine.

The Vineyards of Chianti

A HAZY YELLOW SUN IS cresting over the hilltop as Monica Raspi sets out on her daily tour of her vineyards at Villa Pomona. It’s early; crows are cackling in the trees and mist cloaks the fields, drifting through rows of glossy green vines that unfold in every direction as far as the eye can see. ‘This is always the best time of day in the vineyard,’ Monica says, breathing in the crisp morning air. ‘When the fields are quiet, and before the midday heat.’ She stops beside a row of vines, a tangle of acid-green leaves popping out from the orange soil. Brushing back the branches, she reveals the vineyard’s hidden treasure: clusters of plump, purple-black grapes, skins still frosted with dew. Producing a pair of secateurs from her pocket, she snips off a bunch. ‘Sangiovese grapes. The soul of Chianti wines,’ she says, popping one into her mouth as she disappears into the vines.

Even in a country as oenologically blessed as Italy, the vineyards of Chianti command a special status. Sprawling across Tuscany’s hilly spine between Siena and Florence, this is Italy’s oldest and best-known wine region. Viticulture has been a cornerstone of life here since Roman times, and vines cover every inch of landscape, rolling down the hillsides, carpeting the fields, sprouting from gardens, creeping up the sides of farmhouses and barns. Along the backroads, ‘degustazione’ signs line the verges, inviting customers to sample the latest vintage – a crucial part of Tuscan wine culture, and something that’s offered by every vineyard, from world-famous villas to humble backyard growers.

‘Everyone in Chianti is an expert. Or thinks they are,’ Monica says, uncorking a bottle and filling up glasses on a table outside her cellar. ‘But it’s good that everyone here is passionate. Wine is more than a drink here. It’s a way of life.’ She takes a sip and rolls it around her mouth, sucking in air to intensify the flavour. The taste should be fruity and floral, she says, with a sharp, acidic finish from the Sangiovese grapes, and a nutty overtone from the oak barrels in which the wines are aged. It’s especially good with food – and as if by magic, a plate of cheese, olives and ham arrives from inside the farmhouse, carried by her mother, who ran the vineyard before Monica took it over in 2007. Together they settle down to enjoy their winemaker’s breakfast – or caffè rosso, as Monica prefers to call it – enjoying the sunshine and the scent of clematis and rosemary wafting across the courtyard.

For Monica, at Villa Pomona, as in most Chianti vineyards, winemaking is a family affair. The first vines here were planted in the 19th century by her great-greatgrandfather, Bandino Bandini, and the vineyard has been in family hands ever since. It sits right in the heart of the Chianti Classico, a 7,000-hectare area between Siena and Florence known for producing some of the region’s finest, and most expensive, wines. Standards within this hallowed zone are strictly enforced, from blending techniques to bottle designs, and only the best wineries can display the gallo nero, or black rooster, on their labels. The ultimate seal of Chianti quality, his crowing presence is an appropriate symbol for a region which has elevated winemaking to an art form.

The Garfagnana

AS THE OLD PROVERB goes, ‘friends may meet, but mountains never greet’ and this morning, the Apuan Alps seem determined to live up to the maxim. For the last two hours, a cloak of cloud has clung to the mountaintops, obscuring both the valley below and the peaks ahead. But the weather hasn’t deterred the hikers; they’re picking their way along the ridge-lines, kitted out with hats and fleeces, braving the cloud in the hope of better weather down the trail. Their optimism is rewarded; within half an hour, the cloud burns off and they’re under a clear canopy of blue, surrounded by spiky summits and lush slopes daubed with wildflowers. It’s a reminder of another old mountain adage: if you don’t like the weather, sit down and wait.

The weather is the only thing that changes at any discernible pace in the Garfagnana. Hidden away in Tuscany’s northwestern corner, 40 miles north of Pisa, this rural valley preserves a way of life that’s hardly changed in centuries. Historically, most families here would have made their living from the land – farming sheep, growing spelt and maize, and harvesting chestnuts, which were used to make everything from cakes to bread. Quarrying was the valley’s other major industry – seams of white Carrara marble streak the mountainsides, of a purity and clarity valued by Roman architects and Renaissance artists alike.

Today, the Garfagnana is part of a national park, the Parco Nazionale dell’Appennino Tosco-Emiliano, and is renowned for some of Italy’s best hiking. Sandwiched between the twin ranges of the Apuan Alps and the Apennines, it’s a pocket of unexpected wilderness on Tuscany’s northern edge, less well known than the Dolomites, but every bit as beautiful. Mouflon and mountain goats roam the high pastures, and old drovers’ paths wind through a landscape of lakeside chapels, abandoned quarries and shepherds’ bothies. Many of the valley’s old farmhouses are now agriturismi, and on a clear day, from the top of Monte Prado, the Garfagnana’s highest peak at 2,054m, the view encompasses three regions of Italy: Liguria to the west, Emilia-Romagna to the north and Tuscany to the south.

Marco Santino has been hiking here for 20 years, travelling every summer from Rome, where he works as an architect. ‘It’s another world here,’ he says, taking a breather against a rock. ‘If I could, I’d spend every day in the mountains.’ He waits for his companions to catch up before they settle down on the grass for lunch: a walkers’ picnic of salami, fruit, bread and pecorino cheese, all freshly bought this morning from the valley’s main town, Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. A troupe of goats trots past along the trail, bells tinkling as they disappear down the near-vertical slope.

Pastoral scenes like these are key to the Garfagnana’s appeal. Dotted with tiny villages and sleepy towns – where the streets are lined with old-fashioned cafés and grocers’ shops, and family-run trattorias serve up recipes such as wild boar ragù – this is a region that celebrates a traditional life. The local calendar is chalked with festivals honouring everything from beer to chestnuts, and one village even holds its own medieval pageant, when jesters and harlequins roam the streets, and locals feast on hog roasts and spelt ale, much as they would have done hundreds of years ago.

The Maremma

IT’S AFTERNOON IN THE Uccellina hills, as guide Daniele Contarino and his riders seek shelter from the fierce heat of the sun under a grove of umbrella pines. Shadows lace the ground like spider’s webs, and through the canopy there’s the cobalt flash of sky and ocean.

After half an hour the trees thin out and the riders emerge near the beach at Collelungo, marooned in swathes of marram grass. Along the coast an old watch-tower stands guard, its battlements burning red in the sun. Beneath, a strip of ivory sand disappears into the distance, fringed by foaming surf. Apart from a couple of walkers and some bleached driftwood, it’s deserted.

In summer, the only way to reach Collelungo (and much of the Maremma’s coastline), is on foot, by sea – or as in Daniele’s case, in the saddle. Since 1975, this strip of hills, beaches and salt-marsh has been protected as a nature reserve, recognising its unique wildlife and rare ecosystems, and for several months because of the risk of forest fire, much of the park remains off-limits without the company of an official guide. As a result, its coves stay quiet, even when the bigger beaches beyond the park’s borders are heaving.

A little way south lies another secluded beach where Daniele often leads his horse treks, Cala di Forno. Cradled between two rocky headlands and hemmed in by maquis shrubland, it’s half an hour from the nearest road, accessed via a dusty forest track or by piloting a kayak along the rocky coastline. It’s worth the effort: with its white sand and crystal water, it’s a patch of paradise in the middle of Tuscany’s busiest stretch of coast.

But there’s more to the Maremma than beaches. A century ago, this sunbaked strip of land was Tuscany’s answer to the Wild West: a centre for cattle production, with its own breed, the long-horned Maremmana. Traditionally, the cattle were left semi-wild, roaming freely over the hills until it was time to round up the herd. That’s where the butteri, the Maremma’s cowboys, came in. The profession required steely nerves and superb horsemanship – something that still remains the case, even though the days of wild cattle herding are mostly gone.

‘Today we work with small herds, but the skills are the same as in my grandfather’s day,’ says Ernesto Buratta, whose family have herded Maremmana for generations. He picks up his hooked staff, known as a bastone, and coils a loop of rope around its end, whirling it round his head before releasing with a flick of his wrist. The lasso curls through the air, landing on a gatepost ten feet away. ‘It’s harder when the gatepost is running away from you,’ he says, flashing a smile under his white moustache, before mounting his horse and cantering away.

Assisi, Spello & Orvieto

ON THE PIAZZA IN FRONT of the Upper Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, three friars are taking a break from their morning duties with a game of Frisbee. They’re dressed in the garb of the Franciscan order – hooded robes, tied at the waist with a knotted cord – the same outfit worn by St Francis himself, only instead of sandals, the friars are wearing brightly coloured trainers. Apart from some early pilgrims and a few pigeons fluttering at the church’s façade, the town is pin-drop quiet. Famous as the birthplace of St Francis, who founded his namesake order here in 1209, centuries later Assisi remains the spiritual home of the Franciscans. It’s also a kind of monastic finishing school; aspiring novices travel from all over the globe to study here and take their final orders.

Andrew Hochstedler is one of them. An American by birth, he’s been studying to become a friar since 2010. ‘The history here can be a little overwhelming,’ he admits, taking a break from the game. ‘I’ve lived here for three years, but even now, I still discover corners of the town I’ve never seen before.’ Assisi’s history stretches back much further than St Francis. The Etruscans were the first to settle here, taking advantage of the town’s defensible position, protected by steep slopes on three sides and the hump of Monte Subasio behind. Many others followed, and walking the backstreets is like trying to decipher an architectural puzzle. It’s a chaotic jumble of styles, built and rebuilt over the course of three millennia. Along one street, columns from a Roman temple prop up the façade of a Renaissance church. On another, a line of Gothic arches is cut off by the addition of a medieval wall. There are dead ends and blind alleys, bricked-up doorways and staircases leading nowhere. Clues lurk in the walls: coats of arms, beastly gargoyles and saintly images loaded with obscure religious significance.

‘There are secrets everywhere,’ says Andrew. ‘It’s like a real-life Da Vinci Code.’ He points to a T-shaped cross carved above the basilica’s entrance: it’s the Tau, the emblem of the Franciscan order, but also an ancient cipher signifying the resurrection. Lions are another common motif – leering from gutters and peering out from door-knockers – but despite their prevalence, no-one’s quite sure what they mean. Some scholars think they represent Christ, others the Holy Roman Emperor.

A few miles southeast of Assisi, along a winding road which veers round the wooded flanks of Monte Subasio, Spello demonstrates another feature shared by many of Umbria’s hilltop towns: a ring of ramparts, gates and watchtowers, a reminder of the days when a hilltop location was prized not for its prettiness but its protection. Walking along its battlements, Spello is transformed into an impregnable bastion, bristling with crenels and murderholes. Watching cars beetle up the hillside and sparrows flit down its sheer walls, it’s easy to imagine the town under attack, surrounded by siege engines and trebuchets.

Off to the southwest, along quiet lanes that meander through corn fields and cypress trees, lies Orvieto. Perched on a spur of rock high above the plain, this hilltop town had another solution for times of trouble. Beneath the town’s cathedral, a network of tunnels burrows through the limestone, providing escape routes during a siege. Right beneath the townsfolk’s feet, centuries of cobwebs drape the walls of this labyrinth of passageways, staircases, and galleries, where every step returns a ghoulish echo. Guides recount tales of people who entered the tunnels, and whose ghosts are still trying to find their way out.

But Umbria’s hilltop towns are far from museum pieces. Life carries on as it has for centuries. Old men drink their morning grappa at pavement cafés. Cats stalk along the cobbles, and couples marry at the town church under Renaissance frescoes. Mopeds putter along alleys where housewives string their washing between the buildings, the blare of an afternoon soap drifting from open windows. And at least once a week, the town square hosts a market, where everyone gathers to exchange produce, money, and – most importantly – the latest news.

Norcia

IT’S JUST AFTER DAWN IN THE hills above Norcia as truffle-hunter Nicola Berardi parks up in the woods and steps out into the misty morning air. He opens the trunk of the car, and his two dogs Nina and Lulu jump out, yapping with excitement. ‘As you can tell, they are happy workers,’ Nicola says, filling his pockets with dog treats. ‘They must be curious to make good truffle dogs, but they get over-excited.’ He barks an order, and the dogs sit obediently at his feet, each earning a biscuit as a reward. Then with another command, he sends them bolting down the hillside, their barks cracking like gunshots over the quiet woods. The truffle hunt has begun.

It doesn’t take long before the dogs make their first discovery. On the edge of the wood, one of the dogs begins to sniff around the roots of a young oak tree, and frantically starts to dig with her front paws. ‘Good dog, Nina,’ Nicola says, pulling her away as he excavates the soil carefully with a small trowel. ‘We must be careful not to damage the truffle as we dig. To fetch the best price, they must be perfect.’ He scoops his hand into the earth and emerges with a knobbly black mushroom the size of a cricket ball. ‘Not bad,’ he says, holding the truffle to his nose before stowing it safely in his jacket pocket. ‘Now let’s see if we can find more.’

Black truffles, or tartufi neri, are just one of the ingredients that have made the name of Norcia synonymous with fine food. Hidden away in the Sibillini hills, this old walled town is renowned across Italy for the quality of its ingredients – from organic honey to ricotta and rare-breed pork. It’s a poster town for the Slow Food movement, championing the use of home-grown products and organic farming. The valley even has its own trademarked lentil, the lenticchia di Castelluccio, renowned for its delicate texture and nutty flavour.

One man who knows how to get the most from Norcia’s ingredients is Emanuele Mazzella, head chef at Palazzo Seneca, the town’s top hotel. While his staff are hard at work getting ready for lunch service, he’s holding a cooking class in the kitchen, demonstrating how to make two classic Umbrian dishes: zuppa di lenticchie, a rich lentil broth, and agnello al tartufo – roast lamb with truffles. The kitchen thrums with the sound of whizzing blenders and clattering pans as he meticulously trims his lamb joint, stuffing it with butter, herbs and truffle shavings before tying it up with the perfect butcher’s knot. That’s the secret to cooking, he says: use the best ingredients, and treat them with love.

Outside, it’s lunchtime in Norcia’s narrow backstreets, and its trattorias are packed with diners. Seating themselves at long wooden tables, under stuffed boar’s heads and gnarled roof-beams, diners dip chunks of bread into bean soup and rabbit hotpot, or twirl ribbons of wild hare pasta onto their forks. At the rear of the restaurants, woodfired ovens blaze and smoke in the gloom, staining the ceilings charcoal black.

Just along the street, one of the town’s norcinerias, or butcher’s shops, is doing a brisk lunchtime trade. Dressed in a white apron, the butcher engages his customers in debate about the day’s choicest cuts, only pausing to slam a cleaver through a beef joint, or shave a slice from a leg of ham. On the street outside, baskets are stacked with wheels of pecorino cheese, bulbs of garlic, bags of risotto rice and salamis the size of saplings. The choice – and the smell – is overpowering.

While lunch gets into full swing in Norcia, up in the hills, Nicola and his dogs have finished their hunt. It’s been a good morning – well over a kilo of truffles in just a couple of hours. Now he’s heading home for his own favourite lunch – black truffle omelette. ‘Food is such an important part of life here,’ he says, as he unloads his haul into a hamper on the front seat, and Nina and Lulu settle down in the boot to gnaw on a well-earned bone. ‘It keeps us connected to the land, and brings people and families together. And if you ask me, nothing is more important than that.’