Bread in Bevagna

Spigots offer fresh water everywhere in Italy. Rome hydrates tourists so well – one bottle can last a whole trip. Some of the water fountains are ancient and others not so much – plugging the end with your finger turns the stream into an arched flow to fill the bottle or your mouth.

But I’m about bread here – and olive oil of course.

The afternoon of the first day of walking in Umbria when we arrived in Bevagna, we passed though the Roman gate, up to the quiet main square where we sat on the steps of the fountain in that stupefied “we made it” state.

After showers, we walked back toward the square, sat down at a wooden table outside La Bottega di Assu, ordered drinks and “something to eat” – a request always greeted with “Si, of course!” Snacks come with the drinks – sometimes simple – bread and olive oil or peanuts, or complicated – little dishes of olives or gnocchi, cheese or sliced meat.

Bottega di Assu served bread, but it was unusual – pane integral – wholemeal bread, toasted – crunchy half slices piled on a plate and drenched with olive oil. The plate emptied fast.

We wandered off in search of the remains of a Roman theater – and found it down a set of steps. (In Italy something is always built over something else.) And atop the theatre we explored a restored medieval house completely furnished with everyday necessities, a canopied bed, clothes, foodstuffs – dried beans, lentils – a writing table and loom.

Bevagna is known for its preservation of ancient crafts including medieval papermaking machinery that still works. The brief menu was handwritten on handmade paper at La Bottega di Assu where we gravitated back for dinner. We sat outside again, awed as always by life in the midst of buildings unchanged since the Middle Ages.

Inside the bottega, two little square tables looked inviting for colder days, but its floor to ceiling shelves fascinated us – bottles and bottles of interesting looking wine, painted dishes, gourmet treats, movie posters – and photographs. The photos we thought were of the owner – younger maybe, maybe a sister – or were those movie stars?

And a photo of Virginia Woolf! – the one I pass dozens of times a day on our staircase bookshelf – on the spine of the second volume of her letters. It was part of a shrine-like arrangement including a biscuit tin with Woolf’s picture and her books, a copy of “La Signora Dalloway” faced out.

I asked the owner (already liking her for holding the young baby of travelers, so the parents could eat their dinner) about the photo, and she smiled and said, “Virginia Woolf was a great woman.”

Now, when we eat Bevagna bread made at home with pane integral from a local bakery, I picture the bottega and think how Virginia would have liked it and liked being a reason for traveler and tavern owner to connect.

A Villa in Umbria

We left Assisi, picked up our rental car in Perugia, and (using the GPS navigator our younger son brought from Los Angeles with a chip for Italy), headed toward the villa, wondering if it would work out.

Surrounded by an olive grove, Casa della Ginestra sits on a promontory with views toward the little medieval town of Bettona (“our” hill town) in one direction, and the conquered Mount Subasio in the other. We loved it.

Our floor of the villa had a large living room, kitchen, dining room, four bedrooms, and a terrace or balcony to either view. In the morning, a breeze rippled gauzy curtains, bringing a musical bird chorus and the scent of jasmine. Afternoons, a tiny swimming pool offered respite from the heat. Three cats live at the villa, along with kind and welcoming hosts.

The evening the Alaskans arrived we sat on the terrace as the setting sun lit up Bettona in a golden glow. We ate fresh pasta and gnocchi from a market, a salad from a fruta e verdura shop, bruschetta made by our sweet friend, and drank wine from Sagrantino grapes that grow in the fields where we walked. (It’s impossible to avoid clichés about good things in Italy because they are all true and right – la dolce vita for sure.)

At the villa I felt most strongly the traveler conflict of savor or explore. Stay put and laze the day listening to the bells of Bettona or tour northern Umbria and the east of Tuscany (within easy reach).

We chose the latter and St. Francis makes a worthy focus for day trips. In this part of Umbria, he touched all the nearby towns. Giotto’s famous frescoes are in Assisi’s Basilica, and many churches have relics from his life. On our hike we missed the turnoff to the grotto, the cave where St. Francis often retreated to mediate. But our resourceful daughter-in-law drove us there. It’s a quiet and reverent place – far from the crowded-with-tourist cathedrals where “silencio” seems to have little meaning.

In Umbria’s capitol, Perugia a large walled city full of students and the capital of Umbria, an escalator rises from parking places outside town to the central square. It passes through a medieval town, a once-buried now-excavated city with walls and streets and doorways (if you have a flashlight you can explore).

The trail boss became also tour guide this year, and he seeks always the highest point – a challenging but appropriate goal for visiting Italian hill towns. The high point in Gubbio required a lift in a “gondola”  – a slatted metal basket holding two people. But oh the view – in one direction toward the wild part of Umbria and the often snow-peaked Apennines, and in the other, the cultivated valley floor.

Touring days were exciting and exhausting, but home to the villa felt great!