2000s Archive

My Kind of Town

Originally Published April 2004
On a hilltop in Umbria, a bunch of cooks find the essence of summertime where the cipolline are sweet, the trout are jumping, and the fennel is high.

In the summers, some friends and I occupy a small, scenic village in a pretty corner of Umbria, close enough to Rome and Florence to be able to catch lunch and a subtitled Clint Eastwood movie in either of them, but remote enough to warrant barely a sentence or two in even the most comprehensive guidebooks to the region. The village attracts a certain number of visitors, mainly French people and Dutchmen who have become Renaissance art completists, but even for them it is what my father used to call a 15-minute town, a pleasant hilltop on which to pause just long enough to take in the single notable fresco before climbing back into their Escorts and Clios to steal off to the next painting on the itinerary. If they are visiting their first fresco of the day, they may spring for a glass of beer or a souvenir bottle of grappa; if it’s their third, maybe a bowl of truffled pasta or a broiled guinea hen. From this, and not necessarily from the likes of us, is the town’s small living made.

The village, a sort of medieval fortress built into the top of a steep hill above rolling olive groves, is ideal for families with young children—with traffic severely restricted within the city walls, and the outside world so far away, there is only so much trouble even a six-year-old can get into, although Ida broke her foot a couple of years ago when she tried to vault a fountain, and a shadowy dirt-clod incident once persuaded the town constable to briefly lock seven or eight of our children into a jail cell.

Summers here are not much different than summers anywhere, I suppose—lazy days at the lake, books and hammocks, impromptu trips to the sandwich shop for a hearth-cooked torta al testo, which amounts to the local equivalent of ham and cheese. Rural Italy glides to a halt every day between noon and about five in the summer, which may be a problem when you’re a tourist trying to cover 12 cities in 10 days, but seems about right to the indolent traveler, time enough for a leisurely lunch, 100 pages of Balzac, and a nap before the evening meal.

The contours of the village are what Italians call a chiocciola, “snaillike”; picture one of those old-fashioned mazes where you have to trace a line to the center, the highest point, which is where you’ll find the town hall. Some of the apartments look out onto the opera set of a main square. Others are built into the walls of the fortress itself, and some of those have small garden plots where the town moat was filled in years ago. Almost as permanent as the battlements are the town fixtures—the cat lady, the bar owner, the composer, the fixer, the professor, and the man who stands most of the day at his window waving a big Italian flag at the cars coming up the hill. Children play soccer in the steeply sloped square until their mothers call them home. The town elders wander down to watch the sunset from the belvedere below the castle walls, and although one never really gets to know them, when you nod and say “Buona sera” enough evenings in a row, it can seem as if you do.

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