South of Perugia

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Norcia’s Mascot

We rented a car for a week so we could explore the smaller towns and beautiful countryside of Umbria. For our first excursion, we decided to drive south to the town of Norcia, nestled against the Sibillini Mountains. Norcia is famous for its excellent meats, especially, the wild boar called cinghiale. This area is also where you find truffles (mushrooms). You might find black or white truffles, depending on the season. Both are delicious.
Because it was a Saturday and the start of an extended holiday weekend for Italy, the medieval town center of Norcia was full of families and couples in search of salumerie shops. They weren’t hard to find—you just had to look for the stuffed boars-heads that surrounded the doorways. Inside each shop you could find all varieties of sausages and salamis, cheeses, truffles and an amazing assortment of condiments. They even offered dried porcini mushrooms for a good price.
But after sampling goodies in a few shops, we were happy to just wander the streets and enjoy this rather quiet little town. Sometimes we sit in a piazza and watch the locals gather to chat. We always find a small bar where we can sample the espresso and watch the people interact. In almost every town we visit, there’s a beautiful war memorial, with fresh flowers or a large wreath, engraved with the names of the fallen soldiers from the town. Quite a few towns have the special memorials for the Martiri, the members of the resistance, who were caught by the Nazis. I always stop to read the names. And every town, no matter the size, provides a variety of churches to visit. We can’t resist entering one or two to admire the art and architecture, and it’s nice to have a quiet moment in such a beautiful space. For me, the small, simple churches are often the best.
Although Norcia is a beautiful town, we thought we’d drive deeper into the mountains to see Castelluccio, a tiny town known for their delicious lentil beans and beautiful wildflowers. It was a scenic drive as we gained altitude and found a large green valley with closer views of the snow-capped mountains. This area is a popular hang gliding spot and a haven for cyclists and hikers. Castelluccio is quite small, but a great place to get your lentils and have a hearty lunch. We chose La Taverna, which had outdoor seating with fantastic views of the mountains. The cuisine was traditional, with plenty of dishes that incorporated lentils. We tried an appetizer that resembled a quiche, with lentils, of course. Bob had the lentil soup, which was excellent. My pasta had truffles, so I was content. For dessert, the waiter suggested their special pie made with ricotta and lentils. It was one of the best pies yet—light and sweet, with just a hint of lentils.
After lunch, we took our customary hike up into the higher part of town, which in this case, wasn’t a long walk. But we found a pretty church, charming cobbled streets, lovely stone buildings and amazing views. It was nice to see that they had recently restored the streets and improved the infra-structure of the tiny upper town. We found out more by talking to some people we met at the restaurant, who were quite friendly once they found out we were American. They wanted us to know that the best time to visit their town is early June, because the valley nearby is full of wildflowers. From the postcards we saw, it looks like they have lupine and poppies.
We missed out on the lupines, but, in the lower valleys (like the one between Perugia and Assisi) there were plenty of bright red poppies to enjoy. Spring is a great time to get out and drive the country roads in Umbria—just make sure you allow yourself enough time to cover this region. You’ll find that there’s a lot to see.
Below: Shopping in Norcia, a piazza in Norcia, a memorial, a small church, a view of Castellucio, view from the restaurant, poppies

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About msraaka

I am a writer, ESL teacher and desktop publishing consultant living in the Pacific Northwest. After our first visit to Italy, my husband Bob and I have found ways to spend more and more time there. We love the people, the language, the food, architecture, art and the history of this amazing place.
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