Montepulciano – Lake Trasimeno – Assisi – Cortona – Montepulciano (Wednesday 23 August)
After not much sleep the night before due to the barrel rolling practice, we started the day with breakfast at an old café across the road from our B&B. We usually have our brioche and macchiato standing at the bar (it’s usually about 3x the price for service), but as it was part of our B&B deal, we had the luxury of a serviced breakfast – and even some OJ.
After a satisfying feed, we were ready to hit the road for the big day we had planned – first Assisi then Cortona.
We decided to take the scenic route around the south of Lago Trasimeno. Lake Trasimeno is a lake in the province of Perugia, in the Umbria region of Italy. It is the fourth for surface area in Italy. (slightly smaller than Lake Como.). The western side of the lake was a bit disappointing, flat and stark, but the eastern side was pretty and we were able to get some elevation which presented some good views.
Most people would know Assisi for its hometown boy, St Francis, the simple friar who countered the decadence of church government and society in general with a powerful message of non-materialism and “slow down and smell God’s roses”. Unfortunately, the crowds, the glow-in-the dark-rosaries and the heavy security to visit the Basilica of San Francesco seem to be totally at odds with his message. But Assisi is a beautiful hilltop town, looking awesome on approach from the flat plain below to the city that is sprawled across the ridge.
As from all the hilltop towns, we enjoyed the spectacular views across the countryside – although this time it was Umbria not Tuscany. We visited one of the old bakeries on the main street for our regular macchiato and to feast on one of the traditional raisin-and-apple strudel called rocciata – yummy!! – and to make use of the bathrooms. We always look for a café with a toilet! We also had a long chat to one of the guys manning a gallery – only to find out he is the brother of the artist, looking after the shop whilst his brother flits around the world.
Entry to many of the churches in Assisi is free – most unusual for the touristy towns in Italy – so we visited a few. One that was very interesting was the Cathedral of San Rufino (Rufino is the patron saint of Assisi). Not only because of the statue of a lion eating a Christian martyr on the façade. There are glass panels along the floor inside and outside the building – after the 1997 earthquake in Assisi, when structural engineers were inspecting the church, they found old graves, Roman foundations and a few animal bones.
For those that have read Frances Mayes book or seen the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun”, you’d know Cortona as the town near Bramasole, the dilapidated villa she bought to renovate. Ironically, Bramasole means “craving sun” as it’s on the wrong side of the hill and gets no sun after 1500.
The approach into Cortona is nowhere near as dramatic as the other Tuscan hilltop towns. But the Tuscan and Umbrian view from parts of the town are dramatic (Cortona marks the end of Tuscany).
After parking (free!) we headed up the escalator from the carpark to Piazza Garibaldi and almost without stopping, made our way to the main square – not because we didn’t like what we saw, but it was nearly 1430, we were hanging out for lunch and we’d identified a little pizzeria there (thanks Rick Steves). After a pizza, tagliata (beef) and ½ litre of house white, we were ready to explore.
Cortona is so different to the other towns as there are few identified “tourist sites”. This meant that it was quiet and made for a lovely stroll (sort of given the steep hills) around the town, up to the fortress and even some time on a bench overlooking the countryside. And of course there was time for our obligatory macchiato before heading back to Montepulciano for the evening.
We arrived back in Montepulciano just in time to dump our bags back in the room and head out to taste the famous Nobile di Montepulciano. After a less than satisfying experience at one of the cantinas near Piazza Grande where they gave us Nobile in plastic glasses (sorry, this time you gave us a bad steer Rick Steves – but it was an old book), we had a fabulous tasting at the Cantina De’Ricci. The walk through the cellars to get to the tasting room was an experience in itself – unfortunately we didn’t take any photos as we were marvelling at is, but you can have a look here. https://www.cantinadericci.it/voto-e-video/
In fact, they were so friendly, that when we realised we’d left something there and tracked down the host an hour later who was having dinner with friends (we had found out she was going to one of the contrada dinners), she ran around sorting out the return.
Deciding to be brave and dine with the locals, we joined the queue for tickets at one of the contrada dinners as part of the Bravio festival. We chose San Donato (not the one where our B&B was) as the meal was outside near the Fortezza. Fortunately, we could point at the items on the menu to buy tickets, but then the challenge of what to do?? We hung around waiting for a place at a table before two spots opened up next to a family of four. We passed our printed order sheet to the little girl set to serve our table and smiled. When she reeled out a question in Italian, we both smiled, nodded and said “si”, having no idea what she’s asked. She looked puzzled, our neighbours laughed – but she ran off and soon our food arrived. One plate of home cooked pici (pasta) and ragu (meat sauce) and another of gnocchi and cinghiale wild boar. In spite of being intimidated by a 7-year old, a great night was had by all.
Another night of barrel rolling, but better sleep as we were both sufficiently exhausted!!