Mel and Soren: to new heights in Panicale. A Brit’s-eye view of Umbria.

Showing disdain for the vast flat areas that we look down upon, Umbrians preferred the challenge of creating towns on the insanely steep and dramatic slopes of its rocky hills.

The Doors. Of Panicale, Umbria. Italy at a glance, fall 07Editor Stew note: this is the promised second installment of the Mel and Soren trip to Panicale. You can feel them enjoying the sunshine and basking in the little moments that make a trip worthwhile. Love the words and pictures they paint here. I think it is safe to say they are open and friendly people, and that, as usual, our “home town” responded in kind and made them feel fully at home.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland



PANICALE, Umbria, Central Italy–I was bought up in a house with two external doors – a front door and a back door. This was, and is still, a fairly substantial house, but these two doors seemed to provide for all of the entrances and exits required during my seventeen years there. The house and its plot offered little that would perplex someone attempting a set of architectural drawings: two floors each identical in dimensions and seated neatly on top of each other; in addition, a flat, rectangular garden to the front, and a flat rectangular garden of double the proportions at the rear.

The architects and builders of Umbria however, appear to have adopted a rather different approach. Showing disdain for the vast flat areas that we look down upon, Umbrians preferred the challenge of creating towns on the insanely steep and dramatic slopes of its rocky hills.
The Doors. Of Panicale, Umbria. Italy at a glance, fall 07
This has had a number of repercussions that take some getting used to for those accustomed to the flat lands of East Anglia. The first is the dizzying amount of doors that an Italian home requires to offer access and exit. Casa Vreeland in Panicale offers seven doors that give access to and from the outside world. Now those of you that are used to the normal front and back door approach might be visualising a property with so many doors lined up across its frontage so that it appears like a row of changing rooms at an old fashioned lido. However, only when you are here can you see why such a multitude of doors are necessary.

window to the world. our neighbors' garden terrace above us in UmbriaProperties in Panicale are not built on simple, level poured concrete slabs. Where foundations for a common house may involve a bit of half-hearted scraping with a digger and a couple of goes on a cement mixer, the Panicale house required huge triangular buttresses of rock and brick, sections of rock cut away here and added there, to provide what seems like a set of treads in a staircase on which they can then start building houses. This means that the upstairs and downstairs parts of a house in Panicale feel like they are in different parts of town. The lowest doors of the property at the back give out onto the street, as do the doors of the intermediate floor. What those of you not familiar with Umbrian hill towns might not grasp is that the street level of the front is about twenty feet above the street at the back.

This means that when you are in one part of the house – that is to say, when you roll out of bed, bustle to the bathroom and brush your teeth, looking out of the bathroom window – you meet your neighbour opposite, watering his tomato plants in his basement-level garden. “Ciao”. For those reserved Englishmen, conducting a conversation in your boxers with a man holding a watering can is a new experience. I think this explains why Italians are so socially adept: in your utility room you look across and talk to your neighbour slicing onions; in your kitchen you exchange greetings with a lady returning from the butchers; in your basement you look out and catch sight of someone directly across from you attempting to adjust their roof-top aerial.

doing the Italian Hat DanceAs well as this easy conviviality the vertiginous pavements offer a challenge to the walker. The elderly appear to have so many advantages here – the proximity and care of family and the indulgence and care of shop and bar owners to name but a couple – but surely those steep slopes must be a fighting challenge? Well no. Panicale’s streets are softened by a number of expertly positioned and sensible adaptations. The first is the little benches that occur every twenty yards or so. Noticing that progress is becoming demanding, you stop. As you sit you catch up with an old friend making the opposite journey. Rested, you make a bid for your next staging post. The bottega, which despite fighting a daily challenge to cram all their wonderful stock into their tiny shop (taking up valuable floor space) is a chair provided for the tiring walker. Here you can sit and catch up and find out Panicale’s latest news. Now that you have reached the highest point it is a gentle stroll down to Bar Gallo and more hospitality.

The elderly Italian may also call on a family member to help them on the hotter days. It is one of the most moving and balletic examples of filial loyalty and care I have ever seen. Every evening if you sit yourself in Bar Gallo you will see two figures coming down the steep slope towards you. He blind, and head bowed, with only the top of his linen cap showing, she patiently and gently offering a supportive arm. Benchwarmers of central UmbriaBut this is no sad, stumbling shuffle – this dancing duet glide down with grace and style. Much in the way a metronome swings this way and that, so this couple tilt to the right as their right foot moves out, and as it is planted, their tilt is cushioned to a halt and shifted direction as now the left foot makes its step forward. So with the unnerving rhythm and certainty of a clock’s pendulum they cover the cobbles with the grace of ice-skaters. Beautiful.

Still Soren

Take a ten minute trip to Italy

We went to Cortona to book our tickets for an evening of wine tasting and an open air concert. A very sweet lady conspiratorially whispered to us that the tickets are much cheaper on the night, and that only imbecilic foreigners pay the full price. Also found a lovely hat shop there (do they exist anywhere other than Italy?) and am considering buying a fine Borselina hat. It certainly looks splendid, but appears to cost more than the suit I got married in

Our friends Mel and Soren are from London. They just got back from two weeks in our place in Italy. Soren is such a good writer and Mel is a shutterbug with a great eye. They entertained us no end with their Letters from Italy. We asked them if we could share their photos and written email notes of their trip to Panicale. It was a trip to see it through their eyes.

There are photos all through their notes here and, at the end, a slide show/mini-movie that captures the spirit of this visit. And, stay tuned, a future blog will be their Notes from Home.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

Hi Midge and Stew,

Happy to pass on greetings to your friends in town, in our basic (but rapidly improving) Italian! Soren has just had his first trip to the barbers – the shave of a lifetime! Only had a couple of days here, but we love it already! We are going to the market tomorrow, and looking forward to doing some cooking, and eating on your terrace.

Thanks once again,

Mel and Soren

the beans of italy, taste of Umbrian fall


The weather is glorious, but we did have one of those month’s rain in hour storms as we were driving back from Perugia – I actually quite enjoyed the drama of the lightning and the roads awash with equal amounts of rain, leaves and branches. It certainly was Biano who gave me my close shave (you draw him well) and I am impatiently waiting for my stubble to grow to the length required for a return visit, and when I do, I shall pass on your greetings.

We went to Cortona to book our tickets for an evening of wine tasting and an open air concert. A very sweet lady conspiratorially whispered to us that the tickets are much cheaper on the night, and that only imbecilic foreigners pay the full price. Also found a lovely hat shop there (do they exist anywhere other than Italy?) and am considering buying a fine Borselina hat. It certainly looks splendid, but appears to cost more than the suit I got married in; Mel helpfully reminded me that true style comes at a price.

All is good here. One small uncertainty: where do we find the glass door that leads us to washing machine? I think we are rather timid explorers and don’t want to trespass on your neighbours’ land, but the position of the glass door is beginning to be discussed in the same terms as one might talk of a fantastical door in a Tolkien novel. We are well stocked with clothes (I should know I carried the suitcase), but we will probably need to get laundering at some point.

Thanks again for the opportunity of getting to know this wonderful part of Italy, right now it’s Prosecco Time at Bar Gallo,



Don’t worry about our comfort – we are absolutely loving your place. Last night we sat and ate, and the view across the lake was stunning -stripes of amazing colors rose in a perfect spectrum above the lake. We just sat and stared, and then sat and stared some more.

Last night was the first time I have cooked. We went to the market and I saw those amazing borlotti beans. Mel wanted some to photograph and I wanted some to cook so they were bought in ample quantity. Having loaded the bag the lady at the market wandered her nimble fingers over a few other trays so that the bag now contained some celery, some carrots, parsley, onion and basil – it was as if she knew I wanted to make a fresh bean soup. I made ribollita, and the fact that everything tastes better on holiday acknowledged, I was pretty happy with results. Mel loved the beans – she couldn’t believe the beans were as pretty as the pods – like ivory marbles with flecks of burgundy, brick, earth and terracotta.

a fine Italian Hat

Our day will consist of the following:

1. Armed with your instructions, a search for the glass door
2. My first go at cooking with umbricelli pasta
3. Cortona hat shop (I’m sure Mel is encouraging my eye-wateringly expensive hat purchase so that she can say “you remember that time you spent two weeks wages on a hat? Well I’ve just found …
4. Wine tasting in Cortona
5. Open air classical concert

How can we ever return to work?

Thanks again,



The door has been found! Mel was getting a little anxious because she was down to her last twelve clean tops, but now the disaster that such a diminished range of options has been averted, all is well.

Mel is slowly finding her feet as far as the camera is concerned, and is looking forward to uploading pictures when she gets back – we decided against bringing the computer after the usual 50 weeks a year I spend as a Mac widow, so we’ll be sure to share upon our return.

The Hat.
I decided against the grand purchase, in favour of two less expensive models. One, a fine linen cap and the other a fine summer hat, favoured by men of experience in Italy. The shop attendant assured me that this style of hat was favoured by either very young men or very old – I decided to take that as a compliment, but he may have meant it as an insult! That said, the fine Borselina hat may well still be purchased; making that my first grown-up hat would have been a bit like buying a Rolls Royce as a first car. The two that I have purchased may be important stepping stones.
cafe society, italian style, life in the piazza with a cup of cappucchino

The Concert.
As advised, we managed to pay 15 Euros each, rather than 75, by bowling up at the last minute. The setting was amazing, and hearing the fight of the Montagues and the Capulets from Rachmaninov’s Romeo & Juliet in such a charming square made it all the more special. One slight disappointment was the assembled crowd’s muted response to the finale – I was expecting an uninhibited expression of latin euphoria, but alas, I turned around to see a crowd made up almost entirely of restrained Brits quietly clapping their appreciation. Never mind.

The Trattoria.
Salsicce. What does that come with? For a long while I have complained of London’s restaurants obsession with novelty and experiment. I have been I frequent victim of a bungling chef with a huge ego, attempting to offer an exciting new take on more conventional combinations: liver in lager; prawns in jam etc. Italy and itàs fine trattoria offer me the perfect antidote. Choose Salsicce and what do you get? Two perfect grilled sausages. Pair them with some lovely stewed beans and you have exactly the sort of meal I live for!


I will fill out some of my observations and get Mel to illustrate them with some pics (she unpacked the tripod last night and was talking about buying an easel – a sure sign she is finding her feet). We can get them to you when we get back, and be assured that Mel and I will really enjoy doing it.

There is quite a tale tell from our wine tasting. The “expert” was not shy with his own measures and unwittingly offered a lovely study in the progressive (or should that be regressive) stages of inebriation. I will get that down on paper soon – I will never forget the moment he took of his sunglasses to reveal two of the hardest drink eyes I have seen in years – priceless.

Off to the barber’s now (where Biano will receive your salutations), and then off to Montepulciano.

shave and a haircut. two bits or three bits of italy


All good here. Started on some blog material (wish I had brought mac now!) will send it for your perusal when I get back. We have jazz in the piazza tomorrow and have decided that I can’t do without a fine Borselina hat, so a trip to Cortona hat shop tomorrow. Love Panicale. last night the bottega shop door jammed (the one fifty yards from you – what lovely people, and what an amazing range of tasty foods in that tiny shop) and it was a fantastic scene of multiple advisors and a series of men Arthur and Excalibur style trying to open it. Much advice and a series of failed attempts followed. I know it is a bit of a cliche, but it was a classic example of italians having a noisy agreement i.e nods of agreement accompanied by shouts of discord. Quite like the phrase two italians having a noisy agreement. Is it mine, or have I borrowed it? Can’t remember.

Couple of questions. Is there a food market you would recommend i.e lots of stalls selling food rather than underwear. i think we haven’t cracked that one yet. Also, haven’t had a pizza yet. where would you recommend – happy to travel for a real top-notch one.

Hope these mails aren’t a nuisance, and please don’t feel obliged to reply to them.

Loving it here, and dreading the prospect of next Thursday.


THE hat will be purchased.

Had a great night in Panicale last night. A jazz night, courtesy of Aldo, featuring Hot Club Aurora filled the piazza. The whole town seemed to have turned out and it was an amazing atmosphere – swing, blues, ragtime, mambo … (clearly, a very versatile outfit). I loved the way the pretty fountain and its steps formed an impromptu stage. We got there in good time and Mel photographed with real application. I fear her intake of Ammaretti Di Sarrono may have led to some rather abstract photography, but she seemed to have got some great shots.

I have got into a happy habit of spending the afternoon in the shade filling up a school child’s jotter bought at Panicale’s bazaar. I think we could have a bit of sport where I describe one of the town’s characters and you can see if they ring any bells. I think the first portrait will have to be of someone Mel has dubbed “Lady Scratchcard” who at an established hour exits the bazaar with a train of lottery cards as tall as her and seats herself at Bar Gallo and starts scratching and revealing symbols that seem to mean either outrageous wealth or absolute penury. A small circle of intimates hover around mouthing consolations and congratulations as appropriate – a wonderful bit of theatre to accompany a glass of Prosecco.

italian landscapes

Went to Citta Della Pieve yesterday and really liked it. Bought some amazing pasta (was it really that cheap?) and cooked it up as soon as we got back. Needless to say it was delightful. Also found a great butcher there with astonoishingly good prosciutto and salsicce, only then to return to see that the local butcher had a little hand-written sign announcing “oggi porchetta”. Well seeing as it was only available oggi I had to. Again, amazing. We might still be novices as to the region’s churches, but we have shown real application in our study of its food and wine.

Savouring every moment here, thanks again,


After a wonderful two weeks in Panicale, sadly our time is coming to an end, and we’re starting to prepare ourselves for London life. We’re looking forward to a final evening meal at Masolino’s tonight. Soren has also arranged for his final shave with Fabiano, early on Thursday morning, and we hope to enjoy our last Panicale capuccino and cornetto at Bar Gallo before setting off for Rome Ciampino. We have had a fantastic time, so thank you SO much! We have pictures and copy, should you like to use them on your blog (good shots of the barber’s, who was pleased to show us a print-out of your blog on the Panicale barbers experience!). We’ll send them to you when we get back to London.

Stew’s note: Enjoy the Mel and Soren Slide Show of late summer in Italy. And watch for their next entry based on their notes from back in Jolly Olde England.