As Midge and Wiley get ready to head over to Umbria, I look back on our trip last September. Stories that I had not shared here yet. Just to give you a taste of what kind of unplanned adventures a traveler could expect to have on any given fall day in Umbria. This is part one of three parts.

The Annual Grape Harvest Festival in Panicale, Umbria
DOWNTOWN, UMBRIA — We always get a big bang out of September in Panicale because that is when the Grape Havest Festival is. But that is not the only fun we had in September. Almost everyday this month, Wiley has had a nice hilltop to hilltop walk from Paciano to Panicale. I think that walk became very special to her. Good way to peacefully sort out all the system-overload from two hours of intense, private Italian lessons etc. She can, by the way, and does, seriously string sentences together in a meaningful way now. I think she is pleased as punch. She had a friend from Maine here earlier in the week. Then, a few days later, she was off to see Jenny where she was studying in Florence. They have decided that between them, if they stick together, they can cumulatively say nearly anything in Italian! Wiley made me proud when she went right up to the ticket window at the train station in Chiusi and ordered her own train tickets. Look out now.

Girls enjoying Italian Gelato in Perugia on a fall day in UmbriaThe other day after I dropped her off at class in the morning I got a fresh loaf of chibatta at a bakery, two crooked brick alleys away from her school, and talked to a lady weaving in her shop a few doors from that and bought some samples of the weaving. Then I was nursing a coffee and listening to the stories an American guy I know was telling me at the outdoor part of the café (yes, it appears he has had 1) one Norwegian wife and 2) two Swedes and now lives in Italy with an American wife – number 4) four. And if you think I was going to miss any part of THAT story. . . ) Anyway, deep in Scandinavian lore we were when Ms Wiley and her Professoressa Daniella strolled by us for one of their many coffees of the morning. They were just a-laughing and a-chatting up a storm from what I could see. And she could not have looked more intent when I popped in on them later in the garden back of the school. They were sitting in the Umbrian sun. The green valley stretching out in front of them all the way to the lake. All good, happy and memorable moments.


Our uphill neighbor Youngi was in the café and bought me coffee and croissant. As Wiley says ”it is not a croissant dad, this is Italy, it’s a cornetto. And a cornetto is better.” Right you are. Either way, Aldo wants to know which kind I want: créme or marmalade filled. Apricot marmalade, please. And then, after I’ve chosen, he almost won’t let me have it. He’s got it in his hand, but is holding it back, protecting me from. . . The hideous danger. That is. Hot jam. Can he cut it open? Can I make another choice? Please. He’s alarmed, Youngi is alarmed. Alarmalade Crisis? I assure them I can work my way through hot jam. And did. Yesterday, Daniella absolutely refused to warm up an egg and ham panini because it had mayo on it. I grill Grilled Cheese Sandwiches after slathering them with mayo. Have done so since doing a TV shoot about mayo in the Kraft Kitchens in Chicago. And have lived to tell the tale. Here, today, hot mayo is something out of a horror movie and not to be considered lightly.

Cars were featured in a news paper supplement that Simone, Aldo and Daniella’s son and I are looking at. And relative to that and the herd of Ferraris that have just exited the piazza we have a good car talk.Then, I filmed a bit of Biano at his barbering best and then caught a moment with the Ladies of Linda’s. All the ladies from the grocery store were having their morning coffee clutch and they drug me into the café with them. Earlier Linda’s store and the meat market were jammed to the teeth but now it is just the family and me and the video camera. I was there yesterday and got behind a lady with maybe forty coupons and ordering bedspreads with what must have been the Italian version of Green Stamps and oh my gosh I didn’t think that would ever end. What a long, strange trip that appeared to be.

in an Umbrian garden havesting lavenderPAULETTE GETS OUT OF A JAM.

There are cars with bows on them outside the gate. Aldo had warned me: wedding today. Busy place, just got busier. Now Dante is at the door, asking if I will meet them at Masolinos for dinner. We are celebrating that his aunt, our friend Paulette has been cured. Praise the Lord. Her doctor in California said Cipro and there was Cipro and it was Good. Some places you might need a prescription. Funniest thing. But in Italy you may get lucky and just be able to verbalize it to the Pharmacist. (Do they all smoke here? All the pharmacists?) Anyway, the pharmacist listens to her description of the medicine, takes a couple deep and meaningful drags on his cigarette, exhales thoughtfully, steps over his dog and hands her a sack of Cipro. A day later she was cured — after a week of weakness and misery. She must have been too screwed up to have thought to call her doctor or underestimated the take no prisoners attitude of the ”malatia”. Now she and Wiley are in the garden making interesting little sweet smelling, braided sculptures out of our lavender. Paulette’s hands guided her down memory lane to total recall moment from her childhood. In short order she remembered exactly how her Italian grandfather had taught her to make them when she was a little girl. I was glad I was there to see her uncover that moment.


I woke up to morning bells ringing out eight times in the blue blue skies. Before waking Wiley, I started laundry and put the fig marmalade we’ve made the night before on to simmer for a couple hours. Eventually, Wiley and I made it to Aldo’s for our morning coffee. For several mornings in a row we’ve met Emma and her friend Manuela there too, just on the same general schedule.

Emma and everyone we met that morning is atwitter about the coming fireworks in Panicarola. I Fochi d’la Madonna del Busso. I don’t know how they could beat Panicale’s fireworks, during our fun Festa del’uva. Seems almost disloyal to praise another festival, doesn’t it? When viewed from a distance of a couple car lengths from where they were being set off, filled me with sufficient awe. Totally tilted me off my axis, mouth wide open and making ooooh noises as every explosion seemed to be the finale but then, no it just got wilder and bigger and louder by the minute. What a rush. And yet . . . . they say, ”that weren’t nothing, wait till you see the famous ones from Panicarola. Probably just watch them from the balcony here as Panicale looks over Panicarola.” Finally! Some people with a real fireworks tie in. A solid, logical reason for lighting off some major explosions. The story is that some local fishermen, years ago were out doing it the easy way. Easy, but typically illegal way. The way where you throw a bomb overboard, it stuns or kills everything in the vicinity and you go about scooping up what looks good to you. The local equivalent of the ever-popular ”jacking deer” with spotlights as rumored to be practiced in the wilds of Maine.

Italian fireworks festival in central UmbriaBOMBS AWAY
So it seems that the ”fishermen” were really just ”mad bombers” doing this bit of illegal activity when one of their fish bombs went off a bit prematurely. In their boat. Living to tell about it seemed such a miracle, they quickly founded a church, of course, of course, and named it Our Lady of the Bomb. And now, there is a full blown festival of fireworks in honor of those original bad boys and their fireworks. Being saved from aborted criminal activity seems fairly far off the list of usual saintly miracle reasons to start a church. But, who am I to decide when to start a church?

After coffee and that quasi-religious moment, I walked over to city hall and shook hands around for a minute to remind them I’m here and to not forget about my part of town. When are we really going to repave our street? Wasn’t that supposed to be LAST fall? No pressure, just saying I saw the poster with last year’s date on it and you know, wondered. Again.

Back at the bar, one of the town’s Australians needs a doctor. He does what I do when I have a problem. Go to the bar and tell Aldo, the bar owner and head barista. Steve looks like he might have a a good case of oh, I don’t know, leprosy or something. Nice rash, Big Guy. Whew. Someone is wicked allergic to something. The whole bar votes and decides Steve needs to run off to Pronto Soccorso. Pronto.

More September soon to come. Stay tuned to this spot on your dial.

A day in the life: a Friday in Umbria

PANICALE, SAN FELICIANO AND BEYOND — Don’t want to waste this one sleeping so I ducked out quietly and headed to Biano the Barber’s hair cut and gossip salon. I saw him yesterday – almost finished with a client – and I said, give me two minutes. Came back and he’d given me two minutes but he’d given the chair to a guy who was positively gloating to have aced me out of the chair. I win I win. His smile seemed to be saying. So, that was yesterday. I pouted and determined to be first in line today. Now, where is that silver haired rascal?

While I’m waiting for him, I get to watch the town come to life. It is only 8 AM but it is already a hot one in the sun of the spot I’m guarding. In this corner of the piazza there is nothing but sun right now. Being Friday, there market is in town and big trucks are unfurling tent awnings off all sides and setting up racks and racks of stuff I can’t imagine buying. Tshirts and dresses, mud boots, hose clamps and flashlights. Mostly clothes related things.

There goes Andrea from the restaurant on his new new Bee Emmay Vooo. BMW to you. That is him in the photo on his restaurant balcony later in the day. A grocery truck stops in front of me and the driver loads his groceries into a tall wire rack with wheels. And then pushes it, noisily up the cobblestone street. Street is too small for his truck. Its about a block to the store. He really has to lean into it. I did that one time for our friends in the store and it is a picturesque way to break your back or bring on a heart attack. Hey, this guy is young and he does it several times. No fat on him anyway but wow what a workout.

Uh oh, big tall friendly guy in swim trunks and a tshirt is strolling my way, aimed right at Biano’s door. MY Biano’s door. the one I’m staking out. The iron gate is up and usually that means he’s open. He smiles and points at the door and says Chiuso? I shrug Sembra. Closed? Seems to be. He walks off and a couple minutes later returns with long arm draped around diminutive Biano. Am I aced out again? But no. Fabrizio (the tall guy in trunks) and I both tease Biano about being late and then we launch into the cutting of the hair. Hour minimum chair time.
Fab, as he says Americans all call him, stands right by my chair during the process and we just all have a fine chat. Wicked nice guy, low key, engaging. He leaves and Biano quickly says, Harvard MBA, third largest cement company in the world, his company, lives in Cairo, digs classic cars, has the best racing green Jag and some other fun stuff. The guy in the swim trunks? Just when you think here we are, tiny town stuck up on its hill in the middle of Umbria.


Had coffee once I had it twice I had it once again. totally equal opportunity coffee buyer. My second cup was at Masolino’s and I noted that all the family was there which is rare in the mornings. They’ve all been up till whatever hour closing the restaurant and here they are again. Ran home to tell Midge this is the time to give them the pancake mix. So we ran back bearing Bisquick to go with the Maine Maple Syrup we brought them last trip. What you should know and appreciate is that Italians are pretty blasé to indifferent about food if it isn’t Italian. That is my experience. They are wild and passionate about Italian food. Other foods? Not so much. Well, hey, I like Italian food too but I really need some Morroccan or Mexican or ’Merican Apple Pie every now and then too. Not Italians. Not in my experience. If momma didn’t cook it I don’t need it seems to be the song they sing.
One exception: Maple Syrup. They don’t know what the heck that is or what you are supposed to do with it but if they get a taste of it their eyes light up like Christmas. That was fun and got all kinds of cooking stories going.


And then we got up from our panicale pancake round table discussion and had to really get cooking because Midge needed to see Corciano. Our friend Kiki said that if we had only seen the industrial strength shopping chaos part of Coriano we had missed something. She said the town proper is way up above the commercial sprawl and was really worth the trip. Some times we get all involved in fussing in the house or the garden and forget to be the curious tourists we should be. Resolving to be better tourist in future.

Now, it’s the usual time problem that confronts people shillyshalling about getting long haircuts and drinking too many cappuccinos and chatting on and on: too late for lunch and too early for afternoon shopping. What to do what to do.

Lets head to Corciano (lower right corner of Lake Trasimeno) but stop before that in San Feliciano for a snack to tide us over. San Feliciano is Right smack on the lake. Boats tie up along the park and then there is one small street faced with one seafood restaurant after the other. We like Settimino’s there but today we are so going to sit in the park under an umbrella and watch the world go by. There is a nice stand with all kinds of food, bathrooms, and oh, my God look at the Gelati. JeemenyWhiz! I, I, I, don’t believe that collection of swoops and mounds and ice cream flourishes in every color in the rainbow. So we munched something but our minds we clearly on the gelato prize waiting in that display case. Hugely engaging latin music playing, boats gently rocking at anchor, bikers biking, breeze rustling lightly in the leaves ok, enough of that get me an ice cream cone!

I swear I may only be partially right in remembering how they spelled my new taste treat. Agreto ? di Sicilia. All the citrus of Sicily in one. Pink grapefruit, oranges and lemons. So I had that with cantilope melon flavor. Well! I am a new and better person now. Don’t take my word for the taste or the spelling, get over there and get you some! We must have mindlessly passed the time there, just being, just hanging out for a couple hours. True happiness and hardly any expense. Quiet day in the park. And like I said, it had bathrooms. Always a plus on a tourist itinerary.

Eventually we tore ourselves away and got down the road and up the hill to Corciano. Damd, that town is PINK. Wheeeow. Good pink, pale pink admittedly, but still pink. The stone in every town is a different shade. Our town is more brown. Some like Cortona are golden hued. Corciano is bunny pink. Looks good on it.

Very well kept and pleasant place. And there must be a town bounty paid on pink flowers. Every balcony and doorway was awash in pink geraniums and other fun flowers. They all clearly got the memo. Lots of neutral jasmine too. The whole town is very much of the same fabric and it works. Must have been a bit religiously zealous at some point in time as it was solid covered with churches and bell towers. Now, I’m from Iowa. Well, born in Florida. But FROM Iowa. And if we have two church steeples in town that means we have two churches. Two denominations even. You might have your Presbyterians over here and your gasp oh no you wouldn’t let your daughter marry one of those Methodists over there. Ok, but see, those are two nominally different churches.

This is Italy. Rumor has it that all the churches here have the same label. Very Catholic brand. So how in the world can I stand in one place in a town the size of a strip mall and see seven or eight bell towers? Each one attached to a church-sized and church-shaped stack of stones? Mystery to me. But sweet mystery because it is scenic as all get out. But really. Fund raising must have been a bit less userfriendly than it is today.

We had to leave sometime. So we did. Someone had been looking for the perfect porchetta sandwich so we remembered that on the way back out of here we wanted to go by one and we would take a photo to show them. Well, now I have the photos but don’t remember who cared. But choices? You bet. Play Pig? Or King Pig? I not sure which of them we liked best – but there were a whole lot of police cars around Re di Porchetta and more streaming in as we went by so I’m betting I would try that one first.

Back at home we had a couple hours of pre sunset garden duty. Reading, totally distracted by the changing colors of the long lazy sunset spectacular. How many days can we just go wow, look at that color, did you see those swallows, are they extra bright colors tonight, are the swallows wilder than usual?

But today for the third day running the cherry on the ice cream cone has been the Renaissance flute music wafting, no I mean it, real wafting, over the garden. Its just too, I don’t know, wonderful? for words. It comes and goes out of lower limits of your ability to hear.

One minute very soft but clear and obviously and then it wafts away and you think Did I really hear that? And then there’s more and it is just so nice we had to go check it out at the source which isn’t all that hard as the church is only right over there, a part of a block away.

They were doing a course and some students were inside walking around the Baroque interior lost in their music and every now and then one would step out to a stone bench overlooking the lake, just outside the door, and practice a little piece for awhile and then duck back into joint the group. Even when they were all inside the door was open and we could hear them at some almost subconscious level.

Then it was to dinner at Elida and Guenter’s. Perfect way to end a perfect day. Picked up some dessert wine like the bottle that we had enjoyed together the other night at a restaurant, and strolled out to their place outside of town. Midge had been there earlier in the day. Cleaning squid? Yes, so she claimed. Here’s my rule, if Elida cooks it, I’m eating it. No questions asked, even if it is squid big enough to have eaten Capt Nemo’s cat. Elida worked over the big industrial range and the rest of us drank her wine and sat in the garden and told lies and watched the chickens pecking whatever they peck in the lawn. And then when the sun had set, we went out on their stone veranda under the grapes with little Christmas lights in them. Strangely and totally wrongly these grapes are somewhat my doing and I’m kind of proud of them in an abstract sort of way. Blind leading the blind will actually work out a certain per cent of the time you might say. This would be one of those times.

Our neighbor Carlo in Maine told me I had to plant some grapes and to raise them right I had to feed them lard. What do I know. I didn’t even want any darned grapes so I didn’t care if they choked on the lard or grew world class Vino Nobile. He kept coming over and bumming beer from me and waving his cane at me till I agreed to DO RIGHT, mind him, get grapes and don’t forget the lard. And. I have serious grapes. Thanks to lard evidently. So, a couple years ago Guenter asked me if I knew anything about grapes and I told him Yes, Lard, Yes. And he, in this land of ancient vines and ancient vintners, took my Iowa/Maine word for it and is presently covered with grapes. Lard. Who knows. So we sat under the extra healthy carnivore grapes of Panicale the Christmas lights twinkled, glasses were filled and clinked, the painted ceramic plates were passed, and we ate some darn stuffed squid. And a potato salad with fish in it. And because we cleaned our plates, we got to have a lovely semi-freddo made with another guest’s fresh apricots. The stars came out, the time went peacefully by and we walked home without saying hardly a word. We were tired little teddy bears. Passing through the gates with home in sight and the tower bells striking twelve I thought You know, I’m pretty happy to be right here right now.

Not a bad day at all.

Many people. OK. Probably, most people, might question spending a sunny day in Italy cleaning house. And calling it a fine day. I had people coming that I wanted to show the house to. To show them a Giancarlo restoration. And get the house past that bachelor pad fraternity house look that I had let it devolve into in the mere two days since Midge left. There was that. She is coming back in a few days. So.

Personal grooming to the forefront. Jumped straight out of bed determined to get my ritual Biano haircut. Go early. Hang out by the fountain until he arrives and beat the line. There is always a line. And he takes an hour even if you are folic-ly challenged. I win. I’m first! But. No Biano. Gate’s up, but doors locked and now there are old men closing in on the stone bench. Cuing up and talking polite chitchat but will they remember that I was first? So competitive. Loser gets to watch winner getting clipped for ever. All works out for the best and in the process I get scoop on a house we have just put on the site and pictures even. Jungle drums working fine this morning.

Back across the street for second cup of cappuccino and there is our invisible neighbor Youngi. Where has she been? We catch up, she’s curious about the web site and we talk about this great new sport of blogging.

Now. I really am going home to clean. Right now. Wait, there’s that rascal Bruno. Bruno! He’s offering to help an old lady carry her groceries, putting them in her car and dropping them off, on his way out. I jump in with him and we discuss important issues like my shutters. I don’t have any on two street level windows and I want some. Want to be like all the other kids on the block. First, we drop off the lady’s groceries and then we zoom over to the edge of the next town. There we meet Vittorio at the wood working shop and try to cajole him into coming to look at my lack of shutters situation. This afternoon works for me and he agrees, I’m sure, because of Bruno’ prodding to come see us this afternoon.


Yes, the hardware store in Castiglione del Lago is named CANADA. Big letters, just like that, maybe three feet high so that really is the name of the best hardware store any foreign boy like me could dream of. Huge, they have everything and most importantly they have an incredibly smart aleck owner who moved to Canada as a young boy and moved back as a young adult. Hyper fluent in English. I don’t wait to use him today as my list is simple obvious things but when it gets funny and technical as fine hardware can get when you are talking about funny screws that go in weird places, he can shovel me right out of trouble but quick. I can hardly keep up my end of the conversation in Goffs on Main Street in Yarmouth, Maine so this is sometimes a huge blessing.

Back now, really am working. See Stew work. Work. Work. Work. Clean. Clean. Clean. LUNCH TIME! Work. Work Work.

Maybe for a minute I did sneak out and shoot some wild flowers. And Denise and Tigre the Town Cat on my way to the town office to get a shutter permit. And I did take time to blow up computer. I just needed it for a minute there and now look what I’ve done. Hour and a half international long distance call later Magic Rich at the office had me back in the game. That was close. Imagine a day or two in Italy without email. Well, I can’t either.

Anna arrives to put professional clean to my amateur. And shoos me out to the garden where I clean like a machine till sainted person that she is she brings us ice creams from her cousin’s store up the street. And we sit in the newly hyper clean garden and watch the sun setting and the swallows swooping overhead for a few. Ceremonial first token picnic of the year for the white plastic table. Inauguration Day.

Before settling down to nine o’clock frozen food from a bag (Philistine Dinner of Champions-Italian Division) I was taking out the last bag of rubbish. And I could see the tail end of the sunset casting a fragile pink haze to everything in its path. On my way, I met Dily and she had seen me admiring her new apartment. It has a balcony right above a restaurant’s big wisteria covered outdoor dining area. Well, that was a sea of violet in full flower. I had actually seen that before. What I had never noted before was the roses climbing up her wall, up out of the wisteria and headed for the roof. Yellow roses growing right up her balcony. To the top of the fourth floor. It is in the castle walls proper so there is yet one more floor to go. But still. This is a serious bouquet of roses. As we stood there, holding our black plastic bags, the lights twinkled on in amongst the clouds of wisteria and the green arch of neon spelling R.I.S.T.O.R.A.N.T.E. over the entrance blinked on and that put finish to the day. I don’t care what the other tourists were doing, I had a fine time of it. I may have worked even a bit too hard as you can see, I’m just a shadow of my former self.

Che Weekend. wow.

I am in a daze. Good daze, but none the less. Saturday Giancarlo and I went to Cortona to see a nice Australian family’s house. Wow. So unusual to find a single family detached home in the oldest highest nicest part of Cortona. Three stories tall, all stone, perfect condition, next to an ancient well and a convent and other nice nice homes. You would have trouble finding anything to spend money on here. It is just most excellent.

And in news around the house, big progress on the woodstove installation here. Still cold enough that I am motivated and it will be ready soon. Can’t wait to curl up with a good book there in front of the fire. Garden still covered with light coat of snow and ice. Very strange for the weather to stay below freezing for a week.

Way out of control today. Met a bunch of friends in the piazza early for gossip in the welcome sunshine under bright blue skies. Biano, my barber, says “Remember when there was that big group of Ferraris in the piazza? I have printed up photos for you.” He and Orfeo and I then had a long conversation about how cool it is to have friends and that after having your health, what else is there really? Bruno buzzed by and said, “Woodstove progress soon.” OK, good.

At noon after the mass at the church in the piazza, I met some good friends for more coffee and bribed their four-year-old with New England taffy while feeding their baby something spinach-related. He didn’t seem to mind. Suddenly, there was a huge crowd in the cafe, all Americans it turned out. The next thing we know, they are all ooohing and ahhhing at the pretty babies and taking their pictures. Turns out they are all tour guides on a tour of places to consider. We all swap business cards like mad and their guide briskly shoos them out to something less important like a lace-making demonstration. We let them know how hyper cool our friend’s luscious classic Villa Lemura is as a destination for their clients, of course.


Must resort to a mere list at this point:
Left the bar with our friend (and defacto Swedish Godmother) Gun Cesarini and rushed to pick up an American friend who Midge found a great long-term apartment for. One of the Cesarini’s apartments in fact. Had lovely lunch at her house with fire in fireplace, leg of lamb and lovely pastas on plates and great views out the window at her house on the edge of town.

Looked at my watch just before coffee and realized people from Alabama were waiting for me at my house. In town. Yike. Rudely excused myself and drove off down the hill to town.

We saw two very nice Panicale homes. One of them with my friend Orfeo. We met him at the third bar cafe of Panicale, upstairs where all the men play cards, drink coffee and watch sports of any stripe.


After seeing the properties we were walking by Orfeo’s house when he diverted us inside for “a drop”. Turned out to be a drop of Vin Santo. With his wife’s super fritters. Small round-ish fritters about ping pong ball sized, made with flour, egg and honey, lightly fried. Amazing. Four hundred times better than I’d had in any bakery ever. She had made them with her own eggs, her own honey. Fried in her olive oil. That morning. Because it is Carnevale time is should be fried in lard they said but they have no intention of doing that when they have lovely light olive oil to use. The fritter come in different sizes and shapes in different areas and are called different things as well. In Panicale they are called Strufoli.

Being a bit too house proud we then toured our house, almost next door, and yes,
yes we DO have a woodstove and wood and kindling.

I recommend that they try their hardest to get tickets to the theater that is happening this very night. Again with the timing.

Bruno comes by and we light the first ever fire and it is righteous indeed. We celebrate with a drink at the bar. Bitters for him and hot chocolate for me. Too much coffee already. And then we agree to wave at each other at the theater that night.

Even thought the theater doesn’t start till nine pm, there isn’t even time for dinner somehow. Never a dull moment. The play tonight was three separate Neopoliton farces by Eduardo de Filippo. The theater was packed. The best part of it all is waving at all your friends in the floor seats, balconies and boxes and then afterwards the hugs and double-cheeked air kisses. It is my whole Panicale life flashing before my eyes condensed into a few fine moments. We stretch the moment by retiring to the bar AGAIN. and then I hurry home for the midnight (here) kick-off of the SUPER BOWL.

I called my wife Midge at 1 am, 2:30 and 4:30 until the verdict we all hoped for came in. . . Go Patriots! Champions Again.

Tomorrow, your erstwhile roving reporter is taking a road trip to Spannocchia outside Siena.