The moment we learned we’d be staying near the little Italian town of Deruta, we knew we would want to shop for china (why is it called “china” and not “italy”?). In Deruta, there’s nearly 15 kilometers of ceramics factories and store fronts, one after the other.
My sister Lyn lives in pottery country in North Carolina and one of our favorite ways to spend a day is to mosey between pottery stores, picking up vases, dishes and cups while admiring the artistry of the potters. No matter how much pottery we bring home, we always find room for one more beautiful piece.
Things were a little different in Italy. Anything we bought would have to become part of the weight allowance in our luggage. We all wanted to shop in store after store but we were very limited by weight and shape. It was frustrating not being able to buy what we wanted, but it also meant we chose only our very favorite pieces to bring home.
Deruta is located in central Italy in Umbria. The area is known for its refined maiolica manufacture which has been on-going since the early middle ages.
But Deruta is also a town where people live and work. While the top of the town is a small walled city (small because the population was ravaged by the Plague in the middle ages), the lower parts of the town are modern with compact apartment buildings, numerous shops, and well planned streets.
Pottery decorates the showrooms, front windows, and even the buildings of Deruta. At the Museum of Deruta Ceramics, some of the ceramics are used to tell stories. A signed work by Mancini hangs outside on a wall, telling the story of Ovidio’s 1541 Metamorfosi. The 15 books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses are a Latin narrative poem telling the history of the world, beginning with the creation. The ceramic piece hanging on the wall outside the museum is really this beautiful.
We met a delightful woman in one pottery store who painted a ceramic duck. My sisters knew I loved the duck and they bought it for me for my birthday. Here I am with my hand-wrapped duck and the lovely painter.
Dinner in Deruta
After a long day of sightseeing in the rain, we looked for a good local restaurant for dinner. This is what it looked like out our windshield:
Our dash through the rain was rewarded with an outstanding dinner when we found the Osteria il Borghetto as recommended by Trip Advisor. The tiny restaurant is easy to find, we parked right out front, and we were greeted by the owner as if we were his own family with hugs and kisses at the door.
We simply ordered the special of the day and were treated with a baked caserole as an appetizer – a delicious blend of vegetables and cheese. Our first plate was a combination pasta in a spicy sauce that was extraordinarily well flavored with perfectly cooked pasta. Pork loin made up our meat dish; it was accompanied with an zesty slaw and a flavorful polenta puff.
After dinner, the owner came to our table with 15-year-old balsamic vinegar. He poured out a small teaspoonful and offered it to each of his guests. POW! the flavor was rich, full and sweet. It was the perfect dessert after a heavy meal. He told us the vinegar is a gift from a friend and he shares it with his customers each night.
We left with more hugs all around. What an extraordinary dining pleasure in Deruta, Italy!
The anciet town of Civita is dying smack in the middle of Italy. Civita is a 2,500-year-old Etruscan town built on stone that has slowly eroded or crumbled. An earthquake did in the only roadway leading into town. Once isolated by steep hills, Civita now has a long stone bridge that allows for foot traffic. With the bridge, tourism has picked up a bit.
Civita is located next to the town of Bagnoregio, a nondescript town that offers parking near the foot bridge. We had a difficult time trying to figure out where to park. A few signs pointed towards Civita but the parking lots were just dirt lots with a machine for payment. My advice for parking is just drive as close as you can to Civita. When the roads stop but Civita is in sight, park there. I felt perfectly safe staying in the car alone and enjoyed the company of a wandering cat while my sisters hiked across the stoe bridge to Civita.
I was tired after a long day of exploring but my sisters chose to hike down the long stone staircase and across the bridge into town. It took them about 15 minutes of walking to reach Civita, take a quick glance into the city center, and then another 15 minutes to walk back.
Without taking the long hike, I still enjoyed the feeling of remote Italy. Civita is surrounded by hills that roll into a wilderness that is not expected in Italy. The serenity of the setting was peaceful and provided the perfect ending to a long and busy day.
If you’re looking for an interesting hill town that is low on crowds, Civita may be the town for you. Rick Steves has also written a charming story with a lot more detail about Civita that you may enjoy.
Here’s a live webcam if you’d like to see the “action” in Civita for yourself.
The Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is so much more than the mother church of the Franciscan Order. It’s really a living memorial to the teachings of St. Francis plus an accessible gallery to the extraordinary paintings by Giotto and Cimabue.
Note: I’ve written a separate blog about the hill town of Assissi.
As we approached the Basilica after a rain-drenched walk through Assissi, we were surprised to see soldiers guarding the church. We had felt protected as we strolled through the town, never realizing that soldiers guaranteed our safety. The soldiers were carrying out Operazione “Strade Sicure” (Operation Safe Streets) as part of activities in place throughout Italy.
The irony of soldiers guarding this area just steps fom a statue of St. Francis, spiritually exhausted, returning from war was not lost on us. We are grateful for these soldiers and all the men and women who protect us during our travels. Thank you!
We were advised to tour the Basilica late in the day in order to avoid crowds. But we arrived so late that guards were slowly closing down the church. We started in the top level — apparently, we should have started in the lower level — and had to make a mad dash to the lower level before it was closed. We had allowed for 30 minutes in each of the levels but that was just not enough time to take in everything. The exhausting run from the upper to the lower level in the pouring rain was absolutely, 100% worth the sprint: when we arrived in the lower Basilica, mass with a full choir was being sung in Latin! It was absolutely gorgeous.
But let me start with the Upper Basilica. As we entered the upper level, a monk in a small booth to the right sold us entrance tickets. A haphazard scatter of crowds walked up and down roped-off aisles, eyes aloft, admiring the frescoes that covered the walls of the church.
When we visited Giotto’s works in Padua, we entered a sealed chamber to normalize our breath, then we were admitted to the Scrovegni Chapel in small groups for just 15 minutes. This was done to protect the Giotto frescos. But large crowds wandered at will around the St. Francis Basilica frescos and no measures were taken to protect the art. The feeling seemed to continue the themes of St. Francis that people were more important than stuff. Nevertheless, there is a controversy about the protection, and even the restoration efforts, of the Basilica’s wall paintings.
There was also controversy for many years about whether or not the paintings in the Basilica were by Giotto or by a variety of other painters. During the restoration process in 2012, however, restorers discovered a signature of Giotto proving that at least some of the frescos were part of Giotto’s early body of work.
Despite the controversy, it was a thrill to see the cycle of 28 frescos up close. They depict the life of St. Francis – the cathedral was started the day after Francis was named a saint so the stories of Francis were vivid. I was not permitted to photograph the cycle; I think it was more because of crowd control than fear of damaging the paintings. So I refer you to wikimedia for a full telling with photos of the cycle.
When we arrived breathless to the Lower Basilica (guards closed the church for the day right after we raced through the doors), the guards put their fingers to their lips to indicate silence. We tiptoed into the Lower Basilica and we were greeted by a mass featuring a full choir with music. It was glorious!
Every surface of the Lower Basilica is painted with scenes from the Bible. The body of St. Francis is buried down a stairway discovered nearly 600 years after his death. We relaxed into the calm of mass, satisfied with a full day of peace and beauty thanks to St. Francis of Assissi.
“Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received…but only what you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.” — St. Francis of Assissi
Things don’t always go smoothly on vacation. But sometimes what goes wrong makes for the best memories. Enjoy my sister Lyn Purtz’s account:
So, Monday morning in Umbria. Did we mention it’s raining? The weather is odd. We have needed to layer every day. But we never un-layer. When it rains, the temperature seems to drop 20 degrees. We are chilled to the bone.
Market day is in Marsciano. Everywhere we drive we do not know where to park, but in Marsciano we find a place right in front of the market! Vendors are selling more fruit and vegetables than you can find in Whole Foods. There’s also sausages, salted fish, anchovies, cheeses. Food trucks with a roasted pig splayed out; the porchetta vendor slices off a hunk of meat and places it on a hard roll with a little salt.
The vendor trucks have awnings that pop up from the roof like an RV. They display their wares either on tables or risers that unfold out of the side of the truck.
A shoe vendor has about 150 boxes of shoes with one shoe displayed on top of the box. Bigger than some shoe stores. Pajamas, underwear, cashmere socks, sweaters, skirts, etc. etc. etc. We are in shoppers heaven! And then…I decide to take the packages to the car.
Whoops! What’s that green paper flapping on my windshield? A ticket. I put the items in the trunk, take the ticket off the car and head to find Barbara & Terry. Then we move the car…up a hill where the parking is free. And then we need to find the police station. We ask a tall man at the sausage stand for directions. Our lack of English doesn’t phase him at all but he gives up on our Italian. “Mama! Mama!” he calls to his mother in the sausage truck. “I’m taking these ladies to the police station,” and then he walks us all the way to the police station.
We follow him around curved streets, across piazzas and then to the government house that doesn’t have a sign outside. How were we to find this? “Sausage man” waves arrevaderci and leaves us there. All the Polizia are women dressed in severe black uniforms. But they are nice. They smile. They shake their heads in sympathy. They try to use our credit card for about 10 minutes before they shrug – “Allora!” – We pay the $28.00 ticket in cash. No one wants our credit cards, not even the police.
We decide to head to Perugia, about 15 miles west of Marsciano. We hike uphil to the town center to visit the wonderful Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria – a museum that features six centuries of art and historic artifacts in chronological order. WOW! An elevator! We get into the elevator but it will only go to the 5th floor instead of the 3rd floor entrance. We take the elevator to the 5th floor and office workers rush out to tell us: The museum is closed. No reason why. It’s just closed.
We drive around the old town aimlessly lacking the incentive to walk in the rain and worried about our car. Since Day 2, our VW Tiguan flashed a symbol that we do not understand but does say that in 700 km if we do not add-blu the car will not start. Also, our GPS isn’t working correctly. We stopped at a gas station two days before to see what Ad-blu means: an additive to go in the car because it uses diesel. A man at the gas station we stopped at shrugs his shoulders when we ask about AdBlu so we call Eurocar, the rental company. We go to Eurocar and they try 3 GPS’s before they find a Tom-Tom that works, but they cannot put the AdBlu in. They send us to the airport in Perugia where someone speaks English and will take care of the additive.
But before we go to the airport…McDonald’s! Diet Coke with ice! A bakery and coffee bar inside. Clean restrooms with toilet paper AND hand dryers that work! But the crew works at the pace of Italy. Even though we are the only customers it takes about 15 minutes for a small hamburger and two pastries plus Diet Coke — which, in Italy, is Coke Light.
Refueled, we go looking for the tiny Perugia airport. This is difficult because our new Tom Tom works no better than the previous one. Tom Tom’s do not like hills. Or cities. Or water. Our little advisor does not advise “recalculating route.” Instead, the screen of death reads “GPS signal lost.” I swear the Tom Tom gets lost more than we do. We decide to just drive downhill away from the city centers of hill towns when leaving a town and uphill toward the duomo when arriving in a town. To get to the airport, we follow five camouflage-painted trucks full of soldiers downhill, out of town, while we look for signs that will point to an airport. We see one. No, really, we see one sign to the airport. Just one.
Our sister Terry goes into the airport, the Eurocar attendant shuts down the desk, and tells us to follow him in his car…for about 15 minutes…to a gas station. But the attendant and the Eurocar guy can’t figure out where to put the AdBlu. Under the hood? No! In the gas tank? No! Look for the manual in the car? No manual. Make a phone call. While making the phone call a big lorry pulls up. He needs AdBlu. We move our car away from the nozzled hose poking out of the back wall of the fuel station and let him fill up. Back to our quest for to find the hole in our car for the AdBlu. Where do we put the additive? Ohhhhh, in the trunk, under the carpet. Of course! Move everything in the trunk aside. Did I say we were shopping? AdBlu…who knew?
Relieved to be on the road again. Happy that the car will not stop unexpectedly (and we were told that YES it will stop without it).
How to end a lost day filled with travel mishaps and rain? How about a great dinner in Deruta at a Mom&Pop trattoria? Terry checks out Trip Advisor and comes up with a name. Tom Tom calms down and gets us to the tiny hole-in-the-wall on the first try. As we drive, the rain finally stops for the first time in six days. As I look to the left, a huge rainbow appears touching the hills in a perfect double arc. We see both ends of the rainbow as it shines in front of the mountain! Being Italy, there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, just the incredible beauty of the green and dirt hills of Umbria.
We arrive at Osteria Il Borgetto in Durita and a gentleman our age greets us at the door with a welcoming smile and open arms. People in Umbria are so happy to serve you. Love this Place!
It’s been a long day of frustrations and fun. What else could go wrong? As we exit the freeway for the long drive around Marsciano, we turn the correct way towards town, we take the right turn on the rotary as we duck past cars trying to merge into our back seat, no drivers tailgate us an inch from our back bumper, no drivers bright us or honk the horn as we drive the speed limit, we take another rotary and make the correct turn the first time, we drive past the graffiti-covered centro sportivo, make another right turn on the uphill side of the sports center, take anther round about and head away from town (another correct turn), wind up the 1 1/2 lane wide road past the two huge houses set 12 inches from the roadway, spy the pink house near the top of the tall hill, turn right into the long and rutted gravel driveway, drive straight downhill on a slope that looks like it would be tricky to ski on, the rain starts – again – and the ruts overflow their already full capacity, we drive into the valley and lose our Tom Tom signal, we head uphill in the dark, dark night, we miss the first attempt up the steep driveway so we back up and make a running start and make it up the driveway, and we are home!
Small towns top the hills of Umbria like crowns set upon a rocky brow. Travel authors recommend one little hill town after another but we chose to visit Todi first because it was just 12 kilometers from where we were staying in San Gimignano. Perfect choice! Winding streets, an unusual duomo, rocky walls and a steep climb defined our first hill city. We were smitten.
Todi was founded well before the birth of Christ at the confluence of the Naia and Tiber rivers; it’s about 90 minutes northeast of Rome and 45 minutes south of Perugia.
We actually drove into the city, climbing the hand-laid stone roads and tucking our side mirrors in as the buildings on each side of the street closed in on us.
We should have parked at the top of the steep hill, but we snagged the first parking spot we found in a yellow zone. (Blue-lined parking spots are for residents; yellow-lined parking spots are for visitors but you pay; white-lined parking spots are free.) We took out the little cardboard clock from it’s pocket on the windshield, set the clock to 1:00 to indicate the time of our arrival, purchased a parking ticket from an automated pay booth, stuck that ticket on our dashboard and set off to see the city. The little clock indicated to authorities what time we arrived; if we overstayed our allotted 2 hours, we would have been ticketed even though we paid for several hours. So we knew we had to climb to the top of the hill and return in just under 2 hours.
It was a cool but sunny day in March, so we walked briskly up the steep hill. Whenever we were lost, we just headed uphill. The highest point of each hill town seemed to be the central plaza with a cathedral which was usually where we were headed. To return to our car? We just headed downhill.
The beauty of this small town unfolded as we rounded each corner and continued to climb upwards. I could see why Architecture Professor Richard S. Levine of the University of Kentucky proclaimed Todi to be the model sustainable city. Todi had reinvented itself constantly from its birth as an Umbrian/Etruscan city through its years under seige by Goths and Byzantines to rule under the Popes to a leader in the Risorgimento movement to unify Italy. In the 90’s, the Italian press proclaimed Todi as the most livable city in the world…and it’s nearly 3,000 years old (Todi, 1992)!
We arrived in Todi in time for lunch – and we worked up quite an appetite hiking uphill – but every recommended restaurant was closed in March. In fact, this was our experience in town after town. Restaurants and tourist sites simply were not open during the first two weeks of March.
We were happy to stumble upon a little local shop called Le Roi de la Crepe. Prices were very reasonable, ranging from 5-9 Euros, and the food was fresh and delicious. We were told it’s not acceptable to walk and eat in Italy but with no place to sit, we took our sandwiches and munched as we continued our stroll through Todi.
Town Square – The Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II
“Called Piazza Grande in ancient times, it was probably located on the site of the Roman Forum and was much larger than the square which can be seen today. Counted as one of the most beautiful medieval squares in Italy, it is surrounded by numerous palaces and is dominated by the Cathedral” (Bonechi).
We tried to visit the museum operated by the Diocesi di Orvieto-Todi, but it was closed. The folks were pretty surprised when we took an elevator to the top floor and discovered a cluster of employees chatting away. They tried to figure out how we got into the building as they shooed us back into the elevator and out of the building.
The best part of the Grand Plaza had to be the ice cream! See the little white truck to the right in the square (photo above)? Just beyond that truck was the lovely Bacio di Latte (Milk Kiss) gelateria. Delicious!
Around the corner we discovered a beautiful, towering something. It looked like a false front from a film set. But it was the local branch of the oldest surviving bank in the world, founded in 1472 in Siena, Italy, about 150 km away.
Views from Todi
We could not point our cameras from the hilltop without capturing a beautiful view from Todi. The trees and flowers were just starting to bloom. I imagine the sites are breathtaking later in spring.
The S. Maria dell’Annunziata Cathedral
We huffed and puffed our way to the top of a flight of travertine stairs extending from the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele to reach one of the strangest-looking cathedrals I’ve ever seen. There’s no dome. No arches. No flying buttresses. Just a flat top like the architect said, “OK, I’m done.” More likely donations dried up because of an economic downturn or a war and the parishioners said, “Basta!”
The 13th century bell tower was used for defense but now features bells that call to worship. The beauty spot of the cathedral has to be the double rose window in the center of the church, over the door.
The inside of the duomo is simple with a few artifacts of interest. Faenzone created the Last Judgement fresco under the double rose stained glass window.
Can you see the little putti in each leaf of the rose stained glass window? The Holy Spirit is symbolized by a dove in the center of the window.
There’s a bronze hanging of St. Martin I hanging in the cathedral but I don’t know why. St. Martin was a pope and martyr who died defending the Catholic Church’s right to “establish doctrine in the face of imperial power” (Pope St. Martin I). He died in 656 after a miserable trip by sea from Rome to Constantinople and after being imprisoned, tried and denounced. St. Martin I was the last pope to die for his faith.
Also of interest is a 13th century cross painted in the style of Giunta Pisano (Bonechi, 2011).
There’s a pretty fresco at the front of the duomo but I could not tell who painted it. The painting is sweet with rich reds and oranges that are fading into pastels.
We loved Todi. So much to see and do! This would be a wonderful, romantic get-away-town for anyone to enjoy.
Bonechi. (2011). Umbria: Complete guide to the monuments, art and traditions of the region. Florence, Italy: Casa Editrice Bonechi.
Pope Saint Martin I. (n.d.). Retrieved from Catholic Online: http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=80
“Todi Come una Citta` Sostenibile,” keynote, Inauguration Convocation Academic Year Università della Terza Età, October 1992, Todi, Italy; “Todi Citta del Futuro,” and “Come Todi Puo Divenire Citta Ideale e Modello per il Futuro”, in Il Sole 24 Ore, Milan, Italy, November 28, 1991
Imagine you are a shepherd at the time of Christ’s birth. You graze your sheep on a tall hillside overlooking a steep valley, lushly green and deeply forested. A violent storm comes up with heavy winds and pounding rains that nearly knock you over. You gather your flock and ride the storm out in the nearest cave. In the morning when you wake and a little light filters into the cave, the first thing you see is Charon, the demon from hell staring at you from the other side of the tiny cave!
Shepherds made their home in the tomb of the quadriga infernale for centuries. They dug a little more deeply into the side of the cave but never disturbed the art created by the Etruscans centuries before. It was the the 19th and 20th century tomb raiders who chiseled into the ancient art to make a wider opening to the cave, destroying part of the paintings in their haste to find treasure.
An archaeologist led five visitors, including me, through a deep field to the Tomb of the Quadriga Infernale. He spoke no English but we were fortunate that an Australian woman was on the tour who was fluent in both English and Italian. As the archaeologist explained the tomb, she quickly translated for us. She was a goddess, quickly translating while nursing her baby as her toddler son ran circles around our legs.
We walked past several small Etruscan tomb openings that were long ago raided and are no longer studied. The openings were so tiny, I knew I never would have made it down the stairs let alone into the small passages.
When we entered the travertine tomb of the Quadriga Infernale (the chariot from hell), we were careful of the rugged dirt floor and I told myself to fall to the right AWAY from the cave paintings if I were to trip. My plan was to fall right onto the muddy floor that was once the home of a shepherd.
The cave was only 15 feet below the ground but we had entered a world of demons and myth. This tomb is exceptional because nothing exists in discovered Etruscan history with this version of the underworld. The demon Charon drives a chariot powered by two griffins and two lions. According to the museum, the demon has a “fearful, surly, possessed look.” This demon has never been seen driving a chariot except in this tomb.
Before visiting the tomb, we toured the Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano in Sarteano, Italy. The beautiful little gem of a museum is perfectly curated with clean glass cases of Etruscan artifacts. It also includes a replica of the tomb of the Quadriga Infernale that is a fine depiction of the cave we visited.
The Australian who translated for us noted, “Only in Italy could we walk into an ancient treasure.”
The “quadriga infernale” cave was rediscovered in October 2003 and is now open upon reservation only on Saturdays at 11:30 am in winter and at 9:30 am and 6:30 pm in summer. You can make reservations by calling 0578.269.261 or email email@example.com.