We have good friends who asked us to retrieve a left behind suitcase in Spoleto. Of course we trust them completely and didn’t think the suitcase was filled with bundles of cash, but there was still an air of Tony Soprano to it. Spoleto is about an hour and half drive from us, so we could have easily gone over and gotten it all in one day. But what fun would that be? We decided to make a trip of it and spend the night in Spoleto so we could explore the area a little more.
Spoleto is in Umbria, the region just south of Tuscany. Umbria is called the Green Heart of Italy and I can see why. It’s known for food, wine, and olive oil, so there are many farms on these rolling hillsides. It’s also one of only a few Italian regions with no coastline. It’s truly the heart of Italy.
Our drive over took us on the E-45 (E in Italy is pronounced A), my least favorite road in the world. It is always under construction and even though it’s supposed to be a four-lane divided highway, most of the time it’s reduced to one narrow lane in each direction. Since it’s a major north-south artery, there is a lot of semi traffic, so you’re driving along and a big semi is coming at you with what looks like inches to spare. It’s harrowing for the passenger, although the driver seems to do just fine. To complicate matters even more, we were driving in dense fog the entire way.
Our plan was to stop in Montefalco and have lunch at a restaurant that had a double whammy. It was recommended by both Slow Foods and Elizabeth Minchilli. And it was set right on the piazza in the heart of town, which is one of the best piazzas around, in my opinion. As we were walking up the street to the piazza, we noticed that almost every store was closed. It was truly a ghost town, with only a handful of people out. I spotted the restaurant, L’Alchemista in the far corner of the piazza. It looked suspiciously uninhabited. Note on the door said they were on vacation until February 3. It was clear we were not eating in Montefalco since nothing else was open. The saving grace was that Montefalco is just high enough to put us above the fog. We were in bright blue skies and warm temps, overlooking the cauldron of fog from which we’d just arisen.
I had planned a stop at a winery, so we decided to go there and hope they could feed us. Their website said they offered lunch and dinner. Antonelli is a big producer of the premier wine from this region – Sagrantino. We had the choice of a free tasting of 2-3 wines, or a 10 euro tasting of everything. Guess which one we chose? Lunch, however, was not an option. So we devoured the taralli they gave us and proceeded to taste our way through 10 wines, plus a bonus grappa. We only had a sip or two of each one, but that was a lot with no real food. We walked out of there with seven bottles of wine and big smiles on our faces.
Sagrantino, and its poorer relation, Rosso di Montefalco, are some of the best wines in Italy, in my opinion. It’s the kind of wine that looks powerful in your glass, strong legs and deep color, and when you bring it to your nose to take that first sniff, you are transported to a world of richness and glory. I often joke that I could be happy just smelling this wine because it is such a sensational experience. That smell makes you anticipate what the taste will be – smooth, velvety, rich, full of the flavors of the earth from which it grew. Very tannic, this wine ages beautifully, and those fruity, berry flavors mellow and the earthy, smoky flavors develop. This is a food wine (and we were so wishing we had some), not a wine to sip on a random afternoon. It begs for a hearty meal with meat and strong flavors. One of the best wines in Italy. I love it and it loves me.
Fortunately, by the time we finished our liquid lunch, the fog had lifted. We took the country road to Spoleto and had a beautiful drive oohing and aahing at the sights along the way. We got to the hotel and set out for the suitcase drop. We got the goods with no problem, tucked it away in the trunk and got ready to explore Spoleto. The desk clerk at the hotel told us that many restaurants were closed, so he gave us the name of one he knew was open. We also had several from our friends, the suitcase owners.
We found Spoleto in about the same state of affairs as Montefalco. Pretty shuttered. We walked to the restaurants we had been given and found them all closed, even the one the desk clerk knew was open. I was starting to get a little concerned when we found a little bar that was open. We stopped in for a drink and some snacks (which we inhaled) and I texted our friends that the suitcase drop was a success but our options for meals were limited. She got on the internet and found a place that she thought was open. We marveled at how this information sharing was taking place across 5,000 miles. Sometimes I do love technology.
Mercifully, Tempio del Gusto was indeed open and we walked right in without a reservation. I felt like we were lucky since they seemed to be the only open restaurant in town. We had a fabulous meal that we ate way too much of and it came with several bonus plates, which really put me over the top.
Spoleto has a very nice underground moving sidewalk system that gets you up and down town easily. Our hotel was near the bottom, so we took the sidewalk up. After dinner we went back to get on it and guess what? It closes at 9:00 in the winter. I guess they figure since no one is out and everything is closed, why bother running it. Fortunately, we were going down and it was a nice walk that helped us digest some of the massive quantities of food we had just consumed.
Umbria is Closed for January
We headed back to Anghiari the next day in the rain. We wanted to do some more exploring in Spoleto, but the weather was too bad. Traveling in the winter can be iffy. You never know about the weather – wind, fog, rain, cold – and most of the places that rely on heavy tourist business tend to take a little break. It was odd walking around Spoleto, usually a very vibrant town, with almost no people. It was odd seeing every store closed. But it was as if we had the town to ourselves and could really look at the beauty of the architecture and the charm of the narrow streets.
Remember if you ever plan a trip during the winter to Umbria to check to make sure things are open. Or not. Maybe you can just enjoy being in a place and really seeing what it is all about without checking sights off your list. Because even if you can’t get a gelato, you can still do what Italy does best – enjoy living.