montefalco wine festival

Umbria baby!

So it has as usual been quite awhile since I posted…what can I tell you, I’m lazy.

Jess and I have been in Umbria for 3 weeks now and I can tell you, it is pretty cool. For one, it is old; I mean really old. Everything around you has the better part of 3-4 centuries on it and some of the towns are medieval, so they are all walled and narrow allies, tons of personality. The churches here are really amazing and so different from what we have seen elsewhere in Europe. They paint everything…it is crazy. The frescos up for six, seven, eight hundred years are still there! All the painting before the renaissance is all Jesus or Madonna based though, as the church funded all the art.

Costs here are pretty reasonable for a tourist, but maybe a little more expensive than in Spain and even a little more expensive than France at the grocer. Strangely, wine is a lot more expensive than in France or Spain (5 euros buys a decent drinkable bottle; still a hell of a lot cheaper than the US).  Food is about the same price as the US outside of specialties like truffles, parm, salami, etc. which are of course cheaper. Restaurants are about the same price as the US.

Jess and I have had the fortune to discover a new wine…Sagrantino. It is bold, tannic, dark and earthy…everything I love in wine. Even Jess who prefers a pinot loved it. We went to a wine fest in Montefalco and for 7 euros drank our asses off with the best there is! It was epic. This wine sells for 15-20 euros a bottle and is really a competitor for some fine cabs and bordeaux. The wine tasting was long, generous, and deeply satisfying…quite a thing to experience.

We also had a fantastic tasting courteously of our host in Montelpuciano (so you know, there are two: One which is the namesake of the town and is known for rather deep and complex reds, and another de abruzzo which is the more pale and easy-drinking red). Here we had the honor of trying a wine that Italy offers second to none, the Brunello, a blend mostly of sangiovese. This is truly superb; decent mouth feel with deep current and pepper, dry but not too astringent, the finish is clean, subtle, and leaves a lasting taste of Italy.

Some things to try in Umbria (and regionally in Italy) as it is the only place we have really experienced in Italy besides Rome: Truffle honey (wholly shit, it is good), wine (of course), porchetta (whole pig roasted with herbs, some shaved off including the crackling in a sandwich), pasta fresh and secca (dried), mortadella (the original “bologna” made of pork, pork fat and spices), and the list goes on and on. Italy is highly regional, so each area, town, etc is known for a dish, product, or method. It is hard to make bad food here.

Some negatives about Umbria: Italy is a bureaucratic nightmare. Everyone complains about taxes, which are harsh, and how poorly things run. There are a lot of mosquitoes. No joke, as I write this I just killed one on the screen of the computer. Italy is not currently sustainable…they import almost all their power and there is really not a plan for tomorrow. This place is beautiful, but it has its problems.

A few days ago Jess and I went to a food festival in Foligno, the one city we have been to that does not prominently sit on a hill. The fest was fun; it was a huge tent filled with regional goodies like dried sausage, truffle products, sweets, local beer, olives, etc. We got some great sausages that were lovely and full of flavor, tried some amazing parma ham, olives and truffle pastes.

We are waiting to harvest grapes at our hosts place, but the rain has come and we have to wait. This is one of the reasons we have come to Umbria, its accessible wine and culture. Just driving home from the food fest Jess and I stopped by a winery and the owner and his father had us sample from the barrel. Everyone we meet here is so nice and unassuming. We ended up with a nice little Sangiovese for 4 Euro and 5 liters of Umbrian Red for 8 Euros (yes, that’s 1.80 per liter!).

I would suggest anyone who is taking a trip to Italy to spend a few days in Umbria; it is not the well-manicured Tuscany, fancy Milan or reeking of history Rome, but it is beautiful and unassuming.

Our Work Exchange Part 2


We arrived at our HelpX stay almost 1 month ago, and life in Italy has been good. We’re doing a fine job of enjoying the dolce vita (sweet life) in addition to working hard and seeing a lot of what Umbria has to offer. This has been a great work exchange and we’re incredibly grateful for the experience. From Farm to Hotel

As you may recall we began our work exchange at the home farm of our hosts, Ev and Claudia. We tended grapes, did a bunch of gardening and weeding, took care of the chickens, ate a lot of figs and enjoyed the quite life of rural Umbria.

Before we arrived, we knew that there two other volunteers who had made arrangements to be at Ev and Claudia’s during the wine harvest so we had some overlap. And since we wanted to stay longer than these other volunteers they offered to let us stay at Claudia’s bed and breakfast near Perugia, Il Casale della Staffa, in exchange for sanding and re-staining all the windows and me finishing the website. So for the last 2 weeks we’ve been living in one of the apartments at the B&B, working in the morning, sunning by the pool midday and then visiting the beautiful towns and villages of Umbria in the afternoons.

I won’t lie, it’s been pretty great. Being in Italy is like being on a never-ending honeymoon for us. Everything is beautiful, delicious, romantic and even if the work isn’t too exciting, how could one possibly complain when you have this view out your kitchen window???

View from our temporary kitchen

Assisi & Montefalco

It seems that there’s always some kind of festival or event going on here. Maybe that’s because it’s harvest season, but we’ve been really fortunate that there’s a festival going on all the time – I’m serious – music, arts, food, wine and soon to be chocolate. There’s a lot happening in Umbria apparently.

Jon is going to write about the incredible Montefalco Wine Festival that we went to so I won’t steal his thunder there. I will say that Montefalco – also called the banister of Umbria – is a delightful little hill town. If you like wine, this is the place to go in Umbria. It’s known for its Sagrantino, a grape that only grows in this region of the world. That in addition to the other “typical” products of honey, truffles and cured meats makes for Montefalco to be a delicious place to be, both for the eyes and the senses.

We also had the opportunity to visit Assisi – the namesake for Francis d’Assisi or Saint Francis (hello San Francisco). Despite the fact that Saint Francis was practically a hermit and lived in nature, trying to be a very humble figure within the grandure of the Catholic Church, Assisi is an impressive town with an even more impressive Cathedral built in Saint Francis’ name. We saw it first from the road at night, and then up close during a visit with our fellow helpers.

The climb up to the historical center is not only a good workout but also a beautiful introduction to this holy city. Signs of devotion are everywhere. Making one’s way down the main road you pass a Roman temple from the 1st century BC, which became one of Saint Francis’ churches. I loved being able to clear see the Roman qualities to this temple, and then the medieval addition that is the church. It’s such a great example of how these ancient sites have developed over time.

Another thing that caught my eye was the banner hanging from the church depicting a visit by the Pope, Francis, to Assisi on October 4th. Have you ever met a Jew who’s this excited to see the Pope? Probably not – I mean, come on, he’s pretty hip you have to admit.

St. Francis’ cathedral is really stunning, and I love that all the paintings and frescos (by Torriti, Cimabau and Giotto on the upper level and by Lorenzetti, Giotto and Martini in the lower basilica) inside tell the story of his life and deeds –something rare for churches at the time. This is a place of pilgrimage for many Catholics. Despite that, I still didn’t feel pulled in by a spiritual magnet to this place, until we went below to visit St. Francis’ tomb. A quiet, simple, modest room, candlelit, with St Francis resting in the very stone column that runs the entire height of the cathedral – not only is this structurally important – it’s symbolically perfect – he’s holding this place together. I was really moved by that place, in the midst of all the art and magnanimity of the churches and the age and beauty of the towns we’ve seen – the tomb of St Francis is something I will never forget.

I also won’t forget the truffle/lardo/salami sandwhich we got right on the main drag in Assisi – surrounded by touristy places it was a slim chance we’d get good food. But that was a spiritual experience in and of itself.

Harvest Time

This arrangement has clearly been pretty great. It’s allowed us time to intimately get to know the region of Umbria, and our hosts are accomplishing tasks they haven’t been able to.

This week is what we’ve been waiting for: grape harvest. We’ll head over to the house early in the morning on Wednesday and hand-pick the grapes. They’ll be taken up to the ‘cantina’ - not a bar – but the place where the wine is made. The cantina is a small room in a 15th century church by the way that’s up the road from the house. Our first day’s work in Italy involved painting it and cleaning the floor in preparation for wine making. It’ll be wonderful to actually mash the grapes, and see the whole process from start to finish – actually building the cellar, to tending the vines, picking the grapes and making the wine.

Umbria is really beautiful and if you ever get a chance to come here, I can’t recommend it enough. We’ve visiting Corciano, Orvieto, Todi, Betona, Montecastello di Vibio, Castiglione del Lago, Passignano, Marsciano, Foligno, Montefalco, Assisi and driven through countless hamlets and villages which all have their own charm. What’s amazing about these towns is that they all feel different and have their own traditions. They’ve all survived hundreds of years of turmoil and wars being propped up on their hills. Pretty smart if you ask me.

We still have the big Tuscan cities on our list: Siena, Arezzo and of course Florence. I can’t say it enough how grateful I am for this arrangement. A few hours of work a day is a small exchange to live here for 2 months, practically for free.