Perugia

Perugia can be daunting at first glance, we admit. Though the lion’s share of Umbria’s hilltowns are perfectly preserved gems perched atop the region’s rolling peaks and largely devoid of modern development spoiling your Instagram shot, the bustling provincial capital is ringed with a rather drab stretch of suburbs which can be off-putting.

perugia-umbria-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

But don’t be discouraged by the eyesore that greets you along the highway. Once you’ve passed the box stores and apartment blocks, Perugia reveals herself to be just as worth a visit as similarly sized provincial cities between Rome and Florence (we are thinking of Siena and Orvieto, perennial favorites), with an elegant historic center, beautiful views, worthwhile museums, memorable restaurants, and excellent shopping.
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Celebrating Thanksgiving in Italy

We've had a year that has made us particularly thankful, with the celebration of 10 years of CIU Travel, good health, and the support of family, friends, and clients in our personal and professional adventures. All this gratitude led us to revisit this post from the archives about our first Thanksgiving celebration in Italy in 2011.

We'll be stateside this year, but hope to roast another Italian turkey to celebrate internationally not too far in the future. In the meantime, we give thanks (in English) and wish everyone a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

Spending Thanksgiving away from the US has become a tradition for us. We started 8 years ago with a quick weekend visit to Italy from Germany where I had just landed a full-time singing job. We followed that up with three German turkeys from the farmers market in Dortmund and a gaggle of singers and other friends crowded into our IKEA-filled apartments while the slate gray skies over the Ruhr Valley spat rain on our holiday preparations.

Thanksgiving Turkey(Photo by Aldo Messina for Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

When I stopped singing in Germany, we finally concentrated our belongings under one roof in central Italy. We had always promised our Italian friends that one year we’d introduce them to a“real” American Thanksgiving dinner, so when we returned to Italy in mid-November of 2011, we began preparations for the great feast.
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Hunting Truffles in Italy

Of all the pleasures unique to Italy in the fall—the soft, golden light, the balmy days and crisp nights, the relative post-summer calm of many of the cities and towns—perhaps the most memorable comes in the form of the deceptively humble yet truly divine truffle.

black-truffles-patrico-umbria-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

One of the world’s most expensive delicacies, truffles can be found all year round depending upon their type and terrain, but the most abundant season is the late autumn when the wood-covered slopes of the central Italian Apennines of Umbria and Tuscany and the Alps in northern Piedmont become treasure troves for local foragers and their faithful trained assistants.
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Nocino: Italy's Most Beloved Digestivo

Just yesterday, Italians celebrated the Feast Day of Saint John—or the Festa di San Giovanni—with food, fireworks, and showy pageantry. At least, that’s how citizens marked the day in some of Italy’s biggest and most cosmopolitan cities. In the quiet countryside, however, this saint’s day was observed with a much humbler but no less traditional rite: gathering green walnuts to put up the annual batch of one of Italy’s most popular digestive liqueurs, Nocino.

Italians have penchant for digestivi (the function of which, as the name suggests, is to settle the stomach after overindulging at the table), especially amari, or those bitter elixirs made with infusions of either plants and vegetables or a complex mix of herbs and spices. Mouth-puckeringly alcoholic and tongue-blisteringly aromatic, these drinks are not for the faint of heart (or liver). There are a number of digestivi that any restaurant or home cook will have at the ready to finish off a meal--measuring out no more than three or four sips to be presented in tiny digestivi glasses--but the one served with most pride is the house Nocino.

Tweetable: Across Italy yesterday, home cooks were picking green walnuts to put up this year’s batch of Nocino

Walnuts for Nocino(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Gubbio’s Raucous and Saintly Festa dei Ceri

Umbria, the pretty, rural region in central Italy just south of Tuscany, is known for its sleepy Medieval hilltowns, which spend almost the entire year caught in a time capsule of languid days broken up by long family meals and gossip in the main square which has remained unchanged for centuries. I say almost the entire year, however, because this slow pace and pastoral atmosphere is brusquely interrupted once a year when each town holds its annual festival—most often celebrating the local patron saint’s feast day—and the citizens let their hair down for a few days of unfettered eating, drinking, dancing, and benignly chaotic partying.

Saint Ubaldo(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Nowhere is the contrast between the saint’s day celebrations and the remaining 364 days of the year as dramatic as in Gubbio, where this normally stoic and rather dour mountain fortress town descends into a day of delightful madness and celebratory anarchy each year on May 15th to celebrate their patron Saint Ubaldo with a symbolic race, La Corsa dei Ceri.
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Torta di Pasqua

With the arrival of Easter week, outdoor wood-fired ovens across Umbria are stoked to a smoking hot baking temperature as families prepare one of the holiday’s most beloved (and delicious) dishes: torta di Pasqua.

Torta di Pasqua(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr) Read More...

A Day in Orvieto

Orvieto is one of the most popular day trips from Rome, and not without good reason. Easily reached from the capital city by car or train in little over an hour, and directly off the main highway A1 almost exactly midway between Rome and Florence, Orvieto is perfect for either a day trip for travelers visiting Rome who want a little taste of an Italian hill-town, or for those looking for that perfect stop-over to break up the trip between two of Italy’s most famous cities.

Untitled(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr) Read More...

Deruta’s Majolica

Beijing may be the city of bicycles, Zurich the city of banks, and Las Vegas the city of sin, but no town is as synonymous with a single identifying feature as Deruta, a tiny hill-town in Italy’s central region of Umbria. Read More...

Top Italian Music Festivals: Opera in Rome, The Arena di Verona, Umbria Jazz Festival and More

italian music festivals arena di verona
Image by Flickr user *Debs*

Music has been at the heart of Italian culture since the Romans refined Greek musical drama. Italian composer still dominate opera’s “best of” lists and one of the country’s favorite sons, Giuseppe Verdi, is being feted this year on the occasion of his 200th Birthday (October 10).

As singers and music lovers, we love to share our passion for music with travelers to Italy. Like the country’s great art museums, Italy’s music festivals bring the country’s heritage to life.

Arena di Verona, Veneto


italian music festivals arena di verona
Image by Flickr user Kevin Poh

Opera at the Arena di Verona in Verona brings Italian history from different periods – Roman, baroque, neoclassical, and modern – together in a way you won’t find anywhere else. Set in one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters, performances begin once dark sets in, typically around 9pm in the summer. Candles are passed through the thousands of attendees to light the seating area and paths and imbue the space with an ancient timelessness that provides a lively contrast against the often high-art, hyper-modern set pieces. The Arena season runs from June 14 to September 8 and features 5 Verdi classics including perennial favorite Aida.

Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Umbria


italian music festivals umbria jazz festival
Image © Concierge in Umbria

Since its inception in 1973, the Umbria Jazz Festival has grown into one of the most significant jazz festivals in the world, drawing in the top names in music – Miles Davis, B.B. King, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Carlos Santana and Van Morrison to name a few. The original July version of the festival now reaches beyond jazz, hosting some of the world’s top pop artists as well. It has become so popular it now has a winter spin-off, the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival held in December and January in Orvieto. From large stadium concerts to street musicians and small club performances by up and coming jazzistas it is a wonderfully chaotic and vibrant scene in the Umbrian capital during the festival. The 40th Anniversary Season runs from July 5-14 and features performances by John Legend, Diana Krall, Keith Jarrett, Sony Rollins, among others.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome


italian music festivals opera in Rome
Image by Flickr user Teldridge+Keldridge

Each summer, Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera decamps from its location in the city to the ancient Baths of Caracalla for summer performances. Active from the 2nd to the 6th century AD, the baths were Rome’s second largest public baths. They remain remarkably intact and provide a suggestive backdrop for music productions. 2013 ScheduleTBA.

Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, Tuscany


Started by a friend of Puccini’s in 1930 with a production of La Boheme on a stage built right in the lake, the Puccini Festival has grown into one of the world’s top opera festivals. Now in the lakeside town where Puccini spent much of his life and composed many of his operas, a small outdoor amphitheater offers summer visitors the chance to enjoy the composer’s works in the natural setting that inspired them. Last year’s festival also hosted the international opera awards. The 59th Festival Puccini features 4 operas including a new production of Tosca and runs from July 12 to August 24.

Ravello Festival in Ravello, Amalfi Coast


italian music festivals ravello
Image by Flickr user Ell Brown

Another festival overlooking the water, the Ravello Festival is known colloquially as the “Wagner Festival,” due to its origin honoring Richard Wagner’s stay in the town in the 1880s. Over the last six decades, the festival has grown from its Wagnerian origins into a mélange of classical and modern music, as well as other performing and fine arts, with opportunities to meet the artists during the festival’s discussion groups. This year, the festival celebrates its own 60th anniversary along with the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth.

Stresa Festival in Stresa, Lake District


italian music festivals stresa
Image by Flickr user Pascal

When it comes to waterside music festivals, the Stresa Festival is the top event for views. All around Stresa, a resort town on Lake Maggiore in the temperate northern Lake District, musicians play in medieval castles and monasteries, Renaissance villas, and baroque palaces overlooking the lake. Confined more or less to one week, the festival packs in a wide gamut of musical styles – from classical to jazz, and groups – from world-renowned artists to up-and-coming student performers. The Stresa Festival begins on July 19 and offers events through the beginning of September.

Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Le Marche


Also commonly called the Pesaro Festival, the Rossini Opera Festival honors the popular opera and chamber music composer in his birthplace, Pesaro. Since 1980, the festival has produced not only his well-known works, such as Il barbiere di Siviglia and La cenerentola (Cinderella), but some of the more obscure of his 39 opera and chamber music compositions. The 2013 festival begins August 10 and features productions of Guillaume Tell, Mosè in Egitto, and L’italiana in Algeri.

Maggio Musicale in Florence, Tuscany


italian music festivals florence maggio musicale
Image by Flickr user MITO Settembre Musica

Florence’s Maggio Musicale is not a single month, as its name would suggest (maggio is Italian for May), but rather two months of acclaimed musical concerts. The festival dates back to 1933, making it one of Italy’s oldest musical festivals. Each May and June, it ties together music and dance concerts and operas often centered on a theme, such as a period, topic, or composer. This year’s festival kicks off with a new production of Verdi’s Don Carlo conducted by Zubin Mehta on May 2.

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

Walk in the Paths of St. Francis and St. Clare in Assisi

st francis and st clare assisi city view
Image by Flickr user Carolyn Conner

Like main squares in towns all around Italy, Assisi’s Piazza del Comune is a microcosm of the entire city. The façade of a first-century Roman temple opens into a 15th-century Catholic church. The modern day square lies directly atop the Roman forum, the entrance to which is next to a 20th-century pastry shop housed in a Renaissance pharmacy framed by period sculptures. The town hall rubs shoulders with the Roman brothel.

Assisi revolves not only around the landmarks of the life of its most famous figures, St. Francis and St. Clare, but also what they stood for: finding peace in simplicity amidst a decadent world.

st francis and st clare assisi crowded city
Image by Flickr user Rodrigo Soldon

The Basilicas of St. Francis and St. Clare


Lying at opposite ends of the sloping city, roughly equidistant from the main square, the basilicas of St. Francis and St. Clare balance each other in stone as the saints balanced each other in life. St. Clare and St. Francis form two halves of the same whole, the female yin to the male yang, the nuns that complete the work of the friars.

At the lower end of the city, the Basilica of St. Francis, holding the tomb of the saint, has drawn pilgrims since it was first constructed in 1228 - another church was even constructed on top of it to accommodate the adoration and reverence the saint drew. Among those who have come to Assisi, few have left a more lasting mark than the artists who adorned the walls, including Cimabue, Giotto, and Simone Martini.

For medieval Christians, many of whom were illiterate, these illustrations were the main means of understanding the life and works of the saint. And as they tell the story of St. Francis, the frescos also speak to us of the origin of modern painting, which many art historians believe lie within Giotto’s cycle of St. Francis’ life in the upper church.

st francis and st clare assisi francis basilia
Image by Flickr user Josh Friedman

Meanwhile, at the upper end of the city, the Basilica of St. Clare dates back to 1260 and preserves not only the remains of St. Clare, but also many relics of her and St. Francis’ lives. But none are more revered than the Cross of St. Damien, through which it is said that God first spoke to St. Francis.

The cross originally lived in the tiny, run-down church of St. Damien just outside Assisi. In the early days of his renouncement of worldly goods, the wooden figure of Jesus famously whispered to St. Francis: “Go and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”

And so it was here that St. Clare led her cloistered life. You can see where she prayed, where she slept, and where she performed her miracles. The deep peace present for the first devotees of St. Francis and St. Clare resonates in the walls even now.

st francis and st clare assisi countryside
Image by Flickr user Niels J. Buus Madsen

And after a guided walk through Assisi and its countryside, with the collected intentions of 800 hundred years of pilgrims, it is hard not to feel at peace yourself.

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

What We're Drinking: Some of the Outstanding Italian Wines On Our Table

pouring italian wines
Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Wine is much more than something to sip, an accompaniment to a meal, or a gateway to an evening of merriment.

Great wine can transport you to places you’ve been – that enchanting pasta you can’t get out of your head or the calming view from the terrace of your favorite hotel – and places you want to be – that villa rental you’ve had your eye on or that bistecca fiorentina you can’t wait to sink your teeth into.

That’s why we like to keep a stock of excellent, hand-picked bottles of wine on hand. But if you’re anything like us, your stock may be hurting after the holidays. Over Christmas, we drained one of our favorites, a double magnum of Fanti’s Brunello di Montalcino, and can’t wait to stock up on some more.

With the new year come so many new reasons to celebrate, from the friendly rowdiness of a super bowl gathering (we’ve found that Italian wines work surprising well with chicken wings!) to the alluring calm of an evening together for Valentine’s day.

So here are seven amazing wines to top your table and fill your cellar, wine fridge, and belly:

Bubbly


Giulio Ferrari - Extra Brut


Though you’re not allowed to call it champagne outside France (in Italy it’s just metodo classico) Giulio Ferrari’s dry, crisp Extra Brut is our favorite Italian champagne. And it’s built to last! You can cellar this Extra Brut for up to twenty years. The highly flavored Extra Brut can range from brioche to chocolate to almond to cherries and cream depending on the year. As an added bonus, you don’t have to go to Trentino to try the whole Ferrari product line. The Lunelli family, owners of the Ferrari brand, recently started producing Montefalco wines just outside of Bevagna in Umbria and their sparkling wines are available for tasting.

White


Arnoldo Caprai Grecante Grechetto


When a renowned red wine producer in a primarily red-wine-producing appellation puts out a white wine, it’s worth a second glance. Grechetto has been grown in Italy since ancient times, but this Umbrian specialty is now regarded as one of Italy’s top white wine grapes. This excellent (and affordable) Grechetto bursts with fruit flavors and has a touch of sweetness that is well balanced by zesty crispness.

Antinori Cervaro della Sala


Antinori is literally a legend. The family has made wine for nearly 900 years and helped pioneer the Super-Tuscan revolution. But their Cervaro della Sala is, quite simply, one of the great white wines of Italy (perfect for cheering up a friend or brightening any occasion). Made in Umbria from 90% Chardonnay and 10% Grechetto grapes, the Cervaro seems light, but it’s built to age as well.

Ca Lojera Lugana


We first became acquainted with Ca Lojera because their owner is a huge opera fan whose stand at Vinitaly is decorated with a giant photo of Maria Callas, but we’ve put their Lugana into regular rotation during the summer because it’s a good everyday white. Produced on the southern shores of Lake Garda from 100% Trebbiano di Lugana grapes, the Lugana’s floral and fruity nose makes it a perfect pairing for a subtle pasta primo, such as the goat cheese and pumpkin ravioli we served it with for our first expat Thanksgiving dinner.

Reds


Podere la Cappella Corbezzolo


We also popped open a 2003 Corbezzolo for our first expat Thanksgiving, but unlike the light, crisp Lugana, this wine is meant for hearty food. We served it with mashed and roasted root vegetables that night. Podere la Cappella is a small vineyard that makes Chianti Classico in the bad years and standout Super Tuscans in the good years. Our clients love visiting this estate because it is the absolute embodiment of a hidden gem.

Allegrini Palazzo della Torre


We discovered this wine in 2006 on a visit to Verona in a simple osteria. (Where, by the way, Maria was a bit put off by the sheer amount of horse meat on the menu.) A blend of Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, and Sangiovese, the Palazzo della Torre stands out because 30% of its grapes are harvested late. This unusual technique lends a surprising sweetness to this red. You can find it readily in the U.S. It saved our dinner in Verona for Maria.

Fongoli Rosso di Montefalco Riserva


italian wines fongoli rosso di montefalco

Image: © Concierge in Umbria

The Fongoli family is among our oldest friends in Italy. They are also one of the oldest commercial producers in Montefalco and we've spent many holidays and special occasions with them. It doesn't hurt that they produce stellar wines. Their Rosso di Montefalco Riserva combines the best characteristics of Montepulciano, Merlot, and Sangiovese grapes, with depth and richness from Umbria’s darling, the Sagrantino grape, that has catapulted the region’s wines to global status.

Hard to Find, But Worth a Look


Castel del Monte Rosso Vigna Pedale Riserva 2008 – Torrevento


Some of our favorite dining experiences in Italy have been spent at our dear friend Salvatore Denaro’s highly-acclaimed, but now-shuttered Il Bacco Felice. While Denaro maintains close relations with many local wineries, the 2008 Castel del Monte Rosso Vigna Pedale Riserva Torrevento he served remains one of our favorite reds. This wine comes from Puglia, is affordable and was a staple at many a dinner party when we lived in Germany. It might not be available in the U.S., but grab it if you find it.

And if you’d like to visit vineyards, vintners, and their vintages in person to select you own house wine, let us know. Italy has so many hard-to-find-in-the-U.S. wines that can make your cellar stand out. And we know many of Italy’s most prestigious wine makers personally. It’s our pleasure (and theirs) to share these wines with you.

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

In Season: 5 Flavors of Italian Winter Soup

italian winter snow in florence
Image: © Concierge in Umbria - Elvira Politi

When you sit down to a meal in Italy, you may start with an antipasto like some sliced meat and cheese, or some seasoned olives and a glass of wine. But the primo - the course that simply goes by the Italian word for “first” - is where things get going.

Pasta may be the stereotypical (and most popular) primo, but in winter, Italians turn to soup. Warm, hearty, and filling, soups help combat the malaise of short winter days, perking you up after a long, cold day.

And while soup is a winter constant, every region, province, and town has its own favorites and small variations. In soup season, you’ll find these Italian favorites in one form or another all over the boot:

Ribollita


italian winter soup tuscan ribollita
Image by Flickr user Tuscanycious

Most associated with Tuscany, ribollita (Italian for reboiled) is an old peasant dish based on minestra or minestrone, vegetable soup. In winter, Italian wives used to cook up a big pot of vegetable soup and serve it three different ways over the days, first as vegetable soup, then soup over toasted bread, and finally a sort of vegetable porridge as the bread dissolved into the soup, thickening into the now characteristic ribollita.

Ribollita Recipes

Jota


italian winter soup jota
Image by Flickr user ilovebutter

Found throughout Italy’s northern regions, jota features ingredients that may seem out of place in a traditional Italian dish: sauerkraut and poppy seeds. A tasty and surprising relic of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s long hold on northern Italy, jota is a staple in Trieste, but you’ll find various versions throughout Fruili and across the border in Slovenia. Wherever you find it, jota always features a hearty base of potatoes, beans, and smoked pork.

Jota Soup Recipes

Tortellini in Brodo


italian winter soup tortellini in brodo
Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Fresh Italian tortellini are a heady concoction of diverse meats, (beef, veal, and/or pork) cuts, and cures (in Bologna, they add prosciutto and mortadella). Every mama has her recipe. And it’s typically a highly guarded secret. While tortellini in brodo is a staple dish throughout Emilia-Romagna, in Bologna, the top tortellini shops charge up to $20 per pound. A simple but soul-warming broth with a healthy sprinkling of Parmesan cheese is the best complement for fresh tortellini. It's the soup to serve on Christmas.

Tortellini in Brodo Recipes

Pasta e fagioli



Image by Flickr user Arnold Inuyaki


Pasta e fagioli transcends the two main ingredients from which it draws its name – pasta and beans – into the pinnacle of Italian vegetarian (a.k.a. peasant) cuisine. In the U.S., it’s commonly known by its Anglo-Neapolitan name pasta fazool, as popularized by Dean Martin in his hit song “That’s Amore.” But like its many names, you’ll find endless variations. Cannellini beans here, borlotti (or cranberry) beans there. Curvaceous macaroni or miniscule ditalini. (Though in our house, we like to use leftover scraps from making fresh pasta). N.B.: As many people today add pancetta, be sure to clarify the ingredients if you’re vegetarian.

Pasta e Fagioli Recipes

Lentil Soup


italian winter soup lentil soup
Image: © Concierge in Umbria
Lentils have been a human staple for over 10,000 years, finding their way into iconic soups around the world from spicy Indian dal to the buttery, oregano-finished Turkish mercimek corbasi. The Italian version remains as simple as its name, zuppa di lenticchie, but the taste depends on the lentils you use. Umbrian lentils in particular are famous, especially those from Castelluccio di Norcia. High in protein and lightly seasoned with a soffrito base, bay leaves, and rosemary, Italian lentil soup is the ultimate comfort food – especially when paired with a generous drizzle of olive oil and a side of toasted bread.

Lentil Soup Recipes

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

Traveling Between Rome, Florence and Venice: Stopovers to Round Out Your Trip

Whether it’s your first trip to Italy or you’ve traveled the Bel Paese so often that you can almost call it your second home, some cities just never get old. As many times as you might visit the cultural capitals of Rome, Florence, and Venice – with all their history, art, and unmistakable Italian vibe – you are bound to discover something new on each trip. That said, though these three cities are among Italy’s most popular destinations, we’ve got a secret.

There’s a lot of Italy left to explore in between. Read More...