Assisi, Umbria

A reluctant brother-in-law Ben conceded to a majority ruling of visiting Assisi, the Umbrian town made famous by it’s patron saint, St Francis of Assisi.  Ben was reluctant because Assist is a 1.5 hour drive from our Umbrian palace Lagoscello and he is the father of our two youngest travellers Miss 5, Indi, and Master 3, Sam.

Nonetheless, we packed ourselves into our two C-class Mercedes, programmed the GPS, and set off for an exciting day out discovering a new city.

It was supposed to be a 1.5 hour drive and it probably was if you went directly there. However, as I have described in recent posts, we have inadvertently turned into the Griswalds and kept missing roads, having to do u-turns.  Sigh.

On our way though, we did zoom past the place that sells firewood, Baldini – a place we have been looking for since we arrived so we could use the old fashioned wood-fired pizza oven at our Umbrian palace.  But alas, traffic was heavy, Zorba was driving too fast and it was just impossible to stop. Everyone chimed let’s stop there on the way home. I was skeptical – we haven’t had the best track record of finding places (despite a GPS and directions)…

On we travel, onto Assisi.  It took us under two hours, not bad going for Bortoletto / Kings /  Griswalds really.  All six adults took photos and made mental notes of where we parked the car, not wanting to repeat the fiasco of Orvieto. Once again, today was shaping up to be another hot one and it was already starting to heat up even though we were in Assisi by 10.30am.

Assisi seemed lovely, albeit pretty busy. Tourists everywhere! Cars were edging their way up crowded streets, forcing us to duck into shop doors, between parked cars and the like.  It was distracting and I have to admit, especially with two young ones with us. I much preferred walking around Orvieto and Bolsena with their calm pedestrianised streets.

We decided to walk directly to the main attraction, the cathedral of St Francis of Assisi, a world heritage site, while the children were coping ok. We were nearly there when the kids were starting to fade.  A closed restaurant had its tables and chairs out the front and Ben opted to stay with the kids whilst they had a snack from their lunch box while the rest of us went into the Cathedral to check it out.

St Francis of Assisi was completed in 1253, and a really beautiful cathedral inside. From the outside it was a large impressive structure, but doesn’t have nearly as much of the ornate decorations that the Duomo in Orvieto has.  We went down stairs to see the tomb of St Francesco.  The whole cathedral was impressive and three levels. I don’t think I’ve ever been into a multi-level church before, besides crypts below the main church.

There were loads of monks and nuns in Assisi – no surprise really, after all, it attracts pilgrims from all over the world.

Conscious of Ben with the kids up the hill, we ventured back.  We decided to find a place to sit and have lunch.  Susie chose the first place we came across that had tables outside. An ordinary looking bar that had a gelati and very sad looking panini in the window.  No way was I going to eat any of those. Susie had one and said it was disgusting. I wasn’t surprised!

Gelati were bought for the kids, and that’s right about when Sam cracked it.  His major hissy fit over I don’t know what, made Susie invent a naughty corner in the cafe and Sam was sent promptly there.

Zorba was already checking out other places to buy some lunch, so I tip toed out of the Sam war zone to see what he had found.  Right across the road was an organic cafe that only sold gluten free piadini – a flat bread.  They looked nice enough and the man behind the counter was happy to deviate from his menu to make us our favourite combination; proscuito crudo, fresh mozzarella, and tomato.  They were delicious! Mum and Dad followed us in and had a different yet just as yummy combo.  Zorba said it was the best piadini he has ever had.

By that stage, Sam’s hissy fit has dropped a couple of notches and Susie and Ben decided to start the trek home and said their good-byes.  But, they didn’t go straight to the car. Instead, they stopped at a shoe shop. When I followed them in, Indi was already trying on a pretty pair of pink sandals.  In her own words,  “These sandals are excellent and very comfy!”  Susie bought Indi’s first pair of Birkenstocks.

After that, they went straight to the car.  Mum, Dad, Zorba and I wandered around a little more, had a gelato, and found the car on our second attempt (hurrah!) and went back to our villa.   Of course, we had to stop at the supermarket and butcher to buy some supplies for dinner.  It was 4.20pm and nothing was open.  I bet they opened at 5pm, so we didn’t have to try hard to convince Walter to have a beer and wait til they opened.

We had the afternoon to relax by the pool, cool off from the heat.  Our dinner of local delicious salami sausages – yes, they were a mix of salami and sausages and absolutely beautiful, especially cooked on the coal BBQ.  We again had veal scallopine steaks cooked some sage from the herb garden, some buffalo mozzarella with tomato and basil, a delicious garden salad and yummy crusty bread.  Man, it was a meal for champions!

Another great day, thank you Umbria.

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Bolsena, Lazio (near Umbria)

Bolsena is an ancient hill top medieval town that dates back hundreds of years.  According to Wikipedia, records for Bolsena Lake – which is a huge crater filled with water – date back to 105 AD.

From our Umbrian palace near Castel Giorgio, we decided to drive to the near by medieval town of Bolsena.  Bolsena is actually in the province of Lazio of which Rome is the capital, close to the Umbrian border.

Bolsena is oh-so pretty. The lake is massive and almost looks like the sea. The Lake’s edge is dotted with pretty colourful hydrangeas, manicured gardens, and shady trees.

The short drive to reach Bolsena was enough time for Sam and Indi to fall asleep in the car.  As you can imagine, they were pretty cranky at being woken up.  Not even the bribe of a gelato could quietened them.  Indi was particularly grumpy and I have to secretly admit, I found it quite funny! The horesy ride thing that was available for kids to ride still couldn’t put a smile on Indi’s face.

The actual town of Bolsena is so so so cute!  Stone houses made out of black volcanic handmade bricks, narrow cobbled streets, flower boxes with gorgeous coloured flowers spilling over the sides, big wooden doors and cute small doors that look like they were designed for dwarfs, and a castle with a commanding tower that dates back to the 13th Century.

We did a little walk through the town and little 3 year old Sam was very excited to be seeing a castle where the brave knights once were.  Similarly, 5 year old Indi (once over her grump of having to walk up stupid stairs) was excited to see where the princess used to live.   We paid the two euros per person to be able to climb up the castle tower where the view of the Bolsena lake was stunning.

As you may imagine, at 4pm in the middle of an Italian summer, it was baking hot and we were keen to get back to our Umbrian palace and cool off in the beautiful pool.

Bolsena is well worth a look. It’s teeny tiny and absolutely cute.

Back at the Umbrian palace, our dinner was sensational.  We marinated some chicken in rosemary, garlic and lemon and cooked them over the coal BBQ.  Accompanied with barbecued eggplant and zucchini, it was healthy and heavenly.  The buffalo mozzarella we had bought was amazing and sitting in the beautiful garden of our villa, Lagoscello, it was a lovely evening.


Bolsena is in the province of Lazio and is 21km from Orvieto.

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Orvieto: Lesson no.1, remember where you park

The fun and games driving in Italy with my crazy family continue.  Mum, Dad, Susie, Zorba and I all decided to head to the nearby hilltop medieval town of Orvieto.  Ben was tired from jet lag, as were the kids, so they opted to hang out at our Umbrian palazzo.  We thought we’d be gone for about 2 or 3 hours…. hmmm…read on.

The drive to Orvieto was easy enough, the town is well sign posted and the windy roads and distant rolling hills made it a pleasant and pretty drive. When Orvieto came into view, we were all astounded – a gorgeous looking medieval town perched on top of a hill, church spires and castle towers striking the sky, surrounded by rolling hills of vineyards and trees.

Orvieto in the background

There was a bit of debate as to where to park.  Walter (Dad) wanted to us to drive direct into the centre of the old town of Orvieto, probably because it was 36 degrees, uphill and baking hot.  Zorba and I were more cautious, warning Walter that in old historical towns there were often restricted zones where after a certain point only registered resident cars were allowed to enter and everyone else would be issued with a fine.  We had learnt from experience as it happened to us in Lucca, Tuscany in 2010.

Walter was being fairly insistent about driving in to the town, “Let’s just go up and have a look, if there’s no parking, we’ll come back down.” Fine. If that’s what you want to do Walter, that’s what we’ll do – but you are paying the infringement if we get one!

We drove through the Porta Maggiore – the old city walls – into the old centre of Orvieto. It looked fabulous. And low and behold, there was a free parking spot – whoo-hoo!  The sign had a little picture of man with a trolley and an 1-hour sign.  Hmm, was this a loading zone?  We were all umm-ing and ahh-hing about whether to park and risk it or move the car when a local polizia (policeman) pulled up. I asked him in my most polite Italian if we could park there for one hour? The response from him was — well, normally this is a loading zone, but today is Sunday and it will probably be ok.  Ok, I’ll take that! Let’s park and check this place out!

Orvieto is as cute as you like. A gorgeous medieval town with narrow streets, beautiful flower boxes filled with coloured blooms everywhere you look, portico and arch ways, and pretty cobbled streets.  It is very agreeable.  

We walked to the Duomo and were all utterly amazed at the sheer size and intricate detail of the structure.  From the side, it reminded me of the Duomo in Florence with the striped dark blue and cream brick work. Inside it was breathtakingly beautiful.  Frescoes, marble pillars and flooring, statues, artwork, stain glass windows – the Duomo had it all.  A Mass was in progress, so we couldn’t really look around too much.

The front of the Duomo was stunning.  Built in the 1200s and finished in the 1400s, mosaic images adorned the front and were finished with gold leaf and the usual ornate marble statues and decorations really made the Duomo an impressive structure that you could stare at for ages and ages. Absolutely magnificent.

By this stage, we were starting to feel peckish and lunch was calling.  Knowing how fussy I am with food and eating – well, fussy is the wrong word, I consider myself particular – I took charge of choosing a lunch place.  I hate eating sub-standard food in tourist traps, especially in Italy, a country that has so much good food (as soon as you are away from the tourist spots).  So, a turn here, a turn there, and we stumbled upon a nice looking restaurant off the main streets with an private courtyard covered in shade, thanks to the overhead growing vines. Simply gorgeous! And so lovely and cool on a blazing hot day.  It was a little bit expensive compared to other restaurants we have eaten at in Italy, but Dad was paying and the cool gorgeous setting seemed to be worth it. And we were right.

I ordered for us to share grilled vegetables and a caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella. Oh yes, a delicious start. For mains, we all had something different.  We all enjoyed our meals as much as we enjoyed tasting each other’s.  Ravioli with porcini mushroom sauce, spaghetti amatricana, four cheese lasagne, papadelle with cream and pancetta sauce, local salami-like sausages – all really beautiful.

After lunch Dad decided he wanted to see the famous well in Orvieto that dates back to the 16th century that is 15 metres wide, 62 metres deep and has 248 steps on the spiral staircase along the inside of it.

In the steaming hot sun, it was hard work walking around with a full tummy that was also holding a beer or two.  Curling up in a shady spot was far more appealing.  We didn’t know where the well was and Dad was happy to abandon that idea and get back to the car.  Yes, the car.  Now where did we park the car?

We walked up and down the main hilly street – and up and down again looking for where we parked the car.  Oh dear.  Everyone insisted it was this way, or that way, or the other standard frustrating reaction of, “No no, I remember walking past this shop, that theatre, that church…”. Sigh.

Far out. It was getting hotter and hotter, if that was even possible, and my patience was wearing thinner and thinner.  I had to just sit tight and butt out and let them all argue about the direction we had first entered the town from.  You know, too many cooks and all that. Plus, I had no clue where we had parked the car. None.

Inside the well

A tourist overhead our confusion and helped our plight by giving us her map. She said the famous well was a little way down the hill and worth a look – don’t disappear because there was a local bus that would take us back up the hill once we were done.  We decided to visit the well, after all, we were there in Orvieto and may as well.  Bom-bom, pun intended!

The well was great. It is amazing to think that something as complex as a deep underground structure was capable of being built 800 or so years ago.  It was so lovely and cool inside the well too.  But bloody hard work climbing all those stairs to get back up to the top!

Ah the top, yes, now back to the original problem. Where was the car?  After the sixth time walking past the Massimo Theatre, Zorba cracked it and instructed us to wait there while he checked out a side street to see if that lead to our lost car.  We waited and waited. And waited and waited.  Thank God there was shade on the steps of the Massimo Theatre. There was also the most awful stench of horse manure that keep invading our space every couple of minutes.  Where the hell was that coming from?  We didn’t know, there wasn’t a horse in sight.  It was gross, but what could we do? We couldn’t really move to another spot because firstly there was no shade, and secondly Zorba would never be able to find us.

In the meantime, Susie went through her photos she had taken on her camera and closely examined the first photo she took when we arrived into Orvieto. Between that, asking several locals, “where is this?” and the map the nice Canadian tourist had given us, Dad worked out the general area of where the car must have been parked.

After 40 minutes or so, Zorba finally returned completely and utterly hot and flustered, almost in a panic and declared that the car was nowhere to be seen. He was almost implying that it has been towed away. I wasn’t convinced. But I was cranky.

We were all together again and off we charged up the hill. Seriously, if only we had walked another five minutes up the hill the first time, we would have never have been lost and would have saved ourselves about three hours of inconvenience and stress in the blistering hot summer sun.  Susie kept saying, “Oh no, we are the Griswalds!”  I was in denial. No were weren’t. She might be, but not me. I wasn’t a Griswald. Nope.

It was only when we were trying to find our way back from Orvieto to our lovely Umbrian palace the that I had to concede and agree with Susie after we went around a round-about three times because the stupid GPS couldn’t make its mind up which way we should go.  Grrr.

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Our 2 to 3 hour trip look almost 7 hours.  Yep. We are hopeless.  That’s two days in a row we have been lost.  I hope this is not setting the scene of things to come. Please God no!  But somehow I think it already has.

Ben and the kids were the sensible ones that opted to stay home, and as a result, missed the complete chaos of the Bortoletto’s / Griswalds on tour. Speaking of Ben, he has actually been pretty nice to me thus far.  Normally he stirs me to the point of a snappy reaction (something he takes great pleasure in doing!), but I think he is feeling a bit sorry for me.  After all, holidaying with the Griswalds is no easy feat!

For dinner we had the best BBQ ever at our Umbrian palace consisting of local sausages made by the butcher in Castel Giorgio, veal scallopine steaks (same butcher) that soaked in the beautiful smokey flavour of the coal BBQ, served with a mixed fresh salad. Healthy and delicious and in a setting that offers a view – with matching sunset – to die for.  A great end to an eventful day, oh thank you Umbria!

Arrivederci! xx

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Finding our Umbria palazzo

An exciting day! I was meeting my family for a wonderful holiday in the mother country. We live all over Australia and I was really looking forward to being altogether again.

We picked up hire cars at 10am from Rome airport after meeting my family – Walter (dad), Gina (mum), Susie (sister), Ben (bro-in-law), Indi aged 5 (niecelet), and Sam just 3 years old (nephew).  Our hire cars were beautiful new black c-class mercedes benz.  Happy.  Driving two in convoy in rural Italia, one would be forgiven for confusing us  for mafiosi!

The drive to our rented villa in Umbria would have been a direct drive of an hour and a half if we chose to go directly there.  We couldn’t check in until 4pm – so we decided to drive off the main autostrada to a half-way-ish town, Virberto and stop to have a look.  Mum, Dad, and I visited Viterbo back in 2007 and remembered it being a gorgeous medieval town where we had an awesome lunch.

Today, Viterbo was still a gorgeous medieval town that was steaming at 35 degrees.  The poor little kids were so tired from flying from Singapore the night before and tired from being in the car for two hours.

Our mission was to find a restaurant for lunch.  By this time it was 1pm and the whole town was closing for siesta.  The restaurant we found could accommodate eight of us inside and in we piled.  The service was as slow as a Galapagos tortoise.  I had to almost tackle the waitress to ask her to bring some bread – poor little Indi and Sam were almost passing out from low blood sugar levels.

Finally bread and water came out, an hour or so later our food came out and we wolfed down a mix of parmigiana di melanzane, pasta, and beans.  Lunch was nice, but we had more pressing matters to deal with.  We were keen to get going and find our home for the next week, get settled and get out of the heat.

Our drive onto the villa started off straightforwardly. The GPS that Walter brought with him from Australia was programmed with the villa’s address and off we went.  As the front seat passenger, I was a nervous wreck in the car and doing all I could to hide it. So scary with other mad fast drivers, my side of the car veering close to the barrier / wall / other traffic, and narrow narrow roads.  Zorba did a great job driving and Ben did a good job following us in the other car – well, most of the time – besides the moment when he went to over take a truck about 300 metres before we had to take the autostrada exit.  It was only a little sudden swerve that he did that made us all shriek in the other car.

Finding our villa Laguscello was a challenge.  The directions from Rome were very clear.  However, we weren’t coming from Rome on the autostrada.  And we were relying on the GPS.  When we finally heard the GPS announcement, “you have arrived at our destination”, we knew we had not arrived at our destination. We were in a little rural suburban village that had dirty looking kids playing soccer on the street, and the picture of Laguscello that we had all fallen in love with on the internet was no where near to be seen. The black mercs rolling up to this little place made the locals peer out their windows in curiosity.

We stopped, consulted the GPS and consulted the written directions which were a bit useless given that we had come from a different direction on rural roads.  I wandered off to  see what I could find and to see if there was anyone I could ask for direction.  I found a friendly enough family sitting on their front verandah.  The directions they gave me did not sound quite right as they had no idea of the villa I was looking for.  Whilst I was doing that, Gina found someone else who did seem to know the location of our villa and gave fairly precise directions.

Off we went. We turned off the main rural tarmac road up three different gravel roads that were all wrong.  The kids were getting restless, Susie was getting cranky, and we all stopped laughing at how funny it was to get lost in Umbria.  The worst thing of all, we did not follow the directions that Mum had been given.  We went the total opposite way.  Why? I have no idea!  By that stage, I was keeping out of it.  Too many chefs and all that.

Indi, over it.

Eventually, after the fourth gravel road and fourth time of Susie getting out of the car being tetchy, Mum rang Roberto, the manager of the villa.  He said he would wait for us in his blue 4WD on the main tarmac road and gave us directions to come and find him.  We were so close it only took us two minutes to find Roberto – IF we had followed the directions Mum had been given in the rural little town an hour earlier, we would have been there an hour earlier! Susie said we were like the Griswalds. No no no no please no. But looking at it, maybe she was onto something.

From the main tarmac road, the gravel road that lead to the villa was about 500 metres and a little bumpy, nothing the mercs couldn’t handle.  When we pulled into the gated driveway we collectively gasped. It was a gorgeous sight and the exact vista of what we had fallen in love with on the internet.  Rolling Umbrian hills, a huge stone farmhouse style villa and colourful flowers in the well-kept garden.  Yep, this was the picture we were all looking forward to seeing in real life.

When we walked in, we could not believe how stunning it was. A massive down stairs living area that has a formal entrance, formal lounge, kitchen, dining, informal lounge, games room with fuzball table and table tennis table, laundry, bathroom, and second laundry / kitchen area.  Massive!  The walls are all about 50cm thick and the inside of the villa is lovely and cool even if it is 35 degrees outside.

Upstairs, the four bedrooms were ginormous and all with ensuites. The massive main bedroom has a little balcony overlooking the back garden and pool as well as bath tub in the bathroom. The main bedroom was bigger than my entire Craven Terrace flat in London  (Lancaster Gate) that I shared with two other girls for 18 months!  We were delighted and just thrilled to be able to call this place our home for the next week.

Outside we had a large in-ground pool complete with deck chairs, a hammock, beautiful fragrant bushes of lavender and flowers dotting colour all around, two BBQs and the old fashioned wood-fired pizza oven.  There’s no wood for the pizza oven, so that is something we’ll have to find in the next couple of days because Gina (mum) has been instructed to give us all a cooking class on making the best pizza dough.  It’ll be fun to make pizza with the kids.

Zorba, Dad and I drove to the nearest town, Castel Giorgio, to pick up some supplies for dinner. The little town is fairly nondescript, although the butcher served us well with unbelievable homemade salami, tasty proscuito, smokey pancetta, and some freshly cut veal scallopini.  The small roma tomatoes I bought from the little supermarket in a packet were some of the tastiest I’ve had so far this trip.  Walter was of course in charge of the alcohol and bought enough to keep a small army inebriated for several days.  At those prices, why wouldn’t you?

With an eventful day travelling, jet lag that the family was suffering, and a big lunch we enjoyed in Viterbo, everyone decided to get a good night’s sleep and turned in fairly early. Except me of course. I just had to write to you to keep you up to date with all the shenanigans.  There’s bound to be more, so stay tuned!

Thanks readers for taking the time to read this post.  Knowing you are there is all the motivation I need to stay up late and tap away on my adored MacBook Air.

A domani – til tomorrow x

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Umbria dreaming

We opted for a villa in Umbria for our family stay rather than Tuscany. Why?  We’ve all done Tuscany and it is gorgeous, beautiful, movie-like even, but we decided we wanted to get away from ‘Chianti-shire’ and the thousands of other tourists that will be there in July. I’ve hardly explored Umbria and can’t wait to stay in this villa.  How dreamy does this look?


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