Sunday, October 4, 2009

Exploring old and wild places in Umbria

Another glorious morning here in Umbria! We greet the day with another good breakfast and wonderfully strong coffee. The coffee in Italy is so satisfying, unless your request for "espresso dopio" (double espresso) is mistaken for 'Americano' (large coffee) which is disappointing for a better word. However, here at La Sarale the coffee is just "Stupendo"! Alessandro tells us that they will pick the grapes for wine making next week and harvest their olive trees - so as usual, a week too early or late! Anyhow, we've decided to head into the country for a drive into Gubbio east of here. We had intended this tour yesterday, however, our cooking class and tasting our creations for lunch, put paid to that decision! So, we set off...

Gubbio is one of the oldest settlements in Umbria, in the province of Perugia, and there is still plenty to see of the Roman occupation of the area over 2,000 years ago. I suppose the three prominent Roman examples in Gubbio are the Amphitheatre, the Roman Domus (residence) and the Mausoleum of Pomponio Grecino a suffect Consul under the Roman Republic. I have programmed Kate to the centre of Gubbio and think nothing of it when as we reach the city, she directs me to make a left turn through one of the narrow city gates.

Too late we realise that this road heads out of town and through to Scheggia and the Bottacione Gorge where we had planned to go after visiting Gubbio. So we just turn the order of things around! Gubbio is also famous among geologists as the discovery place of what was at first called the "Gubbio layer", a rock layer enriched in iridium that was exposed by a roadcut outside of town. This thin, dark band of sediment marks the K–T boundary, between the Cretaceous and Tertiary geological periods (65 million years ago), and was formed by debris from the gigantic meteor impact responsible for the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. Its iridium, a heavy metal that is rare on Earth's surface, but is plentiful in extraterrestrial material such as comets and asteroids. It also contains small globules of glassy material called tektites, formed in the initial impact. Driving through to Scheggia we pass through the gorge where all of this is very easy to see. The earth is 'banded' and because there is such a varience in the hardness of the layers, and also because of the karst formations here, the area is riddled with caves.

Once we have reached Scheggia we continue to climb up into Parco del Monte Cucco - home to amazing peaks and is dominated by Monte Cucco at 1,566m. Known for its cave systems, we see the edge of one of them from the road. As we move higher into the hills we pass lots of Franzione (hamlets), often with just half a dozen buildings. And yet there is life in these remote little places and today we pass lots of cyclists punishing their bodies climbing up or down the winding road. The whole area is marketed as a natural one for sports - cycling, climbing, free flying (hang gliding) amongst them. We follow the road through the park all the way out of Umbria and in to the region of Marches where we reach the much larger town of Sassoferrato. The town is found on the Via Flaminia, an ancient Roman road whose route is still followed and by us today. As we came across through the valley between the jagged hills, we can see the town above the valley floor. At its highest point is a large church that positively gleams in the early afternoon sun. But of course, its Sunday afternoon. The church that we have seen from so far off is closed, there are two nuns, one aged and bent shuffling in to the convent that is attached but otherwise there is no sign of life - residents are locked behind their house doors enjoying the weeks end. Recently we have seen the use of lots of those ribbon bows that we use for decorating wrapped gifts - and nothing else. They are used here to announce the birth of a child in the family, or to attach to cars associated with weddings. All in the correct colours of course. Here is one in the quiet backstreets of Sassoferrato.

From here, we turn back for Gubbio. I search for a different route back, but to do so will take us around the outside of these mountains and a trip of many hours, so we have to settle with going back the same way we came. There is quite a lot to see in Gubbio. It was settled in the time of the Roman empire and has a number of interesting ruins. From a distance you see the town dug into the hills with an imposing church sitting much higher above it - up where the hang-glides play. You can get a cable car to the top - well, they call it a cable car, I'm not sure what we would call it - they are small cages that you stand in for the trip up the mountain! They hold 2-3 people only!! Moot point, we don't have time to do it today (phew).

However, the most interesting of the ruins is the Amphitheatre. When we arrive back at Gubbio, we park near the Amphitheatre and stroll over to join other curious visitors. Now, the Amphitheartre was built during the 1st Century AD and constructed from local limestone - there is not a sliver of marble within its construction! Any Roman polis is easily identified by having a stadium, theatre or both - depending upon its importance. Gubbio, (or 'Iguvium' its original Roman name,) must have enjoyed some importance due to the size of the theatre; which represents the one of largest surviving Roman theatre in the world, and it is still being used for performances during the summer months.

After giving the theatre a good 'once over', in Michael's case - several, we drive and park in a parking area within the Gubbio's walls and then stroll up the steep and cobbled Via Della Repubblica, making our way towards the Consul's Palace. The sheer size of the palace gives some indication towards Gubbios' prominence during the Middle Ages. However, before reaching the Palace, we detour for a visit to the 12C AD church of San Giovanni with its views back down the hill to the market arcade. The church is quite unimposing from its external appearence, internally it is demure with the exception of the alcove containg the font. The walls and ceiling of the alcove are decorated by rather unique frescoes.

We eventually arrive at the Palace, which is quite imposing, a fact attested by the number of stairs required to negotiate the structure. The structure is now occupied by administrative offices, and museums which outline Gubbio's history. Without dwelling too much on the museums, suffice to say the palace's interior justifies Gubbio's importance. The elaborate, and at times, simple paintings and frescoes bespeek of grandeur and oppulence. Regrettably, photography was not permitted so there are no images to illustrate the palace's immensity. However, the most impressive amongst museums' collection are the 'Tavole Eugubine', the Eugubine Tables. These are bronze tablets where the ancient script has been chiselled onto them ....and... these tablets represent the largest collection of ancient Umbrian or Italic Language! Well, Michael almost wets himself when he set his eyes upon them!

To enter the museums is by way of ascention, ie. street level and numerous stairs - no elevators here. Albeit, one's efforts are rewarded by a panoramic view from the high parapet at the palace's summit - the view is quite awesome!

We say farewell to the palace and Michael makes a bee-line for the Duomo (catherdral), which is a level above the palace! Haste is required as the Duomo closes at 17:00, and it is now 16:45! Fortunately for Gubbio's system of elevators this time the journey upwards is lessened in part. Still, there is still a bit of a climb after alighting from the elevator. The cathedral is not one would expect when viewing the exterior. As with most of the places of worship in Gubbio, the structures reflect an aspect of austerity. However, it is quite unique from the inside...once again, no images as photography was forbidden within the Duomo as well. Although, the interior does reflect a time during Medieval Europe - well, why wouldn't it; it was constructed during the 12C AD as well! When Michael returns from his visit to the Duomo, we make our way back to the car - but not before detouring for a Gelatti....

Another day in Umbria draws to a close and we head back for Il Sarale. What was Sarah offering for dinner tonight? Antipasti of meat, pastry with potato slices, pastry wrapped basil and grilled eggplant. This is followed by torn pasta with parmesan reggianio and fresh walnuts (omg it is soooo good) and then a beef stew with mashed potatoes. She rounds dinner off with fig and almond tart - gosh, the simple pleasures don't get much better than this!

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