Imagine if you will the central mountain range of Italy, the breathtaking Apennines. Here amidst these hills lie endless oscillations of forest and field. The area more particularly represented here is the region of Umbria, a wild and rough country. The mysticism that this area inspires has quite a history to it. The Italians refer to this area as the land of saints and wizards since it has often been the site of all kinds of mystics. As I began my tour in this area this summer past, I was fascinated by the labyrinthine roads, the sheer cliffs of un-hewn rock and the dense forests of a green so dark it was almost black. Many towns are often stuck on top or alongside of these massive hills and walking anywhere comes with significant effort. While ambulating in the Southeastern part of this region I came upon a small town which has quite a bit of history and character despite its seemingly insignificant location. I came upon the city of Norcia while on my quest to reach an area of the Apennines which are most pronounced and high known as Monti Sibillini.
Upon first sight Norcia already stands out amongst its sibling cities in the region. The typical cliff face construction is nowhere to be seen here. Instead on a fairly large and green plateau surrounded on every side by massive peaks lies a circular walled city with every bit of medieval charm one could hope to find in one locale. The city is the perfect complement to the flat, open greenery which is such a rare sight in this part of Umbria. The city has several gates as I approach and a few lead to modern roads going in and out of the plateau, while several others are well established footpaths that lead straight into the forested mountains and various hiking trails of the nearby state parks. Even though it is the height of summer the air is much cooler here and the freshness of it is beyond words. The town is especially crowded in summer as the locals tell me it is a great place to stay for outsiders while going on many daytrips of hiking, rafting, kayaking and even hunting. The town is very quiet in the early hours of morning and a heavy midst rises over the main square as the sun comes up. The shadows of the mountains surrounding the town cast funny shapes and shades of light around sunrise and sunset. As the morning progresses people start to wander out into the streets, some have their exploratory gear on and are heading outside the town. Many mothers and grandmothers head to the shops to gather food for their hungry explorers. The shops stand out to me as one of the defining characteristics of this lovely town. While there is a larger grocery store relegated to outside the city walls, all of the stores in town are boutique wonders with fresh ingredients, local delights and friendly locals. Most stores only specialize in one or two products so one has to make the rounds to plan a well rounded meal. By the time lunch comes everyone is scurrying indoors with growling stomachs and nostrils full of sweet aromas. After lunch the town is deserted until at least four in the afternoon. Everyone is having a nap. Many shops have four as a reopening time, but it is not uncommon to have the shopkeeper wander in at four thirty or even a quarter to five. Life here is not so much about business, but really about life and it is quite a new experience for me.
Norcia may be small but it is really an epicenter for the region. The city has in some ways become a brand or a center for all that defines the region. First there is the famous Norcia sausage that you will see hanging in every storefront. This product has a savory flavor of herbs, spices and a unique wildness that tops anything artificially tasty any day of the week. The sausage here is often taken from wild and domestic boars which have a diet as rich and natural as the forests they inhabit. Truffles are a huge part of the cuisine here as the forests here are full of them. Many farmers and truffle hunters supplement their income on this “white gold” which is some of the most expensive cuisine going. Many of the cheeses, breads, and pastas here are influenced by the savor and spice that the forest provides. The crowning achievement of all these products is in my opinion the local pasta norcina. That’s right; you know your town has done something right when they get a pasta named after them. In my opinion as a pasta lover this dish trumps them all. The pasta includes the local sausage, mushrooms, onions, truffles and a white cream sauce which goes excellent with a white wine.
The town itself has undergone invasions and earthquakes in the past but retains much of its original beauty. The majority of the streets and buildings are made of a shimmering white stone typical of the mountainous region. The central square sits at the heart of the circular city and all the main roads go out from it like spokes on a wheel to the five or so gates outside the walls. The central square boasts an impressive statue of Norcia’s most famous native son: St. Benedict. He and his twin sister St. Scholastica were born here in 480. He is considered the founder of western monasticism, which is the idea of monks living in community together in monasteries. In fact there is a basilica and monastery of monks living out his rule of life right on this square. The church is build over his birthplace and has an impressive crypt which contains the walls of an early home. The monks do provide lodging for travelers with a suggested donation and of course some house rules. There are five or so other churches in the city which are mostly simple in decoration yet most have a few treasures paintings or sculptures by notable Italian artists.
I left my experience here with a great sense of nostalgia. I had found a magical if not mystical embodiment of the region in a very unique place. The foothills of Umbria bring a sense of life and vivacity, a sort of call of the wild I guess. However you experience it, I’m pretty sure you’ll feel very similar about this place. The mountains inspire grandeur, the food inspires pleasure and simplicity, the city reminds me of living life for its own sake and the forest tells me that I’ll never quite know what wonders still await me deep within.