Aside from a long-ago holiday in Sorrento in the south, I knew little of Italy when I began visiting Umbria in 2013. At the time, I’d answered a plea from an author buddy, Gilli, to help her friend Sara expand her residential courses to include writing. Hand-on-heart, Gilli did type ‘Umbria’ but it seemed so unlikely that I presumed she meant ‘Cumbria’. When Sara invited me to run a course myself it was a huge bonus to discover that Arte Umbria is indeed in the Umbrian Apennine mountains!
I remember the moment I stepped out onto the terrace looking out over the gardens to a tree-clothed valley and hazy peaks marching off into the distance. I fell in love with the tranquility, the sunshine — even the taste of the air. It wasn’t a great leap after that to fall in love with the food and the wine too.
We were served a lot of local produce. Tomatoes were so red they glowed in their oily basil dressing; salad leaves seemed especially crisp; melt-in-the-mouth fresh focaccia bread was made every day. I’m a sun-worshipper and Italy frequently allows me to indulge my love of eating outdoors. I’m sure the sunlight makes my tastebuds work overtime.
Whenever possible, I love to work out in the sunlight too. I’ve made that terrace my classroom or my office, depending on whether I was in Umbria to teach a course or head up a writing retreat. Last year I wrote almost a quarter of One Summer in Italy gazing out at the view my character Levi Gunn was capturing in watercolours. It was inspirational to be writing about Italy while actually there, to transfer the sounds and smells, even the sensation of the Italian sun on my back, to my characters. I’d geared my writing and editing schedule towards exactly that, and I wasn’t disappointed in the way the words flowed.
One Summer in Italy features two seasonal workers, Sofia and Amy, and I was able to interview the chef, herself a seasonal worker, and also her employer. (I’d better mention here that I’ve never met an employer of seasonal workers who treated them the way Benedetta treats Sofia and Amy!) It’s amazing what little details come up in conversation that can be woven into the story.
Visiting nearby Orvieto introduced me to the beauty of Umbrian architecture. Stone buildings, in shades from bronze to honey, provide the perfect foil for the often-more-colourful rendered and painted buildings beneath terracotta roofs. The narrower streets and open piazzas are so appealing that I decided to create ‘my’ Italian town of Montelibertà in Orvieto’s image. It’s smaller and set in a bowl halfway up the mountain but the Church of Santa Lucia in Montelibertà is ‘borrowed’ from Orvieto, one of the many, smaller cousins of the majestic black-and-white cathedral, Il Duomo, for which is Orvieto is famous.
Those who share my love of white wine might already be familiar with Orvieto Classico. I was lucky enough to visit a local winery where it was explained to me that the Orvieto Classico we buy in the UK is designed for our palate. That which is fermented for Italian consumption is subtly different. It prompted me to make one of the promises Sofia gives to her Italian father, Aldo, is that she’ll drink Orvieto Classico in Umbria, as it should be drunk. I’ve done my share of tasting this lovely wine in both the UK and Italy and while the differences escape me, I let Sofia test it out for herself.
I’ve visited Umbria every year since 2013. One of the things that draws me back, apart from the sunshine interspersed with dramatic mountain storms, the food, the wine and the scenery, is the people. I love the way that complete strangers wish me buongiorno or buonasera and that whenever I go into a shop or trattoria I’m met with smiles and maybe a complementary glass of limoncello or grappa with a meal. (I prefer the latter.)
And then there’s the ice cream or gelato. Cioccolato for me, please! Maybe I’ll see you in Umbria one day. I’ll be visiting again in summer 2018, heading up writing retreats in the Apennine mountains. I can hardly wait.
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