A week ago we arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, relatively fresh considering the long, multi-connection flight that brought us from Asheville, North Carolina. The travel had been smooth, however, and without much ado we arrived in Umbria a short while after landing.
As I mentioned in an earlier posting, it has been some time since we have been in Italy in the summer. Our import business, Bella Italia, has been bringing us to Italy several times a year for nearly a decade now, but we have avoided the crowds and high prices by coming in the fall and spring as well as during the winter. Our trips, reports of many of which are archived here, typically combine some visits to existing suppliers, searching for new products and discovering and exploring a new region. Over the years, however, our trips brought us back more often than not to Umbria, the region from which a majority of our ceramics come from and many of our food products as well. As we have returned over and over again, we have deepened our relationships with our suppliers, who have become dear friends as well as business associates. When we began to think seriously about establishing a villa rental business, Umbria, so full of charms and a place where we had put down some roots, seemed the logical place to look. After this week living in and really getting to know our villa, la Fattoria del Gelso, biking around the countryside and visiting the nearby hilltowns, eating the local food and drinking the local wine (excessively), we know that we made a very good choice.
In the nearly year and a half since we first started negotiating to purchase la Fattoria del Gelso we have visited the area seven or eight times, going back to when we first saw the villa in March 2007. By October we had decided to put an offer on the property and then the fun began. Italians are tough negotiators and the owners here had no intention of giving away at a bargain price the business that they had developed and invested themselves in over many years, especially to a couple of upstart Americans. But we were eventually able to come to an agreement on price and all other terms, which in America would mark the beginning of the end of the process. Here in Italy, as countless books and blogs attest to, this was just the beginning of the beginning of the process. If Italian home sellers are a tough bunch, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve dealt with a notaio (lawyer). Those stories are being saved for another book!
The point is that over this year and a half we have spent a great deal of time in Umbria – so much so that we rented an apartment in nearby Ponte San Giovanni where we could stay while we finalized our purchase – but as in the past, we spent our summers elsewhere. During those non-summer visits the weather has been great – it is hard to find a more beautiful and comfortable place than Umbria in September and October, with its warm days and cool nights, and we have had our share of excellent spring weather here as well, even if the spring weather is unpredictable.
In general, we have avoided Italy during the summer, fearing the crowds and sweltering weather. Memories of a summer week in Rome with my mother and father many years ago still make me sweat, the Roman streets like a blast furnace and our hotel, the Flora supposedly with air conditioning but in fact furnished only with a metal box with coils that blew hot air into the room unless you placed a two-by-four just so and positioned your face in front of the exhaust that wheezed a weak puff of cool air like an asthmatic. (Even before the air conditioning problems the Flora had earned a place in our Pantheon of family vacation busts, from the moment we arrived in Rome – “driver please take us to the Hotel Flora on Via So-and-So.” “Flora? Flora?” “Yes, the Hotel Flora at (looking up the exact address) 256 Via So-and-So.” “Flora? Flora? . . . Oh, the Flor-AH” to the moment we checked in - “So sorry Mr. and Mrs. Menard (my 70+ year old parents), the elevator is not functioning this week. You can take the staircase or walk several miles through the kitchen to the service elevator.”).
Another indelible summer experience that haunts our memory occurred during a weekend visit to Venice one summer when I was a student in Florence. That weekend excursion brought us into contact with the greatest concentration of humanity ever assembled in one place at one time. The same day that we arrived by train and boat at our little pensione along a quiet canal, nearly half of the population of Czechoslovakia (this was before the division of the country) had been given a weekend pass by their government, part of the easing of restrictions in the communist world that led to the disintegration of the Soviet empire. An early Czech entrepreneur seized on this opportunity to organize a massive bus tour of nearly every Czech man, woman and child with more than $5 to his or her name, and those busses unloaded at just the hour we emerged onto Venice’s narrow streets. For two days we were carried through la serenissima by the hordes of Slavs, swept along by this human tide that filled every public byway, finding peace and solitude only when we were able to escape into any establishment requiring the outlay of money. No wonder Venice is sinking.
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We have braved the Italian summer this year for two reasons. The first is so that we could experience firsthand what Umbria is like in the summer, in order to be able to honestly represent the experience to potential renters. But the main reason for this summer visit is to attend the Umbria Jazz Festival, which begins in Perugia this Friday and runs for ten days. Being raised by a former (amateur) jazz musician, jazz promoter and owner of a jazz format radio station this trip is more like a kind of pilgrimage, featuring renowned jazz greats such as Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Cassandra Wilson and Pat Metheny. Alicia Keys, not a jazz musician per se, is another highlighter that will doubtless pack the house and I am especially looking forward to seeing and hearing Brazilian star Caetano Veloso. The festival, which is celebrating its 35th year in Perugia, is one of the biggest and most well known festivals in Europe and overlaps at least for a few days with the famous classical music festival - the Festival dei Due Mondi, held annually in Spoleto, just twenty minutes down the road.
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As we await the start of Umbria Jazz, we have rediscovered the magic of the Italian summer and understand why the entire world comes here every summer. The heat may be oppressive in Rome, but they still come. The crowds may still be huge in Florence, but still they come. The restaurants may vie for the tourist dollar by appealing to the lowest common denominator, but still they come. Simply put, even with the crowds and heat, Italy is a magical place.
As we wind up our first week here in Cannara, we feel fortunate to have been spared much of what is wrong with Italian summers. Here in Umbria and particularly in our little corner of it a gentle breeze really does cool the summer blaze, as the sellers promised us when we were negotiating the purchase of our villa. Our friends in Rome, who for weeks have sweltered through a heat wave tell us that what kept up their spirits was the promise of escaping to the cool, fresh countryside over the weekend. They were not disappointed.
And when they were here they enjoyed not just the weather, but longer days that encourage a Mediterranean style relaxation, the culture of domani. Large combines harvest the fields of this incredibly bountiful land until the wee hours of the night, as we linger over dinners al fresco, that start at 10:00 when the sun finally disappears and end when the last bottle of wine has been tipped over. Here in Umbria in even the most touristy town there is room to breath and plenty of authentic Italy to experience.
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When is the best time to visit Italy, we are often asked. The autumn offers beautiful weather, lower prices and smaller crowds. Harvest time for the grapes in Tuscany, Umbria and Piemonte offers up unforgettable scenery, the firey colors nearly bursting from the hillsides. A little later in the fall the olives are harvested and pressed, and fresh, fruity oil can be tasted straight from the press, its taste evoking the heat and dusty dryness of the summer that is locked inside the fruit. As the nights grow longer and pass into winter what can be more memorable or comforting than enjoying a glass of red wine (or maybe even a grappa) in front of glowing yellow fire or wandering the quiet(er) sreets of Rome under a deep blue sky in shirtsleeves, wondering if this city ever experiences bad weather? The springtime, with its unpredictable spells of cold, rainy days, punctuated by the most glorious sunshine, warming the body to its soul, making one happy just to be alive. And now, for us, the rediscovery of the summer, with its hot days and cool nights, the pleasure of a cool dip in the pool and a crisp glass of white wine on the terrace as the sun sets late at night.
I think at last the answer to that question is clear. The best time to visit Italy is whenever you can.