Sunday, 1 May 2011

Flavia Constans in central Umbria

"But you're not my mother!"
holding one of the new kids.
Our time in Italy took a turn for the better when we arrived at Flavia Constans, a family farm, agriturismo, and soon-to-be restaurant in central Umbria just outside the hill town of Spello. It is now two weeks after our arrival and we are feeling sad about departure tomorrow. We especially loved the goats. They were among our responsibilities while we were here, and they were always the first animals we went to check on. They were in the middle of kidding during our whole time here, so as the two weeks progressed the goat paddock began to fill more and more with baby goats stumbling and hopping about and exploring the place. Just today two of the smallest goats yet appeared on the scene, animals not much larger than puppies. We can’t wait to have our own smallholding and herd of goats – they are so delightful and curious.
love at first sight- just born

taking milk donations
One thing that came as a surprise to us upon arrival is that our hosts not only produce their own ricotta and pecorino cheeses from sheep and cow milk, but they cure their own meats as well. As a result we have eaten more meat while staying here than at any other time in our lives. This is not an exaggeration. The finest quality cured meats of too many varieties to remember were a regular feature of every meal. Not to mention all the several ways we had lamb prepared for us, as well as rabbit, goose, and snail. Every day we were kept in suspense about what kind of meat we would be served. We would not recommend the place to vegetarians, or to anyone with a weak stomach, but to everyone else it would be a paradise. Not that the hosts wouldn’t be and haven’t been accommodating to vegetarians. They are excellent cooks, and we had a number of tasty, local vegetable and bean dishes. We also did some foraging in the mountains for wild asparagus, wild thyme, and a small edible shrub that few people even around here remember you can eat.

As with the meat, we have never drunk so much wine at any other time in our lives. Our hosts, like most of the people around here, grow their own grapes and produce their own wine, both white and red. Two bottles of wine are always on the table at lunch and dinner, as well as a variety of sweet red wine only made in a few local villages and towns. This is called vernaccia. The people here also drink plenty of grappa, mix their espresso with sambuca (something you should try if you haven't already), and wash it all down with amaretto.

On our days off we either slept in because we were tired out or coming down with colds, or we visited Spello or Assisi. Our visit to Spello was a little anticlimactic, as we came on the wrong day of the week leading into Easter, or the wrong time of day, and the streets were largely deserted. There were some very nice shops there, and beautiful frescoes to see in the churches, and the town itself, clustered on a hill with its old walls and its Roman arch, was very picturesque. Maybe we were just tired out and there was too much climbing to do (the cobbled streets are very steep and after you walk back and forth across the town a couple times you start to long for a level surface). We were also in a reflective mood, feeling like outsiders here. We could go into these people's churches and walk along their picturesque walls, but their life was so different from anything that could be ours.

Definitely the highlight of our time at Flavia Constans was the day we started off foraging with Manuele for wild asparagus in the mountains and then cycled through the countryside to Assisi. After struggling up the very steep hill into the town we were easily tempted by the many beautiful pasticcerias lining the streets and at Gran Caffe we purchased two of the most expensive but loveliest looking cakes we had ever bought (12.24 Euros for two small cakes, of which we are still savoring every mouthful and making last as long as possible). We visited the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi and spent quite some time down in the crypt beside his tomb. Going to the basilica was very moving for us. It was the most beautiful church we have ever been inside in terms of the frescoes and elegant architecture.

The basilica is the mother church of the Franciscan Order, which means it remains an extremely important place for pilgrims to this day. The day we visited also happened to be the day before the beatification of John Paul II, so the church was flooded with pilgrims either on their way to Rome or who had come to Assisi to watch the ceremony televised and be present for a special mass.

After leaving the basilica, still in a thoughtful daze from all we had seen and felt there, we stumbled into a loud medieval procession ushering in the festive time of Calendimaggio (see the video below). The streets were crammed full of onlookers as scores of drummers, pipers, trumpeters, and women in beautiful dresses, sometimes playing tambourines, paraded along after colorful banners. Following our time in the silent, sacred basilica where we had been withdrawn into our thoughts, finding ourselves in the middle of the procession was like getting splashed in the face with a bucket of ice water – shocking and waking us up. We followed the last group of drummers right to the Porta Moiano, where we left Assisi and descended again into the quiet valley.

foraging for wild asparagus in the hills overlooking Spello
display window of Gran Caffe Pasticceria
photo by Jerry (original)

bad photo of one of the loveliest churches
basilica of St. Francis, main portal
interior of the lower church, directly above the tomb of St. Francis
Snow White in retirement in Spello
(missing half a dwarf)
don't rain on my parade
(emergency measures taken in Assisi)

A piece of advice for wwoofers coming to Flavia Constans, there is plenty of work to do here, it will tire you out, and because your two days off each week aren’t always going to be consecutive, there won’t necessarily be a chance to take one day to just rest and then go exploring on the next day. So be prepared either to be very tired when you go exploring, or not to go exploring quite as much as you might in other places. The living conditions here are top notch, the people are the best kind, the food is excellent with healthy variety, but be prepared to work and be tired. Not that the work was as hard on our bodies as some places we’ve wwoofed before (i.e., Casa Caponetti in Lazio and Cal Sereno in Catalonia, Spain) but it did wear us out. It was exactly the kind of work we came wwoofing to do, a good mix of animal care, gardening, and general domestic chores. We also had a little time each day to take a nap or go on a bike ride into the nearby countryside. That was when we had a chance to soak in the peace and quiet of this place, to look out over the often hazy valley at the many layers of mountain ridges vanishing into the distance, or up at the nearby towns of Assisi or Spello.

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