I travel to discover schools of life that feature in no textbooks.
On a warm spring day, I woke up to the rustling of olive trees and what sounded like Italian jazz. The delicate aroma of fine coffee wafted into my room, and blended into the warm smell of ceramics. From behind the wood and glass door, with garden tools in one hand and a cigar in the other, buongiorno chimed Enrico, and invited me to a breakfast of wood-fired hot bread, olive oil from his olive groves, fresh fruits from the garden and strawberry cake made with stone-ground flour!
Thus began my rendezvous with the dreamy countryside of Umbria – and a lesson in the Italian way of life.
We broke the ice in broken Italian, English, Spanish and the common love of good food, and I soon figured that we were on somewhat similar life paths: Enrico was a painter by passion, but decided to keep his 9-to-5 job to pay the bills; I had quit a 9-to-5 job to try to make my passion pay the bills. I journeyed through his vivid imagination in painted portraits, and through Umbria’s quaint, old, walled villages in his words – though admittedly some were lost in translation.
I was filled with the urge to experience Umbria’s charm first hand, but the trouble was, his home was deep on the countryside, his wife was out of town, he needed to get to office, I couldn’t drive a car, and buses did the rounds only in the dreaded early hours of the morning. We’ll figure it out, Enrico promised as he drove away.
That first morning, I wandered the nearby streets, sampling panini and coffee at a little coffee shop, living out the Italian phrase meriggiare – escaping the mid day sun in the shade, in my case, a meadow bursting with red spring colors.
By the time I got home, a shiny sporty bicycle was waiting outside my door; Enrico had driven to his brother’s place to borrow his nephew’s bike so I could discover Umbria at my own pace!
Along rolling plains covered in old olive groves, through sleepy Italian villages with tiled-roof houses, past fields blooming with red poppies and wildflowers, I rode my bike with the glee of a little girl. But as I neared the famed walled town of Todi, the road went treacherously and endlessly uphill, sapping my energy; nods of encouragement from drivers of passing cars were the only reason I trudged on.
Entering those walled gates was sweet victory – locals hanging out on cobblestoned streets, stone houses dating back to the 1200s, panoramic views of the River Tiber. That ‘a place that time forgot feeling’ was just what I had hoped to find in Umbria.
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My superior sense of direction always leads me to unanticipated adventures, and so it was in Umbria. I missed the only important turn on the way back, and found myself amid scenic albeit tiring vistas of aging vineyards in the backdrop of gentle hills. It was late afternoon by the time I realized I was off track, and took another twenty minutes of huffing along till I found a lone soul – a door-to-door seller of old books (or so I understood) – who chided me for getting lost, but seemed to melt upon hearing I was from India, a country he loved, and cycled almost 5 km by my side to show me a shortcut to my original route.
Back home, more coffee and plans were brewing. Even before I could confess my love for life in Todi, Enrico invited me to a lazy Sunday brunch in the traditional stone home of his amigos; an old stone oven was fired up for pizza, we sat around feasting and chatting in the sunny garden like old friends, and afterward, almost as though the air had suddenly turned drowsy, everyone (yours truly included) fell into a brief but deep slumber! I woke up vowing to make Italian siestas part of my daily life.
More bread was baked, more stories swapped, introduction to Enrico’s lovely wife on Skype, a neighborhood gathering of “young communists” crashed with his daughters, cycling trails that dropped me off the map, a dinner invitation to Perugia’s best pizza with his friends visiting from Rome… and all too soon, it was time to say ciao to this new life that I had begun to think of as my own, amazed by the way Enrico had single-handedly transformed Italy from being all about the food to being all about the people for me.
With his paintbrush in one hand and a cigar in the other, a presto he chimed. See you soon.
What would be your dream trip to Italy?
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Planning your first Euro trip? Check out my 10 practical tips.