Umbria by Car

Because we are coming down to the last few days here, everyone is doing all those things they’ve wanted to do but have been putting off and basically trying to be as Italian as possible. A little while ago in the Umbra Blog there was a post about Piano Grande, a huge plain in the Umbria region, the result of a glacial lake, surrounded by mountains which are snow covered all year long and in the spring, filled with a sea of wildflowers. I got hooked on the idea of visiting the tiny town, set on a hill in the middle of this gorgeous plane, despite it’s isolation which makes it impossible to reach by train and only accessible by bus once a week. Abbie got into the idea with me and upon further research we found that in order to get there we would need a car.

Neither of us is old enough to rent a car, even in Italy, but we found out about a particular branch that was notorious for renting cars to underage foreigners. On Friday morning, bright and early, we went down to the Avis kiosk at the train station with our cameras, backpacks full of picnic food, and high hopes. The man at the desk first told us he had no cars on hand, but then at the very second our faces fell, a SmartCar pulled up to the door and a man came in with the keys. “How many of you are there?” the man asked. “Just the two of you?” We nodded and he smiled and handed us our keys.

He gave us a map and the names of the cities we should head towards and I pulled out my GoogleMaps directions and so armed, we set out to leave Perugia. A few wrong turns later we were out of the city and onto the highway heading South and everything went smoothly from there. The highway road signs in Italy were incredibly easy to follow, simply naming every semi-major city that could possibly be reached at every exit. We saw a lot of the “backside” of Italy, manufacturing and strip mall type stuff but also did a lot of driving through windy mountain roads and greenery and farmland. We were so giddy with the idea of our tiny car and driving and the freedom it entailed that it all looked almost equally beautiful…

Our first stop was Norcia. It is high on the list of my favorite towns in Italy. It was a small walled city, famous for truffles and so unspoiled and charming and open. Light streamed onto the streets, each one lying like spokes from the big sunny piazza in the center. We could already see the snow covered mountains from there. We walked around for an hour, taking pictures and crossing through the town to the fields on the other side and then went back to our car to wind up and down a mountain to reach Castelluccio, the tiny town in the Piano Grande.

After the mountain, we crossed through the plain which was sadly lacking in wildflowers, but still beautifully ringed by those mountains. We went up to the town first which was barren and broken, almost a ghost town. Around the center of town, a parking lot, we saw a man sitting on a step, a few store employees, a few locals at a bar, one man in a truck, and a tiny handful of tourists but that was it. The town was practically empty.

One side looked like a bunch of storage spaces, all locked and abandoned and crumbling. The other side, farther up the hill had signs explaining that major drain work was going on and that all non-residents should keep out. We didn’t keep out, but we didn’t see any residents either. There were a few barns and at least one had animals inside (we could hear and smell them) and there was a donkey on the road and we saw a few sets of laundry flapping in the breeze. If it hadn’t been for that laundry, I could have easily believed no one lived there at all…

Finding nothing left to explore we went back down into the Piano Grande. Abbie had driven until this point so it was my turn. We stopped in the field for some pictures of mountains and cows and finding it still fairly early and all of Italy at our disposal, we picked another destination; Gubbio.

I had been wanting to go to Gubbio since before I arrived in Perugia because my friend who attended the program last semester went there and it seemed beautiful. It was. Just outside of the historic center was a Roman amphitheater and inside it had 15 churches, a little stream, and a serene feeling. The whole trip felt serene, actually. Every town was calm and quaint and pleasantly Italian.

In Gubbio we were too late to take the tiny gondolas up Mt. Inigo to the Basilica of Sant’Ubaldo which was the main reason I had wanted to visit, but we did get to walk around and watch a stunning sunset and we met a nice man on the street who we chatted with in Italian for a substantial period of time. We also had mountainous whip cream covered hot chocolates. After it was dark and I feared the coming rain would get on our cameras, we headed back to the car for the drive home to Perugia.

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