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Travels With Peppe
A walking tour on the ancient paths of Umbria
by Judith Kirkwood

"You see the panorama?" says Peppe, our hiking guide . . .for about the 14th time. Several of us roll our eyes and groan behind his back — but Peppe wouldn't have cared had he seen us. His mind is entirely on his cherished landscape.

We are five American women walking the ancient paths of Umbria, in central Italy. We are on a week-long trip arranged by Cross Country International Walking Vacations. Our base is a country-style lodging near the famed holy town of Assisi.

Peppe is using the word "panorama" as a carrot to lure us up Monte Subasio on our first day. One woman in our group, a runner, is ahead of us, even Peppe. But climbing uphill on a hot day is not my forte. My eyes sting with sweat, my lungs are bursting, and there are dozens of flies clinging to my shirt, arms, and neck. Besides, I'm anxious not to lag behind.

Thankfully, Peppe doesn't rush, but stops often to close his eyes and take a deep breath. When he opens his eyes, he sighs "The cypress trees, the fields, the farmhouses, the harmony . . . ." staggering back a little with his hand over his heart, as if swooning. He embraces the landscape with open arms — then gets back to business. "A good view, yes, but up ahead is even a better panorama."

Peppe is mid-thirties and very fit. He says he thinks he has the face of a Roman soldier. (Maybe. I never knew any of them.) His proper name, which we find almost comically Italian, is Guiseppe Bambini. He has lived in this province, in the same house, all his life.

Contrary to the popular image of libidinous Italian men, Peppe is no more flirtatious with our group of women than a puppy dog would be. A family man, he teaches electronics at a boys' school and leads hikes and tours as a sideline.

Today's assault on Monte Subasio would be the longest hike of the week. We had been scheduled to start out with a shorter, less strenuous walk and so build up to this climb. But it was such a clear sky that Peppe could not resist showing off the finest panorama in the region — or the world! — on a day when we can see farther than anyone has ever seen.

"We are so lucky," Peppe shouts with his fist in the air. He is obviously in love with the rolling hills of his Umbria, "the green heart of Italy."

When my own heart stops racing and I give up the notion that Peppe will produce a rope from his multi-pocketed vest and offer to pull me uphill, I have to admit the panorama is glorious.

The summit of Monte Subasio is smooth pink and white stone, bare and worn, like an ancient altar. The middle slopes that surround the view are wooded and the low ground is punctuated by slender cypress trees that stand guard like sentinels over olive groves and vineyards. The medieval buildings of Umbria's hill towns — Assisi and Spello — poke out of hilltops. Churches and farm estates are hidden in crevices and creases of the landscape like outcrops of geological strata.

It's the kind of scene that should have a halo over it, I think: quiet, contemplative, mythical. For three thousand years, Monte Subasio has held a mystic fascination for the people of Umbria. Our guide is no exception.

Peppe boasts that many of the travelers he leads find Umbria more beautiful than Tuscany, its popular neighbor-state to the west. He predicts that, as other scenic areas of Italy are lost to development, Umbria's medieval and Roman architecture, tucked away on quiet roads, will one day be in greater demand.

In fact, listening to Peppe's continuous lectures on geology and history and the difference between Umbrians and Etruscans, and the litany of saints who hail from Umbria, I begin to see that every step we take here in the countryside (and later in Assisi) is part of a tradition of pilgrimages on perhaps the holiest ground in Italy.

Already a small miracle has happened. I prayed that I wouldn't whine, or lag so far behind as to hold everyone back. I may be the last straggler, but I never lose sight of Peppe, striding ahead, planning the next panorama stop.

The 1997 earthquake that damaged the Basilica de San Francesco in Assisi (where St. Francis is buried) ruined frescoes and killed four people when the ceiling in the upper church collapsed. This has slowed tourism in Umbria. What is a hardship for the tourist economy, however, is a boon to travelers because the usual crowds are less now. To be sure, there is construction noise, scaffolding and struts are bracing walls everywhere and the distinctive architecture of many monuments is covered with protective wrappings. But there's a certain excitement in all this, too.

One afternoon, we walked into Bevagna, a hill town near Assisi which has Roman ruins which were damaged by the 'quake. The town echoed to the drumbeat of cement mixers, the crash and clatter of stones sliding down third-floor chutes. Dusty stonemasons and bricklayers — all of whom have steady work in medieval towns these days — were busy everywhere. (Even without an earthquake, ancient structures are always in need of repair.)

Wherever we go in the region we see Benedictine monks, Franciscan friars, and nuns of many orders from all over the world. Peppe often pop-quizzes us often to check whether we have been listening to everything he says. What are the three vows of the Franciscan order, he asks? (Obedience, Poverty, Chastity.) Then, predictably, he always adds, "The first two I understand, but the last one is, I think, almost impossible."

Not all our time is spent hiking and climbing, of course. Each day ends in the embrace of a cozy farm home called Malvarina. It is part of a government program called Agratourismo. To qualify, a country lodging must have fewer than 30 beds and the agricultural component of the property must bring in more profit than tourism. Malvarina produces honey, mozzarella, bread, jam, prosciutto ham, salami, and olive oil. All find their way onto the menu of a restaurant reserved for guests and family.

Maria Maurillo and her son, Claudio, are the innkeepers — and it is Maria's cooking which brings guests back to Malvarina again and again. An energetic woman of 70-something, she is always smartly dressed, whether in the kitchen kneading pasta or walking around the house checking on guests' comfort. She also appears in the breakfast room each morning to have a chat with the Italian guests. Peppe often arrived in time to translate for us.

One morning when we urge Maria to take a walk with us, she throws up her arms and says some approximation of this: "It doesn't matter whether I go for a walk with you — or if you shoot me with a gun — I'll still have to cook all day and go to war with men. God give me strength to keep standing and fighting!"

Peppe, smiling so the gap between his front teeth shows, reassures Maria that she is the pillar of Malvarina and that without her everything would collapse. She walks away grinning, probably looking for a man with whom to do battle.

Traditional Italian hospitality to travelers isn't limited to our country farm. One day, during a walk to see a "canyon" (which turned out to be much less than that by American standards) Peppe led us to an isolated farm house still under repair from earthquake damage. The homeowners were an elderly couple who spent their days in a shed with their chickens and pigeons but, inexplicably, went back to their still-unstable house to sleep.

Nevertheless, Francesco and his wife insist that we share some wine with them. "It is a regulation, a written rule," says Peppe. "I must drink a glass of wine with Francesco every time I walk in this area."

So pleased are we to find this rustic Italian scene that we all make photos of the couple. Francesco laughs as he pours glasses of homemade wine from an enormous bottle. "My face has been all over the world," he says. "Every time someone comes by, they take my picture."

As much as I enjoy exploring the hill towns and countryside (my physical endurance improved immensely during the week), the truth is that my favorite walk each day is the one from my dark, shuttered sleeping quarters (where I nap after our daily hike) to the dining room. Here is where I know I will find the infinity of courses and foods that come from Maria's kitchen!

On some afternoons we gather in this kitchen to observe the ways of Umbrian cooking. High points of Maria's cuisine include tagliatelle with radicchio, potatoes stuffed with sausage, pork with truffle sauce, lightly fried squash blossoms, chocolate cake with a layer of pears. With the help of two assistants who do prepping, Maria makes everything look easy.

Maria writes nothing down and refuses to consider producing a cookbook. "There are already too many cookbooks," she says firmly.

I am not a cook myself, so these kitchen visits add enormously to the anticipation of seeing each dish arrive at our long, late, lazy dinners around the big communal table. Knowing how each dish has been made is more fun than guessing the ingredients and wondering how they were combined.

Each night, after dessert, Maria's son Claudio — a strong, earthy man who is somewhat shy about his English — comes over and squeezes my shoulder in a friendly way. "Tuto bene?" he asks. Yes, all is well. Although it may be 11 p.m. by now, this is a signal to have more wine, more coffee, an after-dinner drink — an invitation to continue talking as long as we like. We may linger in the dining room, or move on to the outdoor terrace.

Monsieur Pascal, an animated businessman, is a tourist from Belgium. One night at dinner he observes, "The more I travel, the more I think that when you remember something, it will be the people. Travel is about people."

Pascal joins my Umbrian panorama of people: Peppe, Claudio, Maria, Francesco . . .the young friar from whom I bought my first Mass at the Basilica i Assisi . . .The carabinieri who looked at Peppe with five women in tow and said, "For me, five women would be half a night . . ." the nude sunbathers at one of the medieval churches . . .The nun in a church courtyard who offered us water and told us how she received her calling . . .and, yes, Saint Francis himself, whose footprints seemed everywhere we walked.

And walked. And walked.

Tuto bene.


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