Wednesday, April 15, 2015

San Quirico d'Orcia and Bagno Vignoni


 I learned about this town from our friends Janelle and Johnny and since the day was warm and sunny James and I decided to make a visit. Bagno Vignoni is located in one of the most beautiful regions of Tuscany, the Val d' Orcia.
Tiny Bagno Vignoni  is known for it's thermal spring in use as far back as Roman times. The Piscina, or pool which dominates the piazza was built  and used by the Medici family. Lorenzo d'Medici went to the thermal spa in hopes of a remedy for his gout. He was in such pain he had to be carried around  and he likely died in his 40's from complications due to gout, or so I've perhaps the thermal waters never did cure his gout.

There is a quiet serenity here created by this pool, which in itself could be calming and healing.  A walkway and handsome buildings surround the water filled piscina.
James and I found an enoteca where local cheeses and cured meats were featured, along with wines of the region. There are several places here to eat as well as a hotel that does have a thermal spa that is in use.

Rocca d'Orcia is another well preserved Medieval village that is on a hill  side in the distance towering above Bagno Vignoni. The castle makes for a spectacular focal point in the distance and must have been a very strategic location in the 12th Century.


After lunch, we drove to San Quirico d'Orcia. I have seen signs for this town for years, but we have never stopped since there has always been a different destination planned and we drive past. Today was the day for San Quirico d' Orcia.

It was after lunch, so the shops were all closed, but we were here to look at the town itself, and the churches were open as well as a rose garden. The largest church in town is the 12th Century Romanesque  Collegiata.

After a visit to the Rose Garden we discovered an allee of Ilex trees that lead to the Collegiata. Interesting to find that this was constructed to give a shady and restful place for the pilgrims walking the via Francigena, a Medieval holy route from France to Rome.

This  finely preserved well stands proud at the corner of the Collegiate

 Sandstone lions  support figures that are the columns supporting the arch. This dates somewhat later than the building itself and is attributed to Giovanni Pisano.

There was some damage to the exterior of the church during shelling in World War II.

A column supported by a Lombard lion, a very ornate portal and unusual for this region.

The Chigi Palazzo was built in 1697 for cardinal Flavio Chigi. The Chigi family were wealthy bankers in Siena and eventually Rome, where wealth, power and the church all were intertwined.

The main street,Via Dante Alighieri is lovely. It is lined with small shops and trattorias housed in buildings that date from the Medieval and the Renaissance. Due to the fact that San Quirico was on the pilgrim route there were in the 13th C. several small hospitals and hostels to care for them on route to Rome. It is said that St. Catherine of Siena stayed in a house here along the Via Dante Aligheri. 

The Val D' Orcia

Both San Quirico D 'Orcia and Bagno Vignoni are in the Val D'Orcia region of Tuscany.
The entire Val' D' Orcia is a UNESCO site. The beauty of this part of Italy is overwhelming.

The Val D'Orcia is one of my "Thin Places", a place where heaven come together.
It is hard to explain, it is a feeling that overcomes you when you are there in it's midst.
It is a powerful place who's memory lives within you even after you leave.

Monday, March 30, 2015


After months of relentless snow and below average temperatures in New England  it is a feast for the eyes to see the green of spring in the Umbria countryside. Farmers are at work tilling their fields for warm weather crops. The small hamlet of Missioni, where I took this photo, is part of the larger Commune di Panicale, that is  charming and picturesque.

Here, in the town of Panicale, the green grocer has baskets of fresh local artichokes, which we are enjoying to their fullest. Artichoke lasagna is on our menu this week using fresh pasta, and pecorino cheese, all local of course! 
Umbrians are tenacious foragers. This time of year the treasure they seek is asparagi di bosco, a wild asparagus. This very thin and flavorful asparagus is most often served with eggs (or pasta) and is a typical Umbrian dish that is completely divine.
Early spring is filled with clear greens on rolling hills, almond trees in bloom, wild tulips in the fields and trees on the verge of leafing out.
We have been warmly greeted with hugs and kisses to welcome us 'home'.

What can I say......"  Panicale un piccolo paese,
in bella Umbria!*


* Panicale a small town in beautiful Umbria!

Sunday, March 15, 2015


James and I are often asked why we return to the same place when we go to Italy. The answer would center around a feeling of being at home when we are in Panicale.
It has much to do with the  kind and welcoming people of here. And clearly, for the food, the wine, friends and the art  bring us back year to year.
In other words, we are captivated by this place.

There it is, Panicale, rising up from the top of the hill, it's narrow streets follow a distinctive elliptical spiral layout from the main piazza up to the bell tower of the Podesta at the height of Panicale, where the view is out to Lake Trasimeno. The colors... you just do not find these colors on buildings in New England, this, my friends, is right out of a Medieval or even Renaissance painting.
 Walking through the streets, if one is observant they will see evidence that the Etruscans were here inhabiting this hill top .
Much later, sometime in 1300, Panicale was decreed a commune and a walled town established then and on into the Renaissance......but is a Medieval hill town, and one of the most beautiful in Umbria.

James and I walk through these complex arches several times each day since they are not far from our front door, stopping to sketch on occasion, but the perspective is challenging, to say the least. Talk about  finding the is evident all around.

 Not far down this street is Teatro Caporali.....Panicale boasts this charming teatro based on a grand opera house. I adore sitting in those little boxes ringing the theatre and listening to music or watching a performance. It' dream like!

The textures of Italy are so varied by the age they were constructed and the building materials that were available in the area, stone, brick, terracotta roof tiles, and stucco are all in evidence.  I find here that people use what is available locally and seasonally, it is an ethic as well as tradition.  As for food, if it is artichoke season, then we eat artichokes, if it is porcini season, then porcini mushrooms are on the table in some form.

Within the old wall of the town you will find small gardens everywhere, including hanging on walls.
There are homes that have outdoor spaces for eating, drying laundry and a garden, but space is tight, so residents here make use of every avaialble space. I  love peeking through gates and over fences at the hidden gardens where roses and wisteria spill over walls.


Spring is artichoke season....a great reason to visit Italy during these months!
Then there will be wild asparagus, and we hope that Katia brings us some this year again!
Strawberries, fave beans and peas will follow.
Umbria is agricultural, so most all this is grown right here. If you ask, was this grown here, they will apologize and say no, in Macchie ( which is the next town over)!

At the Tavernelle outdoor market, a Monday morning must, James is buying some very thin Sardinan bread and a salami. Believe me, if they had porchetta he would be buying that too! He will get that , the porchetta, back in Panicale at the macelleria.

We do most of our marketing right in Panicale.There is a greengrocer, bottega, macelleria and a forno.
Like most towns in Umbria, and most regions of Italy, each town has it's own small shops to do marketing. James and I love shopping like this, where we find ourselves going to the market just about everyday to buy what we need for that days meals. We can also practice our Italian, which the proprietors kindly help us with! They are very patient.

The town has a few good restaurants including our favorites - Masolino's  a old favorite of ours. There is also  the newer and good, Osteria Il Gallo Nel Pozzo .

Panicale sits high and looks over the Umbrian plain to Lago Trasimeno, the scene of a long ago battle of Hannibal over the Romans. That aside, this is a view I never grow tired of. Perugino would often put Lago Trasimeno in his distant landscape, when painting a Nativity, or a tribute to some Saint. There is a fresco  of St. Sebastian, by Perugino, in Panicale that includeds the lake as landscape. James uses this same landscape, "come Perugino" ( like Perugino) in his still life paintings with this exact Umbrian landscape.

It is evident that this is agricultural land with the patterns of crops and plowed fields.

These fields are ever changing as the spring progresses towards summer, at times they the rich green, other patches of field are bright yellow, and then come the red poppies! The lake can appear as a beautiful blue green, at times  a somber gray, and then shift to a nearly tropical green.

Now, time to is important here.
Thank goodness!

Pasta with Cinghiale ragu *

It's about 1:30 time to start thinking about sitting down for lunch. I cannot resist pasta, here a bowl of handmade pasta with cinghiale ( wild boar) ragu at Il Casale, just outside the neighboring town of Paciano. A favorite lunch place.....plan for a long relaxed lunch here, and on a nice day, sit outside.

OK. Here is a big reason why we return to Panicale......Bar Gallo, also known as 'Aldo's'.
It is owned and run by Aldo and Daniele, and each morning we begin the day with," Buongiorno Daniele, Ciao Aldo, " and they respond in kind, then we ask for....
"due cappuccini , per favore!"

Bar Gallo is the heart of Panicale, everyone goes here for caffe, later for a light bite and prosecco and before dinner an apertivo. Aldo and Daniele know the area and  has offered us good advice on places to go to draw/ paint,  out of the way, offbeat places that we would have not found ourselves. Aldo has also given us great tips on places to Il Casale.

Great signage!

A good landscape to paint.

ci vediamo a presto!

See you soon!
Beautiful Panicale.

* My thanks to Debbie D. for the  great photo of the bowl of pasta, and thanks to Jim M. for ordering it and his patience in allowing the photo to be taken before he took his first bite!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


 Montefalco is old. Old not in the sense of  deterioration or frailty, but old in its earned stature of having a long history predating the time in the early Middle Ages when it was known as Coccorone, continuing through Roman occupation when in 1249 it was sacked by Frederick II.  The town was rebuilt and in the 13th Century became a free commune, until it came under Papal rule in 1449, where it continued until recent history with the unification of Italy in 1861.

Montefalco is often referred to as "the balcony of Umbria" having beautiful views across the Umbrian plain. Walking through the narrow stone streets of the town you are easily transported back to the Medieval days, where one can imagine life as it was then lived. In fact, Umbrian hill towns all attest to a similar history and endurance. Much has happened here over the centuries, and as you spend time here you get a sense of that continuing longevity and in part a testament to why Italy is so beguiling. Italy envelops you.

We came to Montefalco for three things, art, food and wine.The Church of San Francesco dates to 1335, and has an important fresco cycle painted by Benozzo Gozzoli . Gozzoli was commissioned to paint a fresco cycle of  the Life of St. Francis. He painted this from 1450-52, in a narrative of 19 significant events from his life, beginning with his birth.
Here in this chapel we are alone. This fresco cycle painted with the masterful hand and carefully composed narration of the life of St. Francis by Gozzoli brings us from Medieval into the Renaissance.

Just a note....The Church of San Francesco ( deconsecrated)  is now operated by the town and is
 called Museo Civico San Francesco.

In the above panel Gozzoli  portrays, for the first time St. Francis wearing the familiar brown habit with the rope belt, signifying his devotion and call to a life of poverty, having given up a life of wealth. It is here in this panel the narrative shows us St. Francis meeting St. Dominic  (1215) in Rome. It is said to be Rome due to the obelisk's depiction in the painting. For anyone who has visited Rome, you know that obelisks are all over the place!

Gozzoli uses the architecture (of the Renaissance) along with the figures not only to convey the story of St. Francis, but to create composition. He is incorporating perspective, line, and color to make this fresco cycle visually exciting.

There is one panel depicting St. Francis' Blessing of the Birds ( no photo, sorry), where Gozzoli places St. Francis in an Umbrian landscape and in the distance is Monte Subasio,  the Monastery at Assisi, Montefalco and the small village of Bevagna. I did not count, but was told that there are 13 kinds of birds in this panel including a swan, pheasant, raven , thrush and of course, the ever present magpie.

Piertro Perugino ( Pietro Vannucci)
The Nativity, 1503

The Church of San Francesco also has a fresco by Umbrian painter, Il Perugino.
Perugino is Umbria's "favorite son", I guess that's fair to say. Here The Nativity is painted with an Umbrian landscape in the background that is centered on Lake Trasimeno. The familiar Lake Trasimeno is often seen in a Perugino painting and it is the view that James and I see from Panicale.

The Nativity ( detail)


Time for lunch. When we mentioned we were going over to Montefalco for the day it was unanimous by all that we should have lunch at L'Alchemista.  We had a leisurely lunch and the food was excellent, so much so that I did not take any photos ( at least I will blame it on that). We were with friends so we were probably just talking too much, and eating to remember pictures! L'Alchemista goes on our list of places to return to. We each had a glass of a different Sangrantino, a unique and splendid local red wine. This being an enoteca, James selected a bottle to take back to the house to have some evening with dinner.
Somehow our day trips to see art always end up with a good lunch included.

Selection, yes...... a good selection and the proprietors are happy to assist with a recommendation, if you'd like.

After lunch we walked around town. There is a linen shop, Pardi, on the Corso Mameli, that I wanted to stop into
 but it was still closed for the afternoon. Next time.

The last stop we decided to make while in Montefalco was to a vineyard.  That morning,while James and I were having cappuccino at Bar Gallo, both Aldo and Daniela suggested
 we visited Arnaldo Caprai vineyard. 

Here we learned more about Sagrantino wine. We knew that it was once considered a religious or sacramental, contemplative wine, but we also found that the story goes that...
 Pliny the Elder, 1st century aC wrote in his texts of the Itriola grape, the one that Sagrantino is made from, likely originating from Asia Minor and transported here by Pilgrims.
Now that's pretty old!

We drink Sagrantino when we are in Italy due to the fact that the production is small, and not widely available outside Italy. This is an Umbrian wine and only a handful towns  that include Montefalco, Bevegna and Spello can grow and produce Sagrantino. Often it is Sagrantino Rosso that we buy, but sometimes we will splurge on a bottle of Montefalco di Sagrantino, and for a bigger splurge a bottle of Sagrantino Passito. Passito was the first Sagrantino I tried when several years ago James had read about it and bought a bottle. It was completely heavenly.

The Umbrian landscape from Caprai vineyard......stunning.

Bella Umbria.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Baroque Splendor in Rome : Chiesa Sant' Ignazio


When I think of the Renaissance, I think of Florence. Rome brings to mind the ancient world and the Baroque. The Chiesa Sant' Ignazio Loyola is a triumph of Baroque architecture and art and to it say pulls out all the stops does not even begin to explain its grandeur. I question whether there is a square  inch of space in the interior that is not carved, gilded, painted or decorated in some fashion. The scale of the interior is monumental, yet it is not heavy in feel, rather it is uplifting. At times these large churches and cathedrals are designed to dominate us with their imposing size and power, but I never feel that here, rather, I am mesmerized by the frescoed ceiling.
James took the above photo of the interior and if you look hard you will see a lone figure, that's me standing in the center aisle under Pozzo's 'dome'. And, by the way, this is Rome, where are the crowds?

The soaring  frescoed ceiling of the nave and apse of Sant'Ignazio  are a masterpiece of perspective
by the artist Andrea Pozzo.  Standing directly beneath it you see it from one point of view, walk to the center of he church aisle, turn and walk slowly back to the point beneath it, you will see that it changes.  Note the painted corner columns and the figures, as you draw closer , the artist is manipulating what we see with his use of perspective and cast shadows. It is stunning....and hurts the brain a little!

 Clouds and sky appear as you stand below. The figures seemingly continue to ascend beyond the confines of the physical building. Just look at everyone flying around, there is nothing static here, it's wild and without restraint.

The Jesuit church was designed by a jesuit mathematician Orazio Grassi  ( with Carlo Maderno) in 1626 to celebrate the canonization of Sant'Ignatius Loyola. Artist Andrea Pozzo was commissioned to paint The Triumph of St. Ignatius on the ceiling of the church, as well as paint a trompe l'oeil  cupola and dome, for funds had run out to construct a dome. Again, like Pozzo's fresco, the dome is a remarkable example of trompe l'oeil, or fool the eye. The dome is painted on flat canvas that is 17m across. From given points of view, a three dimensional interior of a dome comes into being, walk away and peer back and it collapses.
How did he do this???
No need for 3-D glasses here, it's all for the naked eye to see.

At times it is difficult to separate reality from painting. This is Baroque theatre at some of its finest, although Rome does offer many opportunities to witness Baroque splendor and drama, this remains on our list of must see Baroque churches, although there are a few others that tromp this one, but I will save those for another post. A hint though....Bernini and Borromini are the architects.

Back to the story... In comparison to Sant' Ignazio is The Gesu, also a Jesuit church which provides similar theatre, and is not too far from Sant' Ignazio. The Baroque is always pushing outside of the confines of a frame or here the confines or walls and ceiling, it knows no bounds.

The angel ( in red) appears to be suspended in air, and I suppose with wings that is possible, yet one foot rests on a wall.... or appears to anyway. This is a 3-D mind teaser. It is hard to remember this is all paint and we are at the mercy of this playful artists hand - where does the real stop  and the art begin. It can be quite perplexing and all the while astonishing.

Then, when you just cannot look up any longer, step out the front doors and into the Piazza di Sant' Ignazio for a continuation of Baroque theatre.

James and I both agree that this is one of our favorite piazzas in Rome, The Baroque-Rocco buildings were also commissioned by the Jesuits about one hundred years after the church. They are elegant with their convex and concave facades creating visual movement. Again, the Baroque is always a lively dance.

All this is a terrific experience, but our necks ache from all the looking up and our brains are full from thinking about Pozzo's mind-boggling use of perspective games. Is it time to sit down for coffee,James say yes!
Caffe Sant' Eustachio is close by. Ready to eat? Armando al Pantheon is probably out since we didn't reserve. A coffee first, then a walk over to Orso 80 for antipasti. or better yet, some quick shopping at Campo dei Fiori market and head home for lunch. Perfect!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Postcard From New Hampshire

Mid January can be really dreary. There are days when the cloud cover creates a gray landscape without a hint of color to delight our eyes.
But, there are days, usually cold, that the clarity of the azure blue skies allows the sun to shine brightly down to the earth adding color to the landscape. These are the days, that despite the cold, are beautiful with the sun low in the sky, the trees cast long blue violet shadows across the light snow cover.
Soon the apple trees will be pruned in preparation for the spring blossoms and late summer apples.

Best wishes everyone as we look to spring.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year 2015 ... from New Hampshire

May the New Year bring joy, good health, peace, and prosperity to all.
Thank you for following along with us here at home in New Hampshire and our adopted "home" of Panicale, Italy, in our search for art, food, wine and gardens on both sides of the ocean.