Saturday, May 15, 2010
Stage 8: Umbria
Watching stage 7 and the announcer is saying they are on the strade bianche for the first time ever in the Giro. Strade bianche means "white roads" and what they are is dirt and gravel--the kind of surface you had when they held the Giro in those first few years, and paved roads were scarce in Italy. The first Giro d'Italia started on May 13, 1909, which is why last year's edition was called "il Centenario." It's muddy on the strade bianche, though, and in Tuscany the roads aren't white but a reddish brown. It's going to be tough for any riders who haven't raced on this surface. Some of these riders have cyclocross experience, which will come in handy. Cyclocross is like a cross between road biking, mountain biking and some kind of steeplechase. It from time to time involves getting off the bike and carrying it over obstacles. Today the course is like the cycling equivalent of clay courts in the rain. Except I think in tennis when it rains they don't play on clay courts. I could be wrong.
One thing's for sure, though, with this rain, every rider will end the day with a big muddy stripe on his butt. Fenders add weight, but today they could use some.
Tomorrow's stage takes the riders through many of the places I visited this past October. Umbria, with its hills and mountains, tiny lovely hill towns, each with its own churches, many of which have frescoes by the greats of the Renaissance. The dukes of Perugia, the capital city of Umbria, were in the Renaissance, the bloodthirsty Baglioni, who underwrote a gorgeous chapel in Spello, where there is this fabulous enoteca. The owner buttonholed us and poured for all 5 of us 3 glasses of the most amazing wine I've ever tasted. And out came the paper-thin slices of salumi and cheese. So delicious. Salumi is the Italian word for cured meats, and this includes the prosciuttos and the culatella, the bologna, the mortadella, and the filetto di cinghiale--a cured loin of wild boar. Sliced thin it is ruby red and transparent, and so so good!
No, you can't buy it in the USA. But if you go to Umbria, take a side trip away from the more usual sites like Assisi and Perugia and go to Norcia, which is famous for having the best pork butchers in all of Italy. The main drag is lined by shops selling cured pork, black truffles, cheese, wine, lentils, and pasta, and you can sample many many kinds of cured meat, some you won't find anywhere else, even in Italy. In Umbria they have truffles year round. In early fall they still have the summer variety, which is much less expensive than the more aromatic winter kind.
And don't forget, outside of Norcia, each village has its own kinds of cheeses and meats. We once went to Orvieto, which is a great city to visit because it's next to a train station, and the train will take you to Rome in only about an hour. Orvieto has a great history and was a refuge for the Pope, Clement VII, I believe, when Rome was sacked in 1527 by Protestant troops. The Pope ruled from Orvieto, and sponsored public works, including the building of a deep well of St. Patrick so he could have good drinking water. Orvieto is on the flat toop of a mesa and was an Etruscan town conquered brutally by the Romans, who relocated all of the villagers to another town. But the filetto di cinghiale we brought back from this place! It lasted maybe 4 days because we couldn't stop eating it! Smokey, delicate, lean, flavorful. The wild boar wander the hills around Orvieto eating the plentiful hazelnuts. What a place! Umbria is like grown-up foodie Candyland.
And the wine. Montefalco is another small hill town right in the alluvial plain in the center of the region. It's famous for a kind of wine called Sagrantino, which is a unique variety of grape only grown in this region. You can pay about $40 for a half-bottle at Joan's on Third here in L.A., but when we were there, we found we prefered a blend of Sagrantino and Montefalco rosso. Sagrantino tastes a bit like Syrah, but it's sweeter and more minerally, so blending it with what I suspect is our friend Nebbiolo smooths it out and brings out its best characteristics.
In Norcia we had a plate of sliced salumi and it had maybe 9 different kinds of meats, including head cheese, which I actually liked! I always like the weird stuff. Why is that? Norcia is a gorgeous town--it was a Roman country village where Cicero had a home, and where Virgil's family came from. It would be a great place to spend a week in winter. You can ski around there, and then hang out eating meat and cheese and drinking wine by an ancient fireplace. Saint Benedict was born here.
So many places I could talk about near tomorrow's stage, but finally, it goes by the Cascate delle Marmore, which is a Roman-built waterfall. The technology still works, and they turn the waterfall off on Mondays, which was too bad, because that was the day we tried to visit in October, but we were on our way to Poggio Bustone because I wanted to paraglide over the beautiful lakes and valleys on my birthday week. And I did. I can't even describe what that was like. Stepping off the mountain and into the void, feeling feather-light, like a lot of dreams I've had.
Ahhh Umbria. I must say, I'm a little verklempt.
Viva il Giro! Viva Italia!
Look at Cadel Evans' face all covered with mud! Today's stage is brutal! It's going to be a big game changer because Nibali crashed with no team car in sight! And will they ever wash all the mud out of that pink jersey?