Snapshots from a Summer Holiday (Part 1): Siena, Bolsena, Orvieto and Pitigliano

In Italy, the month of August means three things: intense, unrelenting heat; putting chiuso per ferie (‘closed for holidays’) signs on the doors of shops and small businesses because it’s impossible to work; and, escaping to a seaside town or the mountains to cool down and relax. This month-long holiday period is a tradition that goes back to 18 BCE, when the Emperor Augustus introduced Feriae Augusti. Grape and grain harvest festivals such as Vinalia rustica, Nemoralia and Consualia also took place in the same month and Augustus’ Feriae Augusti effectively extended the August rest period, referred to as the Augustali, after much intense labour in the fields. As part of the celebrations, oxen and mules were relieved of their burdens and decorated with flowers. Horse races were also held. In fact, Siena’s Palio, which takes on the 16th August, has its origins in these festivities. After Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire, the pagan festival of Feriae Augusti was adopted to mark the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, celebrated on the 15th August and now best known as Ferragosto.

The modern ritual of going to seaside or mountain resorts in August arose during the Fascist era. Discounted train tickets which permitted travel from the 13th to the 15th August were made available by the regime’s leisure and recreational organisations. These state-subsidised trips provided many Italians with their first glimpse of the sea and other previously-distant locales along the peninsula. During the post-war period, companies in the rapidly-industrialising country began taking a leaf out of the Emperor Augustus’ book and enforced a period of rest by closing their offices and factories for the entire month. Increasing car ownership in the 1960s fuelled the seaside tourism boom. Entire households were cramped into those impossibly-tiny Fiat 500s and went to the nearest stretch of coast for the month. Inland cities with industrially-based economies like Turin were reduced to ghost towns.

The exodus continues to this day, albeit on a slightly less biblical scale. Turin and other parts of Italy are post-industrial now and, these days, it’s only the small, family-run businesses which close for the whole month. However, many other companies and the self-employed do find that they have shut up shop or at least scale back their activities for the two weeks enveloping the 15th August, simply because there is little to no work/trade for them. Also, the low salaries and precarious work situations of unfortunately many people today mean that not everyone can afford to go away for a month (let alone a week) like was once done either. While there is definitely a clear drop in people in inland Turin during this time (TP says he perceives it most of all by how easy it is to find a parking spot), it is not quite the ghost town it was in the Augusts of yesteryear.

Anyway, as you may see from the title of this post, we didn’t head off to a coastal location for our holiday this month. And, it’s partly due to the fact that this year, for the first time since he started working there, TP’s workplace closed for those very two weeks sandwiching Ferragosto. We love swimming and the beach but we’re not crazy about navigating the inevitably large throngs of people that come at this time. Also, trying to claim a piece of the sand or pebble-lined shore to lay a towel or two on is far from relaxing. We therefore opted to base ourselves in inland locations that do not attract huge crowds in August, namely the northern shoreline of Lazio’s Lake Bolsena and the Majella National Park in mountainous Abruzzo (more about this gem of a region in Part 2. It deserves a post of its own!). And, I can’t say that we were disappointed with our choices. Here are some snapshots from the towns we visited on our way, along and near the dark volcanic sandlined shores of Lake Bolsena.

Siena

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We weren’t actually supposed to go to Siena. In the days leading up to our scheduled Saturday departure for Bolsena though, TP began to worry about that day’s predicted exodus from the cities to  the country’s popular holiday spots. Saturdays and Sundays in August are when you’re most likely to encounter the dreaded bollino nero on the country’s highways. And, as we learned on our way along the A14 to the Marche last summer, there’s nothing worse than travelling in the stifling heat and then being forced to come to a standstill for two plus hours because of a traffic jam or an accident. Trying to entertain and calm down an impatient toddler who can’t understand why we’ve suddenly stopped moving makes the ordeal all the more arduous. August hadn’t even arrived yet!

Anyway, we quickly dismissed the idea of leaving at 1 o’clock in the morning to avoid a repeat of last year’s misadventures. We departed on Friday and stopped over in Siena for the night instead. The result – minimal traffic on the roads, even at critical junctures like Genoa and the chance to savour Tuscan reds, vin santo and prosciutti. At last.  When we were last in the region, I was pregnant and unable to enjoy all these prodotti tipici. I made up for lost time by dunking way too many of the region’s signature cantucci biscuits in that aforementioned dessert wine with honey-like notes on the evening of our arrival. The much longed for prosciutto crudo toscano was savoured the next day, for lunch. TT, as predicted, couldn’t finish the enormous panino al prosciutto crudo the lovely people at De Miccoli insisted on making for her. Somehow, I managed to polish a good deal of TT’s leftovers, as well as my own equally enormous panino con porchetta.

Bolsena

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After filling our tummies in Siena for lunch, we crossed the Tuscany-Lazio border and drove south towards the town that would be our base for the week ahead, Bolsena.

Situated on the northeastern shoreline of a lake bearing the same name, Bolsena is best known for being the site of a miracle that is said to have taken place there in 1263. The story goes that a Bohemian priest was on his way back from a pilgrimage to Rome and stopped at the church of St. Christina in Bolsena. While celebrating mass above the tomb of St. Christina, communion bread began to bleed onto a corporal. Relics from the miracle were then brought to cathedral of nearby Orvieto (more about this town further on in this post), where Pope Urban IV resided at the time. The stained corporal remains there to this day.

Many people in Italy seem to know the story surrounding the miracle of Bolsena well. The considerable charm of Lake Bolsena and the towns on its shoreline though remain relatively unknown to Italian holiday goers who generally prefer coastal locales, at least in summer. Some anecdotal evidence of the area being off the summer domestic tourist track; the majority of the guests at our lakeside agriturismo were from Germany and the UK, not Italy.

Of volcanic origins, the lake’s waters are clean and pristine, making it an ideal place for swimming. And swim is what we did, almost every day we were there. TT thoroughly enjoyed the child-friendly facilities and equipment on the shoreline adjacent to the agriturismo‘s sunflower fields, grapevines and olive groves. A bucket, a shovel and the lake’s coarse sands were more than enough to occupy her for extended periods.

Orvieto

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After two days dedicated entirely to lakeside sunbathing, we crossed yet another regional border (Lazio-Umbria) to visit the town with important historical ties to Bolsena. One of the highlights of the thirty minute drive to Orvieto was being able to admire it from a distance as we approached it. Built on a large and almost vertical butte of volcanic tufa rock, it is one of Italy’s most dramatically situated towns. A surprisingly quick funicular ride transported us from the valley below to the top of the chunk of tufo the old town sits on.

We only had a few hours to explore the town’s cobblestoned vicoli and tufa-built palazzi, but we loved what we saw. I was particularly taken by the woodcarved creations from the town’s Michelangeli workshop. TT took great pleasure in climbing up and down the town’s myriad staircases. Her parents, who constantly tried to seat her in an increasingly redundant stroller, a little less so. The lone disappointment – the entrance fee to enter the town’s cathedral. The 9 euro for the three of us to enter would not have broken the bank. We preferred though, in principle, not to pay to enter a place of worship. Hence, no photos of the cathedral’s interior and the relic from the Bolsena miracle.

The first truly outstanding restaurant meal of our trip, at Osteria delle Donne, was more than enough for us to get over our cathedral disappointment, not to mention recuperate after all that staircase climbing and toddler chasing. It was here that our education in the Tuscan Maremma, Umbria and Lazio’s answer to the twice-cooked biscuit, tozzetti, began. Just for the record, these are similar to the better-known cantucci and my Nonna’s piparelli, but are made with hazelnuts (of which there are plenty in nearby neighbouring Lazio) instead. Equally jaw-breaking, these biscotti also require a thorough dunking in vin santo. And, as usual, TT was unable to finish another generous portion of pasta al pomodoro the waitstaff served her. But, then again, she may have been full from a few nibbles of her mother’s antipasto – an assortment of crostini topped with liver and black summer truffle…

Pitigliano

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Ah, the jewel in the tufa crown. Visiting Pitigliano was without a doubt the highlight of our lakeside-based week. Thanks to some informative articles by Emiko Davies, I’d read about this town before, or at least about two sweets which have their origins there, sfratti and cinnamon-flavoured tozzetti. It seems though that I’d failed to take in her descriptions of the town itself, situated in the Tuscan Maremma. Too busy thinking with my stomach as usual. As we rounded a long succession of bends along the road leading up to the summit of that tufa cliff, we gasped at the sight of the medieval hamlet’s honey-hued parapets and arches which were drawing nearer and nearer.

For several centuries, Pitigliano was a frontier town between the Papal States and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. It became known as la piccola Gerusalemme (‘little Jerusalem’) for the Jewish community which resided there from the 1500s, after fleeing Counterreformation persecutions in Rome. The community was, by all reports, well-integrated and, during the Second World War, many of the town’s Jewish residents appear to have escaped capture by the occupying Nazi forces thanks in part to their Gentile neighbours and local partisans who hid them.

One of the Jews who evaded capture was Edda Servi Machlin, daughter of the town’s rabbi and author of The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews. Though few Jews remain in Pitigliano today (Servi Machlin herself emigrated to the United States in the 1950s), you can still find the sfratti and cinnamon-flavoured tozzetti – Jewish Pitiglianesi specialities – she wrote about in the Antico Forno del Ghetto, a bakery located next to the town’s recently restored synagogue.

And so our education in tozzetti continued in this stunning town. TT’s stair-climbing and stroller-evading too. Oh, and our toddler-chasing. Lunch at La chiave del paradiso put an end to that. I enjoyed yet another assortment of crostini, a quaint terracotta bowlful of acquacotta and a sublime visciole (sour cherry) jam and ricotta tart. And, of course, our meal would not have been complete without yet another large plateful of pasta (this time, handrolled Tuscan picial pomodoro for TT. This time, she actually came close to finishing it.

I can’t wait to go back. In the meantime, I’m back home in Turin, part of the late August counterexodus to the semi-deserted towns of the country’s interior and revisiting the landscapes we saw, and the food that we ate, through books, photographs and recipes. I look forward to sharing some recipes from this relatively undiscovered part of Italy – once the stomping ground of the ancient Etruscans – soon.

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