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Impressions of Umbria, Italy

Umbria is probably one of the least known and least visited regions in Italy. And that is a great pity, because nowhere is the authenticity so deeply baked into the character of the cities and villages, robust, at times mystical, invariably located on top of a majestic hill with an unimpeded view over the green plains and gently rolling landscapes of Umbria. A region of natural beauty, a region that had tremendous influence on culture and religion, with cities like Assisi, Perugia and Orvieto; a region also that connects the dots of history and gives material answers to the question what was before the Romans and what was after them: the traces of the Etruscan civilisation, present in these lands half a millennium before the Romans realised the power of their society; the awkward entanglement of the Umbrian free cities, caught in the middle of a vicious power struggle between the Holy Roman Empire of Frederick I and his Germanic descendants, and the Popes who often busied themselves more with territorial ambitions than with the exegesis and teachings of Christianity.

Pour yourself a glass of Sagrantino red wine, and wash down the little cuts of local salume and salsiccia, from Norcia, the best in Italy, lean back and discover Umbria.

Before visiting the place of your choice:

October 30th, 2016: the city of Norcia is at the epicentre of yet another earthquake, after already having been rocked heavily in August and twice four days ago. As by miracle nobody dies this day, because for fear everybody has been living and sleeping outside or in a car. In August 299 people have lost their lives in Norcia. In a similar seism in 1703, Norcia had lost 10,000 lives. Is 299 deaths little, then? No, and neither is the material loss which Norcia has suffered on this black day of October 30th, 2016. A visit to Norcia silences you, grabs you by the throat, indeed. No street, no alley, no church, no public building without damage, held together by steel support structures, or simply collapsed, converted to rubble in a matter of seconds. No, you won’t enter the Duomo Santa Maria Argentea, nor the 1555 Castellina residence of Norcia’s Papal Governors, these days. Like these and other historical treasures of Norcia’s architecture, the Gothic facade of the Basilica of Saint Benedict, born here in the year 480, is largely hidden behind a dense iron shield of scaffolds; of the Saint we only get to see a statue on a square. The 18th century Palazzo Passerini’s facade is disfigured by hastily sprayed ‘S’-signs, marking cracks in the walls. The collapsed roof of a house offers a silent warning that the mountain ridges at the horizon behind it, are more threatening than their coloured beauty gives away. Glued onto a door, a villain ‘unsafe’ notice disrespectfully condemns the 16th century Palazzo Tibaldeschi to an uncertain future. Entire alleys and streets are sealed off as inaccessible, ‘Zona Rossa’ they are called. Norcia is a place of tragedy and drama, but also a place of resilience, hope, willpower and strength. Life goes on! Emergency buildings have been erected outside the old town walls for shopkeepers who have lost their premises, on terraces people sip their ristretto coffee or enjoy an 'aperitivo' with a plate of cheese and ‘salumi’, the exquisite local cold cuts of pork and wild boar, only metres away from heavy scaffoldings, cranes and loud construction workers. When the evening falls over Norcia, the moon takes her place in the sky from behind the hills, shining its vale light; tomorrow the people of Norcia will wake up again to the stale smell of rubble and to the scaffolds, dubious symbol of both hope for reconstruction and painful memory. Visiting Norcia will for years to come remain a matter of absorbing and managing those strong and mixed emotions, rather than enjoying the arts and architectural beauty which must have been there, ... but are no longer.

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