A rental car, and we are off to Deruta and Montefalco

(29 May: I’ve been a hosting friends again here in Spello, and now I have a break when I can get some time to catch up on the blogs. Unfortunately, the old blog about leaving for home last November confused some people, who have written me welcoming me back. I’m in Spello still, and SO behind on the blogs with the arrival of painters, guests, and life in general—but more blogs are coming in the next few days.

The earthquake in Emilia-Romagna, near Bologna, was more than a week ago, and I was nowhere near the epicenter. In fact, I was in Cinque Terre with a friend from Sacramento, hiking the mountains with her and Pall as much as my creaky body would allow. The painters arrived the day after I returned from a week away, and then the dear Romanian painter brothers didn’t bother with the drop cloths I had purchased for them—so I was cleaning the tile and grout for many hours (and my nice indoor ladder is next), and plotting their premeditated and justifiable murders. Once the floors were cleaned and the furniture pushed back into place, my last guest arrived from Vicenza. So—now my “normal” life here is returning, until the next guests arrive in 10 days. Time to get writing again!)

10 April, Dolores in Deruta

After a couple of trips by train, it was finally the time to rent a car and get “out” into Umbria. Dolores and I caught the train to Foligno, where I expected to walk into the AVIS office and get another good deal from Barbara, but found her replacement, instead—who had never seen me before. No deals, and no reservation—so we got the last car that was available, a Ford Kuga (“cougar?”) that was a big SUV. Both Dolores and I struggled to find the way to back the car off the sidewalk, in reverse gear, where the agent had parked it for the damage walk-around, but mere inches from the building (not all that unusual to find cars here parked on the sidewalks). I was imagining that first time using a clutch in six years, and hopping forward into the wall by accident. We finally figured out how to shift into reverse, and were soon off to Deruta on the highway—if you don’t count getting a bit lost in Foligno. (Being a back seat passenger all the time with Leonardo driving, I recognize places where I have been, but never had to navigate before. It sure makes a difference to suddenly be the driver!)

In a small shop here in Spello, Dolores had found some salad plates whose designs interested her, and we had been invited to go see the larger selection at the main store in Deruta. We hit the superstrada, and headed north toward Perugia, following the highway signs and some of the instructions we had been given. Soon, we were heading for the “centro storico,” the historic city center, and I finally found familiar territory that I had seen several times with Paola and Leonardo. We parked, headed for the public toilet before entering the city gate, and began exploring the village, the hand-painted ceramics, and the artists who have made Deruta a world-famous center for ceramic fine art.

Outside the Deruta city wall, a welcome sign for Dolores

This must be the world's most elegant indication of a public bathroom--a hand-painted ceramic tile

The exterior wall gives no advance warning about the beautiful ceramics that are everywhere in Deruta, attached on walls, pouring out of shop doors onto the surrounding pavement, and stacked high inside each shop. Two photographers don’t make much progress, in such a “target-rich environment,” but we slowly found our way to the main square, and the many small ceramics shops that surround the small area. I pulled Dolores into the very first shop, where an artist worked on some repairs to a “portombrella” (an umbrella stand that had been chipped by the owner and had seen some hard use), retouched to be fired again and conceal the damage. The artist was more than welcoming, and had no problem being photographed as she worked, surrounded by her glazes and her many specialized brushes. Just in case, Pope John Paul II (that would be “Giovanni Paolo II,” here) was watching from a poster over her shoulder. He is revered here in Italy—far above the current German Pope, who is hardly ever mentioned or celebrated.

Just inside the walls, painted ceramic tiles decorate the streets

A tile "painting" high on the wall inside the city gate

A ceramic Madonna and Child, with exacting detail and subtle shadings

Artist restoring an umbrella stand, filling in small chips and nicks

After wandering the square, and finding the salad plates that Dolores had decided to purchase, we went exploring down some of the secondary streets, finding the Ceramics Museum. It featured two kilns that were once Etruscan, and was decorated with a rough “mosaic” of broken shards of glazed pottery—some of which were centuries old, and had been discovered and excavated here near the old kilns.

Mosaic wall of the Ceramics Museum and ancient kilns

Old and new shards combined for the Museum wall

In each shop, the resident artist was busy producing more ceramic pieces, and each artist had a unique style and palette of colors. This one had a huge collection of tiles with animals drawn on each one—making me wish I’d had time to use some of them when I was building my kitchen. Of course, I would also have needed a winning lottery ticket to afford the cost of hand-painted tiles. Here, he was working on a woman’s face in the middle of a small bowl, with a delicate and fine brush that seemed to have only a few hairs.

Delicate brush to paint the features of a woman's face

One hand steadies the other for fine brush strokes

Partners with the shop whose salad plates here in Spello caught Dolores’ eye, this was the main shop of Domiziani, manufacturers of concrete tabletops, which are then painted with ceramic glazes and fired. These are examples of their beautiful and varied designs, which would cost a fortune to ship to the U.S. from Deruta.

Concrete tabletops, painted in brilliant ceramic glazes for outdoor use

I struck up a conversation with a man painting country scenes on his ceramics, like the classic white roads lined with cypress trees, leading to the amber villa in the distance, and surrounded by fields dotted with red poppies in bloom. His work was rather coarse, I thought, but some of his pieces caught my eye. His wife, Miriam, was the painter of the ones I liked, and he pointed out her shop to us, near the church doors (we had missed it, and were leaving).  When we went back to see Miriam, she was painting a small bowl, and explained to us the color changes when the pieces are fired at high temperatures, rendering dull colors bright. She is able to produce only two pieces per day, with all of the intricate painting and design features that are her signature, but we were fascinated, and she was happy to talk to us. Dolores bought several small pieces, and I could not leave without finding a small oval bowl, for myself. Her prices are justifiably high, but her work is worth the price, and I plan on buying more of her pieces when I return to Deruta again.

Dolores and I locate Miriam, and stay to watch her paint

The first piece of my "Miriam Collection," on my dresser here

We pulled out the map again, and headed for Montefalco for a chance to let Dolores try the sagrantino wine, a heavy red varietal wine made from the sagrantino grape, grown only here in this region, and aged in oak before bottling. The “Montefalco Rosso” is a blend of sagrantino, merlot and cabernet grapes, but the “Sagrantino” is 100% sagrantino, and is a wine meant to be laid down for several years of aging before being opened. On our way to Montefalco, with its distinctive water tower identifying it from a long distance away, we passed through some of the most beautiful countryside in Italy, green with the winter wheat nearing its maturity, with small villas dotting the landscape, too.

Winter wheat thriving from the recent rains, turning the valley green

In Montefalco, we parked outside the city wall and began our walk up to the square. Finding the tasting bar where I had visited years before now closed, we walked back down the hill and found a bar open, playing soft jazz music, and decided to order a glass of sagrantino for each of us, instead. With a plate of cheeses and some bruschetta on the side, the scene was set to give Dolores a taste of the wine for which Montefalco is famous. We enjoyed our respite from navigating in another language in unfamiliar territory, had a wonderful glass of wine and a hearty snack, and then headed back uphill to explore the main square.

Dolores in "Il Verziere," a great jazz bar where we stopped for sagrantino and appetizers

Great people, good jazz, and instruments of the world on the ceiling

In the hotel there at the main square, their lobby featured a small collection of modern art, including this pig table. It was made of cast iron, and appeared to be looking out the window onto the main square. Then, a second piece caught our attention: ceramic swimmers, all most certainly male, and each sporting a bright bathing cap—and nothing else. We were amused that this was in the hotel window, backs to the main square, and facing the lobby desk. Ten figures of nearly every body type but “six-pack abs and muscular” just made us smile, and the young lady at the desk was very pleased that we were there to see the art featured by her employer.

Cast iron pig and table, looking out on Montefalco's main square

Ten nude bathers, backs to the Montefalco square, greet hotel guests at the desk

On the way back to the car, and home to Spello, we passed this “chef” standing outside one of the small restaurants. On the blackboard in the shape of the wine bottle, it says, “Drive less, you have to DRINK!” On the chef’s belly, a generous one, it says, “Never trust a skinny cook.” For our afternoon destination, Montefalco was certainly not a disappointment, and we left to fire up the SUV and head back through incredible green landscapes, and across the Val d’Umbra to Spello, visible on the flank of Mount Subasio ahead in the distance.

A wise chef, with advice about drinking, driving and choosing a restaurant

1 comment to A rental car, and we are off to Deruta and Montefalco

  • konatel4

    I read these posts with delight. I would like to visit all 6 spots around Umbria. Will give me something to Google now and check distances and transport. I will return to Italy. But after a recent visit I realize I must learn some basic Italian..cheers from Liz Tasmania

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