Friends Pall and Birgit were in Spello in late August, staying in my house, and spent time with Paola and Leonardo while they were here. Part of their time together was spent convincing Paola and Leonardo to bring me and come to Cinque Terre for a visit. We picked dates in October that worked for all of us, and Pall booked us a two-bedroom apartment in Riomaggiore. All was set—and Leonardo bought new shoes, some new “trekking” pants, and made arrangements to leave the Fratello Sole B&B behind for three days. On our last day before departing, we checked the weather—and discovered that there were heavy downpours predicted for each of the three days that we were planning to be in Cinque Terre (after driving almost five hours from Spello by car). We called Pall, and reluctantly cancelled—VERY reluctantly. There were some sad long faces around here, but what were we to do there in weather that would have kept us indoors, and probably would have prevented the village-to-village boat from operating in high seas? We cancelled our plans.
Good thing we did! Those three days of heavy rains brought serious flooding to Genova as the river overflowed, just three years after the last disastrous flood in October 2011. At the same time as the earlier floods, Pall was here in Spello when he received a call telling him about serious landslides that took Vernazza and Monterosso out, killed 11 people, and destroyed the remaining main trails between the Cinque Terre villages. In Liguria, when severe thunderstorms hit those steep, terraced mountains, rain can come down in torrents, and the terraces and riverbanks cannot hold it back from the towns downhill and downstream. Instead, here in Umbria three very disappointed travelers (who had made the right decision when we had chosen to cancel our trip) decided to put Leonardo’s new shoes to work, and did some trekking on our own in warm sunshine all the way (we had sunny, warm weather all of that week here in Umbria, hundreds of miles further south).
We set out in the morning for a long walk, about half the distance to nearby Assisi. Up the steeper trails on Mount Subasio we went, accompanied by their daughter Giorgia’s dog, Joe Cocker. Paola and I are accustomed to doing these hikes, but Leonardo never joins us. This time, though, he was still upset at having to cancel our plans to hike, and he came along. We headed higher and higher up the side of Mount Subasio, into the wooded areas that flank the mountain, trying to keep the dog from running away off-leash. While the weather was still warm, the first bits of fall color were appearing in the woods, and many of the last wildflowers of the season were still present.
No street here is complete without a small shrine to the Madonna, and we passed several as we walked along. Finally, on our return, we joined up to the road through the olive trees that connects Assisi and Spello, and came to “La Madonnina” that marks a fork in the road. It is our usual destination on afternoon and evening walks from Spello, but we had hiked far beyond this point, and passed it while coming back home. It is always decorated with many crucifixes, as well as candles and flowers. None of the many small shrines here seem to be neglected—they always have flowers, rosaries, and are kept clean of debris and leaves by someone who makes certain that they never appear abandoned.
We headed back through the last portion of the olive groves—site of a true tragedy for this region. Because of a very warm winter, and a serious hailstorm following the pollination of the olive blossoms, and then warm, rainy weather all spring and summer, a fly has attacked nearly all of the olive trees in Umbria and Tuscany. The heavy hail knocked off many of the pollinated blossoms, and then the fly arrived and invaded the trees, leaving eggs that hatched into larvae inside the growing olives. As the larvae (“vermi” here, literally the word for “worms”) ate the flesh of the olives, the olives finally shriveled and dropped from the trees, leaving nothing behind to harvest for olive oil. Not only do most people here have olive trees on the mountain to produce olive oil for their own household use, but they also sell the excess oil to replenish their savings. Olive oil is the true backbone of the economy of Spello, for everyone. Some have done test olive pressings—if they could find enough olives to harvest—and the oil was a deep brown and was discarded. The frantoi (where the olives are processed) are shutting down this year with no olives to press, and the economy is really going to suffer from the lack of income from selling the oil production. People here are searching for oil to purchase—for their own household use—and this is a financial disaster for the entire region and its olive oil industry.
We walked back through the upper city walls of Spello, passing a group of cyclists who were just arriving after a long guided ride from Assisi over the top of Mount Subasio. We see these groups often, gathering in the small children’s park in Piazza Vallegloria, and they cluster around the buffet lunch that awaits their arrival, with bottles of wine and water keeping cool on a nearby fountain, which is fed by spring water from Mount Subasio.
We did get in some trekking, but not with Birgit and Pall (Trekguyd.com), and not with the seaside panoramas and the fresh seafood and friends Birgit and Pall, that we had expected to enjoy in Cinque Terre. We absolutely made the right call, staying out of the area that was flooded with heavy rains in the days that we would have been there, and we’ll just have to try again another time to get Paola and Leonardo OUT of Spello and on a vacation, hosted by Pall and Birgit in Riomaggiore.