We followed our friends to our rental car at the beginning our short vacation together, feeling a palpable sense of freedom and relaxation. The source of our contentment was easy to pinpoint: we weren’t in charge. While we had all chosen the destination and lodging together, another couple had rented the car and they would be doing the driving and navigating. As Paul and I climbed into the far back seats of the rented van, we felt as much like privileged children under the care of doting parents as any middle-aged people possibly could. We were so unburdened by responsibility that we were practically giddy.
All of which leads me to tell you about Francis Surman.
I always offer to help our guests plan their trips, and I’m happy when they accept some help. And when my friend Katie accepted my offer, I was thrilled.
Katie had agreed to act as her traveling party’s activities director, and they hit the jackpot when they assigned her to the role. She read everything I sent her, pored over this blog and Rocca di Benano’s Pinterest Board (which is sort of ironic, since she was the one who taught me the wonders of Pinterest), then drafted an itinerary that we worked on together.
Here’s the itinerary Katie has proposed for her group. Although there’s not one agenda that will work for everyone, this is one great way to spend a week at Rocca di Benano.
Read to the end to see just how good Katie is. (Hint: she even researched gelato!)
DAY 1 (Friday) — ARRIVE IN ROME
Francis Surman will meet us at the airport and take us to Hotel la Residenza (€130/night). Take a hop on/hop off double decker bus tour of Rome and/or stroll around the neighborhood. Villa Borghese park, Spanish Steps, and Piazza del Popolo are all within easy walking distance.
DAY 2 (Saturday) — MEANDER FROM ROME TO BENANO
Francis Surman will pick us up at the hotel and take us to Benano, touring along the way, including a stop in Orvieto to pick up the rental car.
DAY 3 (Sunday) — AGRITURISMO PULICARO & LAKE BOLSENA
Brunch and farm tour at Il Pulicaro (10 minutes from Benano), then …
… Lake Bolsena and town of Bolsena (1/2 hour from Benano), then …
Dinner: Either stop on the way back from Bolsena at Ristorante-Pizzeria “L Pignatto” in San Lorenzo Nuovo or make dinner for ourselves eat at the villa.
DAY 4 (Monday) — CIVITA DI BAGNOREGIO & ORVIETO
… on to Orvieto (35 minutes from Civita; 18 from Benano), then …
Dinner: Ristorante Zeppelin in Orvieto
DAY 5 (Tuesday) — TUSCANY
Cross over into Tuscany and take Via Cassia up toward Pienza. Other stops could include Bagno Vignoni (hot springs); Montalcino (Brunello!); Sant’Antimo Abbey (check schedule for Gregorian chants); Monticchiello (maybe lunch on the terrace at La Porta?). Dinner options: in Montepulciano (perhaps A Gambe di Gatto?); in Orvieto on way home if we take the freeway back; or at the villa.
DAY 6 (Wednesday) — FLORENCE
Catch an early train to get to there before 10. Spend the day touring Florence. Either stay for dinner there and take a late train back or eat in Orvieto near the train station (Ristorante Trattoria da Valerio or Trattoria da Dina).
DAY 8 (Friday) — FINAL DAY AT BENANO
Lazy day near Benano, including (maybe):
- a long walk through the vineyards and olive orchards right around the villa;
- walk over to Viceno for a caffè at the bar there and a pottery demonstration;
- last visit to Visit Castel Viscardo (the market comes to Castel Viscardo on Fridays);
- last stroll around the castle in Torre Alfina.
Dinner option: Hire Alex to barbecue for us at the villa.
DAYS 9 – 12 (Saturday – Tuesday) — LEAVE BENANO / RETURN TO ROME / DEPART FOR HOME
Return rental cars, then Francis will drive us to Hotel Due Torri (€147-190/night) in Rome, touring and lunching along the way). While in Rome, take in dinner at Il Bacaro one night and at Osteria del Pegno another. Tour the Colosseum, Vatican, and go on a Rome Food tour.
There’s something else you should know about this extensively researched itinerary: Katie found the most highly acclaimed gelaterias almost everywhere they’re planning to go. Here are some of the gelataterias they’re hoping to visit:
Torre Alfina: Sarchioni’s
Bolsena: Gelateria Santa Cristina
Orvieto: La Musa, on the lower end of the Corso (the main shopping street) and Gelateria Pasqualetti. There are two Pasqualetti locations: one is on Piazza del Duomo and the other is at the corner of Via del Duomo and the Corso.
Many thanks to our good friends Kris and Ellen for visiting Benano — and special thanks to Kris for writing this post about our visit with Chef Lorenzo at Ristorante Zeppelin in Orvieto:
If I were to write a book about our recent visit with good friend Karen Smith, I’d call it “Eat, Pray, Cook.” Forget the Julia Roberts movie and bestselling book. Cooking is love when you have delicious fresh ingredients, a beautiful setting, a fabulous friend and family, lots of laughter and a charming cooking instructor. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Last month, for our daughter’s 13th birthday, we paid a long overdue visit to Italy to sample la dolce vita. As part of the trip, Ellen and I traveled to the medieval hill town of Orvieto to rendezvous with forever friend Karen, with whom I had worked many years ago in Cincinnati. Karen had urged us to spend a few days in her version of heaven on earth in nearby Benano. We left the planning to her and had no idea what fun awaited us.
In addition to all the beauty that is Umbria – rolling olive groves, twisting roads that lead to everywhere and nowhere, sprawling vistas with skies and mountains that look beautiful in both rain and sunshine — Ellen and I were treated to a wonderful day in Orvieto as students of Chef Lorenzo Polegri. Karen has known him for many years and recommended we forgo the cooking class I’d found in Florence to experience Chef Lorenzo’s instead. Let me assure you, she knows her recommendations.
Our class started with an early morning trip to the open air market, where Chef Lorenzo introduced us to local merchants and explained the difference between various cuts of meat, types of cheese, varieties of vegetables – what an education!
His energy was contagious, and despite the cold, we were engaged (and engorged!) by the time we arrived back at his wonderful restaurant, Ristorante Zeppelin, for the instructional portion of our “class.”
In a kitchen stocked with every ingredient you could dream of, all the right tools and utensils, and culinary students to clean up afterwards (who knew how great this could be?), we developed a menu and started our tasks at hand. Lovely Lorenzo, with his delightful sense of humor and near perfect English, enthusiastically explained how to prepare artichokes for breading and frying (one more thing off my bucket list).
He and Ellen then settled in to make a sensational salad, focaccia and pasta and a delicious citrus custard. Eggplants were stacked and drizzled with delicious sauces created impromptu by all of us as we toasted, tasted, tested and revised.
Who needs a recipe when you can go with your gut, Chef explained. Don’t get hung up with too many rules when you cook. Do what feels right and tastes good. And believe me, everything tasted good. Truly everything.
Ellen enjoyed the pasta prep most, I think, but was also impressed that some of our food was actually served to lunch guests at the restaurant.
She felt so grown up in her white chef’s apron and well-appointed kitchen. She passed on the Prosecco poured for us as mealtime approached but was in a celebratory mood for sure – and so were Karen and I. We toasted each other, Chef Lorenzo and the chance to savor the flavors and experience of cooking, learning and enjoying each other in such a fun-filled way.
I was so moved by the experience that en route home to the U.S. I read Chef’s new book, The Etruscan Chef, from cover-to-cover. As much a memoir as a cookbook, it evoked memories from our trip and our day with Lorenzo. It features recollections of how he learned to make umbrichelli as a young boy and offered recipes for focaccia and many other taste treats that will no doubt remind us of our time together every time we prepare them.
I encourage anyone who is considering a trip to Italy to head straight to Umbria and make good friends with Karen and Chef Lorenzo. There’s so much that’s special about them and what they do there.
For a pleasant day trip from Benano, I’m always happy to take a drive around Lake Bolsena. There are any number of wonderful ways to circumnavigate the lake. Here’s a description of how Paul and I did it a couple of years ago, and the map below shows how Lynn and I did it most recently:
We started in Tuscania, just south of Lake Bolsena and about an hour’s drive from Benano. We parked easily in the lot outside the old city gates and walked around the lovely city center with Jim Flege, the cousin of a Cincinnati friend. Jim lives in Tuscania (lucky man!) and is a terrific tour guide (lucky us!).
There are stunning views of the valley and ancient sites across the valley. These ruins mark the site of the original village that dates back to Etruscan times. The city center moved several times over the centuries to its current location.
We had lunch at Da Alfreda, a small local restaurant near the elevated park. The food was very good and reasonably priced. There is outdoor seating just waiting for the weather to improve.
After lunch, we wandered more of the city’s small streets and quaint alleys without any real chance of getting lost. We love the city, and I know I’ll come back. I hope to visit Jim again, and would heartily recommend the small rental apartment in their house to any Tuscania-bound travelers.
Leaving Tuscania, we headed back to the lake and drove east along the shore. We stopped a few times for photo ops. There are beautiful views of the lake, the islands in the lake, and the surrounding valleys.
Our next stop was Montefiascone, which is on the Via Francigena, the ancient route faithful pilgrims took to get to Rome. What a beautiful town this is! What a setting! What history! The Fortress of the Pope, dating to the 1400’s, is at the top of the hill, and there are great views of a beautiful Duomo from up there.
The very steep center of town is a good place to wander in admiration of ancient architecture while observing the locals going about their daily business.
It would make perfect sense, itinerary-wise, to head straight back to Benano through Castel Giorgio. We didn’t do that, though, because we had a date with the Rome Philharmonic in Orvieto’s glorious Duomo. Uto Ughi was the soloist / conductor of the beautiful concert. But who am I kidding? That explanation is just an excuse to post this photo, taken just before the concert began: