Our friend and travelmate Brendon remembers a day at Rocca di Benano
We’ve been back from Benano for about a month now, and I’m still thinking every day about this wonderful, first trip to Italy. I’ve given up my afternoon coffee and replaced it with a shot of espresso, though I’ve been unable to find spremuta, the delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice that’s everywhere in Italy. I’m still trying to relax, and instead of running from meeting to meeting, I’m trying to talk to people with a more Italian-style, less rushed attitude. We found farro at the grocery store, and though it’s scarcer, there are a few good gelato options back home. Bottom line, I’m not there, but the week has stayed with me in very tangible ways.
But when I think about a day in Italy that I remember the most, it was Sunday, our second day. It was the day of l’incidente.
The day started out with a rough sketch of a plan, which is all you really need in Benano. Get in the car and go explore all the amazing towns nearby.
That day, we started in Castel Viscardo, where we met the two lovely grocers Serena and Marta. We browsed their “superstore,” which is about the size of a Jackson Hewett tax preparation shop in the U.S. The food is stacked high and they stopped to talk to everyone who dropped in. And not just the “buongiorno” that is the appropriate way to greet people. They stopped to talk, ask about their families, ask what they were looking for—it was incredible. It was like shopping in your neighbor’s pantry. A truly wonderful experience.
From there, we returned to Benano to drop off our food, and then went on to Castel Giorgio, nearby to Benano. Something was afoot. There was an unusual amount of activity outside the café, and we soon discovered there was about to be a Madonna processional. Pastry and espresso secured, we settled in to watch the townspeople walk through the street to celebrate as the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) was walked through town. A lovely celebration. We made our way back to the car, intending to go to Civita di Bagnoregio.
And then, the teenager. As Paul was about to turn into a driveway, an eighteen-year-old kid in his mother’s Citroen rear-ended our car. We turned perpendicular, and he went off the road. Everyone was fine (except for Karen’s glasses, which could have used an airbag.) We were in front of this gorgeous house, and within seconds, all of the residents of the house had poured out to check on us—with chairs, ice, water, and offers to use the restroom. An unnecessary ambulance, which had been attending to the Madonna festival, raced over. The carabinieri showed up to investigate (though we suspect they spent most of their time talking about where they would get espresso that afternoon). And the kid’s mother showed up—turned out she owned a lovely restaurant in the town–and encouraged us to take her son back to America with us.
Just to be on the safe side, we called Alex, who lives in Torre Alfina with his lovely wife Olga. They take care of Benano and the guests and are terrific resources for Benano visitors. Alex was at the scene of l’incidente in an instant, offering us help communicating with the police and advice on how to sheepishly call our rental car agent. He was a tremendous help—especially when he muscled our bumper off of the car so that it wouldn’t drag on the road.
Because we were pressing on. We weren’t going to let un piccolo incidente ruin our day. So we drove off to the ruined city of Civita di Bagnoregio. We opted for a higher octane espresso, this time adding in some sambuca, so that we had what’s called a café corretto. That righted our ships.
After lunch and another walk around the dead city, we headed to Alex and Olga’s house for a mid-Sunday snack. And this is why our Sunday will be cemented in my memory for a long time. We sat in their lovely kitchen, around their dining table (not huge—probably typically for four, but we sat close, with six) as Olga brought out cheese with incredible homemade marmalade (pepper and pear was amazing), a cake, and of course, wine. And then the limoncello, fennel and “cherry” liqueurs. Alex and Olga are amazing. As our conversation shifted back and forth from Italian to English to Italian, I found myself thinking about how special it was to be seated in the kitchen of this family. They were about my age, living in rural Italy, thousands of miles away. Yet we were connecting about family and food and life.
Growing up with an Italian family, Sunday afternoons were all about crowding around a table and sharing food and laughs. To do that, this time in Italy, was beyond special.
One more word about Alex and Olga. There are people who do their job and there are people who care. Clearly, Alex and Olga are the latter—they are passionate about the guests who visit Benano. You are welcomed as part of the loosely defined family that exists in Umbria. It’s so comforting to have that safety net on a trip like this, and Benano visitors are blessed with two of the most wonderful people to lean on.
We returned home, relaxed, and then had a simple dinner, prepared with the food we purchased that morning (though it seemed like weeks before), laughed plenty about our adventures, and played some games.
Benano is like that. I thought about how we would have reacted if we had a car accident in the U.S. We’d have probably busted up our entire day, choosing instead to call friends, posting pictures to Facebook, and then dealing with the bureaucracy of insurance, etc. Benano is different. Was it the café corretto? Was it the BVM? Was it Alex’s quick help? The expectation of Olga’s cake and limoncello? Probably all of that and a little more. It was just an Italian experience, one where you just let the day take you where it wants to go. And it was amazing.
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.
Few things make me quite as happy as hearing from guests who love Benano as much as we do. With their permission, I’m sharing notes from the heads of two wonderful families who rented the villa over New Years. But first, enjoy their vacation photos (have you ever seen such beautiful families?)!
Hi Karen — We arrived safely home and went back to work the next day then battled fairly exhausting jetlag for a week….but it was all worth it.
We all had the most glorious week in Benano and Rocca Di Benano will stay in our hearts for the rest of our lives. I will dream of going back one day and daydream about being there at least once a week for many years to come.
Thank you for all your help and wonderful advice, we felt like we had you there by our side as we explored far and wide.
We were all incredibly comfortable and never felt like we were on top of each other. It’s not easy having two families living together but doing it at Rocca Di Benano made it seem incredibly easy.
Our highlights would have been:
- Civita Di Banorregio
- NYE in Orvieto
- Walking the country lane up behind Benano
- Sitting on the bench in Benano looking out to Orvieto and enjoying the incredible peace
I wasn’t well one day but the rest of our group went to the restaurant in Aquapendente (where you said Grandma still rules the kitchen) and they were thrilled with the meal. I think they would all say that was a food highlight.
Most of all, the highlight was your home, thank you for sharing it with us. Please don’t hesitate to pass my email on to anyone wanting to know how much we enjoyed it and would recommend it.
I thought you might get some enjoyment out of some of the squillions of photos of our time at Benano. I didn’t think there was any point sending you the photos of all the things you have already taken beautiful photos of so I thought you might enjoy a little taste of us enjoying life in Benano and beyond.
Thank you again, I hope you continue to be able to share your beautiful home with lots of lucky travellers and that you get back there yourself as often as you would like to.
Warmest Regards and a big thank you hug,
Hi Karen — On behalf of my family, I would just like to thank you for the wonderful time we had in Benano. The house exceeded our expectations and was the perfect base to explore the wonderful region. It must be so exciting owning that marvelous piece of History. Staying in Benano really gave us a sense of being a local. The neighbors were divine, and very patient with my terrible Italian. The house was comfortable, warm and well equipped. We took a lot of your recommendations and we didn’t have one bad day. We were worried about traveling in winter, but were absolutely blessed with the weather. In our three and a half weeks in Italy we didn’t have one rainy day and mostly blue skies. I know Orvieto suffered a lot with the torrential rains in November.
The Orvieto Jazz Festival was fabulous – we have really seen Orvieto at its best. There was a constant party atmosphere the whole time we were there. The four teens from both families are all budding musicians and the two older boys play the Sax and are really into their Jazz so it was a wonderful experience for them.
We took your recommendations and went to Civita, Deruta, Perugia and to lake Bolsena and loved them all. We ate at the wonderful Albergo Toscana in Acquapendente which was fabulous.
On New Years Eve we had a meal in Orvieto listening to a wonderful Jazz Band then went back to Benano and sat on the car park wall watching the fireworks below. It was a wonderful week and a great experience for our children.
We will definitely be telling all of our friends about Benano, but please send me links to the sites you would like me to write a review on as we are very keen to spread the news of your wonderful house!
Many Many Thanks Again,
The drive from Benano to Bagnoregio is short – 40 minutes – and unremarkable. But the walk up the pedestrian bridge from the modern (in a 16th-century Italian kind of way) town of Bagnoregio to the otherworldly town of Civita is staggering. Bagnoregio is an ancient town nestled at the very tip of a hilltop. The walk itself is breathtaking, but the sense that you’re traveling back in time is palpable.
Our walk up to the old town of Civita helped us understand why the village is frozen in time. The footbridge spans the gap where a hill once connected Civita to the rest of the world. Over time, erosion made the hill increasingly steep, then eventually washed it away completely. Now, the town is a virtual island connected only by this very steep bridge. The walk was strenuous, and we were doing it empty handed and in very pleasant weather. The thought of doing it with groceries or pushing a stroller or in nasty weather (tempo brutto) makes the town’s isolation seem inevitable. The town that remains up there is startlingly evocative of another time – simpler, quieter, and very peaceful. You can check out the wikipedia description and photos here.
As is so often the case in Italy, our big meal of the day was also breathtaking! We stopped at one of our favorite restaurants in the area – Trattoria del Conte. Paige had perhaps the best gnocchi that I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. This place looks almost like a truck stop, so part of the joy of eating here is the sense of being in on one of the greatest secrets in the area.
For anyone interested in the details, the restaurant is: Trattoria del Conte, along the Orvieto – Montefiascone highway, Localita Buon Respiro, 18 ~~Tel. (0763) 217047. Here’s another, much more colorful, review from the terrific and inspirational food blogger Abigail Blake. She loves Italy and has stayed at Rocca di Benano. Entertaining writer that she is, she chronicled her family’s explorations of the “Greater Benano” area last year. Check out her posts from August and September 2009 for her reports from Italy. Her photos are beautiful, too.