After we left Roma, as documented in Part 1,  we were bound for the Tuscan Umbrian hills where we had rented a villa for a week to live “la dolce vita”. 
Day 4 – The Trip That Almost Wasn’t:
My friend Alfonso and I set out to pick up the rental car he had arranged through National Rentals via Travelocity.  As we didn’t need the vehicle to get around Roma, we planned to pick it up when leaving for the Villa on the Toscana-Umbria border.  The walk to the rental car office was a short one from the hotel and we found it easily. That was the last easy thing we’d do that day.
We entered the office in the basement of a parking garage and the lone attendant greeted us in English though he was clearly Italian. Alfonso had arranged for a full size box van with 9 seats. He provided Drivers License and Passport all in order, all in English,
 with no hitches and paid for the van.  Another employee came over to walk us to the vehicle.  As we were getting in, I looked into the car and counted:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,  is that a bench seat? – 7.  7!  Yes, 7 seats.   I don’t drive a stick shift.
We went back down into the office.  The lone clerk was helping another person. There were 2 or 3 other people in line. “Scusa signore. La machina ha sette posti. Abbiamo un reservazione per una macchina con nove posti.”  Nove?? Si, Nove. 
Suddenly the clerk forgot how to speak English.  Though he did manage to say:  “I don’t have a vehicle with 9 seats.  You wait….I call luongo, Fiumicino, Ciampino, basta cosi, cosi, first I help.  It was clear that he was planning to help everyone that came in and he’d only call the airports trying to find a vehicle there for us when his line was gone.  Almost an hour later, the line wasn’t gone.  I don’t drive a stick shift.
His name was Luca:
Finally I interrupted the clerk again and asked if we could rent two cars, each with 4 seats.  No, said his wave of the hand.  Then a local Roman, named Luca, overheard me trying to speak to this man and stepped in to help.  We quickly explained the situation and he spoke to the clerk.  He was confident that the clerk would not find a 9 seat van at either of the airports as it was a holiday weekend in Rome and everything was rented so that Romans could leave the city. He suggested we try Avis and promptly called for us on his cell phone.  After what seemed like an interminable wait, Luca was driving me to Avis which was a few blocks away after he secured the moving van he had rented. He went inside with me and squared everything away and not only did they have a 4 seat car available, they were able to find an automatic. Very necessary for touring Tuscan hill towns when you haven’t driven a stick shift in 20 years. We shared contact information and off he went.  I’ve spoken to him a few times since returning – and have made a friend. 
Under the Umbrian Sun:
The remainder of the trip to the Villa was fairly uneventful.  A stop at the AutoGrilles – calling them rest areas or truck stops is just wrong.  These unique facilities dot the A1 Autostrada and stock all sorts of exceptional goodies, refreshments, etc..  All feature a full service espresso bar. These things must be experienced – from the full legs of prosciutto to the Panini presses and the wonderful pizzas.  It is a stark contrast to the rest areas along the NJ Turnpike that feature Burger Kings and Bob’s Big Boy.  Enough said.
The ride through Tuscany and into Umbria is nothing short of breathtaking.  It is easy to spot vineyard after vineyard on sloped hillsides in the distance.  Olive trees grow wherever there appears a vacant spot of land and oceans of sunflowers as far as the eye can see. 
Seeing road signs along the way and being a wine lover, it was almost nirvana.  Like that first time as a kid you end up in Disney World.  Montalcino, Chianti, Orvieto, Siena, Montepulciano, Chiusi………
We drove slowly observing the lovely sights and arrived at the turn off for our villa late in the afternoon.  I was struck by the sheer opposites of the environment.  Here, where the road to our hamlet and villa was dust, dirt and gravel.  Here, where the flying dust off the road prevented me from seeing the car in front of mine and turned my silver Fiat Punto a ghostly pale tan – here, where sunflowers, grape vines and melon patches abound, rises from the dusty mist, a cell phone tower!  You gotta love it.  Once at the villa we met Alfonso’s college roommate, Mr. Roger.   After a cursory inspection of the grounds which revealed rosemary hedges, sages bushes, plum, fig, pear and olive trees as well as several artichoke plants, we set off to find a grocery store and get some provisions.  Clearly the remainder of the day would be spent under that Umbrian sun poolside and dinner would be in-house, as it were. 
Dinner turned out to be a simple pasta with fresh zucchini, fresh tomato and green beans, tossed with Umbrian oil, and lots of freshly grated local cheese.  The grocery store that we found open was small by American standards but well stocked. Bugs Bunny was the trademark of the store – he was on everything – a fact I still can’t  help chuckling over.  While Al and Mr. Roger went to grab some essentials, I headed to the wine area and to the back of the store where the bread and deli things were available. Like a kid in a candy store I got some speck, some fried artichokes, some olives, prosciutto (both crudo and cotto) and 2 kilos of bread.  As I’d expected, most bread is unsalted.  I grabbed some wine – a few bottles of prosecco, some Antonelli Montefalco Rosso, some Antinori Orvieto Classico, and some local Sangiovese. 
Once back at the villa, we snacked on some goat cheese and basil rounds with the Orvieto, then moved on to the fried artichokes which were simply outstanding.  The cheese with truffles and without were all served along with the pasta that night and it became obvious quickly that we’d soon run out of red wine. That didn’t seem like a problem in the least.  Night one at the villa drew to a close with the Fubar car rental issue well behind us.


View of the Villa from our Pool

The Umbrian Countryside from our 2nd Story Balcony

Villa Courtyard – that’s an olive tree growing in a former well
Wild Lavendar growing on our property

Day 5 – Castiglione del Lago:

Since we all knew that Monday would be a long day featuring a tour, tasting and lunch at Castello Banfi, we decided to spend Sunday close to home.
Castiglione del Lago is a charming hill town that sits on a promontory which juts into the southwest corner of Lake Trasimeno. It is hard to imagine a hill town any more charming than this. When one arrives at the Centro (town center) there is ample parking to leave your car and after a short walk up two old stone staircases you are at the beginning of one of the two streets that make up the old center of the town.  As with many similar hill towns, one side of town is dominated by the church, the other by the Castle, which here has a commanding view of Lago di Trasimeno. 

Lago di Trasimeno from Castiglione del Lago, Centro

We strolled down the street toward the Castle and were greeted warmly by all sorts of merchants selling their wares in the Sunday sunlight. It’s not possible to make it far before being beckoned by a shop keeper to try the latest cheese laced with truffles, or the latest cured sausage or soppresatta equally laced. They willingly pour wine and share bread and honey – then provided you with a 10% discount card so that you return.  And return we did.  One shop in particular I found to have the best wine selection in the town and far more significant than the local grocery. I bought very warily though, as the stores are all wide open, with no air conditioning and it’s routinely 80+ degrees outside. Still, I couldn’t help bringing a few things home to the villa:  2003 Antinori Badia a Passignano CCR at 19 Euro – 2003 Borgo Scopeto CCR, Massini Vineyard, for 15 Euro, and a local “Colli Trasimeno Rosso” for 8 Euro.  Hands down among the best wines I had on the trip was the 2003 Colpetrone Montefalco Rosso.  This gem was mostly comprised of Sangiovese and young Sagrantino and was simply outstanding for the money – about 10 Euro. Had I the means, I’d have bought a case for the cellar and will be seeking this wine out here in the states.   

Continuing down the street we shopped in shoe stores, porcelain shops where the ubiquitous sunflowers are captured with beauty on everything from espresso cups to pasta bowls.  Midway through the center of the old town lies of course, the Piazza. There are many places to have a snack, but we just opted for some wonderful local pizza with cold beer; Peroni and Moretti.  Sitting there will be a memory I will not soon forget. And I had perhaps the best anchovy pizza of my life. Such pure and delicious depth of flavor. 
We made our way to the opposite end of town, where the street circled in front of the Castle.  We purchased tickets to go in and climbed throughout the fort. It is amazing how the ancients built these sort of structures.  How imposing this fortress must have been!  There is a clear view from all points at the top, a commanding view for miles out over the lake; it is simply astounding. 
From there we followed the U-turn which leads down the other main road of the town where we again shopped slowly and gradually made our way back to the cars. Did we stop for gelato?  I don’t recall, but it’s probably a very safe bet. 
Just before leaving we picked up breads, cheeses, truffle oil and spreads, more wine, and some gorgeous cinghiale sausages, and center cut pork chops for a future meal.  
Back to the villa for Bellinis and swimming.
Part 3 to follow……….
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