Umbria, located in the central highlands of Italy, squeezed in between its well-known neighbours Tuscany and Rome, has a lot to tell its visitors. Alright, there are other regions, too, that specialize in olive oil production, truffle hunting, medieval festivals, cooking lessons or ancient crafts workshops. But where else can you experience all these, within a few kilometres from each other, in a truly Italian local kind of way? The secret triangle for creative tourism experiences in Italy lies between or near the towns of SPELLO, BEVAGNA, FOLIGNO & VALTOPINA.
Supported by an international EU project on developing socio-cultural tourism in rural areas of Europe called CULTrips, the local organizers or “greeter guides” made it a point to welcome us as pilot travellers to experience this form of interactive, meet-the-locals kind of tourism.
WHAT A GREAT IDEA :-) This form of travelling should actually be offered all over Europe. Here’s what we experienced in the course of just three days !
Olive Oil: Harvesting & Tasting Lessons around Spello
From fruit to bottle: How we harvested olives and actually got to taste a REAL variety of native, extra-virgin olive oil (the best oil does taste really spicy!).
Personally, I believe this is an experience every foreign visitor to a destination known for its olive oil should do: Participate in the olive harvest season during late autumn. From picking to collecting olives (and really understanding the meaning of labour!), we then went on to a later tasting workshop in a local oil mill.
During the tasting, we were lucky enough to be guided by local experts. They explained the entire variety and characteristics of the olive oil production process to us, and how the BEST OLIVE OIL in the world would actually taste … well, really spicy, fruity and delightful. Olive oil, after all, is a true life elixir. It’s what keeps Italians healthy and us happy. Wohoo!
Truffle Tour & Cooking Lesson
On the second day of our creative socio-cultural endeavours, the crisp morning air in the forests broke with the actual barking of dogs ! Yes, dogs (and not pigs) is what professional truffle hunters need in order to find truffles buried in the soil. The truffle, we learn, grows similar to a potato and gives a very distinctive smell to the delicate nose of a trained truffle dog. During the search, dog & truffle man both start digging around a spot indicated by the dog and -VOILÀ! – a truffle is revealed from the ground!
This experience is offered regularly to those interested in truffles. As the search for truffles is a feast for the senses, this is true not only for international visitors, but also for the locals who are participating enthusiastically themselves! A beautiful must-do experience that remains very vivid in your mind.
Later in the day, we moved on to cooking with truffles and – almost naturally! – made our own Italian pasta! DE-LI-CIOUS! Wendy, an Australian lady of Montanelli Wine Estate who fell in love with Umbria, runs a cooking school with excellent know-how and ingredients. A big fan of the Slow Food movement, she goes through every step of making biscuits and pasta or indeed, treating truffles, with us. A wonderful experience to cook fresh pasta & truffles (the taste still lingers in my mouth …).
History hands-on: Silk & Candle Workshops, Quintana Experience!
The past is in … books, dusty rooms or ancient ruins. Right? Well, think again! What I have come away with from this trip to Italy is a deep understanding of what the past in this area was all about: the plight of the pilgrims travelling all over Europe stopping to make candles en route to Rome, the hours spent extracting silk threads from the silk worm’s cocoon, producing delicate and very soft fabric or clothes .. Wow. Had we not directly experienced a part of this work (i.e. making candles ourselves, threading a small part of silk bandage!) the experience would not have been the same.
All I am saying is, socio-cultural tourism that allows for visitors to engage with the locals on a day-to-day basis is the best tourism can achieve. In fact, only through these particular kind of creative practices is the principal aim of tourism fulfilled: To gain mutual cultural understanding, achieve respect and a deep-rooted, memorable connection to the inhabitants of this place.