Spello è Sempre lo Stesso

View from our garden in Spello, Umbria

This year we were lucky enough to spend two blissful weeks in Spello. Now that it’s our third visit back, people don’t regard us like we’re aliens dropping in from a drabber planet, but rather like we are Spellani who have had the misfortune to be waylaid in our return home. Which is pretty much how it feels to us, too.

View down an alley in Spello, Umbria

We get hugs and happiness, but no longer astonishment. I think when we left five years ago (gasp!), people must have wondered if we would ever come back.

But we did come back. The first year, just in time for the launch of Il Bel Centro (read all about it in the Epilogue, free when you sign up for my IBC newsletter). The second year, for a too-short spring break. This time was a bit different. Our children are older, opinionated, with (hard as this is to believe) their own lives. So our 3.5 weeks in Italy looked like this:

  • First five days, all of us but Nicolas (working in Texas) were in Spello.
  • Then we took Siena to Arezzo where she lived with a local woman for two weeks while attending Italian language lessons and learning to paint frescoes.
  • The next day, Gabe started day camp in Spello. As we dropped him off, Siena’s wan and nervous expression still loomed large in my heart and I asked Keith, “Why did we decide to re-create the worst part of our Spello year??”
  • That Friday, Nicolas arrived from Houston.
  • Two days of Spello with four of us, then we left for Bologna.
  • Five days later, we picked Siena up in Arezzo.
  • Then, we had four days in Abruzzo. Cinque insieme, as I like to say.

Gabe and Giorgio play Scopa in Spello, Umbria

I’ll tell you about the post-Spello bits later (plus our surprising Umbrian day-trips), but for now I’ll just say, that’s a lot of psychological to-ing and fro-ing. Which made our Spello days feel like a balm. Our family has shifted. Our togetherness is piecemeal. And yet Spello’s dancing birds and joyful bells are there to soften the harshness right out of those changes. It’s a place we all feel home, a place we all feel known. It's become our family touchstone.

Catnap in Spello, Umbria

Much continues as if we’ve never left. Gabe plays cards with Giorgio and Marcello. Bar Bonci’s coffee is still served with a heaping helping of Letizia’s infectious laughter. Gianni still makes the best spritzes in Italy (and not solely because he fills the glass so robustly). The cats still lounge wherever they feel warm and happy, whether that’s on a jewelry display or across a scopa game. It’s centering to return to the family seat of so much transformation and happiness and discovery.

And yet, it must be said. Spello, too, has changed. When we asked our friends what was new in Spello they all said the same thing so identically, it was like they’d rehearsed it standing outside the sunshine-yellow comune.

 Siena in the garden in Spello, Umbria

Siena in the garden in Spello, Umbria

“Spello è sempre lo stesso.” Spello is always the same.

But—we pointed out to our friends—much has changed...

1.     The piazza is completely altered: The old trees ripped out. Benches added to one end (which exaggerates the tilt of the piazza). The fountain scooted to the side of the piazza, for reasons passing understanding. Outdoor seating for two bars added. A horse statue by Norberto has pride of place against the middle school. Next to it stands (and this is unquestionably bizarre) an angular, light-up tree that resembles nothing so much as a “tree” formed from cast-off office tube lighting. The best way I can sum it up is that I took no photos of the piazza, and neither did anyone in our family. Not on purpose, it just didn't happen. I took a zillion photos, of things old and new, and not one of those benches, not one of that wayward fountain, and not one of that confounding "tree." I didn't even realize that until just now when I looked for a photo to post. So instead I'll post this one of Siena, so happy to be back in Spello.

Villa dei Mosaici in Spello, Umbria

2.     There are more eateries. Including one that sells hamburgers. Hamburgers? Yes, hamburgers. And the place that sold wood-fired pizza and (salted!) bread had a “closed for the holiday” sign when we arrived, but by the time we left, it had a closed down sign. DieciNove, the birreria, now serves food along with their creative brews. The rosticceria across from the olive wood shop now makes plates of trattoria fare. There is a new gelato place in the piazza and on our one rainy day, we were grateful to discover they had hot chocolate we could sip in the covered area. Super nice people, too. In short, there is serious turnover in Spello's food industry that once experienced close to none.

3.    After years of excavation under a dome and then construction of a permanent structure the Villa dei Mosaici is finally finished. And it is splendid! The roofline constructed like rolling hills of grass deepens the wonder of what lies below our feet at any time. The mosaics are heart-stoppingly beautiful, and the whole museum offers a real taste of Hispellum, or Roman Spello. I loved it so much I went twice.

The forno's offerings in Spello, Umbria

4.     Our beloved forno closed for a spell and then recently reopened. According to Paola, the forno was forced to get up to code. It’s an ancient bakery, so getting code compliant was prohibitively expensive. They shut down. I am so glad I didn’t know about this at the time. It would have torn me up. I remember (and you might too), all those mornings when I quietly slipped on my shoes to venture out through the fog-lined alley to the bakery that shone like a halo beneath ancient Roman script. And I’d exchange a few words with the baker, who was sometimes in his underpants. Or the lady, who would pause before telling me that a loaf of bread was actually called a filetta (not just pane, as I’d been saying) or when I got braver to ask questions, would encouragingly tell me about the day’s offerings. Anyway, yes, it closed down. The owner (our Infiorata maestro, you may remember) proceeded to a well-earned retirement (whenever I saw him about town I asked how he was enjoying his pensione and it seems like  he is spending his days house cleaning—I’m picturing every surface coated with flour, but I suspect that’s all wrong). His nephew (I think, I always get confused when people refer to nipote—is that grandson or nephew?) went to go work for another bakery before deciding to take the plunge and reopen the forno. And thank goodness. Because it is better than ever. The nice lady now serves up a soft focaccia with zucchini flowers, one with guanciale… every day was a surprise. When we went to have lunch with our friends in Bettona I brought crostate alle marmellata because even though I've yet to enjoy one, I remember how much Sante does. Well! Those jam tarts were sublime. Especially the prune one. Their prune-filled biscotti are also phenomenal. They must have some fabulous prune jam source.

Car with a view in Spello, Umbria

What do Spellani make of these changes? Well, Spellani really just wanted to complain about the piazza. Spellani are irate, even smugly so, like they knew it would be a disaster. Which indeed, they did… they’ve been complaining about the proposed changes since we were residents. People told us that it’s orribile, it’s austere, it feels like a terrazza for a restaurant, not a piazza. I see their point. At first I liked the benches. Until I realized no one but tourists sat on them. They aren’t conducive to chat. And at first I liked that the open space made the gorgeous Palazzo Comunale stand out, until I turned and realized it made the fascist-era middle school, post office, and police station stand out as well. Worst of all, without the shade of those trees to gentle the harsh sun, the old people now take refuge on the benches against the middle school. It kind of looks like they are lined up for a good shaming because of their misbehavior.

Nonetheless, even with all this, Spellani insisted, “Spello è sempre lo stesso.”

Paola and Frida in Spello, Umbria

Something else felt different this time. Our relationship to the town has changed.  Maybe because we’ve earned our stripes by returning as much as we have. Maybe because we have been a (admittedly spotty) part of it for six years now. Maybe both. I don’t know, but what I do know is that the friendships feel richer. I spent a lot of time with Paola this visit. She’s a grandmother now, and her granddaughter is a miracle. I spent a morning taking photographs of Frida and confess  to being bewitched.

We enjoyed our usual wonderful dinner with Brenda and Graziano (and this time Sean, our friend from Canada), but I also got to visit Brenda's art studio and talk about her ideas. When you next visit Vinosofia, check out the ceramic hearts she's selling, made of Umbrian clay and cast in Spello pink.

Gabe rests on the aqueduct in Spello, Umbria

I had long conversations with Letizia’s brother. He’s an interesting guy, though feeling more in sync with him didn’t stop me from giggling when Letizia rolled her eyes behind his back as he strode along telling her what to do with each plant. Also, when we asked about the novel-looking pieces of bread spangled with bright orange fish eggs, hard boiled egg slices, and something else fancy, Letizia pressed her lips together before muttering it was one of her brothers, “fantasia”s. It was at this moment that I realized that both of our favorite bars are run by brother-sister pairs.

At Orlando Furioso in Spello, Umbria with Angelo

We had two pizza dinners with Paola, Giovanni, and Angelo. The first dinner ended with much laughing at Gabe’s white, vinegary lips. He professed his love of vinegar (I actually believe it’s the single reason he eats salad), which prompted Giovanni to insist we come to his house.  Before we piled into cars, Angelo tugged us to the city wall across the street from Orlando. He told us the following story:

At the time that Hannibal was making his way down Italy, he sent an advance team to Spello. The captain of that advance team was Orlando Furioso, a man of such virility, such animal magnetism, the women of Spello fell headlong for the invader. The men, irate at Orlando’s sexual prowess with their women, locked him in a tower (Angelo pointed at the tower, above the city gate). One of Orlando’s compatriots freed him and he scrambled out of the tower, but before he escaped, nature required him to make one prodigious pee. Such was the force of his urine, and the overwhelming manly nutrients, that when he peed against the wall, he created a hole that is still visible today.

Proof of Orlando's visit to Spello, Umbria

I’ll leave you to figure out how much of that legend is true, but I should tell you that above said hole in the wall, there is an ancient inscription that includes the word “Orlando.” Still giggling, we proceeded to Giovanni’s house in the valley below Spello, where with two hands Giovanni presented Gabe with a bottle of his homemade vinegar. Party favors all around, as he also gave us a bottle of his homemade limoncello and his fennel liquor. Lucky you, I’m putting his recipe right here on the website. His homemade liquor surpasses description. Perfectly flavored, perfectly sweet.

This trip we also got to know Paola’s son. Gabe wanted to learn to macramé, but since he was in camp mornings when Paola was available, Gopala offered to teach him in the afternoons. Watching her son and my son working together, after watching my daughter blossom under Paola’s force of love, was sheer magic. Every afternoon, Gabe trotted to the shop and sit with Gopala. That is, when he wasn’t playing cards, or making up errands for us so he’d have an excuse to chat with shopkeepers. He even tried to go to the post office to send the post card he had bought on his own. He had loads of questions about language, and even taught us Italian hand games.

Gopala teaches Gabe to macrame in Spello, Umbria

We had aperitivo with our landlords, Loris and Patrizia, but we botched it because with all the shifts in our schedule we didn’t get around to calling until almost our leave-taking. So we could only fit that too-short visit. In typical Loris and Patrizia fashion, they were cheerful about it, but also let us know this was pretty dumb on our part. So really they were cheerfully annoyed with us. We’d be laughing together and then they’d point out again how we waited until the last minute, so they couldn’t even have us to dinner. I seem to remember that aperitivo is all we’ve had with them since we left, but this time the conversation was much smoother (for me, at least; I credit all that Pride and Prejudice reading… Jane Austen, it turns out, uses a lot of conditional tense) and more natural. We're gratefully committed to a longer visit next time.

Olive branch in Spello, Umbria

We also shared an aperitivo with Anna Maria and Stefano, the parents of Gabe’s friend Lorenzo. Gabe and Lorenzo reconnected at camp, and practically planned the trip to Tullia on their own, such was their excitement about being back together. Last visit the two boys only passed in the street, so it had been awhile since they really connected. Funnily enough, their conversation was much like Nicolas and his best friend in middle school—Lorenzo spoke to Gabe in English, and Gabe answered in Italian. We parents hit on the idea of having Lorenzo join us in the United States for two weeks, and then having both boys go to Italy and live with them for two weeks. The boys think this is idea is genius.

Party in Spello, Umbria

The icing though, the real shining moment in terms of connection was the party Paola and Giovanni threw during our stay. Forty people came to Giovanni’s garden for huge pans of paella, wine, and festive conversation around tables filled with flowers and olive branches with Spello glowing in the background. It was a garden full of wonderful people, many who we knew—I wish I could have captured Sicilian Angelo’s face when I told him we brought Sicilian cookies for him, or his wife’s stunned expression when she clung to us—and many new friends. Angelo went to the wrought iron balcony and from above announced the teenage accordion player who regaled us with spirited folktunes, Gabe danced (like an Abruzzese, according to Sicilian Angelo) alone, until Paola joined him. I never wanted to leave.

Paola and Siena macrame together again in Spello, Umbria

I suppose that is my take-home message about the changes in Spello: Spello IS sempre uguale, sempre lo stesso. Because while the piazza can become a facsimile of its former self and eateries seeking to tempt the increasing tourist trade can come and go—the people, the people are always there. Ready to connect with each other, ready to rib a sibling, ready to engage with a newcomer. Ready to welcome us home.