The plan was to get up early, load our bikes on the truck and head to the Monti Sibillini National Park; we were going to go have ourselves a ‘giro’.
Our destination was going to be the famed town of Castellucio. The town is famous for its lentils, faro, chick peas, it’s the highest inhabited village in Umbria at 4700 ft, but it’s dwarfed by Mont Vettore that is over 8,000 feet, and the town the Piano Grande spread out before like some crazy flowered skirt. The mysterious and mythical Sibille or Sibyls were said to have lived in the mountains around Castellucio.
We reached the small town of Viso just in time for a little mirenda that pick me up snack before lunch. In our case, we were extremely lucky that the smiling pastry man showed up in his little truck just as we sat down, and he unloaded some outstanding palmiers for us to eat. You know, those elephant ear curled up pastries that explode into a shower of crumbs when you bite into them. These were as good as any I’ve had in Paris.
Viso is a hopping little town, right on the edge of the mountains, with clear, bubbling mountain streams and a huge fountain in the very green park. It seemed unnatural to us to see all this abundant water flowing, as water is a scarce commodity in our part of Umbria.
We left Viso and started climbing up to Castellulcio and the road is gorgeous, we’ve got the windows open and cool mountain air is filling our lungs! And bad Italian pop radio filling our ears….why are these songs allowed to be on the radio??
In days of old, the Castellucians couldn’t winter up there so they would make their way down into one of the lower villages and remain there until the snows melted and the mists lifted. This is rough terrain, so it’s easy to imagine this migration of people and sheep. Castellucio now has a permanent population of 150 people, but it’s a scruffy town, pretty rough around the edges. It is renowned for its dried legumes and there are stands set up all over so that you can buy those lentils. Now, someone should tell them that they might sell more lentils if they had a pretty lady on the label instead of that downright brutta scary looking lady. Speaking of scary ladies, there was an old woman, sorting her lentils in the doorway of a dark, concrete garage. She beckoned us over to see her lentils, and Jeff and I both backed away slowly. This was not a welcoming Italian nona, but a hard-bitten old lady who probably had a pitchfork at the ready in case we didn’t buy any lentils.
Being seasoned Italian travelers, on a Sunday afternoon, without a lunch reservation at one of the two tavernas in town, we got there early and just in the nick of time. I had an outstanding bowl of…you guessed it… lentils, and they really are tiny, tender and tasty and those Castellucians know a thing or two about cooking them. We could have grilled lamb, either intact or castrated. We chose the intact lamb and it was delish. After lunch we headed out for a bike ride along this trail that vanished into the hills. It was glorious to be in mountain air and riding along, and I kept one eye on the approaching storm clouds, but when the lightening was at eye level instead of up in the sky where it belongs, it was time to head down fast.
We loaded up the bikes and planned on looping around to the far side of the park before turning homeward but we got side tracked by the crazy quilt of wild flowers and thistles. Before we knew it, we were only 18km from the town of Ascoli Picena, one my friend Klary’s favorite towns, and the home of the famed olive ascolane or fried olives. These guys take their fried olives very seriously; there are even fried olive trucks along the side of the road in case you feel the need coming on. We biked around town until a delugio of a thunderstorm kept us locked inside the Duomo. There is something a little bit eerie about being in the crypt, with organ music playing and thunder crashing overhead.
But there is nothing at all eerie about sitting in the rain washed piazza, chatting with some nice older gents about the finer points of those fried, stuffed olives, sipping the local anisette and watching the mayor launch a few hundred balloons into the air.
By now we had wandered pretty far from home and it was time to head back, passing thru the Salami Central town of Norcia for dinner. Good salumi and good pizza were just the thing to fuel us for the long ride home.
It may have been a long day, but the incredible geography, weather, flowers, food and even fried olives made for an absolutely incredible giro straordinaro.