Family values are a big thing in Italy. And even bigger, are the enormous and lengthy family style dinners that Italy is famous for. And while staying at Campodalto in the hills of Umbria, I had my first experience which made a lasting memory.
Something happened to me during the five days of my stay in the hills of Umbria. On that hour or so ride from Rome late at night to Paciano where a 10-day blog tour of Italy would be kicking off, I could not have imagined what it would be like — and even if I could have, this sudden and unexpected occurrence wouldn’t have come to mind.
After a rendezvous with one of the tour hosts Linnea, a fellow blogger (DJ of Dream Eurotrip) and I hopped into Giovanni’s car and left the Eternal City in the rear view mirror. Giovanni, who is brother to our other tour host Alina and family owners of Fontanaro Farm where much of our base of operations would take place, told us of the area we would be staying in and bits and pieces about the region’s history.
Once we were off the highway, dark curving roads turned to gravel; smothered in dust kicked up from the car and lined with the dark walls of long grass dancing in the wind. The distant hills, monochrome in the twilight, surrounded the valley as we crept deeper into Umbria.
Under a full moon we arrived at our destination, Campdalto Villa, around midnight. There was a gentle breeze, and the sounds of crickets were the only thing stirring in the night. We passed under the silhouette of an ivy-lined archway to the villa which was completely dark besides a dim porch light illuminating the front door with a hand-painted “Welcome” sign at the center. Marlina greeted us, host and owner of Campodalto, who had a ginormous warm smile, so much so that it caused her eyes to squint just to make room for it, the kind of smile that makes someone feel like family at first meetin. Then, out popped the second blogger of the tour, Serena, who was already eager to gush about the villa’s secret in the garden.
We plopped our bags down inside of our room and Marliza gave us a tour of the house. Our room was large and cozy, a far cry from the crowded and uncomfortable hostels I had inhabited the past few months. And a bed! A real bed with real pillows and real blankets. Oh so marvelous. Our bathroom was bigger than my last apartment as well, with a walk in shower and decorated with handmade goodies. All around it just felt comfortable, but even more-so it felt like an easy place to call home for the week.
As much as I wanted to face-plant into the bed, Marliza and Serena both demanded that we go explore the backyard of Campodalto, for some super secret and amazing ‘something” awaited us back there. We wandered toward the back yard and into the blackness of the night, but soon, as our eyes adjusted, we were all “ooohs” and “ahhhs” at the sight before us.
The distant town lights glowed in the valley, but the sea of fireflies (or lightning bugs as I called them as a child) overpowered even that. There were thousands around us flaring up and fading black, like the visual representation of the heartbeat of the hillsides around us — and with the cloudy sky above, it was as if the stars had descended so wouldn’t miss them that night.
Somewhere in those hills a dog howled at the great moon above us. Something else in the darkness growled fiercely, which I looked down and discovered it was my belly. I guess I was quite hungry. I let out long sigh, it felt good to be away from the city lights and the noise. DJ and Serena both seemed to be feeling the same. I had been crashing in one hostel after the other, and with a nearly exhausted budget, had been living on bread and ketchup while waiting for some extra funds to come in. But here I didn’t have to worry about where to slept night and if I might eat. Here, I left the fireflies to mock the stars and went into the villa for a cup of coffee and a biscotti, and plopped into the lavender-scented bed, pulled the knitted blanket over myself, and drifted into a deep sleep.
In the morning under the Umbrian sun I could finally take in the sprawling views of the countryside and see Campodalto in all its rustic glory. Stone walls and pastel accents, ceramic tile rooftop and bright-colored plants all around. It was as if someone had dug into my mind and constructed my dream house. Or maybe that after-thought was a product of how much I couldn’t stop ogling over every itty-bitty detail of the house.
Though it was considered “home” for the 5 days that our blog tour would be exploring Umbria, the majority of the time spent here was just for sleeping. Most days, Linnea and Alina were taking us exploring all over the region from early morning to late at night, or we were around Fontanaro Farm feasting, cooking, and guzzling down wine. But even though we didn’t spend much time at the villa itself, I have told many people that of all of the awesome things done on this blog tour; from exploring sea caves in Ponza, to the day-long hike around Il Trasimeno Lake, and everything in between — an experience at Campodalto stood out to me above most else.
What was this unexpected experience?
Well, it was falling in love.
I fell in love in Campodalto in the hills of Umbria, fell in love with not a person or a thing or a scene, but of a concept. A tradition. I fell in love with Italian hospitality, but more specifically, the Italian-style dinners. How could this be one of the favorites of a trip filled with so many amazing things?
Well, besides Italian food in general making it easy to fall head-over-chucks, and surely good wine makes falling in love easy sometimes, it was something else.
When we all entered Campodalto after a day wine tastings and an in-depth tour of Paciano by the tourism leader in the area, aromas tickled our nostrils and rumbled our hungry stomachs. Again, Marliza and her warm smile invited us all in to the dining room — dimly lit with stained-glass lamps and polished wood furniture, with a great table in the center strewn with scrumptious finger foods. This was aperitivo baby, one Italian concept which is basically appetizers to snack on while you drink wine and talk amongst friends as you wait for dinner.
Marliza, after telling us all to drink and eat, went straight back into the kitchen and began crafting her Napoli-style pasta originating from her home town, and something she had eaten as a child. She had to have been cooking and preparing the spread all day, and everything on it from the flat bread with artichokes to the tomato and mozzarella was incredible. It just seemed like she was so passionate about having guests over and cooking for them, and as we all huddled around the kitchen at times to watch her create culinary masterpieces, we also just mingled and talked and laughed all night.
For three or so hours.
That is exactly why I loved the experience of Campodalto so much.
That is what I fell in love with.
As I was sipping my wine I thought about how great it was to have a huge dinner where everyone is talking and eating and enjoying the food and company…nobody was on their phones or watching television. It was a whole affair, an event, and it was something I hadn’t felt all too often.
When I was growing up, we would occasionally have family dinners on holidays, or I would go to family dinners of friends as well, but majority of the time when my brother and father and I ate dinner, it involved taking our plate to air respective areas (dad went to the TV, I went to my room, and my brother went to his). Family dinners weren’t a common thing for us growing up, and if we did sit together we were eating off fold out stands in front of the tube. So, though I enjoy family gatherings and dinners around the holidays, I’ve always felt awkward like I didn’t know how to be a part of the gathering.
But somehow inside Campodalto amongst the new friends and fellow bloggers, and with Marliza and her husband, I felt completely normal. I felt like I was experiencing this big dinner without a second thought to being out-of-place. And though I had already eaten my fair share of Italian food, it had never been what is one of the underlying fundamentals of Italian culture — being present with family and friends and enjoying the tastes and the company. Italian dinners (not all the time though) are typically an event where the food goes fast but the smiles don’t die. It isn’t a rush to leave anytime soon. And its a passion it seems.
With nearly three plates of Marliza’s pasta in my belly, and maybe about 4 glasses of wine, I observed her creating a work of art in the kitchen as the cap stone of the night. She drizzled caramel she had just made as the final touches over a desert only Dali could have conceived — sweet massive crackers with candied fruits, caramel, and homemade cream. As she presented it, nobody dared touch it as we all gawked at the construction. We didn’t want to destroy something so beautiful, however much our stomachs wanted us too. But, as she urged us to dig in, I was voted to make the first blow. Everything about it was fresh and unique and delicious, and though it took so much time to prepare, it was gone in seconds. I guess beauty doesn’t last, especially around hungry bloggers.
This crazy concept of cooking big dinners with friends over a few hours and enjoying company isn’t new, but it was somewhat for me. That dinner, the hospitality of Marliza and her husband, and the overall feel of Campodalto in general is what truly made the experience one of the most memorable from my time spent in Italy.
Now I’ve got to get my friends in the US to adopt this kind of concept. As long as they are the ones cooking.
*Special thanks to Linnea of This Is Your Time and Alina of Slow Living Vacations for inviting me on this blog tour, and Campodalto for hosting us. All opinions and use of the word “gnarly” are my own.