Umbrian Road

The pocked and gravel strewn road, parched and narrow, meanders and winds through the wide crevices between a patchwork of fenced olive orchards, fallow plains and fields of sunflowers with their necks bent in prayer meet and end. The road sings up at you in crunchy whispers from under your feet or wheels. The hills are sudden and steep...

The pocked and gravel strewn road, parched and narrow, meanders and winds through the wide crevices between a patchwork of fenced olive orchards, fallow plains and fields of sunflowers with their necks bent in prayer meet and end. The road sings up at you in crunchy whispers from under your feet or wheels. The hills are sudden and steep. The curves are blind and surprising. Each turn is made with a buoyant, uncautious trust. Life comes with risks. Put your faith forward down the valley and up the hillsides. Go joyously.

 

These roads are older than most cities, carved from clay, sand and rock first by feet and then by hands and then by hand-made tools made by long forgotten persons. Pressed and settled by rain and seasons the roads ribbon and weave together the seemingly endless roll of valleys. The cars pass with a whirl, coughing up dust. Drivers wave the backs of their hands with introverted gazes as the people strolling along the roadside pay them the same attention a slow passing cattle. The roads belong to the people first, cars are distant second.

 

The air is pungent with charred fields, rosemary, sage and savory.

 

The willow trees make the most consistent sounds except for the insects, and the morning birds. You become deaf to the insect’s raspy and high wire prickling after a good night’s sleep. The birds awake you. At first you curse them. Later you thank them.

 

The sun above aims brightly and broadly, gauzed and silently within a widening light that’s most austere in the early afternoon. When it sets, the sun shouts a thorough and blanketing epiphany at the orchards and cypresses that line the hilltops.

 

Sometimes a windowless citadel peaks above a hill’s green dome, pronouncing to the visible landscape that they are under its protection and watch. Or it once was. Or it might once be again. More often a matte stoned cathedral beacons it’s dominion, acting as the road’s end for bands of sweaty pilgrims that gather at the intersections, awaiting their calling along the muddy serpentine footpaths. For most else, their monumental grandness initiates solemn considered contemplation about time, and the lasting nature of stone and lime masonry. Especially after viewing the giant Roman relics ingrained into the uneven and patchy layers of the stacked stone fabric of the city walls and homes.

 

There are no ghosts. Only fruit trees and butterflies and small silent mosquitoes. And fainting frescoes, and dioramic corner shrines.

 

Within the towns, in the seemingly accidental, unplanned or unusable spaces in the nooks where buildings meet each other, such as the irregular walls or the tilted walks, potted plants and vines spring up from terra-cotta or rough reed baskets and celebrate their sunlit bodies by presenting lush piles of green leaves and strong spots of bugle flowers. There are vines and plants in each nook, up walls, and hanging from baskets, in all the places a person doesn’t step or lean. There is occasionally a lone water-worn bench in a narrow pocket piazza that opens up like a blossom at the conflux of tight alleys, mimicking the instruction of the plentiful vines. The happy and joyed voices from the piazzas echo unattributable down the alleys.

 

The day becomes the evening and the greetings between strangers shift to night languages. Residents hurry from their ajar doors to fetch friends, relatives or their children. These Umbrian cities open and close in layered rhythms, anchored to a shared responsibility of living in an antique town, in a home much older than great-grandparents. We are fortunate to be here.

 

Standing at the top of a high set of steps, looking outside past the city walls at the wide valley, over there, if you point straight from your shoulder, holding your arm parallel to the ground you’ll see one Cyprus tree taller than it’s patch. Within its close branches a roosting songbird, impossibly side glances at you from so far away, resembling a frescoed face painted high above into the chapel ceiling. You blink at the beauty and the bird lifts itself into the air and changes colors from black to gold to black again. It indecisively flits and soars upwards more and more.

 

As you try to see it again against the miraculous bright blue sky, it disappears.

 

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