Mention the name of this tiny, isolated Umbrian town, situated on a majestic plateau in the Apennines, to a Roman and they may well ask ‘where’s that?’
While visiting Rome in mid-July, before embarking on an eight-day whistle-stop road trip through the Italian regions of Umbria, Tuscany, Liguria and Emilia-Romagna, we mentioned to well-travelled friends in the country’s capital that our first stop would be the town of Castelluccio.
Almost all of them looked at us puzzled. One knew of it, but hadn’t visited. Two others had never heard of it.
Nature-loving Swiss, French and German hikers flock to this tiny fairytale-like village hidden away in Umbria on a plateau high up in the Apennines, skimming the border with neighbouring Marche, yet many Italians don’t know Castelluccio.
Considering that the town – formally known as Castelluccio di Norcia, as there are four other Castelluccios in Italy – is an easy 175km-drive of about two hours and 40 minutes from Rome, it’s even more surprising that few Romans seem to be unaware of its existence.
Situated on a hilltop amidst a sprawling plateau 1452 metres above sea level, in the Mount Sibillini National Park about 30km from the larger Perugian town of Norcia, the borgo of Castelluccio seems as if it is completely alone, in a sea of fields of green, violet, crimson and lemon stretching as far as the eye can see.
Rising up dramatically before Castelluccio is Monte Vettore, a mountain which, at 2,476m, marks the highest point of the Apennine Range that stretches like a spine across Italy.
What you see around you is a plateau divided into what are known as Piano Grande (great plain), Piano Piccolo (small plain) and Piano Perduto (lost plain).
For some 20 to 25 days of the year – from late May through mid-July – Castelluccio transforms into a swirling, unreal blaze of gentianella, poppies, narcissuses, violets, asphodels, Eugeniae violet, clovers and oxalis. This annual phenomenon, an almost-unreal patchwork explosion of blooms, is known as la Fiorita or Fioritura (the flowering) and it’s the ideal time to visit.
This year, this miracle of nature lasted a week longer due to poor weather in late Spring, so we were very lucky to catch the tail end of it, albeit for just 24 hours.
We happened upon a gorgeous bed and breakfast right in Castelluccio, which doesn’t seem to have too many accommodation choices, and that may well be a good thing.
Since his pre-teens, my husband – then living in Rome – would regularly visit the town, together with a childhood friend whose family is fortunate enough to own a home in Sorbo, on the outskirts of Castelluccio, and he can’t recall there being any places to stay.
Situated in a peaceful location at the edge of the town, the chic yet authentic family-run Agriturismo Antica Cascina Brandimarte, which once served as a barn for the Brandimarte family’s animals during the coldest months of the year, opened just five years ago.
A young lady warmly welcomed us upon arrival and showed us to our simple yet elegant room, named Argentella after a peak in the Sibillini National Park, which was simply furnished and tastefully decorated in neutral shades, with contemporary accents of burgundy and violet. A beamed ceiling above, hardwood oak floors below, a wardrobe onto which a deep red flower had been painted and a four-poster wooden bed swathed in a gauzy off-white fabric set the scene for a lovers’ escape, if only for just one night. We could also partially see Vettore from our window.
With just a handful of cosy rooms, the property’s highlight is its restaurant, with a few choice tables enjoying breathtaking views of Vettore and surrounding hills.
After checking in and dropping off our bags in our spotless room, we freshened up in our spacious bathroom, tiled in grey with burgundy highlights, and set off to explore Castelluccio.
It was the last week of July, so that meant most of the multi-hued flowers that form thick colourful carpets across sprawling fields of green had vanished, apart from some hardy violets, daisies and poppies.
We were fortunate to be among a sparse number of travellers taking in the tranquility of these rolling hills and alpine air, copious amounts of which we inhaled into our urban lungs, aware that soon we would be back in the city.
It was exhilarating to disconnect and sit in the grass, watching thousands of fat humming bumblebees gather nectar from tiny blooms, listening to birds invisibly chirping in the grass and goat bells dinging faintly in the hills, while breathing in the scent of freshly rained-on fields.
For long stretches of time, we wandered – completely alone – through the fields, interrupted only by the odd fellow traveller stopping to take snapshots.
Whether you’re an amateur or professional, Castelluccio is a photographer’s dream.
While we saw road signs warning us to watch out for gazelles and roe deer, we weren’t fortunate enough to spot any leaping through the fields.
Every now and then, a Swiss or French family in heavy-duty hiking boots would suddenly appear, leading a couple of mules carrying their bags. I wondered whether the hikers were following a map or if the mules simply knew the way and guided them along the paths.
I also wondered out loud why the Swiss, a nation with plenty of rolling green hills of their own, adore this place.
Most were likely travelling with La Mulattiera, a cooperative based in the town of Ancarano that arranges trekking tours along ancient paths winding through the Sibillini mountains with the aid of mules or donkeys. The tours range from an easy hike of a few hours across valleys, through olive groves and between mediaeval villages to scaling Mt Vettore, among many other activities. Hiking enthusiasts can even overnight at a farm, mountain refuge or in tents.
Visitors can also go paragliding, hang-gliding, mountain biking, orienteering, Nordic walking, bird-watching or horse-riding. Meanwhile, cross-country and freestyle skiing aficionados head to Castelluccio in Winter to play in the snow.
At one point, clouds started to swiftly gather and swirl, forming an ominous dark grey mass from which thunder cracked like a giant cat o’ nine tales. We drove down from the town along a long, straight road, flanked by flat farmland on both sides, and parked there to watch as a wild summer storm let loose its pent-up fury, unleashing huge droplets of rain.
But soon enough, the clouds scattered, giving way to the sun’s rays, which streamed through, reminding us that – even up here – it was summer, after all.
Back at the Brandimarte, we dressed for dinner and headed up to the in-house restaurant Il Fienile, which translates as ‘the barn’ and, in fact, was once the storage space for hay bales, the only source of nourishment for the Brandimarte family’s livestock in wintertime.
Today, Maria Rita Brandimarte prepares local culinary specialities, just as her mother Adua taught her, sourcing produce from the family farm.
Truffle, and specifically the variety known as Nero Norcia (Norcia black), is king in these parts, and the dinner menu – in which Maria proudly showcases this and other quality regional products – reflected the fact. We proceeded to order dishes that featured the prized culinary black diamond, for which we would pay significantly more anywhere else. Indeed, an annual festival is held in the last two weeks of February in Norcia in celebration of this Umbrian delicacy.
A faultless primo piatto of ricotta-filled handmade ravioli topped with a generous amount of truffle shavings set the gastronomy bar high for the dishes that followed. As Castelluccians claim to grow some of the best lentils in the world, we sampled a bowl of the small green pulses, prepared simply and with a dash of fresh olive oil, much like we prepare them in Greece.
Also on the menu is a unique wild variety of local pea known as roveja, known since Neolithic times, which almost became extinct but today is an important crop for farmers in Umbria and Marche. Instead of the peas themselves, we chose to try a tagliatelle made with roveja flour and served with asparagus and pancetta (photo above).
We shared a main of sliced veal fillet, served in a rich truffle sauce (photo above), happy in the knowledge that we were dining all-local and contributing to the regional economy.
At the next table, a young Roman couple was clearly enjoying a romantic long weekend, oblivious to their fellow diners. Castelluccio is nothing if not an idyllic getaway for two.
We accompanied our meal with the establishment’s red house wine, which was not only incredibly good value at 6 euros a bottle, but better than we expected. Labelled Rosso Divino and produced by small-scale winemaker Cantina d’Angelo, situated in the town of Offida in southern Marche, the Montepulciano and Sangiovese grapes used to produce the ruby red wine are harvested by hand.
We were both surprised and impressed to see every house wine we ordered in Italy arrive in a bottle, unlike the carafes we are served in tavernas and some restaurants in Greece – which means you don’t actually know its origins. Indeed, throughout our Italian road trip, we found the wine served at restaurants to be excellent value-for-money.
Perusing the dessert menu, we were curious to know more about the dish of fresh local ricotta – a Castelluccio specialty – topped with truffle shavings and honey (photo above). Our informed, gentle-mannered young waiter responded by first confirming that we like all three ingredients. “Then I highly recommend it. All of our guests who have tried it, rave about it,” he said.
He was spot on. There was no way we could imagine that this trio could be so triumphant. And we agreed that, for lack of Castelluccian ricotta and truffle shavings, we wouldn’t dare try to replicate the dish at home.
For those who like to dine late, be aware that meal times at the Brandimarte are fairly strict, with breakfast, lunch and dinner starting quite early. Life in the mountains means early to bed, early to rise, so it’s simply a matter of adjusting to these rhythms. It’s likely your body and mind will appreciate the change.
Even if you’re staying at the Brandimarte and plan to dine at the restaurant, make sure to book a table in advance, as there are only a few available. We didn’t dine elsewhere but, noticing repeat diners during our stay, we suspect that this may well be the premium choice in town.
After dinner, we headed up to a quiet hill on the other side of town to view and photograph Castelluccio, built amphitheatrically upon a hill, by night. Everyone else seemed to have retired to their rented rooms and modest homes.
The town was lit up sparingly, allowing the stars to shine brilliantly above, and we reveled in the complete silence, bar for a couple of voices that seemed to belong to the owners of one of the few restaurants in town. Looking up at the glowing constellations, we understood why astrology buffs adore Castelluccio.
Spending most of our time on the plains, we didn’t even actually go into the small town centre to explore, leaving that for our next visit.
The next morning we woke up to a generous breakfast spread of that ricotta and an assortment of tall home-baked cakes that we had spied the previous night as they were left out to cool, their aroma floating through the restaurant.
The locals have a sense of humour that seems to come out of the blue, as we found out shortly before departing for our next destination, when we stopped in at La Vostra Cantina, a specialty goods store strategically located on the main road, to entice both new arrivals and those departing to step inside and pore over its endless selection of divine local delicacies.
Passing through the doorway, our heads started spinning and our olfactory senses roared into overdrive as we inhaled the intoxicating, pungent aroma of truffle. We had found our Norcia nirvana.
Hanging (pardon the pun) from huge hooks in the ceiling were pairs of short, rather fat salami, dubbed coglioni di muli (mules’ testicles). They weren’t actually the reproductive organs, culled from the numerous mules – when their time came – that we spotted accompanying hikers. In fact, even the meat wasn’t that of a mule, which we were pleased to hear. Another sign reminded customers that “balls always come in pairs”.
This local specialty, hailing from Norcia and named in honour of the mules’ valued centuries-long contribution to rural life in the Apennines, is produced using lean, finely-ground pork meat, to which a dash of lard is added. The sausage is attached to a stick of beech and allowed to mature in a cool, moist environment. Coglioni di muli are frequently consumed after being soaked in red wine for two days.
Run by the Coccia family, the store is stocked with plenty of products infused with varied truffle varieties, including Norcia’s black truffle. Indeed, Norcia takes cold cuts seriously and its butchers pride themselves on their pork specialties, which include prosciutto, capocollo, coppa, pancetta, sanguinaccio, ciauscolo and corallina.
Two 500g restaurant-size jars of truffle sauce containing mushrooms and summer truffles – tuber aestivum in extra virgin olive oil and a dash of chilli (for us, a steal at €11.90 each) produced in the Marchean town of Pescara di Arquata Tronto, also situtated in the Sibillini National Park, were swiftly dropped into our shopping basket, no questions asked. Tasting a truffle-infused salami, the lady attending to us suggested we purchase one that is more mature, and one that is a little ‘fresher’. But, of course.
Knowing that we wouldn’t leave Italy without a sizeable stash of edible goodies, I had added an extra suitcase for our return flight to Greece. We were heading to the island of Skiathos immediately after Italy, so the only food items we could bring back had to be those that don’t spoil. We had to ignore the entire legs of prosciutto, the fresh ricotta, and the red wine we had enjoyed at dinner, which we could have snapped up for four euros a pop if we bought three or more.
Instead, we picked up Castelluccian bean soup mixes, lentils, spicy Umbrian herb mixes with pepperoncino (chilli) and several 100ml bottles of white truffle-scented olive oil to lightly spritz onto homemade pizza, pasta and the odd salad. We filled our basket with zuppa Castellucciana – a legume and cereal soup mix including tiny split peas and chickpeas, zuppa con roveja (which sounds more Spanish than Italian considering ‘j’ doesn’t exist in the Italian language), porcini for pasta and risotto, the local polenta and fior di salsa, a sauce made with artichokes and saffron harvested from Mount Sibillini that its producer recommends for “refined antipasti and pleasant bruschetta”.
Bidding an emotional farewell to the piani of Castelluccio, we pledged to return for la Fiorita, to witness the blooms in all their wild technicolour but also find a way to return home with a car boot-load of delicious goodies.
- If you would like to visit Castelluccio during la Fiorita, as Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica advises readers, considering the town is small, hotels and agriturismi are few and the best periods to visit are June 20-25 and July 5-10, you better be quick to plan a trip before it’s “sold out”