A mere forty minutes drive from Bellaugello Gay Guest House brings one to the real foothills of the Apennines, those majestic mountains that form the backbone of Italy, that we see over the infinity pool at Bellaugello stretching way down to the Monte Sibillini and neighbouring Abruzzo.  Here you will find a walk or trail to suit any taste from the extreme, to the gentle stroll.

At 1556 metres Monte Cucco is the grandest peak in this area and it has given its name to a regional park. The park is littered with well marked trails and paths, some are circular, others not and requiring two cars, one at the start the other at the finish some few valleys away.  In this deliciously unspoilt area you walk through beechwoods, along crisp mountain streams, trek through deep gorges and discover a multitude of wild flowers and wildlife clinging preciously to moss filled boulders. There are monasteries, remote, and long abandoned, their frescoed chapel walls and stone arches slowly returning to nature and one, built in the X century on high inaccessible crags, the monastery of San Girolamo still lived in by a closed order of monks, a mind blowing feat of architecture and today a need to escape modern life.  There are small villages and silent tiny hamlets, the only sign that there are still people living in these remote places being wood smoke lazily wisping from an ancient chimney.

From the village of Sigillo a good road takes one to within 300 metres of the summit of Monte Cucco.  Curling ever upwards you pass horses and huge white  Chianina cattle grazing freely on the upper pastures, the clanking of bells of the cattle so redolent of Swiss mountains.  The road takes you past huge radio masts and repeaters, yes technology has long been even here, to the car park, so often filled with cars belonging to the many paragliders who launch their colourful sails into the clear updrafts.  From there you walk.  The path to the summit is easy and well marked and from the top you have views to the west over Lago Trasimeno, reaching as far as Monte Amiata in Tuscany, to the south along the Apeninne ridges and to the east over Le Marche to the Adriatic sea.  Choose to return by the narrow steep north track and you come to the entrance of the “Grotta di Monte Cucco” a speleologist‘s dream.  With over two thousand vertical metres it is one of the deepest and less known cavern complexes in central Italy.  In an effort to map the cave complex some keen guys even stay down there several days, I’m told sleeping on narrow ledges!  There are regular tours, and you need no previous experience to book a guide and explore. Grotta di Monte Cucco

Close to the summit car park is the hamlet of Val di Ranco, the starting point of a long delightful walk heading deeper into the Apeninnes, starting off through delicious beech woods.  Park your car at the restaurant “Da Tobia” which is large and serves hearty local home cooked dishes on their wood fire, it is a great refuelling point for walkers and hikers and open throughout the year.

Approach Monte Cucco from the summer village of Pascelupo, the hill looks immense.  It is a longer but spectacular drive, you have to pass through remote Scheggia, drive slowly, it is narrow and one of my favourite roads.  A pleasant walk takes you out of the village past long abandoned houses and through woodland climbing ever higher, you are on the far side of Monte Cucco.

After about one hour’s uphill trek you arrive at the hermitage of San Girolamo.  Built on a rocky outcrop in the tenth century, by the nineteen sixties it was abandoned with falling roof and crumbling masonry.  Gifted to the monks of Monte Corona near Umbertide it is now home to a closed silent order.  You can get as far as the outer courtyard which never ceases to amaze me in its precision and enormity.  Winter occasionally sees a huge waterfall tumble from on high to the south way above the hermitage, the scale of hill, monastery and waterfall are immense.  For the seriously energetic you can continue the climb to the summit of Monte Cucco, I tend to turn back!

For those whom heights are not their thing there is a the chance of a morning with a ‘tartufaio’ and hunting for truffles that are found in the foothills of the park.  Your guide is a truffle hunter working with a dog who sniffs out the black or white gold, once dug up such heavily scented truffles.  The white truffles are so scarce, last year virtually none were found.  Indeed they are considered more precious than gold.  To round off you morning hunt we take you to a small restaurant for a lunch featuring truffles.

Again to be found on the lower slopes of the park is a magical walk, that is not overly challenging but a great adventure.

Leave your car in a new car park just outside the village of Sigillo and follow the trail which runs alongside a stream.

Soon the hills close in and you are walking to a gorge, the base of which is one of the most amazing features I have come across in many years, cold clear water literally pours out of the rock, it is surreal.

As you can see signs in the park are generally good and clear.  From here the path is actually in the stream and you climb ever deeper into the gorge, the crags tower above you, small trees grow in seemingly impossible earth-less places, clinging to the rock.


At one point you actually have to climb a metal staircase, it makes the adventure more exciting.

Make the most of your day trekking.  Ask us at Bellaugello to pack a picnic for you , we have a great rucksack hamper and will fill it with goodies including wine and coffee, then you are free to explore, and in the long summer evenings the sunsets from the top car park are not only stunning but romantic.

The park has a website, it is not the best resource but it does give you a taste of the freedom to be found: Monte Cucco Regional Park – Hiking

Gubbio our local town is a gem a precious medieval gem.  Nestling in the foothills of the Apennines in north eastern Umbria, the town is both beautifully preserved and a delight to visit.  Narrow streets lined with aged stone houses wind slowly uphill towards the cathedral and ducal palace, the summer home of Frederico Duca di Montefeltro.  There begins the long climb out of the city walls to the abbey of San Ubaldo atop the slope of Mont Ingino.  The simple plain abbey cloister exemplifies the unadorned beauty of this little know town.  From the air the little streets and small houses are, like so many Italian towns very visibly overshadowed by the huge monasteries and cloisters, so evident is the historic dominance, control and wealth of the church.

Arriving from Bellaugello you have a great panorama, the town shows itself, proud, erect, bold. Park you car and walk.  These are streets meant to be trodden, wander slowly into the historic town centre.  You pass along cool narrow streets, many houses having a second front door, ‘porta dei morti’ through which legend has it bodies of the dead were removed.  Good Osteria and Trattoria abound, try a ‘Crescia’ the delicious local flat bread filled abundantly with prosciutto or pecorino or braciole, so very good is the food in Umbria.  Climb up to the large open space of the Piazza Grande which offers great views over the cotto rooftops of the lower town.  Supported on huge arches it is a unique space in Italy and home to many pageants and feste that feature prominently in the life of this ‘city of stone‘.

One side of the piazza is delineated by the council offices, the second by a grand scabious facade of an hotel, the third by the imposing Palazzo dei Consoli or city chambers built between 1332 – 1349. This is arguably the building that has the most significance for the town. With its soaring bell tower it is prominent in every photograph, and fundamental to the life of the city, this is where pageantry begins.  High in the campanile announcing significant events the huge bell is tolled literally by hand by a team with skills passed down from father to son, and to whom safety harnesses do not exist,  the palazzo is also home to the extensive town museum.

We climb the staircase and enter this historic building and commence our tour of the museum.  Prominently featured are the Iguvine Tablets, seven bronze sheets dug up in a nearby field in the 1440s.  Written in the previously lost ancient Umbrian dialect and Etruscan and Latin they date from 3rd to 1st century BC. and provide scholars with unique source of translation and daily life and worship in pre-history Umbria.  The museum is home to a large collection of paintings and ceramics.  Historically Gubbio was a centre of ceramicists, Maestro Giorgio being the one to perfect the technique of Maiolica, lustre glaze brought from the Islamic world and now so emblematic of Italian decorative ceramics, think of those souvenirs and plates from the Amalfi coast.

The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions, and currently on loan from the museum in Montepulicano, Tuscany is the “Ancient Instruments of Torture and Death” exhibition.  Naturally ‘curiosity took the better of the cat’ and I just had to have a look.  The exhibits are well described and displayed, and without exception are vicious and sadistic, examples of state and church brutality.  As I wondered from exhibit to exhibit I could not help but wonder what sort of evil mind invented these tortures,  how inhuman were the organisations that forced the infliction of torture, and what sort of person would send in a c.v. to apply for the job of torturer.  These are exhibits of institutionalised torture, failure to obey or you will be painfully tortured and even die.  The descriptions are graphic, the pain and degradation must have been unimaginable.  There is no element of choice, inhuman.

Thankfully most of these instruments of torture have long been abandoned by church and state, but searching my mind I must admit sadly and unacceptably in some instances they have been replaced by other more modern forms of torture, both physical and mental, plus ça change.  As I wandered aghast from one instrument to another it came to mind how these ‘gadgets’ have been adapted and adopted by S&M practitioners.  Walk through the average gay store (and I am sure any hetero sex shop) and there at the back is inevitably a huge range of ‘gadgets’ that are clearly based on the medieval instruments of torture.  There is to me, one fundamental and acceptable difference, S&M practitioners do so willingly and the gadgets are now used  for ‘pleasurable pain’ and voluntary subservience.  Like architecture or literature starting with few basic ingredients there evolve many variations and adaptations, and I am sure the exhibition will, for various reasons be of interest to some of our guests.

The exhibition runs until 1st May admission is €7  Read more from this link: Gubbio Civic Museum

It’s a funny thing how we are conditioned to be stereotypes and so generally find it hard to think outside the box.  I am a thwarted interior designer, I would love to have been an architect or designer, but alas I was steered down a different route.  Having said that I have been fortunate in having restored several properties however I still fantasise about a huge design commission, to be able to let my imagination run riot, I like to think I would have been ‘cool’ a leader of the field.  Looking back to the three years of building that went into creating Bellaugello Gay Guest House from the abandoned farmhouse it had been, I think of myself as having done a good job, of being visually aware, at least when it came to envisaging completed spaces from what were then abandoned stables and sheds.  Within a few moments of seeing the house it became apparent how the chaotic jumble could be divided to create five luxury suites for guests, each one with their own little curiosity and uniqueness.

As those of you who have been here will already know, I have certain phobias, some governed my restoration project.  I frequently describe them when showing new guests round the property, I repeat myself, many of you must have heard them more than once;  I’m not good with doors, I prefer open spaces, I dislike endless impersonal corridors, I want a place where I can sit outdoors in private, and I particularly detest small bathrooms, being especially allergic to shower cabinets.  Who conceived the concept of the shower curtain?  It is horrid, clammy, invasive, never clean, and that is even before you have inevitably dropped the soap and had to bend down to retrieve it and been enveloped by a cold clammy plastic.   Acrylic shower doors are little better, their opening mechanism is invariably illogical, and anyway just how do you turn on the shower without at the same time getting soaked?  Can’t be done.  As a result the bathrooms in Bellaugello are large, generous spaces they are ‘wet room’ style.  After all on holiday one has time to enjoy time spent in the bathroom.  Holidays are not the time or place for a salutary splash of cold water over a face to wake oneself up before rushing off to work, instead the bathroom must be a place that is great and pleasurable, a place to linger and enjoy.

Some bathrooms at Bellaugello Gay Guest House enjoy a huge view, one is starkly white, another art deco style, each is different.  I had such fun deciding on styles, colours, and sanitary wear.  Floor and wall tiles were locally sourced, after all Umbria has a long tradition of ceramics and it seemed a shame not to profit from this resource.  Two have floor tiles recuperated from the old farmhouse the interiors of which there was so little left.   Some have two showers, why not?  It is wonderful to shower with your man.  Some of the bathrooms spill outdoors where I have put a second shower outside on the terrace, guys love the joy of showering in the ‘world’s largest bathroom’ and the views are great!

My thanks to Andy Dwyer for the photo.

Sanitary wear in the bathrooms is Italian, they make the best designs, and even now when I enter a bathroom here I am still satisfied with what I chose.

But, I question myself, why oh why did I not put urinals in every bathroom?  I wish I had.  Not only are they ecological, for the required flush is minimal, but they are really well designed for purpose, and for us guys they are a great relief.  Nor are they a new concept.  In every public lavatory (Gents’) that I have been in there have been rows of urinals of one type or another.

I remember from my days way back in London serried ranks of huge 19th century floor standing semi circular ceramic urinals, individually adorned with gleaming copper pipes, lovingly polished by the all seeing attendant, and crowned by a hissing overhead cistern.  Memories of rural Ireland and Scotland in the 1980’s recall a half cut field drain sunk into a concrete floor, so often the ‘gents’ had no roof.  Autostrade service stations festooned with rows of hanging bowls on two walls.  Discos with almost waist high stainless steel troughs, so easy to miss, and nightclubs with a conveniently placed mirror. Even at school we had urinals, huge flat slabs of white porcelain that us boys pee’d against.  We have all grown up with urinals, but why are they not specified in a bathroom for new private houses, guest houses or hotel room bathrooms?

Ok some have alarming auto-flushes, the slightest intrusion into the ceramic orifice resulting in a cascade of water.  Some installations have modesty screens to divide the users, some not.  I have yet to work out the reason why, be it cultural or otherwise.  If needing a ‘pee’ us guys are accustomed to standing in a public bathroom fitted out with urinals, but I have rarely seen one in a private home or guest house, and I ask myself why not, and more importantly why when creating my gay guest house did I not include a urinal in the specification for every bathroom?

 

The New Year certainly kicked off in style, lots of merriment, high jinks and laughs.  Gubbio our local town home to the World’s Largest Christmas Tree towering above the town with its multitudinous coloured lights  crowned by a large flashing star set the picture for a town in celebratory mode.   We had a great time, a perfect intimate Italian Scottish dinner with lovely guys.  At midnight whilst the FranciaCorta corks popped we launched lanterns high into the inky black starry sky as fireworks exploded in a multitude of colours and designs all around the valley.  Italy is magical, the modern sits in harmony so very well with the traditional.

The other evening, the house being closed it was time to catch up with friends and neighbours some of whom came over to dinner.  Winter time might bring out the hunters and their bedraggled by-enlarge ill-treated dogs ever chasing the poor wildlife, a horrid pastime that I find abhorrent, but this cruel ‘sport’ does I suppose have one benefit; a good supply of wild boar meat.  Using a recipe given me by an Albanian friend I marinaded the meat in white wine and milk for two days and then made a rich tomato sauce, combined with pappardelle, it was rather good.  Freshly made ricotta hit the table, the very first of the season.  Handmade by a couple of my guests, light, delicate, melt in the mouth, utterly sublime, a cheese made with passion.  How lucky we all were to be able to taste it.  Ricotta is such a versatile cheese, invaluable for so many recipes, but eaten fresh, still slightly warm, it is simply orgasmic.

This new year has brought me into contact with something I never thought I would encounter let alone eat.  Many years ago an Italian guy came to London, he brought with him honest regional Italian cooking opening a delightful restaurant in the capital and of course (as one now does) then went on to write cookery books and host food travelogues.  Unlike so many of today’s cookery celebrities he had a understanding gentleness, a real thirst for regional traditions that had brought him a consummate passion for proper food.   In a tv programme travelling the length and breadth of Italy, at one point in Sardinia he was given the opportunity or rather ‘made’ to eat a local cheese known as  “Caza Marzu”.  Now for the unenlightened this cheese is, like the other night’s ricotta, made with sheep’s milk, but there the similarity ends, it is totally different.  It is a matured cheese and literally crawling with live maggots.  It is illegal to produce, one of the reasons being that the maggots must be alive, if dead some believe they can cause digestive problems in humans.  But this is Italy and the putrid cheese being a real Sardinian tradition can sometimes be ‘found’.  I remember Antonio Carluccio, for that is who he was, sitting in on a sun-drenched terrace somewhere in Sardinia describing how the cheese is matured, and then being given a spoonful to taste.  His facial expression could not be described in a thousand words…

There are just some memories that for some reason stick in your mind, and Antonio Carluccio sitting on a Sardinian hillside is just one of mine.  At the time of the programme it took me back to another memory this time University days, the course on international cuisine.  Tutored by a jovial, passionate and vaguely eccentric beer swilling Yorkshireman, we were taken on an imaginary and sometimes shocking tour of the world’s cuisines.  One of his lectures analysing just why foods are acceptable to certain races and not others he, off in Uganda, began to describe how in time of locust swarm the insects are caught in flight and eaten.  There these locusts in flight are considered a real delicacy.  To put a live locust in my mouth, no! I like my fellow students thought, never, not me, how extreme, I could not eat such a thing.  The thought of the live locust slowly wiggling its way down into my stomach was not at all appealing.  Weird thing is I love Oysters, I only eat them raw, I love how they slip down my throat, and now I am aware plants have intelligence and obviously are living organs, I guess I also eat them alive, is that cruel?  Strange how our various cultures have developed and what we each regard as acceptable and unacceptable.

The “Caza Marzu” was brought out of the kitchen and put on the table.  Sure enough the cheese was crawling with little white cheese fly maggots, they were in the cheese, on the cheese and making a run for it over the plate.  The very opening of the cheese giving them the chance to escape.  In went the spoon, the cheese is semi-soft.  One of my hosts put a blob on his plate, then on mine and then his husbands.

The smell is pungent, strong, reminiscent of the rugby changing room, dirty feet, sweaty hirsute bodies that have together had an energetic workout, musty, masculine, overpowering, at the same time repulsive and highly alluring.  Caza Marzu tastes just as it smells, the after-taste lingers a long while, and I kind of liked it, in fact I had second and third helpings…