At the Borders

People in Lamoli di Borgo Pace and nearby villages in the Metauro valley in northwest Le Marche like to stand in their town piazza gyrating slowly as they give you a geography lesson.

The peaceful Metauro Valley

‘You can see three provinces from here. Over there is Emilia Romagna’, pointing due north; ‘Tuscany is there’, swivelling anticlockwise through an arc of 45 degrees; turning a bit more to face south, ‘and there is Umbria’. Even though to foreign travellers this mountainous part of Le Marche seems remote, the inhabitants believe they’re at the centre of the action.

Which way to Umbria?

Oasi San Benedetto

We’re staying at Oasi San Benedetto, a former Benedictine monastery, where the tireless Max cultivates woad, curates a museum of natural dyestuffs and gives dyeing courses using his woad. In the kitchen is the equally industrious and always cheerful Patrizia creating colourful dishes using local ingredients.

Max introduces us to the fascinating world of natural dyestuffs, making the round of all the colours from red to green to yellow to blue.

I’m here to research a new Tastes & Textiles tour. Accompanying me is Cheryl Alexander, who I met through Slow Travel Tours and who offers her own tours from her company Italian Excursion. Also with us is Marilyn Geary, a fibre artist who has already come on two of my tours. She’s here to vet the activities from the point of view of a textile professional. Cheryl and I have talked about collaborating and now we’re going to do it. You’ll benefit by having an extra guide and organiser with you. It’s really hard fulfilling all the roles on a tour: being the expert guide and interpreter, while also looking after all your personal needs and dealing with the agriturismo owner who forgets the shower needs a shower head.

Surely it’s too indulgent eating black venere rice in saffron sauce in a monastery!

Woad conjures up an image of naked Celtic Britons painted blue. I hope you won’t be disappointed that there are no Celtic tribes or nudist camps on this tour. Woad was the indigo of Renaissance Italy (and long before). It’s fun to imagine Duke Federico relaxing in his woad-dyed jeans, but a more likely portrait is the Montefeltro’s, ruling family of Urbino in Le Marche, posing stiffly in blue silks and linens.

I want a jumper knitted with this woad-dyed wool.

We turn up in nearby Mercatello sul Metauro without an appointment, yet Beatrice opens the tourist office for us and gives us an impromptu tour of the town taking in the impressive cathedral and the frescoes in the monastery. She’s going to organise a demonstration of lacemaking for our group, and if you want to try it, the women will teach you. They’re very proud of their craft.

Beatrice tells us the fascinating stories behind the frescos.

Reluctantly we leave this peaceful valley to head to Città di Castello in Umbria. We stop on the way at an archaeological arboretum where Isabella dalla Ragione curates orchards of heritage fruit varieties. When you’re there next May, the almonds will be immature, the perfect stage for you to taste the green almond salad they served in the Renaissance.

Isabella in her orchards (Cheryl on the left)

Also at Città di Castello we visit the Tela Umbra a Mano, part museum and part linen mill, where skilled artisans continue to weave the fine linens characteristic of Umbria.

Marilyn watches with admiration as two weavers work together at the wide loom.

It’s only a short drive to the village where Michelangelo was born in the Valtiberina, the upper Tiber Valley. Our host Gabriele Bigiarini at Agriturismo Terra di Michelangelo welcomes us with a dinner showcasing his pork products, and the cantuccini (biscotti) of his cook Catia. She’ll teach you how to make them.

Dinner on the terrace at Terre di Michelangelo

Dinner is as good as the view.

The Valtiberina is rich in history, art and textiles. Piero della Francesca, one of the most influential of early Renaissance artists, was born in Sansepolcro where two important works are displayed in the city museum.

No wonder later artists were so influence by Piero.

Nearby Anghiari is the home of the Busatti family textile mill where you’ll have a private tour of the jacquard looms and time to shop. If you’re thinking of making a patchwork quilt, you can rummage among the sacks of off-cuts.

The looms are old, but are kept in excellent working condition.

Every piece is finished by hand.

We now move further north up the Arno Valley into the Casentino where at the opposite end of the social spectrum from the Montefeltro aristocrats, shepherds were wearing woollen cloaks, fulled and napped to make them warmer. The fabric has gone upmarket since then. Remember that scrumptious orange coat Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? One of the few extant mills that weaves this panno casentino is in Stia.

At Tessilnova they still weave the panno casentino

Antique napping machine in the wool museum next door.

In the past the napping was done using teasles to roughen the surface of the cloth.

The accommodation can make or break a tour. During this part of our research trip we’re planning on staying in two different agriturismi (farm accommodation) and visiting three others. We also want to meet Martha Speck, who is a textile collector and owns the Castello di Porciano overlooking Stia. She runs the castle as a B&B, and when we see the rooms and the setting, there’s no doubt about where to stay, even though some people will have to share bathrooms. Marilyn said she’d even share a bed in order to stay here, but given our small groups, this won’t be necessary!

Good thing there’s a lift to get to the top!

We have a lot of research to fit in here. We talk to Angela about a creative weaving workshop we can do with her in the Museo della Lana (wool museum).

Angela demonstrates her travelling loom.

We go to find Leonardo the cheesemaker and his mother Miranda.

After watching Leonardo make pecorino cheese, we taste his fresh raviggiolo.

Miranda will teach you to make the tortello di patate (potato ravioli) with a rolling pin that keeps the whole household in order.

Next stop Corezzo.

Here they fry their huge ravioli instead of boiling them. You’ll learn how to make these.

To meet all these wonderful people and experience life at the borders, join us on the tour.

Tastes & Textiles: Woad & Wool
12–22 May 2018

Remember, you don’t have to know how to weave or spin or dye to enjoy this tour. Everyone can appreciate the skills of the handful of people who are carrying on traditional crafts, not to mention the great food, wine, art and architecture Italy has to offer.

Erica Jarman invites you on inspiring culinary tours of life behind the scenes that you won't find in any guidebook — get to know the food artisans and craftspeople of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Liguria. Come join me and my Italian friends and dip into a lifestyle where lunch is more important than business. Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Erica’s own adventures on her blog.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.
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