If Rome was built on seven hills, Umbria must have several times more judging from the many cities and towns sitting high on steep hilltop crests. Such a one is the town of Deruta, whose medieval city gates usher us into the most famous center for Majolica pottery since the 13th century.
“Buon’giorno,” a man says, smiling, as I pause outside his store. I ask if this is his studio and he says, no, it is his wife’s. I admire an elegant ceramic rendition of a Michaelangelo painting, and he proudly shows me another work. “From the cover of a book that belonged to Catherina di Medici,” he explains. We talk for a while and when I thank him and turn to leave, he offers a map of Deruta and a friendly smile.
Deruta is a friendly place. It also hums with activity. This has been so since the early days when artisans used a special clay found in these Umbrian hills to create their ceramics.
From Umbrian hills
Came that all-important clay
Large plates brilliant with fruit and flowers, urns decorated with cherubs or landscapes, tables glowing with color and intricate designs—all greet us as we walk through narrow streets lined with shops. These shops often double as artists’ studios, and the pottery they offer are as individual as the artist themselves. After a while, we feel saturated with beauty and need sustenance.
We find it in a small café where we order toasted pizza and settle down in one of the two small tables outside. Another couple, sitting at the other table, tell us that they have come from Holland accompanied by their little dog, Bobby. They have a camper which they take all over Europe, and they tell us about adventures of crossing the narrow roads of the Apennines.
Now, these are really some kind of hills.
A delusional soul once claimed that driving through the Apennines would be a trip through ‘little mountains.’ A few days ago we drove across these same hills to visit Mike’s family who lives in Civita Nova, by the sea. It was a memorable journey, for the Apennines are crisscrossed with narrow, formidable switchbacks that challenge the driver at almost every turn, and never mind the truck that comes roaring around the bend without warning. Roads rise and rise higher and then plunge suddenly into valleys, taking stomachs along for the ride. Huge rock faces frown down from either side and then disappear as the car slides into yet another switchback. Tunnels, covered with scrub and golden with broom, hurtle us into darkness.
The ‘little mountains’ are not for the fainthearted, so we were surprised to see several bicyclists along the way. Some looked hot and tired, but others were brisk and full of life and purpose. Cyclists in Umbria are a common sight— we often see them as we travel through Umbria. Some ride singly or in pairs, others travel in groups accompanied by a bicycle tour bus.
But in the world of bicycles, there are some who challenge themselves to the limit of endurance and sometimes beyond. That day on our trip to the sea we saw a trio of riders. The front man looked fit and full of purpose; the second woman strong and determined as she pedaled; the third, far behind, had his shirt wrapped around his neck, and we could almost hear him panting as he sweated and strained up the unforgiving slope. I felt for him.
Nor was he the only rider to falter. Later as we climbed yet another steep slope we saw three riding abreast. At first, it looked as if the trio had simply decided to block the road, but soon we realized that this wasn’t so. The center rider was tiring, and his friends on either side had slid an arm round his back, their hands interlocked, to pull him along.
It’s heartening to know that friendship can get the better of the ‘little mountains’!