Norcia: Monks, Mountains & Palazzo Seneca

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We had a wonderful weekend in the small town of Norcia, which is located in the mountains of Umbria (between Tuscany and the Adriatic Sea). We stayed in a small hotel there, Palazzo Seneca, which is in a former palazzo. It reminded us of the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels – quietly elegant, but not stuffy – we felt instantly at home in the many nooks and crannies to read and relax.

The family that runs the hotel has run restaurants and hotels in Norcia for almost 200 years. They were so excited to see us because they said don’t get many Americans this far off the beaten path. We met the matriarch of the family (see our picture below), along with her son. By the end of our trip, we felt like we were part of their family, too.


Domenica de Palme (Palm Sunday)

We had heard a lecture comparing Tuscany to Umbria. The speakers said that the two are culturally very different because Tuscany had been under the rule of the Medicis, while Umbria was a Papal State. Even today, they said that Tuscany is more secular, while Umbria is more traditional.

We definitely could see differences as we attended Palm Sunday services. The services in Tuscan towns were more sparsely attended and contemporary – in Florence, the songs even were accompanied by guitar. In Norcia, the church was packed with all walks of life, even dogs.  They conducted confession all throughout the service – people would just pop up and go kneel down at the confessional booth in front of everyone. Maybe in a small town there are no secrets.

Norica also is the home of St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Monks, so they have a fairly large order there. The monks entered in robes swinging the incense and chanting (above the din of the confessing sinners).

At one point, we all rose and went to the altar to each receive an olive branch symbolizing the palm fronds for Palm Sunday. Then they opened the massive wooden front doors, and the monks led a processional down the front steps, while we all walked in complete silence in a big circle around the piazza, while the church bells rang. It was incredibly moving, as we contemplated Jesus’ ride into the city as he knew what he would face.

The downside was that when we went back in, Frank and I were not as savvy as the other congregants in scrambling for a pew and lost our seat. We had to stand in the back as the monks chanted (in Latin) for two more hours. We were a little sore, but the service really was amazing.

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This area is the home of the Mount Sibilini National Park, a beautiful region with high mountains and snow-covered valleys. Frank and I did a driving loop and REALLY got off the beaten path. Spectacular.

We stopped in a little town called Castellucio, which the guidebook said started as a colony of sheepherders’ huts. Now they are famous all over Europe for their lentils, which grow in the valley. The area is also popular with hikers, and there are refugios (rustic restaurants) all along the trail. We hiked up to one and were the only people not in snow pants (a sure sign we had come by car rather than foot). But the food was warm, nourishing, and delicious. We had tartufo frittata (truffle quiche) and of course, lentils!

On our way home, we even dipped over into Le Marche, another region of Italy. We went through some towns that were so small that the people on the street literally all stopped and stared at us – I don’t think they get too many visitors.

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Ciao Norcia

We really were sad to leave this beautiful region and wonderfully hospitable inn in Norcia. As we got ready to leave, the matriarch of the family flagged us down. She hugged us, made us promise to come back, and gave us a small burlap bag of lentils. She stood in the road waving as we drove off. What a truly special place.

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