Anyone with a molecule of romance in their hearts will have considered a vacation in Italy. Any lover of good food and wine would have mused on a visit to this land of culinary abundance. Every traveller who prizes quality produce, striking accommodation and the best of restaurants will want to stay in Norcia. Where? Yes, that is the expected response from the untutored.
The historic town of Norcia is in the heart of the Valnerina, on the edge of the Sibillini National Park in Umbria. That’s the region that is sadly overlooked by those visiting Italy for the first time. One passes through this region on the way from Tuscany to Rome, and it seems the only variation on that programme is travellers choosing to travel from Rome to Tuscany.
The pretty walled town of Norcia is just what one would hope to find in Italy. It has retained much of that timeless quality and charm that is so often swept away by modernisation. Norcia, traditionally known in English by its Latin name of Nursia, is situated on a wide plain at the foot of Monti Sibillini, a part of the Apennines with some of its highest peaks. It’s an ideal base from which the hardy and energetic sorts will set out for days of mountaineering and hiking.
The town’s recorded history goes back as far as the 5th century BC, when the Sabines settled here. It became an ally of ancient Rome in 205 BC, during the Second Punic War, but perhaps it is better known for its later Christian inhabitant. St. Benedict, the founder of the monasteries that bear his name, and his twin sister St. Scholastica, were born here in 480. Monks came to Norcia in the 10th century, and the Monastery of St. Benedict is built over the ruins of the house the saint called home.
In the 6th century Norcia was conquered by the Lombards, becoming part of the Duchy of Spoleto. In the 9th century it was attacked by Saracens. In 1324 it was struck by a powerful earthquake and more followed in the years 1763, 1859, 1979. After the earthquake of August 22, 1859 the Papal States, to which Norcia then belonged, imposed strict building regulations forbidding structures of more than 3 floors and requiring the use of particular materials and building techniques. This edict has helped to give the town its architectural style, which is one of its great assets.
Norcia’s celebrated main basilica is, unsurprisingly, dedicated to St. Benedict and is connected to the Benedictine monastery. The building we see today was erected in the 13th century on the remains of Roman buildings assumed to be the house in which the twin saints were born.
There is much here to occupy the discerning tourist. Gothic facades, narrow streets, striking views, shops and museums. But those aforementioned shops will be the draw. There are the usual boutiques selling stylish home goods but there are others that are more memorable, and they are filled with the most delectable of local food delights.
Lentils (Castelluccio variety) are big here, or more accurately, they are small here. They are celebrated all over the country for their distinctive flavour and their texture, and they are the traditional Italian New Year accompaniment to Zampone di Modena, stuffed pigs trotter. They are also presented as a rustic soup which will be welcomed by those returning from mountain walks.
For a touch of luxury consider Norcia’s black truffle. There are numerous shops here selling fresh truffles, and whole or sliced in jars. They are fine quality with an aroma that will be mouth-watering for any lover of these fungi. That earthy scent is eclipsed by the flavour brought out by cooking, and it doesn’t take much to create a decadent pasta or egg dish from some truffle shavings.
One look at the landscape and one realises that this must be pig paradise. According to tradition, it was the Jews who arrived after the destruction of Jerusalem who invented the technique of preserving pork. Now, that sounds unlikely but as they were unable to eat the meat themselves, they chose to preserve it in order to use in trade.
From the 12th to the 17th century, processing techniques developed along with the emergence of the “norcino” or dedicated pork butcher, who set up guilds which in turn created new cured-meat products. Pope Paul V, with a papal bull of 1615, recognized the Norcian guild dedicated to the home-grown saints, and several years later Pope Gregory XV promoted this association to the rank of Arch-confraternity – which later became the university of the pork butchers of Norcia and Cascia and of the Norcian empirical pork physicians. Yes, their knife skills were appreciated more by people than pigs.
Cured hams, capocollo salami (made from pork neck and shoulder, and a speciality of Norcia) as well as prosciutto crudo (uncooked, dry-cured ham), spalletta (small cooked shoulder of pork), loins, bacon and guanciale (unsmoked cured pig’s jowl) are all available from local purveyors. Those products are generally made from regular pigs, but Norcia is also widely known for good hunting, especially of wild boar, and for the production of sausages and ham made from that free-range pork. Such products have been named after Norcia: in Italian, they are called norcineria.
Norcia is worthwhile visiting any time of year but winter tempts with crisp air, warm fires and the best of food. It’s a compact little city that offers enough amusement to fill a short break; or consider it as a base from which to wander.
Getting to Norcia:
By road, allow two hours from Rome, via Terni, and around two and a half hours from Florence, via Perugia.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018