The big Umbrian birthday party
Peace and quiet in Umbria.
We turn off the narrow country road and bounce up a gently winding dirt track towards tall iron gates. The hand drawn map says "pubble road" but we aren't fooled. It should read "pebble", we decide.
Our elation is quietly contained but just beneath the surface each of us is bubbling with excitement.
After two years of planning and almost 10 years since the idea was first discussed, we are finally here. We have seen photographs of Vocabolo Sambuco on the internet, but nothing prepares us for the reality of our renovated 17th-century villa in the Umbrian countryside.
It is idyllic, a movie-set location of stone, wood and terracotta framed by lush countryside, ready to be lit up by a disparate cast of 13 Australians on the other side of the world to celebrate our friend Jane's 50th birthday.
Our incredibly dirty and dinged car (which made the rental agreement a modern work of art in Florence as we insist the hire company representative document every mark) rolls up the drive and shudders to a halt on the front lawn. We step out onto the grass and, as the last group to arrive, are more interested in finding the others than our rooms for the week.
But with all bar one lone soul out shopping for food and wine, we explore the many levels of the villa. If we had a house built to fit our four basic family groups, this couldn't have been more apt. Five bedrooms and seven bathrooms, and various anterooms off the sleeping areas give us all plenty of space and privacy.
There is room to spread out during waking hours too, with a games room, two sitting rooms, a formal dining room as well as a large refectory table in the kitchen and a couple of outdoor eating areas, and down yet another set of stairs, a large laundry with two washing machines adjoining another casual living area.
When it is not rented, the villa is a home to local entrepreneur Fabrizio, his wife Olympia and their son, Elias. When there are guests, the family moves into Orvieto, a hill town and the nearest main centre, 12 kilometres away.
A sign of a true home is the extent to which it is equipped. Vocabolo Sambuca's cupboards are stuffed full of crockery, glassware and linen and drawers filled with cutlery and utensils. Although Italian toasters are a breed apart, we struggle to fault the supply of small appliances as we whiz and whir to create platters of food and pitchers of cocktails. Food and drink play a large role in our week in Umbria. Having always shopped, cooked, quaffed and conversed well together, we find we do it just as well in Italian. We are like a shearing gang, albeit a gourmet-fed one.
Apart from lunch at a restaurant off the tourist route in Orvieto - where we aim to have four courses and conk out almost to a person after the seriously big primo piatto (first course), and a wonderful birthday feast of antipasti (including an unforgettable local version of brawn, pasta, a course of two lamb dishes, the best eggplant dish, chipped and roasted potatoes and salad followed by birthday cake) - we cook every meal ourselves.
There are a few birthdays to celebrate, on the actual day or otherwise. Good excuses for presents, speeches, toasts, practical jokes and cake. The main event, Jane's 50th, is a meal prepared over nine hours by three cooks in the villa kitchen.
During the day we eat alfresco, on one side of the house or the other to capture the warm spring sun. Afterwards we loll about the garden, chatting and reading in long, low wooden deck chairs and looking out on a vista of vineyards and rolling green hills dotted with trees and grazing farm animals. Not another building in sight.
If we are out and about, exploring, we picnic on fresh bread, meats and cheeses, fruit and wine spread out on rugs on the ground. We spend half a day on a porchetta trail, using anecdotal information to hunt down a particular butcher to buy thick slices of the Umbrian favourite of stuffed, spit-roasted suckling pig. The picnic that day is in a hilltop park and on top of a slow running spring. At the time we blame the dampness on a spilled glass of wine.
One of the most successful meals is galantina di faraona: guinea fowl galentine stuffed with capsicum, prosciutto, pistachios, minced pork, cranberries and black truffles, which we buy already prepared.
Nights at the villa are always interesting. More so the mornings when over a walking-talking breakfast of toast, eggs, jam, and cheese and big pots of tea and coffee, we learn of the most recent nocturnal goings on. There are reports of howling wolves and distant clanking of bells, thought to be around the necks of sheep avoiding the wild dogs, and hooting owls. All fascinating and unfamiliar to Australians.
The clear night skies seem filled with more stars than in a good night in the Australian outback. The four younger people in our group, Jack, Sophie, Gabriel and Max, build a bonfire in the orchard and sit out each night toasting marshmallows and fingers. It is a task rounding them up and into bed so they will be fit for touring the next day.
We suck up the clean air and the freshness of everything around us. Sorties beyond the immediate garden - defined on one boundary by a hedge of bay trees, a vegetable garden and a series of caves dating from Etruscan times on another - are rewarded with armfuls of wild flowers. Our tables are decorated with vases of poppies and cornflowers and unidentified blossoms in pinks and whites and yellows and purples.
Our Italian friend, Eugenio, was born in Sardinia, raised in Rome and has lived for the past 37 years in Sydney. He learnt from the old gardener, who pottered about the villa grounds armed with a slasher, that there is a small rustic house for sale nearby.
A party sets out early one morning to have a look at the property. For an hour or so we cross fences, fields and a stream, wading through hectares of long, dew-laden grass past an ancient well. We visualise a mini-paradise as architect Eugenio takes us through a slightly renovated ruin, discussing how this will be the kitchen and these the bedrooms and here the kitchen garden will grow.
We are a little excited at the thought of owning part of this lush paradise and sustain that feeling until we learn a couple of days later that the place had already been sold. "For too much," says Eugenio.
The week together in rural Italy gives us a new insight into our long-time Italian Australian mate, to the depth of his culture, the strong bonds of family, and an understanding of how hard it must have been for him to move, albeit for love, to the other side of the world.
Italians have a closeness to the land that manifests itself in the importance they place on food - its growing, gathering, preparation for the table and best of all, eating. In Umbria we live a little of that life.
Travelling in a large group can be a frustrating experience for the independently minded. For a week the 13 of us cover the province in a three-car convoy that moves at the pace of a gypsy caravan. We are the people going slowest along the road, whizzed past frequently on blind corners by the rest of the world.
One evening, after a day's sightseeing and keen to get home to an aperitivo or two, one of our drivers passes the leader, immediately takes the wrong exit and, before getting back on track, has one of those unplanned travel experiences: a full tour of the west side of Perugia that includes a spin around a supermarket car park.
Despite needing the resolve of Hercules and bravado of a gladiator to cope with driving in Italian traffic, our only other motoring adventure involves a drain beside the villa entrance; one of our cars rests there overnight until there is enough manpower to heft it out the next morning.
We have lots of laughs. One man mistakes his wife's HRT tablets for a cold and flu cure then complains of hot flushes and mood swings. We are constantly amused by and frequently revisit a local bowser which dispenses wine rather than fuel. There are practical jokes, and singing and dancing and Max, 10, is a wonderful accompanist at the piano.
And there is the Anchovy Friendly Society of Australia. Anchovies or alici are an Italian staple and our group's interest in them started a few years ago when one of our sons, just now a stripling, developed a taste for them. From little fish bigger ideas grow. Today we have a song, a club polo shirt with embroidered logo, and an elected committee vested with developing the appreciation of anchovies through recipes (try to find a dessert to fit an all-anchovy menu) and plans for making awards to restaurants for style and inventiveness in the use of alici.
Savouring our days in this slow-food world, we have little interest in hearing news from the outside. Over a period of several years, most of our group has spent time living well together. But there is no accounting for the dynamic as we live under the same roof for a week and overseas. If anyone has had less than a good time though, they have made a good job of concealing it.
We visit Assisi, Bolsena, Orvieto and lots of little towns in between, yet don't scratch the surface of places to see in the region. So there are plans to be made at our debrief weekend.
As we have seen so much religious art as we tour from basilica to chiesa to cappella, being 13 at the last supper at our villa seems apt. We agree there is nothing better than to be with good friends whose company you thoroughly enjoy - plus a flagon or two of wine and good food.
And around that table, we devise our motto: alici, amici, tredici (anchovies, friends, thirteen).
* GETTING THERE
Cathay Pacific fly daily to Rome via Hong Kong from $1968. Qantas, in conjunction with BA, fly via London to Rome, and in conjunction with Cathay via Hong Kong, from $2132.
Orvieto is 120km from Rome and 150km from Florence. Rent a car before you go for $52 a day with Drive Away Holidays (www.driveaway.com.au). Or travel by train to Orvieto and get a taxi.
* STAYING THERE
Villa Vocabolo Sambuco is 12km from Orvieto, phone 0011 39 0763 218744