Perugia … less than an hour from the island

Perugia – the impressive capital of Umbria – is well-known for its arts and culture and definitely worth a visit. It’s just half an hour by train from Passignano sul Trasimeno, where the ferry goes over to Isola Maggiore.  What’s more, it has its own airport a short bus/taxi drive away, where RyanAir flights arrive from Stansted. So, if you’re looking to ‘bookend’ your retreat week with a day or two elsewhere, Perugia makes an ideal place.

It’s also easy to make a day trip there from the island on our ‘no workshop Wednesday’ and spend the afternoon exploring the art gallery, or meandering around the shops. Perhaps simply sit and watch the world go by?  Perugia spreads across a huge hill top and down across the valley, with no shortage of cafés and restaurants to sit outside and enjoy the amazing views.

Perugia dates back to the Etruscan period and has an ancient university, along with a fine arts academy, a conservatoire, and a foreign language school attracting students from all over the world.  Not surprisingly – this being Italy! – there’s even the ‘University of Tastes,’ a national centre for vocational training in food.

One of Perugia’s big annual events is Eurochocolate, a festival that takes place in October, when the streets are lined with the most tempting stalls imaginable and the smell of pure chocolate wafts all around. This festival evolved largely because of local company Perugina, whose Baci (‘kisses’) chocolates, wrapped in their distinctive dark blue and silver, are widely exported. When you come to Italy, you see Baci everywhere, including single chocolates piled high by café cash desks.

Perugia also has a weekly flea market, with stall after stall of all kinds of weird and wonderful things. Allow plenty of time for browsing though … you’ll find everything from vintage handbags and jewelry to nineteenth century door knockers, chaise longues and chandeliers!

Irish lace … on an Italian island?

WP - Signora Benini making lace
Anna Benini making lace on Isola Maggiore

You could be forgiven for thinking Isola Maggiore’s tourist office was … well, just a tourist office. But take a closer look and up the stone stairs you’ll find the Museo di Merletto. Quiet and understated, this museum is home to some of the most exquisite Irish lace around.

The vast building that dominates the island was once the Convent of the Order of the Friars Minor. When the Guglielmi family bought it in the late 19th century, they extended it into a grand castle … and grand castles need beautiful furnishings.
Marquise Elena Guglielmi, the daughter of the family, had been thinking of ways by which the daughters of the local fishermen could earn money. She came up with the idea of crochet lace, punto da Irlanda (Irish stitch), which had become very fashionable again.

In 1904 Elena set up a lace school on Isola Maggiore and brought several specialist teachers over from Ireland. A far cry from spinning hemp and mending nets, creating this exquisite lace was an extremely delicate art. The girls worked with the thinnest of metal hooks, using thread so fine it was barely thicker than a strand of their hair. One of the islanders who learned this complex technique, Elvira Tosetti de Sanctis, went on to become a renowned lacemaker and she continued to teach punta da Irlanda for many years.

The lace making school was a resounding success, doubling its number of pupils, and meeting the great demand for lace items of the very highest quality. By learning these complex skills, the girls were also able to create their own beautiful trousseaus.  The Guglielmi family were well placed in society, and their island Villa – with its exquisite lace tablecloths and napkins – often attracted noble ladies not only from nearby Perugia but also from Florence and Rome. Lace from Isola Maggiore became much sought after.

Sadly, all good things come to an end. Lake Trasimeno slowly became more and more shallow, making it increasingly difficult for the noble ladies’ boats to visit the island. Eventually, the Giuglielmi family left, and in 1930 the lace school closed.

But today, we can enjoy its legacy, and marvel at the stunning work that Isola Maggiore proudly displays in its Lace Museum.  It is, of course, on the Via Guglielmi, in the heart of the village.  And if you pass Signora Benini, quietly making lace outside her home, be sure to say Buongiorno and admire her work … she was once a pupil at the school.

Palm Sunday in Assisi

A humbling experience this morning. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but brought along my olive branch from Isola Maggiore – slightly wizened since I was there on the last retreat week – and joined the small crowd outside the Temple of Minerva in Assisi to have it blessed. As the bells rang 9.30 (nine heavy chimes plus two dings for the half hour) the short service began. The priest, dressed head to toe in bright reds and gold, invited us all to raise our olive branches. Mine looked quite sorry for itself by comparison, but no matter … it was from the island, and therefore very special.

Then, time to process up the narrow winding street to San Rufino, headed by men laden with sheaves of palms. I didn’t go into the church for the full service, but opted instead to go and write in the small museum garden in the sun.

On Isola Maggiore, services are kept for the Easter weekend itself, when a priest travels across on the ferry specially. But the handful of islanders will be marking this Palm Sunday in their own quiet way, and a little bit of Isola Maggiore has been blessed.