Montefranco evolved in its construction over several centuries… built, as with many of Umbria’s mountain villages, as a town within a defensive fortress surrounding its Castello Bufone, sometime in the 11th century. And, as with virtually all the mountain fortress towns speckled throughout southern Umbria, its past tells of power shifts for its control. This particular town however, was able to maintain most of its history as a “free zone.” Its name, which is said to have been coined by refugees of our own Arrone rejecting a rival’s control in 1228, translates roughly to free-zone. “Franca,” free-zone and “monte.,” mountain.
It has a chiesa that is nothing short of stunning, with its formidable exterior juxtaposed against ridged mountain peaks. It has tiny, winding alleyways… not streets; those only encircle the town, the center remaining solely “walkable.” There are planters hanging under almost every window ledge, spilling over with bright red geraniums and purple and white petunias. Montefranco is quite simply, picture perfect.
This visit we ventured deeper than we had prior. Deeper, meaning that we decided to stop for some cold beers at a bar near the edge of town; it was hot and we were thirsty. There were some locals seated out front and as we passed them to order from the counter I offered up a few Italian greetings. “Buon giorno,” good day and “permesso?” is it okay, as we grabbed an open table. I went inside to order “Che caldo, no?” It’s hot, isn’t it? I said to the girl behind the counter and ordered our drinks. To our surprise, this simple effort unleashed broad smiles and chatter amid everyone and an all-out conversation ensued among our group of four, the locals, the bartender, the bartender’s sister, everyone! Questions, a flurry of translations (because none of them spoke English,) more questions, introductions and laughter.
Wasn’t this Montefranco? Aren’t we “stranieri?” Yes and, not anymore. The kindness of these people who didn’t know us when we walked up, but who ended up hugging us as we left, was eye opening. Who knew the key to being “welcome” was as easy as acting like there was no reason not to be.
Arriving at 7:30 pm to ensure a parking space for the 8 pm event start, we walked leisurely around Montefranco before the crowds gathered. It was an entirely different take on this town we had looked upwards to for the past 8 years; we hadn’t a clue as to how beautiful it was. Narrow, stone alleyways wound their way in and around the center of town with gas torches to light the way.
There were elaborate coat of arms flags made of velvet hanging from those flower filled window boxes and people of all ages dressed in period apparel. There were musicians playing, an artist painting and a man working with copper, tucked into candle lit doorways as we strolled past; each doorway marked with a wooden sign describing the reenactment happening inside. And a woman perched on a stone steps weaving harvest baskets from olive wood twigs. I stopped to buy one for my daughter in law and struck up a conversation. She spoked excellent English, a rarity in these parts, and laughed out loud as she told us about learning to make the baskets from an 80-year old man with enormous strong hands, and no teeth!
We followed the smells down to the lower level where now there were crowds of people gathered, munching on hot sausages and fried bread caked with powered sugar. We weren’t hungry but as usual, we were a bit thirsty, so we gulped down a few glasses of vino rosso and people watched. Then made our way back up to the mezzanine to witness five drum teams from the region, some decked in chainmail, some in high leather boots, some sporting hats with a giant golden feather. They played in turn, their march to battle; their faces serious and controlled, with obvious understanding of the importance in their role.
We took it all in. The town, its people, their traditions, and our new understanding of Montefranco.