There is one thing I have learned about Italians after living here for a year and a half. They are resilient and they are proud of it. The Italians pass on from generation to generation the importance of carrying on because nothing stays the same. Nowhere in Italy so far has this been so evident as it was in Norcia.
As with all towns, villages and cities in Italy Norcia has a long history. St. Benedict, the founder of modern Monasticism was born in Norcia. Benedictine monks still live in Norcia and because of them Norcia was one of the first places to establish a center to begin studying and performing surgery. It began by studying pigs, whose organs are very similar to humans. Pigs have since become a very important part of Norcia’s economy and fame. The butchers in Norcia are famous for their precision and skill. In fact, when Queen Victoria had to have surgery performed on her eye she sent for a Norcian butcher to help perform the surgery due to their reputation for exceptional precision.
These butcher stores are called “Norcineria” throughout the region. This special name is an homage to their skill, not only in cutting the meat but in curing it and the flavor due to the lentils the pigs are fed. Being a vegetarian I can’t comment on the flavor but my friends and the lines of people clamoring for proscuitto, salami etc. assured me it is indeed something special. I preferred the local lentils, the delicious cheeses (especially Pecorino and Caciotta) along with the farro and local truffles.
These butchers are what took us to Norcia. I knew there had been a few earthquakes that had done a tremendous amount of damage to the area but before we walked through the ancient walls I had no idea what the situation was truly like. Norcia is located in a valley in between the hills and mountains of Umbria (on the border of Marche). It is surrounded by National parks along with great hiking and biking trails. So inbetween all of this lush green, off the beaten path of the main Umbrian roads, there is a small town surround by an ancient wall. When I first walked through the gate the town was quiet, almost eerily so, but I didn’t think much about it since it was risposa (resting time in the afternoon) and COVID-19 so Italian streets have changed from the bustling energetic places they used to be.
The Norcineria’s were open and several were bustling with people, who like us, had come to sample some of the famous meats and cheeses. In true Italian form the butcher was jovial and incredibly proud to be sharing tastings of his products. As we made our way to the main Piazza (square) of the town it became glaringly obvious that the 2016 earthquake had done a massive amount of damage to the town and to its historical landmarks. Standing in the Piazza St. Benedectine, looking across at buildings ravaged by a 6.6 earthquake 5 years ago. The ancient white stones remained in place by sheer will, a determination all too familiar to the Italians.
Making our way through the town, in between the cracked buildings, the chained up doorways to homes that once welcomed its inhabitants, a few Norcineria’s remain, and newly renovated restaurants wait to serve delectable dishes. The homes that are still inhabited are beautifully groomed, with flowers and plants bringing life back to the town. I loved walking through the town, seeing the old buildings propped up modern scaffolding and wiring that will keep them intact until the restoration crews can attend to them. As the rest of the world pauses waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to pass Norcia continues to rebuild. Carpenters, brick masons, and other reconstruction groups work carefully and slowly to rebuild the town into the beautiful oasis it once was. The people who remain in the town, most having been displaced to temporary housing outside of the ancient walls, continue to give it life and joy.
At the end of our walk through town we sat outside a lovely restaurant, sharing a bottle of wine, watching the elders gather in the Piazza, laughing and talking. When we asked the restaurant owner about what it was like after the earthquake she explained that it was very difficult, but not nearly as much as the virus. While her sadness was evident when she said this her gracious Italian character overwhelmed us as she served up a lovely antipasti, and a beautiful wine.
Norcia is a lovely town, definitely worth the visit if you are in Umbria, not only for the Norcineria’s, the cheeses and the wines but also for a glimpse of the strength of the human spirit, and living example of a society that values history and tradition over speed and convenience.