Lake Trasimeno - a Jewel of Italy Photo © Michele Tortioli – proprietà Regione Umbria
Lake Trasimeno

Article by Giancarlo Elia Valori

President of the merchant bank “La Centrale Finanziaria Generale S.p.A.”

President of the “Chair for studies on peace, security and international development at the Faculty for International Relations of the Peking University, as well as  “extraordinary Professor” of international economy and politics at the same University.

Honorable of the Académie des Sciences of the Institut de France.

Mother Nature, generous beyond all limits, jealously preserves among its historical, cultural and artistic treasures a "jewel" having an attractive name: Lake Trasimeno! This lake is named after Prince Trasimeno, the son of  king Tirreno, the mythical founding founder of the Etruscan civilization. The legend has it that, in order to beat the summer heat, the prince decided to bathe in the cool water of the lake. When the nymph Agilla saw the young and handsome prince, she was so impressed by his beauty that she felt deeply in love with him and decided to seduce him.  She attracted him with her lovely song in the middle of the lake. He was so taken by her sweet and unexpected melody that he felt asleep and drowned. A sad story, indeed, but that is how the legend tells the lake has taken the name of this lovelorn prince. It is told that, in the warm evenings of August, when the gentle breeze blows over the clear water of the lake, you can still hear the melancholic mournful laments of the nymph Agilla, crying while eternally searching for her long lost love.

A territory in which mythology blends seamlessly with history

Lake Trasimeno was and still is a true gift of God! A "jewel" with shores characterized by stunning and varied landscape, enriched by a natural environment which is worth visiting in its entirety, so as to discover  the views of one of the most beautiful areas in Italy and one of the most famous cultural and tourist destinations. It is located between the regions of Umbria and Tuscany, along the ancient Via Flaminia - a sort of natural thoroughfare. Over the centuries, the area near the lake has been the  scene of clashes between peoples and civilizations and has been inhabited since ancient times. In fact, this landscape rich in history and art is also characterized by the significant presence of many fortification systems. Its genuine heritage, which has survived the swing of time, has been preserved, with all its priceless and timeless charm. Today Lake Trasimeno is mainly an oasis of peace where you can be enraptured by the enchantment of the various views plunged into the mystery of a soft and never blinding light, into the subtle magic of ancient Etruscan and Roman civilizations, as well as in memorable events closely interwoven with many exciting episodes revitalizing its historic fabric.

A place blessed by God!

The Trasimeno is not only the region of the Etruscan-Roman civilization, but also the region which witnessed the adventures of the condottieri, including the Knights Templar, and the genius of great artists. It is the region of hospitality, warmth, spirituality and, last but not least, the region of a unique food and wine gourmet supply. The taste and flavours shaped by an enviable pure and uncontaminated microclimate remind us of the "old" hearth and home and the log crackling and spitting in the fireplace which, for those who come from far away, always convey the joy of a family not broken up by the vagaries of modernism, often stifling the pleasures which keep on giving to everyday life the impression of being opposed to the sterile philosophy of "carpe diem"!  Reverting to the ancient civilizations, it is worth recalling that this region came into the history of Rome with the battle of 217 BC, where Hannibal's army annihilated the legions of Consul Caio Flaminio Neponte and 16,000 soldiers died on the hills of Tuoro sul Trasimeno and along the shores of Lake Trasimeno. Furthermore, the surrounding area is also related to the Kingdom of the Etruscans who, under King Porsenna in 510 BC, even challenged the power of imperial Rome. Nevertheless, at a later stage, the Roman Empire left in the Trasimeno the mark of his great hydraulic science, by building the first outlet intended to stabilize the water level and prevent floods, thus anticipating a technology used again by Fortebraccio and many others until current times. The scenic views you can admire from the shores of the lake and the surrounding hills are the same as the valuable backgrounds of the paintings by famous artists, including Pietro Vannucci, known as Perugino, the master of Mannerism in late fifteenth century, who set most of his splendid masterpieces in the mainland around Lake Trasimeno. In the past, in the surrounding area, where everything speaks of hospitality and warmth, some emblematic people left indelible and lasting traces as bright examples of a deep feeling of love, peace and spirituality. Not surprisingly its monasteries and shrines are like pages to be read to hear again the distant echo of an act of faith recited in chorus. In fact, for the sacredness of these places, the Trasimeno region is considered the centre of a route connecting the many sites of St. Francis, whose Franciscan movement had a large following. And right here he made many converts. Among these, one of the first, was the explorer and missionary Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, who went down in history for his long journey of 1245 - anticipating by some years Marco Polo - from France to the current Mongolia, to deliver a message of peace by Pope Innocent IV to the Great Khan. From the religious viewpoint, the Trasimeno region also gave birth to Margaret of Cortona, a courageous woman of incomparable inner strength, proclaimed  Saint in 1728 by Pope Benedict XIII. Hence Margaret became a glory of the Franciscan Order and the patron saint of Cortona, which for seven centuries has been preserving her body incorrupt. All this offers to the many visitors and tourists many opportunities to be seized and appears as a novel of irresistible emotions: it can be read from cover to cover, without a pause, in one go until  the last page which is still unwritten and no one will ever write. Many gems are embedded in this attractive diadem, which show a territory of ​​high environmental value, hosting many treasures - a widespread network of castles, monasteries, shrines, villages, historic houses with their clean streets which intertwine in a wonderful game of light and shadow, as in the tales of the grandmothers of old times – so difficult to find elsewhere.

Some hilarious anecdotes

The long history of the Trasimeno region is woven with many anecdotes which underlie the period, the customs, the traditions and specificities which characterized the habitat and way of life of this charming area. Since the anecdotes are and will be not only the salt of the greed for knowledge of scholars, but also of all human beings, I wish to recall two hilarious anecdotes which, in a time span of 523 years, saw as protagonists Hugues de Payens, the first Grand Master of the Knights Templar, and Cardinal Alderano Cybo-Malaspina. Both anecdotes - dated 1127 and 1650 respectively - happened to take place in Giorgi 46,  Petrignano del Lago, a village of Castiglion del Lago, which is today home to the Country House "Le Torri di Porsenna".

Why did the Templars make their first stop right along Lake Trasimeno? Because its territory was strategically located along the routes (the Via Flaminia and stretches of the Vie Cassia, Salaria, Muccia, Loreto and Francisca) which lead to the holy city of Rome, or from Rome to the ports of the Adriatic Sea where you could embark for the Holy Land. That stop of the first Grand Master of the Knights Templar witnessed their presence in vast areas of the region.

Let us come to the facts, in chronological order.

The Knights Templar - Hugues de Payens, a native of the small town in the French Champagne bearing the same name, together with his brother in arms Godfrey of Saint-Omer and seven other Knights, decided to found the original core of the Templar Order, by giving himself the task of ensuring the safety of the many pilgrims who kept on visiting Jerusalem. The first Grand Master was married to Catherine of Saint Clair, a Scottish woman of Norman descent, and founded the first community of Templars out of the Holy Land precisely in Scotland, on the land owned by the family of his wife. Those Knights were in effect monks, who had to dress simply and have short hair, as well as long beard and moustache. Their pure white coat, as a symbol, was to become an emblem of purity and at the same time a "shield" defending all professed Knights: in fact, only after 1147 did the Templars take the red Cross on the left shoulder. They were held in high esteem by the medieval peoples, who saw them as the "Cavalry of Christ", and embodied the true spirit of chivalry which, Bernard of Clairvaux, contributed to enhance and glorify with his writings and enterprises, which inflamed the crowds and, above all, the monarchs.

  Grand Masters of the Knights Templar Hugues de Payns

Those missions were aimed at protecting the pilgrims along the roads leading to the holy places, both in the Holy Land against the Muslims, and in the rest of the world from raiders, robbers and marauders. After leaving Jerusalem, in 1127 the Grand Master Hugues de Payens embarked on a recruiting trip to Europe, which lasted three years, setting his stops in such a way as to be in a position to give instructions to the various affiliates, in the various regions, along the way. After a lightning visit to Scotland, at his wife's family, he passed through England, where he proceeded to the designation of the regional "Master", Hugh d'Argentin, and then through other states up to Italy, together with five other knights: the above mentioned  Hugh d’Argentin, his brother-in-law Henri de Saint Clair, Count Hugues 1er de Champagne, Gaufridus de Sancto Aldemaro and Archambaud de Saint-Aignan.

As recounted by the records, it was in the year 1127 that, in a late morning of the first week of September, the six knights riding West Frisian black horses reached Lake Trasimeno, where they bathed in the cool and clear lake water. Since they were hungry because it was lunch time, they were suddenly attracted by a succulent smell of roast coming from the religious complex nearby: the monastery of San Secondo, run by an abbot and five hard-working and efficient monks. With a view to celebrating the birthday of the abbot, Father Bachisio Mulargia (of clear Sardinian origins), the monks  had prepared an enormous roast, including suckling pig and lamb, together with tasty side dishes. The welcome was exceptional and irresistible. They ate plenty of food and drank at least fifteen litres of red wine produced in the monastery. After eating so many delicacies and drinking many litres of wine, all the tablemates, one after the other, overcome by sleep, slept soundly for many hours. They woke up at dinner time and the meal was eaten indulging in revelry until very late at night. The records do not mention the length of their stay at the monastery. As we will see later on, while reporting the other anecdote, the Knights Templar were definitely struck not only by the highly tasty delicacies, but also by the atmosphere of harmony, congeniality,  helpfulness and hospitality of the monks, led by Father Bachisio Mulargia, a wholehearted and enthusiastic "big man": a truly impeccable "host".

The Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church – On the occasion of the much awaited 16th Jubilee of 1650 under Pope Innocent X,  Cardinal Alderano Cybo-Malaspina had been delegated to open the "Holy Door". At that time, in Rome, the very powerful Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, nicknamed Pimpaccia,  set the scene and dominated also for her feminine attractiveness. Within the Church, in particular, she had a royal place because she was the spouse of the Pope's late brother, whence her power and influence also on the decision-making process.

Cardinal Alderano Cybo-Malaspina

Unfortunately Cardinal Alderano Cybo-Malaspina was late. In the absence of radio, television, newspapers and even "tam-tam", news spread with the "word of mouth", which had at least two disadvantages. Firstly news arrived systematically with considerable delay; secondly news created concern, suspicion and sometimes even alarm because it was impossible to explain the reasons for impunity. Therefore no one was able to provide an explanation. Somebody had even suggested the possibility of an ambush or an attack. The shrewd Donna Olimpia took advantage of the Cardinal’s delay and, as usual, seized the opportunity and made is favourite grandson (who was just seventeen) be nominated Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, thus solving the problem with even the blessing and gratitude of the Roman Pontiff!

What about the Eminent Cardinal Alderano Cybo-Malaspina?

He was presented with a fait accompli and had to accept the fact and yield to the evidence. The chronicler noted that he was not upset and, indeed, he thanked God for sparing him the suffering for the consequences - which, of course, he considered incurable and serious – avoided for the providential solution by Donna Olimpia who, being lucky  beyond measure, had also the privilege of being thanked by the eminent Cardinal replaced by her young grandson. The reason for the delay deserves - indeed demands - an explanation and a justification. Arrived with a six-horse carriage at the periphery of the Western side of the famous Lake Trasimeno, also known as the Lake of Perugia, near the ancient Via Flaminia – currently Giorgi 46,  Petrignano del Lago, a village of Castiglion del Lago - the illustrious Cardinal noticed suggestive and stunning vegetation, a naturalistic oasis of green and peace with a charming religious complex: the monastery of San Secondo, run by a prior and four dynamic and versatile Olivetan Benedictine monks, environmentalists ahead of their time.

The welcome was exceptional and irresistible. In a blink of an eye, the prior -  Father Daniele – prepared one of those lavish meals that usually gourmets define as Lucullean. The Cardinal ate plenty of food and drank rivers of wine produced in the monastery. Between a big goat leg and a glass of wine, he began to feel that he could not keep his eyes open and was about to fall in the arms of Morpheus for a deep - and ultimately also deserved - sleep. The prior realized it and made immediately prepare a goose-feather bed complete with a purple rose canopy. No one is able to tell how long the eminent Cardinal slept and snored. But for grace received and thanks to the direct testimony of a prince of the Church, everyone knows that from that day on, it has been decided to build a beautiful accommodation structure on the ruins of the original monastery, which still retains its period architecture soberly and elegantly designed for hosting many guests and ensuring their well-being.

The two historical traces immediately focus the attention on the old refectory - so dear both to the Knights Templar and Cardinal Alderano Cybo-Malaspina - where now there is one of the most renowned restaurants in the region, located within the charming Country House complex "Le Torri di Porsenna" . A stop in this place is an experience of which you and your taste buds will always cherish the memory and which, as if by magic, turns into poignant and moving nostalgia.

Here Culinary Art (with capital “C” and capital “A”) has the magic of a mystery to be unravelled. And much more besides! With all its splendour and charm it keeps on proposing itself as an "oasis" of relaxation and pleasure managed with modern versatility by Bruno and Marisella, smart and brilliant entrepreneurs who become, at first glance, irresistibly nice and hospitable. Then, what they "propose" and offer does the rest. And the miracle inevitably occurs - as happened in the case of the two illustrious people of the past.  The attractive "mystery" of this charming Country House – immersed in the countryside characterized by enchanting and unspoilt nature where you  spontaneously feel the desire to relax, refresh, smell aromas and taste unique delicacies – lies also in the fact of being "involved" in this charming experience. Furthermore the setting, the atmosphere, the service, the cleanliness, the welcome and the cost are absolutely superlative ingredients. The high professionalism of the staff is masterfully highlighted by the daily example of the excellent cook Mary, who must be credited for stirring the customers’ "unbridled curiosity" to savour the "delicacies" she promotes and imposes, sure of being rewarded by a standing ovation. Bruno and Marisella are worth being praised and encouraged for their proactive dynamism thanks to which the Trasimeno region can be certain of becoming one of the most charming national and international tourist destination - to the benefit and promotion of the Umbria region. Speaking of this lovely region, both the Grand Master Hugues de Payens and Cardinal Alderano Cybo-Malaspina used to say: "when you know it is easy to love it!". It sounds like a slogan. Indeed, it is also a slogan. But it is mainly a musical phrase written and performed by these two great personages. In the name and on behalf of past and current Umbria, but particularly of future Umbria – forever.