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May 31, 2024

Together Abroad

It started with a note I filed for the next trip: no one quite clear about the exact meeting spot. Some travelers arrived at Terminal 1, having just spent time with their children in Europe. Others had taken cabs back to FCO (Rome’s international airport) after a few preliminary nights in Rome. And I was the only constant as a known Asheville School entity. But with the magic of cell phones accessing the airport’s Wi-Fi, we all, a lucky thirteen, finally gathered with our bus driver, Manuel. We hefted or rolled our luggage, loaded the elegant touring bus, and headed to Spoleto, a magical hilltop town in Umbria, whose cobblestone streets and alleys, archeological excavations and castle, evoked centuries well before the date Columbus, an Italian, set sail to discover what he expected to be a passage to India—and changed the course of history in the West.

Greeted by our local guide and maestro, Lorenzo Muti, who escorted us to our thirteenth century palazzo, so began our April 2023 adventures in Umbria and Tuscany—the inaugural Asheville School alumni/ae (and parents—current and past—and friends of the School) program for international travel.

We arrived after Easter, so the crowds were larger in Siena and Florence. The small Umbrian hill towns we visited—home base in the cultural town of Spoleto, olive oil in Trevi, wine canteen in Montefalco, spiritual center in Assisi—were not inundated with throngs. Siena, with its duomo, shops, and language and music institutes, was much busier. Florence, just as it eclipsed Siena’s grandeur through its military and economic might centuries earlier, surpassed the crowds of them all, culture and commerce side by side for the visitors and the natives. Florence numbers swelled with the addition of Erica Mitchell Filidoro ’95, who lives outside the Tuscan city, where she studied for a time during her college years; she joined our group to offer her knowledge and perspective on Florence. History suffuses all the towns: art intertwined with the patronage of the Church. Mary Grace Hinkle ’05 wrote me afterward that the towns, sights, and experiences were “a true feast for the senses.” (Mary Grace’s classmate Leigh Baugham was on the same trip and Mary Grace’s mother, Joy, also participated—family and friends together.) Spend time in each town and the primary role of the Church in the Renaissance is indisputable—even as, ironically, the resurgence of humanist thought split the Church’s grip on political and cultural and spiritual power.

Our eyes took in the artistic grandeur and the sights of the hills and valleys, but our senses were also immersed with sumptuous regional fare and rustic vino rosso. We simply ate well. The Palazzo Leti, a thirteenth-century residence restored as a bed and breakfast, provided our morning meals. From the terrace and garden we enjoyed breathtaking views of some of Spoleto’s most iconic landmarks—including the former home of American artist Sol LeWitt, who resided in Spoleto during the 1980s. For lunch we were on our own in the various towns; artichokes were in season, and we ate our share of the local crop: Steamed or fried, we delighted in the various presentations. Late afternoons found us generally enjoying the pleasures of an Aperol spritz alongside an astonishing array of meats and cheeses and breads that might well have been sufficient for dinner. We used these afternoons for the occasional voluntary discussion of the readings. At dinnertime, we gathered in one of Spoleto’s superb dining spots (in a region famous for its meat and pasta dishes, the early central Italy growing season did allow us to feast on various greens). Wine flowed freely from carafes.

 At the Montefalco vineyard, we purchased a few bottles of rosé and red to enjoy on our final nights. The palazzo staff provided the glasses and corkscrew, and we sat in the comfortable parlor and enjoyed the wine while discussing highlights of our travels.

What’s not to enjoy? Food, drink, art, architecture, and history on every corner and in every alley. What proved even more impressive, nonetheless, was the rapport that these Asheville School members established with one another. If we flagged in the heat or in the Florence hordes, someone was quick to fall in step and aid that person, to help with carrying an item or with assisting across the street or up the hill. Already, the group’s members have decided to stage an October reunion in the North Carolina Triangle when Lorenzo Muti, our local guide and accomplished musician, conducts his chamber orchestra. They left Italy, as do the countless graduating classes, adherents to our School song: “friends bound together / by the mighty white and blue.”

Traveler Memories

“Given the rich history of Italy and its incredible culture, scenery, and cuisine, I knew my visit there this spring with my wife would be a unique, once in a lifetime trip. What I hadn’t factored in was the impact on the visit by Asheville School teacher Jay Bonner and our tour guide Lorenzo Muti. It elevated a travel experience that would be incredible by any measure into something extraordinary. This might seem like hyperbole, but I feel like it accurately describes the vacation. While other tour groups we saw in Italy had large buses with dozens of disconnected people, our group was small, close-knit, and had a shared reference point given our connection to Asheville School. We were able to talk at length to each other and to Lorenzo to learn about the rich history of Italy and the cities we visited.

What stands out about the tour? Visiting both well-known Italian landmarks as well as lesser-known locations in Central Italy. Being surrounded by Asheville School Alumni and people related and emotionally invested in Asheville School. Having fresh pasta at dinner every night and stimulating conversation while drinking wine with my newly discovered friends.  Go on this trip if you want something most people will never be able to experience.”
Sean and Karin Davies

“Raise an Aperol Spitz to Asheville School for creating a wonderful, humanities-driven tour through Umbria and Tuscany. Here are three reasons the inaugural trip was simply fantastic:
1. Maestro Lorenzo Muti, a symphony conductor who once taught art and opera at Duke University, lead our group as only a native could. No fresco was unseen, no nuance of history unexplored.
2. The ever enjoyable and knowledgeable Jay Bonner herded us, kept count of us, and was always available to discuss the books we read, what we saw, and what we had yet to see.
3. Only Asheville School could gather a random sample of folks with whom you could taste olive oil, drink wine, dine, sightsee, log a million steps, and then depart celebrating a dozen new friendships.
As I left our home-base palazzo on Spoleto’s mountain top, a stone’s throw from Paolo Soleri’s famed art studio, I was struck by that same expression of joy we blurt-out as we step off a ride, exhilarated from wonder and excitement: Can we do it again?!”
Leslie Casse

Discover Italy with Asheville School Alumni & Friends This Fall

Join Jay for travels in central Italy’s Apennine Mountain region from October 25 to November 2, 2024. Learn more about the fall experience here.