Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Italy--part the last: Umbria, Parma

We return the rental car to Florence, and hop a train for Umbria, the province to the east and south of Tuscany. Spello is another walled hill town with cobbled streets. We have two nights here, cooking our own dinner as we have an apartment with a kitchen and are keen to stem the flow of Euros from our hands. Interesting fresh pasta (see photo), about 2 €, jar of pesto Genovese with truffles, ~2.80 €, some bread, local sausage for T, lettuce, and a great local wine (Montefalco rosso). Yum. A cabinet over the kitchen sink is actually a drainer for washed dishes--very smart! (T in photo, washing dishes)

News starved after a week in Italy, we check the TV: only Italian stations. I have forgotten to pack the backgammon set. We watch the Simpsons in Italian.

Next day we walk to Assissi. It is 5 miles each way, down the Via degli Olivia, a road lined with olive groves most of the way. On our walk, a man handed me a branch of lavender he had just picked and engaged us in [limited] conversation.

In Assissi, T says he’s never seen so many monks in one place--as home to St. Francis it is a huge pilgrimage spot for Catholics from all over the world. Some of the visitors wear burlap sack shirts that they have bought for the occasion (you could see a tag visible…made in China?). Lots of Germans. We saw a cardinal getting into a car outside one of the churches in town, his red cap flew off in a gust of wind and he caught it.

We see more nuns and priests than even in Rome. T says it is the same in Lebanon, where there are more conservative religious folks in the countryside than the cities.

Having walked all that way we went to see St. Francis’ church and tomb--very lovely. Fancy. But the opulent church and tomb seem too grand for a man of deep humility. And we are bothered, too, by how Christianity is tied to military--outside the church is a statue of a tired Crusader on a horse. St. Francis was a man of peace! There is an Assissi coat of arms on the bag of postcards I buy.

Next day it’s a short train ride to Perugia. We passed up the Etruscan Chocohotel (just the slightest pangs as we pass by), where everything is done on a chocolate theme, in reverence to the Perugina chocolate factory just outside town, to stay in a small place in the old town.


Perugia seems a WONDERFUL city (we vow to check it they have an international school here...). Big enough to get lost in, lots of trees, many students, giving it a vibrant cultural feel, beautiful and large historic center complete with Etruscan walls and arches (see photo), parks, plants and benches in every small public area. Great and innovative public transportation including a number of long, public escalators to get you up and down its hills to the old city with ease. Solar panels running parking pay stations.

The “mini metro” departs every minute. Its small cars have 8 fold down seats and standing room for about 15. From our hotel in the old city to the train station across town and down the hill, we encounter not one step.

As in other Italian cities we have seen, immigrants sell sunglasses and other items on the street. Many Africans, others look Arabic.

Where we stay is near the Church of San Ercolano, erected in the 14th C on the spot where the man was beheaded, after having led the resistance against the Goths for a long time. During the Baroque era frescoes were added on the walls and ceilings. There is a Roman sarcophagus dating to the 4th century. Here is the outside of San Ercolano church and a glimpse of the inside:

Here is an Etruscan gate and walls (~5 BC!) :

And a view of the countryside from the old city (from next to one of the escalators):

We board a city bus for the Perugina chocolate factory, now owned by NestlĂ©. Lots of free samples--yum! Perugina is most famous for its baci (means “kiss” in Italian) candy, a hazelnut buried under various scrumptious layers, wrapped in silver paper that carries a message of love. Here is K beside an enormous one prepared for some kind of festival. We saw a video where one this large was brought (by tractor trailer) to the main city square, where it was carved into small pieces and fed to the local populace. Maybe this is why we love Perugia so much.

Our last night in Italy :-( we spend in Parma, city of food fame (Parma ham, Parmesan) and Tom’s fantasy after someone gave him John Gresham’s novel, Playing for Pizza, to read. This region is mostly flat; we have left the hills of Tuscany and Umbria behind. Parma is an agricultural town that grew into a city. It doesn’t have the charm of Perugia or any of the other towns we’ve stayed in but it is comfortable, pleasant, and has a duomo that is elaborate to the point of garish with gothic froufrou, a square with a wild clock, and an octagonal pink marble structure that we happened to approach during some kind of choir practice--wonderful!

We find a great ristorante and T finds heaven in his Parma
prosciutto, which has been cut from a joint of pig before our eyes, the first slice discarded (to our horror) as being too dry. They are cutting it every five minutes for various diners, but apparently this is too long for it to be exposed to air… For his second course T orders--oh my gosh--horse. He says he has to; it appears on the menu several times. He reports that it tastes like liver. I have risotto Parmesan. The house red wine is Lambrusco, and we pass, though we are sure it is better than what we have tried in the States by that name.

We stroll the town, fat and happy with Italia.

Next morning, on the train to Milan, a cart comes by with cappuccino and Pringles (what is it with Pringles?).

At Milan airport, a curious billboard, below. Think Romulus and Remus. And my last macchiato. And planes to all sort of interesting places.
T remarks that even in the Milan airport, coffee is still under 1 €. He sees it as a matter of pride.

Our Cyprus Airways plane is named “Tefklos.” Here is a shot of the island from above.

And, after a few hours in Larnaca Aiport, “Evagoras” takes us back to Beirut.

Italy part 2: more Tuscany

Easter Sunday we pick up a rental car, a cute black Fiat Punto, and head west, to Lucca.

Lucca is surrounded by Renaissance city walls that are perfectly in tact and even have trees growing on top--you can jog or walk all the way around.

Here is T at the tourist office just outside the city walls.

And K having swooned over the soft grass.

And at the entrance to the city

In Lucca we find a jaw dropping cathedral.
Outside there are gingerbread carved pillars, each different, carved by local artisans. Inside, 12 X 16 foot paintings, including one by Tintoretto and several Civitalis. A vaulted, painted ceiling, around 70 feet up. Some Escher-esque marble floor designs. Rich, deep colored stained glass. Crystal chandeliers.

Around town, a woman in tailored clothes, heels and black stockings on a bicycle. I love Italy!
Here is the large, oval city "square", formerly home to a Roman arena.

On to Bagna di Lucca, where we spend the night in an old hotel. Our room has a framed note letting us know that Toscanini slept there in 1950. (The mattress has no doubt changed, but not much else.)

There is little open at 5 pm on Easter in this village. We see the Pecos Bill Trattoria and we enjoy a beer by the river.

At dinner Tom is amazed that the house wine (cheap!) is Chianti. I order a salad that comes with slabs of Pecorino and some other softer cheese--oooooooooooh. Good thing we will hike tomorrow and walked 100 miles in Florence and Lucca.

The next day, we hike in the Garfagnana reserve, near the Apauane Alps. The area is famous for truffles.

We stop at another walled ancient town, Barga. Here is an Easter display in one of the church's chapels.

In the evening we step into L’Osteria della Piazetta in Bagna di Lucca, for one of the most memorable meals either of us has ever experienced. It is a new place, and the owner tries (and succeeds) to make everything perfect, relying on locally grown and traditional specialties, with style. The lighting is bright, but the food elegant. I have trout ravioli, and thin sliced raw marinated fish with fat green peppercorns. Tom has meat that has been marinated for 15 days.

After, we walk along the river. A sign there commemorates the spot where Elizabeth Barret wrote poetry to her husband Robert Browning in 1849 (Sonietti dal Portoguese XIV: 13 -14, to be precise).

Here is a curious medieval bridge at Borgo a Mazzano, not far from Lucca. It has five arches and an off center midpoint.

We drive under the Tuscan sun of note. Lush, rolling hills. Signs warn of deer, snow and children that would lay ahead. Gentle and not so gentle climbs and falls, the small diesel car with manual transmission perfect for the roads.

It’s one walled medieval city after another, with tall cathedrals stuffed with art.

A pair of pheasant cross the road in front of us.

We stop at another walled city, Volterra. Here is Tom. And the painted ceiling of the church there.

Siena. Rival of Florence, entered by one of eight city gates. A duomo (cathedral) even more astonishing on the inside than the out. Here are photos of the Duomo exterior, interior, a section of floor mosaic, and the ceiling.

These are of the ceiling in a library inside the Duomo. Marvelous 3D effects.

We spend the night at another walled, hilltop town: Certaldo Alto. More fabulous food! T has steak with anchovy sauce. I order gnocchi with radiccio and gorgonzola, and smoked swordfish with pink peppercorns. FOOD AS ART. Italy so knows how to eat. The wine is excellent and cheap--no markup in restaurants like we have in the US and in Lebanon. And T is so impressed with coffee prices--90 cents, unlike the 2 and 3 Euros we saw in Greece at Christmas. T says it shows respect .

Here are views in and around Certaldo Alto.

Umbria next!