Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Last year's Italy travelogue, day 2

I'm not sure if this will work but here is the link to the photos:


Road to Nowhere

We live about two-thirds of the way up the large hill upon which the Centro Storico rests. In order to go anywhere, I have to climb 47 steps (yes, I counted them) to get to the scala mobile. On the first day I had to rest at the top of the stairs before I could go any further. The second day, I had to stop and rest multiple times during our walk about town and was clearly experiencing a lot of difficulty. At one point Aidan sat down next to me and started to cry, “I don’t want you to die, Mommy.” Good heavens, the kids are going to be scarred for life from this trip.

Bill’s colleagues keep telling us that everything is just a short 5 minute walk. I asked if there was a pool. “Yes, a bella piscina,” we were assured, “just 5 minutes from your place by foot.” It took Bill (with a healthy set of lungs) 20+ minutes to get there. I thought I was going to die on my first trip there. Fortunately, I have found a bus that gets me pretty close if they continue to keep the emergency door to the pool unlocked, preventing me from having to take a very roundabout way to get to the front of the building. Another morning Bill left me a note on a map that there was a big park named “Parco Percorso Verde” where his work colleagues said was right near the train station. I was dubious because there were a lot of parks in green on the map and Percorso Verde was not one of them. But I was game so I took the bus to the train station and wandered around. Which way to go? I had no idea so I picked a direction and walked. No park and it was starting to be uphill. I stopped a woman pushing a carriage and asked her where the park was. Her stunned expression was my first clue that I should have trusted my initial instincts. She explained to me in Italian that there was such a park and how to get there but did I realize it was 2 kilometers away? She told me to take a bus but didn’t know which one. So I asked a bus driver who very nicely told me which bus to take. The kids and I boarded the bus and I told the driver where I wanted to go. I was pretty sure he told me I was to get off at the stadium and then walk on foot. I have come to dread the phase “a piedi” because invariably it means I am going to be “a piedi” for a lot longer than I’d like to be. We got off at the stadium and the driver pointed me in the general direction. I was in the middle of nowhere. All I could see was a run down stadium and a camp site. But I kept walking, muttering to myself about a wild goose chase. “What’s a wild goose chase?” Amelia asked. I explained the meaning but found it very difficult to put into words.

Shortly thereafter we came upon a little bird sanctuary filled with, you guessed it, geese. I wonder how old the kids will be when they realize that the phrase “wild goose chase” is not intended to be literal. Finally, just beyond the sanctuary was a playground complete with Amelia and Aidan’s favorite climbing structure from our Paris days. I figure that total travel time including waiting for the bus was about 3 hours. The kids played for 40 minutes. When Bill arrived home and asked about their day they happily said that it was good. Thankfully they are easily satisfied.

We’ve had a few bus mishaps. The funniest was getting on the bus in the wrong direction after a grocery store trip. We ended up being on the bus for over an hour and had a scenic tour of the small towns around Perugia. The whole time I kept hearing the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” playing through my head. There was nothing else to do but sit back and enjoy the ride.

No matter how often I travel or where I go it comes down to this: roll with it. The more I try to control things or force a desired outcome, the worse things get. Best just to figure out how to make do.

Pane Envy
Traditionally, the bread in Tuscany and parts of Perugia is made without salt. I have been told that there are two reasons for this. First, when theses areas were papal states, they was a tax levied on salt that understandably reduced consumption. Second, they eat a lot of goat cheeses and salumi here, both of which are very salt. As such, salty bread is just too savory. Personally, I cannot imagine why this tradition has not been left behind. Saltless bread has a horribly flat flavor. The only way I can eat it is by dipping it in olive oil and salt. Apparently I am not alone in my distaste for saltless bread. I arrived at the panetteria yesterday late in the afternoon and discovered that they were completely sold out of all the salted varieties, yet the shelves were filled with loaves of unsalted bread. Given that it was already 4:30 I wondered if all this bread would merely be tossed away.
I grew up in a neighborhood where there were several Italian bread bakeries. The closest one, DaPalma’s, was just a sort walk from my parent’s house. Once I was old enough to cross the street, my mom would often send me to pick up her order. They used to keep this ring loaf out on the counter and it was only 35 cents. So I always had enough money left over to buy one. As I carried the bags of bread home I would munch on my ring loaf and devour it before arriving back at home. I loved that bread with it’s crispy crust and soft center. It was delicously perfect in its simple and unadorned state. I always took the availability of good bread for granted until I moved to NC. In NC it seemed that no one knew the meaning of good bread. Even the places that sell decent bread at a premium price pale in comparison to the bread bakeries of my childhood. It’s not so much the flavor that is off; it is the texture. Here in Italy I am in my glory, good bread is everywhere. This was especially the case in Rome where the bread always contains salt. At restaurants, it takes a lot of self control to limit my bread consumption once they place that basket on the table. At one restaurant I ordered minestrone. The waiter brought me a large bowl flanked my two large peices of toasted bread. They were so delicous and so reminiscient of the bread at ate as a child that I felt a little misty. I felt like I was transported back to Leon Street with my brown paper bag of fragrant warm rolls and my ring loaf in hand while I greedily munched away. That bread felt like home.


My father and niece, Alyssa, arrived about a week after we did. They joined us in the dorm in a room with a loft and a spectacular view of the Umbian countryside, all for the bargain basement price of 20 euros a night. We spent their first few days in Perugia and Assisi before heading out for a whirlwind 7 day, 5 city tour.
Our first stop was Florence. Florence is overrun with tourists in the summer. In fact it is so overrun with tourists that we literally heard more English spoken in the streets than Italian. Bill and I visited Florence 7 years ago, but the city felt very different to me on this visit. Perhaps we were dazzled by the works of art at the Uffizi and Galleria on our last visit. But on this trip, Florence disappointed. The buildings are dirty and in desparate need of new paint. By afternoon, her streets are filled with garbage. By nightfall, she remind me of a washed-up Hollywood starlet still managing somehow to benefit from her long gone successes. Yes, the facade of the Duomo is an arresting site, but the interior of the church is nothing special. There are lovely places within the city, like the Piazza della Signoria and the Piazza della Republica, but I felt like it failed to live up to my expectations. In some ways I felt sorry for the city and its citizens. By nightfall, streets cleaners were out and about and in the morning the city was noticeably cleaner. But by afternoon on our second day, the streets were filthy again. The city is so abused by the sea of tourists that descend upon it every summer. Any effort to keep up appearances must feel like a wasted effort.

Despite our disenchantment we enjoyed our visit. We did the sightseeing highlights on our first day but omitted the museum visits because we felt the kids would not have much patience for hours of art work. On our second day, we crossed the Arno and spent part of the afternoon in Boboli Gardens, which was virtually devoid of tourists and offered a shady retreat from the intense heat. Then we went to the new Leonardo DaVinci musuem, which is geared (no pun intended) for youngsters and intended to be fully interactive. Apparently the museum creators had misjudged how well the machines would hold up to rigorous use by young children because several of the 40 machines had been changed to a non-interactive format since its recent opening. And Aidan was chided twice for his use of one of the machines even though he wasn’t being inappropriate in anyway. Nonetheless the museum was a perfect diversion for the kids after a long day of sightseeing. Aidan was particularly intrigued by the disturbing impliments of distruction that DaVinci had designed for use in battle while I found they had a way of tainting my view of the inventor.

After Florence, we set out for Pisa. I have heard some people say that Pisa is a waste of time, but I love it. The Piazza dei Miracoli is one of the most picturesque places I have very seen. The Duomo is stunning both inside and out, the baptistry is beautifully lit by the sun and has astounding acoutic qualities, and the Campo di Santo, which weathered well heavy bombing during WWII is a peaceful (and cool) respite from the crowds. The kids, of course, loved the Leaning Tower. The price to climb to the top is pretty exorbitant so I recommend climbing cheaper towers elsewhere. Aidan insisted on purchasing a cheesy replica of the square; I suppose he can put that next to his Eiffel Tower (and the Colessium that he bought in Rome). Soon he’ll have a nice collection of tchotchkes.

After a few hours in Pisa we sent off for Lucca. Lucca is northeast of Pisa and a charming place. Thanks to a largely peaceful and prosperous history, Lucca’s medieval walls remain intact. Lucca is an essential stop on any family vacation in Tuscany. While France seems to be very oriented toward the entertainment of children – there were carousels and playgrounds in most places we visited – Italy seems less so. They enjoy children but it is not clear to me how they keep them busy. Lucca was very different in this regard. The interior circumference of the city walls is a 3 km park with a path for walking or biking and several playgrounds. Bicycles are available for rent and the kids enjoyed spending the morning with the wind in their hair. Bill and I rented a tandem, which made it possible for me to go along given that Bill was doing most of the work. The city also has a carousel, the only one I have seen thus far, and a tower that offers spectacular views. It was a perfect place to enjoy a couple low key days.

After Lucca, we took off for Orvieto. By this point, we were all adept at train travel. The kids were suprisingly self sufficient with their bags and well behaved on the trains. Thank god for that portable DVD player! We disembarked in Orvieto and caught the funicular that climbs to the city center far above the train station. The kids are getting increasingly hard to impress, but this was a novel experience. Orvieto is a small but beautiful town in southern Umbria. It has a lovely cathedral. It also has the Orvieto Underground tour that takes you through the caves underneath the city where they used to raise pigeons, press and store olive oil, and store wine. The kids really enjoyed that tour. My favorite spot was the small 12th century Chiesa (church) di San Giovanni, tucked away in a corner of the city. Inside it contained many frescos from the 13th and 14th centuries.

I garnered a lot of attention in Orvieto when I had an asthma-like attack during the evening passegiata (the evening stroll that the locals take around 7ish every night). A little old lady made one of her friends vacate her spot on the bench and told me to sit there. For the next 15 minutes, while I pulled myself together, the little old ladies spoke to me in Italian either oblivious to or regardless of the fact that I could understand about 20% of what they were saying. They did decide that I had asthma/allergies and that I should go directly to the pharmacy. Even when there’s a language barrier and old Italian woman will make her advice to you clear.

Our last stop was Rome, a chaotic and overwhelming change of pace. We spent our first afternoon touring the Colessium and even succumbed to having one of those cheesy photos with a gladiator taken. We shouldn’t have built up the whole gladiator thing with the kids. Then we took a leisurely walk around the 2000 year-old ruins of the Palatino. I don’t know how many times I had to tell Aidan to stop chipping away at the mortar between the bricks in the ruins. I kept thinking to myself that the ruins had survived 2000 years but I wasn’t sure they’d make it through the afternoon. Finally someone from the staff yelled at him, which proved far more effective than my admonitions. From there we took a bus to the area around the Pantheon and Piazza Novona where we had dinner and some amazing gelatto/sortbetto. There were easily 70 flavors in the place and Aidan still ordered Fragola (strawberry). Amelia is a little more adventurous but seems to favor rasberry and banana. I’m happy as can be that I actually have a choice of sorbetto flavors, something rarely available to me in the US. And Bill, let’s just say he may be in serious need of a diet when we return.

On our second day we took one of the double decker buses around the city and the Vatican. Our last day turned out to be the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul so virtually everything was closed. We did manage to make to make it to a bakery that carried specialties from Puglia (the heel of the boot), which is where my grandparents were born and raised. They had a dizzying array of cakes and breads and I couldn’t resist the urge to take a few photos. Thankfuly I got a few taken before I was told to put my camara away. Though I had to wonder why they cared about the photos, it’s not like I was taking photos of their family recipes. After a brief walk around the area, we headed to Rome’s Termini train station. It was much nicer than I remembered and even had an English language bookstore. Two hours later we were back in Perugia, happy to rest our heads at “home” again.

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