Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Food and St. Francis: Titignano and Assisi

We spend perhaps an inordinate amount of our lives thinking about, preparing, and consuming food. (Evidence here, here, here, and here.) Once, we planned a four-day trip to NYC to visit Laura where we basically ate our way across Manhattan. I felt a little like Pac-Man--eat ALL of the delicious little things in order to get to the next level (borough?).*

Imagine, then, our delight when a friend of the Marosticas who has spent quite a bit of time in Perugia sent us an email indicating that we'd "be about an hour’s drive of a little place called Titignano which serves unbelievable meals prepared in a medieval kitchen using local foods." So, after some logistical difficulties including a missed reservation due to some linguistic troubles and arranging a driver to take us to the place, we made it to Titignano for a Friday night stay. We arrived in the early evening and were stunned by the views of what seems to be the entire Umbrian landscape:


The smile is totally genuine.


This is the main building of the Titignano castle-complex. It's tricky to describe because it's not really a castle, but more like a collection of castle-like buildings that seem to function more-or-less like a castle. The upper floor of this building is the dining room, while the lower floor is a store where they sell all sorts of things that they make themselves. The following pictures are of the dining room itself, with beautiful ceramic tiles adorning the ceiling and a large fireplace.




The rest of the "castle" was beautiful to look at, with a small church,


vineyards (and Lake Corbara in the background),


and a swimming pool. 


The food probably merits a blog post of its own, but I'll try to condense it here. It was a twelve-course dinner served in a style that I imagine Italian grandmothers do when they serve their grandchildren: huge platters of food coming at breakneck speed for two-and-a-half hours, telling the diners to mangia! mangia! And mangia we did. Here was our recreation of the menu:

Bruschetta with fresh tomatoes*
Melon and prosciutto
Cheese and salami
Bruschetta with pate
Cheese and apple risotto*
Tagliatelle all'arrabbiata con bacon (spicy tagliatelle with bacon, which word we don't know in Italian)*
Rosemary turkey with mushrooms and wide green beans*
Pork with onion relish* (We've titled this dish "mi dispiace" because the server gave me a serving from quite some height above the plate, causing the onion relish to spoil my shirt. She kept saying "mi dispiace" for about 20 minutes.)
Grilled eggplant
"Spoon-rule" mousse
Cantucci (an entire basketful. We ate ours and started eying the neighbors'.)

*Indicates the best things we've ever tasted.

As you see from the menu, it was amazing. Four of the dishes stood out in particular, but the whole experience, complete with loud-and-rowdy Italians at the other tables toasting, kissing, and wandering, was phenomenal. So you won't believe me when I tell you that the dinner costs only 15 EUR per person. But it does. Unbelievable, and absolutely memorable.

We stayed the night in Titignano on Friday and wandered around there and in Todi on Saturday, which is detailed elsewhere. On Sunday we took a bus about an hour away to Assisi, the home of everyone's favorite Saint Francis (1182-1226, thanks Danny Boyle). Assisi was beautiful.

This is Rocca Maggiore, a fortress atop the Assisi hills that dates back to the mid-14th century. It was
pretty open for us to wander through and very pink.


At some point in its history, Rocca Maggiore was expanded with a 100+ meter long tunnel and polygonal tower in the northwest corner to strengthen its defenses. The coolest part was walking through the dark, cold, and low-clearance tunnel.


Here is a view of the same tunnel from atop the pyramidal tower at the end of the NW corner. The smoke in the background isn't from the fortress, though we never could pin down what exactly was burning.


This is what Assisi looks like from the hills slightly above it. It is a remarkable city, something like the Marin County of Umbria. It's immaculately groomed and it gets a lot of money from the Catholic church for upkeep. The money seems well used, since the place was pristine. Lots of small streets, all the buildings in a semi-uniform stone facade, and clean.


Even those buildings under renovation were beautifully scaffolded in this steampunk red-and-copper scaffolding.


The rest of the city was dotted with gorgeous churches,


intricately carved doorways,


and fountains.


As any visitor to Assisi would, we were looking for St. Francis' Basilica. (It's huge and easy to find, but we started at the other end of town.) When we saw this we thought perhaps it was it, but it turns out to be the Roman Temple of Minerva, now a Catholic church. Not quite Francis.


On the street called Fontana Bella (beautiful fountain) we saw not only a beautiful fountain,


but doorways flanked by dragon ironwork. I know how I will decorate any future castles that I build: dragons.



After just a little bit more walking we found the Basilica of St. Francis. It is really large and gorgeous. Begun in 1228, it has two chapels, a lower and an upper one, that are both painted with frescoes from several medieval masters. The basilica is an important place to see the progression of Italian art in this period, and it has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000. We couldn't take pictures inside, but the exterior is comparably beautiful.



Behind the chapels is a cloister with this red/white stonework.


I'm not totally certain, but this seems to me a fresco with St. Francis and Jesus both carrying their respective crosses. It's pretty, if a little presumptuous.


My favorite part of St. Francis' Basilica was the bell tower. I've played the carillon at UC Berkeley and listened to many church bells (several from our living room in Aachen). These bells started ringing twice while we were in Assisi, once while we were atop Rocca Maggiore and once while we were right outside the basilica. They seem to freely swing (that is, both the bells and the clappers move, in contrast to the Cal carillon where only the clapper moves), and they swung for a long time. I found the sound so charming I decided to take a movie, mostly for the sound. You may be able to see one of the bells swinging, but the real treat, if you can imagine being there in person, is the chiming of the bells. Wonderful.

As I mentioned earlier, Assisi feels like a well groomed town, which typically isn't my thing. However, it was remarkably peaceful. I attribute it to the Franciscan influence. And the whole time we were there I had the Franciscan hymn "All Creatures of our God and King" in my head. (It's used in the Mormon hymn tradition as well as in those of many other religions.) Frankly, it's one of my favorite hymns and I really enjoyed my brief visit (pilgrimage?) to the home of that influential Saint.

*That trip to NYC was WILDLY successful, by the way. We walked enough to burn off everything that we ate, which was something like 40 miles. Ask us about our "Day of Gluttony" some time.

Perugia: A City on a Hill Cannot Be Hidden

The attentive reader will remember Sara's comment of Chania, a town on Crete that she visited last September: "When I could finally tear my eyes away from the fountain, I walked forward a couple of meters and lost my heart to Chania forever." Perugia, though totally different from Chania, had a similar effect on me. The capital of Umbria and located in rolling hills, it was a dream to walk through. Our apartment was right in the middle of the historic city center. A word of warning to anyone planning to stay in the historic center of an ancient hill town: it'll be at the top of the hill, and the hill will be too steep for trains to get anywhere near the top. Everything else about the situation is lovely, but the 25-minute hike from the train station carrying all your luggage is not.

Below are two views that awaited us when we finally arrived.



In the top photo I'm staring at a Roman aqueduct that was right outside our windows (which were the green shutters at the top of the photo). Today people just stroll along the aqueduct. The bottom photo is a look back up the hill toward the main city center and a beautiful archway that now is a bus road. We climbed these stairs several times per day, helping to burn off a portion of the gelato we ate. At the beginning of our trip as we were descending the 79 steps out of our apartment, Sara remarked that upon our return we will be so out of shape that climbing back to our apartment could be the end of us. Ha!

These pictures don't really convey why I love Perugia so much. Compared with many other towns we've visited, the colors of Perugia were rather bland. It is the topology, rather than the palette, that made me love walking around Perugia. You could never have a bike in the city for all of the staircases, but just going up and down narrow roads and encountering huge vistas of the Umbrian countryside as the city starts downward--that's what made Perugia special for me. We were surprised to find that the city has some 6 or 7 escalators to help people up from the lower regions to the top, a welcome amenity when climbing from the train station with our suitcase.

We were in Perugia so that I could do some measurements on several paintings in the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria. The building in which the Galleria is located was formerly a palace; today, two (of the five) floors contain the gallery and the others government offices. Below is part of the cool arched ceiling of the first floor. (The amazing pizza place we ate at three times had the same kind.)


Here is the intricately carved main entry to the gallery.


Just up the street from the gallery, a fountain in front of the Cathedral (rather unadorned due to the untimely end of construction funds somewhere between the 14th and 16th centuries).


The cathedral construction fund did manage to squeeze in a little outdoor pulpit, though. Perhaps to preach to all the weekend revelers? The pink-and-white portion is a test portion indicating what the whole thing was supposed to look like.


Sara found this cool lamppost outside the post office. Stained glass on a lamppost!


On Sunday morning we took a stroll to the opposite side of town and found the Church of Sant'Angelo, an old temple (which my colleague Federica kept calling the "Templito"). Old, in this case, means the fifth or sixth century, but presumably built on the ruins of an even older Roman temple--one that, simultaneously with paganism, fell into disrepair. Though the interior was cool it wasn't terribly eye-catching; I was more awed by the 6th century satellite dish.


Adjacent to the Temple of Sant'Angelo was this tower which we were able to climb. It contained a small museum depicting the evolution of the city's defenses under the Etruscans and Romans and later. The reason there are so many walls and archways all over the city is that as it grew its rulers kept building more.


However, the real selling point for the tower is the view of the city:


At the other end of the city from the Temple of Sant'Angelo, the fortress of Perugia (Rocca Paolina) once separated and today, using some of the escalators I mentioned previously, links the lower parts of the city with the main center. It really took us by surprise when we first found it--it seems like an abandoned subway station: no subways, but lots of storefront space. There were, in fact, a few stores there, though most of it is reserved for the Christmas market. One small nook was converted to an urban forest in an attempt to raise awareness of environmental causes. There was even a soundtrack of forest sounds, one of which was a very sudden thunderclap that startled me so badly I practically leapt into Sara's arms.


The rest of the photos I can't speak for from personal experience, as Sara took them while I was working in the gallery. From her explanations to me, this is a beautiful view en route to yet another corner of the city, this one marked by San Pietro's Church, whose tower is seen through the arch.


Here is an olive tree and fountain in a cloister of San Pietro. Sara couldn't go in the church, but the cloister gardens were open.


Sara came with me to the gallery on Friday to meet my colleagues there, to get free admission to the gallery (!), and to get recommendations for things to see in Perugia for the days it rained. Federica suggested the archaeological museum, which is funny because later she told me, "there's nothing there to see, really. Just a bunch of old stuff. We've got lots of old stuff already." Well, here are some photos of old stuff (captions by Sara).

This guy is incredibly lifelike. I now know just how Etruscans looked. And I really like the lions. They've got to be the saddest, humblest lions I've ever seen.

This is the contents of the Cutu family tomb, arranged just the way they were discovered (some time in the 1980s). The Etruscan dude above came from this tomb, too, but he's so cool that they put him in his own display case.

An ancient-yet-surprisingly-modern-looking blueprint. Good job, Romans.


This tablet shows the Etruscan script. Sara commented that the museum did a nice job illustrating the evolution of writing systems in the Perugia area from Etruscan to Roman.


I always find the ancient jewelry.

The way this underworld scene has eroded makes it look even more hellish.

Two arches to cap off our tour della Perugia: an ancient Roman one, complete with busts (and part of Rocca Paolina),


and the Etruscan Arch, dating to the third century BC and likely under construction for the entirety of the 21st AD.


Perugia seemed a perfect mix of everything I love about Europe: it's old, it has great food, a good nightlife, a small town on the hills that is still close to big cities (Florence and Rome). It was an excellent place to "work" for a week.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Cinque Terre, or a Post in Captions

Count the villages! Uno : Monterosso, where the picture was taken; due: Vernazza; tre: Corniglia; quattro: Manarola; cinque: Riomaggiore, barely peeking around the point. This is the view from right below the Monterosso train station.
We stayed in Monterosso. The view from our kitchen window to the left...
...and right. That little bar with outdoor seating was noisy late into the night, and the little market on the bottom floor of the farthest building to the right is where we got the best pesto of our lives.

Monterosso is famous for its lemons. As soon as you start climbing out of town in any direction the lemon groves start, and go up and up the hills all around.
Monterosso has two parts of town, connected by a tunnel through the hill on the left of this picture. This is the half we stayed in. There are three perfect crescents of beach.
From here you can see the hill the previous picture was taken from, with a monastery on top and a little castle, now the town's mausoleum, on the point.
The whole Cinque Terre area is a national park. The villages are connected by narrow, winding, steep hiking trails that for centuries were the only (overland) way to get from one to another. Unfortunately, two of the trails are currently closed for repairs because of terrible mud slides last fall. The path between Monterosso and Vernazza was open, though, and the hike was my favorite part of the trip. Above, a look at the mingled terraced agriculture and wild scrub that make these hills so exceptionally beautiful. 
The famous view of Vernazza from the trail. From other pictures we've seen, the harbor is usually a pure aqua. Vernazza sustained the most damage of all the villages in the flooding last fall, and the harbor is still being mucked out.
These days the villages are connected by train tracks in addition to the trails. The train tracks are mainly inside the hills. On our train ride to Monterosso at the beginning of the trip I gave an involuntary gasp every time we popped out of a tunnel for a second and caught a glimpse of the sea, to Tyler's amusement.
Hiking down into beautiful Vernazza.
The main piazza of Vernazza, just above the harbor. The ground floors of almost every building town are still being repaired, so most businesses are closed. Notice the laundry on the lines. To me it looked almost too quaint, as if it were just for show, but people hang their laundry on the fronts of their building all over Italy (according to Tyler, who would know).
We ate our lunch of focaccia sandwiches on rocks in the harbor. Pink shorts on a pink rock! Also notice the cool foldy rocks behind Ty.
The core of the town's nativity scene--with dolphins, sharks, and mermaid angels attending the Baby Jesus along with the shepherds!--stays up year-round, apparently.
All of the villages are full of tiny twisting streets and staircases, like the one from which I took this picture.
Manarola's main street is lined with boats.
The "Walk of Love" between Manarola and Riomaggiore, packed with tourists even in mid-May. Awesome rocks, though.
Riomaggiore's marina, with stripy rock steps.
Next we took the train to La Spezia, a city built on hills. It reminded me a bit of San Francisco, though with a beachier aesthetic. We eventually walked all the way around to the opposite side of this hill and found that there was neither a pedestrian walkway through the tunnel nor a staircase on that side, so we were forced to retrace our steps in a big loop. This was a theme of the trip--getting stuck in places with no sidewalks.
La Spezia marina
The streets are lined with orange trees. So romantic.
Steps and hills
I've never heard of Luigi of Isengard. Saruman's little brother, perhaps?
The last stop of the day was Corniglia, the middle villlage, currently inaccessible on foot. From the train station you have to climb a couple hundred stairs to reach the town. We then climbed down the other side to get to the water's edge.
No harbor or beach here--just rocks. Nevertheless, it was our favorite waterfront in the Cinque Terre.
Looking back up at Corniglia
We took this on our evening gelato stroll our last night in Monterosso. That's not us on the rock, but it could have been--we ate dinner up there on our first night.
Grinning at our good fortune as we said goodbye. Judging by the ages of the other tourists we saw, we beat the system and got to Cinque Terre at least 30 years before our number was up.