Sunday, October 15, 2006
Beyond the pool is a heavy whitewashed building, Moorish looking without any obvious Moorish decorations, its simple white stone forming a number of large rectangular spaces that are joined together into a single large structure, their outlines forming perfect right angles of perfect straight lines, the lone outside stairway defining the only other angle as it rises up to an open rooftop terrace. This is the building where we ate dinner last night and this morning it, and the entire grounds seem completely deserted, save for an occasional staff member who saunters by unhurriedly, dressed in a uniform that is particular to the spa, pool, restaurant or reception.
Another large, whitewashed building, lower slung than the first, is directly ahead. Slightly to my left is what appears to be a set of meeting rooms, sage bushes growing on its flat roof, palm trees here and there. Pomegranate trees, bending under their heavy fruit, line a walkway to the left which is lined with other strange bushes and trees, as the walkway disappears into a grove of olive trees that the guest book says comprises 100 hectares. I am not sure how big a hectare is, but by the looks of it I am quite sure it is quite a lot.
Songbirds chirp overhead, hopping from tree to tree.
* * * *
I stop to write this reflection, my first impression of Day 6, before I have written yesterday’s (Day 5) account, breaking my usual discipline of writing each day’s story before moving to the next. I do this for two reasons. First, I have risen a little earlier than I would have liked so that I can use the hotel’s high speed internet connection in order to post my Day 3 and Day 4 stories, only to find that the connection is not working. I am, to say the least, slightly perturbed that a resort of the caliber of the Masseria San Domenico cannot offer me a high speed internet line. I am generally anything but the ugly American, but this really burns me. Sitting by the pool, soaking in the beauty of this place, however, has restored to me a sense of calm and balance and I don’t want to lose it by focusing on recounting yesterday’s travel day, which was largely uneventful. The second reason is that if I should die later today, I want to leave this record of this remarkable morning hour I spent in relaxation by the pool.
* * * *
The Masseria San Domenico is farm that has been converted into a hotel. Masseria is a term used in Puglia to describe the fortified farms that dot this fertile region. I am not quite sure against what or whom they were fortifying themselves, but one notices a feature in this countryside that is not common in other places around Italy – walls. Plots of land are clearly defined from each other by low walls made of stones piled upon one another. Inside these walls farmers did their daily work and, in the case of the masserie, small communities of workers were organized and defended against outside threats.
But the atmosphere at the San Domenico is anything but threatening. Rated one of the top properties in Puglia it is hard to imagine any care or hardship here. Armies of staff buzz about (but quietly and unobtrusively), as guests saunter from the pool to the spa to the dining room. Everything manmade seems to be made of white stone, which might have given the place a South Beach sort of feel were it not for the incredible lushness of the place. Everywhere you look there are plants and bushes and shrubs and trees, most of them sagging slight under the weight of fruits or flowers. A gentle breeze seems to blow constantly. It is hard to get motivated to do anything but sit.
But after several hours of doing just that we find a small, hidden store of initiative and ask at the front desk about the possibility of playing some golf. Not a problem we are told and a few minutes later we are arriving at the front gate of San Domenico Golf.
The course is completely enclosed by walls and gates and we are not exactly sure where or how to enter. We approach the electric gate, buzz in and announce our name. They are expecting us. The gate slides open and before us in the distance is yet another heavy Moorish stone building that is the clubhouse. A flat, immaculately maintained golf course stretches to the north and south, running all the way to the Adriatic.
We enter the clubhouse and are greeted at the reception desk by an English speaking woman who takes care of everything for us – greens fees, clubs, pull carts, balls, token for the driving range. All is available for a price, which we have neglected to ask about until now, and we are slightly nervous about what we might have just got ourselves into. Instead, the tab is ridiculously cheap and we happily strap it on and head to the driving range.
After a little practice it is off to the first tee, which has been marked number 16. This is not some Euro to Dollar or English to metric conversion. The course is being prepared for some European tournament in the near future and the holes are being reconfigured, presumably to improve its television appeal. We follow the numbers on the scorecard map rather than those on the signs and never get lost.
Not that a few ball are not lost. This is a rather benign course unless you drive the ball far to the right or left, which we do with regularity. Off the fairway is rough that, if it stood straight up would be about two feet deep. Instead it lies down at a height of about 6-8 inches, like a giant green combover. If you are fortunate enough to find your ball in it, it is nearly impossible to get out of.
I actually put together my best three shots of the day on the first hole, carding a birdie, and visions of European championships begin dancing in my head, even without the aid of grappa. That bit of wishful thinking is soon put in its place and I begin to worry that I have not bought enough balls to last the nine holes that we are playing.
San Domenico (St. Dominic), for whom the golf course is named is, as Jeff tells me (based upon his extensive research) the patron saint of golfers. Scholars are divided on the exact number of major championships he won during his lifetime (one camp includes in its total the results from the Greater Assisi Open, where Dominic defeated the hometown hero St. Francis on the third hole of sudden death in one of the great matches of the medieval period; others do not include statistics from Assisi, arguing that the monks who transcribed the records from ancient scorecards erred, believing it was good to have a higher score) but his work in aiding the poor by reselling used golf balls at a substantial discount is beyond dispute. Jeff’s research is, of course, completely made up but we are still convinced that it contains a kernel of truth somewhere.
After a grueling day of nine holes of golf and lunch on the patio overlooking the ninth hole, we return to the Masseria, completely exhausted. Our extreme physical state calls for some sitting around the pool and relaxing on the patio outside the room. Finally, in order to regain some strength we decide to drive to nearby Ostuni to find dinner.
On the map Ostuni looks like it is about three minutes from Savelletri, for how could it take any longer to drive a tenth of an inch on the map? It is only after we arrive in Ostuni about 45 minutes later that we notice the warning on the map that objects on map may be farther away than they appear. Indeed, although the distances look short, it generally takes a bit longer to get where you are going in Puglia.
But the drive is worth the additional time. Ostuni is an ancient walled town (there must have been a glut of these on the market when Italy started building towns because just about every place we visit is "an ancient walled town"), its buildings gleaming white (apparently, we are told, because the entire town is whitewashed annually). Although it is nighttime, the entire city is bathed in light from the outside, making it visible for miles as you approach. We are looking for a restaurant suggested to me by our old friend Richard Lasner, but have no idea where it is, so we follow signs to centro, the city center, and find a parking space that is slightly smaller than our car and at an angle bearing no known Euclidian relationship to the street or sidewalk. And so we start walking through a town the size of Detroit, expecting to simply walk to the restaurant for which we are looking.
The peril of asking for directions in Italy for someone like myself who speaks and understands just enough Italian to be dangerous is twofold: you look foolish asking for directions because you sound like a two year old and you look even more foolish when you are completely unable to understand the response. Mi dispiace signore, ma perche chiede in italiano quando non parli italiano? (Excuse me [mister], but why do you ask in Italian if you don’t speak Italian?).
Tonight, however, everything works perfectly. Asked and answered in Italian. We resume our journey to the restaurant secure in the knowledge we know where it is. It also helps that our guide points to where we are going.
We wander up the hill into the historic center of Ostuni, which is quite beautiful and quite crowded. The streets, mostly pedestrian-only (or perhaps completely pedestrian only but with Italian motorists taking a few liberties) are made of stone and are full of young people out for a night on the town. Large groups of ragazzi duck into and come out of a surprisingly large number of bars and night clubs. It is a Saturday night and Ostuni is hopping.
We at last find Richard’s recommended Osteria del Tempo Perso (via G. Tanzarella Vitale, 47, Ostuni, tel. 0818.104.22.168, www.osteriadeltempoperso.com). It is nearly empty at 9:30 and we are somewhat nervous that it is closing down, especially when they ask us if we have a reservation. But we are seated and over the next hour the place fills up, presumably for the second time this evening.
I order a strascinate integrale con cime di rape e mollica di pane, a whole wheat orechiette pasta that is topped with rape (turnip greens), the whole delicious concoction floating in a garlic sauce. Richard has recommended it and it indeed made the entire drive and walk up to the old town worth the trip. I follow this with some delicious lamb chops, a little coffee and of course, some grappa. A bottle of local Primitivo di Manduria, chosen by the waiter is both obligatory and delicious. Jeff orders a few dishes, but is still suffering from grappa withdrawal, being a courageous dinner companion without so much eating dinner.
The drive back to Savelletri seems shorter than the drive to Ostuni. Perhaps it is the grappa; perhaps it is the fact that we take the highway back. But within a few minutes of returning I am fast asleep, body and soul relaxing and unwinding in a fortified farmhouse called a masseria, secure that marauding nomads will be kept at bay, at least for one more night, by the army of staff here at the San Domenico.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
In any case, I shower, close up my bags and check out of the hotel and walk down to the car park where I have left the car, hoping that I understood the attendant correctly that the garage would be open all night. We have a train to catch at 6:57am and we have not left a whole lot of room to spare for unexpected surprises.
Well, practice pays off. I meet Jeff in front of the hotel, having planned the route from the garage to the hotel the day before. We depart ahead of schedule, not a car on the road. Quickly disappearing in our rear view mirror are small armies of uniformed men in jumpsuits who are finishing up the assembly of the numerous tents that will house chocolate displays at tomorrow’s Eurochocolate exhibition. Our time in Perugia has been wonderful and rich, the only regret my intestinal distress, but it is time to move on to Puglia, a less well known region in the south of Italy. The heel of the boot.
We bob and weave our way down the hill of Perugia along the route we had practiced the previous day. Everything looks different at 6:00am, however, coming at you faster because there is no light to see signs and familiar landmarks. We end up in on a small one way street that is clearly not one we had traversed the day before, so be back up and retrace our steps nearly to the top of Perugia and try again. This time we make the right turn and soon we are in front of the train station with fifteen minutes to spare. Had we not practiced the route I would be writing you from Perugia, telling you how wonderful the Eurochocolate has been.
* * * *
Italian train stations are pretty grim in general and Perugia’s is no exception. They are pretty easy to navigate, however, especially if you speak a little Italian. I have purchased our train tickets in advance online at www.trenitalia.it. There is an English version page and it is pretty easy to use; just enter your departure point and destination and the system will prepare a number of alternate itineraries. You can purchase your ticket online using a credit card but remember to print out your itinerary or at the very least, your PNR, a record locator code that you will need to retrieve your ticket from the ticket machine in the station. (If you are traveling from a smaller town, you should check the site to make sure your station has a ticket machine because no machine, no tickey. No tickey, no ridey.)
We get our tickets and a couple of bottles of water, find out which track the train will be arriving and departing from and begin the arduous voyage from the waiting room to the track. At many, if not most Italian train stations, the tracks run parallel to the station and you gain access to them by passing under the other tracks via an underground passageway. This necessitates carrying all of your baggage down the steps, dragging them a few yards down the hallway and back up the steps again. When you emerge from the tunnel you are about 15 feet from where you started, but generally require a change of clothes.
The train ride, which requires two changes of train (at Foligno and Ancona) is mostly uneventful. The first two trains are intercity type trains, a little long in the tooth but perfectly comfortable. We have nearly an hour wait in Ancona before boarding our sleek, lithe Eurostar train to Bari so we stop for a caffe and head for the more comfortable waiting room which inexplicably has many open seats. Upon entering the stench of urine is so overpowering it is a wonder that anyone can sit in there. Ah, the romance of train travel.
We board our final train, looking for our reserved seats, numbers 65 and 66 in carozza (coach) number 4. There is an illustration on the platform that shows the car numbers, helping you to wait in the right place for the train to arrive. What the sign doesn’t show is the middle aged man and his old mother sitting in seats 65 and 66 in carozza 4. This has been our experience previously. Reserved seats numbers are just suggestions that Italians may or may not follow. Apparently this bitter pair prefers the window and they look in no mood to offer them to us.
After some sleeping and writing we head to the dining car where a full meal can be had for about E20, which includes pasta, a meat dish, bread, dessert, coffee and, of course, wine. We are both hurting mightily from the previous four days’ overindulgence and sleep deprivation and order something light, with, of course, some wine. The meal helps pass the time and keep us away from the burning glare of our seatmates.
We arrive in Bari on time, waste some time debating whether to walk or take a cab to the rental car agency about a mile up the road and ultimately catch a cab with a friendly cabbie who promptly charges us E17 for the 3 minute ride. "Luggage, you know" he weakly offers as the reason for the charge. The cost of two plane tickets from Bari to Rome, which we are taking on Monday are E9 each, making the 2 kilometer cab ride nearly as expensive as an hour long flight. No wonder the Italians haven’t won any Nobel Awards for economics lately.
We hightail it out of Bari and find the motorway toward Brindisi, our destination the Masseria San Domenico in Savelletri di Fasano, about half way to Brindisi. We stop briefly in Polignano a Mare, a seaside town built into the cliffs above the Adriatic and a place Suzy and I visited last February. Polignano offers some breathtaking views from balconies and walkways along the sea. One restaurant, the Grotta Palazzese, features a dining room hewn out of the rocks perched above the crashing waves below. There is a hotel there as well, featuring rooms that look out over the ocean (Hotel Ristorante Grotta Palazzese, via Narcico, 59, Polignano a Mare (BA), tel. 080.424.06.77, www.grottapalazzese.it).
* * * *
We arrive at the Masseria San Domenico (72010 Savelletri di Fasano, tel. 080.482.77.69, www.masseriasandomenico.com) just as the sun is setting. Had management had the courtesy to place any signs at any of the dozens of intersections we crossed and recrossed as we looked in vain for the hotel, we probably would have arrived with an hour of sunlight to spare. A phone call to the reception proved no more helpful than our random wandering, the receptionist repeating over and over the not-so-helpful information that the hotel is "between Savellestri and Torre Canne." Unfortunately, there are precious few signs for Savellestri or Torre Canne and any signs that do exist pointing you toward these (apparently fictitious) places are not followed up with additional signs confirming that you are on the right track. Two words of advice for anyone staying at the Masseria San Domenico (and I would highly recommend that you do stay here, despite our difficulty arriving); do not follow the signs to San Domenico Golf (even though the two places are related and not all that far from another) and do head to the road along the ocean and follow it until you get to the granite factory. The entrance is just past it.
* * * *
I cannot do justice to describing the Masseria San Domenico and I certainly don’t want to try to do so at the end of a day that has been tiring and a little frustrating. I will endeavor to bring you some sense of this place tomorrow, after I have had a good night sleep, my stomach settles and I stop muttering about missing road signs. Suffice it to say that a 5:30 departure, eight hours of train travel on three trains, an overpriced taxi ride and driving around in circles for an hour all seem well worth it.
Friday, October 13, 2006
Perugia is hopping. Today is Thursday and in two days the annual Eurocholate, Italy’s largest, perhaps only, chocolate festival begins. The old town’s main street, the Corso Vannucci, is filled with piles of materials that will be transformed into a dozens of white tents, erected by numerous Italian chocolate manufacturers and retailers, and filled with cases of chocolates to be sold and, in some cases, given to the tens of thousands of acne-ravaged chocoholics that come from all over Italy and western Europe to accelerate their own tooth decay. Suzy and I quite by accident were in Perugia for a Eurochocolate several years ago, and although we had a wonderful time, I can honestly say that I’m thrilled to be leaving Perugia on Friday, before the caffeine-crazed hordes clog every medieval and renaissance street and passageway.
Besides, my imagination is fixed firmly on this morning’s program (as the Italians like to call your day’s itinerary). We are going on a journey to Montefalco, a town in the mountains about a half hour to the south and east of Perugia, with Javier and our good friend Giuseppe Fioroni to meet Arnaldo Caprai, the patriarch of the Arnaldo Caprai empire.
Today’s plan grew unexpectedly from a casual question I had posed to Javier a few days earlier when he had inquired about our program in Umbria. I mentioned to him that I would like to visit the Caprai vineyard in Montefalco if possible, to taste some of their wines, particularly the Sagrantino di Montefalco, Umbria’s most renowned wine and the one that has really put the area on the wine map. I was familiar with Caprai only because it is available in the U.S., and thought it would be fun to taste some wines from around Montefalco, whether at the Caprai vineyard or somewhere else in or around the region.
Upon hearing this, Javier immediately phoned Maestro Fioroni, a long time friend and mentor of Javier’s, who Javier suspected might know Sig. Caprai. Within a few minutes Maestro Fioroni called back to say that the four of us were going to Montefalco on Thursday to meet Sig. Caprai and to visit the vineyard. Mussolini may have got the trains to run on time, but he had nothing on Maestro Fioroni.
I refer to Giuseppe Fioroni as "maestro" because he is a renowned man of arts in Perugia and more broadly in Umbria. His work has been exhibited throughout Europe and he has won awards in Italy and abroad. Last September, Bella Italia hosted an exhibition of his work at our store in Bethesda, Maryland and over 150 people attended a reception in his honor at the Italian Cultural Institute in Washington, DC. Such accomplishments merit the title "master." But in addition to being a great self-taught painter, Maestro Fioroni has built a major grocery store consortium throughout Italy, making him a well connected and important businessman as well. It is both as businessman and artist that the Maestro developed a relationship with another of the region’s important business and cultural leaders, Signore Arnaldo Caprai.
We find the Maestro waiting for us at his offices outside Perugia, looking like a jolly Santa Clause, his flowing white beard and red suspenders unable to draw attention away from a sensitive countenance with gleaming eyes. We have not seen each other since he hosted a dinner for Suzy and me in Perugia in February, but it feels as though it was just yesterday. After exchanging greetings, the four of us climb into his SUV and we head toward Montefalco.
Or so I think. As it turns out, this is not just a wine tasting excursion. For although I am familiar with the Arnaldo Caprai name only from seeing it on the front of a wine bottle, the Caprai family, it seems, is actually engaged in many other businesses, all of them set around the valley near Montefalco. So we set off for the D.O.C. (Denominzatione d’Origine Caprai), an outlet store and factory in nearby Foligno to meet Sig. Caprai.
We pass by a number of beautiful hilltop towns, including Trevi, where Bella Italia’s Torre Mattige olive oil is produced, memories of previous visits to this area flooding back. Finally we pull into the parking lot of D.O.C., a non-descript looking building from the outside, and wander around until we find the main reception area. A receptionist seems unimpressed by our arrival and announces us, but when Arnaldo Caprai appears, he is most gracious in acknowledging us, particularly his old friend Giuseppe Fioroni whom, it seems, he has know for hundreds of years. Sig. Caprai is smartly dressed in a blue blazer, gray slacks and an open neck dress shirt, all of the finest quality. He exudes an aura of Italian chic without overdoing it. He is clearly the capo of the Caprai family.
Then begins an hour-long tour and education about some of the finer things in life, including Caprai’s trademark merletti¸ top quality lace made from cashmere, silk and other fine materials, silk and cashmere bedsheets and other fine fabrics. Sig. Caprai shows us the production facilities, machines that spin thread and that weave thousand foot long strands of cashmere into sheets or silk and gold threads into tablecloths and bedspreads. Other machines stitch delicate filigree patterns of lace on nearly transparent backgrounds that are later removed leaving a delicate and intricate merletti for which Caprai is rightly famous. We squeeze our way through rows of clanking mechanized looms that stitch and weave under the control of complex computer programs. But when asked, Sig. Caprai replies dryly that it is not the antiquated machinery that accounts for the elegant output, it is use of the finest inputs – expensive silks and luxurious cashmeres, and the relentless pursuit of the most distinguished and beautiful patterns, gleaned from historic research, that, when instructed by modern software causes these archaic looms to produce these luxurious fabrics.
To stress this point, Sig. Caprai takes us into several rooms, including one resembling a bank vault, complete with a foot thick door, comprising the most important private library of fine fashion in the world. Included are hundreds of samples of lace from the sixteenth and seventeenth century and beyond and an extensive private library of the history of merletti and other fine fashions, original volumes of which stretch back hundreds of years. The tour continues with rooms filled with ancient sewing machines, irons and boxes of thimbles dating to the time of Caesar.
When we return to the D.O.C. shop, an outlet store containing discontinued patterns and slightly imperfect samples (still well above my price range), Sig. Caprai makes an interesting comment. Neither he nor his company is interested in selling products. Rather, he says, he sells culture. The difference is that the customer should not just end up with an object, but an appreciation for that object and everything that came before it and on which it is based. While this may perhaps sound pretentious, it is clear that this man has devoted his professional career to developing and selling culture.
As we arrive at the Caprai vineyard, the place exudes this culture of which Sig. Caprai spoke. The main building, housing the cantina as well as the production facilities is beautifully designed and decorated. The vineyards stretching in all directions as far as the eye can see are neat and tidy. We walk under a blazing sun and clear skies as freshly picked bunches of grapes are unloaded from trucks that have brought them to the machinery for cleaning, separating and crushing. Sig. Caprai takes us on a complete tour of the facilities, describing every step of the process, leading us, finally, into the cantina where hundreds of bottles of all of Arnaldo Caprai’s offerings are displayed and where we are treated to a new I.G.T. offering. In the aftermath of the tasting Sig. Caprai offers to host groups we bring over from the U.S. for wine tasting and other cultural courses and hands me his card. Under his name is the term cavaliere, literally a knight or horseman, but more commonly used as a designation of a board chairman in Italy. It is clear that this man is indeed a cavaliere.
We depart the Caprai vineyard and drive to the nearby town of Bevagna, a tiny walled town that Maestro Fioroni claims has the most beautiful piazza in all of Italy. We park outside the walls, walk around a picturesque pond with waterfalls that power a grist mill and enter what is indeed a most perfect piazza, flanked with several perfectly preserved medieval churches and civic buildings. In the hot afternoon sun the clean, white stone buildings and stone square glimmer. We enjoy a little repose in the square before heading into a local trattoria, the Ottavius Ristorante (via Gonfalone, 1, 06031 Bevagna (PG), tel. 322.214.171.124), where we enjoy a remarkable steak and grilled porcini mushrooms that literally explode with flavor in the mouth. The Maestro is excited to offer us a Sagrantino di Montefalco and the velvety rich wine is indeed memorable and a perfect accompaniment to the meal. We emerge from the restaurant feeling cultured and satisfied but a feeling of shock and horror invades as I look in the sky and see the first cloud of the trip. Alas, perfection can not last forever.
* * * *
How strange is it to be strolling down a street in a foreign city and hear your name called out? Strange indeed. But later that day as I am walking in Perugia before dinner I hear my name called out repeatedly. Looking around I spot Michele Fioroni, the Maestro’s son whom I had met when he accompanied his father to Washington last year. He is taking a walk with his three year old son, Rodolfo, and their au pair. I round up Jeff and we wander up the Corso Vannucci with Michele and company, stopping at one caffe for a beer, being taken to "the most beautiful spot in Perugia," being shown a church with an important work of Raffael and finally being invited into his home for "a good Italian coffee." It's nice to be recognized in a foreign town!
* * * *
A maestro and a cavaliere. Strange sounding titles to Americans. But these are men of culture, men who have spent their lives creating, enhancing and sharing things of beauty, who passionately love and value their cultural heritage. But it is not just this older generation that impresses. The younger Javier and Michele, so willing to share their time and the pride they feel for who they are and where they are is as great a gift as one can give to a stranger or acquaintance. Being able to spend some time in the company of these men and men of culture like them is, and continues to be, an honor. It is one of the things that keeps me coming back to Italy.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
We have a fairly simple itinerary today. I am taking Jeff to Deruta, the ancient hilltown of ceramics that lies about 15 minutes south of Perugia. I hope to show him a few of the dozens of little independent ceramics shops cum studios that comprise the town. Other than that, the day is wide open. We’ll let fate take us where it may.
We alight from the hotel quite late, having slept late and then struggled with modern technology so that you, dear reader, would be able to read the travel logs you have come to love so much. Twenty first century Italy is way ahead of America in some respects technologically (glance around any piazza and see everyone, and I mean everyone, even the dogs, sporting tiny cellphones) and I am fortunate that la Rosetta has a high speed ethernet connection available for my use. The only drawback is that it is in a sterile conference closet off of the main lobby, necessitating the carrying of a laptop and about two and a half miles of cables, cords and adaptors. All goes well, however, and the blogosphere is updated with new stories of adventures in Italy, and we depart for Deruta.
After the obligatory coffee stop it’s off to the Mercato Coperto ("Covered Market") car park where the previous evening we left our brand new rental car (0 kilometers), including keys, in the hands of two men we assumed to be parking attendants because of their sporty blue jumpsuits and hand gestures. As the elevator lowers itself to the parking level I feel a tinge of fear that these men are doing donuts ("doughnuts") in a parking lot somewhere in Rome, laughing at the Americans who simply gave away their new car. I find another blue jumpsuited attendant and ask him how we go about retrieving our car, which we left the previous night and for which I draw a complete blank as to make, model, size and color. After a brief search, our car is located – unharmed -- and we are off to Deruta.
According to Jeff’s research, Deruta stands for "of Ruta" or "of Roots," referring to the roots of the rutabaga that are used to tinge the earthen clay is the basis of the bisque of the ceramics. It appears that the ceramics grow from the earth, and that the workers merely harvest God’s bounty. According to Jeff, how the ceramic bushes – themselves approximately 5 meters in height and surrounded by prickly, broken ceramic berries – know to grow, say, a plate with a logo of a hotel already etched onto it is a matter best lest for the scientists. His research is, of course, completely erroneous and made up.
We arrive in Deruta just before lunchtime, traveling up and down the via Tiburtina, the main drag through the lower part of town, in the shadows of the old town which dominates the hill above. There are dozens of small and not so small shops along the via Tiburtina, most of them selling similar designs and shapes and struggling to differentiate themselves from one another. Most of the shops on the via Tiburtina have a second shop in the old town above.
We drive back and forth a number of times looking for Ceramiche Cama, established in the 1950’s and one of the shops that has been able successfully to differentiate itself from its competitors through a combination of unique designs and unrivaled quality. Without doubt, Cama ceramics are among the finest in all of Deruta. As we trace and retrace our steps, following outdated signs to the former location of Cama, we see a familiar face along the street. It is, of course, our buddy Javier Casuso, in Deruta on business. How odd to bump into someone you know so far from home.
We have no appointment or any real agenda at Cama, other than to stop by and say hello to Andrea, the youthful son of the founders and manager of the family’s operations. We finally find Cama and fortunately Andrea is in the shop where we spend a delightful time catching up with him. Andrea is proud to show us a video clip of his parents’ and his audience with the Pope during the Jubilee, during which Andrea presented il papa with a commemorative plate in a design developed especially for the Jubilee.
After our visit with Andrea, we wander down the street to Tavola e Favola, a local restaurant at which Suzy and I spent a memorable lunch with Andrea last February. In fact, the three of us had so much fun that we began plans to bring Roberto, the owner, to Washington for a special serata italiana event. Planning continues for a series of cooking classes and special dinners, together with a talk and demonstration of the art of ceramic making by Andrea. We are all looking forward to the event, but for today at least, we will simply enjoy Roberto’s fare.
Roberto welcomes us with open hands and points us to an outdoor table where we are seated across from some southern-tinged diners from the USA. Paolo, our waiter, confirms that bistecca fiorentina is on the menu today and we order one (yes, only one) and a primi piatti ("first course") of pasta, along with some bread, olive oil, wine and acqua minerale. The pasta would have been sufficient, but as this is Italy, it only whets the appetite for the bistecca. If you look at the pictures, you will see why only one was needed. It is a massive cut, perhaps half a stone in weight when you include the mastodon-sized bone. And, of course, it is brought to us bloody red.
Paolo then begins the carving and filleting of the bovine bounty. At this point, lunch has crossed Rubicon and there is no return. What follows is a blur of knife and fork, pepper and salt, olive oil and much chewing. How long this continues is completely unclear. Somehow and at some point, for some reason, Paolo emerges from the dining room with a grappa bottle large enough for a real ship to fit in, for those so inclined. As I mentioned earlier, Italians truly seem to believe that grappa is "important" and this bottle clearly makes Paolo the most important man in Deruta. He certainly is the most important man at our table at the moment and adds to his luster by bringing two additional bottles a short while later, one with homemade limoncello, a syrupy lemon liqueur and a frosty bottle of a nameless red liqueur that has been made on the premises from wine, grappa and cherries. All three bottles seem extremely important and Paolo checks in on us frequently to see how we are doing and to top off his glass.
It is during this bacchanalia that Jeff comes to a startling revelation, developing in an instant the Italian food pyramid (a la the USDA food pyramid). Like many of society’s greatest inventions, it is scribbled on a placemat and using his ubiquitous blue pen. A copy of it is attached as a photo and you can read Jeff’s complete account of the pyramid here. Suffice it to say that there is a prominent place in the pyramid for grappa.
We finish lunch and emerge from under the canopy which has shielded us from the blazing sun. It is then that we realize that here, on Day 3 of our journey, we have yet to see a cloud in the Italian sky.
We spend a while letting our eyes adjust to the sunlight and then head off for a quick visit to say hello to Gerardo Rigibini, owner of Geribi Ceramics, another of the handful of truly distinctive ceramicists in Deruta. We walk in unannounced to Gerardo’s studio, a large hangar-like building next to a supermarket and see Gerardo and an army of painters hard at work filling orders from customers around the world. Gerardo is happy to see me and me him (is this grammatically possible?) and we chat for a while. Jeff is amazed by Geribi’s beautiful and unusual designs, which Gerardo explains are the result of much research into the designs and colors used by ancient ceramicists, even predating the development of such renaissance classics as ricco Deruta and Raffaelesco. Gerardo is a serious man – serious about his art and his work – and he is seriously good at it.
We bid Gerardo adieu and head back to Perugia, stopping off to see Javier in Ponte San Giovanni for a brief stop. We then begin the winding return from the valley into the center of Perugia but instead of returning to the hotel, decide to practice the route from the hotel to Perugia’s central train station, from which we will depart before the crack of dawn in two days. The route is even more harrowing than the trip into Perugia, with sharp turns down streets that seem to be less than a car width wide, dropping at angles that make us fear that we will pitch pole down into the valley. But despite the complexity of getting to the train station (a "mini-metro" is being built that will soon whisk passengers from the station in the valley to the historic city center), the challenge is in getting back up into Perugia, as the approach is from the other side of the hill than I am accustomed to. We weave and circle and climb for nearly an hour to make the 15 minute drive into town, finally arriving at the Mercato Coperto, tired and drained and nearly ready for dinner.
The evening plan calls for meeting Javier at one of Suzy and my favorite Perugia restaurants, the Osteria del Ghiottone. But tomorrow’s plan looms even larger – a visit organized by our good friend Giuseppe Fioroni to visit the azienda Arnaldo Caprai, Umbria’s premier winemaker. So tonight’s dinner will have to remain forever undocumented, yet another great meal in the land of great meals. Suffice it to say, it was a very important dinner.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
We get a late start this morning, meeting Javier in the hotel lobby after 10:00, having wiped away most vestiges of jetlag in a single night. Although my room looks out over the Piazza Italia, the main square at the end of the principal pedestrian street in the historic old town of Perugia, with a busy bus stop and throngs of Italians charging here and there, the room is deceptively quiet. I attribute the quiet and the dark to the window shutters, without doubt Italy’s most amazing engineering feat and a marvel that I believe they are foolish to have not shared with the rest of the world. And the Italians have a number of different shade technologies, each one more ingenious than the next, but all sharing the same outcome –absolute darkness and quiet in the room. It is this complete sensory deprivation to which I attribute the rapid victory over jetlag.
Javier takes us down the Corso Vannucci to an old world caffe for a cup of brown gold and a pastry. We’ve been to this particular caffe-patisserie before, but the routine is the same. Stand at the counter for a small cup of highly concentrated espresso, feeling the caffeine instantly course through your system like a powerful morphine drip, or choose a somewhat larger cappuccino, which adds a healthy dose of frothy milk and sugar to your pick me up. I choose the latter and a small pastry looking like a sugar covered horn filled with vanilla cream. The pastry case, which runs practically the entire length of the long, narrow room, is piled with dozens of varieties of sweets that are simple variations on the same theme – a bit of bread flavored with something sweet. There are horn shaped pastries filled with various creams, round buns cut in half and filled with cream, cups filled with cream or pudding; why there are even donuts, a relatively recent addition to the Italian breakfast lineup, some covered with chocolate and others, you guessed it – filled with cream.
We eat our pastries and knock back our coffee – which takes about 90 seconds total – at a small round table set up in the middle of the Corso. All around Italians are rushing by, many by themselves, only their cellphones to connect them to someone else with whom they can talk, others walking by in groups of two or three engaged in animated discussions with one another. This is a culture that likes to talk and it is rather entertaining to sit in one place and watch the conversations pass by, a sort of exercise in Italian channel surfing. It is unusual to see anyone under 50 years old walk by solo and not be engaged in some sort of conversation. It is the older people who slowly amble by, usually with hands held behind the back, hand in palm, saying nothing, seemingly going nowhere, talking with no one. Their languid pace and seeming purposelessness seems a refreshing counterpoint to the frantic dashes of their younger counterparts.
We finish up and begin a slow meandering walk past the duomo to one of the faculties of the University of Perugia, where Javier has arranged some assistance in expediting the renewal of his passport. Perugia is a college town, a fact that is probably obvious most of the time, given the large numbers of young people here, but which is undeniable if one ventures out in the piazza in front of the duomo at night when the steps of the cathedral are covered with groups of students, publicly drinking beers and engaged in the great Italian past time of talking.
Wandering down to the Faculty of Letters we pass through some of the most awe inspiring, but completely missable architectural layout imaginable. Streets bend down, tilt right and left, wind back up and seem to just go where they like. In order to accommodate these wandering pathways, the buildings use each other for support, with buttresses thrown high above the streets, spanning from one building to another to keep the whole crazy jumble from falling down onto one another. Archways and tiny passageways are everywhere and the colors are the same everywhere – a brown-gray stone color, the hue deepened with years of grime. The colors could be depressing or at least a bit melancholy were in not for the gleaming sun, which at this hour has not yet climbed overhead and is casting dark shadows over half the street, but is nonetheless bathing these dark stones in brilliant light that reflects everywhere, illuminating and warming even the darkest corners.
After leaving the Faculty of Letters we wander some more before heading to one of the municipal car parks where Javier has left his car. This particular garage, and there are many in Perugia because the main square and the historic center are off limits to auto traffic, is a multi-story affair. Drivers enter the garage well below main square, leave their cars and are hoisted to ground level by elevator, their cars remaining secure in the subterranean garage. This garage, the Mercato Coperto (covered market), is not visible from the main street. You must pass through a small archway and tunnel to reach it. But when you do, the effect is similar to walking through many of the other tiny passageways in Perugia – upon emerging from it you have been transported to a different world. Most of the historic center of Perugia is visually constricted. You are constantly surrounded by buildings; there are few panoramas. But emerging into the Mercato Coperto, a collection of stalls selling purses, tshirts and other souvenirs built on top of the municipal garage, you finally break out into the open. From the Mercato you can see the green hills of Umbria, small villages dotting the landscape. In the distance, through the haze of this bright morning we can see on the slope of a nearby mountain our destination for the afternoon, Assisi, the home of St. Francis.
* * * *
Javier has arranged to meet a friend for lunch and so we follow him to Joyce’s Pub (via Bonazzi 15, 06133 Perugia, tel. 075.57.56,800), a few steps from our hotel off the Corso Vannucci. This Irish pub, seeming a bit out of place in a medieval Italian city, looks right out of Dublin – dark wooden décor, small wooden pub tables and Guinness on tap. When the waitress arrives and recites the menu, however, it is clear that we are in Italy – penne al bosco, pasta with clams, pesche fritti and bistecca. We spend an enjoyable hour watching Javier and his buddy try to one up each other, harass the waitresses and generally enjoy the moment. After lunch we bid our farewells to everyone and after a while begin our trek to Assisi.If walking the windy streets of Perugia is an unadulterated joy, driving the windy streets of Perugia can be an unalloyed terror. When heading out of Perugia the best course of action is to keep your head low, try not to bump into anyone, follow everyone else and drive downhill. If you drive downhill you will eventually get out of this place, which, not amazingly, since it was built over a thousand years ago, does not appear to have been designed with cars in mind. We roll downhill until we reach the pleasant valley below and then rejoin the normal rush of Italian traffic, looking for signs to Assisi, which are everywhere. Within a quarter of hour we are exiting the strada statale (state highway) for Assisi, which is gleaming yellowish white perched on the slope of a mountain about 10 miles in the distance.
The approach to Assisi is almost as enjoyable as the visit itself. It is hard to overstate how beautiful the town looks from the distance – the color, the setting, the complete self sufficiency of the walled town separated from everything around it. As you come closer you can see more detail, including the basilica San Francesco the pilgrimage magnet where the saint is buried.
We drive right up to the town, brazenly ignoring, Italian-style, the traffico limitato signs, deciding to park where we like – preferably close to the basilica. I follow in my father’s footsteps, who more than a decade earlier ignored the signs and drove right into the piazza in front of the basilica, an area reserved for religious big shots and church officials, while my mother tore at her hair and cursed him in a way that would have shocked St. Francis. I have a failure of nerve however, and decide not to park in the square (which no longer is for parking anyway). Not wanting to drive through the square and into the town proper, however, I decide to turn around and retrace my route, a wise decision except for the fact that the road is one way. As we work our way through the oncoming traffic I inexplicably think of salmon.
We end up parking at a lot on the extreme south end of the city, far from the basilica on the north end, but also far from the police and angry mob. A pleasant 15 minute walk across the length of Assisi ends with us in front of the basilica, which is now bathed in a warm yellow light of the setting sun. It is late and we have only a short time to sightsee, so we enter the upper basilica, which boasts frescos of scenes from St. Francis’ life. At the entrance to the basilica is the scene of Francis preaching to the birds and animals, one of the famous scenes of his life. All I can think about, however, is what exactly did he eat?
We try to enter the lower basilica, which houses more famous frescoes, but a vesper service is taking place and the chapel is closing shortly. So we wander up the street pas numerous souvenir shops trading on the popularity of Assisi’s favorite son. Jeff buys a few St. Francis trinkets and we are struck by the odd juxtaposition of the numerous St. Francis statues and postcards with Roman swords, battle axes and maces. "This sword we call the St. Francis. Ten inches of gleaming steel. It’s the ultimate killing machine." We wander all the way up to Assisi’s main square, the Piazza Communale, with its Roman temple and shiny civic buildings. Just past the piazza we enter a store called Lisa Assisi (her real name?) and buy some souvenirs, asking for directions to our destination for dinner –Trattoria La Stalla. Lisa (we imagine) asks why we want to eat there, trying to direct us to a restaurant in town that she no doubt owns or gets a commission for sending tourists to, but in the end gives us good directions, scribbled on a piece of cardboard. She bids us adieu telling us that we will eat well.
And it is indeed fortuitous that we asked for directions, because no person, save Lord Shackleton, could find this restaurant without them. Located about 10 minutes outside Assisi, on the mountainside above it, La Stalla (via Eramo delle Carceri 24, 06081 Assisi (PG), tel 075.812.317) is in the Fontanella campgrounds. If you follow the signs for "Camping Fontanella" you will eventually find the restaurant. But you will likely be racked with self doubt a dozen times before you finally park your car, believing it impossible that the restaurant could be here!
Our perseverance was handsomely rewarded. The restaurant is in a non-descript hotel that probably serves primarily as bathing facilities for the nearby campers. It appeared deserted when we arrived, but we poked about various rooms, following sounds and smoky smells until we reached the cozy restaurant. The room is dominated by a huge brazier, a wood fired stove covered with metal racks on which a tag team of waiters and matrons constantly grill a variety of meats, sausages and fowl. Grilled cheeses, grilled vegetables, roasted potatoes and even grilled breads constantly are drawn from the fires and delivered to eager diners. The brazier gives off a warm flickering glow that lights the room and gives it character.
Jeff starts with strangozzi in tomato sauce, a handmade Umbrian pasta that resembles thick spaghetti. I have a bowl of farro soup that is thick and hearty and served on a rough wooden plate that is slightly scooped out, providing a space for the soup. A local house wine is followed by a Rosso di Montefalco, a hearty backdrop for the skewers of sausages that I have ordered. Jeff has a grilled chicken which has been split in half and grilled to perfection. We have some beet greens (grilled, of course) but the hit of the evening are the roasted potatoes, small new potatoes cut in half and grilled in the coals, which softens the pulp of the potato and slightly burns the skin, infusing the whole with a smoky taste that is deepened by a generous dressing of olive oil and a strategic pinch of salt. If we had been served only the potatoes the dinner would have been a success. The meats, bread and veggies make it just that much better. La Stalla (which means the barn), is one of those finds that makes your day completely worthwhile and I am glad that we persevered to find it.
So it’s back to Perugia, a half hour drive that finds no traffic on our return. We stop off for a glass of wine at my favorite wine bar the Bottega del Vino (hopefully more on it in tomorrow’s installment), return to la Rosetta and off to sleep, dreaming of grilled potatoes and thinking that St. Francis would probably preferred if we had skipped the chicken and sausages.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
With me on the flight are Javier Casuso, the Spanish-born ceramicist who resides in Perugia and runs the D’Arna ceramics studio, and Jeff Gilleran, a long time buddy and co-worker of mine who has traveled to Italy with us in the past. Noticeably absent are my wife, Suzy, and our children. A long summer spent in Florida with my father and brothers has made it difficult for her to slip away from Washington, and besides, the kids have just started back at school. So while I am looking forward to some new adventures in the land of Cristoforo Columbo on this Columbus Day, a part of me feels like it has been left behind in the land of T.O.
The flight passes incredibly quickly for an 8 hour ordeal sealed inside what is no more than an enormous bullet shell, as it and its 300 passengers are fired from Philadelphia to Rome. I have been lucky enough to win a coveted upgrade to Envoy class from steerage, and I happily settle into the cavernous seat with so many recline and lumbar controls that a silhouette map of the seat, with separate arrows and buttons is required to control it. I imagine myself as a lottery winner, being presented an outsized cardboard check like a Publishers Clearinghouse sweepstakes grand prize winner -- payable to Bill Menard one big ass seat. Although there really is no Prize Patrol or balloons or crowds here, one look around the cabin confirms that most everyone else up here feels the same way, a certain giddiness that we will not only survive this aerial ordeal, we might even arrive in Rome having enjoyed ourselves.
And as the plane touches down at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, while I have not exactly had a swashbuckling good time (my television was broken), I have slept soundly for nearly 6 hours, a record of sorts for me, and I am ready to begin my Italian odyssey. We pass through immigration, a perfunctory stamp of the passport without the strip search and private screening room harassment that had greeted Javier when he arrived in the U.S. a week earlier, collect our bags and emerge from the dingy, antiseptic terminal into the cool shade of a crystal clear, crisp blue Roman morning. At slightly after 9:00 in the morning the temperature is a perfect 70 degrees and the sun is gently but surely bearing down on us, warming not only our outer skin but announcing to every fiber within that you are welcome here, to where civilization began in so many ways thousands of years ago under this same sun that warms and welcomes us now. As my eyes adjust from the cold yellowish light of the terminal to the cool white light of the sun, they marvel at the progression of blues, from a light, creamy blue of the horizon to the darker, deeper blue of directly above head, that is not punctuated by a single cloud. Nature does indeed seem to be rolling out the welcome mat and I feel in an instant, that I have returned home.
Our agenda for the day, or program as Javier calls it, is simple. Lunch and dinner then sleep, in an attempt to thwart jet lag and adjust to the six hour time difference. We get in Javier’s car and begin the two hour drive to Perugia through landscape dotted with some awful industrial zones and unattractive buildings, but set into beautiful, craggy hills that are covered in wall to wall green punctuated by the light gray of rocky hills. After just 15 minutes, the program is interrupted. We must stop for a coffee.
What a welcome first activity in Italy it is to take a coffee. Even at the Autogrill, the ubiquitous roadside rest stop chain found alongside autostrade throughout Italy you will find a first rate coffee bar that will put any American Starbucks to shame. Where we Americans have our McDonalds and Taco Bells along the highway, Tiger Marts with prepackaged sandwiches and vending machines, the simple Autogrill has refrigerator cases of fresh cheeses, dozens of salamis, assortments of pastas and, of course, the coffee bar. A creamy espresso and frothy cappuccino are offered up along with a simple sandwich of crusty bread and a few slices of prosciutto. It is another gift from the Italian sun who is watching over us today.
We arrive at last at Perugia, one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, winding our way up the road that circles back and forth up the hill on which the city is built. Our destination, despite Javier’s efforts to the contrary, is the Hotel la Rosetta (Piazza Italia 19, Perugia, tel. 075.57.20.841, www.perugiaonline.com/larosetta), smack dab on the main street in the middle of the old city. I have stayed up the street at the Hotel Brufani in the past and walked past la Rosetta dozens of times, but I had never noticed it before. The main entrance is on the Piazza Italia, but the better entrance is off the main street, the Corso Vannucci, through a lovely small terrace that, once again, I have passed dozens of times without ever noticing. After some formalities involving passports and license tags, we are shown upstairs to the guest rooms. As I pass through corridor after corridor, motion sensing lights switch on and, as we pass through each room, switch off, bringing to mind Agent Maxwell Smart and the automatic doors through which he passes on his way to meet the Chief.
The room is simple with nice furnishings and definitely worth the Euro 130 per night, especially given the hotel’s prime location in the heart of city center. A high, domed ceiling, painted with scenes of maidens reclining in landscapes scattered with cherubs fills the imagination, the last image seen before nodding off in a jetlag induced slumber.
But it is not yet time to sleep. We rejoin Javier and drive to Ponte San Giovanni, a bedroom community of Perugia located in the valley below. Here we return once again to the Deco Hotel (via del Pastificio 8, Ponte San Giovanni (PG) 06087, tel. 075.59.90.950, www.decohotel.it), a regular haunt of Javier and one which we have shared with him numerous times on visits to Perugia and Deruta. We (Javier) are greeted warmly by the manager, who rushes to the door to open it for Javier and welcome him back to town (he has been to Spain as well as Washington and away from Ponte San Giovanni for several weeks). We are shown our table and the feast begins. Javier has his usual pasta and clams and Jeff tries a penne with truffle sauce. I have a grilled fish (coda di rospo) and we wash everything down with a nice pinot grigio. Before dessert Javier orders a plate of prosciutto, which is sliced from a fresh leg that is brought in, replacing the spindly, sickly looking bone that was on display upon our entrance. Then it is on to grappa (what lunch would be complete without Italian rocket fuel which the Italians claim is important to good health) and coffee. We say our goodbyes after several hours in this lovely sun filled room, a glassed in space in the middle of a lovely, colorful garden. It is then off to Javier’s apartment for a little port and cheese, soaking up some more of the sun on his terrace, and then back to Perugia.
Javier drops us off at the hotel and we plan to reconvene for dinner in several hours and Jeff and I decide to explore Perugia a bit. Our first stop is the local wine store, which Suzy and I stop by on every visit to Perugia. The staff there stock a huge selection of Umbrian wines and are both very knowledgeable and proud of their local offerings. I engage one clerk in conversation, getting some good suggestions and we buy a couple of bottles before leaving.
Wandering around an unfamiliar neighborhood, we hear a strange clanking noise and arrive at a doorway opening into a cavernous darkened room, blanketed with smoke. The noise is from the collision of billiard balls, as we have discovered a real life Italian pool hall in the bowels of this university city. We rent a table for an hour, drawing a few stares from the locals who are clearly Italians and clearly college students (we clearly are neither) as we pass through. The experience is quite different from any I have experienced in Italy, but quite restrained and wholesome, not at all the raucous affair I had expected. A couple players pose for a photo on our way out.
Dinner approaches, as it has now been more than 24 hours after we left Washington and Javier calls from his car, his four children in tow. He suggests the Pizzeria Mediterraneo, a favorite of Suzy’s and mine, just at the end of Corso Vannucci, and I am excited to agree and to return there. We place our orders, seven pizzas, and they begin arriving at the table two or three minutes after we order them. They are delicious, topped with four cheeses, mushrooms, sausages and the like, each the personalized treasure of the diner. No dessert tonight. Just a quick dinner and a stroll back to la Rosetta, where a cozy bed is calling out my name. I am asleep before the light goes out, dreaming of adventures to come tomorrow.
Only a day earlier I boarded a jet in Washington, DC, looking forward to returning to Italy, a place I love and which has for the past several years has been the focus of my business and professional life. That excitement was tempered, however, with some apprehension about leaving Suzy behind as well as other family responsibilities that need to be tended to. The ease with which I rediscover the rhythms and rituals of Italian life make the transition easy. And as I take a shower before dinner, reaching instinctively for the knob marked "C" and realizing that "C" is for "Hot" (caldo), rather than "Cold" (freddo) and amusing myself with evil thoughts of Americans who have probably scalded themselves in this very same shower, turning the "C" knob even further as their screams bounce off the domed ceiling, painted cherubs and maidens secretly laughing to themselves. I have returned to a place where I belong and where I can sometimes secretly laugh to myself about those outsiders as well.