Sunday, October 21, 2007

Day 5 - Ponte San Giovanni-Perugia

Chocolate is big business.

Today is our second day in Umbria, and when we awake yesterday’s winds are still blowing, but have brought cold temperatures with them. The skies are a melancholy gray and for the first time we begin to notice leaves of yellow and dark red on some of the trees. When we left America less than a week ago, signs of autumn were everywhere, along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina where we had been a few days earlier and the Taconic Parkway of New York’s Hudson Valley. There the sun and sky had that particular autumn feel, a deep, soft, gold color that seemed to give off a soothing low frequency hum, so low you can’t hear it, but which announces to your body that it is nearly time to find shelter and rest.

Those signs of autumn were nowhere to be seen or felt on our first couple of days in Italy. Skies had been clear and cloudless, and if not the intense bright blue of spring and summer, a blue only slightly shaded with white. Evergreens, including the iconic cypress, filled the landscape as far as the eye could see, punctuated here and there with the green leaves of other types of trees. It seemed as though fall would never come to this land, or at least Tuscany and Umbria.

But fall arrived in Umbria today, or this morning more precisely. Chill winds were blowing and piles of leaves, newly shorn from their hosts, were circling each other, showing off their pretty ambers, reds and oranges to one another. Little Italian ladies, bundled up against this sudden drop, hurried by, burdened with shopping bags, only their eyes visible from beneath the coats, hats and scarves that were attempting vainly to keep out the slicing cold.

From our apartment window we enjoy a cup or two of espresso, having figured out how to turn on the gas to the stove the night before. We hesitate to leave our comfortable little haven, but a meeting with our accountant beckons, to discuss some of the research she has been doing on the villa we are considering buying.

After a productive meeting with Stefania, we stop by the apartment to get additional outerwear, having misjudged how cold it really has turned. Then Javier drops us off at the train station in Ponte San Giovanni, where we will take a short ten minute train ride to Perugia’s Sant’Anna train station just outside the historic center of town and a short walk to the escalator that passes through the city walls and the Rocca Paolina, depositing you on Perugia’s main street, the Corso Vannucci.

But today’s visit to Perugia will be anything but ordinary. Today is the second to last day of Eurochocolate 2007, and it is Saturday, the final weekend. Perugia will be mobbed by thousands of tourists visiting the dozens of tents set up Italian chocolatiers as well as a few of their Swiss, Belgian and Dutch brethren.

Our first introduction to Eurochocolate came several years ago on our second visit to Perugia. We had briefly spent the afternoon there with my mother and father, as part of an overly ambitious day trip that had us drive from our villa in Chianti (in neighboring Tuscany), past Lake Trasimeno and into Perugia, then to Pienza in the Val d’Orcia. It was entirely too much driving, brought on by the optical illusion one suffers when looking at the tiny distances between destinations when they are drawn to scale on a map. How could a two and a half in drive take three hours? Why is our road drawn in yellow when all of the others are in red and why does it squiggle so much? The visit to Perugia, too rushed to see anything and accomplishing little other than getting the four of us alternately quarreling and giving the cold shoulder for the ill-advised drive to Pienza, was as near a disaster as we experienced in our travels together. So when Suzy and I decided to return there for a couple of days many years later, it was with a sense of trepidation and caution.

The day of that return to Perugia was also on a weekend, a Sunday if memory serves correctly. We navigated without incident from wherever we had been staying to the exit for Perugia from the autostrada, remembering vaguely the windy ascent that lay ahead before reaching the historic city center where our hotel lay. But as soon as we neared the city traffic came to a complete stop. Hundreds of cars, motorcycles and, especially, buses formed a miles-long jam that inched forward more slowly than the hundreds of pedestrians who were scaling the hills on foot. Completely clueless about the cause of the jam, it was probably a half an hour later (and definitely only several hundred yards ahead) that a banner stretched across the roadway announced the reason – Perugia Welcomes Eurochocolate.

On that day, in one of the greatest driving triumphs in our career of navigating Italian cities, we talked our way past a young policewoman, convincing her that we were staying in the centrally located Brufani Hotel (which was true), drove our car through pedestrian-only streets choked with thousands of revelers in the throes of chocolate-induced intoxication, the bumper of our rental car parting the human wave like Moses and the Red Sea, and found a parking space directly in front of the hotel entrance, beside one of the dozens of tents set up in the main Eurochocolate exhibition area which was headquartered, you guessed it, right in front of the Brufani.

Today we have no desire to inch our way into Perugia, opting for the regular light rail train that connects Ponte San Giovanni to Perugia Sant’Anna. We buy our tickets (andata e ritorna – round trip) from an utterly charmless railway employee who seems less than thrilled at dealing with the mob and after a bit of confusion due to the fact that special “chocotrains” have been added to the schedule to accommodate the throngs of cacao lovers, board our train. Ten minutes later the human wave carries us out of the train, away from the station and toward the escalator to the city center.

We emerge from the escalator and see our beloved city (we have visited there probably a dozen times since our first, rude introduction) completely transformed. No longer the hauntingly beautiful Venice of Umbria, it has become a Disney on Chocolate. The main street, along which dozens of white tents are lined up are jammed, and when I say jammed I mean completely full of people. Literally so full that there is no room to add one extra body, but the escalator continues to spit out more and more Italians into this mass of humanity, like some demented piece of factory equipment, adding each look alike cog, with its dark hair, jeans, dark ski parka and bags of swag to this churning crowd.

Crowds are not Suzy’s specialty. And despite her love of chocolate, especially the high end, interesting fare displayed and offered for sale by the elite chocolate producers of Italy that are here today, we make just a quick pass through some of the nearby tents before deciding to escape from the main street and seek lunch away from the crowd. We convince ourselves that perhaps after lunch the crowd will be smaller.

We wander a few hundred yards to one of our favorite trattorias in Perugia, the Osteria del Ghiottone (Via C. Caporali, 12, Perugia, tel. 075.572.7788). We have made it a point to dine at the Ghiottone every time we visit Perugia, and we have chatted at length with the owner, always complementing the food and leaving a decent tip. We enter the small door, down a couple of steps into a small waiting room with a couple of tables and the owner greets us, and within a second or two his eyebrows rise and his eyes widen in recognition. “How are you?” he asks in English and we exchange pleasantries telling him how happy we are to be in his restaurant again. His brow furrows a bit, as this is Eurochocolate, the town is stuffed to the gills and the restaurant is completely booked. He scans the little anteroom and sheepishly offers one of the tables here, which we gladly accept. Other than the occasional cold blast as other diners enter, only to be turned away, it is warm, friendly and inviting.

We order the antipasti del Ghiottone, which Suzy declares is the best antipasti in all of Italy. We back up her words by devouring nearly every offering on the five plates that are presented – mushroom canap├ęs, eggplant offerings, a plate of prosciutto and other local salamis, eggs scrambled in truffle butter and simply hardboiled, crostini with olive paste, salsa verde, red pepper spread, the list goes on and on. As we tuck into our pastas (fettuccine with wild boar sauce and penne alla norcina) we notice one of the waitresses consulting an English-Italian dictionary and then conferring with the owner. He shuts the book, comes to our table and asks us in Italian if we can help translate for one of the other English-speaking guests. Cos’e melanzane in inglese? We explain that it is eggplant to Americans, aubergine to the Brits. He seems confused that there could be separate word for the English and Americans, then registers the response, thanks us and disappears into the main dining room. It is nice to be able to be a good Samaritan in a foreign land.

A bottle of wine and a couple of grappas later, we pay our bill, say our thank yous and goodbyes and head back into the bitter cold and now darkening Perugian streets. The crowds are no smaller than before, perhaps a bit larger, but the grappa has taken an edge off the cold and the crowds. We shop at a couple dozen tents, downing a cup of hot drinkable chocolate, which is not the same as hot chocolate, but simply melted chocolate served in a cup, and fight our way back up the Corso Vannucci back toward the train station.

Along the way we bump into Carlos Casuso, one of the sons of our friend Javier Casuso. He is out buying some last minute items for tonight’s dinner to which we have been invited. But before we go to Javier’s house, we must return to Ponte San Giovanni, on the Chocotrain along with hundreds of chocolate bloated revelers, many of them teenagers jacked up on too much sugar. Fortunately the boisterous, sweltering train ride is only ten minutes. Within another ten minutes we are home.

Perugia. Where we can score a parking space in front of our hotel on the biggest festival day of the year. Where we can score a table at our favorite restaurant while thousands look for a place to eat. Now, in the outskirts, here in Ponte San Giovanni, where we can prop up our feet in our apartment before going back out to dinner at a friend’s house. Perhaps we truly are home.

A presto,
Bill and Suzy

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