Saturday, January 31, 2004

Day 8 - Caltagirone

It seemed that we might never get to the historic center of Caltagirone, but once we did we were blown away. This beautiful old town, tucked away in a forgotten corner of Sicily is a gem. Perched atop a hill, the old buildings are seemingly stacked upon one another, higher and higher, until they reach the Piazza Umberto, and then rise upward to yet another piazza reached by a set of stairs that seem to touch the sky. Everything about this town is right and we are fortunate to be able to spend a whole day here.

But I get ahead of myself. We rise and have breakfast at the Grand Hotel Villa San Mauro, located just outside of the main town (it is difficult to find, but can be done so if you follow signs to the hospital - "ospedale" - the Villa San Mauro is across from the hospital, and just down the street). It is part of an Italian hotel group called Framon and we are quite impressed. The room is quite spacious, especially by Italian standards, with high ceilings and beautiful details, such as painted ceramic wall sconces and a painted tile headboard. The bathroom is decked out in marble with upscale fixtures. The staff is most accommodating and helpful (the manager himself parked our car last night) and the restaurant on the premises is quite good. It is like an upscale American hotel chain with an Italian twist. There is a beautiful swimming pool and terrace, which is unfortunately too cold to use. Although Framon appears to be based in Sicily, it has properties throughout Italy and we are definitely going to seek them out in the future.

We get directions to the old town from the hotel reception and head off, immediately getting off track, as has become our habit. It is Saturday and there is much traffic and activity and we manage to get ourselves into a traffic jam nowhere near the center. Fortune smiles on us, however, and we stumble across one of the only streets that is marked on our map and are quickly on our way to town center.

Streets are narrow, in typical Italian fashion, and by narrow I mean about 2 inches narrower than our car. We navigate these lanes and emerge at the Piazza Umberto, the center of town. It is a lovely piazza flanked by several historic municipal buildings, and everywhere we look there are small shops bursting with ceramics. Caltagirone is, after all, the spiritual center of the ceramics industry in Sicily, and this is why we have come.

We exit the piazza looking for a parking space and come face to face with a staircase stretching hundreds of feet up from the piazza to another piazza. The stairway, the Scala Santa Maria, is wide - about twenty or thirty feet wide, with each stair a piece of heavy gray marble. On the face of each riser (pardon me if I am using the terminology incorrectly, but by riser I mean the vertical member that faces you as you climb each stair) is a series of hand painted tiles that stretches the entire width of the stairway. Each riser uses a different series of tiles - there are birds, animals, knights, ladies, duels, palaces, cities and geometric designs. The effect is stunning as the stairs stretch upward for several hundred feet. The Caltagironians clearly take their ceramics and its tradition and history seriously.

We luck out, finding a parking place a block away from the Scala Santa Maria and begin to wander back to it and the Piazza Umberto. Only a few steps from the car we notice a small shop displaying wine for sale. Upon closer look we realize it is an enoteca (wine store) for the Tenuta Nanfro, the producer of the wine we enjoyed so much last night at dinner. We make this fact known to the man running the enoteca and strike up a lively conversation with him. He turns out to be Concetto Lo Certo, who co-owns the winery, located about five minutes from our hotel, with his brother. He invites us to visit the winery and take a tour. While we peruse the store and his products (the tenuta also produces olive oil, and we buy a bottle for evaluation), a couple of customers come in, armed with glass bottles with stoppers. Signor Lo Certo fills them with wine from the large wooden casks in the store. In Caltagirone, it seems, you can get your wine for 2 euro if you bring your own bottle. This place really is fantastic!

We wander back to the piazza, scaling the stairs and taking photos of the different tiles and admiring the view of the countryside you are afforded from this vantage point. We window shop the many ceramics stores around and about the piazza, which are all closed or closing for lunch.

We look for a restaurant ourselves, which is a bit of challenge during this low season, but find a nice place featuring pizzas called al Posto Giusto (Piazza I. Marcinno 15/16/17, tel. 0933-54896). We have a leisurely lunch and are entertained by an Italian family that clearly dines here often and knows the proprietor. They enjoy a large lunch, with wine for all, including the 10 year old son, and take a half hour to say their goodbyes and depart. During this interval we are unable to get anyone's attention for espresso or the bill. We have found that you often are left undisturbed after dinner, sometimes so unmolested that it is difficult to pay up and get out. We have noticed recently, more than in the past, that diners will get up to ask for and to pay the bill at the front of the restaurant. This does not seem to be an egregious faux pas. We get our bill and depart after a leisurely two hour lunch, timing our departure to coincide with the reopening of the stores.

Despite our efforts, since arriving in Sicily we have been unsuccessful in finding souvenir marionettes or a marionette show. Sicily is famous for its puppet theatre, featuring marionette knights duking it out, with much blood and gore, a tradition of storytelling and entertainment that stretches back centuries on this island. On the way to lunch we are disappointed to see the local puppet exhibition, located at an establishment called Preseppi, is closed. Fate shines upon us once again, as the Preseppi's proprietor happens to be going in to do some cleaning as we pass by on our way from lunch. He lets us inside and we are treated to a half dozen different scenes, each featuring a number of marionettes that are intricately carved, painted and clad in armor or royal vestments and each about two feet high. A number of them are nearly a hundred years old, but even the newest ones are special. We are truly fortunate to have stumbled upon them.

After lunch we visit several ceramics shops. The quality of their goods and their shops is uniformly outstanding. The patterns here share some similarities with Deruta patterns, but use some darker tones and more painting. They also seem to produce more ornamental pieces, such as painted figurines as well as a fair amount of portraiture. The town is home to over a hundred studios, and it seems that most of them have a small shop near the piazza. A number of artists' works are also displayed in a single large ceramics superstore, a sort of majolica meets Walmart, and this is the single disappointment in Caltagirone. There is even a snackbar in the market, giving it a South of the Border feel.

We visit a number shops but limit our purchases to one shop, Maiolche Artistiche di Giorgio Alemanna, just off the main square. His shop is smallish, but filled with a broad array of patterns and pieces all of the highest quality. We buy a few pieces to bring back to the store and are on our way. Outside, in the Piazza Umberto, Caltagirone's older generation of men is congregating in the lengthening shadows, engaged in animated discussions in groups of a half dozen or more. They are decked out in their finest clothes, and every man wears a hat of some sort. Where they are going or why they congregate at night like this is beyond me, but watching them interact with one another, gesturing wildly with their hands, erupting in indignation at an apparent slight or in disagreement with something said by their compatriot, which is forgotten as quickly as it came, is as much a joy as being able to experience the beauty these people have created from lumps of clay and dabs of paint. The Italian culture and their people are every bit as beautiful and satisfying as their food we eat and their art we enjoy and we are truly grateful to be able to come here and experience it.

And with that, we get back in our trusty Passat and head back to the Villa San Mauro, stopping for a few panoramic photos of the old town. We look forward to another good meal and the promise of returning to this city in the not so distant future.

Ciao a presto!
Suzy and Bill

Friday, January 30, 2004

Day 7 - Palermo - Cefalu - Santo Stefano - Caltagirone

Day 7 - Spent most of the day driving, as we are going from Palermo, on the north coast, to Caltagirone, a small town in the mountains in the opposite southeast corner. We have a couple of stops along the way, which are not exactly along the way.

We check out of the hotel and head to Cefalu, a little over an hour from Palermo, to look for some new Sicilian ceramics patterns. We have spent about 36 hours in Palermo, yet have managed to see only the route from our hotel to the Avis office, as we spent all of yesterday outside the city. Palermo is definitely worth a return visit, as even in the short time we have spent here it has exceeded our expectations. Several guide books and personal referrals have told us that it was a run down city, where your personal safety and personal possessions were at risk. Despite our superficial introduction, we find Palermo a beautiful, well kept city and there are a number of upscale store we would like to visit. While it is teeming with humanity, it is neither overcrowded nor overwhelming. It seems to be a sophisticated, welcoming city.

The drive to Cefalu passes quickly on the high speed autostrada that follows the dramatic coastline. Sicily, or at least this portion of it, is a dramatic landscape. Coastal beaches rise into enormous cliffs and jagged, craggy eruptions of rock rise hundreds, if not thousands of feet in dramatic promontories. It is a spectacular landscape.

Cefalu is a picturesque coastal town that is recommended to us for having a good selection of ceramics, with a number of shops around it's 13th century duomo. Cefalu's centro (most Italian towns are truly centered around a central district, known as "Centro," which is easy to find by following signs from the highway to "Centro," which is represented by a black and white bullseye symbol) is not accessible today. Often town center is closed to auto traffic and today is one of those days. We find an illegal parking spot near the perimeter and wander about for a bit. Because this is off season for an off the beaten track spot, many of the stores are closed today and nearly every restaurant is closed. We find the local tourist office, and they direct us to an area where ther are a couple of open restaurants.

We have lunch at l'Antica Taverna (via Vittorio Emanuel 56), a simple osteria. I have the buccatini con sarde, a pasta with sardines, capers and a few other things. We assume that the sardines will be whole, on top of the pasta, but it is a delicious puree, with raisins and nuts as well. Delicioso!

After lunch we begin our drive to Santo Stefano di Camastra, another ceramics town further east of Cefalu. From Cefalu the high speed autostrada ends and we take a picturesque state road that winds along the coast. At spots, the highway is flooded with water from waves that are crashing against the seawall. Progess is slow but breathtaking. At several points along the way we see enormous overpasses being built for an extension of the autostrada from Cefalu to Messina. This would be a welcome addition, as it would cut a half hour off the trip.

Santo Stefano is an off the beaten path stop. It has a number of excellent ceramics shops with friendly welcoming proprietors. They welcome us warmly and we feel a real connection with them, in contrast to the warnings we have received that the Sicilians are distant and suspicious of strangers. The shopkeepers of Santo Stefano, in fact everyone we have met in Sicily are as warm and welcoming as what we have come to love and expect from Italians in general. Santo Stefano has some terrific ceramic pieces at good prices, and we would recommend anyone to stop here. The patterns run the gamut, but in general we find the designs a bit heavier, both in terms of physical weight and in hue, than pieces we have purchased in Deruta.

We leave Santo Stefano and head for Caltagirone, deep in the center of Sicily. The drive takes a little over two hours, on small winding roads and autostrade. We finally arrive at our destination, the Grand Hotel Villa San Mauro in Caltagirone. It is a resort-type property, with a pool and terrace area (not necessary at this time of year), but the rooms are great and it has first class service. We have dinner at the hotel, where again the service was friendly and first class. The waiter recommends a local wine from Caltagirone, a Cerasuola di Vittoria from the Tenuta Nanfro. We enjoy it and hope to visit the winery tomorrow after spending the day shopping for ceramics in this town that is renowned for its ceramics industry.

We did a lot of driving today but had some nice experiences. A little recovery from all the driving is in order, and then more shopping!

Ciao a presto!
Suzy and Bill

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Day 6 - Palermo - Campobello di Mazara

We wake up on our first day in Palermo to glorious sunshine, the first sun we have seen on this trip. It is a deceptive sunshine, however. While it is warmer than Umbria, it is still not tropical.

We walk from our hotel, to pick up our rental car which will take us to Campobella di Mazara, where we will tour the Becchina olive estate, producer of Olio Verde. Our other goal today and over the next several days is to get a good look at Sicilian ceramics, perhaps finding a great new supplier or some interesting new designs. Our ultimate goal is to bring back some sample pieces for reaction from our customers. We are particularly interested in visiting a couple of establishments that produce their own works in and about Palermo. Most of the other shops simply resell designs manufactured in Caltagirone and other ceramics towns in Sicily.

One ceramicist that we have researched before our trip and whom we hope to visit is Tre Erre Ceramiche, and we are surprised and delighted to come across their beautiful shop on the way to Avis. We spend an hour with Francesco, who manages the store for his family, excited by their beautiful designs and high quality. Francesco speaks no English, but we are able to communicate passably. He is most helpful in describing the various patterns, shapes and materials. We purchase some sample pieces, which we are excited to show off upon our return to Washington.

Then it is off to Campobella di Mazara. We depart the rental car office at about 11:10 for our 11:00 meeting at the Becchina estate. The Avis folks have given us flawless and simple directions to get from the heart of downtown Palermo to the autostrada. We depart their office and immediately miss the first turn, setting in motion a chain of events that ensures we add yet another hour to our late arrival. Palermo traffic may not be the worst or most frenetic traffic in the world (we look forward to the opportunity to experience the world's most horrifying driving in Naples next week), but there are many things I would prefer spending my time doing than driving there. After successfully getting out of downtown Palermo I can understand why Sicilians are so religious.

We are greeted at the Becchina estate by Zeke Freeman. Zeke is an American with a background in the food and hospitality industry who has traveled and lived in Europe. Most recently he worked as a buyer for Dean and Deluca, a position that brought him in contact with some terrific producers and suppliers, including Gianfranco Becchina, who began producing Olio Verde, a specialty olive oil in Campobella di Mazara nearly two decades ago. Olio Verde is, as the name implies, a green, intensely flavorful olive oil that is produced from pressing olives at their earliest stages of maturity, typically harvested in October as opposed to the traditional November harvesting. Signor Becchina irrigates his olive trees, an investment that runs counter to many other producers, but which produces better fruit. The early harvest, also a unique practice, results in a smaller yield, but results in a more intense oil with a unique and unmistakable character.

Zeke shows us around the main house where we are to have lunch with him and Signor Becchina, who is in the kitchen preparing the meal. As we sit by a fire enjoying a glass of the local Corvo wine, Signor Becchina emerges from the kitchen to show us a beautiful fish he is going to prepare for lunch (our delay has meant we were unable to join him at the local fish market, one of the true disappointments of an otherwise wonderful day). The fish is an orata, or John Dorry, and it is plump and clear eyed. It promises to be a feast.

And a feast it is. In addition to the orata, Signor Becchina has broiled a half dozen scampi, which are arranged around the orata on a beautiful fish plate. We feast on the seafood and cauliflower and potatoes and more wine. A gracious and natural host, Signor Becchina will not allow us to leave until all the food is eaten. Throughout he engages us in conversation about our store, food, his favorite ceramics artisans in the area and anything else that anyone happens to think of. The conversation flows easily, and shifts effortlessly from Italian to English to French (the unofficial language for conversations between Signor Becchina and Zeke). Before returning to his native town, Signor Becchina was involved in the art business and is a lover of ceramic artwork, which is displayed throughout his beautiful home. He phones several local ceramic artisans, which are located in the nearby towns of Sciacca and Burgio, for us to visit on our next trip to the area. We are excited for these meetings and for another reason to return.

Then comes dessert. Suzy has been eagerly anticipating our visit to Sicily, reading about their wondrous desserts, and our first exposure is no disappointment. We are served a generous platter of cannoli and other pastries and another plate of various cookies. We all agree that the ricotta used in the cannolis is incomparable. We finish off the meal with a small glass of mandarino, an orange version of the digestive limoncello, made from mandarin oranges grown a few hundred yards from where we are seated.

We say our thanks yous and good byes to Signor Becchina, a truly wonderful host, and take a walking tour of the estate. Zeke shows us the frantoio, where freshly harvested olives are crushed and turned into Olio Verde and other Becchina olive oil products. The equipment is ultramodern and high tech, although the process still respects the age old processes that have yielded the best oils for ages, especially the cold pressing of the olives. We are expecting to receive our shipment of the new Olio Verde from the 2003 pressing shortly and eagerly anticipate its arrival.

Zeke then takes us on a tour of several residences scattered throughout the estate (and later to a stately palazzo in town and a luxurious beachfront property) that comprise the agroturismo that the estate has recently begun to promote. Zeke and Gabriella Becchina, Signor Becchina's daughter, are in charge of developing and promoting the tourism side of the estate and they have already put together some unique and appealing properties. Currently in addition to rooms in the grand main house where we ate lunch there is a guest house comprised of two apartments available for rent. Here, guests can experience the rhythms and simplicity of the agricultural life, while enjoying first class accommodations and attentive service. Plans are underway to convert a stable area into a dozen or so units with access to a pool and common room area. Plans are ambitious, but if the quality of the completed units is any indication, this estate and its agroturismo offerings are sure to be successful. We hope to have Zeke and Gabriella give a presentation at Bella Italia later this year, where they can showcase the Becchina Olio Verde and give our customers some more insight into travel opportunities is southern Sicily.

After touring the estate, Zeke takes us to the Palazzo Pignatelli, an enormous palazzo in the middle of town. The palazzo, which dates back to Norman times over a millennium ago, has been acquired over the past several years by Signor Becchina apartment by apartment, unit by unit, a la properties in Monopoly. While a few units have already been renovated and are available for rent, Zeke envisions its rehabilitation and the ambitious development plans, which include commercial and residential elements, as a lifetime of work.

Finally, we head south to see the Becchina's beachfront house. Designed and built in the 1970's, it has a timeless classicism that makes it incredibly inviting. It is situated on a good swimming beach and abuts the national park that houses the Greek temples at Selinute. After touring the beach house, we head to Selinute for a quick visit, but unfortunately the park has been closed for hours. Inexplicably, a large fence has been erected along the access road to deny access or even a glimpse of the acropolis to those who have not paid their admission fee. We pull off the road and climb a wall for a glimpse, but can only see the top half, from the capitals upward. Perhaps we can get a full viewing another day.

For most people, this would be a full day, but we haven't eaten dinner yet. So it is back to Palermo (about an hour's drive) in a torrential thunderstorm, through Adriatic sized pools of standing water on the autostrade to Cucina Popov (via Isidora la Lumia, 32, tel. 091-586460; closed Saturday lunch and Sunday), a restaurant recommended to us by Gabriella for its pasta a la sarde (pasta with sardines), a local delicacy. Unfortunately, the restaurant is full up and cannot seat us, so we walk to Ristorante Lo Scudiero (via Filippo Turat, 7, tel. 091-581628). Although we arrive without a reservation and completely drenched from the rain (and speaking English and being dressed like Americans), the proprietors of this slightly upscale restaurant seat us and treat us to a memorable dinner. We eat more delicious fresh seafood and drink good local wine. We then head back to our hotel, thoroughly sated and ready to attack tomorrow's busy schedule, which will take us from Palermo, east along the northern coast in search of new ceramics and Sicilian novelties (such as marionettes) and then on a long drive inland over the mountains to Caltagirone, one of the premier ceramics towns in Sicily.

It promises to be long day. We just hope it is as enjoyable as today has been.

Ciao a presto!
Suzy and Bill

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Day 5 - Perugia-Torgiano-Civitavecchia-Palermo

Day 5 begins with a much anticipated walking tour of Perugia. The guide is a charming woman named Donatella, a long term resident of Perugia who was recommended to us by Marina. Donatella taught at the scuola media (junior high school) when Marina was a student there. Since then she has given Marina private English classes.

Donatella is energetic and engaging, despite the freezing temperatures and leads us on a fascinating two hour walk around the historic center of Perugia and along some of the ancient gates and walls. We begin our excursion inside the Rocca Paolina, the remains of a fortification and garrison built by the Pope in 1540 in order to maintain control over Perugia. The fortification was built on top of existing buildings, the towers of which were razed, leaving a network of old streets within the structure. The effect is fascinating as you wander completely indoors through a subterranean catacomb. The scale mobile (series of escalators) that takes you from outside the city center through the city walls also takes you through the Rocca Paolina. It is worth a visit.
We traverse the perimeter of the old city, viewing ancient Etruscan walls and gates, Roman additions to the city and make a quick stop in an archaeological site just off the Corso Vannucci that is reached by climbing down an opening like a manhole.

Donatella takes us to the seats of civic power, the Priory Hall and the Palace of the Captain of the People. According to legend, 10 Priors were selected to represent their guilds in running the city, but with one caveat – while they served they were not permitted to leave the Priory Hall to visit home or attend to any personal business. As a result, the average length of service was about 3 months.

Much of the architecture of the city and within its monumental buildings has been influenced by the prevalence of earthquakes in the region. You notice archways and buttresses running between buildings all over the city, which were used to stabilize the structures. Inside the Church of San Lorenzo on the main square, tie rods keep the walls from collapsing outward and the columns at the back of the church bend noticeably outward as well.

Speaking of wells, the fountain in front of San Lorenzo is one of the best. It is beautiful in its own right, but if you have a chance, check out the sculptural scenes that run around its perimeter. There are several panels representing each month in Perugia, including December, when tradition dictates that a pig is slaughtered and served for a feast. The depictions are highly entertaining.

It is with sadness we leave Perugia. We have grown to love this city, with its quirky, exotic look and feel, its outstanding food and wine and its accessibility. It is worth a visit if even only for an hour to stroll down the Corso Vannucci. If, on the other hand, you have some time to spare, call Donatella (tel. 075-32325) to arrange a tour. You’ll have better luck if you call in advance. And make sure to arrange the price in advance.

Leaving Perugia, we decide to stop in Torgiano, about 10 minutes south of town, to have lunch at Le Tre Vaselle. This is a lovely hotel and award winning restaurant run by the Lungarotti family, one of the leading wineries in Italy and a huge presence in Umbria. We have visited Torgiano twice, taking a tour of the Museum of Olives, an interesting diversion if you have the time. We have never been able to get into the Tre Vaselle, so we hope that luck is with us today. In a way it is; the restaurant is closed for lunch so they send us down the street to the restaurant at the Albergo Siro. Lunch is a joyous affair in this simple trattoria that is full of businesspeople sharing lunch and a bottle of wine and loud, boisterous conversation. Traveling off season, we have missed the energetic atmosphere of the typical trattoria, as many of our meals have been taken in half empty rooms. Lunch is a simple affair, salad and pasta with a bottle of Rubesco. We are surprised to find that they are offering a fixed price meal today, that comes out to the bargain price of 25 Euros.

Then we are back on the road for our drive to Rome’s Leonardo DaVinci Airport (Fiumicino). We drive south through Todi to Terni and a beautiful verdant valley bounded by jutting hills and mountains that is much more scenic than our drive from Orvieto to Todi earlier in the week. We then head west toward the ocean and the port town of Civitavecchia, where we plan to spend an hour or so before proceeding to the airoprt. Unfortunately we are running late and have to head directly for Fiumicino but fortunately we didn’t see anything from the road that tempted us to stay.

We kill a little time at Fiumicino before boarding our Air One flight to Palermo. Air One is a Lufthansa-affiliated low fare airline. Low fare airlines have expanded in Europe recently, and while our flight is 57 Euros, we have seen flights as low as 0.99 Euros! Air One flights are on modern jets and they, and other low cost carriers, operate a number of routes within Italy, so you might consider flying between destinations in Italy next time you travel there.

Tomorrow we’ll tell you about Palermo and our visit to the Becchina olive oil estate. Until then

Ciao a presto!
Suzy and Bill

[After a very bumpy flight that was delayed by a horrific thunderstorm we arrived in Sicily. Got a glimpse of the island on the way from the airport and can’t wait to see Palermo and its environs in the light of day.]

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Day 4 - Todi-Deruta-Perugia

Another full day. We need a vacation!

We start our day after a quick breakfast with a journey from Perugia to Todi, one of the countless beautiful ancient hilltop towns that dot the Umbrian countryside, in order to meet Andrew and Kimberly Sikora, a couple of Americans who have emigrated to Italy to follow a number of passions and dreams. Our objective is to get to know them and learn about their businesses, which include upscale villa rentals in Umbria and a host of services and support for villa vacationers, as well as organizing cooking classes with celebrity chefs such as Patrizia Chen and placing candidates in cooking, wine tasting and oil tasting courses at the local Academia del Gusto. It promises to be an interesting meeting and we hope to come out of it with resources to offer our customers.

We meet Andrew and Kimberly across from the Bramante church of Santa Maria delle Consolazione, an impressive structure just outside the city walls, and they cannot be more fascinating, friendly or engaging. We discuss their portfolio of upscale villas located throughout Umbria and, shortly, Tuscany and other regions. Their goal is to offer not only great rental properties, but a range of appealing activities and support services to ensure their customers have a truly unique and memorable Italian vacation. We leave with a host if ideas about how we can work together.

We also leave with their recommendation for a place to have lunch. We follow them to a municipal parking lot below the city walls that is reached by a contraption that is half elevator, half funiculare; basically an elevator that goes up a hill, rather than up a shaft. Upon entering the lot a machine dispenses a green plastic chip, a little larger than a bottle cap. This is turned into the cashier (Cassa) upon your departure, whereupon the cashier reads data stored in a microchip inside the chip indicating the time you entered the lot. He charges you for the elapsed time and gives you back the chip, which you insert in the slot at the exit gate. These Italians think of everything!

We spend not nearly enough time wandering to the center of this very accessible town, reaching the central square for some photos. Along the way, we stop at a pasticceria for an assortment of outstanding cookies and treats, including one that is cup-shaped, made from a soft almond brittle, filled with caramel and chocolate covered coffee beans. (Bar Pasticceria Ciucci, via Mazzini 20).

We are the only lunch patrons at Pane e Vino (Via Augusto Ciuffelli, 33, tel. 075-8945448; closed Wednesday), located just inside the city walls from our parking lot (and the funiculare). The menu features traditional Umbrian fare and we decide to try the menu degustazione, the fixed price tasting menu, which features a choice of 6 appetizers, 2 pastas, 2 entrees and 3 desserts. After informing the waiter of our selection we begin to select which of the appetizers, pastas and entrees we want. We are told no choice is neccessary. The menu degustazione comes with all choices.

Several hours later we emerge from Pane e Vino, sated, sleepy and swollen. We head back toward Deruta to transact some last minute business, stopping along the way to check out a few cashmere outlets that this region is famous for. Of note are Maria di Ripabianca in the town of Ripabianca, between Todi and Deruta, IMA in Torgiano (there are a number of other terrific sites in Torgiano, the seat of the Lungarotti wine family's farflung operations) and Pashmere in Ponte San Giovanni. These outlets feature terrific quality products, with an acceptable range of styles and sizes. You may not always find what you are looking for (and even heavily discounted items, e.g., 50% off, can still be quite expensive), but it is definitely worth a try.

We make a brief stop in Ponte San Giovanni to check out Javier's new patterns and to add a few additional items to our order, which is being shipped to Bethesda tomorrow. He continues to impress us with the quality of his work and the beauty of his portfolio of designs.

After catching up on paperwork at the hotel, Javier and Marina meet us at the Sangallo Palace Hotel for a last night dinner. Rather than walk to the historic center, Javier is convinced we can find parking (you should note that the center is off limits to automobile traffic certain times of the day, including after 2am; while many Italians scoff at these restrictions cameras will photograph your license plates and a ticket will be sent to your rental car company, which will charge your credit card for any fines you receive). What ensues is a 15 minute drive up, down and around the narrowest, windiest and, given the cold weather which has resulted in a mixture of rain, sleet and snow for the past several days, slickest roads in the western hemisphere. It is like a ride at Disney World, except you really can die! It is great fun and, literally, to die for.

We finally find a parking space in a municipal lot hundreds of feet below the Corso Vannucci. We take an elevator to terra firma literally a five minute walk from where we began. We are only a few minutes from our destination, the Ristorante Victoria.

Being responsible parents of 4, Javier and Marina rarely dine in Perugia these days, after both having been to university here. The Victoria is a recommendation from a friend and the food couldn't be better. Strangely, however, the lone waiter is totally uninterested in providing us basic service, such as water, food or the bill, perhaps because the four of us speak English the entire evening. Nonetheless, it is a perfect finale to a perfect Umbrian visit. All that remains is to pack up tomorrow morning and, if we are lucky, get a brief walking tour of Perugia before heading back to Rome's Fiumicino airport and our flight to Palermo, Sicily.

[We made several attempts to visit our favorite Perugia wine bar, the Bottega del Vino. It features outstanding Umbrian and other Italian wines by the glass in a relaxed atmosphere with great background music. Their appetizers are great, too.

For local Umbrian wines by the bottle, check out the Enoteca Provinciale di Perugia (via Ulisse Rocchi n. 18, tel: 075-5724824). They have a huge selection of wines from Montefalco, Torgiano, Assisi and throughout the region and they appreciate Americans who are interested in their goods.]

Monday, January 26, 2004

Day 3 - Perugia and Deruta

Day 3 starts a little later than usual, as we adjust to the new time zone. After making a few morning telephone calls we take a brief stroll down Perugia's Corso Vanucci, the main street in the historic center. We really love Perugia. It's one of our favorite places in Italy, but despite its accessibility and all it has to offer, it is often overlooked by American tourists. We are really excited when our friend and supplier Javier Casuso (D'Arna Ceramics) arranges for an English speaking friend to take us on a walking tour of the historic center on Wednesday. Check back for more details.

After noon we pick up Javier at his studio in Ponte San Giovanni, a small town about 10 miles outside of Perugia, to have lunch together at the Deco Hotel. We have gotten to be good friends with Javier and his wife Marina over the years, and we often have lunch or dinner with them at the Deco Hotel. This place is off the beaten tourist path, serving meals mostly to local businessmen. With Javier's entree, we are always welcomed warmly and have never had a bad meal. They feature an excellent selection of seafood, which may seem odd for an Umbrian restuarant. Nonetheless, the quality is outstanding.

Lunch is a largely social affair and we are fortunate to have Marina drop in on us at the end of the meal. We enjoy their company immensely, as Javier is a Spaniard who emigrated to Perugia and can speak eloquently about his art as well as about Italian life from an outsider's perspective. On the other hand, Marina's roots in Perugia are deep. We enjoy learning about Italy and their corner of it, and spend countless hours comparing stories about raising four children in Washington and Perugia.

We part after lunch with a promise to drop by the studio to see several new ceramic patterns Javier has been working on. We hope to add some of these to our product line.

Then it is off to Ficola, one of the largest ceramics establishments in Deruta. We spend quite a bit of time there selecting new product for the store, including a number of outdoor ceramic tables and outdoor handpainted garden urns for the spring. While we can special order these items, they can take several months to be manufactured and delivered, so if you are interested in one, stop by the store to see what we have in inventory.

Next, it's on to Geribi, one of our favorite suppliers in Deruta. Although we have an appointment with Josephine Durkin, Geribi's Kiwi business manager, we are fortunate to see Gerardo. He is an immensely talented man whose designs, which are modern interpretations of classic patterns, have brought new life to Deruta ceramics and who is a respected and oft-imitated leader in this artistic community. Gerardo is finalizing some new designs to be publicly displayed at a major gift expo in New York and he and Josephine give us an advance look at some of those designs. If you miss the New York expo, be sure to check Bella Italia this spring for their new line!

Although Josephine is busy preparing to leave for the show, she takes us to meet the proprietors of le Case Coloniche, a beautiful agroturismo bed and breakfast inn in the countryside just outside of Deruta. We spend an hour with Francesco and Andrea, the proprietors, getting a tour of the facilities and speaking to them about activities available to their guests, including horseback riding, tours of Perugia, Assisi and other sites, visits to the Perugina chocolate factory and, of course, ceramics shopping in Deruta as well as cashmere outlet shopping in nearby towns. The Case Coloniche is a terrific choice between a hotel and a rental villa, offering many of the amenities of the former with the rustic charm of the latter. They also offer much greater flexibility than most villa rentals, which normally require a weeklong booking and accommodate larger groups only. Rooms at the Case Coloniche (which include simple bedrooms as well as multi-bedroom apartments with kitchen) can be booked by the day for a single traveller, but can also accommodate larger groups as well. Please feel free to contact us if you are interested in further information.

We end our evening at dinner at Il Rustichello, a charming Umbrian restaurant adjoining Le Case Coloniche. Josephine knows the proprietors well and we are treated traditional Umbrian fare, including a lot of truffles, served by the mother, father, son and daughter who run the Rustichello (Uscita Deruta Nord, tel 075-972020; closed Tuesdays). Guests at Le Case Coloniche can dine here both well and affordably and stumble home for a good night sleep.

Speaking of which, it is nearly 2:30 in the morning in Italy and we have an 11am appointment with some very interesting people in Todi tomorrow morning, so you will have to check in tomorrow for additional news.

Ciao a presto!
Suzy and Bill

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Day 1 and 2 - Arrival - Rome - Orvietto - Perugia

We depart National Airport for Philadelphia where we board a nonstop US Air flight to Rome. We arrive early Sunday morning in Rome after a surprisingly good night sleep, having recently adopted a transatlantic strategy of trying to drop off to sleep as soon as possible. This seems to buy us about 4 or 5 hours of activity upon arrival until the drowsiness begins to set in.

We pick up our rental car from Avis (booked through Autoeurope, which seems to have consistently better rates than what the majors themselves offer, although that price advantage has seemed to diminish over the past several years) and head toward our evening’s destination – Perugia, the capital of Umbria, situated about two hours north of Rome, off the A1 autostrada. We decide to head to Orvieto, a beautiful hill town about an hour and a quarter north of Rome, for some sightseeing and lunch. This part of Italy is much less crowded with tourists at this time year, but perhaps that is for a reason – it is cold, gray and snowing and our warmest clothes were packed securely in the bottoms of our suitcases.

Strangely, we are not the only distinguished American visitors in Orvieto today - when we arrive at the main piazza we find it teaming with Italian police and a host of American Secret Service agents, who are arranging for a visit by Vice President Cheney. We wait in the snow for nearly two hours to get some video of him arriving, stills of which we are posting on the website. We’re not sure whether to attribute the DC license plates on the motorcade vehicles to jetlag or déjà vu, but we can confidently say we have never seen DC plates in Italy before, and probably won’t ever again.

Unfortunately for the Italian press contingent, who have been ordered to stand behind barriers for two hours and who have been subjected to at least two searches (one from a very unfriendly looking german shepard) they get nowhere near the Veep. Perhaps we can interest Corriere della Sera or La Repubblica in some of our photos!

Cheney’s first stop is at an impressive ceramics store that honestly is remiscent of Bella Italia (regardless of your political views, you must admit Cheney knows a good thing when he sees it). Upon leaving the store we immediately go in to see what he liked and whether he bought anything. The owner, still beaming from 43.5’s visit replies “si” (“yes”), but when pressed admits that while Cheney liked everything, he needed to check out the goods in a couple of other stores before deciding what to buy. Feeling a certain bond with our Italian peers we decide that when both the Vice President and we return home to DC, we’ll invite him to Bella Italia to close the deal!

We thaw out over lunch at a simple, yet heated establishment called La Buca di Bacco (Corso Cavour, 299/301, Orvieto, tel: 0763-344792, closed Tuesday), enjoying an appetizer of assorted Umbrian hams and sausages, followed by an Argentinian Angus steak covered with a mushroom truffle sauce and arucola and a wild boar stew with polenta. Comfort food that warms the heart, as well as frozen toes and fingers.

Then onward to Perugia, one of our favorite towns. We arrive at the Hotel Sangallo, a modern-ish hotel in a favored position just below the main historic square of Perugia. The square is accessed by a series of escalators running through a network of ancient tunnels that run through the town. You exit the escalator in the basement of an ancient palace and work your way through a maze of catacombs until you emerge on Corso Vanucci. We hope to take a walking tour of the center of Perugia on Wednesday to learn more about its history and architecture.

That’s all for now. We’re off for a quick bite to eat and then to bed. Tomorrow we see our good friend Javier Casuso (proprietor of D’Arna Ceramics) and Josephine Durkin, business manager at Geribi Ceramics who is also introducing us to some cousins of the Lungarotti wine family, who run a beautiful bed and breakfast as well as a number of specialty tours of Umbria.

Ciao a presto!
Suzy and Bill