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.]

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