Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Day 2 - Forgive Me, St. Francis

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 d├ęcor, 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.

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