The previous evening, with the wind at our backs and Florence in our rearview mirror we make the hour and a half drive through the Tuscan countryside toward Siena turning to the east past Lake Trasimeno to Ponte San Giovanni,
our destination for the next several days. A small bedroom community of Perugia, at whose base it sits, Ponte San Giovanni is a gritty little hamlet displaying little charm and it will be our task over the next few days to discover the gem underneath its grimy exterior.
This will be our departure point for exploring the Umbrian countryside and it is well situated for this purpose. Perugia lies less than ten minutes away by car, up a steep, windy road which we have learned to love over the years. We hear that a light train system connects the center of the village with the smaller train station in Perugia, located a short escalator ride through a rocky tunnel to reach the historic center of town. Ponte San Giovanni is also located at the confluence of the two major state roads that connect all of the principal towns of Umbria, the E45 which runs through Deruta, past Todi and on to Terni and the E75, which takes a similar north-south track on the eastern side of the mountains past Assisi, Foligno, Spello and Spoleto before connecting with the E45 at Terni.
We arrive the night before at the dinner hour, drop our bags at our apartment and hop back in the car, bound for Assisi and a most unusual and enjoyable restaurant, La Stalla. For those of you familiar with our blog, we have written extensively about past dinners at La Stalla, which means “the barn” or “stable” which is built into an old barn (with very little spent to hide this fact) and which features an enormous wood burning brazier in the middle of the room on which a single cook prepares all of the grilled meats, vegetables, potatoes, bread and cheeses that are available on the menu. It is advisable to wear something you don’t plan to wear later on your trip, as your clothes will smell like smoke after your meal.
We are meeting our good friend and ceramics artist extraordinaire Javier Casuso and his four children for dinner that evening and while arranging the meeting time Javier suggests on several occasions that we follow him to the restaurant from Perugia, it being tucked away in a camp on the outskirts of a national forest and not a destination for the directionally challenged. We assure Javier that we can find the restaurant with our eyes closed and after about twenty wrong turns pull into the parking lot. Pushing open the large barn entry door we are greeted by a long narrow hallway punctuated by small alcoves that were stalls in a previous life and whitewashed walls coated with years of black soot and covered with names, initials and couples carved into the walls. In the center of the room a deep yellow fire throbs and undulates, throwing off a warm glow and light, sweet smoke. A single cook, apparently the owner who waited on our table last time, manages the food with a pair of tongs.
Dinner is a delight once again, with all of the standards – toasted focaccia, one stuffed with spinach and sausage, another stuffed with sausage and cheese, polenta served on a wooden board and topped with tomato sauce, grilled chicken, steak, lamb chops and sausages and steamy whole potatoes baked in the coals. On this night we add grilled scamorzza, a smoky mozzarella whose inside becomes runny and whose rind becomes crispy and contorted into odd shapes when grilled. It is one of those foods that makes your eyes roll back in your head when you taste it.
Apologies to all. I was not going to write yet another description of dinner at La Stalla. I ask for your indulgence and forgiveness. Suffice it to say dinner was both delicious and, with our lovely company, most enjoyable.
The next morning we wake up in our apartment, the sun streaming through the living room window, but with temperatures having dropped from the balmy 70s of Florence to the low 60s.
Our apartment. What a strange sound and even stranger thought. True, we have been speaking with real estate agents in this area for nearly a year as we have been on the lookout for a house to purchase to set up a vacation villa rental operation to compliment Bella Italia’s retail operation. In fact, one of the main reasons for this trip has been to see if we can finalize a deal on a wonderful property just outside Assisi. But all of this focus on buying a villa has almost made us forget that we have assumed the lease on a one bedroom furnished apartment in Ponte San Giovanni. It is here, in our new apartment, that we awake this morning. The feeling is a little odd, but quite good, that this is our new home.
After figuring out how to turn on the stove we brew a couple cups of espresso and wait for our friend Javier to arrive. He is an integral part of our villa enterprise and we have some details to resolve before meeting with the real estate agent early next week. After ironing out everything, Javier takes us down to the building’s basement where he shows us the garage, inside of which are a number of bicycles. We perform some minor maintenance (raising seats, pumping tires), say our goodbyes and begin our second bike trip of the vacation, a ten mile trip to the nearby town of Torgiano, a wine producing town that is one of the beautiful jewels of this region.
The cycling to Torgiano is much easier than our previous excursion from Florence to Fiesole, but we are travelling without the safety blanket of a guide and chase van. We fear that if we make a wrong turn we could become seriously lost, requiring the expenditure of even more energy to undo our mistakes. Fortunately, we know these back roads fairly well, having rented a villa just outside Torgiano last March. The road, which has a few questionable spots, is quite flat and the courteous Italian drivers (yes, you have read this correctly) give us wide berth and often announce their arrival with a short warning beep of the horn. This is a country that is cycle mad, and everyone seems to respect cyclists, on the road, in the city and, as we are about to find out, in restaurants.
Having pedaled five miles we have worked up a big appetite, so we drive over to Ristorante Siro (Via G. Bruno, 16, Torgiano, tel. 075.982010) just outside the center of town. We are dressed in gym shorts and tee shirts and smell like we have biked much further. I go inside to see if we can get a table and they seem happy to oblige. When I ask them where we should leave our bikes, explaining that we have neither lock nor chain, the waitress tells me to put them just inside the restaurant’s front door, and that no one will mind that they block traffic and make for a general nuisance. She then shows us to our table, leading us through the nearly empty restaurant.
By the time we leave nearly two hours later, the restaurant is completely packed, mostly with younger Italian men dressed in suits and work clothes. A few laborers in overalls have been seated as well, but Suzy and I remain the most underdressed and out of place diners in the restaurant. As we walk through the main room, to find the bathroom and as we leave at the end of the meal, however, no one gives our appearance a second glance or a second thought. The sight of real bikers, in stretchy bike pants and colorful shirts is not at all uncommon in restaurants and these people are simply giving us the courtesy of pretending that we, too, are bikers.
Being novices on two wheels we are about to learn what I imagine is common knowledge among biking enthusiasts. The wind, friend of kite flyers, sailors and electrical generators, can be a bicyclist’s friend. Indeed, our trip to Torgiano was aided significantly by a stiff tailwind that made the trip over effortless. This prevailing wind, however, not only did not change direction during our lunch, it built into a gale, bending ancient cypress trees, blowing litter down the road and across the austere vineyards and making birds take refuge on tree limbs. If we had been privy to a weather map, I am quite confident that a meteorologist would chart the wind by locating Ponte San Giovanni on the map and drawing a line directly to Torgiano along the road we were about to take. This journey promised to be less of an adventure than an ordeal.
An ordeal punctuated by rest stops seemingly every hundred yards. The wind blew so hard in our faces that even on downhill segments we had to strain at our pedals to make sure we were not blown back up the hill. On several occasions we stopped to check our tires, suspecting that our brakes were out of alignment and were partially deployed. Alas, this was not the case. How can something unseen cause so much misery?
By mid afternoon, saddle sore and exhausted, we returned to the garage, putting away our bicycles, perhaps for the last time, but at least until another calm day. Heading upstairs we collapsed on our bed and took a well deserved nap.
Nothing to do. What a strange sound to that thought, and completely foreign to our busy days here in Italy. But tonight we were on our own, free to hang out in our apartment. So it is off the grocery store, always an adventure, for a few ingredients to prepare pasta and salad. We find fresh zucchini flowers there, so we add that to the list, along with assorted spreads and other accoutrements to make crostini varie. And so we return to our apartment, cooking at home and reading until it is time to turn in, making our first efforts at transforming this little place into a home.
Bill and Suzy