Welcome to Italy!
The Transavia tickets I had to Tel Aviv on Friday were canceled by the airline, giving me a clear path to head to Perugia, Italy instead. A first cousin of mine lives there much of the year, and she was quite happy that I had an opportunity to come. The last time we were in Perugia together was five years ago at the same time of year, for the same reason, to celebrate my birthday.
Getting to Perugia can be a bit of a challenge, but I was prepared…just not prepared enough. Italy takes a bit of getting used to. Let me explain.
The flight on Vueling to Firenze (Florence) from Orly Airport was no big deal. Just outside the airport exit is a tramway that takes you in to central Florence. The tickets are only 1.50€, but there was a very long line to buy one, so I hopped on anyway and decided to use the App they tout as an easy way to buy a ticket instead.
While sitting on the tram, praying that a controller wouldn’t get on who would dole out a fine or take me off the tram, I was able to create an account. Then the App wouldn’t recognize my new username and password. Frustrating! Meanwhile, the tram is rolling along and before I could get a ticket, the tram stopped at the Florence train station (Stazione di Santa Maria Novella). I hopped off not having paid for the tram, but unscathed. (Sorry, Florence. I tried.)
The moment I entered the station known as “SMN” I knew I was in Italy! The station was absolutely chaotic. There are no places to sit. The PA system was blaring out announcements of arrivals and departures. It was packed with people. The voyagers were having their own chaos, and not quietly. There was a room just after entering that had clerks selling tickets. I took a number and waited a while before the number was called…only to find out that this particular room wasn’t selling the ticket I needed for Camucia-Cortona, where I was to meet my cousin. This room was for the high-speed trains only. That was not obvious.
Upon further investigation, I found another room filled with ticket machines and without too much hassle, was able to purchase a ticket. The big reader board was constantly changing as it was informing us all of what trains where leaving from what tracks. Most of them had no tracks noted at all because they were delayed. In fact, every single train on the board was delayed. I took a photo to prove it.
I chuckled thinking about how in France the trains run incredibly on time, to the minute, and if your train is 30 minutes late, you get a discount off your ticket!
There was one hour to wait for the 2:14 p.m. train and no where to sit. I did what Eckart Tolle would do—I became very present and just watched everything going on. The people-watching was incredibly amusing. There were people from all over the globe all desperately trying to maneuver the station, as was I. The whole scene was quite comical.
At 2 p.m. for a 2:14 p.m. train, the track had still not been called on the reader board. In a bit of a panic, I walked over to an attendee to ask about the train. She was allowing people through the security gate over to the tracks, but she brushed me off pointing to an information booth nearby…that I never found. Another reader board showed the train at track number 18. The tracks only went to number 16. Where was Track 18?
The same attendee, returning back to her, then explained that track 18 is at the end of Track 16. I trekked as quickly as I could with luggage in tow to the very end of Track 16 about a half-kilometer away, where I found two trains…at numbers 17 and 18…neither of which was my train.
There was now four minutes to go before my train was leaving. Running as fast as I could with the luggage in tow back up to the station and then past track 16, I saw another reader board showing the train now at Track 15! I thought about hopping the track from 16 to 15 itself, but decided that wasn’t a good idea. (Ha!) With moments to spare, I ran like a madwoman, hopped on the train at the first door, and it took off seconds later. Amazing!
Huffing and puffing I scored a seat in the first car in a foursome facing one another. The other three people chuckled seeing my predicament. Immediately I asked, in English, “Is this train going to Camucia-Cortona?”
“Yes!,” one of them said. (Thank goodness.) Running through a chaotic train station in Firenze was not part of the original plan, but it was fortunate to have not missed the train and to have hopped onto the correct one at that!
My cousin, Leslie, picked me up at the station in Camucia-Cortona in her newly-purchased Toyota to complete the journey to Perugia by car. When I related the story to her, she just said, “Welcome to Italy.”
Perugia is smack dab in the middle of Italy in the region of Umbria, which is the only landlocked region in the country. When we were first traveling around Italy in 1979, Umbria was one of my favorites—feeling its earthiness in its cuisine and brick houses. Perugia is well known for its defensive walls around the historic city center. It’s a fascinating city for its many layers: a city was built on top of a city and you can visit both via its escalators and brick-lined pathways.
Most of the present-day gardens and the Piazza Italia are now located on what was once occupied by Rocca Paolina, a medieval fortress constructed in 1540 by Pope Paul III (Farnese) following Perugia’s defeat in the Salt War. To put it succinctly, in the intricate tapestry of Italian politics, Perugia was a Papal State, signifying that it fell under the direct authority of the pope. Despite this status, the noble ruling class of Perugia maintained a significant degree of autonomy and a notable privilege: exemption from salt taxation. Salt, a precious commodity in those times, was particularly crucial for food preservation.
A century or two passed, and successive popes attempted to rein in the independently spirited elite of Perugia until Pope Paul III, in his unique fashion, breached a treaty by imposing a salt tax. The spirited people of Perugia, never ones to back down, ignited a rebellion. Naturally, the pope responded resolutely by sending his troops to crush the entire Baglioni neighborhood, the ruling family and instigators of the rebellion, and promptly raised a colossal fortress—the Rocca Paolina. This imposing fortress watched over Perugia until the unification of Italy in the 1860s, when the citizens razed it, erasing this symbol of papal oppression from the cityscape forever.
Today, what remains is an evocative labyrinth of subterranean passages, preserving segments of ancient towers, grand chambers, vaulted ceilings, and even remnants of a communal bread-baking oven. One of the entrances, the Porta Marzia (Mars Gate), incorporates the upper portion of an Etruscan gate dating back to the third century BC. Cannons mounted inside serve as a stark reminder of the pope’s uncompromising stance, while recent signage cautions visitors about the “historical uneven floors.”
Despite its tumultuous history, the Rocca Paolina remains an integral part of present-day Perugia. It now serves as a daily thoroughfare for commuters heading to the bus station and the farmers’ market. My cousin lives just across the street from the fortress walls. In order to enter the city, one can mount the steps in through all the passageways. It’s a world unto itself.
If and when you visit Perugia, don’t just wander through the main piazza eating chocolate along the way…but do take a tour of its underground! My cousin called it “A little gem in the middle of Italy.”
Friday night we had a light simple dinner in one of the main squares on the outside/upper level, ogled the store windows and vowed to return the next morning so I could shop. Italian design and quality manufacturing has always stood out in fashion, so why not take advantage of the good fortune to be in Italy? Very quickly did we venture in and out of the shops, ooing and aahing over the beautiful clothing. Within 1.5 hours, I managed to scarf up a few things from some of my favorite Italian stores: Calzedonia, Benetton, and Intimissimi.
Shopping in Italy is such a treat. The salespeople are not embarrassed by their jobs as salespeople. In France (and this is my opinion, not a fact), because the French see money as so distasteful, the salespeople don’t respect themselves and therefore don’t really want to be there helping you spend your money. They’re getting paid whether they help you or not, so what do they care if you buy anything? The Italians don’t see it that way at all and will go seriously out of their way to help and be super nice about it all. We had loads of fun going from store to store and laughing with the clerks, while finding great things to purchase or not by which I could remember my weekend.
For lunch on Saturday we took the car down the road 35 kilometers to the village of Panicale. Leslie has a favorite restaurant there she says she dreams about. Panicale is a on the eastern slope of Mount Petrarvella, in the southeast of Valdichiana overlooking Lake Trasimeno. It’s one of those amazingly beautiful Italian villages made of brick and stone of many colors, looking as ancient and worldly as they come. Up a steep and wide path and at the top is the restaurant, “Lillo Tatini.” It’s family run and as Umbrian as it gets.
The “piatto del giorno” (“plat du jour”) was a “pici” pasta in a tomato and garlic sauce. That might sound simple, but its flavor, taste and consistency was not in anyway simple—savory and delicious in all its simplicity. One doesn’t come across pici often, because its originally Tuscan—it’s a thick, hand-rolled pasta, like fat spaghetti. It originated in the province of Siena and the dough is typically made from flour and water only, although the addition of egg is optional, determined by family traditions.
For a main course I ordered “Chinghiale in dolceforte con cipolline di Cannara caramellate” (“Wild boar in dolceforte with caramelized Cannara onions”). This is an ancient Tuscan preparation that originated in the Renaissance period. It is very far from the way we understand cooking today because the dolceforte sauce has a very special taste due to the ingredients used: chocolate, candied fruit, raisins, pine nuts and vinegar. You haven’t lived till you’ve tasted this sweet rich, savory meat!
The wine paired with the meal was an Umbrian bio Podere Marella Godot Sangiovese 2019 that was better than delicious and absolutely in tune with our meal. All in all, it could not have been a more perfect experience.
The wining and dining didn’t stop there. For dinner we met up with my cousin’s friends who are Americans living in Perugia. There is a surprisingly large number of expats living in the town, is what they say. We went to one of their favorite restaurants in the center of town, “Énonè,” which means “It is and it is not.” This is because, as they tout, “It is a restaurant…and it’s not…just a restaurant! It’s a wine shop…and it’s not…just a wine shop!”
Either way, it was an excellent meal and not at all what one might expect for an Italian restaurant in a small Italian town. The expatriate friends were from New Orleans, Hawaii and Los Angeles. They were just like the expats who move to France, who have the same needs to get their visas, learn the language and acclimate to the culture. It just happened to be Italy where they chose to land. They complained that they didn’t have someone like me or my team to help them through the process, but plenty of other expats who were quick to come to their rescue. It all sounded quite familiar.
So, far my 71st birthday was a hit and it was far from over. Welcome to Italy!
Over the weekend we talked incessantly about the differences of living in Italy vs France. We concluded that the anarchy of Italy is what makes it both charming and frustrating at the same time. Would one want to buy property in Italy? Maybe not! It’s riskier than in France, where they dot their “I’s” and cross their “T’s.” I certainly wouldn’t want to navigate the Italian real estate market! But, would I want to travel here, eat and shop? You bet!!
A lot of the villages in and around Nice are very similar to Italian villages for good reason! “When you look around the old towns in this region, you will notice that the architecture looks very Italian. Since this area is close to the Italian border and since it has only been part of France since 1860, you might reason that it must have been Italian before becoming French. But was it?” Read all about it in Margo Lestz’s blog, “The Curious Rambler”: “Nice, France: Her Relationship with Italy and How She Became French.”
Sunday morning we headed to the Eurochocolate International Chocolate Exhibition in Bastia Umbra, a town about 22 kilometers from Perugia. We had a bit of a struggle finding it which became a comedy of errors, but after parking in the town center, walking a long distance in a circle around factories and parking lots, we finally found a little trolley that picked up people from the various parking lots to shuttle them to the exhibition hall.
There were three halls, and four little chocolate gifts given out to ticket holders. Some of the players at the booths were the usual suspects: Lindt, Baci and Nestle. Others were from all over the world promoting their best quality chocolate products. There were chocolate sculptures and innovative designs, as well as gluten-free and bio chocolates. You could go home with chocolate pasta, chocolate liqueurs and chocolate just-about-anything.
We wandered along the stalls and tasted chocolates, stopping to talk with an Italian woman who lived in Nicaragua, but had started her own chocolate factory and distributed others from around the world under the name of Cacao Motum. She was so lovely telling us her story that we made a point of purchasing some of the brands she represented.
By lunchtime we were chocolated out and headed back to our car to find lunch. Just above Assisi is Ristorante La Stalla, popular on a Sunday afternoon with families. Once a stable for horses, and a gloomy and sooty “medieval” cavern, the stones of the walls are blackened by the smoke of the embers, there are large tables, benches, pitchers and vaulted ceilings. As an authentic rustic Umbrian eatery, it’s a place with tasty, simple food from folk tradition: “torta al testo” (a kind of Umbrian focaccia mixed and cooked on a cast iron plate), polenta with sausages, “bigoli” (a kind of extruded pasta), “impastoiata”(polenta and beans), beans with pork rinds, barbecued meats and cheeses, potatoes and onions cooked under the ashes…plus typical Umbrian desserts.
The timing was perfect, even if arriving very late for lunch—the rains came down about five minutes after putting our names in for a table, then poured while we were chowing down on grilled lamb, sausage and veal, then stopped just as we were finishing our coffees. By the time we got back to Perugia, we were up to our ears in Italian chocolates and delicacies.
Today, Leslie and will will be driving to Florence for the sole purpose of shopping for shoes (pun intended). What better place to buy beautiful leather shoes than in Italy?
My flight back to Paris is tonight and as we take off, I’ll be sure to say to myself “Arrivederci, Italy” (“goodbye, until we meet again”).
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
Adrian at Eurochocolate with their mascots
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