Friday, February 16, 2018

Tomb raiding and sunbathing

On the way out of Perugia, we stopped at the Tomb of the Volumni in the city's suburbs. It is an Etruscan tomb complex, dating back to the 2nd century BC, which was rediscovered by chance on 5 February 1840 (the day before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed!) You go in to find a staircase surrounded by gravestones, where you descend to the tomb of the Velimna (Volumni) family. This consists of a number of small chambers carved out of the rock, and still holds the family's tombs in their original positions.

The Etruscans seem particularly mysterious and shadowy to me, almost as if their history has been erased by the Roman dominance, so it was very interesting to see some of their ancient sites on this trip. The artefacts in this tomb seem pretty similar to what you think of as Roman style, but I don't know which way the influence ran. A quick look at Wikipedia shows that there was a period of Etruscan dominance over Rome, particularly in religious matters, although there is some debate about the extent of the influence, and both the Etruscans and the Romans were heavily influenced by the Greeks.

Funerary stele in the entrance hall
In front of the family tombs

The tomb of Aurente Volumio, the patriarch of the family
After seeing the Volumni tomb, the largest in the complex, you go outside, where there are around 200 more tombs, a few of which are open to visit. Beware, I got absolutely savaged by mosquitoes at this stage. The largest of these was the Bella tomb, which I don't think had much in it, but afforded me the opportunity to do my best impression of a creature of the undead.

In the underground chamber of the Bella tomb
Finally, there is a small museum which holds more funerary stele, with translations and explanations of their carvings, and a few other artefacts. It was fun to see the Etruscan language, which uses an alphabet derived from Greek and which is still not entirely understood.

From there, we drove to the Riviera del Conero on the Adriatic coast, to Portonovo, near Ancona, for a bit of beach time. It was already October by this time, so it was a bit of gamble, but it mostly paid off. There was a big storm one afternoon, which howled particularly around our hotel as it was built on a sort of stepped design so that every room had a corner balcony. But other than that, and a bit of overcast weather on our last day there, it was pretty good.

We went first to Portonovo Beach, but out of season it seems we turned up a bit early and none of the beach loungers were out. Since it was a bit rocky, we didn't fancy lying on the beach there, so just walked around a bit and then headed to Sirolo.

Portonovo Bay

We stopped just next to the road after Sirolo, where it seemed nice, and settled down for a swim and sunbathe. After I'd been in the water for a bit, I realised that it was absolutely PACKED with tiny jellyfish. I found an article from last year that said these were "teeming nurseries of self-cloning moon jellyfish", which some researchers claimed is linked to the increase in gas platforms in the sea, which give the baby jellyfish a nice flat surface to stick on to while they clone. It was a bit terrifying when I first looked down and saw them all over the place, but by that stage I figured I'd already been in the water for quite a while and there were so many of them that if they were going to sting me, they would probably have done it already. I still yelped every time I touched them though.

View of the coast from our hotel
We also went to a delicious tiny restaurant, the Osteria del Poggio. On our food tour in Perugia, the guide told us about the fantastic reputation of deli meats from Norcia. In this part of Italy, delicatessens are often known as "Norcerias". Basically, in the north the meats from around Bologna and Parma are famed, and in the Umbria and Marche regions, this honour is given to the Norcia meats. Only one of them seems to have broken through on to the international stage, but I can confirm that Norcia deli meats are just as good. Anyway, our meal at the Osteria started with a superlative meat and cheese platter followed by rabbit gnocchi with local red wine. Definitely a culinary highlight of the trip, especially those melt in the mouth hams.

It was nice to have a bit of time to relax, read and recharge our batteries, as although we were having a lot of fun, it was also getting pretty tiring moving around all the time!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Perugia in 7 Bites: Eating in Italy

For our last activity in Perugia, we decided to take a food tour. It was run by an American woman living in Perugia, who was good, and the tour group was made up of us and about 7 Americans, including 4 who were friends of the tour guide, which was a bit weird to be honest. I mentioned this somewhere before on the blog, but one of them worked at Eately in New York and wouldn't stop comparing everything we were eating to which aisle it was sold on back in NYC.

But in general, the tour, which lasted 4 hours and took us to 7 locations to eat and drink around the city, plus a bit of sightseeing and history, was a fun way to spend the day.

Stop 1 - delicious thick hot chocolate (for me) and coffee (for everyone else) with pastries for breakfast

Stop 2 - cheese and proscuitto in an old cellar purportedly frequented by Perugino

Stop 3 - wine and olive oil tasting. It was surprising how grassy and peppery - and bright green - the olive oils were. We bought some at a discount

Stop 4 - truffles. Truffles aren't as bad as normal mushrooms, but that's about the best I can say about them. We went to eat truffle pasta AND to a truffle shop, which is entirely too much truffles if you ask me. The truffle shop, in particular, stank of them. But it was semi interesting hearing about how they find them. This box is apparently worth thousands

My generously-truffled pasta. It was... fine... but I really don't understand why anyone would pay top dollar for this. Tastes of nothing and the truffles scratched my throat on the way down
I evidently forgot to take a photo of our visit to the chocolate shop, where we tasted, amongst other things, balsamic vinegar-filled chocs, but you can't go to Perugia (home of the famous Baci chocolates) and not have chocolate so here's a bonus photo
This doesn't look like much, but it was my favourite treat of the tour. A warm "torta al testo", a local stuffed flatbread speciality filled with sausage and something green. Broccoli rabe? Kale? I forget
Last stop, gelato. Our guide assured us it was perfectly Italian to eat gelato twice a day

Some of the sights of the city we also saw on our walking tour:

Beam me up, Jesus

In the last post, I talked a little about the Rocca Paolina and the nice views from on top. We both completely missed that underneath is a maze of ancient and medieval squares and passageways. There is even an Etruscan gate. We would have completely missed it if not for the tour, duh. And we had the joy of one of our fellow tourists (one of those irritating "I'm Italian" American guys) asking the guide "is there some special symbolism in that sign?". It was one of these...

Monday, February 12, 2018

Perugia part two

It took a while to figure out how to get into the Sala dei Notari, at one end of the Palazzo dei Priori. Was it accessible from inside the museum of art? (No.) Could we open the door at the top of the steps? (No.) Were opening hours posted on that little sign? (No.) Could we ask all those intimidating Italian teenagers how to get in? (No, are you crazy? They'd probably throw espresso in our faces and then put their cigarettes out on our arms.) Eventually we settled for the "come back later" strategy, and I'm glad we did because it was totally worth seeing.

Built between 1293 and 1443 and used as a civil court, the hall is covered with frescoes all over its vaulted ceiling and walls, which show fables, coats of arms and bible stories. It's sort of like being in the hull of an elaborately-decorated, upside-down ship.

Fable of the fox and the crow 

We walked over to the Rocca Paolina, or more accurately, to the Piazza Rossi Scotti, built on top of the former fortress's walls. The fortress was built in the 16th century under Pope Paul III, who defeated the free city and brought it under Papal control in the Salt War. He had a neighbourhood razed to build the impressive structure as a sign of dominance over the city. It was finally destroyed in the 19th century when Italy was reunified.

That white blur on the hillside in the middle of the picture is Assisi

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Perusing Perugia

After Orvieto, the next stop was Perugia, capital of the region of Umbria. Although of course Perugia is a relatively large and by no means unknown city, this felt more off the beaten track and authentic. And, although I didn't follow the whole Amanda Knox story particularly closely, I couldn't help thinking of that whole drama as well. That, and the famous Baci chocolates. While Perugina wasn't exactly stuffed with famous must-sees on the scale of Florence, there was still plenty to enjoy.

The National Gallery of Umbria is housed within the Palazzo dei Priori in the middle of the old town, and holds a large collection of medieval and Renaissance art, naturally including examples of perhaps the city's most famous son, Perugino, the teacher of Raphael.

Perugino had a habit of re-using "cartoons" (preparatory drawings) in his works. The gallery had enough examples of his work that you could clearly see the same figures and compositions being recycled in multiple works.

Well, I guess this is my life now
I assume these KKK-looking dudes were some sort of religious order. They popped up quite a few times in different artworks
We got more Perugino at the nearby Collegio del Cambio, a small set of rooms built between 1452 - 1457 for the Bankers' Guild, decorated with frescoes. Photos weren't allowed and the attendant had cameras and head-turning in her arsenal, but I still managed a couple of naughty, wonky pics. I know it's wrong and rather futile in this day and age, but I just can't help it.

For an extra euro, you could also go to the Collegio della Mercanzia. The Merchants made a good effort with elaborate wood panelling, but couldn't quite live up to the majesty of the Bankers. They, at least, do allow photos.

Still in basically the same square in the middle of Perugia, you will also find the Fontana Maggiore. It's not the most visually impressive fountain from a distance, but close up you can appreciate the medieval statues and carvings, showing Old Testament, agricultural and mythological scenes.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Assisi you later

Originally, our plan was to visit Assisi, famed home of St Francis, after Perugia, on our way to the Adriatic coast. However, luckily I did my homework and found out that the 4th of October, the date we planned to visit, happens to be Francis's feast day. Dealing with the probable crowds of pilgrims and tourists would have been bad enough, but even worse, the famous Basilica was closed for Mass that day, removing the main point of our visit. Happily, Assisi is so close to Perugia that we simply moved it up to between Orvieto and Perugia, and Bob's your uncle.

As it happens, Assisi is well worth a visit even beyond seeing the basilica, although that is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown.

Assisi is another steep one

The Temple of Minerva, now a church
Outside the (Upper) Basilica

The lower plaza

Statue of St Francis by Norberto Proietti
The church is divided into an Upper and Lower Basilica, along with a crypt containing the remains of St Francis. It was kind of overwhelming to visit really. I had seen online recommendations to take an audio or actual guided tour, but we didn't see anywhere to do so. With the size of the place and the number of visitors, it was not really easy to take everything in. Photos weren't allowed either, so to be honest, I've pretty much forgotten what it looked like. Nice, I'm sure. I was disappointed that the frescoes depicting the life of St Francis included, like, one painting of him with some birds. The general stories you hear about Francis focus so heavily on him being friends with animals (maybe this is the primary school version I'm remembering) that I was expecting all kinds of cool pictures of him hanging with animal bros. Not so. However, they are by the likes of Cimabue and Giotto, so I'm sure they are still top notch even if I can't remember what they looked like. 

I managed to sneak one photo of the lower Basilica though, of bad quality but showing just how rich the decoration is:

Since we didn't have to stop every five seconds for me to take a hundred photos, it was actually a fairly quick visit to the Basilica. I decided next to take us to the Rocca Maggiore, a scenic lookout point with a castle. This seemed an easy saunter according to Google, but that didn't factor in the heat and how steep it was getting up to the 12th-century fortress. The views from up there were well worth the hike though. 

The basilica looks just wee from up here

Walking up - or maybe down, since Jules looks relatively cheerful

Not a selfie! With ornamental rusty fence

On the way down, we were pleased to have some delicious cheese and pasta on a terrace with a view:

Back on the main street, we wandered past a little shop where our attention was caught by unusual paintings depicting little monks frolicking in medieval landscapes. We were lured inside and discovered a whole array of charming monks having fun. They were the work of local artist Norberto Proetti. Name seem familiar? Yes, the very same who made the statue of St Francis outside the basilica. A self-taught artist from a working-class background, he is known for his naive style and his joyful depictions of busy little monks in local landscapes. It turned out the works in the shop were mostly limited edition screenprints and were... quite a bit more expensive than anticipated. But we had been given some money from Jules's grandmother for the express purpose of buying An Art in Italy, so we gave into temptation and brought this bad boy home:

My one regret leaving Assisi was that we hadn't seen any of the striking views I'd seen online of the basilica clinging to the edge of the cliff. Imagine my delight when we finally caught a glimpse heading on the road to Perugia:

Basilica and friary on the left, the Rocca Maggiore up on the hill at the right
It was surprisingly easy to spend a full day in Assisi, without even hitting up other sights such as the Basilica of Saint Clare. It really exceeded my expectations.