Assissi, Italy

Assissi 2016
Assissi 2016

Assissi tumbles down a hillside inviting visitors to climb their way to worship.  In spite of all the stone, there is a feeling of softness to Assissi; it is an invitation to a simpler life.  Even the soldiers cradle their arms, clearly embarrassed at the need to bring weapons onto this sacred ground.

In Assissi we found subdued tourists who spoke in whispers, shopkeepers who offered keepsakes to pilgrims but charged reasonable prices, churches that emphasized art as a path to understanding rather than a treasure to keep under lock and key.  For 100 different reasons we felt welcomed as part of a gentle community in Assissi.

(Note:  I write about the Basillica of St. Francis of Assissi in a companion blog.)

Assissi 2016
Assissi 2016

When we first spotted Assissi from a distance, it looked like Rivendell, cloaked in mists and holding its head up against the rain.  We were surrounded by hill towns but I wanted this particular hill town to be Assissi because it was breath-taking in its beauty.  I let out a sigh of pleasure when we realized this special town was, indeed, our destination.

We followed the Rick Steves app for Assissi.  Before we left home, we downloaded all of Rick Steves’ audios tours and maps of Italy onto our Smartphones.  The tours are excellent and do not eat up your data plan if you download the tours ahead of time.  The tours all use just a tiny bit of energy from your phone so you don’t have to worry about running down your battery.  Just plug in any set of earphones and you are ready to go.

We used the Rick Steves tour book which was spot on in recommending parking.  However, after parking the car below ground, we realized we were on the basillica side of town, about a mile away from the start of the audio tour at Piazza Matteotti.   We used the immaculate bathrooms and then asked the parking attendant if there was a way to get to Piazza Matteotti.  “Just take the bus,” he advised.  We walked to the nearest souvenir shop to buy the $1 bus ticket.  When we walked in, the shop attendant did not even look up from her phone conversation, she just pushed three tickets our way and accepted our euros.

Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016

We walked about 50 steps to the stop and a large, clean bus arrived almost immediately.  We dropped our tickets into the slot near the driver and settled back for a fast ride that circled the town of Assissi, dropping passengers at about four stops before reaching Matteotti Piazza.

Now here’s the thing that makes me crazy about Rick Steves tours.  I can never seem to find the spot to begin the tour.  The directions are clear, “exit the square from its uphill or northeast corner.”  Here’s the problem.  We had no compass.  (Note to self:  pack a compass for my next trip.)  And every corner of the square looked to be uphill.  Rick advised the piazza is on the east end of town.  So it would make sense that northeast would continue in the direction east of town.  Nope.  We tried every corner before asking a local resident where our first stop, a Roman ampitheater ruin could be found.  The resident was friendly but took a moment to direct a truck hauling propane tanks to a pull off on the ancient medieval street.  We watched, fascinated, as the driver backed his huge truck into a chariot-sized space.  Then the resident smiled and pointed down a tiny alley so off we trotted.

Truck parking in Assissi, Italy 2016
Truck parking in Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016
This is how the mail is delivered in Assissi, Italy 2016. We stumbled upon the mail scooter while looking for a Roman ruin.
Assissi, Italy 2016
These are the ruins of an ancient Roman laundry in Assissi, Italy. 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016
See that curved wall? It’s what is left of a Roman amphitheater. Homes have been built right on top of the ruin. Imagine sending the kids out to play in the ruins of the old colosseum! These homes were built in the 13th and 14th centuries. Assissi, Italy 2016.

When you visit Assissi, you’ll definitely want to visit the cathedral but the back streets of Assissi are beyond charming.  We visited in March before the chaos of visitors and flowers, but already we could see spring in every street we walked along.  I would love to return in June during the town’s wall garden competition.  If this early preview of flowers was any sign, the June showcase must be unequaled.

Assissi, Italy 2016

Assissi, Italy 2016

Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016

We, however, visited on a cold, rainy day in March so most people were tucked inside their homes.  The few residents we saw scurried quickly under umbrellas from small shops to small stone houses.  As they shut their doors, a golden, glowing light would come on in their front window hinting at warmth and comfort.  We were left in the rain and cold but were still delighted by the care residents took with their front stoops and extensive gardens.  The 2,000-year-old town of Assissi has taken full advantage of location and climate to create a graceful city with winding streets that slowly reveals pink-tinted limestone pleasures around every corner.  Every half hour or so, bells would ring out to celebrate the day and we would be reminded anew that we were just three women among millions who have made the pilgrimage to Assissi.

Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016

Assissi is filled with churches, each a treasure with a story to tell. The Cathedral of San Rufino is located just west of the Piazza Matteotti. Named after Assissi’s first bishop and patron saint, the cathedral was built in the 11th century with a Romanesque facade.  Both St. Francis and St. Clare were baptized here.

Assissi, Italy 2016
Cathedral of San Rufino,Assissi, Italy 2016
Saint Francis was baptized at San Rufino. Assissi, Italy 2016
Saint Francis and Saint Clare were both baptized at San Rufino in the mid-12th century. . Assissi, Italy 2016.
Assissi, Italy 2016
Statue of St. Clare dating from 1888. Assissi, Italy 2016.
Assissi, Italy 2016
Statue of St. Francis from 1888.  Assissi, Italy 2016
This is the old Roman cistern located within the San Rufino Cathedral. This was the town's main water source when under attack. Assissi 2016
This is the old Roman cistern located within the San Rufino Cathedral. This was Assissi’s main water source when the town was under attack. Assissi 2016
San Rufino. Assissi 2016
San Rufino. Assissi 2016
12th century stone work outside San Runio.
12th century stone work outside San Runio.

In spite of the importance of Assissi as a rich hill town along the trade route between Rome and nothern Italy, we were drawn to Assissi because of our love for St Francis.  He may have been the first saint we learned about after the Holy Family.  St. Francis loved animals.  St. Francis preached to the birds.  St. Francis was humble. We should be like St. Francis.  These were the teachings of our nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph, when we attended St. Andrews School in Upper Arlington, Ohio.  I loved the reality of the paragons of virtue that our nuns presented to us.  “I should be more like St. Francis,” I would think and make a mental note to be nicer to our little dog, Tiki.    The nuns’ stories, however, never quite squared with the reality of bringing home a lost animal and asking, “Can I keep him?”  Mom always said no.   Obviously she had not taken the St. Francis story to heart.

Statue of St. Francis of Assissi in front of an Assissi store.
Statue of St. Francis of Assissi in front of an Assissi store.

I was particularly touched by the honest approach of shopkeepers in Assissi.  They did not hawk their goods or gouge tourists.  Prices were fair. For example, I purchased a pair of hand-made olive wood salad tossers for under $10; in Rome, similar wood implements cost more than double that. Shopkeepers took their time, looked you in the eye, and wished you a pleasant visit.

Shop in Assissi, Italy 2016.
Shop in Assissi, Italy 2016.
Shop in Assissi, Italy 2016.
Shop in Assissi, Italy 2016.
Shop in Assissi, Italy 2016.
Religious items are sold in nearly every shop. Assissi, Italy 2016.
Shop in Assissi, Italy 2016.
Traditional breads are offered at numerous bakeries along the streets of Assissi. Assissi, Italy 2016.
DSC00400 Assissi 2016
Look around and you’ll see grandparents everywhere on tour. Shopkeepers know this and market beautifully-made children’s clothing for grandmas to take home to their little bambinos. Shop window in Assissi, Italy 2016.
DSC00431 Assissi 2016
Shop in Assissi, Italy 2016.
Shop. Assissi, Italy, 2016.
Arced roof of the old Market painted in the 16th century. Assissi, Italy, 2016.

Assissi also features many monks walking the streets, often arm-in-arm with a visiting tourist.  I was never sure if they were proselytizing monks or monks-tour-guides-for-hire, or what, but they were prodigious and friendly on the streets of Assissi.  Rick Steves writes, “All over Europe I find monks hard to approach. But there’s something about “the jugglers of God,” as peasants have called the Franciscan friars for eight centuries, that this Lutheran finds wonderfully accessible. (Franciscans modeled themselves after French troubadours — or jongleurs — who roved the countryside singing and telling stories and jokes)” (Steves).

DSC00398 Assissi 2016
Monk and visitor in Assissi, Italy 2016.

As we grew pscyho-glycemic, we began to search for a place to get out of the rain and enjoy a relaxing lunch.  We spotted this little Trattoria Spadini in a side street near the Piazza Santa Chiara and dashed in from the rain.  Many people laugh at the idea of a Tourist Menu, but we gamely ordered the tourist specials for 15 Euros and filled our tummies with superbly prepared food.  We also enjoyed the delightful company of two flirty bus drivers who accompanied some of the hundreds of students on tour of Assissi but chose to dine at the table next to us.  The old adage to eat where the bus drivers eat held true even in Assissi.

DSC00391 Assissi 2016
Trattoria near Santa Chiera. Assissi, Italy 2016.
Vegetable bean soup. Assissi, Italy 2016.
Vegetable bean soup. Assissi, Italy 2016.
Pasta! Assissi, Italy 2016.
Pasta! Assissi, Italy 2016.
Pasta! Assissi, Italy 2016.
Pasta! Assissi, Italy 2016.
Cappacino. Assissi, Italy 2016.
Cappacino. Assissi, Italy 2016.

After warming up over our delicious lunch, we strolled to the Piazza San Chiara to see the Church of St. Clare.  We walked under lovely pink arches and came out on one of the large piazzas that Italians do so well.  I love these meeting places where people can gather to enjoy the sunshine and the company of others.  Empty in the rain, we treasured the quiet and enjoyed seeing the merry-go-round featuring a breast-feeding madonna.

Piazza San Chiara. Assissi, Italy 2016
Piazza San Chiara. Assissi, Italy 2016
Tourists in the rain. Assissi, Italy 2016
Tourists in the rain. Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy, 2016.
Assissi, Italy, 2016.
Piazza San Chiara. Assissi, Italy 2016
Piazza San Chiara. Assissi, Italy 2016
Pigeons. Assissi, Italy 2016
Pigeons. Assissi, Italy 2016

The Church of St. Clare is pretty and worth a quick breeze-through.  But we were tired of the cold, driving rain and intent on reaching the Cathedral of St. Francis.  So after a few minutes visit to St. Clare’s, we continued wandering through the streets of Assissi and found ourselves at the Church of St. Stefano.

The rural Church of St. Stefano was built by local builders without a plan.  It’s a typical Italian hill-town church built outside the city walls.

Santo Stefano. Assissi, Italy, 2016.
Santo Stefano. Assissi, Italy, 2016.
Assissi, Italy, 2016.
Assissi, Italy, 2016.

Most of Assissi was built on the ruins of an ancient Roman city.  The Temple to Minerva still stands.  We found students sitting on the steps, smoking cigarettes and ducking out from their roving chaperones.  Four boys, about 14 years old, laughed with us when we asked for a photo, and were friendly as they enjoyed their field trip away from school.

DSC00439 Assissi teens
Teens on a field trip hang out in a stairway. Assissi, Italy 2016

Located on the Piazza del Commune, the 1st century BC Temple of Minerva marks Assissi as always representing a sacred place.  The Temple once towered over the street but as the street was paved and repaved, the street just kept getting closer to the Temple.

Temple of Minerva. Assissi, Italy, 2016.
Temple of Minerva. Assissi, Italy, 2016.

The very first Nativity scene, or creche, was created by St. Francis.  I love beautiful creches and enjoyed seeing the many creche displays located throughout Assissi.

DSC00459 Assissi 2016
Creche. Assissi, Italy, 2016.
DSC00429 Assissi 2016
Creche. Assissi, Italy, 2016.

Here’s my nativity scene that I put up every  Christmas.  My parents gave me nearly every Lenox piece and my father built the stable, one of my very favorite possessions.

Grano Christmas creche, 2015
Grano Christmas creche, 2015
My sister gave me the large elephant on the far left for my 50th birthday. Christmas creche, 2011
My sister gave me the large elephant on the far left for my 50th birthday. Christmas creche, 2011

And now, on to the Basillica of St. Francis of Assissi!

Assissi, Italy 2016
Assissi, Italy 2016

Just one closing thought:  Why is that every time I type out the word “Assissi” I keep wanting to spell “Mississippi?”

Sources

Steves, R. (n.d.). Franciscan Friars and Tourists Share Assisi. Retrieved from Rick Steves’ Europe: https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/franciscan-friars-and-tourists-share-assisi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cassino and the La Reggia Outlet Mall near Caserta

After leaving the rain and cobblestones behind in Pompeii, we decided to spend the night in Cassino — midway between Pompeii and Rome.  This would give us an early start to drive into Rome in the morning while treating ourselves to a nice hotel and a great dinner.

We battled our Tom-Tom GPS system again (if it were not for exorbitant data charges on our smart phones, we would have thrown the Tom-Tom out the window in Naples and used our phones).  We drove around and around and around in circles in the town center of Cassino looking for our hotel as the Tom-Tom taunted us with the “lost GPS” advisory, advised us to turn around on one-way streets, and took us up steep hills in search of a street that had nothing to do with our quest.  When I finally got out of the car and looked up, there was a huge neon sign on the top of a nearby roof declaring Hotel Piazza Marconi.

We parked in a spot right in front of the hotel outlined in yellow (parking for residents only) and defined with a huge X through the entire spot.  The manager assured us that this was our parking spot for the night.  Nirvana!  We had won the parking lottery!  (Never realizing until we turned our car in to the rental agency the next day that someone had probably backed into our car during the night.  So it was really a $300 parking spot once damages were paid.)

Our hotel room for three was large and immaculate.  It featured a room-sized, private patio/deck overlooking the square but we were tired and did not take advantage of this wonderful amenity that night (too cold) or the next morning (too early).  The Hotel Piazza Marconi is located at:

Address: Via Guglielmo Marconi, 25, 03043 Cassino FR, Italy
Breakfast was included the next morning and it was a true Italian delight.
Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy
Hotel Piazza Marconi, Cassino, Italy – breakfast buffet
Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy
Hotel Piazza Marconi, Cassino, Italy – breakfast buffet
During our only night in Cassino, we went wandering the town square in search of a wonderful dinner.  We found everything we wanted at Ristorante Cucina, right around the corner.  We were really identifying with the upscale lifestyle of the citizens of Pompeii and we wanted to be pampered.  We got comfort and then more comfort with the best meal of our entire vacation.
As we sat down in the intimate space, a wonderful server met us, apologized for her English, and then translated the entire Italian-only menu for us.  Her English was wonderful!  As we considered our order, she reappeared with a complimentary appetizer of a light, flavorful quiche.
Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy
Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy – quiche apertivo

We were prepared to splurge but prices were reasonable and selections were plentiful.  First we focused on Primi (first plate) courses.

Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy
Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy – Gnocchi di patate con ragu bianco di nero casertano, mozzarella, e carciofi fritti for 10 euros.

Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy

Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy – Risotto carnaroli con porcini e zucca mantecato al cesanese for 10 euros.

We also ordered  from the Le Carne menu.  The pork loin was absolutely perfect.

Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy
Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy – Agnello di Picinisco which is porchettato con cicoria e fonduta di cabernet for 13 euros.

A complimentary desert plate appeared after we had ordered desert but we ate the tasty treats with gusto.

Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy
Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy

Then we made room for the  way-over-the-top I sapori d’italia.  It was rich, sweet, delicious, and too much to eat it all.

Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy
Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy – panna cotta, sbriciolata, torta caprese, cioccolato e gianduja for 10 euros.

Not only did we enjoy wonderful food, we also appreciated the hugs from our very special server.  I wish we had asked her name.  She was extraordinary.

Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy
Ristorante Cucina, Cassino, Italy with my sisters Terry and Lyn.

Shopping is always required when traveling with the Kopriver sisters so before arriving in Cassino, we made a quick detour to the La Reggia Designer Outlet (because, of course, there would be no shopping in Rome).  This upscale mall was crowded on a Saturday night and should have been very difficult to get to from the A-1 highway north of Naples.  We threw down the Tom-Tom (I actually think I heard the b*&%$-in-the-box say, “maybe you should turn here or you could go a little farther and turn there oh, I don’t know, maybe you should have turned back there….lost GPS signal”) and we just followed the well-marked signs to the mall.  The same accurate signage returned us to the highway after our shopping adventure while our Tom-Tom looked for a signal (but never found one).

The Designer Outlet mall featured high end designers in a lovely environment replete with flowers, signage that resembled that found in Rancho Sante Fe, California, and lots and lots of clothing.  We were looking for luggage since Terry had over-shopped and we had our choice of four different luggage stores.  Mission accomplished.

Casserta La Regia Designer Outlet
Casserta La Regia Designer Outlet
Casserta La Regia Designer Outlet
Casserta La Regia Designer Outlet
Casserta La Regia Designer Outlet
Casserta La Regia Designer Outlet

If you are traveling in southern Italy, consider a stop in Cassino.  In 1944, more than 100,000 Allied troops lost their lives in four battles near Cassino as they fought for a clear route to Rome in WWII.  Among the survivors was a huge Iranian bear named Wojtek.  He carried artillery shells for the Polish army.  The Allies dropped more than 1,400 tons of bombs on the Abby overlooking Cassino, thinking it was a German strong-hold.  Today there is little sign of this terrible battle.  Still, I would like to return and visit the Abby and explore the area a little more deeply.  I’d especially like to see the Montecassino Peace Memorial.  Europe has worked hard for peace and I respect the European Union so much for that.

 

McDonald’s and the Valdichiana Outlet Mall in Italy

My sisters and I LOVE Diet Coke.  So when a cold and rainy day in Umbria turned into a bust with even the churches closed, we slogged our way to a brightly lit McDonald’s and reveled in ice-cold Diet Cokes.  (Ask for lots of ghiaccio and enjoy the smirk the attendant behind the counter gives you.  You can almost hear him thinking, “Crazy Americana wants ice in her drink.”)

DSC01606 Arezzo-Valdichiana Outlet Center 2016

In the hill towns of Umbria, it’s not OK to walk with your food.  Take your time and sit with your Big Mac.  If fast food ever catches on in Italy, they are going to need much bigger chairs and tables when people get fat on french fried and burgers.  We perched on the tiny chairs and gulped down our Diet Cokes.  We didn’t even have to translate the adorable bathroom doors that led to immaculate restrooms.  You can tell McDonald’s has been designed to appeal to children but it felt like home to us on a rainy day.

Restroom door - Valdichiana Outlet Center 2016
Restroom door – Valdichiana Outlet Center 2016

Refueled, we headed to Valdichiana Outlet stores.  Outlets are huge in Italy with several malls located close to town centers throughout the country.

Valdichiana-Outlet-Center
Valdichiana-Outlet-Center made me feel like I was home in Florida.
Valdichiana-Outlet-Center
Valdichiana-Outlet-Center – loved this big, green sewing machine.
Valdichiana-Outlet-Center
Valdichiana-Outlet-Center
Valdichiana-Outlet-Center
Valdichiana-Outlet-Center – we liked window shopping seeing the very European vibe of the men’s clothing.  I don’t think I’ll be seeing this look in my classroom in Florida.
Valdichiana-Outlet-Center
Valdichiana-Outlet-Center offers  many treats for the sweet-tooth ranging from a big Lindt chocolate store to several specialty ice cream stores.
Valdichiana Outlet Center 2016
Valdichiana Outlet Center 2016 – Animals travel in and out of stores with owners so it was unusual to see a dog tied to a trash can.  Even the dogs are well-behaved in Italy.  This one sat patiently and waited.

It was strange to shop the Gap and Polo in Italy with a rush of Italian shoppers.  From merchandise to lay-out, the experience was the same as in Florida.  Where were the Fende, Prada, Versace, Missoni stores?  Not here, but there are true factory stores for many of the brand names.  Just Google Prada, for example, and you will discover a store called SPACE in Montevarchi.  The website advised to arrive early, get a number, and wait for admission to the factory store.

We just weren’t that serious about shopping and headed home well before the stores closed.  Luggage allowances sure cramp our style!

Arezzo – Closed for Rain

We learned an important lesson in Arezzo – one of the most beautiful hill towns in all of Italy.  Don’t plan your visit to the largest antique market in all of Italy if it’s off-season, in the rain, after noon.  This is the sign we saw after traveling for two hours, finding a parking lot (follow the signs that say “Petri” car park), and taking a series of escalators to the top of the hill and the center of town:

Antique Market CLOSED
Antique Market sign

Because we saw all the vendors packing up (the market was supposed to be 8-8 and it was only noon), we assumed the sign said “closed due to rain.”  Nope, the sign says “total market sell-off; proceeds for the children of Africa.  THANK YOU.”  Huh?

A few hardy vendors continued to offer wares and we discovered inexpensive Murano glass figurines (about 80% off the prices in Venice) and alabaster lighters (a bargain at 5 euros and much cheaper than in Volterra, a hill town that specializes in alabaster).  Extraordinary dining tables and wardrobes were offered for pennies on the dollar.  With a little sunshine and the expected 500 antique vendors, this visit would have been one of the highlights of our tour of Umbria.  Instead, we shopped in a chilling, drenching rain as we visited about a dozen vendors.

Arezzo Antique Market
Arezzo Antique Market
Arezzo Antique Market
Arezzo Antique Market
Arezzo Antique Market
Arezzo Antique Market

The hill town once known as Poppi is one of the easiest hilltops to access thanks to large, clearly marked parking lots and clean, modern escalators.

Escalators to the hilltop town of Arezzo
Escalators to the hilltop town of Arezzo

You can also park and walk if you are into climbing but we were thankful for the escalators.

Alternative climb to Arezzo
Alternative climb to Arezzo

Since the antiques market was a bust, we decided to tour the lovely frescoes by Piero della Francesco in the Basillica San Francisco.  Do churches really close on Sunday?  Apparently they do in Arezzo on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Arezzo Piazza Grande
Arezzo Piazza Grande

We wrote Arezzo up as a major disappointment.  It’s hard to get excited about a town that’s closed.

Terry had noticed a large outlet mall about 30 minutes south of Arezzo complete with a McDonald’s!  Sometimes you have to leave the old world behind and head for the mall.  You can read about our McDonald’s/Outlet Mall adventure at http://gograno.com/2016/03/mcdonalds-and-th…et-mall-in-italy

AdBlu, an encounter with the law, a rainbow, McDonald’s, and the perfect dinner

Things don’t always go smoothly on vacation.  But sometimes what goes wrong makes for the best memories.  Enjoy my sister Lyn Purtz’s account:

So, Monday morning in Umbria.  Did we mention it’s raining?  The weather is odd.  We have needed to layer every day. But we never un-layer. When it rains, the temperature seems to drop 20 degrees.  We are chilled to the bone.

Market day is in Marsciano.  Everywhere we drive we do not know where to park, but in Marsciano we find a place right in front of the market!  Vendors are selling more fruit and vegetables than you can find in Whole Foods.  There’s also sausages, salted fish, anchovies, cheeses.  Food trucks with a roasted pig splayed out; the porchetta vendor slices off a hunk of meat and places it on a hard roll with a little salt.

Porchetta wrapped in a rich spinach filling at the Marsciano Market.
Porchetta wrapped in a rich spinach filling at the Marsciano Market.
My sister Terry checks out pajamas at the Marsciano Market.
My sister Terry checks out pajamas at the Marsciano Market.
Lyn tries on a pajama top at the Marsciano Market.
Lyn tries on a pajama top at the Marsciano Market.
Remember buying a little green turtle when you were a kid? They are for sale at the Marsciano Market.
Remember buying a little green turtle when you were a kid? They are for sale at the Marsciano Market.
Not sure if these bunnies are for dinner but I think they are future pets at the Marsciano Market.
Not sure if these bunnies are for dinner but I think they are future pets at the Marsciano Market.
Live goldfish for sale at the Marsciano Market.
Live goldfish for sale at the Marsciano Market.
Spring is coming! Flowers are for sale everywhere in Italy.
Spring is coming! Flowers are for sale everywhere in Italy.

The vendor trucks have awnings that pop up from the roof like an RV.  They display their wares either on tables or risers that unfold out of the side of the truck.

See how the awnings fold into the trucks at the Marsciano Market?
See how the awnings fold into the trucks at the Marsciano Market?

A shoe vendor has about 150 boxes of shoes with one shoe displayed on top of the box.  Bigger than some shoe stores.  Pajamas, underwear, cashmere socks, sweaters, skirts, etc. etc. etc.  We are in shoppers heaven!  And then…I decide to take the packages to the car.

The Marsciano Market.
The Marsciano Market.

Whoops!  What’s that green paper flapping on my windshield?  A ticket.  I put the items in the trunk, take the ticket off the car and head to find Barbara & Terry. Then we move the car…up a hill where the parking is free.  And then we need to find the police station.  We ask a tall man at the sausage stand for directions.  Our lack of English doesn’t phase him at all but he gives up on our Italian.  “Mama!  Mama!” he calls to his mother in the sausage truck.  “I’m taking these ladies to the police station,”  and then he walks us all the way to the police station.

We follow him around curved streets, across piazzas and then to the government house that doesn’t have a sign outside.  How were we to find this?  “Sausage man” waves arrevaderci and leaves us there.  All the Polizia are women dressed in severe black uniforms.  But they are nice.  They smile.  They shake their heads in sympathy.  They try to use our credit card for about 10 minutes before they shrug – “Allora!” – We pay the $28.00 ticket in cash.  No one wants our credit cards, not even the police.

We should have parked the car at a parcheggio. Instead, we paid the $28 ticket.
We should have parked the car at a parcheggio. Instead, we paid the $28 ticket.

We decide to head to Perugia, about 15 miles west of Marsciano.  We hike uphil to the town center to visit the wonderful Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria – a museum that features six centuries of art and historic artifacts in chronological order.  WOW! An elevator!  We get into the elevator but it will only go to the 5th floor instead of the 3rd floor entrance.  We take the elevator to the 5th floor and office workers rush out to tell us:  The museum is closed.  No reason why.  It’s just closed.

The marvelous Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria in Perugia.
The marvelous Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia. This stunning griffin is all we saw.

We drive around the old town aimlessly lacking the incentive to walk in the rain and worried about our car.  Since Day 2, our VW Tiguan flashed a symbol that we do not understand but does say that in 700 km if we do not add-blu the car will not start.  Also, our GPS isn’t working correctly.  We stopped at a gas station two days before to see what Ad-blu means: an additive to go in the car because it uses diesel.  A man at the gas station we stopped at shrugs his shoulders when we ask about AdBlu so we call Eurocar, the rental company.  We go to Eurocar and they try 3 GPS’s before they find a Tom-Tom that works, but they cannot put the AdBlu in.  They send us to the airport in Perugia where someone speaks English and will take care of the additive.

Our AdBlu-hungry Volkswagon - a great car!!
Our AdBlu-hungry Volkswagon – a great car!!

But before we go to the airport…McDonald’s!  Diet Coke with ice!  A bakery and coffee bar inside.  Clean restrooms with toilet paper AND hand dryers that work!  But the crew works at the pace of Italy.  Even though we are the only customers it takes about 15 minutes for a small hamburger and two pastries plus Diet Coke — which, in Italy, is Coke Light.

McDonald's -- and Coke Light -- in Perugia.
McDonald’s — and Coke Light — in Perugia.
The Perugia highway.
The Perugia highway.

Refueled, we go looking for the tiny Perugia airport.  This is difficult because our new Tom Tom works no better than the previous one.  Tom Tom’s do not like hills.  Or cities.  Or water.  Our little advisor does not advise “recalculating route.”  Instead, the screen of death reads “GPS signal lost.”  I swear the Tom Tom gets lost more than we do.  We decide to just drive downhill away from the city centers of hill towns when leaving a town and uphill toward the duomo when arriving in a town.  To get to the airport, we follow five camouflage-painted trucks full of soldiers downhill, out of town, while we look for signs that will point to an airport.  We see one.  No, really, we see one sign to the airport.  Just one.

The Perugia highway.
The Perugia highway.

Our sister Terry goes into the airport, the Eurocar attendant shuts down the desk, and tells us to follow him in his car…for about 15 minutes…to a gas station.  But the attendant and the Eurocar guy can’t figure out where to put the AdBlu.  Under the hood?  No!  In the gas tank?  No!  Look for the manual in the car?  No manual.  Make a phone call.  While making the phone call a big lorry pulls up.  He needs AdBlu.  We move our car away from the nozzled hose poking out of the back wall of the fuel station and let him fill up.  Back to our quest for to find the hole in our car for the AdBlu.  Where do we put the additive?  Ohhhhh, in the trunk, under the carpet.  Of course!  Move everything in the trunk aside.  Did I say we were shopping?  AdBlu…who knew?

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The little additive sign for AdBlu on the back of the filling station.
Our man from Europcar who led us from the Peruggia airport to a filling station 15 minutes away.
Our man from Europcar who led us from the Peruggia airport to a filling station 15 minutes away.
Searing for the opening for the AdBlu. Uniforms are big in Italy and they look terrific. Europcar on the left, the filling station on the right.
Searching for the opening for the AdBlu. Uniforms are big in Italy and they look terrific. Europcar on the left, the filling station on the right.

Relieved to be on the road again.  Happy that the car will not stop unexpectedly (and we were told that YES it will stop without it).

How to end a lost day filled with travel mishaps and rain?  How about a great dinner in Deruta at a Mom&Pop trattoria? Terry checks out Trip Advisor and comes up with a name.  Tom Tom calms down and gets us to the tiny hole-in-the-wall on the first try.  As we drive, the rain finally stops for the first time in six days.  As I look to the left, a huge rainbow appears touching the hills in a perfect double arc.  We see both ends of the rainbow as it shines in front of the mountain!  Being Italy, there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, just the incredible beauty of the green and dirt hills of Umbria.

Double rainbow over Deruta, Italy.
Double rainbow over Deruta, Italy.

We arrive at Osteria Il Borgetto in Durita  and a gentleman our age greets us at the door with a welcoming smile and open arms.  People in Umbria are so happy to serve you.  Love this Place!

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My sister Terry stands in the 6-table Osteria Il Borgetto in Durita, Italy.
Spinach gnocchi with vegetables baked in a bubbling cream and cheese sauce.
Spinach gnocchi with vegetables baked in a bubbling cream and cheese sauce.
Pasta marinara and beans. Osteria Il Borgetto, Durita, Italy
Pasta marinara and beans. Osteria Il Borgetto, Durita, Italy.
Daily special: Roasted pork, mixed salad, potato. Osteria Il Borgetto, Durita, Italy
Daily special: Roasted pork, mixed salad, potato. Osteria Il Borgetto, Durita, Italy
Desert: A tiny taste of 20-year-old Balsamic vinegar-sweet and rich. Osteria Il Borgetto, Durita, Italy
Desert: A tiny taste of 20-year-old Balsamic vinegar-sweet and rich. Osteria Il Borgetto, Durita, Italy

It’s been a long day of frustrations and fun.  What else could go wrong?  As we exit the freeway for the long drive around Marsciano, we turn the correct way towards town, we take the right turn on the rotary as we duck past cars trying to merge into our back seat, no drivers tailgate us an inch from our back bumper, no drivers bright us or honk the horn as we drive the speed limit, we take another rotary and make the correct turn the first time, we drive past the graffiti-covered centro sportivo, make another right turn on the uphill side of the sports center, take anther round about and head away from town (another correct turn), wind up the 1 1/2 lane wide road past the two huge houses set 12 inches from the roadway, spy the pink house near the top of the tall hill, turn right into the long and rutted gravel driveway, drive straight downhill on a slope that looks like it would be tricky to ski on, the rain starts – again – and the ruts overflow their already full capacity, we drive into the valley and lose our Tom Tom signal, we head uphill in the dark, dark night, we miss the first attempt up the steep driveway so we back up and make a running start and make it up the driveway, and we are home!

The road home to Casale San Bartolomeo in San Vensanzo, near Marsciano.
The road home to Casale San Bartolomeo in San Vensanzo, near Marsciano.

Todi – a tiny hilltown in Umbria

Small towns top the hills of Umbria like crowns set upon a rocky brow.  Travel authors recommend one little hill town after another but we chose to visit Todi first because it was just 12 kilometers from where we were staying in San Gimignano.  Perfect choice!  Winding streets, an unusual duomo, rocky walls and a steep climb defined our first hill city.  We were smitten.

This is our drive uphill to the hill town of Todi, Italy 2016.
This is our drive to the hill town of Todi, Italy 2016.

Todi was founded well before the birth of Christ at the confluence of the   Naia and Tiber rivers; it’s about 90 minutes northeast of Rome and 45 minutes south of Perugia.

We actually drove into the city, climbing the hand-laid stone roads and tucking our side mirrors in as the buildings on each side of the street closed in on us.

Traffic continues on the narrow streets of Todi even as goods are unloaded for local shops. Todi, Italy 2016
Traffic continues on the narrow streets of Todi even as goods are unloaded for local shops. Todi, Italy 2016
Storefront in Todi, Italy 2016.
Storefront in Todi, Italy 2016.

We should have parked at the top of the steep hill, but we snagged the first parking spot we found in a yellow zone.  (Blue-lined parking spots are for residents; yellow-lined parking spots are for visitors but you pay; white-lined parking spots are free.)  We took out the little cardboard clock from it’s pocket on the windshield, set the clock to 1:00 to indicate the time of our arrival, purchased a parking ticket from an automated pay booth, stuck that ticket on our dashboard and set off to see the city.  The little clock indicated to authorities what time we arrived; if we overstayed our allotted 2 hours, we would have been ticketed even though we paid for several hours.  So we knew we had to climb to the top of the hill and return in just under 2 hours.

It was a cool but sunny day in March, so we walked briskly up the steep hill.  Whenever we were lost, we just headed uphill.  The highest point of each hill town seemed to be the central plaza with a cathedral which was usually where we were headed.  To return to our car?  We just headed downhill.

The beauty of this small town unfolded as we rounded each corner and continued to climb upwards.  I could see why Architecture Professor Richard S. Levine of the University of Kentucky proclaimed Todi to be the model sustainable city.  Todi had reinvented itself constantly from its birth as an Umbrian/Etruscan city through its years under seige by Goths and Byzantines to rule under the Popes to a leader in the Risorgimento movement to unify Italy.  In the 90’s, the Italian press proclaimed Todi as the most livable city in the world…and it’s nearly 3,000 years old (Todi, 1992)!

An alley-way in Todi, Italy 2016.
An alley-way in Todi, Italy 2016.
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Todi, Italy 2016.
A resident brings in firewood from an alley in Todi, Italy 2016.
A resident brings in firewood from an alley in Todi, Italy 2016.
A side street with tiny steps to climb and long, smooth tracks for water to flow downhill. Todi, Italy 2016.
A side street with tiny steps to climb and long, smooth tracks for water to flow downhill. Todi, Italy 2016.

 

Lunch!

We arrived in Todi in time for lunch – and we worked up quite an appetite hiking uphill – but every recommended restaurant was closed in March.  In fact, this was our experience in town after town.  Restaurants and tourist sites simply were not open during the first two weeks of March.

We were happy to stumble upon a little local shop called Le Roi de la Crepe.   Prices were very reasonable, ranging from 5-9 Euros, and the food was fresh and delicious.  We were told it’s not acceptable to walk and eat in Italy but with no place to sit, we took our sandwiches and munched as we continued our stroll through Todi.

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Le Roi de la Crepe in Todi, Italy, 2016.
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Le Roi de la Crepe in Todi, Italy, 2016.
Town Square – The Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II

“Called Piazza Grande in ancient times, it was probably located on the site of the Roman Forum and was much larger than the square which can be seen today.  Counted as one of the most beautiful medieval squares in Italy, it is surrounded by numerous palaces and is dominated by the Cathedral” (Bonechi).

DSC01346 Todi, Italy 2016.
The Prior’s Palace – across the square – was created by bringing several smaller buildings together under one roof in the 14th century. The tower used to be much higher. Todi, Italy 2016.
The Captains Palace on the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, houses a museum which was closed the day we visited. Todi, Italy 2016.
The Captains Palace on the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, houses a museum which was closed the day we visited. Todi, Italy 2016.
This is detail on a graceful bell that stood on the ground floor of the museum which was closed the day we visited. Todi, Italy 2016.
This is detail on a graceful bell that stood on the ground floor of the museum which was closed the day we visited. Todi, Italy 2016.

We tried to visit the museum operated by the Diocesi di Orvieto-Todi, but it was closed.  The folks were pretty surprised when we took an elevator to the top floor and discovered a cluster of employees chatting away.  They tried to figure out how we got into the building as they shooed us back into the elevator and out of the building.

The best part of the Grand Plaza had to be the ice cream!  See the little white truck to the right in the square (photo above)?  Just beyond that truck was the lovely Bacio di Latte (Milk Kiss) gelateria.  Delicious!

We huddled under blankets as we sat in the sidewalk cafe enjoying Gelato. Todi, Italy 2016.
We huddled under blankets as we sat in the sidewalk cafe enjoying Gelato. Todi, Italy 2016.
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One of the gelateria customers enjoying ice cream while walking her pet rabbit. Todi, Italy 2016.

Around the corner we discovered a beautiful, towering something.  It looked like a false front from a film set.  But it was the local branch of the oldest surviving bank in the world, founded in 1472 in Siena, Italy, about 150 km away.

The Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena S.p.A.  Todi, Italy 2016.
The Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena S.p.A. Todi, Italy 2016.

 

Views from Todi

We could not point our cameras from the hilltop without capturing a beautiful view from Todi.  The trees and flowers were just starting to bloom.  I imagine the sites are breathtaking later in spring.

Belltower seen from the hilltop of Todi, Italy 2016.
Belltower seen from the hilltop of Todi, Italy 2016.
Hilltop view from Todi, Italy 2016.
Hilltop view from Todi, Italy 2016.

 

The S. Maria dell’Annunziata Cathedral

We huffed and puffed our way to the top of a flight of travertine stairs extending from the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele to reach one of the strangest-looking cathedrals I’ve ever seen.  There’s no dome.  No arches.  No flying buttresses.  Just a flat top like the architect said, “OK, I’m done.”  More likely donations dried up because of an economic downturn or a war and the parishioners said, “Basta!”

S. Maria dell'Annunziata Duomo. Todi, Italy 2016.
S. Maria dell’Annunziata Duomo started in the 8th century and rebuilt in the 12th century and completed in the 16th century. The bell tower is from the 13th century. Todi, Italy 2016.

The 13th century bell tower was used for defense but now features bells that call to worship.  The beauty spot of the cathedral has to be the double rose window in the center of the church, over the door.

The inside of the duomo is simple with a few artifacts of interest.  Faenzone created the Last Judgement fresco under the double rose stained glass window.

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Cathedral S. Maria dell’Annunziata. Todi, Italy 2016.

Can you see the little putti in each leaf of the rose stained glass window?  The Holy Spirit is symbolized by a dove in the center of the window.

DSC01356 Todi Italy 2016

 

There’s a bronze hanging of St. Martin I hanging in the cathedral but I don’t know why.  St. Martin was a pope and martyr who died defending the Catholic Church’s right to “establish doctrine in the face of imperial power” (Pope St. Martin I).  He died in 656 after a miserable trip by sea from Rome to Constantinople and after being imprisoned, tried and denounced.  St. Martin I was the last pope to die for his faith.

St. Martin 1, Pope and martyr, in the Cathedral S. Maria dell'Annunziata. Todi, Italy 2016.
St. Martin 1, Pope and martyr, in the Cathedral S. Maria dell’Annunziata. Todi, Italy 2016.

Also of interest is a 13th century cross painted in the style of Giunta Pisano (Bonechi, 2011).

13th Century crucifix in the Cathedral S. Maria dell'Annunziata. Todi, Italy 2016.
13th Century crucifix in the Cathedral S. Maria dell’Annunziata. Todi, Italy 2016.

There’s a pretty fresco at the front of the duomo but I could not tell who painted it.  The painting is sweet with rich reds and oranges that are fading into pastels.

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Fresco at S. Maria dell’Annunziata Duomo. Todi, Italy 2016.
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Stained glass window almost hidden behind a baptismal font near the front of the church. Todi, Italy 2016.
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A pretty madonna in the front of the cathedral. Todi, Italy 2016.

We loved Todi.  So much to see and do!  This would be a wonderful, romantic get-away-town for anyone to enjoy.

DSC01409 Todi Italy 2016
Todi, Italy 2016.

 

Sources

Bonechi. (2011). Umbria: Complete guide to the monuments, art and traditions of the region. Florence, Italy: Casa Editrice Bonechi.

Pope Saint Martin I. (n.d.). Retrieved from Catholic Online: http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=80

“Todi Come una Citta` Sostenibile,” keynote, Inauguration Convocation Academic Year Università della Terza Età, October 1992, Todi, Italy; “Todi Citta del Futuro,” and “Come Todi Puo Divenire Citta Ideale e Modello per il Futuro”, in Il Sole 24 Ore, Milan, Italy, November 28, 1991

 

 

An Etruscan Tomb – Sarteano, Italy 2016

Imagine you are a shepherd at the time of Christ’s birth.  You graze your sheep on a tall hillside overlooking a steep valley, lushly green and deeply forested.  A violent storm comes up with heavy winds and pounding rains that nearly knock you over.  You gather your flock and ride the storm out in the nearest cave.  In the morning when you wake and a little light filters into the cave, the first thing you see is Charon, the demon from hell staring at you from the other side of the tiny cave!

Shepherds made their home in the tomb of the quadriga infernale for centuries.  They dug a little more deeply into the side of the cave but never disturbed the art created by the Etruscans centuries before.  It was the the 19th and 20th century tomb raiders who chiseled into the ancient art to make a wider opening to the cave, destroying part of the paintings in their haste to find treasure.

An archaeologist led five visitors, including me, through a deep field to the Tomb of the Quadriga Infernale.  He spoke no English but we were fortunate that an Australian woman was on the tour who was fluent in both English and Italian.  As the archaeologist explained the tomb, she quickly translated for us.  She was a goddess, quickly translating while nursing her baby as her toddler son ran circles around our legs.

We walked past several small Etruscan tomb openings that were long ago raided and are no longer studied.  The openings were so tiny, I knew I never would have made it down the stairs let alone into the small passages.

One of several entrances to Etruscan tombs on a gentle hillside outside Sarteano. The tombs were robbed long ago by tomb raiders. Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano
One of several entrances to Etruscan tombs on a gentle hillside outside Sarteano. The tombs were robbed long ago by tomb raiders. Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano

When we entered the travertine tomb of the Quadriga Infernale (the chariot from hell), we were careful of the rugged dirt floor and I told myself to fall to the right AWAY from the cave paintings if I were to trip.  My plan was to fall right onto the muddy floor that was once the home of a shepherd.

The cave was only 15 feet below the ground but we had entered a world of demons and myth.  This tomb is exceptional because nothing exists in discovered Etruscan history with this version of the underworld.  The demon Charon drives a chariot powered by two griffins and two lions.  According to the museum, the demon has a “fearful, surly, possessed look.”  This demon has never been seen driving a chariot except in this tomb.

The demon Charon drives the chariot from hell shadowed by a second black demon known in Etruscan stories. This is the only known depiction of Charon as a chariot driver. Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano
The demon Charon drives the chariot from hell shadowed by a second black demon known in Etruscan stories. This is the only known depiction of Charon as a chariot driver. Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano
The wheels of the chariot from hell driven by Charon. Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano
The wheels of the chariot from hell driven by Charon. Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano
Badly deteriorated, you can see the quadriga (chariot) driven by two lions and two griffons. Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano
Badly deteriorated, you can see the quadriga (chariot) driven by two lions and two griffons. Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano
The diving dolphins represent the human dive into the afterlife. The Etruscans were extraordinary merchants and many took to the sea so they would know dolphins. Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano
The diving dolphins represent the human dive into the afterlife. The Etruscans were extraordinary merchants and many took to the sea so they would know dolphins. Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano
Two reclining male figures on a kline (a banquet reclincer). Perhaps a father and son reuniting in the afterlife? Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano
Two reclining male figures on a kline (a banquet reclincer). Perhaps a father and son reuniting in the afterlife? Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano
3-headed monster -- one of many monsters -- of the Etruscan underworld. Note the rooster comb and billy goat beards. Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano
3-headed monster — one of many monsters — of the Etruscan underworld. Note the rooster combs and billy goat beards. Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano

Before visiting the tomb, we toured the Museo Civico Archeologico di Sarteano in Sarteano, Italy.  The beautiful little gem of a museum is perfectly curated with clean glass cases of Etruscan artifacts.  It also includes a replica of the tomb of the Quadriga Infernale that is a fine depiction of the cave we visited.

This collar of gold was owned by an Etruscan in 200 BC and found in another tomb.
This collar of gold was owned by an Etruscan in 200 BC and found in another tomb.

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The Australian who translated for us noted, “Only in Italy could we walk into an ancient treasure.”

The “quadriga infernale” cave was rediscovered in October 2003 and is now open upon reservation only on Saturdays at 11:30 am in winter and at 9:30 am and 6:30 pm in summer.  You can make reservations by calling 0578.269.261 or email museo@comune.sarteano.si.it.