Friday, April 10, 2009

Umbria and the first taste of Toscano (Tuscany)...

We woke early and bailed from Napoli, caught a train to/through Rome, and got off in Orvieto. It's one of the picturesque hilltop towns that dot the Italian landscape. You get off the train and then buy a cable car ticket to be hoisted up to the top of the hill where the town is. This town happens to be in Umbria, and we stopped there just for a couple of hours' walk around, to ascend the 243 step tower for photos, and to look at, of course, the cathedral. At the top of the Torre del Moro, both Trip and I commented that we felt we'd FINALLY arrived in Italy. We could see forever from that tower on the top of the hill. Rome, Napoli, Sicily...none had had the "feel" we'd expected in Italy. Not that they weren't fabulous, just that they didn't feel how we'd expected Italy to feel.

Unfortunately, when moving on, we'd relied on our Lonely Planet guide which told there were buses 12 times/day from Orvieto to Perugia, where we'd made a hotel reservation for that night. The Lonely Planet was way wrong...there was ONE bus per day, and it had left at 550 a.m. (it was 2 p.m. when we learned this). But, like any savvy traveler learns on the road, you just roll with it. We found a train to a nearby town, which got us a train to another nearby town, which got us another train to where we needed to be. One last city bus got us to our Perugia hotel, and by 530 p.m. at that. We're getting good at this travel stuff, even speaking some broken Italian now!

Perugia was a much larger hilltop town with a vibrant university scene. Medieval architecture rules the old town. There's a "scala mobile", which is an escalator, that takes you up from the lower part of town at the bus/train stations up to the hilltop section where all the cool plazas and medieval web of streets are. We just wandered around taking photos, while planning our walking excursions around the first torrential (but brief) rains we'd encountered in Italy.

Side note...Italian eating establishments' hours SUCK!! Most restaurants are closed between about 300 and 730 p.m. Of course, after we're traveling/walking/exerting all day, we just happen to be starving at 500 p.m. every single day!! We could plan for this and have a snack in the bag, but we're both too busy enjoying other stuff to think of that. So, we end up cramming down some crappy food from the only place in town that's open and serving reheated whatever, only to find ourselves not hungry again until right before bed. Anyway, I digress.

The pizza in Perugia was interesting...sausage, black pepper, buffalo mozzarella, and one raw egg in the middle...cooked in a wood-fired oven for about a minute and a half at which point it, amazingly, was completely cooked. The crust was chewy and delicious, but again, we find the same thing we've found all over Italy - there is a distinct lack of spices in the food. Fresh, usually. Tasty, often. Bland, nearly always. But, we journey on, always in search of that elusive perfect pasta, pizza, gelato. Often we ARE rewarded with delicious food, but it's more often somewhat disappointing and we find ourselves saying it's more flavorful or better tasting back home. Is it sacrilegious to be craving a burrito?!

The next day we traveled into Tuscany by bus, to the AMAZING medieval town of Siena. Arriving into town, we hopped a bus we figured went to the town's center. It did, but only after going about 40 minutes out of the way. Oh well, we got a great tour of the suburbs and nearby countryside, right?! We both truly believe that the best way to get to know a town is to get lost in it anyway, and sitting on a bus is a great way to get one's bearings while assuring you'll at worst end up back where you started!!

We arrived and were warmly greeted at our bed and breakfast. The B&B's over here (and in Spain) are not what they are back home. They're far more variable in quality, much less fancy, much less pricey, and we can always get a room with two twin beds, thank God. They are essentially smaller, cheaper, more accessible hotels. Anyway, we were shown to our apartment (the B&B is spread over 5 apartments in separate neighborhoods around Siena because they are not allowed to knock down walls to create one big space in the historic old town). We got the scoop from the B&B girl on a good restaurant and hit the road to scope out the sights. Same old stuff...cathedrals, duomos, restaurants, gelato, photos, getting the feel of a town...but this town is SPECIAL. It just feels right somehow. We both agree it's our favorite town thus far.

Siena's Piazza del Campo is truly a sight to behold. A huge space surrounded by tall buildings and a huge tower, lined with bars and restaurants, and filled with people gathering to chat, drink, kick a ball, take photos, nap...this is what I think our towns lack in America, a real gathering place for the people where people just come to hang out together, relax, meet others, make friends, and chill. Of course the fact that we're so dependent on the automobile may have something to do with our lack of such places. We had homemade, fresh pasta for dinner with sausage, fresh cream, and was by far the best pasta thus far, with a sweet chewiness we've not yet had in Italy. Also, this was where we tasted the smoothest, most flavorful, sweetest, and best balsamic vinegar of our lives! Nearby, we stumbled upon a gelato shop with the flavors piled up HIGH, overflowing their containers, with the main ingredients pressed into the outside of the high pile for show (i.e., the strawberry flavor had fresh strawberries sticking out of the stack, pineapple had pineapple chunks, etc.). It was not only a tasty treat, but a visual explosion of flavor as well.

The next day, we arose early but couldn't get into the Siena duomo/cathedral for photos as it didn't open until 130 p.m., so we just grabbed some photos of the outside and hopped a bus to Florence where we had the next night's hostel reservation. That hostel turned out to be amazing...super clean, super friendly and helpful, super roomy, and super BOOKED. We couldn't book the next three nights following because they were full. So, what to do? Walk around Florence trying to find another room for the next three days? No way. Leave town! We'll cruise on over to quieter Lucca, Pisa, and the Cinque Terre first. Then we'll head up somewhere in the mountains in Northern Italy, then Venice, Bologna, and finally, back to Florence in a couple weeks for a few days when things are a little less forced and hectic around the Easter holiday. Gotta roll with the punches that traveling throws, right? Before leaving Florence, we headed out at night for dinner and ended up meeting a couple of American girls from Kansas/Missouri who were seated at the table next to us. We shared wine, laughs, and insults, which led then to a nice walk through Florence around the famous Duomo to a little pub at which we shared more drinks, laughs, and insults. Turns out they were at the end of their first day in Italy, and were now drunk and still very jetlagged. As their eyelids began to fall from exhaustion (and hopefully not boredom in our presence!!), we walked them to the Duomo, where we parted and went to our respective hostels. Tomorrow....Pisa and Lucca...

Arrivederci for now.