Monday, February 19, 2018

Urbane Urbino

After the Riviera, we started to head north again, to Urbino, another walled hilltop city, still in the Marche region. It's probably chiefly known for its Renaissance dukedom, and as the birthplace of Raphael. We parked at the foot of the hill, and it took quite some time to figure out how to get up into the city. I found a staircase where you can walk up inside the fortifications, but the promised elevator remained elusive. As it was a while before we could check in to our hotel, we left our bags in the car and set out to see a bit of the city before lunch. (We eventually did find the elevator to bring our bags up, you have to go inside the tourist office and pay a euro to use it, then it pops out on top of the city wall next to a cafe.)

 We were staying in an "antique room" dating from 1544, which was pretty fun. I've never been in a hotel room with a "feature well" before!

We ended up buying a light fixture similar to the star-shaped one on the ceiling here. They seem to be traditional in the area, also appearing in the Ducal Palace
The well
On the city walls with the Ducal Palace to the right
View of the surrounding countryside from the walls
Before lunch, we went to the Oratorio of St John the Baptist, a small 14th century chapel covered with frescoes by the Salimbeni brothers. It's so pretty. It's kind of unbelievable you can have these tiny little buildings filled with such treasures that no-one has ever heard of. Imagine the big deal this would be most places in the world.

This photo gives a sense of the monumental scale of the frescoes
Panorama of the crucifixion scene and the right-hand wall, with scenes from the life of John the Baptist

Expressive lamentations at the Crucifixion. And... is that kid kicking the other kid in the face?
Detail of the crucifixion scene with a naughty dog

St John the Baptist at work, with bonus dog curled up on a pile of clothes. Haven't quite mastered the "standing on top of a river" thing though

Nice naturalistic detail of someone disrobing to be baptised

Hey, it's the KKK getup from the Perugia paintings. This seems to have been how members of the confraternity dressed

The Oratorio also offered great views of the Ducal Palace rising over the rooftops

As you can see, it was a beautiful, warm day and lunch was a local speciality, crescia. Kind of like a stuffed flatbread, but much flakier. With the addition of lard in the dough, it's really more like a pastry than a bread, and 100% delicious. We went to a little hole in the wall place and queued for ages, but it was so worth it.

Photo doesn't do justice to the deliciousness, but I promise you it was cheesy meaty flakey pastry goodness. We went there twice in our time in Urbino

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