OCT 04,2012 - OCT 11,2012 (8 DAYS)
Mid September, in the best Italian restaurant this city has to offer.
Ever since we got back from Kerpathos, my boyfriend and I started dreaming of our next trip. For years, I had the dream of reaching Perugia, a small and romantic city in Umbria, in the center of Italy, on which I got hooked on after reading a National Magazine piece about it. For days we would eat jars of pasta, day dreaming of how wonderful it would be - a week in Italy, the two of us and a car.
"Is it really happening?" he asks.
And in that moment I was sure. Yes, it's happening.
We decided to travel in the beginning of October. So we ordered a package of a flight and a car (the simplest) for eight days.
We navigated using two Android apps - NAVFREE which requires downloading the application and the maps separately, and the other MAPODROID, which doesn't allow navigation but is quite effective when you want to see maps of the area and the internet isn't available. If you travel with a smartphone, you can skip the GPS that comes with the car and save few Euros.
Our first surprise happened when we reached the Hertz counter in Rome airport. Instead the Fiat Panda we expected, the clerk handed us the keys to Audi A8. When I tried to ask him about it with my poor Italian, they told me that this what they have currently. No need to complain :-)
Our first stop was Rome, having no choice after landing at 19:00, and evening fell.
The hotel we selected was Palace Nardo, and it is located at the outskirts of Rome, very close to the great ring highway (Grande Raccordo Anulare) encircling Rome. We chose this hotel for its inexpensive price (50 Euros) and because we didn't want to get lost in Rome at night searching for a parking place.
The neighborhood and the street where this hotel is located doesn't seem very welcoming, and the people around it are a mixture of Italians from lower than average socioeconomic status, and African and Russian immigrants. The guy at the front desk told us that the neighborhood is totally safe and that the African immigrants do nothing besides talking on their cells.
The hotel was quite empty (it's not the high season) and the room we got was small and basic but with the most comfortable bed we slept in our entire trip.
After a short shower, we left the hotel, following the recommendations of the nice front desk guy, to the Vatican City area, or Città del Vaticano in Italian. After driving "straight all the way" on Via Aurelia, we parked the car between some local cars and went out to search for something to eat. We randomly picked a restaurant whose name I can't remember, but you almost couldn't see its walls because they were covered with decorated plates.
Besides us, there was a group of Italians and a group of young Spanish people. The food proved us they weren't wrong - we had the best pasta we ate for the entire trip, right in our first meal.
After that we want to see the Vatican square at night. The place was under some renovations, but still we were able to enjoy St. Peter's Square and the basilica glowing in flattering lights. I still don't know how the place looks in daylight, but hear tales of the long lines for getting inside and the large crowd. Walking around the square at night has the opposite effect. Since there isn't any nightlife in the area, you'll find few people there at night.
After our calm night in Rome, we drove back to the hotel for a short sleep. In the morning, after a relatively very good breakfast in the hotel, we got up on A1 highway toward our first stop: Perugia.
Perugia, the capital of the Umbria province in the center of Italy, was ruled in the days of the Roman empire by the Etruscans, and all of Umbria (meaning its museums) is filled with their art remains. What's more evident in the street of the centro storico, the old city center, is the impressive cathedrals and the piazzas. Outside of the historic center, you'll find a small city, packed with cars, scooters and students. After some wrong turns, we where happy to get to our destination.
Finding our hotel, ST. ERCOLANO, was a difficult task. It's located in a street which is so narrow and small, no cellular map or GPS knew its name. Via Bovaro is the street name (google knows...)
From Italia Piazza at the end of the historic center, you need to take the stairs down to Via Marzia, and there, another set of stairs that is named after the hotel name. Then you'll be quite close - a turn left and a turn right will take you to the right street. All this time you'll be shocked by how much little sky you can see between the buildings closing on the narrow street, one of the few in this medieval city in which car can't fit.
This hotel was also selected for budgetary reasons - 50 euros, without breakfast. The main advantages is its location - inside the quieter part of the historic center, a very short walk from the main avenue, and free parking in the near by street - the one that's accessible to cars.
The rooms are small but cozy, but if you want some privacy you should close the blinds, because the neighbors from the building across, can see everything that happens in the room.
The water pressure in the room is quite weak, but you can't expect more from hotels located in buildings that are hundreds of years old.
Since there wasn't too much time before evening fell (and restaurants opened), we killed some time by wandering around the main street, corso vannucci, which was named after the painter Pietro Perugino, ( born Pietro Vannucci,) who was born in Umbria.
The street starts at Piazza Italia and ends at Palazzo dei Priori, which has everything a piazza requires - a fountain, a church, and stairs. A lot of stairs.
A great place for a dinner is a pizzeria called MEDITERRANA, which can be found at the end of corso vannucci and to the right. Here you can find a mixture of Italians and tourists as well as large rich pizza you should eat with a glass of wine. A great thing in Italy is that every unknown "house wine" you find will be great and will cost only 2-3 Euros for a glass and 10 Euros for a bottle.
Corso vannucci is packed with stores, boutiques, banks, confectionery stores - even one of Perguina, Baci's manufacturer - and everything else a tourist needs. It's also packed with museums and other historical gems you'll discover on your own.
The streets crossing Corso vannucci are just as pretty and the cars parked on them imply that people actually live there. Corso vannucci is the higher ground of the historical center, and the side streets crossing to the north drop to the lower ground like streams in a steep creak.
The streets on the other side are packed even more with shops and cafes - everything that didn't have room in Corso vannucci because of the historical sites.
Recommended good cafe is Lavazza which can be found on the parallel street - Via Baglioni - where you can find absurdly cheap, great coffee. The waitresses write your order on a palm computer, and the seating outside in the shadows of the colorful buildings is absolutely amazing. If you learned a little Italian, you'll enjoy ordering Cappuccino and Crostata (baked pie with jam), and you'll have great joy from how tasty they are. Their Chocolate drink is also amazing and we're still looking to order something similar where we live.
We decided to travel to Assisi because of the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, which takes place every year at the beginning of October. We arrived there on the second day of the festival, in the morning.
On the drive, we crossed several other towns with flags waving on their porches, implying that these pilgrims came from all over the world.
Several kilometers before the old city gates, you can already see the cathedral surroundings.
As always, we first wanted to check in at our hotel. It is a relatively new B&B named New Day. In order to reach it, you first need to go to the souvenirs shop on the main street, Via San Francesco number 18. The lady who owns the place, or her son, will lead you up the stairs, through and some twist and turns, to the hotel, which has three rooms in total as well as a kitchen, which is also the dining room, where they serve a very rich breakfast.
The place was decorated with a lot of thought of small details. The bed is large, the shower is well-equipped, and everything gives you the feeling of home. Even the dishes and silverware at breakfast. Recommended to those who plan on spending any time in Assisi, a single night or more.
The hotel states that it has free parking, but what they really mean is that you can park in the lot at the entrance to a cemetary for free. This lot is a bit outside of the city walls and requires a walk to enter the city.
Assisi is usually very quiet in the evening, but as part of the festival, part of the city becomes colorful and crowded market in which you can find everything - cloths, sweets, tools, pets and more.
In Assisi you can also find amazing sunsets....
The next day, we went to pay our respects to Francesco, who was so modest and didn't want people to come and celebrate his birthday.
The Basilica of San Francesco D'Assisi cathedral is divided into two basilicas - upper and lower. It's worth visiting both.
On the third and last day of the festival, the local school kids put on a show about the creation of the world in seven days. It's wonderful to watch, and the kids were very excited!
After the show, we left the city for lesser known places in Umbria.
On the next two days we traveled to the outskirts of Umbria, where it borders the province on it's east, Marche.
As a base, we choose the tiny town of Cerreto di Spoleto, which was in a reasonable distance from all the things on our to-do list and had an amazing view.
Hotel Panorama, which can be found on a steep asphalt slope from the center square, allows you to observe the city and, more importantly, all of the amazingly green surrounding mountains. The room was more spacious that we were used to, even if you could tell it had been a while since its last renovations.
The hotel also has a good restaurant with an amazing Risotto al Porcini.
We ate at a wonderful restaurant located near the time square, called Cantina (Ristorante La Cantina). No one spoke English there, but most likely you know enough Italian to understand the menu the waitresses recites from a small note she holds. The greatest thing is that a full dinner for one person costs 25 Euros and includes antipasti, steak, a bottle of wine, coffee and desert: more that a couple could finish.
This place is so tasty it makes you want to eat there breakfast and lunch as well.
From Cerreto di Spoleto, we toured three destinations we were interested in seeing. The first one was Castelluccio, a tiny village which is not too interesting in it's own, but has an amazing surrounding view. The village is densely packed on a hill, and around it is a enormous valley-crater and mountains.
A narrow road goes between them, until suddenly all this view explodes in your face, and you don't understand where the green hills disappeared to.
This place is best know for how it looks during spring, where all the valley turns into a vast carpet of colorful flowers and all the surrounding mountains are green.
In the autumn, after the summer, the mountains are arid. The valley holds only grass and sheep. But still, the view is impressive because it is so different from the rest of Umbria.
From there we continued to Norcia. Almost half the stores in this town are norcineria, (named after Norcia,) which sell salumi, or pork and wild boar products, which come in sausages, salamis and cured hams of all shapes and sizes. Each store proudly presents animal parts hanging above the counters and more than ten types of salamis.
The next day, Sunday, we traveled with what seemed like all of Italy, to see the wonder of this region, the falls of Marmore (CASCADA DELLE MARMORE,) which are close to the city of Terni.
In European terms, they are huge falls. The lower cascade is very wide, and there's a walking path around it (you can get wet sometimes).
From there we continues to Spoleto, which is know for its cathedral. Frankly, isn't too different from the others we saw, but here you go:
The city itself is pretty, medieval, and in its stores you can find all best the area has to offer - truffle mash, lentils, cheese, Farro soup (local grain, not too tasty) and pasta.
That's it for Umbria and its surrounding! Next, we continued to the neighboring Toscana!
Our way to Siena started in the Terni-Spoleto area. In order to get to Siena, there are two main options - use the A1 highway and drive north all the way, or use the country road which starts at road SS75, going through Perugia and the large lake Trasimeno.
Anyways, we're taking about 200 km on either case, both on main roads that, without stops, will take you around two hours an a half. The difference? A1 is a toll road, and requires less thinking while driving on it.
We chose the A1 because we didn't want to mess with the whims of our British GPS, Debbi :-) The nice part is that, when you leave A1 finally, you start driving to Siena on roads marked SS, which means main roads in the same country, but not highways.
This road passed many small towns along the way, up and down, and revealed new views, hills and fields. Since we bought supplies at Spoleto, (a COOP super market,) we could stop with an instant decision, making the cliche a reality...
BTW, Italian wine is also tasty in plastic cups :-)
Happy and fed, we continued driving. The next stop, as usual was the hotel. Again, this was a hotel at the border of the city, named ILL PETTIROSSO. It's a small B&B with four rooms totally, built in a stone house, decorated cozily and warm.
We arrived at noon had to wait for a while until the man in charge arrived (siesta, you know...). The view from the hotel is lovely and includes the outskirts of the city, but mainly the Tuscan green around. We finally got a small kitchen where we could cook. Oh yes... And the best bath we had in this trip. Here's the room:
Without stalling too much, we took the car and a black and white map of Siena made by this single-man-hotel-crew guy. We started touring the region. We parked close to the stadium and we entered the historic center via Tozzi avenue (Viale Tozzi). The entrance is very easy to spot by the countless scooters parked nearby.
There's something special about Siena, which you can't put in words. It's not Rome, and it's not what pops up in your mind when you try to imagine Tuscany, whose capital is Siena. So perhaps I'll try explaining this with more pictures, and less words:
The famous Piazza Del Campo hosts a horse race twice a year. It doesn't resemble any other piazza in its shape nor atmosphere.
It's not build around some central historic monument and not as crowded as the Spanish steps in Rome. It's all easy going and chill, whether you're a local or a tourist. We saw a group of young female teenagers, celebrating a birthday with dresses and balloons, couples, pilgrims, families, young people and old people, and all felt comfortable enough to sit on the ground or just lie down and wait for the afternoon sun to warm them.
It's true, the cafes around are probably the most pompous in Siena, and there's a sign saying you can lie down on the floor.... but who cares?
If you crave for a good ice cream, look at the high turret. Now look to your left corner behind you. There.
The best panorama you could create is the one created with your eyes. Not with your camera. Find a corner and enjoy the views and shadows. If you want to leave, it'll be very weird thing of you to do, as there's no better place than this in the world.
Anyways, outside the Campo, don't look at the map. Don't search for street names. Just choose a shady path that calls to you and walk on it. I don't have a clue what you'll find, but I can share with you what we discovered.
Perhaps you'll also find a group of ten years old kid practicing flag juggling with uniforms, drums and trainers and a crowd gathered to watch them. Or you can discover the candy store day dreamed about when you were a kid, and next to it the perfect coffee. And perhaps (and most likely) you will also reach the cathedral.
When we left the historic center as the evening fell, we came across a bunch of kids dressed as football players, holding huge flags or playing the drums. The city was probably preparing to some festival, and somehow, it became part of the peaceful tranquility.
We stood and viewed the Tuscany green and twilight falling upon it, orange on green, and here and there we heard the tweet of a bird. Simple. You just don't need more.
For dinner.... Random COOP supplied us with all of the ingredients for our schemed Italian dinner. Imagine yourself, cheap gnocchi in a bags of 1 Kg, carpaccio ready to be served, real pesto genovese and formaggio pecorino as it should be. And cream. And funghi porcini. The wealth is endless, even in the local store.
Next episode, Rome on Speed. Stay tuned :-)
"You came back!" the surprised hotel manager, who met us a week before on our first day in Italy, told us.
"You bet, this is the best hotel in Rome!" we exulted. Not quite accurate. But the best hotel for our needs and our student budget.
We had a day and a half in Rome until the flight, and we didn't mean to waste any moment, or Euro. Our target was to see as many of the must-see-sights of Rome, while minimizing the money we spent.
Rome, like most cities we visited, is a huge museum. You don't need to enter any building to witness the wonders it has to offer. If you too arrive to Rome broke, or just decide to spend the money only on galeto, cappuccino, or Prada, here some sites you wanna visit on your tours and some useful advice.
Your best investment, naturally, is to buy a daily ticket to the public transportation, Biglietto Giornaliero. You can buy it at every kiosk, it costs 6 Euros, and it's valid till midnight. If, like us, you'll stay for two days, you'll need to buy two of these.
If you'll arrive, like us, from the outskirts of the city, this ticket will get you on a bus, and then on an above ground train, which passes above the roads and through the suburbs.
Leave this train at the center of Rome, and from there use the subway. If you get down at Spagna station, you'll find yourself few steps here:
The Spanish Steps, which are called this because of their location in Piazza di Spagna, are the most tourist packed free site in Rome. Tourists from all over the world arrive, taking pictures of each others in turns, and Italians with Indian roots try to sell the men roses for their "Very Beautiful" ladies.
Good looking Japanese girls doing a peace sign to the camera with arms packed with Gucci and Prada bags. If you'll sit in Via Sistina, one of the main roads of historic Rome, you'll see half of Rome just passing by you. When you sit there, you think you're in the center of town, while actually, Piazza di Spagna is closer to the border of the historic center of Rome and the enormous gardens of Villa Medici.
But Medici wants money, so we didn't get in :-)
From there, we walked one metro stop to the the Four Fountains way, (Via delle Quattro Fontane,) which starts at Piazza Barberini. Nearby to it, you can see the spectacular Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi), which we discovered only a day later. The other fountains are smaller, but because of their cool decorations they also attract the tourists.
What we can recommend for the Four Fountains way, and actually on all the streets in the historical center, is go and then leave the main streets, especially if you're hungry. Lovely Comune Di Roma Piazza in the following pictures (besides being pretty and magical) is something you don't want to miss:
Or a picture like this:
Behind the obelisk you can find a shaded street. The first gelato you'll see is the last we visited in Italy. We found there something we didn't find anywhere else - Marron Glace - a chestnut candied in sugar syrup and glazed. You can't refer to it as ice cream since it's not cold, and the texture is more similar to sweet chestnut mush. However, you don't want to miss this thing.
Overall, the best food we ate in our day and half in Rome wasn't in a restaurant, but still made us feel the most Italian the the world. Where is it you ask? Here you go.
This amazing building can be found in Piazza della Repubblica. We can't tell you why, but before Rome was an empire, it was a republic. A bit like the Greek democracy, but not entirely.
Right under the piazze there's a metro station (like all the places we took you). Go up the stairs, and you're in the middle of the square. In front of you, in the distance, is another busy street, and all around you are stairs.
Italians excel in many things. One of them is sitting on the stairs of beautiful buildings to pass the time. And that's exactly what we did with bread and a small jar of mashed truffles that we had leftover from Siena.
The best lunch. I swear.
Continuing. Taking the metro to the Colosseo stop. You won't believe what's there :-) The following picture isn't the best, but it demonstrates the ratio between the Colosseum and it's surrounding.
Besides the many tourist coming to this archaeological park, which includes the Arch of Titus, you'll find several Italian couples with amazing white dresses and tuxedos who come here for a photo shoot before their wedding.
The old and new live with each other naturally in Italy. With this amount of history, there is no alternative. Naturally, we're the guests. the Romans who lived here two thousands years before are the land lords.
Continuing. Almost at the end. Today we'll find Fontana Di Trevi, which somehow was lost on our map. The way there, as always is, a treasure hunt. The fountain is packed with tourist. It's like having an entire museum just lying around on a side street and it's so pretty.
The main idea of this fountain (according to some tourist guides) is that water is the source of life and abundance, and the way it flows expresses the evolution of the world and the part humans take within it.
In the center, you can find Oceanus, the god of water, who stands above his shell carriage. Pulling the carriage are Tritons (half men, half fish) and seahorses.
This place reminded me of Michelangelo's Moses, which can be found in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli near the Colosseum. It's told that, after Michelangelo finished the sculpture, he was irritated - the sculpture was too perfect and Michelangelo believed only god can create perfection. So he took the little hammer with which he worked on the sculpture for a long time, and hit Moses in the knee. Small piece of the sculpture fell, and Michelangelo was happy.
I don't think Pietro Bracci had suffered from similar sufferings, but at least he left the base of the statue in its natural form, so we can all remember where this whole beauty came from.