Spello, Luke’s birthday and a couple personal cliff-hangers

DSC_0141

There was some kind of unexplainable, weird energy enveloping us this weekend that began once we set out on our trip to Spello.  We found ourselves constantly torn between feeling cursed and somehow protected.

We chose to visit Spello because of its acclaimed Infiorita, an annual flower festival in which the town stays up all night carpeting the streets with intricate mosaics made entirely out of flower petals.  This year, the Infiorita fell on Luke’s birthday. On Sunday, he would have been 14.  After looking for something special to do in honor of our son, we decided that a city covered in flowers would be a safe and sweet setting for our love and sadness.

On Friday, we packed our bags and headed out. First I wheeled my suitcase to the post office where I mailed a letter.  Then I met Matt and the boys for our drive.  We arrived in Spello nearly an hour later.  That’s when it began. Matt started unloading the car and then portentously asked why my suitcase wasn’t in the trunk.  I could feel my heart sink.  As I retraced my steps I realized I must have left it sitting in the post office.  I pictured it there, all by itself with my computer inside (loaded with every digital picture I’ve taken since we arrived) and also packed with several other material possessions with which I’m attached.  We had no choice but to immediately go look for it.  The ride was grueling as I tried to come to terms with my stupidity and the loss of my belongings.  I imagined the rest of the year without writing emails or a blog. I dreaded having to buy a new computer.  The questions ended when we entered the post office and saw my black suitcase standing in the middle of the room right where I left it.  It had apparently remained untouched for two hours.  We marveled at our astounding luck before once again driving to Spello.

That night in our hotel, after we were all sound asleep, my phone rang.  It was the landlord of our next-door neighbor in Perugia.  She said her tenant had just called because he was worried; our apartment door has been wide open all day.  He had finally decided to shut it, but was wondering if we were okay.  In my foggy haze, I imagined robbers had forced their way in and were emptying our cupboards and drawers in search of  something valuable.  I woke Matt and we assessed the likelihood of a break-in.  We considered the timing and the difficulty of getting past our thickly bolted door at the top of our six story building.  We decided it was most probable that one of us (me) accidently left the door open on our way out and that there was no need to hurry back to Perugia.  Needless to say, sleep was elusive.

There would be more suspense; but first, the beautiful flower mosaics of Spello:

Saturday was full of activity.  In the evening, teams of artists began constructing their pictures.  Many groups set up long tents over their work and hung electric lights inside to illuminate their progress through the night.  The streets were lined with children, parents and grandparents sorting flowers by color and cutting petals into different sizes.

DSC_0052

Visitors from all over Umbria and beyond crowded the space to see how the garden art was made.  The designs were first drawn on paper, which was stuck to the ground.  Flowers were then arranged on top according to the color that was specified by the artists.  As the night went on and more and more petals were laid out, unbelievably detailed scenes emerged.

DSC_0067

DSC_0187

DSC_0094

DSC_0111

DSC_0099

By 8am the next morning, only the finishing touches remained.  Finally once the tents were removed, everyone could see the stunning work that was created during the night.

Pope Francis and St. Francis

DSC_0172

The disheartening aspect of this tradition is the bishop’s procession.  Just three hours after the mosaics are complete, a holy entourage exits the church of Santa Maria Maggiore and gets to walk over all the pictures.  With these footsteps, the painstaking work is ruined. Even though this procession is all part of the festival, it seemed such an appalling demonstration of disrespect.  It was upsetting to watch even though the mosaics were made for that purpose.

Another image of power dominating beauty

power dominating beauty

It was around this time that the four of us separated.  Matt and Tom went to get a coffee and play cribbage while Ray and I toured the streets.  When we rejoined, Matt gave me a disparaging look and told me his phone had been stolen.  He had left it for a few minutes on a cafe table, and then it was gone.  He asked around, but had no luck.  We immediately tried calling his number, but there was no answer.  Next we sent texts to his phone in both English and Italian asking whoever had it to please, please, please give it back.  Before admitting defeat, we returned to the cafe, at which point, one of the servers brought it to us saying it had just been turned in.  We couldn’t believe it.

Afterwards, we sat to a long lunch outside in the sun.  We considered staying another night but decided to go home and check on the apartment.  On our way out of town we passed the disheveled mosaics and shook our heads at the scattered pedals.  You could see the imprint of the shoes that walked all over the mosaics.  Matt and I both commented that it reminded us of the picture on the infinite “Footprints” cards we received after Luke died (the ones that talk about the single set of footprints in times of difficulty because God must be carrying you.) But instead of prints left on sand, these were on the flowers of Spello.

It did seem symbolic; we admitted to having the most incredible luck here and couldn’t help but feel the presence of something protective. Back in Perugia, Matt and I entered the apartment first and did a quick scan of the rooms.  It seemed as if no robbers had busted in and that every instance of this weekend’s suspense resulted in a positive outcome

IMG_5553

IMG_5536

 

The Ceri Races of Gubbio

DSC_0200

May 15th marks the annual ceri races in the Umbrian town of Gubbio (just an hour away from Perugia).  This is one of Italy’s longest standing celebrations.  Since 1160, this festival has taken place year after year uninterrupted.  The frenzy, the intensity, the color, the history, the dedication, the passion (as well as the insanity) of the Gubbian citizens are legendary.  We’ve been hearing about it since we arrived in July. Some have said it is the most spectacular event in all of Italy.  So, last Wednesday we joined the party.

Although the details of the origin are in doubt, the holiday is clearly recognized as a tribute to St. Ubaldo, Gubbio’s patron saint, who died in 1159.  Since the one-year anniversary of his death, the citizens have raced through the town carrying three mammoth pillars (representing ceri or candles) with statues of saints on top. The rules of the race are strict.  The two-mile trek begins in the center of town.  Groups of men run through the course carry the saints in formation.  St. Ubaldo must always be in the lead followed by St. Giorgio and then St. Antonio.  The whole point of the race is to get the three 600-pound ceri through the town and to St. Ubaldo’s church on the top of Mt. Ingino.  Speed and complete physical exertion are expected by the honored men who carry these statues.

The town divides itself into teams.  Citizens can choose the saint for whom they will cheer. Nearly every man, woman and child in Gubbio was dressed in the traditional color of their saint.  Yellow stands for St Ubaldo, the patron of masons (in addition to the patron of the whole town); blue is for St. George, the saint of craftsmen and merchants; and black is for St. Antonio, protector of farm workers.  Everyone is united in color by tying a red scarf around the waist and neck.

Screen Shot 2013-05-20 at 9.08.55 AM

While the actual race doesn’t begin until 6pm, the day is filled with pageantry and ritual.  We missed a couple of the highlights, but made it in time for one of the special events of the day, “the exhibition” which is the procession through town to visit all the people who are too old or tired or sick to attend the race.  The exhibition also passes by the homes of former ceri-carriers. Up and down the narrow streets, men display the ornate wooden pillars to the windows of the townspeople.  Crowds follow.

The people for St. Ubaldo leading their procession up Via dei Consoli

The people for St. Giorgio leading their procession up Via dei Consoli

St. Giorgio near the church of St. Francesco

The exhibition rounding the church of St. Francesco

After a communal lunch, the athletes of each team meet in Piazza Grande.  At 6pm, the captains of the celebration ride horseback down the road signaling that the race will begin.  By now the race course is packed with spectators.  Thousands of people line the streets.  It feels exciting and dangerous.  The boys said that the pull of the crowds reminded them of an undertow at the beach.  It got the blood pulsing. There’s a fine line between curiosity and panic, and when you hit it just right, you feel completely alive.  That’s what this day did to me.

Moments before the St. Ubaldo’s team passed through, men in yellow came running ahead of the statues pushing any unlucky fan to the side.  While we witnessed no injuries or deaths this year, the runners and carriers are ruthless and single-minded.  This is no family parade.  Any careless mistake can get you trampled.

Moments before the St. Ubaldo’s team passed through, men in yellow came running ahead of the statues pushing any unlucky fan to the side. While we witnessed no injuries or deaths this year, the runners and carriers are single-minded.  Any careless mistake can get you trampled.

 

 

Before heading up the mountain, the ceri make three turns around the flag

Before heading up the mountain, the ceri make three swift turns around the flag in Piazza Grande.

After the saints passed us on the hill running towards the finish line, we made our way back to the town square then headed home.  However, the Gubbians told us that some of the most lively hours of the day begin after the races when the bars and restaurants and piazzas fill up all night with festivity.  We couldn’t stay; it was getting late, and we had to drive back to Perugia.

Before leaving, we did make a stop at the Fontana dei Matti which, legend has it, will give one the propensity for insanity (like the local townspeople) if circled counterclockwise three times while being simultaneously splashed by a Gubbian.

Ray decided to give it a try.

DSC_0088

Cycling and Golf

DSC_0309

One of the biggest differences between life in Bellevue, America and our year in Perugia is how much time our family spends together, most notably, how much time Matt and I spend together.  It’s working out well; in fact, it’s even better than I expected.   However, we each came with a list of individual goals and intentions to cultivate these separate interests.  For Matt, these activities revolve around exercise.  His first purchase in Italy was a used Cannondale road bike, and his first cycling destination was to Antognolla golf course, just 13 miles outside Perugia.  Since then, he takes up to three trips a week through the back roads of the Umbrian hills and past the tiny country towns.  After 10 months of hearing about the peace and beauty of these mornings, this week I decided to followed Matt and see what his “alone time” is all about.

He starts at the apartment, right in the heart of Perugia.  From there it's one giant downhill cruise for at least a mile.  It seems like a great way to start, but must be pure hell coming home.

He starts at the apartment.  From there it’s one giant downhill cruise for 6 miles. 

Outside Perugia, the roads are very quaint and quiet and the hills are gently sloping.  This time of year, there is green green green in every direction.

Every couple of miles there is a new town to pass through.  By the time Matt gets to the golf course, he has wheeled through San Marco, Cenerente, Canneto, Colle Umbero, Maestrello and San Giovanni di Pantano

Following the road to the golf course.  The last sign reads "Antognolla."

Following the road to the golf course. The last sign reads “Antognolla.”

When he arrived, he changed out of his bike gear, got an coffee at the bar and headed out to the course.

When he arrived, he changed out of his bike gear and headed out to the course.

Teeing off on hole   .  (The ball is sailing off the top corner of the frame.)

Teeing off on hole 17. (Look, the ball is sailing off the top corner of the frame.)

On the putting green with some crazy beautiful medieval castle in the background.  Matt's best score ever at Antognolla is a 94.

On the putting green with some crazy-beautiful medieval castle in the background.

Heading back to the bike for the ride back home.

Heading back to the bike for the 12-mile ride home (and 700 feet of elevation gain).

My Two Days (written by Ray)

by guest blogger Ray

Sitting by Lago Trasimeno

Last Tuesday, Tom went with his class to Pompeii.  (It’s a city that was buried a long time ago from ash when Mt. Vesuvius erupted.)  So for two days, it was just me, Mom and Dad.

Waving goodbye to Tom's class

Waving goodbye to Tom’s class

Tom left on a bus at 7am, and I went to school like usual from 8-1.  I like school. I’ve made lots of new friends this year.  Some are boys and some are girls.  My least favorite class right now is Italian.  We just finished a unit on journalism.  Italians don’t have a “W” in their alphabet, but they still use “the 5 W’s” when studying newspaper articles.  They pronounce it like, “oo, wat, were, win and wyee.”  We had to read and write lots of articles.  I’m glad we are finished.  My favorite class is Math.  I got a 9 out of 10 on my last test.

Anyway, after school my parents took me to Lago Trasimeno.  This is a huge lake in Umbria that’s close to Perugia.  When we got there, we found a little pebbly area near the water and skipped rocks for a while.  I can skip a rock four times.  My dad can skip a rock at least eight times.  But my mom can’t skip at all.

Me and Dad skipping rocks

Dad and me skipping rocks

We drove further on until we got to a restaurant called Faliero.  This is a popular restaurant.  Sometimes you have to wait more than an hour to order your food.  We got there at 7:30 which is early for Italians, so we only waited 10 minutes.  This place is famous for its “torta al testo” which is a triangular sandwich filled with sausages.  That’s what I ordered.  My mom and dad split one and had a plate of gnocchi too.

Torta al testo

After dinner we drove home and watched an episode of Modern Family that we bought on iTunes.

The next day after school, we took another trip.  This time we went to a city called Città di Castello.   This is a small city about one hour away.  First we went to a museum that was in an old tobacco drying warehouse.  The whole building was full of paintings by an artist named Burri.  He was an Italian captured in WWII by the Americans and put in prison.  That’s where he got the idea to do art.  His paintings are big and very different than other paintings we have seen in Italy.  Most of them were very plain.  None of them looked like anything I could recognize.  We tried to find faces and heads in the paintings.  One of the paintings looked like a human and the face of a dog, but it was hard to tell.

DSC_0153

 

DSC_0154

After the museum we started to walk around the city.  First we went to a church.  Then we walked past an old hospital.  Next my legs started to get tired so we got gelato.  My favorite flavor is still chocolate.  Then we went to another church.  It was more interesting than the last one because they had some candles to light.  Right outside the church I saw a park and I played there for a while.  I liked the swings the best.  But my favorite part of the city was climbing the bell tower.  There were a lot of stairs and a view on top.  We were the only ones there.

At the top of the bell tower

We had dinner in Città di Castello and then had to drive back to Perugia to pick up Tom.  His bus got in at 10:30 at night.  I liked the trips we took.  It was fun to see the lake and another city.  But one of my favorite parts of Tom’s field trip was being able to use Tom’s Husky plate while he was gone.

Go Dawgs

Tourists in Perugia

My mom and dad are ready for the tour of Perugia

We’ve had 20 guests over the last nine months, the latest being my parents and my brother’s family. During the past couple weeks, we devoted several mornings to long walks around town and a tour of our favorite sites.  Our must-see list is always changing; we have new favorites all the time.  And while there really isn’t any required stop in Perugia, there are lots of little interesting things to do and see.

For a little dramatic punch, I like to start at the eerie, 2000-year-old Etruscan Well.  It’s right around the corner from our apartment, and it only takes about five minutes to see.  Once you enter, you can walk down a dark, damp, stone path to a bridge which crosses the base of the well.  The air is warm and humid.  It looks and smells ancient.

My dad and mom wave from down below.

My dad and mom wave from down below.

More Etruscan feats are found all over the city.  The enormous Etruscan Arch sits nearby.  When Caesar Augustus defeated the Etruscans, he carved the new name of the city on this arch, “Augusta Perusia.”

Oliver under the arch

And even more Etruscans ruins: five minutes outside the city is Ipogeno dei Volumni where 200 tombs are on display.  The best part is the walk into the dark underground chamber where the largest tombs lie.  On both sides of the stairway sit the carved stone urns which held the ashes of the dead.

Mom, Dad and Matt head below.

Back in the center of town, some important sights are found around the main square, Piazza IV Novembre.  First, there’s the Cathedral of San Lorenzo.  San Lorenzo is one of three patron saints of Perugia.  He was grilled to death by the Romans when Christianity was illegal.  Inside the church sits the wedding ring of Mary.  Yes, the actual wedding ring of the actual Virgin Mary.

My parents in Piazza IV Novembre.  Behind is the city's biggest fountain and the Cathedral of San Lorenzo.

From the main piazza, one can take Corso Vannucci to the other side of town.  On the way, there is the National Museum of Art, which is okay.  It’s a far cry from the Uffizi; however, if you like paintings of the Madonna with child, Tom and Ray counted more than 75. Next door is the Collegio del Cambio, a small room that was frescoed by Perugia’s most famous Renaissance artist, Pietro Vannucci, known as “Perugino.”  This is a more efficient stop for art.

Mom and Dad outside the doors of the Collegio di Cambio.  No photos allowed inside.

Mom and Dad outside the doors of the Collegio del Cambio. The frescos would make the top of my list for art in Perugia.

Corso Vanucci stretching across the historic center of town

Further down the street sits a piece of the Rocca Paolina, a huge fortress build by Pope Paul III to assert his dominance over the rebellious Perugians.  On it is the inscription, “To curb the audacity of the Perugians.”  We always take visitors down the escalators (underneath La Rocca) to see the remains of Perugia’s medieval city that Pope Paul destroyed. The Perugians later destroyed much of the fortress.

A corner of the Rocca Paolina

One of Perugia’s assets is its location high on top of the hills.  The benefit is a great view in every direction.  To simutaneously see the countryside and the city, we walk down Corso Garibaldi to Porta Sant’ Angelo.

The boys take in the view with their cousins last week.

And on the other side of town, in Piazza Italia, we can see two of Perugia’s most important churches, San Dominica and San Pietro.

My mom and I in Piazza Italia.

Finally, whether for coffee before the sites or a glass of prosecco after, we like to visit the oldest and most distinguished cafe in Perugia, Sandri.

Matt and my mom at the bar

Curds and Whey, Making Cheese

Signor Marco with a wheel of pecorino cheese

I met a cheese maker this week.  His name is Marco Sotgia.  He lives on a 400 acre farm outside Perugia. He has an olive orchard, a vineyard, a cow, a horse, three pigs and 250 sheep.  For three generations, Marco Sotgia’s family has been raising sheep and making cheese.

The boys and I spent the entire afternoon at his farm with a group of students from my Italian class.  We witnessed the magical transformation of sheep milk into two of Umbria’s most traditional cheeses:  pecorino and ricotta.

Keeping the temperature under control.

When we arrived, Marco was just filling up a vat with the day’s milking.  We gathered around while he lit a flame underneath and scooped a spoonful of brown paste from a container to add to the milk.  This brown substance is rennet, an enzyme harvested from the stomach of a cow.  Rennet is the ingredient responsible for separating the solids from the liquid (thus creating the curds and the whey).  Not all sheep cheese is made from the insides of a cow’s stomach; there are vegetarian enzyme as well including lemon juice and cardoon extract.  Once the rennet had dissolved, the warm milk started to become thick and gelatinous.  Marco then broke up the solid substance with a long wooden stick all the while slowly increasing the temperature until it reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point he turned off the heat, and the solids settled to the bottom.

Then Marco rolled up his sleeves and reached deep down to collect the curds.  He packed them tightly into a cylinder shaped colander and pressed it all together so that any remaining liquids could drain.

DSC_0348

DSC_0349

By the time he gathered all the curds, he had filled six colanders.  After a while,  the rounds of cheese were firm.  Then Marco removed them from the containers and added them to a salt water bath where they would bob around for the day.  The salt coats the cheese, adds flavor and most importantly, preserves it. Then the cheese rounds sit in a cool, dark room for a month aging slowly until they become pecorino cheese.

rounds of cheese floating in the tank of salt water

Back in the work room, Marco started production of second type of cheese.  Returning to the whey, Marco made ricotta.  For the second time, he turned on the flame and heated the liquid, this time to 169 degrees Fahrenheit.  When it thickened,  he spooned it into plastic mesh containers and let it cool.  Unlike pecorino, ricotta does not need to age.  This soft, mild cheese can be eaten immediately.

ri=again; cotta=cook

A steaming batch of ricotta cheese  (ri=again; cotta=cook)

Before leaving, Marco gave us samples of pecorino and sent us home with a fresh bowl of ricotta that we ate the next day in class.

Of course, both cheeses are great on their own, but we’ve learned that there are many alternative ways to enjoy each one.  Pecorino is found on nearly every menu in Umbria.  It is served at room temperature often with several accompaniments including honey, red onion compote, fruit preserves, spicy apple jelly, and green tomato jam.

DSC_0011

Ricotta is even more versatile.  Mixed with spinach, it’s the most common filling in ravioli. It’s also the main ingredient in many desserts.  It can be served as a snack with sugar, salt, or with sweetened coffee on top; or it can be spread on toast with jelly or honey.  Most often, we eat it for lunch with tomatoes, lettuce, salt and olive oil.

My favorite way to eat ricotta

Our Company

Tom, Jill, Heidi, Ray, Richard, Deanne, Tom and Matt

Matt’s sister and brother-in-law are visiting until the end of the week, and my aunt and uncle are here for almost a month.   We’ve filled our days with short trips to nearby cities and lots of time here in town.  We been both tourists and residents in Perugia, and it’s been so much fun.  It’s different having such close family here.  There is so much understanding each other.

Richard juggling clementines

Everything is more detailed with eight people.  With everyone’s background and perspective, we notice more.  Take beer, for example.  I think Umbria makes good beer.  I can appreciate the labels and pretty bottles.  But with the help of Tom and Heidi, who grow hops and make their own IPA, we are learning to recognize the subtleties of each Umbrian brew.  For the first time, the local beer is more than just “good.”  It’s complex and colorful.  Some even have hints of coriander (which I never would have detected in a hundred years).

Most of us chose the "lentil beer" in the middle as our favorite

Beer tasting

Grocery shopping and dinner is more interesting too.  Since we are twice as big, we get to eat more.  The other day for lunch, we bought eleven types of cured meats, five types of cheeses, three different breads and four Christmas desserts.

one particular pecorino cheese aged 8 months in a well.  But it was still good.

Four seasonal desserts: a tiny panatone, a plate of almond cookies, a eel shaped almond flavored torciglione and slices of almond torrone

Four seasonal desserts: a tiny Christmas panatone, a plate of almond cookies, a eel-shaped, almond-flavored torciglione and slices of white, almond torrone.

Some other highlights this week included a day trip to Assisi.  All eight of us squished in the car and drove to the woods high above the town to see where St. Francis lived and prayed.  Later we had lunch, walked to the famous cathedral, saw St. Clare’s entire preserved body, and visited the 2000-year-old Roman temple.

Tom and Heidi arround the Temple of Minerva in Assisi

Piazza

Yesterday, while the boys were at school, the adults visited the nearby city of Deruta.  We talked with the ceramic craftsmen and bought more plates.  We toured a three-story nativity display that featured the works of 40 artists.  On the way home, we got stuck in traffic and were a half hour late to get the boys from school.  I had to call the landlady of Tom and Heidi’s apartment to ask her to pick them up.

Group photo with Monica from

Group photo with Monica from Maioliche Artemisia

This morning we went shoe shopping.  Deanne, Heidi and I looked at a pair of plastic high heals.  The salesman pointed out that they smell like Starbursts when you wear them.

They are even waterproof

We have two more days before Richard and Deanne leave and about two weeks of plans to fit into that time.   Richard is throwing an Italian wine tasting tomorrow night.  Uncle Tom’s going to make beef tongue.  There’s an ancient well down the street we need to see.  Plus a Raphael fresco.  Then a castle.  And some Etruscan tombs just outside the city wall.  And if there is time, we are going to try and cook black truffle pasta for dinner tomorrow.

A Short Visit to Spoleto

Sunday afternoon in Spoleto’s Piazza del Duomo

Last week we drove to nearby Spoleto for the night.  We didn’t see much, however, because we were holed up in the hotel for half the time helping the boys with homework.  Tom had hours of math while Ray was studying ancient Greek history.

But the little that we saw was fantastic:

The Aqueduct:  I’ve been trying to wrap my head around aqueducts since I first saw one 25 years ago.  This week, I finally grasped the fundamentals and cleared up two decades of misconceptions.  While I knew that aqueducts somehow transported water to thirsty towns,  I never could visualize the process.  Why the arches?  Where is the water?  I thought that maybe the aqueduct worked like some sort of  bridge under which water flowed.  Then later, someone told me that water streamed up and down the arches in a maze of pipes (and I believed her).  Finally, this week, after an afternoon of Google searches,  I learned that the arches are just part of the aqueduct (albeit the only readily visible part) whose purpose it is to support the the pipes that transports water. I learned that aqueducts can be many miles long often tunneling underground. I also learned that water doesn’t run perpendicularly under a mulit-arched bridge (duh), but rather along the top of the structure on a precisely constructed, steadily flowing, slightly tilted, downward slope.  It’s simply a feat of gravity (and the ingenuity of the ancient Romans) that ensured the success of aqueducts.

This is Ponte delle Torri, the famous aqueduct of Spoleto and the highlight of our weekend.  The structure is 230 meters across with a footpath on top.  Unfortunately, at least once a year, someone jumps.

Standing nearly 80 meters high near the top of the aqueduct.

Once we crossed, we went for a little walk in the woods. Ray was super excited to find what he thought was an underground piece of the aqueduct.  It actually had water flowing through it.  Could it be?

The Town Cathedral:  Next, we went to church, or in this case, the piazza in front of the church.  There are two things the boys really miss in the crowded, stone hill towns of Umbria:  grass and wide open space.  So when we descended into the spacious, sunken Piazza della Duomo, the boys took off running.  Rather than spend our time lingering over Fra’ Filippo’s famous fresco, we played freeze tag.

Finally, the last place we had to visit before heading back to Perugia was Il Tempio del Gusto, a trattoria that came highly recommended by a friend in Perugia. In addition to spaghetti carbonara, saffron risotto and roasted duck, we ordered a traditional Umbrian plate of cured meats, pecorino cheese, toasted breads and a sampling of olive oils.  Spoleto is known for having the best oil in Umbria so before leaving, we stocked up.

Gubbio

For the past month, weekends have been dedicated to travel.  We’re only here a year, and there are so many cities to see.  On Saturdays, we usually meet the boys at school and head out for the night.  While we each have different interests and priorities, we’re learning how to explore new places together.  Gubbio proved to be a good attempt, but left much to be desired.

In theory, Gubbio is a must-see.  Our guidebook describes it as the most thoroughly medieval of Umbrian towns with picture-book pretty streets.   It also hosts a 900-year-old festival every May called the Corso dei Ceri.  It’s considered one of the most lively, rough and exciting festivals in Italy next to Sienna’s Palio.  I thought a town with this kind of edgy, competitive spirit might appeal to the boys, so we booked a room for the night.

Once we arrived, we knew we’d need to make some compromises with the kids if we wanted to spend time meandering up and down cobblestone streets while stopping into the occasional museum or church, so we found a hotel with a pool.  Unfortunately, the pool seemed designed more for meditation than Marco Polo.  There were contemplative, soft-edged shapes emerging from the ceiling and corners; there was droney spa music everywhere; and there were doors leading to hydrotherapy tubs that were restricted to adults only.

To make matters even weirder, big bathrobes and yellow flip flops along with swim caps were required in order to enter the pool area.  There were video cameras keeping tabs on everyone.  We saw a man get in trouble for not wearing his swim cap.  And I got in trouble for letting the boys jump in the water and make a splash.

After a few hours of quiet swim time, we figured it was fair to start our city tour.  We misjudged how close the historic center of town was to our hotel, so by the time we arrived at the main piazza, the kids were ready for bed.

On Sunday, we got smart and rented Elf.  The boys stayed in the room for nearly two hours watching Will Farrell while we explored Piazza Grande and tried to get into the Etruscan Museum before it closed.

We met the boys back at the hotel for lunch where, to our disbelief, they were each served a small glass of prosecco (yet another indication that the staff was not used to children.)  Ray was excited; he’s often asking us for sips when we pour a glass.  Tom, on the other hand, never wants to taste wine, but he made an exception.  Later he commented that while he didn’t like the taste, he kept wanting more.

On our way out of town, we finally found something for everyone to enjoy: a tram with little cages that lifted us to a church perched on the highest lookout over the city.  Inside was the nearly completely preserved patron saint of Gubbio, San Ubaldo.  He was suspended in a glass coffin above an alter.  The only thing missing were his three fingers which were cut off by his manservant as a memento to their friendship.

Wild Waves of Perugia

Make no mistake, if it were up to me, I would have chosen a charming medieval hill town to explore, maybe buy a postcard and a glass of wine.  But I’m just one vote.  So on Thursday, we piled in the Fiat and drove to the Tavernella Water Park, just 25 minutes from our apartment.  We arrived at this technicolor oasis in time to get one of the last umbrellas.  The boys quickly put on swim caps and headed up the hill to slide. Matt ordered us a cold glass of sparking wine while I unpacked our beach bag.  A giant portion soon arrived in a keg cup.  And here we played until closing at 7pm.  I humbly admit that it turned out to be the best day we’ve had all week.  The boys were super happy.  And the watersides were fast and fun.

Tom heads down backwards.

yes, that’s a speedo

Required swim caps in all Italian public pools

 

 

 

Deruta, paint the town

Umbria is famous for its green hills, cured meats, the town of Assisi, and most of all, its hand-painted pottery.  Today we took a 20-minute drive to Deruta, the epicenter of this ceramic tradition.

We arrived with the intention of outfitting our new apartment with a set of dinner plates, but the choices overwhelmed us.  There were more than 100 small shops in the center of town and an equal number of ceramic studios on the outskirts, each one owned by an artist or family of artists.  We browsed from one place to another admiring the intricate designs and beautiful patterns.  Then, just as the boys were wearing out, Tom spotted a platter he just HAD to have.  Unfortunately, it had been commissioned for the president of the NFL and was not for sale.

Just right for a helping of spaghetti

We found another shop that our friend Kris Frossmo recommended.  Upon entering, we were wildly greeted by Fernando, the proprietor.  He stood up and embraced Tom and me then offered discounts on everything.  We told him that Kris had bought some plates here years ago and suggested we visit, at which point Fernando gave me a big smooch on the lips.  After I pulled away, he announced that he had another for my friend Kris.  It was strange and awkward and a little juicy.  We took pictures of some of our favorite pieces, but in the end, couldn’t make a decision.  We decided to return to Deruta next week.

On the way out of town we stopped at a super cute restaurant and encountered a couple mishaps.  First, Ray got himself stuck in the bathroom for a while.  We were talking to the owner and didn’t notice how long he had been gone.  He returned to our table in tears telling us what happened.  He explained that he finally got out after yelling, “Mi aiuta!” as loud as he could.  Then after we finished lunch, as I was walking out the restaurant, I tripped on a step and fell flat on the floor in front of the staff.  My entire body was on the ground.  Several people rushed to help me up.  My ankle hurt, my wrists were throbbing, neither injury equaled the humiliation.

Before the tears and blood