Monday, November 25, 2013

PLE, Gradara and the Grottoes di Frasassi

Freaky Crab Machine
Pravo imparare Italiano- roughly "I am trying to learn Italian".  Over the past 6 weeks I have been trying to learn Italian.  At this point, I can string together some very basic sentences in Italian although sometimes it is more like one word of English for every Italian word.  For the last 3 weeks I have been engaging in a formal Tandem Language Exchange at the local library, which is actually a lot of fun and mostly entails getting coffee with someone while speaking English and Italian.  Also, the last 5 weeks I have been attending the Pesaro Language Exchange (PLE) meetings at Circolo Mengaroni every Thursday night (and one in Rimini on Friday).  It has been a fantastic way to meet people here and to learn some Italian while having fun.  Saturday night they even had a potluck where everyone brought a typical dish from their country.  I just made simple nutella cookies from a recipe on pinterest, but it was a delicious way to experience different cultures.  That night Circolo also had a Beatles tribute band called "Freaky Crab Machine" playing and we danced like crazy to their unique rearranged versions of the classic songs I know and love, like "Hey Jude".

Gradara's Castle
Not exactly in chronological order, but Friday I made an afternoon trip to Gradara.  The main tourist site in town is the castle.  I finished the whole tour in about 15 minutes (I had a friend waiting for me outside) but I really enjoyed imagining the people who had lived there; the castle had some really interesting passageways that I liked to think about people scurrying down on a secret trip.  One of the rooms in the castle was inspired by Francesca and Paolo, real life lovers who were featured in Dante's "Inferno" for their scandalous affair and tragic demise. 

Then yesterday some friends and I headed to the Grottoes di Frasassi. We ended up being about 2 hours too early to head on the tour of the caves, so we stopped to visit the museum and for a quick lunch.  At each mini shop they were giving out samples of salami, porchetta and cheese, so we went down the row sampling each type and then each of us headed back to our favorite for sandwiches.  We enjoyed our lunch so much that we almost missed the bus to the caves!  The caves were a spectacular site to see, with towering stalagmites and stalactites in huge cavernous rooms (the first room was large enough to fit Milan's Duomo inside).
In and around the caves

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Wonderful Places and People- Part 2

Plans do not always unfold the way they were supposed to, however sometimes that can work out wonderfully.  The plan for Sunday was to head to Spoleto, Todi and Orvietto in Southern Umbria, what actually happened was....
A beautiful hike through the center of Spoleto. Up, up and up we walked to Spoleto's fortress, stopping quite a few times so I could capture the picturesque scenery on film (sorry to my fellow non-tourist companions).  Along the way we stopped at the Ponte dell Torre (Tower's Bridge) which may or may not have history as a Roman aqueduct, however now unfortunately has a macabre history of suicides.  We didn't do the fortress tour, but we did appreciate the beautiful panoramic views of Umbria from the top.  After the long hike up, we took the easy way back down the hill through a series of escalators.  It was an interesting juxtaposition of history and modern technology.  (Top Middle, All Left- Cathedral of Santa Maria dell' Assunta)

After Spoleto there was a change of plans and we headed back to Leonardo and Agnese's house for a delicious lunch of fresh pasta in black truffle sauce (I had mentioned that I had never tried truffles before); the truffles were rich and earthy and the fresh pasta accentuated these flavors.  Thank you again Leonardo and Agnese for being such wonderful hosts! Bavagna was the next stop on our itinerary; it was a quaint little town so it didn't take too long to see the sites, however we came across people selling roasted chestnuts and Vin Brule (heated and spiced wine) so we stopped for a little snack.  Vin Brule oddly reminded me of jungle juice from college, which I have mixed feelings about, but we laughed while trying to avoid water being sprayed by a flock of pigeons bathing near our picnic.
The Carapace- Tenuta Castebuono
Following Bavagna there was more wine.  Tenuta Castelbuono is a very unique winery near Foligno; it is housed within The Carapace, a sculpture designed by Arnaldo Pomodoro (who also created the Palla di Pomodoro in Pesaro).  The Carpace was created to be reminiscent of a turtle's back with a rounded ceiling and texture formed by overlapping metal plates. I'm not too familiar with red wines but they were pleasantly flavored and not too tannic; I preferred the Sagrantino which they are famous for, but their more popular wine is Montefalco Rosso.

Leaving Monday was bittersweet, I was happy to go back to see Dana, Elena and Anna but sad to leave Umbria and my new friends.  Prior to leaving, one of Leonardo and Agnese's friends, Sara took me to explore Montefalco.  The panoramic view was obscured by a heavy layer of fog but the effect was interesting, here and there hillside towns peeked through (it was kind of like a scene from Brigadoon, towns appearing in the mist).  We also visited several churches there that had some interesting history (Sara is a tour guide and very knowledgeable!).  I took the train back to Pesaro and was greeted in style by my host family with flower leis and big hugs!
Montefalco- The Fog

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Wonderful Places and People- Part 1

Friday, I hopped out of bed early, rushed to pack quickly, and trudged through the rain to the train station. Only to find.....
there were no trains to Perugia for the day!

So with plans slightly altered, I ended up in Foligno around 9:30pm. Leonardo and Agnese, a couple I met on to stay with greeted me warmly. After settling in, we came up with a plan of action for the weekend... head to North Umbria on Saturday and hit the South on Sunday.

Our first stop was Spello, a beautiful medieval town neighboring Foligno.  We mostly wandered the streets and the picturesque alleys that are characteristic of the towns in Umbria, however we also stopped at a few historical sites like Venus' Gates.  The highlight was the gorgeous panoramic view of the countryside.  Unfortunately somewhere between the panoramic view and Venus' Gates I lost my scarf, c'est la vie (such is life), hopefully it has a better life in Italy. (Venus' Gates top left)

Assisi was our next stop of the Northern Umbria tour and it was my favorite part of the trip.  The church within the church at the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli was the first point of interest; the new church is built around the ancient church where Saint Francis used to pray.  If you wanted to, you could follow the path beside the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli which is on the outskirts all the way into Assisi's city center.  Beside the Basilica, Leonardo, Agnese and I ate piadinas (a kind of Italian sandwich) that were bigger than our heads! Within Assisi lies the most beautiful church in Italy (in my opinion), the Basilica di San Francesco.  From the outside, it appears simple but it is gorgeous as it does not interrupt the nature around it but complements it.  The inside is intricate and covered in rich frescoes that are astounding despite the damage they faced from an earthquake several years ago.  Agnese and Leonardo were great tour guides, they knew all kinds of interesting facts!  In Assisi there were more American tourists than Italians I think! (Top Middle- Basilica di San Francesco, Top Right- Cathedral of San Rufino, Right Middle- Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli)
Piazza Novembre IV
Taking the mini-metro, up, down and around, like a very slow rollercoaster, we entered the Chocolate Capital, Perugia.  Although the Piazza Novembre IV was very pretty by night, the coolest part of the city was the Perugia Underground.  It isn't quite as alternative as it sounds but it has a very interesting art scene. While we were there, there was a temporary art exhibit, a comic con, and an exhibit by an international comic school.  As it is the chocolate capital, I also had to purchase some Baci. Although Leonardo and Agnese recommended I give them to Joe rather than friends as after reading a message like "If you gave me all the kisses in the world, they would still be too few.-Sesto Properzio", friends might say "Rachel I didn't know you felt that way".

After being on our feet all day, we relaxed Italian style with a long late night dinner and good company.  To be continued....

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Espresso Tinged Musings

Today is all about taking time to explore, stop, relax and appreciate.  Normally I wake up late and rush through the town like a woman on a mission, usually heading straight for one of the few gelaterias I frequent after lunch.  Today I woke up early and meandered at a casual pace along the main street and I noticed small shops and niches that I had never seen before.  I stopped at the Nerocafe for a caffe' macchiato and brioche.  I can almost order coffee like an Italian now and I have to come to appreciate the tiny (by American standards) espressos that I dump an entire package of cane sugar into before drinking. However sometimes I still crave my grande salted caramel mochas from Starbucks that can last me an hour instead of a few sips.

Next, sorry to my fellow Americans but I probably tinged one shop owner's impressions of American tourists forever this morning.  We were chatting (in Italian no less) as she wrapped up my purchases, two small ceramic dishes (Pesaro is known for its ceramics), and I almost forgot to pay, oops!  After this little snafu, I decided to people watch in the Piazza del Popolo. The nicest moments happen when you just sit and wait.  The cutest little boy randomly came up to me and started playing with me.  His parents should probably teach him not to hug strangers but he was so cute singing in Italian and he was utterly fascinated by all my piercings. I also apparently saw a famous Italian TV producer in the piazza (as a woman who walked by, told me in a starstruck voice).

This weekend there will be no time to "stop and smell the roses" as I am off to Umbria for the weekend starting tomorrow!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Falling Faces, Squirrels and Late Nights

My delicious foray into the realm of Italian food continued last Sunday.  David, Fiona and I returned to the mill in Santa Maria dell' Arzilla as promised to try the homemade cooking of our friend Filipo the miller.  For the second time that week I was faced with more food than I could possibly eat.  We ordered tagliatelle and two types of polenta (the house specialty) as our prima piatti.  Similarly to the tagliatelle I made during "cooking fiascoes", it came with a tomato and pea sauce.  However, with the addition of a little meat, it blew my version out of the water.  The polenta with ragu was delicious but none of us were as impressed with the polenta with cheese.  Our il secondo (second course) was sausage and ribs.  The ribs varied greatly from those you see in an American restaurant, there was no slathered on barbecue sauce, instead the meat was seasoned simply with salt and pepper which was surprisingly very rich in flavor.

Guido Reni's Fall of the Giants
Wednesday, I started the day early with a trip to Pesaro's Musei Civici (Civic Museum).  The highlight of the trip was Giovanni Bellini's "Coronation of a Virgin".  The focus of the piece is the coronation scene rendered in vibrant, deep colors which is beautiful however my favorite aspect was the frame within the frame of the Marche region.  The surrounding frame is filled with small paintings of other allegorical scenes and saints also created in intricate detail and the beautiful colors common for paintings of the time period.  The Musei Civici also houses the Mazza Collection, a large collection of ceramics.  While ceramics are not my favorite medium, the richness of color and intricate detail of the allegorical scenes impressed me.  More aesthetically pleasing to me was the Mosca Collection, comprised of a large number of embellished cabinets.  One piece in particular was interesting, a tiny cage carved impossibly finely from ivory.  The Musei Civici is also noted for Guido Reni's "Fall of the Giants"; the musculature of the giants depicted reminds me of the anatomical realism of Michelangelo's statues.  Upon exiting the museum, I noticed a huge plate depicting Medusa's head; while the piece itself was not at all appealing to me, it had an interesting story behind it. Its creator, Ferruccio Mengaroni was crushed to death by the piece when he tried to save the piece from breaking during transport.
Giovanni Bellini's Coronation of the Virgin
Urbino's Duomo
Yesterday I journeyed to Urbino, about an hour from Pesaro to visit the Duomo di Urbino and the Palazzo Ducale which was transformed into the National Gallery of Marche.  The Duomo was not the most impressive cathedral I have seen in Italy however design wise it was unique.  As opposed to the dark colors and golds that many cathedrals are swathed in, making them beautiful but imposing, the Duomo had an airy feel to it in pastel greens and whites. The Palazzo Ducale is an interesting site to visit because you get to see history of the palace while simultaneously viewing famous artwork from the time period.  The Palazzo Ducale houses works by famous painters such as Raphael. Although the piece by Raphael was impressive, my favorite part of the museum was the Duke's study of which the walls were 3D renderings made entirely of cuttings of wood in various shades.  A little squirrel made of dark woods caught my attention and Elena and I decided he was my little pet.

My little wood squirrel pet
Unfortunately by the time Elena and I exited the Palazzo Ducale, nighttime had fallen and I was unable to see the beautiful panoramic view of the Italian hillsides that the city has to offer.  However that is just a good excuse for another trip there someday soon!  Elena and I arrived back in Pesaro fairly early however it was another late night.  I and some other Pesaro Language Exchange (PLE) members started the night at Circolo Mengaroni and made our way to Circolove and the Factory Lab.  

Chilling with PLE

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Buon Appetito!!

Corinaldo Halloween Festival
Plate after plate of delicious seafood arrived at our table at Gazebo, a restaurant halfway between Pesaro and Fano. "Basta basta" (enough enough) I sighed after an exquisite multi-course meal made up of all types of seafood.  The meal David, Fiona, Paul and I shared Wednesday started with  a variety of cold salads, such as calamari, and sole with tomato sauce.  This was followed by a polenta dish whose rich creaminess was interspersed with tender mussels and clams, after which came a mussel, clam and shrimp risotto that while salty was flavorful and satisfying.  However the feast continued. An abundance of fried calamari, shrimp, anchovies and trilla arrived and although we were stuffed we just couldn't resist the lightly fried and crispy morsels.  All of which was topped off with a lovely, refreshing lemon sorbet and an assortment of sweets.  This was my first experience with seafood in Italy and I sincerely hope it won't be my last.

Thursday was Halloween!  Halloween has only recently become a holiday in Italy and as such is not as widely celebrated.  However since I am here only a short time I feel I must take advantage of all opportunities, so I convinced David and Fiona to drive about an hour away to Corinaldo where a huge village Halloween festival was taking place.  It appeared as though the entire historic city center had been transformed into a giant party.  Witches, and zombies wandered down the streets and into niches that had been transformed into bars and clubs.  We danced the night away and ended the night with a literal bang at the fireworks show finale.

My week of gastronomic deliciousness continued yesterday afternoon when David and Fiona invited me over for lunch at their home.  There I was served fresh cavatelli pasta made by David's grandmother, in a sauce created with homegrown tomatoes and mutton from a friend's sheep.  This delicious meal was served with two types of wine both of which were made by David and Fiona's fathers and were accompanied by homegrown melons for dessert.  I was speechless at the difference between homemade and locally produced food and that which you buy at the supermarket. Following this entirely too satiating meal, David and Paul showed me around the fire station where they work and where I learned all the tools of the trade.  It takes a lot of skill and knowledge to be a fireman!
Scala (ladder) truck

Friday night arrived and it was time for me to have my first clubbing experience in Pesaro.  Most of the clubs in Pesaro are located in Baia Flaminia, and my group of friends was headed to the Factory Lab.  We didn't make it to Baia Flaminia until 12:30am, and when we arrived at the Factory Lab it was still devoid of people.  However after meandering around and stopping at Gusto down the street for about an hour, we returned and it was packed!  Unlike in the U.S., clubs don't close down at 2am so we rocked out to old school American music until 3:30am before heading home to sleep.  I don't think little old me can keep up with all these late nights!

All of us in San Mauro Pascoli
Today Elena, her friend Franci and I traveled to Rimini about 30 minutes from Pesaro where we met another couchsurfer Frank and his friend Dan.  Before catching the train, Elena took me on my first vespa ride.  It was exhilarating feeling the wind in my face as we raced down the street! Frank and Dan were absolute gentlemen and took us out for gelato, aperitivos and pizza as well as showed us around the city center.  In one of the central piazzas we saw a fountain with an inscription written by Leonardo da Vinci and some of the ancient buried ruins.  Rimini is also surrounded by astoundingly beautiful hillsides and rolling valleys that are incredibly peaceful, and we took a brief respite at the monastery of San Francesco where San Francesco himself planted a tree in 1213; after which we continued on to San Mauro Pascoli where Frank fed us something called a jujubee.  Dan and I could just see the headlines: three Italians and one American tourist end up dead from some random fruit taken from a tree.  It tasted familiar but I can't place anything like it in the U.S.  I also tried roasted chestnuts for the first time; it is surprising they aren't more common considering we have a Christmas song featuring them ("chestnuts roasting over an open fire").

Anyway it was a delicious week which will continue tomorrow when David, Fiona and I return the mill for a wonderful homemade lunch made by Phillipo!
Adventures in Rimini