For it is in giving that we receive.
St Francis of Assisi
Food glorious food…part two
Whilst travelling around Europe last year I took thousands of photos, some of these focused on the delightful array of food available from markets and the meals we consumed. Many of the photos are merely happy snaps, badly lit and slightly blurred photographs of the food we ate and often I was so absorbed in the eating of a tasty dish that I completely forgot to take a photo. Anyway, the first part of our journey and the food we ate is covered in Food glorious food…part one and I had meant to continue the story but never got around to it…until now.
The food in Italy can be bad, good or fantastic, we were lucky in that we chose good to fantastic food for the majority of the time and the two bad meals we ate were due to laziness and convenience, not bad for four weeks of eating in Italy. Italians don’t really do breakfast, at least not the way we do so we settled for the in-house breakfasts most of the time, although not great, we enjoyed trying Cruesli (Muesli with choc chips) and the array of home baked cakes and tarts at the B&B Villa degli Ulivi were scrumptious. Occasionally cold cuts of meat and boiled eggs were also available in addition to the pastries, jam and bread rolls, the coffee was usually very ordinary so we took to visiting the local bars for an espresso.
Wherever possible we tried local wines and local specialties, guided by the waiters in the restaurants and in Rome we asked the ‘host’ of the Cantina Cantarini to help us choose our meals, selecting fresh, seasonal produce and simple flavours so good that we returned the following night. In Florence we ate picnics outside the Boboli Gardens, pasta in the San Lorenzo Markets and spent an evening with our travellers at a inTavola cooking class, the class was so much fun and at the end of the evening we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labour accompanied by a couple of glasses of wine.
Wherever we went I managed to track down a gelateria (even in Germany), I was on a mission to try as many flavours as possible and am proud to say that I tried 25 different flavours, some of them twice (pistachio, zabaglione and pannacotta) and some of which I don’t remember. I have to admit that there are just some flavours that I’ve never been really fond of such as melon or licorice so I stayed clear of them and there are possibly hundreds more flavours I could have tried however there was still a budget to stick to and having gelato for every meal was not the objective. Some of the more unusual (for me) flavours were: Coconut, Riesling, Fior di Latte (Milk), Torrone and Cherries and cream.
Here is just a taste of what we enjoyed in Italy, starting with local specialties in Vernazza to wild boar in Umbria, panettone in Siena and seafood in Sorrento, it really was a food tour of Italy and the extra kilos in weight that I gained were well and truly worth it 🙂
Assisi, birthplace of St Francis
For reasons I have forgotten, our itinerary took us from Orvieto to Assisi and then down to Sorrento, it would have made more sense to go to Assisi first given the proximity of Orvieto to Sorrento but it all worked out fine. Assisi is a medieval hilltop town in Umbria and is most famous for being the birthplace of St Francis, patron saint of Italy and founder of the Franciscan order. The drive from Orvieto to Assisi only took about 90 minutes, trying to find a park probably took longer because there are restrictions on cars in the old part of town. To be on the safe side we parked outside the walls and located our accommodation on foot, a medieval festival had been held over the weekend and members of the opposing sides were standing in the doorway of our hotel arguing about the results. When we finally reached reception they told us we could park outside the hotel to unload the car but long term parking (for a discounted rate) was not far away. As an apology for the obstruction in the doorway they upgraded our room.
The festival that we had missed (typical) was the Calendimaggio, a medieval festival based on competition between the two sides of the city: Red and Blue, the Blue team had won and were still celebrating with singing, drums and dancing in the main square. There was grandstand style seating set up, after wandering down to the Basilica we sat and listened to the music being played by the competitors and their supporters.
Basilisca San Francesco is a 13th century cathedral and still a major destination for pilgrims, popular with the faithful and with art lovers and history buffs. St Francis was a man who lived a simple life of poverty and abstinence, souvenirs featuring his face can be found throughout Assisi and range from the spiritual to the downright tacky. The interior of the cathedral is beautiful, crowds move slowly and silently throughout and should there be too much noise a voice can be heard ‘silenzio’ and people talk in whispers once again. The walls are covered in frescoes based on the life of St Francis and painted by Giotto, the ceilings are a vivid blue dotted with gold stars, a truly magnificent sight and I could not resist sneaking a couple of photos.
The Rocca Maggiore sits atop the hill, it is a medieval castle that dominates the skyline and from the outside it looks delapidated however there is plenty to explore inside its walls, we chose to brave the wind and look only from the outside. From the hill you have expansive views of the area and can see most, if not all the major churches that exist in Assisi. Walking past the fence covered in chewing gum and bubble gum we head down into the narrow cobblestone streets that run behind the main streets, cats rest in the sun and rambling roses grow over doorways, it is a pretty part of town.
Three wheeled trucks are common, they remind me of the Mr Bean television series and I imagine they’re very useful for navigating the narrow lanes. Out of the wind, it is quite pleasant just strolling, we pass a convent and another gate to the town before finding ourselves looking down upon the Basilica. In the midday sun the cathedral glows and tourists are all around us, taking the same photos that we have taken since our arrival.
The two other churches we saw, but did not enter were the Cathedral of San Rufino, a church with a Romanesque facade featuring lions and griffins, dedicated to San Rufino and the gothic Basilica di Santa Chiara, dedicated to Saint Claire. The square outside the Basilica di Santa Chiara is popular in the evenings as locals and tourists gather to talk and watch the sun set, nearby is a nutella crepes stand, something we haven’t seen much of since leaving Paris several weeks ago.
Eating in Assisi was simple and the food very good, we enjoyed a pasta with wild boar, cream and truffles as well as huge pizzas and thick, gelatinous hot chocolates. The restaurant where we ate pizza was hidden in a side street not far from our hotel, I wish I could remember the name because it was a wonderful place and we enjoyed lunch so much that we returned for dinner that same night. The television was always on, Dad (or perhaps a Grandfather) sat at one of the tables, he watched television, gave instructions and helped with waiting on tables. As we sat eating steak, chips and spinach we could not hear much English and I’m sure the other patrons thought our meal was a bit on the odd side, the waitress didn’t seem to mind, she appeared happy to see us return so soon.
The couple of days we spent in Assisi were extremely relaxing, we did a little shopping, alot of eating and exploring at a slow pace. The hotel we stayed in was very central, we could open our windows and look down to the main street and towards the square, the red and blue flags were draped all over town adding colour to the buildings. We also met a gentleman and his family who were staying at the hotel for the festival, they live in Rome but come to Assisi every year for the festival. His English was excellent and he told us that it was very warm in Rome, we spent a good deal of time chatting to him, he told us more about the festival and suggested places to go during our stay.
Driving in Italy
Although I didn’t do the driving on our recent trip to Europe, sitting in the passenger seat armed with a map and a plan for for the day’s adventures meant that I got to navigate. Our car, a little Fiat Panda, came with a GPS (for only 70 euros extra) which I called George. George took some getting used to, I like to have an overall view of the direction we’re heading in so I had one eye on the map and the other on George. I learned a couple of things from George, the taxi driver took us the long way to the rental car office and don’t always trust George’s shortcuts.
In Australia we drive on the left side of the road, In Italy it is the opposite but constantly telling my husband to drive on the right side of the road got a bit confusing because to us the left is the right (correct) side of the road to drive on. ‘Other side’ was the preferred option but thankfully it didn’t take too long for him to get used to. We only hired a car to get around Tuscany, Umbria and make our way down to Sorrento from Assisi, that was plenty enough excitement for me, the trip between Naples and Sorrento was a tad stressful even for a passenger. Country driving meant narrow, winding roads with regular photo stops, near Naples we got caught in a traffic jam as a result of a motorbike accident and in Sorrento you have to be mindful of scooters, cyclists, women with prams and the occasional horse and cart.
The ZTLs (zona traffico limitato) are areas of Italy that you are not allowed to drive in without holding a ZTL pass. Tourists can’t get these passes and are only exempt if your hotel provides all the license and registration details of you and the car to the relevant authorities. Thanks to a misunderstanding with George we almost ended up driving into Siena’s ZTL, I had a massive freak out because I thought we were bound to get a fine sent to us but we found a way out of the area we were in without entering the ZTL. In Assisi we were told by the hotel just to drive through and if we were stopped by police, to tell them where we were staying and all will be good. We didn’t see any police and I’m sitting here hoping that there weren’t any cameras either. Paying for parking was a common occurrence, anywhere from 6 euros for a few hours to 20 euros for a couple of nights. Our accommodation in Siena and Orvieto had free parking, Assisi provided a discount card for parking in the council car park because they didn’t have any parking for guests.
Would we hire a car again? Possibly, it certainly was handy getting to little towns such as Civita de Bagnoreggio and Volterra, public transport is available however it can be slow and not at all regular. Fuel didn’t cost as much as we thought, the Panda was an extremely economical car for the two of us and we probably spent a maximum of 90 euros over the 10 days of driving and that included the filling up of the tank before returning the car in Sorrento. The rest of the time we used public transport to get around, trains between the major cities are fast and easy to use, not to mention cheap.
Pictures and more…Italy’s hilltop towns
In a previous post I briefly mentioned the hilltop towns we were visiting while in Tuscany and Umbria, they truly are wonderful places to stay especially when they’re not so crowded such as Volterra and Orvieto after the sun goes down.
We based ourselves in Siena, Orvieto and Assisi for 10 days and made use of a rental car to travel to the other towns, part of the joy in visiting other towns is the scenic drive through the countryside and taking time to stop occasionally, admire the view and take a couple of photos. From Siena we did a day trip to Volterra and San Gimignano, leaving San Gimignano until the afternoon in the hope that most of the large tour groups had been and gone. Volterra is probably better known now thanks to the Twilight series of stories, it isn’t why we went there, Volterra is home to roman ruins, alabaster and unbeknown to us, a state prison housed in what looks like a medieval fortress. San Gimignano is a medieval town, famous for its many towers, of which only 14 still stand (there used to be about 70) and I could only count 11 from the Torre Grosse (large tower). San Gimignano is also home to Vernaccia, a nice white wine that is easy to drink after a long day of sight seeing.
Siena itself is a wonderful city to explore, once we were finally able to find the carpark and our way to Il Campo. The cathedral is a masterpiece of black and white marble, and although Marty wasn’t interested in seeing yet another church I paid the 3 euro admission and took the time to go inside and it was well worth it. Although we both loved Siena, our day spent driving through the Tuscan countryside to the small town of Pienza was probably more enjoyable. Pienza doesn’t have any major must-see attractions and doesn’t rate that highly in the guidebooks, what it does have is a fantastic view of the quintessential Tuscan countryside and very tasty pecorino cheese (made from sheep’s milk). In Pienza we were able to taste a variety of pecorino cheese including slivers of one flavoured with truffles, which I was quite fond of but Marty was left with a not-so pleasant taste in his mouth. We dined at a little bar called La Crete, salami and pecorino sandwiches washed down with a Vernaccia for Marty and a Vino Nobile for me and topped off with very good coffee. The drive home to Siena was equally spectacular, cypress pines, yellow fields, winding roads, red poppies and olive trees – all the ingredients for a perfect country drive.
Orvieto is a wonderful town to visit and even better if you can stay within the walls or close by them as we did, providing the opportunity to explore the streets after the tour groups and day trippers go home. From Orvieto we did another day of driving to see Civita de Bagnoregio (the dying town) and Bolsena, Civita de Bagnoregio is a hilltop town with a difference as there are very few residents and it is not swarming with tourists forking out euros in souvenir shops, the town is built of tufa which is slowly eroding causing sections of the hill to collapse and buildings with it. There is no collapsing of buildings while we were there, however we did wish that something would fall on a very loud, foul mouthed american tourist that was part of a small tour group. The drive from Orvieto only takes thirty minutes and after a couple of hours of explorations and one of the best lunches so far we decided to drive to Bolsena on Lake Bolsena. Bolsena is a pretty town, the location on the lake contributing greatly to its appeal and the gelati wasn’t bad either, it is a good place to take a breath and relax by the water but beyond that I couldn’t find the motivation to see more.
People we’ve met while travelling
We’ve been travelling in Europe for about 5 weeks now and have loved every minute of it, only very minor glitches in our plans and nothing drastic enough to make me wish I was at home. In addition to the amazing sights, fascinating history and delicious food we have had the pleasure of meet and/or interacting with some really wonderful people. It is true that if you make the effort to be pleasant and polite, try to say hello, please and thank you in the local language and keep the “it isn’t like this at home” attitude to yourself then people will respond positively.
In Paris it took a day or two before the staff on the front desk said more than bonjour to us and wouldn’t admit to speaking more than ‘a little english’. Eventually we were engaging in conversation with them, we learned alot about the area we were staying in and they were extremely forthcoming with information and general chatter about their lives, other destinations and what they thought of them. Marty met the manager of the bar across the road and got chatting about food, she spoke English very well and invited us to try their authentic french fries and the best burger in Paris, we did and had an enjoyable evening in the company of locals.
In Amsterdam and Germany, most of our positive interactions were based around food, either over breakfast, dinner or while buying produce for a picnic. We met the owners of a brasserie and doner kebab shop in Amsterdam and got travel tips from a shop assistant near the red light district, they were all quite happy to tell us more about themselves and the business they were in as well as provide good service. In Germany we met a terribly non politically correct waiter who told us jokes about Barack Obama, being married and whatever else he had read on his email that day. We ate there twice, the food was really good but the conversation and entertainment he provided was more valuable and had we stayed there another night we would have eaten there again. At the Hofbrauhaus we drank with an elderly gentleman who looked as though he had finished a couple of steins before we arrived, he didn’t speak much English, enough to give us his name, Patrick, and date of birth (when Hitler came to power) and a few short phrases that helped us with dinner table etiquette in Germany. Marty shouted him a beer, the concept foreign to him, when the beer appeared in front of him and told Marty that money wasn’t a problem and he could afford beer, it was hard to explain that buying someone a drink was a tradition in Australia. It was a fun evening after a long, cold day at Dachau and we were glad to have met Patrick, even though the conversation was a little hard to understand at times.
One of our favourite days ever was spent with a mate of Marty’s, Joe, he met us at the train wearing traditional Bavarian clothing and he drove us around the countryside and to Neuschwanstein for a tour through King Ludwig’s fairytale castle. The weather was perfect for being outdoors, we went for a ride on a horse and carriage and got a lift in a cable car to the top of a nearby mountain where we drank nice, cold beer at a bar surrounded by snow and mountain tops. Just when we thought the day couldn’t get better, Joe took us to meet his family, his Mum had prepared a special dinner of roast pork, crackling, potato dumplings and salad. Joe’s family were the most wonderful people, his Mum and sister had also dressed in traditional Bavarian clothing and we kicked ourselves for not getting a decent photo of them all together, so overwhelmed were we by their hospitality and generosity. It was very hard to hop on the train back to Munich that night and it is a day we will never forget.
In Italy we have been on the end of some truly excellent customer service and met really friendly, engaging people but we have also been on the end of some of the worst and most indifferent service ever experienced. Shop assistants prefer to maintain telephone conversations or conversations with other people rather than help you out or even take your money. Prepared to greet them with ‘buongiorno’, they always start with ‘prego’ or you’re welcome and it throws you, there is often no eye contact unless you don’t have the right change and then you get the glare and the rolling of eyes. Milan was one of the worst for service, we got bumped from place to place just trying to buy a ticket for the tram. Our accommodation in Varenna, Vernazza, Siena, Orvieto and Assisi obviously cared about their guests, helping us with the language, giving us directions and helping us find good places to eat – all with a smile and no rolling of eyes. The Sicilian brothers at the Il Pirata cafe in Vernazza were a hoot, they flatter the women, make lots of jokes, have fun with the work and their customers and the food and coffee was terrific. We went there for breakfast each morning and for dessert one evening, when you meet such good people and get treated well how can you resist going back. In Orvieto we were well looked after by the family that owned the B&B, had excellent waiters at the restaurants we went to and had a fun time drinking wine and eating nibbles with a couple of ladies from Brazil.
There are so many more instances of meeting people that I could write thousands of words, but all my descriptions would sound much the same: interesting, wonderful, engaging, helpful and funny. The people we’ve met have made our trip more enjoyable for us and it has opened our eyes to the way other people think and act, overall we’re really not that different.