Thursday, February 12, 2009


10:15AM February 9

For dinner Wednesday night, John whipped up some tortellini in a pre-made tomato meat sauce. It was really quite good, but there wasn’t quite enough for four of us—Adam, John, Sean, and I—so I convinced Adam to give that tiramisu another shot. He was a bit reluctant to even try after his last effort, but I told him I would take over making the cream. I melted the mascarpone with sugar, flour, and a little extra milk, and then re-froze it, whipping every ten minutes or so. The flavor was definitely there this time, and the texture of the cream was pretty good, but I would do it completely differently next time to get a better whipped cream feel. Overall, the tiramisu was quite tasty. I know my roommates thought the bread was a little crunchy, but I enjoyed the texture that added.

Thursday night I offered to make shepherd’s pie for everyone. I wasn’t able to find certain items here that I would usually use, like beef broth, or for that matter, even chicken broth. Vegetables like peas and corn are also hard to find, and I had to settle for a canned alternative. Worcestorshire sauce is nowhere to be found, so I substituted some soy sauce and balsamic vinegar to give the meat a little punch. The meat itself was also difficult to find. I could only scrounge up about 1 lb. of ground beef between three grocery stores, and I asked the lady at the meat counter of one of them if they had any more, but that just led to five minutes of confusion as the two of us struggled to speak the little we knew of the others’ language to explain ourselves. I tried several times to tell her that I had two packets and I needed two more, to which she replied that I already had two, “one person, two person.” Then when I told her I was cooking for eight people, she gave me a look like, I guess your family is going to starve tonight. To substitute, I ended up buying a few extra hamburger patties which I chopped up with the rest of the ground beef.

I still had two pieces of bruschette left over from the other night as well, so I bought some peppers and garlic to make up more of my amus bouche. Regardless of the constraints, it all came together quite well. I feel like that might be part of what makes that English cooking work. If you throw a bunch of decent food together in a baking dish and cook it, what comes out on the other end should be tasty, and it was. My Italian leaning bruschette also came out even better than the last time.

Several of the girls then went off to the opera, and in the meantime I researched a place we could go to for a daytrip the next day. We had talked about going to Rome for this weekend, but the weather was supposed to be awful all weekend, so we resolved to do a daytrip on Friday, when the forecast called for “rain” instead of “heavy rain.” Most Tuscan cities are made up of beautiful neighborhoods to walk around in, so I tried to find a place with a little more to do. Eventually we settled on Perugia as a good destination. As the capital of Umbria, there were more museums and destinations to see indoors than other cities nearby.

Friday morning John and I met up with Alex, Jaimie, Jen, Yvette, and Lauren around 9:15 and walked over to the train station. We quickly found the automated ticket machines and were ready to purchase our tickets when we discovered that there were two stations in Perugia. We weren’t sure which to go to, so we then went to a one of the TrenItalia offices and they informed us that the train wouldn’t leave until 1:00. At that point it didn’t seem like a worthwhile daytrip, and we weighed our options. Then we went back to the TrenItalia office to double check which station we should use if we were to go, and they informed us that we had been using the local train’s ticket machines; if we took the domestic train, we could leave by 11:00, and we then cleared up which station to use. This was much better, so we bought our tickets and went to go see the Cathedral of Santa Maria Novella across the street during the hour we had to burn. When we got there, we found it was closed until 1:00, so we snapped a few pictures outside (below) and returned to the terminal in search of a Perugia map.

I loved these two gypsy women sitting on the cathedral steps.

There were only maps of Rome and a few Tuscan cities at the station, so we boarded our train, unaware of what we would do once we got to Perugia. As we sat, waiting for the train to leave, Alex asked whether we should have validated our tickets at the station. John and Jaimie quickly assuaged our concerns when they told us that we only needed to do that for the local system.

It was great to see the Italian countryside again. There are so many gorgeous little towns and villas built into the hillsides. There isn’t a place that is uninhabited: it seems that every square-inch is taken up by a building or farm of some sort. Ironically, the unattended buildings and parts of the landscape are just as beautiful as the well-maintained ones, or more so. We went through several tunnels early in the ride, climbing in altitude as we swept through the hills and mountains. Our ears were popping almost constantly during this portion as the cabins are not pressurized. (I understand the Eurostar, to Rome in 1:30, is like that the whole way.) When the train attendants came around to check our tickets they informed us that we were, in fact, supposed to validate them at the station. They let us off this time, but told us we ought to do it on the way back. We then passed by Lake Trasimeno, the largest lake in the Italian Peninsula, south of the Po. It was gorgeous, and I found the islands intriguing (below).

As we arrived at the station, we looked around for a map, and yet again we were baffled that none were to found, so we resolved to go eat lunch. We stopped in at what appeared to be the Italian version of a diner, a bit dingy, with soccer playing on a TV in the corner. I then went up the street to a Tabbacheria to buy a map. We all got pasta of some sort. It was really fine: a lot like diner food, but in Italy. On our way out, we asked our server if she could tell us what she liked to do in town, but all she told us was that we should take a bus up the big hill rather than walk.

We didn’t listen to her advice, feeling like the best way to see a city is to walk it, catching the sights all the way in from the periphery. The hill was quite steep, but we all felt that the walk up the hill to school everyday had prepared us well. All the way up we saw gorgeous houses, and on one side of the road was a little tram line (right). As we reached the city center, the road changed into stairs. If San Francisco were built one or two thousand years ago, it would look like Perugia. All around we found tiny alleyways and staircases. It was much more stunning than Florence, with the character of an older city. The buildings were composed mostly of stone rather than the stucco we see everywhere in Florence. The streets were barely big enough for a single car, and archways connected the second stories of buildings all over.

Our first destination was an art gallery on the western edge of the city center. It was housed behind two churches, the first of which had a dazzling colorful fa├žade with many stories built into the tiles. When we got there we found that it had been damaged a few years ago in an earthquake and was only open three days a week between 11:00 and 1:00 while they restore the galleries. There was a man at the ticket office that gave us information about three other destinations he told us we ought to see though. We ended up waiting some twenty minutes while he called to make sure the other museums were open, and then, in a very Italian manner, he took five minutes or more to draw arrows on the map and explain how to navigate the small city. We tried to get him to simply point out where the destinations were, explaining that we would easily be able to find our way there, but he persisted to take his time in giving directions.

Fortunately for us, the weather held out and we were able to take a quite relaxed walk through the city. It would have only taken five minutes to reach the center, but our walk was quite leisurely as we took in the sights, often stopping to check out another obscure alleyway. It was all the better because only a few cars traversed these tiny streets, opening up the avenues for pedestrians. As we reached the center, we walked under a large archway connecting two halves of the main palace. On the other side of this arch the buildings opened up to reveal a large plaza (top) with a grand fountain at the center. It was hard to tell where the plaza itself ended and the large boulevard began as it was all paved in large cobblestones.

The whole way into the center I noticed that the city had a strong attachment to griffins, the symbol of the city, and they appeared on almost every other building. Two large griffin statues adorned the front of the palace, but what I found interesting is they depict the griffin sometimes having the head of a lion, and other times the head of an eagle. It seems that either interpretation is acceptable.

We then went into a chocolate shop where Alex bought several types of chocolate. In the back I even found twigs of chocolate that actually looked like wood (left). Jaimie and I then went next door to a great pasticeria. We split a vanilla cream tart and a small chocolate cake, which they warmed in the microwave. The two were both incredible, each complimenting the other really well. The cool vanilla was a great contrast in between bites of the melting chocolate.

We next entered the Palazzo dei Priori, the giant civic structure the people of Perugia built at the end of the thirteenth century to house their government. It now is the host to the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria. It was really interesting to see the art of a different era. This museum focused on thirteenth and fourteenth century art, which is much more biblically centered and caricatured in style than the works from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which Uffizi is known for. Almost every room had a depiction of Madonna carrying her child, and of course there were crucifixes in almost every other painting.

I really enjoyed one piece which depicted people in heaven looking down on a scene of earth below. It was a large painting, and as I stepped in close to look at it, it seemed as though the people in heaven were also looking down on me. It was a startling revelation to feel that personal connection with the art. The most striking piece though, was a life-size crucifix in three dimensions, a wooden carved and painted Jesus popping out in front of the painting of onlookers behind. The blood was quite graphic and his crown of thorns appeared to be made of rusty nails that would seriously hurt you. It breathed new meaning into a scene we’ve all scene so many times, it can become numbing.

Another great aspect to the museum was that the artwork progressed in age with each room, eventually reaching the eighteenth century by the exit. It was particularly fascinating to watch this extended progression of art through the ages. Whereas in most other museums you try to distinguish the fifteenth century pieces from the seventeenth century ones, here you could see all of the small changes that led to the bigger developments of each period.

After the museum, Yvette wanted a cannoli, and she’d seen one at a cafes we’d walked in before, but we thought it wouldn’t be hard to find one at a different pasticeria, giving us a chance to try a new place. We walked around for a long time trying to find any decent pasticeria. Eventually we did go in one cute bakery down a small alley, and a few people got some puff-pastries, but there were no cannolis.

We decided that we’d rather eat dinner back in Florence, so we started walking back towards the train station by 5:30. On the way out we decided to detour by one of the palazzos, which the man at the first museum had recommended seeing. At this point it did finally begin to drizzle, so I didn’t get to take many pictures, but it cleared a bit as we made it to the other side of the palace, giving us our first large view of the valley below the city (above). It was a great sight: the terra-cotta roofs seemed to go on forever. At the foot of the hill we could see the city’s small soccer stadium. (At first we all made an effort to call it football here, but in Italy it is known as calcio, so it doesn’t make much of a difference if we have a different name for it as well.)

Needless to say, it was much easier getting back down the hill, this time walking a road with switchbacks. As we approached the train station, we did find one more pasticeria where Yvette finally got her cannoli. I had a bite, and it was pretty good, but not any better than what we get at Marra’s in South Philly.

This time we made sure to validate our tickets for the ride home. After some confusion about which train to get on, we found where we were supposed to go, only we ended up in first class. Ironically, when we finally reached the second class section we found it much more comfortable and less smelly than the first class cars. We had to switch trains in Terontola, and we just missed our transfer, which left the station on another track about a minute after we arrived. Fortunately there was another train coming fifteen minutes later. On this train they did not check our tickets, but the police came through and asked us for our passports. Except for Yvette, the girls had all forgotten theirs back at the apartment, but they played it innocently, and it seemed to work out that we were all traveling together, three of us carrying passports. It was something John and I thought of at the last minute before we left in the morning, while waiting for the girls to show up, as we’d been told by NYU to take our passport with us any time we left Florence.

When we got back, we went out to a great pizzeria, which Alex had read a great review about, with everyone else who’d stayed at home. This place had really exceptional dough. I got a calzone with ricotta, mushrooms, ham, and tomato sauce. It was really delicious, although my favorite was the pizza that Alex and Lauren got with peppers and eggplant. For dessert I shared a chocolate mousse cake with Jaimie, and it made for another tasty conclusion to a wonderful day.

Alex down a side alleyway

Our "album cover," from top to bottom: Me, Jen, John, Jaimie, Alex, and Yvette.

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