This week our friends, Julia and Alex, came to visit. Julia is a dear friend and colleague at DePauw and she has been on sabbatical in Germany for the last eight months. Her son, Alex, is Micah’s very best friend from home. We have missed them a lot and we are so glad they could come to Perugia as we begin our year in Italy and they prepare to head back to the US. We spent four days finding the best kid activities in Perugia (including frequent stops for gelato), playing Uno, and trying some new restaurants. We also took a day-trip to Assisi.
Julia and Alex arrived by train from Florence on Saturday afternoon. Micah could not wait to meet them at the station and to show Alex how to ride on the mini-metro. It was hot and humid on Saturday, so we took it easy and made dinner at home.
On Sunday morning, Pedar suggested we go to the Centro di cultura Contemporanea (Center for Contemporary Culture), which is housed in the Palazzo della Penna, a 16th century building that sits on top of a Roman amphitheater. The building preserves early 19th century frescoes on the ceilings and walls, but has otherwise been converted into a modern exhibition space (including an organic cafe). The current exhibition is “L’Arte é un romanzo: La straordinaria storia delle parole che diventano immagini” (Art is a novel: the extraordinary story of words that become images). Conceptually this show is not exactly for little kids, but it is visually captivating and there were enough strange images to hold their interest for a while (Micah and Alex discussed whether the ants crawling across an over life-size text were eating the letters, becoming the letters, or dismantling the letters as they crawled away). The most surprising installation was certainly the donkey (see: http://www.comune.perugia.it/media/larte-e-un-romanzo-000).
After the museum, we hiked back up into town for lunch at a pizzeria on the corso:
Sunday was overcast and it threatened to rain most of the day, so we kept to the inside for the afternoon. POST is the Perugia Officina per la Scienza e la Tecnologia (http://www.perugiapost.it/). This is not a tourist attraction, but rather a local museum designed to promote science and technology for the children of Perugia. They have special programs in the summer and for school groups. We were there on a quiet day and had the museum to ourselves. At first it looks small with only two exhibition halls, one with experiments and one for special exhibitions. But, there was plenty for the kids to play with and all of them (from ages 13 to 4) were kept busy for over an hour. Simon has already posted on his efforts to recreate a Da Vinci bridge but the little kids were most interested in using the stationary bikes to power various electrical appliances.
On the way out we were nearly attacked by a giant ant:
Assisi: Monday morning, Julia, Alex, Micah, and I took a day-trip to Assisi (the older boys were in Italian class). It was a glorious day, the sun was out, but the rain the night before had cooled down the air temperature, it was perfect for walking up and down the street of Assisi. We were not anticipating a full day of heavy sightseeing with the little ones, but they were remarkably well behaved. Of course, St. Francis of Assisi has a good story to tell kids and the boys were quite taken by the nice man who helped both people and animals.
The bus from Perugia brings you to Piazza Matteotti on the south end of Assisi; the Basilica of S. Francis is on the north end. You can get off one stop before the end of the bus line, which would drop you below the basilica, but it was such a beautiful day we decided it would be worth it to explore the whole town by walking from one end to the other. As soon as we got off the bus, Micah announced he was hungry (it was only 10:30 am). We made our way into the center of town, Piazza del Comune, and found a bar where Julia and I could get cappuccinos and the boys could share a slice of pizza (Micah can eat pizza at any time of day; he is ready for college).
The Piazza del Comune in Assisi is the site of S. Maria sopra Minerva, a baroque church (first converted in 1539 and decorated in 1634) that preserves the original Roman façade and interior walls. The well-preserved exterior has six monolithic Corinthian columns supporting a very low typanum. The temple was probably constructed at the end of 1st century BCE, during the reign of Augustus. Although the temple seems to have been associated with Minerva from Assisi’s early Christian era, there is little evidence for the Roman temple’s patron deity. Continuity of cult is always appealing (Mary is associated with a variety of Greco-Roman female goddesses in different parts of the Mediterranean), but it has also been suggested that this temple was dedicated to the Dioskouri (the divine twins) or Herakles (who was very popular among the Etruscan forerunners of the Romans).
After our snack and a quick glimpse inside S. Maria sopra Minerva, we began our walk to the Basilica. Micah and Alex took turns consulting the map in the Blue Guide so that they could lead us to the REALLY BIG church at the end of the road:
The Basilica di San Francesco deserves its own post. With Micah and Alex in tow, Julia and I were happy to just walk through the upper and lower churches. We did manage to sit for a few minutes in the transept of the upper church looking at the earliest frescoes in the Basilica (c. 1277). We wished Anne were with us to enjoy the frescoes, but especially to help appreciate the stained glass, which the Blue Guide describes as “the most important in Italy” and which was made by German and French artists and the “Maestro di San Francesco” starting c. 1253,
Once we told Micah and Alex that the really nice man was buried in the lower church, they became focused on seeing the tomb of S. Francesco. It is in the crypt below the lower church and has only been accessible since the 19th century. Apparently the monks, fearful of Perugian raids, closed off access to S. Francesco’s sarcophagus in the 15th century and it was only reopened in 1818. Micah, for obvious reasons, has almost no understanding of or even reference point for Christianity, particularly for Catholic traditions. Nevertheless, he seemed to internalize the concept of a spiritual place. He was respectfully quiet as we moved through the church and the crypt, and he carefully observed the tomb of S. Francesco and the people around it, some of whom were praying. In the end, however, he was disappointed that we did not actually see the body of the nice man (we did get to see S. Chiara in her crypt later in the day).
For lunch we found a nice restaurant with a terrace overlooking the plain between Assisi and Perugia. Micah and Alex happily shared a pizza. Julia and I began with a plate of crostini:
Crostini are slices of bread (usually not toasted, unlike bruschetta) with some sort of spread on top. Umbrians are creative with their crostini and use a wide variety of pureed foods. It is sometimes fun to try and figure out what a particular crostini topping was made from. In this case, we did not have to guess as the menu explained: radicchio, artichokes, and zucca (squash). They were all good, but Julia and I agreed that the zucca had the most flavor. For pasta, we both had strongozzi with porcini mushrooms in a light cream sauce:
The mushrooms were hearty and the sauce was not overpowering. Strongozzi is one variety of homemade pasta in Umbria (there is also stringozzi, strengozzi, and umbricelli – I am still trying to figure out the difference between them). The pasta was definitely cooked al dente, maybe a little too much for our American taste, but it was delicious nonetheless (and I got to enjoy a plate full of mushrooms).
After lunch, we still had several hours before the return bus to Perugia. We visited S. Maria Maggiore and S. Chiara, the crypts in both churches were the highlights. S. Maria Maggiore is next to a Roman house (not open to the public) and its crypt dates to the 9th century (reusing architectural elements from the Roman period). The crypt of S. Chiara houses the body of Santa Chiara herself, but it has also been recently renovated (since the earthquake) to display various relics associated with San Francesco. Our favorite is a stocking of San Francesco that shows the stigmata. In a side chapel of S. Chiara is more famous for the late 12th century painted crucifix that spoke to San Francesco at San Damiano telling him to “rebuild my church.”
After four churches (five, if you count the two basilicas of San Francesco), we were all ready for some gelato:
It was a great day in Assisi:
Tuesday in Perugia: Once again, the older boys had Italian class in the morning, so we went on an adventure with the two little ones. Today we trekked out to the Museum of the City Walls in the Keep of Sant’Angelo, the largest Medieval gate to the city. To get there we went out along the top of the Medieval acqueduct:
The acqueduct was constructed in the 13th century to bring water from Monte Pacciano to the Fontana Maggiore (the large fountain in Piazza IV Novembre). It was rebuilt in 1835 and still carries fresh drinking water into the center of the city. The top of the acqueduct also serves as a footpath (street even) that connects the center of Perugia to the University area.
Micah and Alex were more impressed by the dump truck we encountered at the end of the acqueduct:
If you continue to walk north (and uphill) you eventually come to the Porta S. Angelo. This Keep is part of the 14th century walls. Today it houses a museum on two levels that explains the urban development of Perugia from its Etruscan origins through the Renaissance.
The third level is the roof, and from here there is a spectacular 360° view of the surrounding countryside.
By Tuesday afternoon we were all a bit wiped out. We stayed in the apartment, the little ones watched Disney movies in Italian and Simon taught Julia how to play Catan. Simon had soccer practice at 5 pm, but we wanted to go out for a nice meal, so we staved off hunger with gelato and a walk around town. For dinner, Julia and I chose al Mangiar Bene, a pizzeria/trattoria very close to our apartment that sources its food locally. Simon has been hankering for steak since we have been here, and after working hard at soccer practice he deserved it.
Micah was happy with his pizza:
Pedar ordered fusilli with wild boar sauce:
I ordered eggplant parmesan, which was delicious – Simon and I agreed that it was some of the best eggplant we had ever had – but I forgot to take a picture.
On Wednesday, Pedar, Micah, and I took Julia and Alex to the train station from where they began their trip back to Germany (via a flight from Pisa) and eventually back to the US. We were so happy to spend four days with our friends and we are sad that we won’t see them again until next summer. But we have Skype and the internet, so we are sure to be in touch. Micah and Alex had a touching farewell at the station:
We know they will always be the best of friends.