Thursday, September 20, 2012

San Francesco d'Assisi, La Giostra della Quintana, e Cioccolato di Perugia

Since June I have anxiously awaited our trip to Umbria and this weekend it managed to live up to my lofty expectations. Several years ago my parents visited San Gemini (also in Umbria), which we happened to pass on our way to relatives in Foligno (fo-leen-yo). It was one of their very favorite spots from their travels in Italy and now I know why.

Friday night dinner in Foligno was hamburgers. Hello? There must've been some mistake. Surely Giovanna had told Norma and Pasquale (Benito's sister and brother-in-law) that I genuinely love all things Italian, specifically food. Yes, the cheeseburger will have my heart until the day I die, but I suggest leaving BBQ to the Americans and pasta to the Italians. I realize it was meant as a kind gesture, yet somehow this meal disappointed me far more than it should have.

After dinner, Pasquale and Benito dropped me off at my pensione (much like a B&B). This alone is proof of the stark contrast from what I experienced in Madrid. In Spain, I routinely shared a bed with one of the children when we traveled. When Benito explained to me that there was not enough room in the Foligno apartment for all of us, I assured him that I could fall asleep just about anywhere---couch, chair, hammock, desk, floor. Anyone who's ever watched a movie with me can certainly attest to this. Apparently Benito interpreted this as just another one of my hilarious jokes, because it threw him into a laughing fit. No, I would be put up at a B&B and I wasn't allowed to breach the topic again. Night and day experiences, praise God! We arrived at the inn well after dark and were welcomed by the man we would later affectionately dub "Mr. Eight." Mr. Eight was a confused man. Even after confirming backwards and forwards (in both English and Italian) my 8:30 breakfast time for the following morning, he still concluded the conversation flashing eight fingers in my face. Surely he was joking. He wasn't.

The following morning, I drew the blinds in my bedroom and stepped out on the terrazza to survey the day's forecast. I couldn't believe I had spent the night there without any clue where I really was...engulfed by tranquil Italian countryside. I grabbed my camera and was snapping a few shots when I suddenly heard a bellowing "GOOD MORNING!" from below. Good ol' Mr. Eight was waiting for me at the entrance. How long he had been standing there I'll never know. I only wish I had put real clothes on first.

Buongiorno, Foligno! 

Downstairs, Mr. Eight insisted on "practicing his English," which consisted of about ten disjointed, nonsensical words; meanwhile, I enjoyed nutella on toast (it is a sad, sad day here that I go without nutella) and watched as he brewed me a luscious cappuccino. Afterwards, I was introduced to his "husband," who looked much more like a "wife" to me. Please, Mr. Eight, let's just stick to Italian and we can skip the charades.  

Saturday was Benito's birthday and we all piled in the car in pursuit of Assisi, just thirty minutes outside Foligno. ATTENTION ALL RIVENDELL TEACHERS! I do remember something from the units! Even though I recalled very little detail about the man's life, the infamous name that goes along with the town of Assisi will be forever imprinted on my mind....Saint Francis. Just eleven years later, my middle school humanities classes had come to life. We spent the cool morning roaming cobblestone streets, perusing quaint shops with wooden toys, herbal soaps, and pottery, and stopping every now and then for espresso. Soon we had reached the main attraction: La Basilica Papale di San Francesco, the resting place of the saint's earthly body. Save for the ground, every inch of the interior was adorned with murals dating back to the 13th century. Here I felt my first wave of fussiness in almost six weeks when I discovered there was no photography allowed. Rough life I lead these days.

Scenes from Assisi 

Cousin Giuseppe's not so sure about the strange American Au Pair girl...

La Basilica Papale di San Francesco

Back to Foligno for lunch, Norma and Giovanna whipped up an impressive spread: spaghetti with fresh roma tomatoes and olive oil, an assortment of meats and cheeses, and salad (well, lettuce and olive oil). It seems that every time we get together with family and/or friends I am forced into a deep food coma after each meal. I have no choice really. Of course, this was an everyday occurrence in Spain, so I'm thankful for the only occasional gluttonous feast here in Italy.


Once I regained consciousness, "Jo" and Norma gave me a high profile assignment: I was to be the accomplice in distracting Benito while they executed "operation birthday cake." Norma shoo-ed us out the door to survey the progress of the evening's parade preparations, and handed us a list of medieval taverns to visit along the way. I was just the girl for the job too. I assumed Italian walking pace and asked even more questions than usual. 

Setting up for la Giostra della Quintana (parade/festival/jousting competition). Also notice the pinkish stone used in the cathedral's construction--I'm told this is very typical of Umbria.

After snarfing down a fatty pan-seared steak with rosemary and plenty of salt, it was time to unveil the surprise cake. Surrounding the "Auguri Benito" written in melted chocolate, Giovanna and Norma had cleverly dyed whipped cream frosting in Napoli's team colors, what else? Inside was a fluffy white cake layered with sweet custard and strawberries. Fine, if you insist.

Giovanna had carefully planned her gift for Benito weeks in advance and registered him for a trial saxophone lesson. This man certainly has eclectic interests--just when I thought I'd figured him out. Well, clearly Giovanna has, because not twenty minutes later Benito had promoted me to part time Au Pair and full-time musical agent. No self-esteem issues there. Norma commented on our natural banter, that I didn't miss a beat with Benito's humor. But then again I am fluent in sarcasm too, one language in which we share the vernacular. 

After dinner, Giovanna, Benito, Norma and I left tired children at home with Pasquale and set out to enjoy the parade component of "La Giostra della Quintana." The festival celebrates their history and simultaneously serves as a jousting competition between le rione (essentially neighborhoods). Unfortunately, we were ticketless and unable to witness this very packed stadium event.

Sunday morning I had to say goodbye to Mr. Eight, which turned out to be a much longer process than expected. Thankfully for both of us, the innkeeper had decided to stick to Italian this morning and as he pulled out a chair to chat, I knew he was in it for the long haul. Like a fool, I had chosen a seat with my back to the clock and knew Benito would be waiting outside the gate at 9. This scenario might have been stressful for me in the States, but somehow it wasn't here. In Italy, "late" is the new "on time" after all. Eventually, Benito had found his way inside and Mr. Eight and I were to part ways, for real this time. I would later find out that he had given me far too many kisses than is appropriate for an Italian who has just met you. And so, although Eight had made me promise to return and stay at his pensione again, Vitolo family consensus dictated that I'd be sleeping elsewhere next time in Umbria. But just in case Eight and I did cross paths again, they taught me the Italian hand gesture signifying, "I'll kick your ass." Somehow, I'm not sure it has the same effect when you have the hands of a five-year-old. 

Later that morning, we drove just twenty minutes to Perugia. Perugia is both the sister city to Seattle, Washington (not sure why) and, more importantly, famous for Italian chocolate. Due to a number of prestigious international universities, the area draws a multitude of students from all over the world. It is also a very nostalgic place for Benito as he attended the Miltiary English School there before he and Giovanna were married.

Here, we traveled like true Italians, where our only agenda was to soak in the sunshine, ancient architecture, and beautiful panoramic views of bushy green mountains, olive groves, and terra cotta roofs. Primary on the "list" of course was to sample our fair share of heavenly chocolate. In one particular shop, the storekeeper had foolishly offered us chocolates from a dish at the register. Having just finished a milk chocolate piece, I reached for a dark without giving it a thought. Giovanna was pleased to see how Italian I'd already become.

As we headed back to the car, I was dragging my heels. Just one more picture, please. Oh wait can I go look at those postcards really quickly? I was always in the back frantically trying to absorb the experience, following the yawning natives all the while. Oh Perugia? Yeah, mmhmm it's OK, I guess.

Back home in Foligno, the highlight of lunch was undoubtedly omelet made with local truffles. Long after there was nothing more to eat or say, we eventually hit the road. Apparently, the term "immediately" as in "be ready because we are leaving immediately after lunch" is a relative one in Italy. This time, I didn't mind.

The center building was the location of the Amanda Knox trial

Not bad, if you like this kind of thing...

Family photo :)

More scenes from Perugia 

Oh just a sign outside the chocolate store indicating walls from 3rd century B.C. 
Europe is OLD.

Buonanotte, Umbria. Alla prossima volta!


  1. whaaa!! "if only i had put clothes on.." HA! lol-ing. mr. eight sounds intriguing and i'd love to spend time with him. SO beautiful there! and thanks for the family pic, been trying to picture mom and dad for a while. can't wait to get some of that chocolate in the mail.

  2. Sare! What a beautiful family! I love your writing; I feel like I'm there experiencing it with you. The best part is that I can hear your voice when I read your blog.
    Miss you cheek.