Assisi? I see.

OK, one last post documenting our Christmas trip to Italy, and then I promise to go back to talking about funny signs and LOLcats. We spent the last day of our most recent Italian vacation driving through a freak snowstorm to the Florence airport; we spent the second-to-last day exploring Assisi on a warm, sunny day.

Assisi is an old, brick, hill-top Umbrian town that is smaller and cuter than Perugia. We easily filled a day there doing little more than wandering the winding streets, taking photos, and poking our heads into the odd shop. Oh, and of course eating.

Lunch was at the very popular and delicious Trattoria Pellotta, which is just off the main square. My mixed antipasti was one of the best dishes of the whole trip.

Assisi is probably most famous for its two big saints, Francis and Clare, and it has the body parts stuffed in reliquaries to prove it. We ended the day at the Basilica of Saint Francis, where we were greeted by a very big nativity scene.

Up close, the life-sized figures were, well… would you want this guy coming to adore your newborn? And is that leprosy on his hands?

We picked up some uninspired audioguides and went inside the basilica with the rest of the tourists to gape at the Giotto frescoes depicting scenes from Saint Francis’s life. Every few minutes an Italian monk’s voice boomed over the loud speaker, warning the crowd to be quiet.

The lower part of the basilica contained yet another nativity scene. The crowds thinned as the sun went down and the chill rose in the air. It was time for us to go back to Perugia for one last dinner in Italy.

A small taste of Perugia

After ringing in the new year in Positano, we drove back to Rome to deposit our friends at the airport and then continued on for a couple more days of Italy. Since I had found cheap return flights out of Florence, we decided to explore someplace between there and Rome next. That left us still with way too many choices, but at the last minute we decided on Umbria.

We stayed at a forgettable but convenient hotel just outside of Perugia. Usually we prefer to stay in the middle of all the fun, but given logistics and our desire to explore by car, it was easier to sleep out of town. Perugia is one of Umbria’s many charming hilltop cities. For tourists, the best bet is to park at one of the many lots at the bottom of the hill and then take a combination of stairs and outside escalators up to the city. The escalators we took rose up through the ruins of a monastery, making for an interesting ride.

The town was bustling with people out for their evening stroll, and the Christmas lights above the streets lent a festive feel to the scene. We poked our heads into a couple art exhibits, which seemed to be popular places to warm up from the cold outside. Dinner was at the elegant La Taverna, where we fell in love with the eggplant, potato, and zucchini parmigiana and the fresh ravioli with truffles and pepper.

The second evening we dined at a cavernous trattoria full of exposed brick, low ceilings, and locals. The food was simple and well-priced, and of course quite tasty. (I can’t find the name of it in my notes, unfortunately.)

It was a quick visit that definitely left me yearning to spend more time in Umbria. But then again, ever part of Italy makes me feel that way about it.

Expat eats: in search of salsa

Maybe it’s all the Mexican food we ate on our recent trip to the US, but I’ve had enough of the crappy salsa offerings in Germany. Standard German grocery stores tend to stock one brand of salsa, usually Old El Paso. My attempts to find alternatives have not been good. I once joyfully bought up several types of salsa from a small Mexican store near Pariser Platz, only to discover at home that every single one of the jars had expired. A long time ago. (I ate them anyway.) And then this, the last straw:

Don't buy this.

Continue reading

lounging around on the Amalfi Coast

From Naples we drove (brave people that we are) down to the Amalfi Coast. We rented an apartment just outside of Positano, so our first order of business was to meet up with the landlord and squeeze our car into one of the more impossible parking spots I’ve ever seen, perched on a small cliff next to a boulder and through a teeny tiny gate. Then from the main road we walked through another gate and down a wandering staircase to our apartment which was built into the wall of the cliff. The glass walls of the kitchen and living room retracted until the rooms were practically outside. The view alone was enough to keep us entertained for weeks.

We rented the apartment through Summer in Italy. I was a little nervous about having to pay for the stay in full before we even arrived, but the apartment was absolutely delightful. I highly recommend the rental agency, and would happily use them again.

We cooked many of our meals at the apartment (cooking in Italy is a delight thanks to the amazing fresh veggies and cheeses available), with the big exception being a splurge of a dinner at the Michelin-starred La Caravella in the town of Amalfi. The atmosphere was a bit stuffier than I would have liked, but the food was absolutely delicious. It was creative yet stood on the strength of the superb ingredients – a dollop of the finest buffalo ricotta or a perfectly-prepared tender shrimp. The menu (as most in this region) was predominantly fish, but the vegetarian options were also carefully constructed. The meal ended with a curious spoonful of chocolate-coated fried eggplant.

Amalfi was still in full Christmas swing, with Christmas concerts in the church and nativity scenes all over town, especially in the fountains. There were also elaborate nativity scenes along the coastal road which stay up all year long.

We had weather ranging from warm and sunny to pouring rain and stormy. We spent the last day of 2009 on the beach, and then watched from our balcony as said beach disappeared into the churning waves the next day. The sunsets were amazing every single night.

I am a huge fan of off-season travel, and this trip was no exception. There was plenty going on to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s, but there were no giant crowds of tourists jockeying for position. Many hotels and restaurants were closed for the season, but the charm of the area was still out in full view.