I have seen the promised land of ceramics! Steve and I took an overnight trip to Perugia and Deruta this week. For me, the highlight was a visit to the Grazia Maioliche pottery facility; for Steve, it was meeting a guy who makes incredibly beautiful electric guitars out of ceramics.

We took the train to Perugia, which is in Umbria, about halfway between Florence and Rome. The old city center is set up on a hill, and it was very cold and windy and kind of deserted, this being mid-February. Perugia is know for its universities and chocolate. The chocolate company, Perugina, is based there, and they make the Baci (kisses) that are world-famous. I had high hopes of visiting the factory, but alas, it was not to be. Nestle purchased Perugina in 1988 and the whole vibe I got was “big corporate.” I called the customer service number that was supposedly dedicated to foreign callers to ask about a tour, and the operator said, “I don’t speak English.” I asked about French. “No. Only Italian.” I asked if I could talk to someone else. “No.” So I tried email. They did offer a spot on a tour leaving that day at 2:00. We were still on the train, and would not arrive in Perugia until about 2:30, so I asked if we could come later. “No. Reservation cancelled.” OK, then.

We did visit a chocolate shop that sold Perugina products, and despite being kind of bugged with them, we did get a few of the Baci. We also got some chocolate liqueurs, one flavored with banana and one with chili pepper. Deliciozo! We spent a while chatting with the store clerk, who gave us lots of free samples of said flavored liqueurs (also orange, limoncello, mint, coffee …). He is a 26-year old Israeli national who is working on a graduate degree in computer science in Perugia. He told us that he is an Arab Christian, and does not want to go back to Israel, as he is kind of betwixt and between the Jewish and Muslim Arab populations. He hopes to get a job in the U.S. after graduation, doing something in cyber security. We spoke a bit about the political situations in American and Israel, about U.S. immigration policy (such as it is), and suggested that he check out Austin, Nashville or D.C. He seemed like a bright, hardworking guy, and I hope he will achieve his goals.

We tried to have dinner at a place we found online, but, this being Italy, it was closed for no apparent reason. So we ended up at a different spot, and ordered bruschetta and fried mozzarella to start. The cheese came in two big triangles, and looked like a fried grilled cheese sandwich. What’s not to like, right? Anchovies. Yes, there were disgusting little gray slimy fish lurking unseen in the middle of the grilled cheese. Ewww. That was definitely not in the description of the dish, which is weird, because here in the E.U., where overregulation is practically an Olympic sport, every potential allergen in every dish must be disclosed rather prominently on the menu. I couldn’t have been more grossed out than if I had bitten into the proverbial apple and found half of a worm.

Moving on, we spent the following day in Deruta, which is known for its ceramics. There are tons of producers and shops there and I could easily spend a month visiting them all. For this trip, I wanted to visit Grazia Maioliche, which dates back about 500 years and is still run by the family that founded it. I was able to book an appointment with Chiara Grazia, daughter of the current owner, Ubaldo Grazia. The facility is basically closed during February, but she said she was going to be there anyway, and invited us to stop by. We arrived a little early, and found Ubaldo himself there alone. We got to spend about 20 minutes with this fascinating 83-year old man. He showed us his office, the work rooms, storage rooms and classrooms and talked a little about his life. He has traveled all over the world promoting his family’s terra cotta ceramics. He has met, worked with and sold Grazia ceramics through Stanley Marcus (Neiman Marcus), Chuck Williams (Williams-Sonoma), Tiffany’s, Bergdorf’s and more. Every step in the production process is done on-site, and he showed us examples of different pieces at each stage of production, from clay to the first firing, first glazing, stenciling, painting, glazing with glass and second firing. Everything is done by hand, and our only regret was that we didn’t get to see the master painters at work. When the charming Chiara arrived, she showed us around their store on the first floor. I felt like Carrie Bradshaw in the Vogue closet, and kept asking myself, “How can this be?” We were in a huge showroom surrounded by some of the most exquisitely beautiful pieces of ceramic tableware, tiles, lamps and other items that I have ever seen. Prices for a dinner plate start at around 90 euro and go up from there. You can pick up a single, used, large decorative charger plate, made by Grazia and originally sold at Williams-Sonoma, on e-Bay for $325. It’s expensive, but you are getting a true work of art. I aspire to have some of their plates and serving pieces once I have a home to house them.

We then wandered into the town square, and saw a dusty, tired-looking shop, with what appeared to be ceramic pieces shaped like guitars in the window. We remarked to each other that it was a really clever idea for a piece of artwork. We went in, and discovered that they were actually real electric guitars that you can play. Carlos Santana has one. We met the father and son who own the shop. The son, Giovanni Andreani, is a musician and ceramics artist, and he decided in 2003 to combine his two loves and produce these one-of-a-kind musical instruments. He makes them by hand, using only the traditional methods and materials used in the 16th and 17th centuries. They are surprisingly lightweight. The Andreanis have an amplifier right in the shop, and both father and son plugged in a couple of the guitars and played for us. Naturally, they sound amazing.

Finally, we went to the Regional Ceramics Museum in Deruta, which was founded in 1898 and is currently housed in a restored 14th century convent. They have over 6,000 pieces in their collection, mostly from the Renaissance period.  We hung out there until it was time to get a taxi back to Perugia and catch the train back to Florence.

Despite having a mostly rewarding career as a health care lawyer, I often feel that I have missed my true calling. Or actually many different true callings. One of them is to be a ceramics artist. Maybe I can go back and study at the Grazia school someday? Ubaldo Grazia told us he had studied law in school, so there may be hope for me.