After Rome, we took the train up to Assisi. From the train station, a bus takes visitors to the top of a hill where a ruined castle stands guard over this quaint little village. Upon entering, I realized that this is the place that I had been searching for during my entire trip. It is the quintessential Italian town. The streets are narrow and winding and lead to all sorts of neat surprises. Churches and bells abound, and local artisans sell their one-of-a-kind wares in well-kept shops. Best of all, Assisi is clean, graffiti free, and full of friendly people.
Assisi is home to St. Francis, a friar who lived simply, frugally and with love for all mankind. It is by example that he taught those around him, and there is something simple, humble and loving to the town of Assisi. The Basilica Di Franscesco is beautiful, and like all the churches in Italy, it contains wonderful artwork. Like the man himself, the church named after St. Francis is simple in form and decoration. This is especially noticeable, having just seen the extravagance of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Assisi is a hilly town, so wear good walking shoes when exploring. This town has some of the best artisan shopping around. Items made from olive tree wood, handcrafted shoes, bath and soap items and hand embroidery can all can be found here–and at reasonable prices too. If you’ve been saving up your money, this is the place to drop your euros.
Assisi overlooks the Umbrian Valley, and the views are gorgeous. We stayed at Hotel Minerva a wonderful bed and breakfast place that is above a restaurant. Our windows opened onto this view:
Late one afternoon, we stopped at a bar and went wine tasting. Our Romanian sommelier was down to earth and friendly as she enthusiastically told us about the fresh Italian cheeses, meats, and breads that were accompanying the bottles of wine we had ordered. We sat outside in an alleyway, and watched as a mother pigeon bought food and straw to her babies in a nest high above. It was quiet, as most of the tour buses had left for the day, and I got a real neighborly feel for the place. Assisi is like Cinque Terre, in that it is a great place to slow down and relax and take in all the beauty that surrounds you.
I recently got back from my first trip abroad. We spent nearly three weeks exploring Italy, beginning in the city of Venice. Even though Venice is touristy, it still has lots of old-world charm. There are narrow, winding streets that spill out onto piazzas, and canals are at every turn, filled with singing gondoliers. It’s a happy place. No cars are on the island itself, and you have to walk the narrow, twisty streets in order to get around. Starting out in Venice was great, because I realized that everything I needed to know about Italian life could be learned here.
I learned that the deeper you go into a city, the more authentic it becomes. Veer off the beaten path. Take that turn up the hill or around the corner to see where it may lead. Chances are, you will run into less tourists and more locals, and may discover something new and exciting while exploring.
I discovered that public transportation can be slow and hard to navigate at times. This is especially true of the train system. Make sure you know when and if there is a train change. It is helpful to take a picture of the stops/changes that you need to make from the kiosk, as train changes are not printed on the ticket itself.
I learned that it is easy to get lost in these twisty windy streets that are not clearly marked. I have a horrible sense of direction, and really did not wander on my own until I got to Verona, where the streets have signs on the corners and are straighter.
I stumbled upon the trash problem in Italy. There is a lot of trash, and granted it is hard to collect. They either have to cart it off by boat or by small trash trucks. These trucks are just a bit bigger than a golf cart with a dumpster attached. Then, they have to navigate around the old cobblestones streets of Italy to collect the trash. Not much at a time can be collected, so trash can pile up and blow around in the meantime.
Sadly, the graffiti problem in Italy is hard to miss. It is everywhere. Graffiti even covers buildings that are hundreds of years old.
I learned the difference between caffe and coffee. During our first morning in Venice, we wanted to get a cup of coffee. We ordered a caffe, thinking that was the Italian word for coffee. Our caffe came in a tiny cup, similar to the sized cups I would drink out of when my girls were little and we had tea parties. It was filled with this thick, dark, undrinkable liquid, and no matter how much milk and sugar we put in, it did not make it taste any better. We finally realized that we had to order a Caffe Americano, which is espresso mixed with hot water, and if they put steamed milk and cream in, it was perfect.
I realized that if you see something you like and want to buy, get it. Don’t think that you’ll come back, because you might not be able to find the store again, or you might not have time. I could kick myself for not buying Murano lace and Burano glass while in Venice. We kept thinking we would have to time to go to these islands on the way out of Italy, but did not. I walked by plenty of shops selling these things, but didn’t buy.
I learned that shoulders must be covered when going into churches; otherwise, you will have to wear a silly looking paper shawl that looks like this:
My best advice is to bring a scarf (or buy one from one of the many vendors) to cover your shoulders with; that way, you aren’t lugging around a jacket on a hot sweaty day.
I learned that Italians take their mealtimes seriously. Meals are meant to be eaten slowly, lingered over and enjoyed. It was quite nice sitting around outside for two hours eating, drinking, talking and people watching during the evenings. Oh, and wine is a perfectly acceptable beverage anytime after 11am.
I learned about time management while in Venice. We were traveling with lots of extended family members, and we realized we had to plan out the night before as to what we all wanted to see and do so we could be on the same page the next day. There are some places that require advance reservations, especially the museums in Florence and Rome. So plan in advance if you want to see sites you know you will need reservations for.
We learned not to eat on the street of Italy. In fact, it is against many city ordinances. The first day we got to Venice, we got a slice of pizza, because, that’s what you do for your first meal in Italy–you get pizza, right? Well, it was in a cafe, and there were no places left to sit and eat (we had ordered at a counter) so we sat on the sidewalk and ate. I kept wondering why we were getting the stink eye from so many people. It was only the next day when I realized why. While I was in St. Mark’s Square, waiting to go into the church, I was reading a sign posted with rules. One of the rules said that eating in public spaces not intended for eating was illegal. Lesson leaned.
We learned about tipping, or I should say not tipping in Venice. Tipping is not necessary. It is only customary to round-up to the next euro.
I learned about bidets, foot pumping sinks and bathrooms in Venice. Many bathrooms in restaurants are down narrow stairs, deep in basements. Some sinks have to be turned on by a foot pump, and we ran across a few bathrooms that did not have a toilet seat per se, just a hole in the floor.
I learned that a lot of people smoke in Italy. Sometimes this can get annoying, when sitting in the many outside restaurants. You just have to try not to sit downwind or next to a smoker.
I learned my lesson about restaurant hustlers. If a charming gentleman is outside a restaurant and is trying to get you to eat there, chances are, it’s not a good restaurant. And while you are eating, you will be accosted by a variety of peddlers selling their wares. Be wary of them, and don’t pay a penny more than what you think the item is worth. More about this in a later post.
Next up: Lucca, Pisa and the cities of Cinque Terre