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Visiting Italy - Rome to Venice & Back - Part 7

Updated on November 10, 2012

Prologue

Back in 1997 my Aunt Mary took my sister Nanci and I on the trip of a lifetime to Italy. We were very excited about this as both our father and our maternal grandparents came from this beautiful country, and we had always wanted to visit. This hub is a continuation of Visiting Italy - Rome to Venice & Back - Part 1.

San Marino

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Frutta e Verdura

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San Marino is just a stopping point and so we only have an hour here. The bus can only go so far and we have to walk the rest of the way. Nicoletta, our tour guide, suggested a place for lunch, but both Nanci and I forego this plan, deciding instead to hike up and see as much as we can. Auntie Mary decides to stay behind because she has been here before, and the reality of it is that I think her feet are still sore from the day before.

Heading off, we knew we would not have enough time to make it all the way to the top but our plan was to find a nice lookout place to take some photos. There is no car traffic in this part of town so we wandered uninhibited, darting here and there. The streets were quite narrow along the way, opening up once in a while to a wider space, not quite a piazza, but a small version of the same. In one of these areas a market stall was set up with luscious looking fruits and vegetables, and of course I had to take a photo of this. For some reason I am attracted to flower vendors and fruits and vegetable stalls. I think it is the brightness of all of the luscious looking produce against the grey stones of many of the streets and buildings.

We finally came across a terraced area where we could get quite a good view of the surrounding countryside, looking out over an Italy that was completely surrounding this tiny republic and once again marveled at the many different aspects of this country. When we were ready we took our time heading back down, melting in with some of the locals, replying Buongiorno whenever someone greeted us, or even before they greeted us. We had become quite used to this by now and it has been something that up to this point I have been remiss in mentioning. That is, that the people in Italy are about the friendliest of any other place that I have traveled, especially more so in the small towns, always calling out a friendly greeting, with a smile or a friendly wave. It is one of the things that has and will always endear me to this country and the people who live here.

Returning to the appointed meeting place we still have time to have a look in the shops and of course to look for Auntie Mary. In no time we caught sight of her sitting out in the sun at an outside cafe looking quite pleased with herself as she announced that of all things, she'd had a delicious plate of french fries while we were gone. What? In Italy - in San Marino - she had eaten french fries, is there nothing sacred! Her mother must surely be shaking her fist from the great beyond, but that's what she felt like that day and that's what she'd had. In fact I was probably quite jealous, because that is one of my favourites too.

Leaving San Marino behind we motor along and soon notice that the scenery is once again changing, becoming more and more rugged with huge rock formations. We are in fact traveling on part of what is known as the Flaminian Way, a road that traverses from the Porta del Popolo in the Aurelian walls of Rome, all the way up to Ravenna. There are many narrow passes and steep inclines and at one point we travel through a tunnel in the middle of rock. This tunnel known as the Passo del Furlo is just 40 yards long, but considering that it was knocked out by hand with hammer and chisel, it is quite thrilling to be passing through it even for the short time that it takes. We are just about due for our next break and rest stop. As we can see there is not much around where we are in terms of conveniences, but we are assured there is a stop not too far along the way called none other than Bar Furlo and this happens to have been the favourite place for Mussolini and his cronies to stop and have a coffee and lunch while hunting in the surrounding mountains.

Grabbing a quick snack as well as a washroom break, along with a quick look at the room where Mussolini and friends relaxed, we were back on the bus in no time and heading for Assisi. The plan is to arrive in the late aftrnoon, with a couple of hours to spare in order to be able to walk about the town, but more importantly to see the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi.

Assisi

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Assisi is the birthplace of St. Francis who founded the Franciscan religious order in the town in the year 1208. The Franciscan Monastery and the lower and upper church of St. Francis was started immediately after his cannonization in 1228. The lower church contains frescos from the artists Cimabue and Giotto. The upper church contains frescos depicting the life of St Francis himself, previously thought to be done by Giotto, but since believed to be done by artists in the circle of Pietro Cavallini of Rome. The frescos are absolutely beautiful. There is so much colour in this church, once again in those many beautiful Mediterranean hues that we see throughout the country. The lower church of course repeats with the same colouration in its many frescos.

I was strolling around the upper church by myself when all of a sudden I heard some music. Very simple but hauntingly beautiful strains of guitar music started echoing softly thorughout the church, coming from somewhere below. I had no idea where my sister and aunt were, but I started following the music as did a couple of other folks nearby. I was in a hurry as I did not want to miss what was going on, but all the while trying to be quiet and respectfull as I followed the sound. Finding a narrow stone stairway I climbed down and around a spiral staircase that seemed to be leading into the bowels of the church. Reaching the bottom I found that I was in a very small chapel that held a couple of rows of wooden pews, one side toward the front containing friars dressed in their simple garb, playing various intruments, and there in front of them was the tomb of St. Francis himself, with a priest getting ready to celebrate mass.

As I quietly slipped into one of the back pews I had the feeling of having just stepped back in time. To hear the guitar music, to hear the friars chanting and to see this simple chapel, in the way of St. Francis, all lit up with the glow of candlelight had to be one of the better experiences of a lifetime. In fact it vied for my heart against that day in Balogna when Marg and I entered the Piazza Maggiore and saw all those little children waving flags and singing in their angelic voices. I was disappointed that Nanci and Auntie Mary were not with me to actually witness this, but in a way I was also happy that once again I had experienced something very special on my own.

Leaving the church I found them both out on the terrace looking out over the landscape. I told them all about what I had seen and heard as we wandered up the street to check out the main square of Assisi after which we met the bus and headed for our hotel. Dinner is with the entire group tonight in our hotel and tomorrow we will be heading back to Rome. We did not have much time in this historical town of Assisi, but I felt so blessed and extremely happy that I'd had the best experience possible those few moments at the bottom of the Basilica of San Francesco of Assisi.

Our Last Day In Italy

This morning we wake up in Assisi and feel a little more rested as we have been given the bonus of about another hour's sleep. It is to be our last full day in Italy and as we are not that far away from Rome, we do not need to rush. It is another beautiful day weather wise so we are looking forward to this trip and one more stop before reaching Rome.

Traveling once again through Umbria we will be making a stop in Orvieto and if we were going to be saving something special for the last day, Orvieto fits perfectly. Situated in South Umbria the city itself sits on the flat summit of volcanic rock and is one of the most dramatic sights in Europe rising above almost vertical faces of tuff (rock faces with defensive walls urrounding it built of the same sone.

Orvieto was a major centre of Etruscan civilization and its archaeological musuem houses some of the Etruscan artifacts that have been recovered in the surrounding area. It is home to Etruscan ruins and remnants of a wall that enclosed the city over 2000 years ago. Arriving we are treated to a ride on the Finicular which will take us into the centre of town via a gulley dug out of rock. About half way there the track divides and we pass a second Finicular coming back out of town to the train station, all timed just perfectly, thank God.

Orvieto

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At the top we find ourselves looking out over beautiful vineyards. Of course this is the country that gives us the Orvieto and Orvieto Classico white wines that are well known. Close by on a rock wall is a vine of lovely morning glories in shades of pink. And growing on nearby walls in and amongst green foliage were capers. This was all news to me because I had always thought they were a member of the seafood family. I kept this fact to myself though.

Off we went to the main square where we had a look at the Duomo that Orvieto is known for because of its Gothic design, the sides of this church being striped in a white travertine and greenish black volcanic rock called "basalt". This is very different from any of the other churches we have seen so far.

Further along we spotted the shops and neat little cafes that we wanted to take in. Orvieto is also known for it's beautiful pottery, so I was anxious to have a look. Indeed I did get my eye on a planter that I would have loved to have for my garden, but then I wondered, how do you get it home. In the end I figured it wasn't worth all the hassel I'd have to go through. But I loved this town and would have to say that it was one of the two prettiest towns we had seen on this trip, the other one being Verona and I was glad that we'd had an opportunity to spend some time here, even if it was a short visit. All too soon we had to meet with everyone for the Finicular ride down to the bottom again and our last leg of the trip on into Rome. There is nowhere else to go now but Rome, and while of course that is no hardship, it signals once more for us that our time is coming to a close. So for now all we can do is lay our heads back on the bus, have a little rest and let Carlo bring us back home in the safe fashion that we have become accustomed to. We could not have had a better chauffeur, nor could we have done better for a tour guide than our own Nicoletta.

Our last night in Rome was spent in the Villa Pamphili Hotel and when we arrive we are quite happy with this because in truth we were not overly enamored with our first two night's hotel in Rome. At the time it didn't really matter, because of the excitement of just eing there, and we didn't give it much thought. But at the end of the trip it seemed that we should be treated to something a little nicer, and so it was.

We have decided that for our last evening in Rome, we will hop a cab and once again head downtown. So after an hour or so of rest we do just that. Walking along, our feet naturally take us over to Piazza Navona, and we figure "why not - for one last time". We started here, and it just seemed so right to end it here. Little did I know that this would become a tradition. The square was alive with musicians, mimes and artists. Add to that, children kicking a soccer ball and families just generally strolling around taking in the beautiful evening. It was wonderful!

When we left Piazza Navona there was just one more place to go and of course that was Trevi Fountain. While it may seem a little hokey, we succumbed to the tradition of turning our backs and tossing a coin into the fountain in the hopes of returning to Rome and to Italy once again. In reality I did not need to wish. I knew with a certainty that I would be back again, but I did wish, just in case!

Arriving back at the hotel we were not ready yet to call it night - tomorrow would come all too soon. So we went into the bar to have a nightcap and ran into the Indianans sitting there doing the same thing. One of them was ordering a Martini and so I said "why not" and felt encouraged to do the same. They took a photo of us, and we took a photo of them. Sometimes I look at all of those photos of our fellow traveling companions and wonder "did any of them ever return to Italy?"

Next day, bright and early our hotel transportation took us to the airport. Nicoletta, bless her, was there at the hotel to make sure that we all got off with no glitches, another "Pro" of traveling Globus Bus Tour. Things moved pretty smoothly at the airport too and in no time we were in the air and on our way home to Toronto. And the best thing I saw since leaving Rome was Craig's face as he waited outside the arrivals to catch sight of the three of us. With hugs all around, finding our car we headed out, with all three of us babbling away about the trip. It was hard to tell who got the most air time, but it certainly wasn't Craig. Later on in the evening, when we were finally alone once more I turned to him and said "We are going to Italy -soon".



Epilogue

The next morning I was shocked to pick up the paper and see the news. It was September 26, 1997 and Italy had suffered an earthquake. In fact the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi had suffered quite a bit of damage. Part of the vault had collapsed killing four people and there was extensive damage done to the frescos. I couldn't believe it! We had been standing in that church just two days prior. I felt very badly for the people who had lost their lives and also sad about the damage done to the church itself. At the same time I was immediately thankfull that the timing of our own trip had not put us there in harms way on that fateful day, and that we were able to see that beautiful church in tact.

O' Sole Mio - Sung by Il Volo on American Idol

Il Volo

Il Volo is the latest singing sensation out of Italy. Three young men when they were discovered, winning a talent contest a couple of years ago; they were grouped together - at the time one was 16 and the other two 17. None of them are 20 yet at the time of writing this hub . Amazing voices - I had the pleasure of taking in one of their concerts in Toronto last summer.

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