ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


1 Comment

Assisi

I’ve been stuck on this post for a while now, getting frustrated over sentences that just aren’t working, sentiments that won’t be put into words, and a tone that cannot be found. Possibly because it’s been a few weeks since I was in Italy and now I’ve got other things on my mind. Or that when I do turn my thoughts towards Assisi, they’re met with glorious sunset images that simply cannot be described without sounding saccharine or clichéd.

I know the world probably doesn’t need another self indulgent writer harping on about ‘the wondrous Umbrian light’… but never mind, indulge me. Assisi is beautiful and I would like to sing its praises, no matter how clumsily or inadequately, and starting with the sunsets.

AssisiAssisi is one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever been to. At sundown, at least in summer, the ancient stone facades all glow a lovely, dusky pink – a reflection of the peach and flamingo medley sky. The medieval town is built on the side of a hill, surrounded by views  of a seemingly endless rust and olive coloured landscape. That would be Umbria, bathed in magical Umbrian light.

In addition to being almost inconceivably pretty to look at, Assisi has a wonderful vibe. Being the birthplace of St.Francis, it is, of course, an incredibly religious place. I’m not a religious person, and the word ‘spiritual’, in certain contexts, invokes in me an admittedly violent scepticism that makes me feel physically ill. But compared with, for example, the crowded halls and tacky gift shops of the Vatican (and countless other religious hotspots), Assisi seems so much more dignified, modest, and yes, genuinely, humbly ‘spiritual’. In the least pretentious sense of the word.

It was really nice to see churches being used as churches, and pilgrims without cameras.

AssisiAnother thing that struck me about Assisi was that it manages to strike a nice balance between tranquillity and liveliness. The clergy-to-layperson ratio is possibly one of the highest in the world, which is perhaps why the streets felt so safe and everyone seemed to walk rather slowly. But in no way did it feel sleepy or musty, and there’s more to the town than religion. For example, there are lots of fantastic bookshops and bakeries (which is enough to sell a place to me, but possibly not everyone). There’s also live music in the streets, plenty of bars and cafes, art galleries, and non-tacky gift shops (although there were some admittedly tacky ones too). When Mum and I were there, there was a medieval festival happening, with hot marching drummers, and hot roast sandwiches & glass of wine combo for 2.50€. There was a Morris Minor motor club passing through, and like most hilly places in Southern Europe, insanely fit cyclists flitting about in professional looking getup. The streets were filled with happy people enjoying Aperol Spritzers in the late afternoon light. I wouldn’t say Assisi is a party town, but it definitely has an upbeat feel to it. It’s refreshingly clean. And the local dessert is some kind of delicious brioche dipped in some kind of delicious liquor, just in case you were wondering.

As for St.Francis, he sounds like an interesting fellow. Mum and I were talking to a trainee priest who gave us a bit more insight on this apparently misinterpreted saint. Misinterpreted, according to our priest friend, because people often imagine him as a nature loving hippy. The story goes that St. Francis was a rich boy, the son of a wealthy silk merchant, who relinquished his comfortable life in order to be closer to God by living in poverty. He spent a lot of time wandering the countryside, talking with animals, and urging people to respect all living creatures as equals… sounds pretty hippy to me. And makes me wonder, perhaps if St.Francis had been born on the other side of the world, about 1600 years earlier, he and Buddha would have made good mates. Anyway, in addition to being a friar and wild animal tamer, the young St Francis and St Clare and their friends the birdsFrancesco was also a trendsetter; he was the first recorded person to ever receive the stigmata, and he bought Jesus’ humble robes back into fashion (retro was aldready ‘in’). He was reportedly a diplomat, who tried to put an end to the crusades by talking and negotiating with foreign leaders. He started his own order, and convinced his ‘friend’ St.Clare to do the same. St. Francis spread the love and was popular amongst his contemporaries, so much so that he was canonised just 2 years after his death. He’s since become the patron saint of ecologists – a hippy if there ever was one. However, St.Francis appeals to me personally on a more superficial, aesthetic level. He’s often pictured with birds… I’ve a bit of a thing for birds, and they look so sweet in all the paintings.

So anyway, no matter where you fall on the belief spectrum, I can highly recommend a visit to Assisi, especially if picturesque countryside, cute little rambling streets, or elegant architecture is your thing. There are a tonne of churches – not the gilt, austentatious kind, but the graceful, austere, gothic variety. Austere plus colourful pschedelic frescos. Anyway, the town is small enough that you can walk around comfortably, and big enough that you can stay for two or three days without getting bored. Another option is to spend a couple of months there and do an intensive Italian course, now that would be nice. There are lots of picnic spots with good views, and being in the heart of Umbria (more specifically, Perugia, the home of Baci chocolates), there’s plenty to see and do within an easy, day-trippable distance.

As always, but particularly this time, my photos don’t do the place justice. Perhaps St.Francis is telling me it’s time to buy myself a fancy high-tech camera with a panoramic lens.

Advertisements


4 Comments

ITALY

Tuscany, 2011For many people (possibly most people), Italy is a dream destination. With picture perfect scenery and an abundance of art, fashion, passion and prosciutto – there’s no wondering why it’s the choice setting for so many glamorous films, romance novels, and once-in-a-lifetime holidays.

For those who are lucky enough to actually make it there and see the ‘real’ (or just plain touristic) Italy, the spectrum of reactions is always varied.

Italy was the first country I visited when I moved to Europe in 2011, and it didn’t fail to live up to my (very high) expectations. I actually burst into tears when I saw the Colosseum, such was my wonder and joy at the sudden realisation that I was actually there and living my dream, so to speak. I travelled around for over two weeks, and managed to see a number of cities plus some countryside too, you can read about my very enthusiastic first impressions here.

So when Mum proposed going to Italy this summer (it would be her first time), I absolutely jumped at the chance. Of all the countries I’d been to since I got to Europe, it’s where I’d most wanted to go back.

This time, however, my response was completely different. Of course I enjoyed the trip, but this was mostly because I was in good company, in holiday mode, and not working. The country itself left me feeling a bit underwhelmed, sometimes even disappointed.

There are a few reasons why this might be:

– No free tapas. Sigh. I always find this hard to deal with outside of Spain.
– I was reading Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano. Whilst it’s great to match your holiday reading to your destination, I don’t recommend this book to anyone. Partly because it’s so depressing (everything in Italy, and the world, but especially Italy, is corrupt and fake and run by gangsters and ultimately doomed), and partly because it’s badly written and/or badly translated, and a struggle to read. I ended up giving up half way.
– Some parts of Italy seemed quite dirty. Ok, in comparison to Spain (where old ladies regularly mop the fronts of their houses), most places seem dirty. But I’ve been in third world countries where the filth bothered me less. Perhaps it’s because I saw the griminess as symbolic of complacency (the monuments are already there and tourists will come no matter what), a lack of pride (don’t they appreciate what they have?!), and a result of corruption (see Gomorrah above). Whatever the reason, it’s a shame.
– The restaurants. Last time I was travelling by myself and was generally happy to sit on park benches with 3 euro pizza slices and the tasty fresh produce I got from markets. This time Mum and I chose to eat at cafes, though still on a modest budget. As it turns out, we were really just paying for a place to sit down, with air conditioning and a toilet. The food itself was nothing spectacular, especially for a country that’s meant to be a gastronomic paradise… I love Italian cuisine in theory, but in practice, all the pizza and pasta got repetitive (literally), and the prosciutto, salami and olive oil seemed pretty flavourless. I guess the best Italian food must be found at home-cooked family dinners, or in the really expensive restaurants, or in countries other than Italy…
– Mosquitoes.
– The tourists. Yes, we were two of them. Bloody tourists.
– Being there a second time. There are many advantages to this, such as knowing how the train system works, or being able to orientate oneself. However, I don’t know the country (or the language) well enough to be totally at home in Italy, but nor could I experience the adrenaline thrill of being in a completely new and foreign environment. Curious.

The holiday itself was incredibly smooth. We had no transport hiccups, our accommodation was great, and the service was generally good (although the restaurants stop serving much earlier than in Spain, and the waiters made no bones about packing up tables and chairs around people who were still eating. One time they even turned the lights off on us, at 11pm in the centre of Venice. Mum told them very smoothly that if she couldn’t see the bill, she couldn’t pay it, for which they had no counter argument).

As for the highlights of the trip, well fortunately there were many! It was curious to re-visit cities such as Rome, Florence and Venice, and see them in a different way. Some monuments were no less incredible the second time round, others I barely stopped to look at. Here’s a mixed mix of the places I saw, and some of the things that stuck out.

ROME
The Roman Forum: How on earth I missed this last time I don’t know, especially as my ticket to the Colosseum would have got me straight in. The Forum is a collection of ruins in the city centre. The buildings were once temples, shrines, basilicas and government offices, constructed across centuries by various emperors, each trying to outdo his predecessors. I’m not massively into ruins, and to me The Forum looks like a messy shamble from the outside. But I was in the company of people who know and love that kind of history, and their enthusiasm was contagious. Wandering the incredible buildings and gardens was fascinating and very enjoyable, despite the sweltering heat.

duomo of florenceFLORENCE
The Duomo: My favourite building in Italy. This time I climbed the tower, which was much easier in comparison to the claustrophobic steps of Segovia’s Alcázar, due to several rest points and a lovely cool breeze. So don’t be discouraged by the climb, it’s well worth it to view the building from above and look across at the beautiful domed rooves.
Walnut bread, fresh figs and chianti: Florence’s central market is a great place to pick up picnic supplies (and the path up to the Rose Garden across the river is a great place to have a picnic). The highlight was definitely the walnut bread – it was sort of like a chewy, sweet and salty flat bread, made with wholegrain flour. We went back to the market bakery for seconds (a few times), but stupidly didn’t get the name of the bread, and weren’t able to find it anywhere else. If anyone knows anything about Italian breads, please get in touch with me!

TURIN
The shroud of Turin: The cloth that supposedly wrapped Christ’s crucified body is one of the most controversial and most analysed artefacts in the world. It’s held in a shrouded (haha) container behind a lot of security in the Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista, but you can study a (surprisingly interesting) full scale replica in the nearby Church of San Lorenzo, or in the Museo della Sindone, the Shroud museum.
Mole AntonellianaThe Mole: is more than just a striking piece of modern architecture, it also houses Turin’s ‘National’ film and cinema museum. For me the highlight was the glass elevator, which takes you up through the centre of the museum and out onto an observation deck, for spectacular views of the city.
Caffè Mulassano: This tiny art nouveau cafe is found on the Piazza Castello. Drinks are pricey but well worth it for the nibbles (which came in silver bowls with silver spoons) elaborate decor, and friendly waiters (who only speak Italian). I recommend the spinach quiche, and the olives were the best I’ve tried outside of Spain.
Caffè San Tomasso 10: is creatively named after its address. This was the original Lavazza family coffee shop, and the walls are decorated with stunning, sexy, coffee-themed photography from their various advertising campaigns.

MILAN
Skip all that fashion rubbish, Milan’s Duomo is much more stylish. The Cathedral’s gothic stonework is best viewed from the upstairs galleries, where you can walk amongst the arches and view the statues and gargoyles up close.

LAKE COMO
Well, George Clooney wasn’t there to pick us up from the station in his private, Nespresso powered waterplane, but we had fun in Como nonetheless. I’ve no particular recommendations, other than that if you’re short on time, the funicular and the ferry are both great for taking in views of the scenery, at two very different angles. What else can I say? It’s just a very pretty part of the world. Apparently it looks like Switzerland, and lots of famous people live there.

VeniceVENICE
Venice is tired, and made me tired. It’s hot, and crowded, and expensive, and I feel sorry for the buildings which are all slowly rotting and sinking under the weight of the tourist hordes with their cameras, gelatis, and tacky souvenirs. However, I did have a few pleasant surprises.
Vivaldi: Mum bought some spur-of-the-moment 25 euro tickets to a concert from one of those street vendors dressed in Renaissance get up. I was sceptical, thinking it might be a scam, or at best, the concert would be terrible. Venice has such a transient population that if the musicians were awful, no matter, tomorrow would bring a fresh, ignorant crowd and it would be a sell out as usual. How wrong I was. The music (The Four Seasons, plus some) was fantastic, and the musicians were fascinating. The performance was held in a small church just off St.Mark’s square, which reportedly had the same acoustics and dimensions as what Vivaldi originally composed his works for. The intimacy of the venue allowed us to study the musicians faces, and speculate on their possible relationships and the apparent musical and psychological battle that may or may not have been taking place between them. Definitely the most interesting concert I have ever been to.
Gondola ride: Many people say this is over-priced and overrated. At 80 euros for half an hour, I’ll admit it’s bordering on daylight robbery, but I really think it’s worth it. It’s a beautiful way to enjoy the city. After scurrying around crowded walkways all day, it was so relaxing to kick back in a gondola and glide for a bit. The best bit was enjoying the music wafting by from other gondolas which had payed extra for the ‘canapé and serenade’ package.
Delivery men: The delivery men of Venice have it tough. The logistics of the island are a nightmare; narrow streets, heaps of steps, and lots of loading/unloading big boxes from little boats. It’s hot and they work hard, mostly with their shirts off. If tanned and muscled torsos interest you, I recommend an early morning stroll in Venice, before the shops open.

LUCCA is a small city in Tuscany that’s famous for its medieval walls, pretty shops, and general pleasant-ness.
Aperol Spritzer: Aperol, Prosecco, and soda, served with a green olive on a toothpick, and with plain potato chips. Lucca’s central plaza is  round, and filled with nice cafes, parked bikes, and happy families. It’s the perfect place to enjoy an Aperol Spritzer and listen to some pretty good buskers.
Bike ride along the top of the walls: The city takes less than an hour to circumnavigate and it’s flat the whole way, which makes it an easily doable ‘exercise’ – even if you’ve had a few spritzers the night before. The views are gorgeous and the bikes are only 3 euros to hire.

Amalfi Coast

AMALFI was apparently the ‘highlight’ of my last trip to Italy. This time, it was the biggest disappointment. I remember the Amalfi coast as being spectacularly beautiful and dramatic, but now it just seemed crowded, cheap (classless), and dirty. Fortunately there were two saving graces:
Santa Croce beach and bar: is a free 5 min boat trip from Amalfi. Go to the left-hand jetty (when facing the beach) and look for the little boat with Santa Croce written on the side; it comes and goes all day. The captain is a big guy with long hair and a belly, I think his name was Antonio. This’ll take you to a small private beach, where it costs 15 euro for two banana lounges and a beach umbrella. The beach is much nicer (and the water much cleaner) than the big ones, and there’s a nice little restaurant that’s pretty inexpensive and has good seafood and pasta.
Il porticciolo di Amalfi: This was our ‘splurge’ accommodation. It’s pension which is a little removed from the town, up on the hillside, with a beautiful terrace that has spectacular views (especially at night). The breakfast is fantastic and the owners were lovely (they gave us the recommendation for Santa Croce). They also let us use the kitchen, and in the end we took all our meals on the terrace (so the ‘splurge’ really paid for itself). On the last evening we were lucky enough to witness a lightning storm out at sea, whilst enjoying spritzers and cheeses in the balmy night on our side of the bay.

ASSISI took me completely by surprise, and was without a doubt the highlight of this holiday. In fact, it was so beautiful, that I’m going to write a separate post about it.

So, that was Italy. I’ve definitely sated the lingering desire I’d had to revisit the country, as well as any buffalo mozzarella cravings I’m likely to have over the next few years. In a way, I’m glad that dream is over.

I’ll upload a photo gallery in the next post, and link them to the travel photos tab in the sidebar.