Last weekend’s visit to Tuscan and Umbrian hill towns will stand out from all of the other trips I have taken and will take this semester for three reasons: my parents were there, we rented a car, and I didn’t have to pay for anything!
My parents came to visit me last week. I told them that I was thrilled take care of the tour guiding and itinerary-planning for their stay in Rome, but that they had to handle the details of the weekend excursion. I instructed my parents to purchase the Rick Steves’ Italy guidebook (they got the Rome one, too) and pick a destination. I was happy when they picked Assisi, but I explained that it was rather complicated to get to by train. Then, my dad sent me an email confirmation for a rental car.
We picked up the car early and headed to our first destination – a tiny little town called Bagnoregio. It’s Rick Steves’ favorite hill town, but it didn’t have a whole lot to offer at 10:30 on a Saturday morning. St. Bonaventure is Bagnoregio’s hometown boy. We tried to go in the church dedicated to him, but a baptism in progress kept us in the foyer.
Next, we stopped in Montepulciano, literally a shining city on a hill. With tummies rumbling, we trekked up and up and up through the city, searching in vain for a restaurant to have some lunch and some famous Montepulciano vino. On a cold day in low season, this was a much more difficult task than we had imagined. We finally reached the main piazza at the top of the hill and consulted the guidebook for restaurant recommendations. Two of the three suggested spots were closed for the season, and the directions to the third restaurant were vague. We explored behind the church for the restaurant and to our great relief, we found the tiny trattoria open for lunch and full of locals. We enjoyed an amazing meal – the best one I have eaten so far this semester – and a bottle of Rosso di Montepulciano while the family who owned the restaurant served us. The dad set the tables, the daughters served, and the mom brought out plates of steaming pasta from the kitchen.
After lunch, we made our way back to the big piazza and found a wine cellar called Cantina Contucci, another Rick Steves’ recommendation. In the Rick Steves’ Italy book, there is a picture of Adamo, the owner of the cantina, with Rick. We wandered through the actual giant casks filled with actual wine in the cellars and then tasted a few different reds while I chatted with Adamo in Italian. He wished my parents “buona vacanza” and me “buon studio” and we were on our way to Assisi.
I had visited Assisi for a day when I came to Italy with my high school in 2008, and I couldn’t wait to return. Our first stop on Sunday morning was the Basilica di Santa Chiara (Saint Clare), a church I hadn’t visited on my previous trip to Assisi. Just inside the church, visitors are shunted to a chapel on the right. The chapel is home to the original San Damiano Cross. According to legend, the figure of Christ on the cross spoke to Francis and instructed him to rebuild the Church. Cardinal Gibbons High School, my alma mater, was founded by Franciscan brothers. Even though the Franciscans have since left Gibbons, the Franciscan spirit is still very present, most obviously in the replica of the San Damiano Cross that hangs in the Gibbons chapel.
The interior and basement of Santa Chiara had been recently renovated to accommodate hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims. The relic area had a museum-like quality to it – St. Clare’s and St. Francis’s robes and ropes were displayed on mannequins, and other relics like Francis’s sock and Clare’s hair were neatly labeled and arranged. Outside Santa Chiara, we peeked over a stone wall for a great view of the Umbrian countryside and the olive grove that has belonged to the Poor Clares since the 13th century. It only makes sense that Assisi, the City of Peace, is surrounded by olive branches.
Our other main stop in Assisi was the Basilica di San Francesco (Saint Francis). Talk about the hometown boy. Francis put Assisi on the map when he, a noble’s son, renounced his worldly goods and started a religious order. He is the patron saint of animals and the environment. If I had been born a few centuries earlier, I would be named Francesca since my birthday is St. Francis’s feast day. Anyhow, St. Francis has not one but two basilicas in Assisi – the upper basilica and the lower basilica, stacked right on top of each other. The walls of the upper basilica are covered with magnificent Giotto frescoes. An earthquake shook Assisi in 1997 and the frescoes cracked into over 300,000 pieces, but they have since been impeccably restored. The lower basilica’s low ceiling and ribbed vaults give it a distinctively underground feeling, which is appropriate as it is the entrance to the crypt and St. Francis’s tomb. Although Francis’s tomb was closed for refurbishment during our visit, we purchased some of his namesake cookies (Dolci di San Francesco) at a nearby bakery instead.
I had a great view of the Tuscan and Umbrian countrysides from my passenger side seat – as the only Italian speaker, I was the designated navigator for the weekend. However, unsurprisingly, my Italian classes never spent much time on road signs. I can give and follow walking directions and train directions, but my textbooks never focused on road trip vocabulary. As we zoomed by a sign with three lines of text, I was only able to pick out “albero.” “What does it say?” “Uhhh…tree something?”
As it turned out, driving around Italy was really fun. Getting through Rome was exciting, to say the least, but once we were out of the city, the highways were relatively familiar. I got to see a lot of areas that I would never be able to see from a train window. We rented a navigation system from Hertz and managed to change the language to English, but the computer voice had a lot of difficulty pronouncing the Italian street names. Strada Statale d’Assisi became “STRA-DAH STAH-TAH-LAY DUH-AHH-SEEZ-EEY,” and so on. It was a little grating, but the navigation system made a valiant effort. At least the directions were correct.
We discovered that, like many other things in Italy, tollbooths were negotiable. When we inserted our ticket at the first exit ramp, the machine asked for 57.70 euro. “Ahh no way…press the help button and I’ll see if they speak English.” The toll workers didn’t speak English. The machine was beeping furiously and the change collection drawer opened up, extending in a manner not unlike the hands of the gypsies outside churches. Cars were lining up behind us. “Give me a euro! Quick!” Dad tossed the coin into the drawer. Magically, the gate in front of our car lifted. We drove through, surprised at our successful negotiating skills. We had successfully sweet-talked the computerized box into letting us pass through for a fraction of the toll it wanted from us. Either that, or the Italians manning the toll station just decided that we were too much trouble.