Sunday, July 07, 2002

An Italian Holiday, 2002

(Sorry - I lost all the pix in a disc crash earlier this year. But maybe the story is still worth while.)

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So many doors, so many so many stories behind them.

It’s the kind of thing I like doing, wandering along old streets and wondering what has happened in houses that are centuries old - and look it, as they do in Italy.

Lucca in Tuscany is the place for my current wondering. An amazing walled city, which rose in the first millennium on the site of a former Etruscan settlement going back to the 6th century BC. What we see today is unusual for the integrity of its walls, and you can actually cycle on top of them - and we did - for the full 4-kilometre circumference.

Getting here wasn’t part of the holiday plan, but is the result indirectly of the Aer Lingus pilots strike, which necessitated a switch to Alitalia and an arrival in Milan in the dark and almost two days late. The Alitalia in-flight magazine had a special on Lucca which intrigued us to the point where I packed the mag into my bag when we deplaned.

Our rental car is a Fiat Punto ELX, 1.2-litre, which has to be mentioned because this is, after all, a motoring column. No radio, but that wouldn’t matter because neither of us speak Italian, and anyway I have 16 hours of my favourite music in my iBook, which I’m listening to as I write this Acker Bilk just now, if you must know, and the random selection in iTunes means the next piece might be something from Elvis, Art Garfunkel, or a couple of dozen others).

There’s only one thing to do when arrived in Milan in the dark, and that’s drive for a couple of hours to somewhere closer to the first planned stop. Which was Genoa, some 146 km away, and put in just because it is the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and anyway I wanted to see some of the Ligurian coastline south of it.

We were a bit hungry, but the first services area on the A7 only had a McDonalds, and Viv didn’t much fancy a Big Mac. “There’ll be something different at the next one,” she figured. So we drove on.

When I first joined RTE, then head of radio news Mike Burns gave me one bit of journalistic advice: “If you have a chance to eat, take it. You never know when the next chance will be.”

I should have remembered it. All the service areas after the McDonalds ones only served coffee and sandwiches, which were even less attractive than the Big Mac that rapidly grew to ‘I want, I want badly’ perception in our memory as the dark kilometres trundled swiftly under our wheels. Still, even though we’d be getting into Genoa after 11.30pm, there’d surely be somewhere open to eat.

Nope. By the time we found a hotel with a room available (75 euros including breakfast, for those interested, in a 3-star close to the Stazione Brignole), it was after midnight. Tired as we were after lugging the bags upstairs, we walked the immediate area, and only found a bar on the verge of closing, which had no food left and that charged me 6 euros for a much-needed large beer (which I subsequently found I could have had for 80 cents from the very reasonably-priced minibar in our room!)

So to bed hungry, but at least I slept well. Italian motorways are great ways of doing the distances, but they require concentration, because most of the time Italians only regard speed limits as starting points and if you don’t know what’s happening all around you, there can be painful repercussions. But I still like them.

There wasn’t going to be time for Genoa, as we were already a couple of days missing from the trip, so the next morning we only did an hour or so within a short distance of our hotel, partly because we weren’t sure if our car wouldn’t be clamped if we left it in our overnight street spot for long. But in that area, the pedestrian-only Via San Vincenzo had woken from its slumber of the night before and proved to be a fizzling street of people and students streaming off to their day’s work, lined with small boutiques and stand-up breakfast counters, and twisting quaintly into the more sedate Via XX Septembere where the banks and the heavy-hitter fashion shops reside under colonnaded sidewalks.

Genoa is a seriously wealthy city, gaining its money originally through trade, colonial exploitation, and piracy (The bar of the night before is probably owned by a descendent of the pirates). And like all modern Italian cities, it is today peopled by fashion-conscious and hard-working equivalents of Celtic Tigers.

On the way back down, two gems found included a little church (whose name is somewhere in a map in the boot, so don’t worry about it for now) which had a plain and shook-looking outside and inside was the most magnificently-decorated house of religion I’ve seen since the Cathedral at Assisi (which I hope we’ll get to later in the trip). The other was the local market, which gave us the first of many insights into the wild variety and freshness of fruits and vegetables in Italy, not least being the gigantic twisted peppers and other familiars which at home are all too carefully graded to be similar in size and as perfect in shape as is possible in a bit of nature’s handiwork.

A quick gather of cherries, tomatoes, nectarines and some other stuff meant that snacking on the next leg of our journey was healthily taken care of. At prices you wouldn’t even dream of at home.

And then, before the anticipated heat of the day, and with a wish to view blue seas before threatened rain, we reloaded our Punto and took off, without even visiting the Old Port (next time, maybe?).

In addition to great roads (about which more later), the Italians are big into signposting. So getting in or out of a strange city is a doddle, even with fast-moving traffic and some apparently eccentric one-way traffic systems. And in the various times and places I’ve been over here, I’ve never experienced a traffic jam. Just plain lucky, I suppose, or they know something here that Dublin traffic ‘Supremo’ Owen Keegan doesn’t.

The coast road south is, on a fine day, a series of good sea views from high and low points, and a variety of little villages all of a strip together, with houses hanging from the walls of rocky coves. It’s OK to travel early in the season, but I reckon it would be murder in August. We got ourselves about 12 kilometres out of Genoa and then stopped for a bit of sunshine and a lunch snack. Afterwards, on the advice of someone, we kept with the coast road as far as Chiavari, on the way making a stop in Rapalo which has a smashing promenade and a key visual of a castle set out into the harbour, built in the 16th century to guard the town against Barberian pirates.

Then up into the hills to pick up the A12 motorway and do the rest of the run to Lucca across the most marvellous series of high bridges and through more tunnels than they could build in Ireland in a thousand years. For a driver it is a phenomenally exhilarating spin, rewarded with an endless series of forested mountain views until we crossed into northern Tuscany and dropped down to Lucca. The latter end of the trip was through a fairly scruffy industrial landscape, with only the distant mountains relieving the situation.

The current administrators of Lucca say proudly that they’ve never been conquered by anyone, and that in their history they’ve been able to negotiate or buy off potential raiders. It seems true to a point, but the fact is that prior to the 16th century it was as likely to be pillaged and subjugated by neighbouring and greedy city-kingdoms like Florence and Pisa as any other such community of its time. And even the Bonapartes ruled it for a fair chunk of time. At a certain stage, the business acumen of its key families allowed it to become strong in itself, and a certain Calvinist ethic grew there also, as did financial and banking skills. A number of members of the top families emigrated to Geneva at one point, and there’s some evidence that at least some of the same financial and negotiating proficiency we nowadays associate with the Swiss came from Lucca. Anyway, they claim it.

But today’s Lucca has different fascinations, not least of which is its very sense of enclosure. In plan it is shaped like a bean, and those aforementioned walls are all completely intact, with the city accessible by a number of ‘portas’, linked around the outside by a circular road system. Also outside the walls are a number of ‘suburb’ village centres presumably the remnants of the old living areas for those not qualified to inhabit the city proper.

The tourist information centre found us an apartment in one of these areas, in what turned out to be a former small convent, and which included two bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen for the princely sum of 73 euros a night. And there was the use of a swimming pool in the garden, though because of a change in the weather, and being busy at other things, we never got to use it. But that first night, the overall exhaustions of getting to Italy and then started down the country kicked in, and it was good to have the kitchen in which to feed on the results of a quick trip to the nearby hypermarket’s grocery, fruit and wine sections, rather than deal with the hassle of finding a place to eat out.

The next morning, unsure of the parking situation inside the walls, we dumped the car in a spot just outside one of the portas, and found we had happened on market day just inside the gate. In some ways, an open air market is the same anywhere, but what distinguised this one from those we see at home is the sheer number of stalls, and the extraordinary variety of stuff on sale, very little of it junk. Markets in Mediterranean countries tend to be ‘for real people’ and anything one could possibly need for the furnishing and maintenance of an apartment lifestyle can be found in them, from potted flowers to the plumbing figments for the kitchen sink and everything in between. And even the proverbial needles are there, because, as we have found elsewhere in Europe, people still seem to stitch and sew and knit much more than at home in Ireland.

Some bits and stuffs bought, and enough seen of stalls, we headed back to the car to dump purchases, then I decided I’d try for a legitimate parking space, so we drove inside and found ourselves negotiating a veritable maze of narrow ‘senso unico’ streets until we arrived at a piazza with the necessary blue parking spaces which indicated they could be paid for. And lo, one became vacant just as we drove up, so far the luck of the Irish holding.

Then a small surprise. I noticed a man with a bright yellow jacket and a machine giving someone a ticket in exchange for money, so I figured that he was the equivalent of a ‘pay and display’ ticket machine. And he was. But it took a little bit of language mangling on both sides before I found that one didn’t pay in advance. Instead, he wandered around his patch and whenever he found a car recently arrived, he fixed a little bigheletti under the wiper with the time of arrival printed out. It’s up to the owner afterwards to locate him and pay up whatever is required (the rate was just a euro an hour). If you forget, a bill with some kind of penalty will doubtless arrive in the post, as the whole thing is electronically managed. We felt that little bit more secure too in that there was an official wandering around the parking area all the time, perhaps some bit of deterrent to a thief?

Lucca is all very narrow streetlets and alleys, linking piazzas mostly as small as those found in Venice, but without the dirty water lapping around. Indeed, the comparison as a ‘dry’ Venice is quite apt again because of the tight enclosure of the city. It is also a fully lived-in community, the big heavy doors of entrance lobbies to old apartments occasionally opening to allow residents and their bicycles in or out, to or from mixing it with the tourists. These are the ‘so many doors and so many stories’ of my opening remarks.

It seems to be a city very much comfortable with its tourists, who maybe come for different reasons than those who make straight for the more well-known stops on the Italian Grand Tour. Its attraction is of a deeper character than, say, Pisa (which we’ll get to later) or Florence, the two main competing cities in both tradition and ‘big ticket’ items of interest to today’s travellers.

No less so than those others, it is a full ‘living’ city, with most of its inhabitants going about whatever business they have to do, and one suspects that very little of it is to do with tourism. In most cases, and given the narrowness of the streets and the compactness of the city, they appear to do this going about on their bicycles, the obviously preferred mode of transport apart from the ubiquitous-to-all-Italy Vespas.

The principal individual attraction is what used to be a Roman ampitheatre, which apparently got lost over the ages in what today would be termed ‘redevelopment’, but which was restored in shape in the 19th century as an elliptical piazza surrounded by new apartments and houses in the old styles of the city. The other is one of a number of the towers favoured by the great and good in medieval Italian cities, on top of which trees grow. No doubt these towers had a lookout function in the days when city-states were prone to attack from each other or from various travelling armies.

Those who travel with me will attest to a certain good sense of direction I possess, which allows me to navigate even in strange cities quite well. Lucca is the first place where this failed me in recent memory, and I did get us lost several times. It again is something to do with the full enclosure of the large walls, and the ins and outs of the streets which are so narrow as to eliminate most taller landmarks. Several times I discovered we were travelling in the opposite direction to what we wanted. The only thing is, once you reach a city wall, you can use it to get you to any other part of the periphery.

The top of the said wall is about the width of a decent roadway, with grass verges on much of it, and the areas over the various ‘porti’ having some extra interest, sometimes in the form of children’s play areas or small parklands. It is absolutely ideal for cycling, and a number of places rent out bicycles at around three euros an hour. It’s also one way to tell the tourists, as the bikes are painted in particularly vivid colours by their renters.

The spin is around four kilometres, and in addition to giving good views of the inside city, including a number of old gardens attached to former pallazzi, the outside the walls circular park which is another feature of Lucca provides a restful environment of greenery and trees, which actually also serve to mask most of the various suburbs which have grown up outside the walls.

Halfway through our cycle ride came the first indications of a number of days of rain which were to be subsequently described as a ‘catastrophe’ across northern Italy, and which was to affect our timetable too. By now we were on our bikes in the city itself, and trying to find our way back to the renter. There was also the small concern of how Ireland was doing against Germany in the first round of the World Cup, as our team had been a goal down when we started out. Finally, pretty wet, we gave back our bikes and were provided with the full-time score as well as our small bill for a very enjoyable hour on wheels.

Food that night was in a small trattoria which won our custom by the simple expedient of us passing along by it and realising that we could park right in front. It was outside the walls, of course. Inside, there were clearly locals eating, which was a good omen. And the menu had English translations of its dishes. The young woman serving also had some English, so all in all it was a pleasant experience (so much so that we came back the following night rather than go through the hassle of finding ourselves a new place).

Viv went for steak, and I was attracted by the ‘involtini di carni’ which was described as ‘slices of beef rolled around ham, spices and herbs’. Mine cost 4.65 euros, the steak was by weight, and chips were 2 euros each. We also ordered a portion of tomatoes for a similar price, and a half-litre of house wine was around 4 euros.

Bread had been served automatically, and this can cost around 1.50 euros as the ‘comperto’, a cover charge we found most everywhere.

And so later to bed, to sleep this time better because it didn’t have the element of exhaustion of the previous night.

Thursday dawned with an iffy kind of weather outlook, and we decided to ‘do’ Pisa for the morning. We’d planned to take a train, a journey of about half an hour, but missed getting to the station in time for the best train and so drove on instead. Actually it was a nice drive, again only about half an hour, and on the last leg brought us out of a tunnel to see the city below, its leaning tower and basilica clearly dominant on the distant cityscape. Coming through the mountain also seemed to have done something about the weather, because the sun was shining.

Coming closer to the city, signposts pointing to a ‘park and ride’ facility seemed to have the right idea, so we followed them, parked in an out-of-city car park, and took one of the regular small electric shuttle buses into the town. The charge was 1.03 euros, a ticket from a machine, which the waiting driver showed us how to operate with the ease of much practice in helping dumb strangers.

Inside the walls it eventually dropped us in a small piazza which we later found was only a street away from the tower and basilica complex. But we walked in the other direction first, through another piazza which has as its main claim to fame as being the location where a wealthy man, his sons and grandsons, were all starved to death because of some row they had with other - clearly more powerful - associates. Then we were through to the main shopping street of Pisa, which curved down in colonnaded sidewalk shops and cafeterias as far as the Arno river. Seeing the river, I know knew where we were, and so we headed back up the same street. We were into very high class coffee-and-chocolate shops here, and not for the first time did we wonder how the young Italian women kept their slim figures in the middle of so much temptation.

Eventually we came to our first view of the famous leaning tower, closed in 1990 because it was in real danger of toppling and only opened again in recent times after a major and innovative work of engineering. And we were fortunate to come on it from a direction which most spectacularly showed the tilt of the edifice, whose foundations had already given way even before the first builder finished the third of the eventual eight levels.

The tower is just one element of a complex of mostly religious constructions, which include some museums and an old walled cemetery which was built to be a resting place for the most rich of the time. Indeed, one of the local stories is that a rich merchant involved in its provision had a shipload of earth from Golgotha (the Hill of Calvary) brought to the development so that those who were buried there would be in the holiest ground possible.

Everything here, except to walk around the outside of the basilica and tower, has a price, and you can decide to pay to see any two attractions, or the lot, on a sliding scale up to around 12 euros, all exclusive of visiting the tower itself. For that you pay 15 euros, and have to book a couple of hours ahead because they only allow in a certain number at a time. I booked for the two o’clock tour and then we wandered back into the town. The sun was still out, and it was pleasant.

After a wander, it was clear that Pisa is a lot more scruffy on outside perception than Lucca, and is very much a town where the tourist souvenir trade is important - one complete street area facing the Basilica is composed of stalls selling the kind of kitsch you’ll get anywhere, suitably localised. And moving back down towards the original piazza where we’d arrived, it is mainly a street of cafe/bars and a mixum-gatherum of other shops aimed at satisfying tourist needs such as film, cards, and guides.

Lunch was an excellent sandwich and a beer in one of these cafes, and an interesting observation of our fellow-tourists looking to acquire their own particular memories of Pisa. But all during it I was getting a bit more apprehensive about going up the tower, not that I was afraid of the quality of the engineering work, but just that I’d freeze up on the top. The situation wasn’t helped by reading the English translations of the climb from a couple of Italian writers of, I suspect, the Middle Ages.

My head for heights disappeared about the same time that they blew up Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin. And the balcony fences on the two upper stories looked pretty meagre.

So when it came to the quarter of the hour before our time of ascent I chickened out, and looked in the queue to see if anyone wanted a free ticket for an instant climb. The first guy, an American, took it in some surprise, then sought me out five minutes later to say that he’d had a recent heart operation and decided that it might not be a good idea to do the 300 steps fairly quickly.

So a woman in the line on her own was the next client, who told me that she was queuing for her husband. I saw him going in with the group shortly afterwards. I suppose in a way I was going up by proxy?

Viv did the trip and I took a couple of pix of her waving from the top. The view was great, she reported afterwards, but it was beginning to get windy and cold and the clouds we’d left behind in Lucca had by then caught up. Indeed, it was just as cold on the ground, and so that was the time to head back.

And there was still no opportunity to use the pool in the attractive enclosed garden at our converted convent! It was raining by the time we got back to our place, and after a rest it was pretty well scubbing down. Dinner was, by quick agreement, back to the trattoria Mefisto and the same meals as the night before. Back again at the apartment, we were watching flooding scenes in northern Italy, and St Mark’s Square in Venice under water after the highest tide in the Adriatic for many years. And the forecast, as far as we could understand the pictures, didn’t look good.

The next morning, after what had been a fairly noisy torrent of a night, we decided the only decent thing to do on another rainy day was drive, so we left Lucca early and took the highway towards Chianti country (I wasn’t prepared to chance a more direct route across the hills in the kind of weather we were experiencing). We’d also agreed to bypass Florence, not wanting to handle a big city in the rain, no matter how beautiful its treasures were said to be.

Still, as we passed Florence, the sky was getting lighter, and we were even running on sections where it didn’t seem there had been rain for weeks ... though it dries up fast in Italy, I guess, if there’s any hint of a heat behind the clouds. We finally headed off the motorway onto the main ‘wine road’ of the Chianti region, SS 222. And pulled in to the first trattoria/ristorante we found for lunch.

Hmm. It was still chilly, because the sun hadn’t actually broken through. And the owner of the restaurant had a little English. So Viv felt like soup was the thing. “Zuppa?” she asked. The patron, or whatever they call themselves in Italy, nodded, suggesting his house special ‘with bread, basel, and tomato’.

Sounded great. But came as a ‘porridge’ of stuff that was so solid it had to be eaten with a fork. The bread proved to be the base material for the zuppa!

Maybe it was a special much loved in the locality, but when we tried to indicate that it wasn’t to our taste, our host seemed very upset. We made do with some chips and tomatoes, and red wine, and he charged us for the zuppa stuff as well. Which was probably fair enough, because it wasn’t his fault we had picked up his description a little off-centre.

Anyway, the subsequent drive through what had been hyped as ‘the most beautiful countryside in Chianti’ proved to be exactly that, so our poor start got lost in the enjoyment of the region. We got into its official centre, Greves, halfway through the siesta closure of the shops, not that it mattered, because it’s a real tourist operation anyway, and a walk around its self-vaunted ‘ancient market square’ (actually a triangle) was notable only for the repetitions of its cafes, wine shops, and British tourists (about 95% of the people there, I reckoned. But why should I put them down, because we were just like them, only with a different accent?

That said, the Rough Guide mentions that the Brits have taken Chianti to their hearts in a big way, with so many gone to live there that it has an unofficial name as ‘Chiantishire’.

We pressed on towards one of the key towns around which Chianti is based, Castellina in Chianti. A disappointing kind of place, really, nicely set on the side of a hill, but with an ugly modern chemical-factory-type winery dominating the landscape. Driving through it, we also quickly became aware of it being a fairly new ‘desirable suburb’ of Siena, with lots of new apartment developments built downhill from the old town.

Still no sun, so we headed for Siena, and then decided we couldn’t leave the wine area without some kind of experience of ‘agriturismo’ and preferably a place that produced its own wine. And we found one, more by accident than anything else, in a tiny village about 12 kilometres from Siena, in the Chianti Classico area. The criteria for our decision was shortened tempers and not really wanting to drive any more. And we hit a lovely little jackpot!

The agriturismo system was not something we knew much about, except that there are thousands of them and the signage is very consistent. It seems that it has been set up systematically, and under great standards control, as a way of providing alternative incomes for Italian farmers. What we got, for just 55 euros, was a double-bedded apartment with bathroom and separate kitchen (to actually use the kitchen equipment other than the kettle was another five euros) of super size and standard. And the little (actually, it proved to be much more than little) wine operation did its bottling directly under our apartment. Not through the night, though.

I love the smell in a wine bottling area. A mixture of corks, vino, and the wine equivalent of brandy’s ‘angel’s share’ soaked into the structure of the building. And in this case, as I found out later, elements of grappa and olive oil, both of which were also produced by the family.

We had bits of salad and bread and stuff with us, which had been originally planned for picnics in the sun that never came. So I went down and bought a bottle of their own red, middle (reserva) grade, and we tried it out upstairs to help use up the food. Bloody good it was too, and I reckoned I’d pay maybe four times the price for the equivalent quality at home. Then, for the sake of something to do - we already knew Italian TV is noisy and difficult to appreciate, and anyway we’d seen the weather forecast - we wandered back up into the village and placed ourselves in the more upmarket of the two watering holes in town. The ‘up’ being marginal.

A fascinating place. There was this Nubian-black guy who seemed to be in charge, dressed in a smart grey White African Hunter outfit, but who was so laid-back that he appeared to be going backwards. Then there were a couple of women, one obviously doing the cooking end of things and the other serving and generally keeping the front of house from going into reverse. But it was our Afro friend who spoke English that succeeded in producing a hot port to description.

We’d eaten at home, but I fancied a pizza, and we shared a simple Marghuerita (Viv, who hates cheese, nibbling the tomato-covered edges that were more or less clear of the dairy stuff) and some of the area’s ordinary wine. What seemed to me like a local football team arrived to be the only other major customers, and probably as many individual conversations as represented half their number struck up as they waited for their food.

Another guy arrived, smart suit dressed, slickly balding, and with the kind of Italianate charm which had him pick out the bunch of flowers from a vase on the counter and present them to our front-of-house woman with a studied grandiosity. For the rest of the night, she was all over him. And I wondered, given that he got a special table in the corner, and her special ‘sit down and light my cigarette’ status, with her own glass to share his bottle of wine, whether she had occasional mistress status, or whether he was actually the owner-at-a-remove (he seemed too smart to be living on just the bar) checking up on an investment.

Oh, there is a mint of fictional stories just in that evening alone, before we walked ‘home’ and had just one more ‘adventure’ when a very large wood-wasp buzzed into the bedroom and had to suffer annihilation by sweeping brush.

The next morning, on the strength of the sample the night before, we bought six more bottles of the family’s wine output, not nearly enough, but we did have a limit to what Aer Lingus would allow us carry home in weight terms. It’s a pity, for me, that they’re all earmarked as presents for other people.

And then, to Siena, just a short trip away and with the weather at last looking up.

So what’s another walled Italian town among so many? Well, not a lot initially, but then we arrived at this marvellous semicircular piazza in front of what had apparently once been a massive church but now was apparently a secular building [more to check later]. What made it really special was that the sun came out in brilliance, and we had no problem with spending almost a couple of hours in one of the outside cafes, just watching the rest of the tourists either in the cafes or lounging about on the sweep of the cobbled piazza.

The young woman who served us was a pro, not overdoing the sell but advising well, andat the right time coming back to see if we were up to another beer or whatever. She was on a winner, because this was the first experience we’d had of real sunny heat (to the point that a colleague of hers had started to put up umbrellas against the sun, but thankfully not over us). And she cannily mentioned the ‘terrifying deluge’ they had experienced in the piazza the previous day. We were doubly glad to be here now rather than yesterday. For the record, the morning cost us 17.70 euros in beer and snacks. Well worth it, really, given the much-needed sunshine and the location.

There were other distractions. Like the wedding party which came for the presumably mandatory photographs in the piazza. We’d earlier noticed the wedding in a little church outside, and Viv had gone in to investigate the style while I watched the lads who were supposed to be in the church keeping tabs on the early part of an Italy game in the World Cup.

And while we were in the piazza, there were a couple of cheers from the bars around it as Italy scored against Croatia twice (and, we later found, had one of those goals disallowed. It was the first time we had come across anything like the football ‘fever’ we’ve come used to in Ireland).

After that, we looked at an exhibition of photographs taken over a number of years prior to, during, and after the war in Yugoslavia, by local young people who had visited that sad area during the extended time, more latterly as UN volunteers. Viv had a particularly interest, because they showed parts of the region which she had seen before the war while on a visit to Medjugorge, including the famous medieval bridge at Mostar which was totally destroyed since.

The black-and-white striped Duomo in Siena was a bit of an anticlimax, apart from the exterior frontage, since that particular scheme doesn’t really appeal to either of us. And the reality of the other artistic riches in the cathedral against the available photographed images is disappointing, but then to constantly light the muralist paintings as has been done for their photographs would probably shorten their life. Not to mention hitting the sales of the publications with the specially-lit pictures.

The only saint we remember from Siena was Catherine, and I can’t recall anything about her though I suppose she was martyred. There is a ‘refuge’ of St Catherine which we saw signs to but never actually reached before it was time to move on again. The next point of aim was Assisi, where I visited once before, very briefly. The direction was towards Perugia, which was bringing us out of Tuscany and into Umbria, and the drive was again a speedy and easy one.

A diversion around Lago di ??????? involved a stop at the main resort area on its west side, where we spent an hour by a rather smelly lakeside and watched a few fisher-type birds forage for their tea. It was one of those places that caters for campers and such, and little was happening so early in the season, so it had an unkempt and desolate feel. There was nothing to keep us, so we re-negotiated our way to the motorway and drove through Perugia (which apparently has an interesting centre, but is a major industrial centre otherwise) and, again through a long tunnel, came out on the plain which lies to the west of Assisi.

The town makes a fairly spectacular advance on the senses as one arrives along the autoroute, then hides itself for a little time as you drive into Santa Maria degli Angeli, just below Assisi. Here we found a number of very large two-star hotels, fairly recently built, and checked into one of them. It took a little while before we clicked on the need for such large hotels - Assisi is as much a place of pilgrimage as it is of tourism, and there are many large groups coming and going all the time, from all over the world.

Going out to eat, we found some of this actually happening. Being Saturday night, Viv went to check for Mass times at the very large basilica which totally dominates the town and gives it its name, and which itself is dominated by a large gold statue of the Virgin. It was now after dark, and there was some kind of candlelight procession under way in the piazza in front of the church. We followed it into the basilica, which was amazingly plain inside but which had, instead of a standard altar, a tiny church under the cupola which contained an altar. We subsequently found that this was the site of St Francis’s first monastery, and that the whole complex on the hill of Assisi was a later construction.

We didn’t stay for the ceremonies, and on the way out to look for a restaurant I noticed an old man begging in the area close to the frontage of the church. Then a Fransciscan came along and very brusquely ordered him off the premises. We wondered what the founder would have thought?

Dinner that night in the Hotel Porziuncala’s ‘antica’ restaurant, which has been in place since 1863 and where the food and wine was again excellent. As wine is my drink of choice at home anyway, this trip has been a super experience where everybody else drinks it too, without making a fuss, and the cost is very manageable.

There’s not much nightlife here beyond the couple of cafes across from the church, but they were getting crowded enough as we left the restaurant. Back at the hotel, Viv went on to bed while I wandered down to the bar area. The only activity was a group of women talking very loudly outside, and inside a totally silent group of men playing cards. No one behind the bar, and no sign of life otherwise, so it was time to hit the cot myself. The floodlit views of the various churches in Assisi are quite spectacular.

Checkout the next day and then on up the winding road to Assisi proper. There’s plenty of parking on the lower levels, and we picked one which had a couple of escalators to bring us up into the town itself. Though it was early, there were lots of streams of people heading in the same direction, many of them in large tourist or pilgrimage groups, sometimes making sure they’d keep together by wearing the same colour hats.

It was pleasantly warm, though any exposure to the wind from the plain below could result in a little chilling. The weather was threatening mixed, with sunshine and cloud alternating and making the views of the plain and Santa Maria degli Angeli below quite sensational.

There were masses going on in many of the many churches, and I led Viv towards the double basilicas at the northern end under which is also the tomb of St Francis. It is again one of these twisting street towns where direction can be changed subtly, and I kind of took the long way inadvertently, and finally lost her close to the churches. We had prior arranged where to meet afterwards, so I wandered back to an internet point and checked in for news of Ireland, discovering that we had apparently a new Cabinet picked, and that Enda Kenny had been elected leader of Fine Gael against opposition from the grass roots of the party. Nothing much of interest otherwise, except that the Sunday Indo was claiming Joe Walshe had only kept his agriculture portfolio through lobbying by a number of businessmen.

Well, it WAS Sunday, after all ...

Then, for the price of a cup of coffee, I spent almost two hours watching in some fascination how my fellow tourist beings spent their two hours of this Sunday morning. There were also local family groups, and people meeting and gossiping, reading the papers, and all the normal things. The normal world is OK and living in Assisi.

Viv phoned to say she was on her way back and had been down to the tomb and then sidetracked by a number of shops on the way to the square where I was. Eventually she made it and we had a sandwich brunch bite before going back through the shopping streets.

One of the fascinating things is the amount of major structural repair work is still going on as a result of the earthquake in 1997 that caused major damage all over the town. There are cranes everywhere, and the Italian State is managing the whole effort with great skill and commendable determination. I couldn’t help feeling that if this was at home, we’d still be talking about how we’d get the restoration going.

The shops are very much tourist-orientated (you have to go to the more local streets to find where the locals themselves shop for their daily needs) with predictable many options of religious and specifically Assisi connection. But we came across some really nice pottery galleries, one of which was operated by the artist himself and the other by his nephew. This was an opportunity to do a little gift-shopping, at surprisingly reasonable cost, to augment the wine we were planning to bring back to friends and family. All in all, a very satisfying experience.

And there was a ‘small world’ experience too. I sneezed, from the sunshine, as we walked along one of the streets. An American voice said ‘bless you’. And her companion, an older lady, turned at my ‘thanks’ and said this was certainly a place where a ‘blessing should work’. In the ensuing walk-along conversation, it turned out that Rita Ryan had been an Omaha, Nebraska, USA, delegate to Naas in November, bringing a ‘twinning scroll’ with that city which Naas’s Timmy Conway had organised.

Rita was on something like her 23rd visit to Italy, along with 38 of her Latin students and accompanying adults on a 16-day tour of Italy and Greece. Having covered the Naas and Omaha end of the twinning for our local Kildare news website KNN, I was very familiar with the situation.

And now the weather had darkened, and chilled, and the rain which had dogged us in the early part of the trip returned. We eventually made it back down to the car rather the wetter, and ready to gladly leave Assisi behind us. No plan at this stage, maybe to stop somewhere for the night further down into Umbria.

The run through Spoleto and on over Terni (birthplace of St Valentine and a quite miserable-looking city of postwar buildings subsequent to massive Allied bombing in WW2) was back in decent weather, so I just kept on going. Viv slept through some of the nicest scenery (I was, probably rightly, reprimanded later for not waking her) and I decided maybe we should press on towards Rome and get there a day ahead of plan. I knew it wasn’t a logistical problem, because on another occasion I had left Assisi at 11am and still made Rome Airport for lunch before flying home. It all boils down to having a good road network, and drivers all around you know who know what they’re about and don’t set up traffic crawl-streams.

The thing was, how would we handle Rome? The car rental was for seven days, which brought us into Monday night, and we could extend it until we were going home if we wanted. The choice was to settle somewhere outside of Rome and commute in each day by rail, or go into the city itself and find accommodation. For the moment, we decided on the former. I thought it might be handy to stay on the coast near Fiumincino Airport and so we headed that way.

There’s a fishing port area around Fiumincino, and as we finally drove through it it looked interesting enough at least from an eating point of view, but when we enquired about accommodation there didn’t seem to be any about. So we headed down towards Ostia.

There are two Ostias, we found from the Rough Guide, which said the Ostia del Lido was very much worth giving a miss. But we found ourselves in there anyway, a big town centre, with very little in the sign of hotels. Frustrating. So we went on to Ostia Antica, which is built around the excavated remains of the ancient port of Rome, which looked fascinating as we drove around them trying to find some kind of a hotel for the night. Nothing, though. So one more run back into Ostia del Lido, and then we decided to heck with it, and we might as well try our luck in Rome itself.

We only had the city map that came as part of the overall map of Italy that came with the rental car. So we followed the Roma signposting and had a nice easy drive in, old warnings that Rome was a terrible place to drive in seeming to be just old stories. Trouble was, we didn’t have a clue as to where we were once we hit the city, nor where we should start looking for a hotel. I thought out loud that soon we’d probably be ‘doing circuits of the Coliseum’. Eventually I spotted three policewomen standing beside their car having a smoke and went back to see if they could help.

There wasn’t a word of English between them, and I don’t have Italian more than buongiorno and stuff like that, but at least they had a detailed map, and lo, we were two blocks from the Coliseum! When I enquired about ‘hotels’ they pointed on their map that I should hang a left at the Coliseum and then a right at the next monument and there should be ‘multe hotels’.

Don’t ask me how, but that’s more or less what we did, and after one dud attempt at a three-star place which was full but could get us into another for 200 euros a night (outside any budget I might have had!) we saw a sign for a two-star and I hopped out to see if they could help.

It was one of these places where you press the bellpush and an intercom answers from the first floor. The guy at the other end buzzed me up and I told him I needed four nights. “I can give you two at 120 euros a night,” he said after checking his lists.

It was dark, closing towards 10 o’clock, and this was Rome, and what else could I do? “Done,” I said, then went down to tell Viv. We then lugged our bags, most of them anyway, up the stairs and bundled them into our room.

It was small, nothing like the apartments we’d got used to for half the price. But it was clean, and there was air-conditioning, and it was on the inside of the building so there was no all-night traffic noise. I then headed back down to park the car. The hotel guy had recommended a parking service a few streets away and marked the route for me on a map.

It was going to cost. But I didn’t know if I could have left the car on the street, or risk having it clamped or worse. So I found the parking place, a small operation in with two guys who came out and looked suitably the Roman villains part for the time of the night. No English. No Italian worth the words on mine. But it was going to be 20 euros for the night, they managed to appraise me, and I’d have to leave the key because they’d have to park the car themselves in the incredibly small place.

I was dubious. And they could have been Rome’s biggest chancers, ready to strip my Hertz Punto to pieces, or use it in a robbery while I slept. And under the terms of the rental, I’d be responsible for the first 1,300 euros or so if the car was stolen. And there had been no way of insuring against it.

And then there was the wine and gifts and whatever we couldn’t remember leaving in the boot. I opened it and gestured to the effect ‘would they be OK?’

“OK. OK.”

What the hell, it was late. I was tired. And something had to be done with the car. Besides, could the guy in the hotel recommend something that would boomerang on him? Guess not.

Of course, what he could be doing was having me spend 20 euros unnecessarily, and gaining a commission, when I could quite easily have left the vehicle in one of the blue parking spaces I’d passed. Which was, of course, the case. But it was late. And I was hungry and thirsty. And it was Rome. And the night receptionist had to make a living, and extras, somehow.

"’Night, guys."

"Buonosera, signore."

There was a trattoria across the road from the hotel. Open. Basic food and wine with no searching. A nice place, pleasant waiter, and we were finally in Rome.

Which makes the next three days a complete new story.

Sometime. I think I want to go back first.

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