La Nuit aux Invalides is one of the not-to-miss highlights of a summer night in Paris. The monumental sound and light show is displayed on the interior courtyard of the Military Museum. The late night spectacle – it starts at 10:30 pm – is a sumptuous display of video, narration and music that tells the history of France in just 45 minutes.
We arrived very early because we wanted to make sure we got a good seat….meaning we did not want to stand or sit on the hard cobblestones. Turns out 30 minutes ahead of time is plenty of time. We spent our waiting time watching kickball teams of young people playing ball on the grass lawns in front of the museum.
The workers, however, responded to our request for seats and gave us a place to sit while we waited and escorted us to a small section of seats reserved for handicapped and elderly. After a month on the road we are a bit of both.
While waiting for the show we noticed hundreds of rabbits romping in the bushes outside of the military museum. One of the employees laughed and said the rabbits are very used to humans. “And what else do they have to do? So, voila! we have many, many rabbits.”
Rabbits aside, the computer-generated sound and light show gives breathtaking visuals from Gaul to the middle ages to the French Revolution and two world wars. The story line is all based on the history of the Sun King’s palace for the veterans of France’s wars and the many uses of the building for nearly 350 years.
We discovered a museum of automatic musical instruments in Ultrecht, the Speelklok Museum. Our family’s most special heirloom is an antique Eckhardt silver music box that my grandfather brought with him from Croatia. So this little museum of music box wonders was a delight for me.
Our old German music box plays Silent Night and Oh Sanctisima. My father used to put it out every Christmas with a small Christmas tree that would spin. Here’s a little video of the music box.
We took the excellent tour provided for free by the museum. Our guide easily switched between Dutch and English while giving children in the group the opportunity to operate the machines. If we had not taken the tour, we would not have seen so many machines operate.
Here is the machine (above) operating. Many of the machines are so easy to play that even a child can play them. This child was asked to demonstrate during our tour.
Here is a short video of the bird in the cage (photo above) performing. And here’s another short video of the operation of the small box to the far right.
Here’s a video of the music box (above) in motion.
Here is a little video of a bunny popping up mechanically – but he is shy and quickly disappears.
This video is about a huge automatic machine playing one of its tunes. (I do not have a photo of this machine but you can see it in the video.) This is what the dampers look like opening and closing when the huge machine is working.
The entire museum is housed in a renovated old church. According to our Amsterdam tour guide, only about 40% of people in the Netherlands belong to a church and fewer than 10% worship regularly. That means there are a lot of churches throughout the country that have been decommissioned and are now used for new purposes such as the Speelklok Museum. The museum designers wisely chose to keep some of the heritage pieces on display in the church.
For example, this old bread table for the poor dates from 1603. Back in the day, guilds would sponsor their own altar in a church such as this bread table for the poor sponsored by the Saint Eloy Forgers’ Guild. According to a plaque in the museum, guild members used an inheritance from a rich forger to hand out five cents worth of bread and five cents in coins to 20 less fortunate members of the guild every Sunday.
The remains of a fresco on a wall in the upper loft shows the Tree of Jesse, a depiction of the lineage of Christ according to Jesaia II and Mathew I. This artwork was created by the Master of Evert van Soudenbalch about 1550. In 1600, the Netherlands was the richest country in the world and the great art of that period is seen as the result of those riches throughout the country.
Admission to this don’t-miss museum is covered by the Museumkaart. Here’s one more little video that is a bit of a fantasy of a summer night.
I read about nightmare traffic jams near Nice, France so we parked our car in Frejus and took a scenic train to Nice. It seemed like a great decision until we realized we were in a little suburb of Frejus , we would have to ride to Caan and change trains, and trains home would be infrequent. On the upside, travel was cheap – less than 20 Euros roundtrip – seats were comfortable, and the view was spectacular! Well worth any time lost by training rather than driving.
Because we had 45 minutes before our train arrived, we decided to go looking for the Roman coliseum near the train station. We followed our smartphone directions and discovered most of the arena has been rebuilt right on top of the old Roman ruin. It was not open when we arrived but we did get to see how the old is made new for current use.
We enjoyed a quick look around and headed back to the Gare (train station) to catch our train for Nice.
Upon arrival in Nice, we walked out the front doors of the train station and into the Tourist Information (TI) building. We got maps and asked for details on bus service. We walked about a block to a bus stop that sold tickets. English-speaking Japanese tourists showed us how to work the machine and advised us to buy 10 tickets for 10 Euro that could be used by any number of travelers rather than all day passes that would cost us 6 Euro each. We saved 2 Euro! And it turned out we rode the bus five times so we used all 10 tickets.
It really would have been helpful to have a bus map but the TI did not have one and we could not find one anywhere. I should have downloaded an app before coming to Nice, but live and learn. Best of all is that Nice is pretty compact, but hilly, and good walkers can easily cover the city on foot.
Nice may be named nice because the residents are wonderful! They quickly give you directions and point you on your way. They more than make up for the rude bus drivers.
Because we did not have a bus map, we followed signs UP HILL to the Musee Marc Chagall. It was about 95 degrees with high humidity as we trudged up the hill following signs to the museum. The man in the TI told us it was a simple walk in “that direction – just follow the signs.” We arrived at the beautiful stone museum with graceful gardens red-in-the-face, panting, and covered with sweat. Turns out we could have taken a bus right to the front door.
Exhausted, we bought our tickets (bargain day! Just 6 Euro for admission and 2 Euro for headphones…supposedly because a small gallery was closed?) and strolled over to the charming cafe for lunch.
Then it was time for dessert: the art of Marc Chagall displayed in a modern stone museum built just for his work. Everything was located on one floor and the galleries were filled with light.
A vera ma femme
ma joie al mon affeguesso
…Marc Chagall (a love note to his wife)
Normally one art museum would be enough in a day, but I would only be in Nice on this day so off we went to visit two municipal museums. Tour books told me the visits would be free, but we were asked to purchase a 10 Euro ticket that admitted us to several municipal museums. It seemed a reasonable price but we were very disappointed at the lack of English signage or audio guide or printed flyer.
We took the bus downhill from the Musee Marc Chagall and a friendly rider on the bus told us where to get off and where to walk to get to the Musee Massena, a lovely La Belle Epoch house that treasures the history of Nice. While we were not sure what we were seeing, both the house and the gardens are beautiful and well kept up.
Feeling like we had the bus thing down, we strolled to the bus stop and discovered the woman from our previous ride standing right next to us. She happily gave us directions to our next stop. She was our guardian angel on this hot day in Nice!
As we rode our bus, we oohed and ahhhed over the gorgeous buildings of Nice. Every street could be a scene for a romantic movie.
We got off the bus and followed the signs to the Musee de Beaux Arts. We made the mistake of following the road signs which took us all the way around a block to our original destination because drivers need to avoid the one-way streets. But we were walking so not fun on a hot day.
The Musee des Beaux Arts was supposed to house a lot of works by famous artists and it is an odd mix of beautiful work. We found nice Picasso pottery, a couple of large works by Rodin, and lots and lots of work by Duffy. Because there was no English map or sheet, we could not find the other works even though we looked at everything in the museum. This makes a sweet little morning visit – I say morning because the building was hot and there is no lift to the second floor located up a double stone staircase. If you’re a Rodin-Picasso-Duffy fan, this place is worth a visit.
Depictions of women have come a long way in 500 years! Mary, gowned in Renaissance robes, chastely kneels to receive her crown, her head bent in humility and the weight of her halo. The swimmer below rests casually on a robe, crowned by the sun. Even her belly button shows through her swim suit.
Because of our visit to the Musee des Beaux Arts, I became intrigued with the work of Raoul Dufy (image, above). When I returned home to the US, I stumbled upon a lovely article by Ian Phillips in Elle Decor Magazine who wrote, “More than anything, the Frenchman was a painter of leisure. His favorite themes were the seaside, racecourses, and musical instruments and his canvases are filled with bright colors and a carefree spirit.”
Even though we were on vacation, we were women with a mission. So we hiked down the steep hill from the museum, waited a long time for a bus, got thrown off the bus two stops short of the train station, caught another bus and arrived at the station nearly 30 minutes early for our train back to Frejus.
People have asked about safety but there are police and soldiers everywhere. We saw this small force of three patrolling the train station at Nice. They asked a pregnant woman sitting on the platform next to me to put out her cigarette but they were friendly to the children and nodded to the waiting passengers.
So that’s the story of our day trip to Nice. It was just enough time to see the city, shop at Lafayette Galleries, and enjoy extraordinary coastal views from the comfort of our train seats. Don’t miss Nice. It’s really – sorry – nice.
We got lost on the only road running through Gordes, France but discovered a story of Nazis and murder in a tiny cemetery at the top of the town. After we took a wrong turn, we ended up stuck on a narrow street. We got out of the car to admire the valley of vast lavender fields hundreds of feet below us and to figure out how we were going to turn around in the impossibly narrow gravel path we found ourselves on.
When we turned from the beautiful mountain view, we discovered the cemetery and strolled in for a look. We saw ceramic wreathes of flowers decorating most of the graves.
But to the left of the entrance, we found a small fenced in area with a dozen headstones bunched together. Curious, we moved in closer to learn why these headstones were situated differently than the others in the cemetery.
A typed list located in the cluster read “Les Martyrs de Gordes” and listed 12 names of people who died within days of each other in August, 1944.
The Germans invaded the homes of Gordes because the town was one of the major centers of resistance during WWII. The village was bombed, destroying a dozen homes. Many other homes were blasted, burned and looted; the few people who could not get away were shot and five people were sent to prison camps.
Finally, a monk from the Abbey Senanque intervened with the commander of the Germans to make the killing stop. The village received the Croix de Guerre with Silver Star after the war for their resistance (http://www.ajpn.org/commune-Gordes-84050.html).
The beautiful village has long recovered from the war and become home to artists such as Marc Chagall. Artists continue to make their homes in this mountain-top retreat.
We carefully turned our car around and continue on the Lavender Road. We felt richer for knowing of the sacrifice of the dozen people buried in mountain-top graves so long ago.
I am totally smitten by the south of France. It’s kind of like the southwest USA but entirely different: Arid, rocky hills give way to lush green mountains anchored by flatlands of lavender and vineyards. Simply, incredibly, beautiful.
And the people! They are wonderful! No one speaks English until I greet them with “Bonjour” followed by my explanation that I do not speak French, even as I speak my pathetic French. I speak a little Italian, Spanish and Portuguese but I’ve always run from the complicated French language. In fact, that’s something I hear all the time from French people: it’s complicated.
But everywhere we go, French tourists and shopkeepers are quick to point the way, describe what we need to know and do their best to communicate in English to us. While the language is not natural, the people are. We could not be treated more warmly.
Our first road trip took us to Les-Baux-en-Provence on the recommendation of our friends, the Freshmans, who visited while on a Viking cruise. We were prepared for the beautiful light show (see Carrieres de Lumieres, below) but we were taken totally by surprise by the gorgeous approach to the hill-top town of Les-Baux-en-Provence.
We twisted through tight turns even as we climbed through sun-bleached rock formations. Breathtaking both because it was beautiful and also because we were scared to death we would meet an on-coming car with no place to pull over to the side of the road to pass. It was a bit like Sedona but with white rocks towering over us on both sides of the road. Beautiful homes were built right into the rocky hillsides often incorporating caves as part of their design.
When we reached the town, we waited nearly 15 minutes for a parking spot to open in the 15-car parking lot next to the village rather than hike up the rest of the mountain. The picture below shows where we bought our parking pass – $5 for the entire day – after much coaching from some lovely French tourists. After a few hours of fabuloso shopping and gelato, we went to leave the parking lot when there was a tap on our window. “Do you speak English?” Yes, we do. “Can we have your parking pass? We can’t figure out how to use the machines. We don’t have Euro coins and it won’t take our credit cards.” Yes, you can. Where are you from? “Tampa.” No way! They live about 10 minutes away from us in the States.
The tiny village sits at the base of an old, decaying castle in a medieval town updated in a Sausolito kind of way. My friend Denise Brewster thought all the little villages would look this way. She said this was a great place to start our trip because it was such a stepping-back-in-time village.
You wander down twisty little streets that circle back on themselves then turn up or down the mountainside to be connected again by a flight of stairs. Shops the size of tiny living rooms feature timbered and plastered ceilings and lightly stocked shelves.
Shops sell honey, tiles, hats, dresses, toys, postcards, candy, carved wood…just about anything you would find in an upscale tourist town. See something you like? Ask if they have more or a different size and the shopkeepers hurry out the door to a nearby warehouse to get you what you want. We absolutely delighted in wandering through the little village imaging what life was like here 500 years ago.
One of Denise’s best memories: “We sat on a terrace overlooking the village, eating rabbit and black bull raised on a local farm Barbara had a very nice pasta which was delicious.” Oh, my good God, the French can cook! We ate at Bautezar Restaurant where we relaxed with decent service and fabulous food.
When we had exhausted all options in the tiny village, we headed for the sound and light show just down the hill. “You cannot miss the Carrieres de Lumieres,” my friends the Freshmans advised, “Great art is projected on the walls of an old limestone quarry.”
We purposely visited late in the day after the buses and hordes of tourists had left the mountain. We parked in a spot right in front of the show, walked up to the ticket office and purchased tickets for 12 Euro each.
We really needed restrooms after our very long lunch and way too much wine and we were directed down a hall to the left. Down the hall to the left ended up being a very, very long walk of about 2,000 yards down sandy paths and up short ramps! The bathrooms are immaculate but use the toilets before you arrive unless you’re ready for a very long walk.
The show, itself, was glorious! Images of Chagall’s paintings drifted through the air, landing on a stone wall or the ceiling or the floor or down a corridor. If you paused, the show landed on you and you became part of the festivities. Here’s a little video by Joelle Luce to demonstrate what a previous show was like. We didn’t see the Renaissance painters; we saw Chagall.
The show is projected on 5,000 square meters of limestone walls. The story of Russian born French Citizen Marc Chagall is told through 12 dream scenes of a summer night. Music ranges from classical to Janis Joplin as the viewer slowly falls in love with the work of Chagall.
There’s a mountain of creativity going on in the sand hills of North Carolina. You get an inkling that something’s up when signs start popping up along Highway 220 pointing you towards Seagrove and the Pottery Road on Route 705.
At first all you see are farms and rolling hills cut out of the towering pine woods. Road signs keep assuring you that you’re on the Pottery Road but you don’t see massive tourist signs or strip malls anchored by McDonalds. Instead, you see old North Carolina with sparse main streets featuring a dozen small shops or a quaint log cabin tucked into a forest with a pottery sign sprouting out of a tree out front. Each shop holds an artist’s treasure. Pottery.
This is art you hold in your hand. You feel the heft of the very clay you stand upon. You examine the vessel’s craftsmanship while admiring the glaze, the design, the impressions that make this one piece the art you must take home.
“I could put this in my den,” I think, but then I ask, “Wouldn’t this look amazing if I add a pot of flowers and put it in my dining room?” Then as I spot another beauty, I tuck the first piece under my arm and reach out for a brilliant blue vase, perfect for my bedroom.
With about 100 potteries to choose from, a visitor can get confused fast. So make your first stop at the Seagrove Creations. This gallery is located in the heart of the pottery road and features collections from dozens of local potters. You can easily compare artists’ styles and prices in a bright and attractive setting. While contemplating purchases, you can even enjoy a coffee and muffin the the gallery’s snack bar.
You’ll see the Official Visitor Guide at every little stop you make along the Pottery Highway. Pick one up because it features an easy-to-follow map and a few details of the many sights along the highway. The brochure says Seagrove is, “the largest community of potters with the longest continued history of pottery making in the United States.”
Now it’s time to head down the Pottery Highway and tuck into the individual artist’s studios. But first stop in at the old time Seagrove Hardware store where you can still buy nails by the pound.
Keep a sharp eye out and you’ll see potters at work in studios, garages, and behind potters sheds. This potter was working with heat and a wheel to make his art. We didn’t even have to get out of the car to see him at work.
Don’t you love this romantic little pottery? Visit Levi Mahan‘s website to see some of his extraordinary work.
Pottery ranges from the sophisticated art of Levi Mahan (above) to the folk art of Crystal King (below). Pottery from the Seagrove area is collected by locals as well as the White House, the Smithsonian and fine arts museums. Pottery ranges from a few dollars to thousands of dollars. There really is something for everyone.
All the shopping made us hungry. We asked locals for recommendations and all agreed – try the Westmoore Family Restaurant. Located 7 miles outside of Seagrove, the drive was easy as traffic is light along the Pottery Highway. The drive was well worth it as we were treated to North Carolina fried white fish – delicious!
Shopped out and full, we went looking for the perfect summer peaches of North Carolina….and found beauties in West End. The perfect ending to a peach of a day!
The moment we learned we’d be staying near the little Italian town of Deruta, we knew we would want to shop for china (why is it called “china” and not “italy”?). In Deruta, there’s nearly 15 kilometers of ceramics factories and store fronts, one after the other.
My sister Lyn lives in pottery country in North Carolina and one of our favorite ways to spend a day is to mosey between pottery stores, picking up vases, dishes and cups while admiring the artistry of the potters. No matter how much pottery we bring home, we always find room for one more beautiful piece.
Things were a little different in Italy. Anything we bought would have to become part of the weight allowance in our luggage. We all wanted to shop in store after store but we were very limited by weight and shape. It was frustrating not being able to buy what we wanted, but it also meant we chose only our very favorite pieces to bring home.
Deruta is located in central Italy in Umbria. The area is known for its refined maiolica manufacture which has been on-going since the early middle ages.
But Deruta is also a town where people live and work. While the top of the town is a small walled city (small because the population was ravaged by the Plague in the middle ages), the lower parts of the town are modern with compact apartment buildings, numerous shops, and well planned streets.
Pottery decorates the showrooms, front windows, and even the buildings of Deruta. At the Museum of Deruta Ceramics, some of the ceramics are used to tell stories. A signed work by Mancini hangs outside on a wall, telling the story of Ovidio’s 1541 Metamorfosi. The 15 books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses are a Latin narrative poem telling the history of the world, beginning with the creation. The ceramic piece hanging on the wall outside the museum is really this beautiful.
We met a delightful woman in one pottery store who painted a ceramic duck. My sisters knew I loved the duck and they bought it for me for my birthday. Here I am with my hand-wrapped duck and the lovely painter.
Dinner in Deruta
After a long day of sightseeing in the rain, we looked for a good local restaurant for dinner. This is what it looked like out our windshield:
Our dash through the rain was rewarded with an outstanding dinner when we found the Osteria il Borghetto as recommended by Trip Advisor. The tiny restaurant is easy to find, we parked right out front, and we were greeted by the owner as if we were his own family with hugs and kisses at the door.
We simply ordered the special of the day and were treated with a baked caserole as an appetizer – a delicious blend of vegetables and cheese. Our first plate was a combination pasta in a spicy sauce that was extraordinarily well flavored with perfectly cooked pasta. Pork loin made up our meat dish; it was accompanied with an zesty slaw and a flavorful polenta puff.
After dinner, the owner came to our table with 15-year-old balsamic vinegar. He poured out a small teaspoonful and offered it to each of his guests. POW! the flavor was rich, full and sweet. It was the perfect dessert after a heavy meal. He told us the vinegar is a gift from a friend and he shares it with his customers each night.
We left with more hugs all around. What an extraordinary dining pleasure in Deruta, Italy!
The anciet town of Civita is dying smack in the middle of Italy. Civita is a 2,500-year-old Etruscan town built on stone that has slowly eroded or crumbled. An earthquake did in the only roadway leading into town. Once isolated by steep hills, Civita now has a long stone bridge that allows for foot traffic. With the bridge, tourism has picked up a bit.
Civita is located next to the town of Bagnoregio, a nondescript town that offers parking near the foot bridge. We had a difficult time trying to figure out where to park. A few signs pointed towards Civita but the parking lots were just dirt lots with a machine for payment. My advice for parking is just drive as close as you can to Civita. When the roads stop but Civita is in sight, park there. I felt perfectly safe staying in the car alone and enjoyed the company of a wandering cat while my sisters hiked across the stoe bridge to Civita.
I was tired after a long day of exploring but my sisters chose to hike down the long stone staircase and across the bridge into town. It took them about 15 minutes of walking to reach Civita, take a quick glance into the city center, and then another 15 minutes to walk back.
Without taking the long hike, I still enjoyed the feeling of remote Italy. Civita is surrounded by hills that roll into a wilderness that is not expected in Italy. The serenity of the setting was peaceful and provided the perfect ending to a long and busy day.
If you’re looking for an interesting hill town that is low on crowds, Civita may be the town for you. Rick Steves has also written a charming story with a lot more detail about Civita that you may enjoy.
Here’s a live webcam if you’d like to see the “action” in Civita for yourself.
The Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is so much more than the mother church of the Franciscan Order. It’s really a living memorial to the teachings of St. Francis plus an accessible gallery to the extraordinary paintings by Giotto and Cimabue.
Note: I’ve written a separate blog about the hill town of Assissi.
As we approached the Basilica after a rain-drenched walk through Assissi, we were surprised to see soldiers guarding the church. We had felt protected as we strolled through the town, never realizing that soldiers guaranteed our safety. The soldiers were carrying out Operazione “Strade Sicure” (Operation Safe Streets) as part of activities in place throughout Italy.
The irony of soldiers guarding this area just steps fom a statue of St. Francis, spiritually exhausted, returning from war was not lost on us. We are grateful for these soldiers and all the men and women who protect us during our travels. Thank you!
We were advised to tour the Basilica late in the day in order to avoid crowds. But we arrived so late that guards were slowly closing down the church. We started in the top level — apparently, we should have started in the lower level — and had to make a mad dash to the lower level before it was closed. We had allowed for 30 minutes in each of the levels but that was just not enough time to take in everything. The exhausting run from the upper to the lower level in the pouring rain was absolutely, 100% worth the sprint: when we arrived in the lower Basilica, mass with a full choir was being sung in Latin! It was absolutely gorgeous.
But let me start with the Upper Basilica. As we entered the upper level, a monk in a small booth to the right sold us entrance tickets. A haphazard scatter of crowds walked up and down roped-off aisles, eyes aloft, admiring the frescoes that covered the walls of the church.
When we visited Giotto’s works in Padua, we entered a sealed chamber to normalize our breath, then we were admitted to the Scrovegni Chapel in small groups for just 15 minutes. This was done to protect the Giotto frescos. But large crowds wandered at will around the St. Francis Basilica frescos and no measures were taken to protect the art. The feeling seemed to continue the themes of St. Francis that people were more important than stuff. Nevertheless, there is a controversy about the protection, and even the restoration efforts, of the Basilica’s wall paintings.
There was also controversy for many years about whether or not the paintings in the Basilica were by Giotto or by a variety of other painters. During the restoration process in 2012, however, restorers discovered a signature of Giotto proving that at least some of the frescos were part of Giotto’s early body of work.
Despite the controversy, it was a thrill to see the cycle of 28 frescos up close. They depict the life of St. Francis – the cathedral was started the day after Francis was named a saint so the stories of Francis were vivid. I was not permitted to photograph the cycle; I think it was more because of crowd control than fear of damaging the paintings. So I refer you to wikimedia for a full telling with photos of the cycle.
When we arrived breathless to the Lower Basilica (guards closed the church for the day right after we raced through the doors), the guards put their fingers to their lips to indicate silence. We tiptoed into the Lower Basilica and we were greeted by a mass featuring a full choir with music. It was glorious!
Every surface of the Lower Basilica is painted with scenes from the Bible. The body of St. Francis is buried down a stairway discovered nearly 600 years after his death. We relaxed into the calm of mass, satisfied with a full day of peace and beauty thanks to St. Francis of Assissi.
“Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received…but only what you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.” — St. Francis of Assissi
Assissi tumbles down a hillside inviting visitors to climb their way to worship. In spite of all the stone, there is a feeling of softness to Assissi; it is an invitation to a simpler life. Even the soldiers cradle their arms, clearly embarrassed at the need to bring weapons onto this sacred ground.
In Assissi we found subdued tourists who spoke in whispers, shopkeepers who offered keepsakes to pilgrims but charged reasonable prices, churches that emphasized art as a path to understanding rather than a treasure to keep under lock and key. For 100 different reasons we felt welcomed as part of a gentle community in Assissi.
When we first spotted Assissi from a distance, it looked like Rivendell, cloaked in mists and holding its head up against the rain. We were surrounded by hill towns but I wanted this particular hill town to be Assissi because it was breath-taking in its beauty. I let out a sigh of pleasure when we realized this special town was, indeed, our destination.
We followed the Rick Steves app for Assissi. Before we left home, we downloaded all of Rick Steves’ audios tours and maps of Italy onto our Smartphones. The tours are excellent and do not eat up your data plan if you download the tours ahead of time. The tours all use just a tiny bit of energy from your phone so you don’t have to worry about running down your battery. Just plug in any set of earphones and you are ready to go.
We used the Rick Steves tour book which was spot on in recommending parking. However, after parking the car below ground, we realized we were on the basillica side of town, about a mile away from the start of the audio tour at Piazza Matteotti. We used the immaculate bathrooms and then asked the parking attendant if there was a way to get to Piazza Matteotti. “Just take the bus,” he advised. We walked to the nearest souvenir shop to buy the $1 bus ticket. When we walked in, the shop attendant did not even look up from her phone conversation, she just pushed three tickets our way and accepted our euros.
We walked about 50 steps to the stop and a large, clean bus arrived almost immediately. We dropped our tickets into the slot near the driver and settled back for a fast ride that circled the town of Assissi, dropping passengers at about four stops before reaching Matteotti Piazza.
Now here’s the thing that makes me crazy about Rick Steves tours. I can never seem to find the spot to begin the tour. The directions are clear, “exit the square from its uphill or northeast corner.” Here’s the problem. We had no compass. (Note to self: pack a compass for my next trip.) And every corner of the square looked to be uphill. Rick advised the piazza is on the east end of town. So it would make sense that northeast would continue in the direction east of town. Nope. We tried every corner before asking a local resident where our first stop, a Roman ampitheater ruin could be found. The resident was friendly but took a moment to direct a truck hauling propane tanks to a pull off on the ancient medieval street. We watched, fascinated, as the driver backed his huge truck into a chariot-sized space. Then the resident smiled and pointed down a tiny alley so off we trotted.
When you visit Assissi, you’ll definitely want to visit the cathedral but the back streets of Assissi are beyond charming. We visited in March before the chaos of visitors and flowers, but already we could see spring in every street we walked along. I would love to return in June during the town’s wall garden competition. If this early preview of flowers was any sign, the June showcase must be unequaled.
Assissi, Italy 2016
We, however, visited on a cold, rainy day in March so most people were tucked inside their homes. The few residents we saw scurried quickly under umbrellas from small shops to small stone houses. As they shut their doors, a golden, glowing light would come on in their front window hinting at warmth and comfort. We were left in the rain and cold but were still delighted by the care residents took with their front stoops and extensive gardens. The 2,000-year-old town of Assissi has taken full advantage of location and climate to create a graceful city with winding streets that slowly reveals pink-tinted limestone pleasures around every corner. Every half hour or so, bells would ring out to celebrate the day and we would be reminded anew that we were just three women among millions who have made the pilgrimage to Assissi.
Assissi is filled with churches, each a treasure with a story to tell. The Cathedral of San Rufino is located just west of the Piazza Matteotti. Named after Assissi’s first bishop and patron saint, the cathedral was built in the 11th century with a Romanesque facade. Both St. Francis and St. Clare were baptized here.
In spite of the importance of Assissi as a rich hill town along the trade route between Rome and nothern Italy, we were drawn to Assissi because of our love for St Francis. He may have been the first saint we learned about after the Holy Family. St. Francis loved animals. St. Francis preached to the birds. St. Francis was humble. We should be like St. Francis. These were the teachings of our nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph, when we attended St. Andrews School in Upper Arlington, Ohio. I loved the reality of the paragons of virtue that our nuns presented to us. “I should be more like St. Francis,” I would think and make a mental note to be nicer to our little dog, Tiki. The nuns’ stories, however, never quite squared with the reality of bringing home a lost animal and asking, “Can I keep him?” Mom always said no. Obviously she had not taken the St. Francis story to heart.
I was particularly touched by the honest approach of shopkeepers in Assissi. They did not hawk their goods or gouge tourists. Prices were fair. For example, I purchased a pair of hand-made olive wood salad tossers for under $10; in Rome, similar wood implements cost more than double that. Shopkeepers took their time, looked you in the eye, and wished you a pleasant visit.
Assissi also features many monks walking the streets, often arm-in-arm with a visiting tourist. I was never sure if they were proselytizing monks or monks-tour-guides-for-hire, or what, but they were prodigious and friendly on the streets of Assissi. Rick Steves writes, “All over Europe I find monks hard to approach. But there’s something about “the jugglers of God,” as peasants have called the Franciscan friars for eight centuries, that this Lutheran finds wonderfully accessible. (Franciscans modeled themselves after French troubadours — or jongleurs — who roved the countryside singing and telling stories and jokes)” (Steves).
As we grew pscyho-glycemic, we began to search for a place to get out of the rain and enjoy a relaxing lunch. We spotted this little Trattoria Spadini in a side street near the Piazza Santa Chiara and dashed in from the rain. Many people laugh at the idea of a Tourist Menu, but we gamely ordered the tourist specials for 15 Euros and filled our tummies with superbly prepared food. We also enjoyed the delightful company of two flirty bus drivers who accompanied some of the hundreds of students on tour of Assissi but chose to dine at the table next to us. The old adage to eat where the bus drivers eat held true even in Assissi.
After warming up over our delicious lunch, we strolled to the Piazza San Chiara to see the Church of St. Clare. We walked under lovely pink arches and came out on one of the large piazzas that Italians do so well. I love these meeting places where people can gather to enjoy the sunshine and the company of others. Empty in the rain, we treasured the quiet and enjoyed seeing the merry-go-round featuring a breast-feeding madonna.
The Church of St. Clare is pretty and worth a quick breeze-through. But we were tired of the cold, driving rain and intent on reaching the Cathedral of St. Francis. So after a few minutes visit to St. Clare’s, we continued wandering through the streets of Assissi and found ourselves at the Church of St. Stefano.
The rural Church of St. Stefano was built by local builders without a plan. It’s a typical Italian hill-town church built outside the city walls.
Most of Assissi was built on the ruins of an ancient Roman city. The Temple to Minerva still stands. We found students sitting on the steps, smoking cigarettes and ducking out from their roving chaperones. Four boys, about 14 years old, laughed with us when we asked for a photo, and were friendly as they enjoyed their field trip away from school.
Located on the Piazza del Commune, the 1st century BC Temple of Minerva marks Assissi as always representing a sacred place. The Temple once towered over the street but as the street was paved and repaved, the street just kept getting closer to the Temple.
The very first Nativity scene, or creche, was created by St. Francis. I love beautiful creches and enjoyed seeing the many creche displays located throughout Assissi.
Here’s my nativity scene that I put up every Christmas. My parents gave me nearly every Lenox piece and my father built the stable, one of my very favorite possessions.
Just one closing thought: Why is that every time I type out the word “Assissi” I keep wanting to spell “Mississippi?”
Steves, R. (n.d.). Franciscan Friars and Tourists Share Assisi. Retrieved from Rick Steves’ Europe: https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/franciscan-friars-and-tourists-share-assisi