The Road to Assisi

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

2013-09-23 04.31.39Wednesday, September 25.

Yet another super-early start to the day …

But for the first time on this trip, our tour group’s getting a bit of a reprieve in the (non-stop) excursion department.

Our driver, Pierluigi, has a lot of ground to cover if he’s going to get us to our next destination – the town of Assisi.

I take advantage of the long ride to catch up on my sleep, as the last couple of nights haven’t been entirely restful.

Our first short stop is at the Cassino war cemetery, the final resting place for many soldiers from the Commonwealth – New Zealanders, Australians, Brits, and Canadians.

As we enter the grounds, a military ceremony is underway at the far end, so we move along as quietly and respectfully as we can between the rows of gravestones, gazing at inscriptions and taking photos.

2013-09-23 04.49.18Prior to our arrival at the cemetery, Franco told us that a large number of the fallen buried here are Canadians.

Standing on the grounds now, I can see them – rows upon rows – on the right-hand side of the cemetery.

The sheer number of tombstones – compared to the other soldiers from other countries – says volumes about their involvement and the ultimate price they paid.

Some were as young as 19 years old – as far as we know. Some could be younger, as it’s known that some young men lied about their ages to enlist. The visiting is quite sobering, but worth the visit.

Back on the bus, we travel for a couple more hours, passing Rome’s outskirts and going beyond, stopping for lunch at a rest stop near the town of Spoleto.

From there, it’s another two and a half hours before we reach Assisi – home of St. Francis.

2013-09-25 10.01.46As it happens, our group has arrived roughly a week and a half before Pope Francis is due to visit the town and give mass, on St. Francis’ Day (October 4). At the time of our visit, we’re told that Assisi is expecting somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100,000 people to descend upon the town for the festival.

Seeing the town at a distance from the bus, with the basilica appearing to be perched on the edge of the hill, the thought that we would be soon ascending up there seems a bit daunting.

But upon meeting our local guide for the afternoon, Vania, it doesn’t turn out to be as bad as originally imagined.

For starters, she leads us up two sets up escalators (no, really) towards the “new” gate, on the town’s northeastern side.

Assisi is anything but flat, but it honestly doesn’t seem so bad to navigate. It’s precisely the type of picturesque little town you’re supposed to imagine when you think of Italy, with scenic views of the landscape that don’t seem to end, and architecture that beckons you to take photos.

2013-09-25 10.17.09The streets are lined with shops, including meringues in patisserie windows the size of my face!

Every stairway, nook and cranny visible to the naked eye is image-rich. The two squares through which we’re led have views of the countryside that no picture can really properly capture.

Vania takes us inside St. Francis’ Basilica, where she talks a bit about St. Francis’ life before his decision to dedicate his life to religion, as well as the frescoes on the church walls that depict his life and work.

2013-09-25 10.41.12

(Another historic tidbit/sidebar: we’ve arrived the day before the 16th anniversary of the earthquake that hit Assisi [1997]; it damaged part of the basilica’s portals, apparently shattering it into some 200,000 pieces. A fair bit of one of them – I believe near the church entrance – has been re-assembled by experts through a painstaking method much like a jigsaw puzzle.)

From the sanctuary, we’re then taken down to the basilica’s lower level, where St. Francis’ tomb is kept. The structure is dramatically different – the lower ceilings, the design. It’s (obviously) from an older time, and so the atmosphere feels slightly more eerie, but also more sombre and reverent. Both clergy and average folks alike are there in the small, ancient chapel, praying. It feels a bit strange (even a tad disrespectful) to be shuffling about as a tour group, while this otherwise most sacred of acts is going on.

2013-09-25 11.50.46The tour ends, and we’re let loose for about 45 minutes.

There’s not as much to look at in the southwestern section of town. I opt to take a look in a couple of nearby shops, purchasing a sticky almond pastry from one of them. (The pastry is nowhere as sweet as I think it’s going to be – just very nutty.)

Finally, we’re rounded up and taken to the hotel – a tiny, 40-room establishment. The rooms and bathrooms are just as compact.

Following a lovely dinner, it’s once again to bed, and it will be early to rise. We have a full day of driving ahead for the next stop.

A Day on the Coast

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

2013-09-22 04.12.59Tuesday, September 24.

Today’s a long day, but a good one.

Our first stop: the town of Sorrento – which also happens to be our trip leader Franco’s hometown.

I didn’t know this before we arrived, but Sorrento’s known for its intricate wood inlay designs, which can be found on everything from tables to music boxes. So – of course – the first place we visit in town is a wood inlay factory.

There’s a presentation by the man who runs the factory, followed by a “stop” in the adjoining gift shop to admire and – naturally – an attempt to entice us into buying something. (Nice try, wood-inlay man.)

Leaving the shop, we walk into town for a mini-tour of the shopping district. We pass numerous shops selling leather purses (this catches my eye), sample sweet almond candies, and even are treated to some gelato, courtesy of Franco (see photo of my selection, below).

2013-09-22 04.27.53But herein lies a test. For you see, my dear, sweet mother – who chose Italy as our travel destination – is lactose-intolerant (and gets a bit of heartburn when she eats tomato sauce). Yet here we are, lined up inside a shop that’s said to serve the best gelato in Sorrento. Fifty-six flavours’ worth.

We’ve already had a disappointing food experience the evening we arrived in Rome, and my mom hasn’t been completely impressed with her food options thus far. So I’m nervous.

But it turns out I don’t have to be. With Franco’s help, she finds a milk-free melon flavoured treat … and she likes it.

(Yay! A small success!)

We also make small talk with some of our fellow travellers, including a couple named Dallas and Randy, who hail from Winnipeg. As we find out, Randy is (1) quite funny and (2) an avid eater of gelato. He and my mom seem to get along almost immediately.

Around 11:45, we’re let loose. Some people set off on an excursion to a mozzarella farm outside Sorrento. Because of my mom’s lactose issues, we opt instead to browse a few of the shops in town, then take a local bus tour which lasts 35 minutes (cost: 6 Euros), following that up with lunch.

We find a little sit-down place where I chow down on pizza, while Mom has to improvise with some boiled potatoes seasoned with olive oil and onion (which she claims she likes).

After lunch, we elect to rest a spell on a bench somewhere. The only one I can find is under some trees that line one of the main medians in the town centre. Of course, it happens to be across from some not-so-young Italian men loafing about, smoking and such.

In the span of about 10 minutes, the gaggle of Italian dude-bros grows to almost a dozen, standing almost in the road, sitting next to us, just loitering. Mind you, they don’t bother us, but I grow tired of the impromptu sausage party pretty quickly.

We return to our group’s meeting spot by the wood inlay factory, where we board mini-buses for the afternoon drive down the Amalfi Coast, where we will stop in the village of Positano.

2013-09-22 09.18.29The journey down the coast is narrow, and a bit steep. Having done a similar stretch on my trip to Morocco several years ago, I’m not unnerved. For my mom – between the narrow roadway down, various cars and scooters zipping in and out, and huge trucks expertly navigating the terrain – it’s a bit daunting.

But the view leading into Positano is simply spectacular. In some ways, it sort of reminds me of Croatia.

The stop in Positano is lovely. But truthfully, there’s not a lot to do for the short time we’re here. Our local guide, Stefano, is nice, but he doesn’t say a whole lot about the town.

2013-09-22 10.03.28He leads us on foot, from our drop-off point at the top of the village down to the beach. It’s lovely, but the sun is high, so it’s quite hot … and there’s not a whole lot to do.

Our sightseeing done, we leave town and arrive back in the town of Castellmare di Stabia (where we’re staying) sometime after 6 p.m.

Dinner is spent with two nice American couples, Judy and Charles from Florida (they’re just lovely!) and a woman named Rosemary and her husband (whose name eludes me). We dine on spaghetti carbonara, followed by chicken and vegetables, with a flan for dessert. Mom gets spaghetti minus the tomato sauce, along with a special omelette with vegetables. (Other than the portion size – which she says is huge – I think she does okay.)

The hotel offers post-dinner tea upstairs, but tonight it seems a lot of people are too pooped to go. Mom and I do end up sitting and chatting with three Australians – a couple, Kerry and Keith (I forget where they’re from), and a lady named Susan, who’s from Darwin. She’s an outreach ENT nurse working to get care and treatment to those in far-flung Aborigine communities. (Listening to her talk about the language, cultural and geographic challenges, as well as her program being under constant threat of dwindling government funding, is unreal.)

The night winds down, and Mom and I head back to our room.

Tomorrow, we’re off to our next stop: the town of Assisi.

Oh Hey, Pompeii!

2013-09-21 09.59.27Our tour bus arrives outside the ancient city of Pompeii around mid-afternoon.

This is one of the things I’m looking forward to seeing. Ancient-ruin-anything pleases my inner geek.

Once inside the front gates, we meet our next local guide Vincenzo (or Enzo, as he likes to be called). He takes our group down a tree-lined path and into the sun-baked ruins of part of the old city.

We’re told it’s impossible to see the entire old city in one day; for our part of the trip, we’ll see roughly a third of the ruins (which lasts about two hours).

Enzo’s actually third-generation resident of the modern-day town of Pompeii, so he’s as chock-a-block full of information as he is entertaining when he describes what life in ancient times would have been like.

2013-09-21 10.08.28He takes us to see an ancient ampthitheatre, and explains practical purposes for things, such as the way the roads were paved, and how merchants set up shops.

He shows us an ancient “fast-food” restaurant, as well as how to determine whether the ruins of a home belonged to someone of a certain class.

We take respite from the sun in an old structure, and take a look of a couple of figures in plaster – said to be real people, frozen in the positions in which they died. I’m not sure what’s more surreal – that, or seeing them under glass, themselves relics from an ancient event.

2013-09-21 10.48.39From there, Enzo takes us to a section of town that housed a brothel, explaining how prostitutes would bring in business.

Up on the walls near the brothel’s entrance are faded erotic pictures, depicting the kind of services customers could ask for.

(In the street not too far away from the brothel, there’s a drawing on of of the stones that one could describe as an ancient form of “GPS”, so to speak.)

2013-09-21 10.13.27Near the end of our tour, we pass through a very large courtyard.

At one end is a building housing all sorts of recovered artifacts – urns, vessels, pieces of moulding, and again, figures frozen in plaster and time.

One particular person is crouching – likely under something to protect himself, but sadly, his gesture was in vain.

It’s been an interesting look around Pompeii. But after a post-tour gelato, it’s time to pile back onto the bus to get to the next leg of our destination.

A Morning at the Vatican

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Monday, September 23.

2013-09-21 02.18.00We’re up at the crack of dawn, and in the hotel lobby by about 6:30 a.m., taking our places in what seems like the longest lineup ever.

And it’s just the queue for breakfast.

The morning we’re due to visit the Vatican, HUNDREDS of Spanish tourists (or so it seems) are all leaving the hotel at the same time.

After breakfast, Mom decides to grab some foodstuffs from the buffet to make more sandwiches for the day.

I’m waiting relatively close to the dining room entrance, a plate of already-made sandwiches in hand, when suddenly this disagreement breaks out between two of the Spanish tourists – a man and woman – seemingly over a black, vinyl bag (or, perhaps, its contents).

As the argument eases and escalates, I have visions of fisticuffs, me getting caught in the middle, and those delicious, precious bacon sandwiches flying in the air. I silently plead for my mother to hurry the hell up.

Unscathed, we grab our belongings and – after some confusion as to where our group’s bus is parked – are on our way to Vatican City.

The crowds outside the Vatican‘s city walls are already enormous by the time we arrive (see above), just after 8 a.m. Luckily, though, we don’t have to wait long to get inside – we’ve paid in advance, so we get to bypass some of the lines. But, man, do we ever shuffle just to get inside.

After a couple of false starts (one of our fellow tourists loses one of her sons in the shuffle up the escalator in the museum, then my mom’s radio guide – used to hear our guide, Tiziana – refuses to work), we finally get going.

2013-09-21 03.34.40The Vatican Museums include huge halls with ornate columns and ceilings, filled with all manner of sculptures (many of them missing arms), tapestries, painted reliefs on ceilings, and so on.

We’re led outside in a sort of courtyard, where Tiziana gives us an introduction to understanding the different panels of Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – the length of time it took the artist to complete his work, where the man left his signature, and even a fun anecdote about what he did when one local cardinal kicked up a fuss about the content of his masterpiece.

We eventually get in to see the chapel. But it’s a bit of a circus, to be completely honest. People are everywhere, being herded like sheep by the guards keeping watch. (Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to take pictures, so you’ll see none here. Google’s your friend for this one.)

Our group moves to one corner of the chapel, where – amid the insanity – I crane my neck and look straight upwards to gaze at as much as I can, before we’re shooed out.

2013-09-21 04.28.18We move along to St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s just as you’d probably just as ornate as you’d imagine – imaginably high domes, marble floors, sculptures in every corner, mosaic tiles galore. And then, there’s that massive, almost menacing, black canopy at the altar.

Embedded in the floor are tiles that compare the sizes of other big cathedrals around the world to St. Peter’s. (From what I understand, St. Peter’s is the biggest basilica in the world.)

Then, it’s out into the sun, past St. Peter’s Square – filled with row upon row of chairs set up for some sort of event – and the famous obelisk, for a break before we start the next leg of our trip.

A Wet Day In

P1010900Tuesday, July 16th. 

Considering that our trio opted to come to the Bahamas in the middle of rainy/hurricane season, I’d say we’ve been pretty lucky in the weather department.

That luck has come to an end.

I’m the first one up this morning (for the first – and only – time during this trip). And it’s raining. Not the type of rain we’ve been having, that dissipates in 30 minutes. It’s all-day rain – the type I thought would have marred our vacation earlier. Talk about good timing.

I feel better than I did last night. I manage to eat a bowl of cereal. But something still doesn’t completely feel right. Later in the day, I finish my leftover chicken cacciatore (admittedly with some determination, because I don’t like wasting food if I don’t have to). Still okay/not okay.

As the rain continues through the afternoon, we do the only thing we can think of: casually drink. There’s a fair amount of liquor left over, and it would be nice to finish it before we leave. Perhaps that’s a bit too ambitious. Besides, maybe it will kill whatever’s been affecting me today.

The showers finally let up by early evening, and for our last meal, we walk down the street to a place in a nearby strip plaza called Meza Grill, a Mediterranean-styled restaurant.

We split some appetizers – lamb stuffed with raisins, a platter with hummus, baba ghanouj and tzatziki, and some calamari. And I vaguely remember inhaling a small chocolate dessert sometime after that. But the alcohol-soaked haze is definitely hanging heavily.

The evening ends as all others have. But that’s it. No more waking up to morning views of palm trees and walking mere minutes to the beach. It’s time to pack up and return to reality.

Sigh.

A Sunday by the Sea

P1010602Sunday, July 14th.

Today starts with a feast of grilled cheese, tomato and ham sandwiches Jen prepares for all of us, followed by stops at the grocery and liquor stores to replenish our rations.

When we return, I stay indoors a while to cool off from the heat, then eventually slather on some sunscreen and bug spray and wander down to the beach to join the others.

The temperature’s cooled down, so it’s nice – not as blazing hot as it has been over the past several days.

I recline on a deck chair while Christine and Jen alternate between lounging on the chairs and bobbing about in the water.

While we’re reclining in our chairs, we get a visit from a four-legged passerby. He or she is verP1010605y calm and friendly. I don’t think he or she’s a stray, only because he or she is wearing a collar.

But the visit is fleeting, and our furry new acquaintance gets up and continues trotting down the beach.

We’re back in the villa around 6 p.m. and by 7 p.m. are heading west to a restaurant called Compass Point.

It’s located in a community by the same name and – unlike our trip to Sandy Point, it’s about a 15-minute taxi ride from Cable Beach. We pass recent condo developments, gated communities and a local fish-fry shack on the way.

But when we finally arrive at the restaurant and are seated by the water, that is the best view by far. Nothing on the horizon as far as the eye can see.

DSC_0790Christine and I try the Chef’s special – grouper – while Jen opts for a conch chowder and a salad. Sadly, there are no stars or moonlight to accompany our dinner – just the very dim flicker of our table candles, and the nearby glare from mounted TV screens and the lights at the bar. Above us, we see the occasional lights of airplanes preparing to land.

It’s not a late night for us – we have an early start, for our big day trip to the Exuma Cays!

Independence Day, Bahamian Style

Wednesday, July 10th.

Christine and I are up, chilling/making breakfast, when we hear a loud knock on the door and a DSC00553woman’s voice say loudly and clearly, “GOOD MORNING.”

In average circumstances, one might either (a) answer the door or (b) stealthily creep over to the curtains and have a peek to see who it is.

But, first thing we do is look at each other, because both of us think it’s that woman from the day before.

I remain on the couch, momentarily frozen. Christine bolts from the kitchen and upstairs.

Still not fully awake, I – for a nanosecond – consider tip-toeing over and peeking through the blinds.

Christine hisses my name, so I instead dart across the tile floor.

We hear the woman’s voice again; we zip upstairs.

On the second-floor landing, we hash it out in half-whispers. What should we do? What if it IS her? Do we just wait it out?

As we dither, Jen – from her bed on the top floor – calls down and ask us what’s going on. We eventually (and a bit sheepishly) explain.

We wait until we figure the woman’s left, then return downstairs. We decide we need to make a quick grocery run, but, to avoid running into that woman at the bus stop, we’re going to wait until at least noon, to make sure the coast is clear.

Before we go, Christine opens the door and sees a piece of paper lying on the ground. It’s a notice telling resort-goers the staff’s going to be replacing the locks on all the patio doors.

Maybe that’s who that was at the front door. We’ll never know for sure. But if that’s the case … Part of me feels a bit silly.

We arrive at the store to see (1) the sign which clearly reads that the store closes at noon, and (2) three local ladies trying to sweet-talk their way in. Those ladies did a great job, because they – and by extension, we – were let in.

​”Make it quick,” the guy says. “No shopping!”

We run up and down aisles, grabbing what we think we need. The sweet-talking ladies are spread out throughout the store, taking their sweeeet time. We leave just as a couple of tourists are trying to get inside, only to be turned away.

Christine and Jen then make their second beer run of the week, leaving me behind to cool off and just chill out.

By the time they return, they’ve been discussing day activities to try while we’re down here. We then have a discussion amongst the three of us and decide on two excursions, but we won’t do them until the mid-point of our trip. It’s supposed to start raining on Friday – which has me a bit concerned – but we’re going to take our chances.

Christine and Jen hit the beach again; when I wander down a while later, they’re in the water, beverages in hand. Unlike yesterday, I waste no time getting into the water. We submerge ourselves, goofing off and relaxing.

This evening, we’re having dinner at a restaurant called The Poop Deck, in the next community over, called Sandy Port. For some reason, we assume it’s relatively close to us and, therefore, an easily walkable distance away.

So we walk. And walk. And. Walk.

We reach Sandy Port … and we don’t see the restaurant.

We try to search for a bit longer, but we do have a Plan B in place, just in case – a sports bar called Twisted Lime. We go to a nearby gas station/convenience store to ask whether for directions. They’ve never heard of the restaurant we’re looking for, but the other place is a couple minutes’ walk away, on the other side of the gas station.

We get some great seating outside, and tuck into some tasty food (I specifically remember having a succulent pulled pork sandwich), which we can’t finish.

Unlike the night before, we have no problem getting a cab, as the restaurant calls one for us. We’re home in a fraction of the time it took us to walk there (obviously).

Next on the agenda: planning some fun activities for the days to come.