One of my greatest summer travel stories took place in 2002, when my college asked if I’d be willing to lead a three-college eight-day alumni tour to Tuscany and Umbria in June. Duh! I didn’t have to take care of the administrative planning, deal with buses or anything like that, which was good because at the time I didn’t speak Italian. Since the tour was oversubscribed, they asked if I’d be willing to do two weeks. Do you think?
Each tour was based in Pienza at the Hotel Corsignano, the original name of the town. It was changed in the fifteenth-century when Pope Pius II (renaming the town after himself) started a building program to rival that of Siena. When my group arrived, I was a bit nervous since I’d never done anything like this before. My college’s alumni director gave me simple instructions – make sure people don’t form into cliques, get involved with them as individuals and give four lectures to each group. I chose my talks early, based on where we were visiting. “Art in the Renaissance;” “Francis and Clare of Assisi;” “Food and Wine in the Middle Ages;” and “The Idea of the Renaissance.”
Pienza is an amazing site, home to films such as Gladiator and the English Patient, yet not as overwhelmed with tourists as Cortona or San Gimignano. It’s a small Tuscan hill town with an old city gate, beautiful cathedral, a small medieval parish church down the hill, and streets named Via della Fortuna (Street of Luck); Via del Bacio (Street of the Kiss); and Via dell’ Amore (Street of Love). The hotel was very comfortable, but not overwhelming, but its food was magnificent. Every night we came back to an amazing Tuscan meal and what seemed like endless bottles of wine. Most of us became especially fond of their cinghiale (boar stew), one of many courses that culminated in local desserts and Pienza’s specialty cheese, Pecorino. I quickly learned one Italian word (abbastanza or basta – enough), while covering my plate at the same time. I gained six pounds in the first week!
One afternoon, a local cheese seller came and spoke to the group about cheese, the challenges of modern Italian living, and the problem of all the ‘young people leaving for the big city.’ The groups themselves were amazing. To my astonishment, no cliques formed and I didn’t have to set the tables with name cards.
Each day we embarked by bus to a different site: Florence and Siena, of course, but we also went (somewhat) off the beaten path. We went to both Montalcino and Montepulciano to sample the wines, especially the vino nobile. We started at a winery in the countryside, where we saw the process and sampled wines and different local foods, including different kinds of bruschetta and olive pastes. I learned why each vineyard puts a rose at the end of the row of vines – it will show any insect infestation before the vines themselves.
At one such stop, as the administrative tour guide had told us, the nearly one hundred year old proprietor of the best shop in Montalcino would insist on kissing all the women. It was good she prepared us in advance. Well worth it – we then got large samples of many of the best wines of Tuscany.
On a Sunday we went to the abbey church of Sant-Antimo, which has numerous medieval artworks. For those who chose, they could hear mass sung in Gregorian chant. Others simply walked the hillsides.
My favorite day trip was Assisi. We stopped during the morning in Perugia, where you can actually walk in a medieval town thanks to a war with the papacy in the late Middle Ages (it was walled over) but then followed the hills to an Umbrian restaurant where we sampled local pasta with truffles (the mushroom kind – not the chocolate truffles many members of the group bought in Perugia).
Assisi was glorious. The sun shone, and while the town still bore so many marks of the earthquake in 1997, with parts of the streets held together by beams, it all made sense how someone like St. Francis came from such a place. Flowers were everywhere. To my shock, I ran into someone on the streets of Assisi whom I had known from academic conferences. She was a Franciscan sister, and she offered (since it was her specialty) to give a special guided tour to the lesser known parts of the city and introduce the alumni to local people.
Making a quick escape, I ran down the hill to San Damiano, the ancient church that had fallen into ruin. It was supposedly there that Francis had his conversion experience and was told to rebuild the convent -- which ultimately would lead to others joining him and the beginning of the Franciscan and Poor Clare orders. Like the path that weaved down to it, the convent (where Saint Clare and her nuns lived most of their lives) was filled with flowers). After a too quick tour I ran back up the hill to join my group at the basilica. PAX was mowed into the garden square that lies just in front of the basilica.
We also went to Florence, but I’d been several times by then. Siena was glorious, especially the Duomo, which remained unfinished because of the plague of 1348. But the inside is totally different from that of Florence, with bicolored marble arches and the incredible Piccolomini library, built for Pius II by his grandson, also a pope.
As wonderful as both tours were, the people were the best – both the locals and the wonderful men and women whom I got to know on both tours. I learned so much from them both of their life experiences, their time at my college, and got to see Italy through their eyes as well as my own. Problems were so few as to be unnoticeable, but I regularly get together with some of them who visit or come back from reunion.
It was a summer to remember! I'll enclose pictures (most non-digital) in two or more sets.