Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
Trip End May 13, 2009

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Flag of Italy  , Lazio,
Friday, May 2, 2008

The train trip from Budapest to Venice was long but uneventful, except that at each border crossing (there seemed to be several in the early hours of the morning) the police banged on my cabin door and wanted to see my papers. I'm not sure that Croatia, Serbia, & Slovenia (I think they're the countries I went through) yet understand what the EU is about, ie free movement between countries.
So, back to Rimini again for a few days before setting off on the next phase of my trip. While in Rimini I bought a car - yes, I am now in the completely ridiculous situation of owning 2 cars (1 in Australia & 1 in Italy) and a motor scooter (currently in Sicily), but no home. The used car market is not a big one in Italy so there wasn't a lot of choice and I only had 4 days in which to do it as I had to pick up my daughter Giuliana in Rome on the 27th April. By a miracle I managed to buy the car I wanted (a 2001 Peugeot 206 with only 31,000kms) but I couldn't pick it up until the following week so hired a new Renault Twingo until then.
I left Rimini on the Saturday so I could do some sightseeing en route to Subiaco, an hour from Rome, where I would spend the night with my cousin Silvio and his family, then drive down next morning to pick up Giuliana.
I didn't know anything about the centre of Italy between the Adriatic and Rome so just followed my nose and ended up taking a rather 'scenic' route. My first stop out of Rimini was Loreto - I went there purely because there is a convent and school called Loreto in Melbourne so I was curious to see if there was any connection. You could virtually call Loreto an ecclesiastical town - I have never seen so many priests and nuns - in the streets, in bars and restaurants, chatting to pilgrims, window-shopping for the latest and most fashionable vestments, etc. There are a number of large colleges and it seems to be one of the main training grounds for religiouses. The main attraction for pilgrims is the Holy House of Loreto, believed to be the home in which Joseph and Mary and their family lived.
The story goes like this - around the time of one of the Crusades (1291) angels miraculously moved the house from its original location to a site in modern-day Croatia. An empty space was left in Nazareth and a small house suddenly appeared in a field in Croatia. In 1294, the house was again moved by angels because of the Muslim invasion of Albania to its present location in Loreto. A large basilica was later built around the small shrine, which was encased inside the basilica in a large white marble structure inside the church in front of where the altar would normally be. Around 4 million Catholic pilgrims and visitors come each year, including me, who knew nothing about it.
Inside the marble structure is what looks like the ruins of a house and a black statue of Mary dressed in a golden robe. Outside there are numerous street stalls selling religious knick-knacks and for the first time ever I felt like buying one - a statue of the 'black' Mary (it's supposed to have turned black from the soot of all the candles in the church).
Most people would have an impression of Italy as really built-up and crowded, which is true enough of many places, but you would be surprised by the amount of 'wild' areas there are. After leaving Loreto I drove over long and winding (and narrow roads) through extensive forests and hills to Norcia (another Australian connection - a settlement called New Norcia was founded by Benedictine priests in the 1850's about 130 kms north of Perth), in an expansive and beautiful green valley. Norcia is famous in Italy for its cured meats, and cheeses so I bought some wild boar salami and cheese with truffles, and continued on into the mountains, which here range from 2000 to over 3000 metres and were still covered with snow. The normal drive from Rimini to Subiaco takes 3.5 hours but my route through the 'wilds' of central Italy took over 9 hours. I had the usual warm greeting from Silvio and his family and next morning I was up by 4.30 am to get to Rome airport before 6 to meet Giuliana.
It felt quite unreal driving through the dark of the morning and the pink and pearl sunrise to go and meet my daughter in Rome - the only place I have seen her is Melbourne, and although I know I will see her in a short time it still seems as if it can't be real, but I go through the motions anyhow. As usual there is the interminable wait at the airport as the person you are waiting for is almost always the last one through the gate and you think they missed the plane, etc.
But here she is, sporting a new short haircut and not looking too tired from the trip, and soon we are motoring along the freeway back to Rome while I start giving her tips about Italy (this is her first overseas trip, apart from a school excursion to New Caledonia). She will be here at least 3-4 months and there is so much to tell and I probably overwhelm her with my advice as we thread our way through Rome (don't wait for cars to stop at a pedestrian crossing - just charge across confidently and dare them to stop, and don't forget to look left, evaluate every law and see if it suits you, don't drink coffee with milk after breakfast - it's illegal, etc), and get lost but eventually make it to Subiaco, after stopping for her first coffee and pastry in a small mountain town nearby (which she pronounced delicious).
I introduce Giuliana to her relatives (who she only had the foggiest idea she had) - there is Silvio and his wife Maria and daughters, Simona and Michela (who is the 18 year old author of a romance called 'The Perfume of Love) and my other cousin Marco (Silvio's brother) and his wife Pina and daughter Sabrina. The area around Subiaco is very religious also and we visit St Scholastica's and the large Benedictine complex set into the cliffs of a deep forested valley nearby. The current Pope took his name from St Benedict, who meditated and prayed in a grotto in the cliffs, around which the complex has been built. We walk up to the Borgia palace on the rock above the town but it is closed (these are the Borgias who supplied several Popes as well as the infamous Lucrezia known for her liberal use of poison). That evening Simona and Michela guide us up to a town high up in the mountains called Cervara - it occupies the top of a rocky outcrop and is made up of houses sitting literally on top of each other and from the tiny piazzetta it feels like you are on a verandah on top of the world. As you climb up artworks have been sculpted into the cliffs and poets and writers have scribbled their verses (including a nocturne-passacaglia by Ennio Morricone, who has a house there - he is one of the most prolific film-score writers in the world).
Giuliana and I decamp back to Rome the next day for a bit of sightseeing. I have been through Rome at least half a dozen times in the last 3 years but have not stopped there. We take a bus to the Vatican Museum - the crowds are huge and the line snakes all the way around the enormous piazza in front of St Peter's and looks like it will take more than an hour to get in. A spruiker comes around and offers a tour which will also shortcut the line so we take that and it's worth the extra money for the time it saves plus all the additional information we get. We spend over 5 hours in the Vatican and St Peter's and it just flies by, even though we have only barely scratched the surface - we hear that if you spent 45 seconds in front of every item in the Vatican Museum it would take 12 years to see them all, and it's quite believable. Over the next couple of days I take Giuliana to all the places I remember from 30 years ago - the Forum, Colosseum, Pantheon, Campo de Fiori, Piazza Navona, and nearly exhaust her from all the walking. It's delightful and interesting for me to watch her reaction - it's all new and fresh and fascinating for her - I'm so old and well-travelled and jaded :)and it's hard for me to see it with fresh eyes like hers.
It's great to be seeing Rome again and being reminded how pivotal and influential it has been to our civilisation. It's staggering to imagine that the ruins at the Forum make up only 2% of what was there, for example the Emperorīs Palace was 13 storeys high, and I use all the imagination I can to picture the scene - people shopping, going to the temple, bath-houses, gigantic buildings of marble, chariots cruising up and down, etc. At it's greatest around 100-200AD Rome had a population of nearly 1 million people.
A couple of days later I have another visitor to pick up at the airport. Yvonne is a friend from Melbourne - I met her and her husband Roger when I took up tango around 7 years ago and I have been appointed as her personal tour guide :) for the trip she has been planning for some time.
So we all squeeze into the little Twingo and set off for Spoleto for the night. Spoleto also has a link to Melbourne in that the Melbourne International Festival held every year in October/November began as the Melbourne version of the Spoleto Festival and was headed for around the first 3 years by Giancarlo Menotti, who was the founder. The next day was May Day, a public holiday in Italy and most European cities (first of May - International Worker's Day), but one which is virtually unrecognised and unknown by most people in Australia, and various Anarchist and Worker's and Communist groups were in the main piazza providing a bit of colour to the backdrop of people enjoying a leisurely coffee in the warm sunshine.
From there we drove on to Assisi, home of St Francis. Last time I was there 30 years ago the Cathedral was in a sad state of disrepair so it was great to see it again after the renovations. Once again the crowds were so great that it seemed we were in a religious Disneyland. There were hordes of tourists (us included) - there are so many tourist in Italy it looks and feels like it's one big party all the time, though I'm sure the local people must feel a real conflict between the money the tourists bring in and the massive disruption to their lives. Even with all this, going down to the crypt where St Francis is buried was a very moving experience - you could feel the religious fervour all around.
We got back to Rimini that night, went out for a late dinner at an Agriturismo, that as usual gave us too much food, then next morning I took Giuliana and Yvonne for a quick walking tour of Rimini, picked up my car, said goodbye to Giuliana (who is staying with my cousin Gianluca and studying Italian for 10 weeks at a local language school), and we were off, bound for Firenze.

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