The view from Assisi’s hilltop

This trip wasn’t meant to be a pilgrimage. But I was raised Catholic, and those ties are strong. When we were in Rome, I was thrilled and deeply touched to be in the crowd at St. Peter’s Square when Pope Francis gave an address and blessing a week ago. And as long as I was going to be in Umbria, I hoped to stop in Assisi.

It seems a higher power agreed that I should see the famous hill town. The International Journalism Festival, where my companion was speaking is held in Perugia, which is only half an hour away. For all the sightseeing we’ve done on this trip, we hadn’t joined any tours or hired any guides. So, extravagant as a personal tour was, I felt good when I lined up a guide to pick me up at our hotel, drive me to Assisi and make sure I didn’t miss anything important.

Isabella picked me up bang on time in her little BMW roadster. Her name means “beautiful one” and indeed, she is everyone’s idea of an Italian beauty with thick, wavy dark hair, wide brown eyes and fine Roman nose. Her English was superb.

A lovely corner in Assisi

The great add-on of our arrangement was the drive through the Umbrian countryside. This country is as green as Ireland, dappled with the random red of wild poppies, and dotted with squat olive trees.  Symmetrically planted fields of sunflowers are just green shoots in the spring sunshine. In summer, Isabella told me, they are drifts of yellow. Hanging above this rich land are the hill towns, the ancient cities, precariously perched sentinels, standing guard as they were meant to, for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Isabella was easy to talk to, and as she drove, expertly zooming us around the heavy Perugian traffic, we shared our mutual ups and downs, inspirations and disillusionments of our common faith. We both take great significance and hope in the fact that the new Pope chose the name Francis.

The lives of St. Francis and St. Clare, and the way they intertwined, have always fascinated me. Assisi was crowded that day with large school groups and buses of tourists. But Isabella guides like she drives, an expert in short cuts, an obvious favorite with Cathedral docents and guards. We jumped the queue at several stops, she with a charming smile, me guiltily with my head down and eyes averted. But she made sure I didn’t miss a thing, and filled in some serious gaps in my knowledge of the lives of these saints. The local pink and white limestone give the Basilicas of St. Clare and St. Francis a distinct yet understated beauty, quite fitting to the lives they lived.

However much I did not come as a pilgrim, Assisi is a blessed place. My heart and spirit were filled there, in ways that are too hard to explain. Or maybe it’s just too personal. Suffice it to say I left renewed.

The drive back to Perugia was just as beautiful. Isabella respected my quiet, reflective mood. It was a day of grace and peace and my only regret was that my companion couldn’t share it with us.

Earlier posts from our trip to Europe

‘Shoulda stayed home’; Inner Skeptic Is Left Behind

Flavorful Lyon

An ideal day in Lyon

The wrong train songs rumble through my head on Alpine journey

Romance in wood

Home Away From Home


Living it up at the Hotel Europa

Reflections on the David (but no photos)

Magical Siena

Land of My Grandfather

I am most fluent in helplessness

The Pietà

The Colosseum: definitely a Major League stadium

European churches are glorious, but whom do they glorify?

Perugia Swimming Suits

Italy Odds and Ends



Italy Odds and Ends

Everyone should ride in a cab at least once while in Italy. Yes, I know they’re expensive. Sure, the cabby might take advantage of the Americans by taking a longer route just to run up the fare. But truly, you haven’t experienced Italy until you’re bouncing down an insanely narrow street, filled with pedestrians, bicycles and motorcycles all to a steady accompaniment of horns. If you’re inclined toward motion sickness, take a Dramamine and go. And no averting your eyes as you barrel toward a delivery van with wide mirrors, as a scooter zips in between you both. It beats Space Mountain any time. When our cabby delivered us to the train station yesterday I told him, “You’re an expert driver.” He grinned, shrugged, and rolled his eyes, a non-verbal acknowledgement that he was pleased I enjoyed the ride.


There are times when certain conditions converge and a single, happy moment is seared into your memory. For me, it happened on a narrow side street branching off from the Duomo in Florence. My companion and I were strolling hand-in-hand, having just come from the Uffizi Gallery. The sky was clear, the sun warm, but the street was cool in the shade of the close, high buildings. We were wondering what century they were built, and I noted that every single deep-set window had a box below thickly clustered with herbs. We passed a street-level, open backdoor leading to a restaurant kitchen, the smell of freshly baked bread and the oven’s heat wafting out to us. And then came a woman’s voice, shouting, “Stupido! Aw, STUPIDO!!” Yep, I really am in Italy.


Yes, I did Google how to use a bidet. Yes, now I want one at home.


However much my companion disapproves of the incredible churches to be found in Italy, I can’t help being moved on these soft, spring evening when their bells toll the Angelus. It is a call to prayer, and also a call to good will. Maybe we’d all be a little more calm, a little more civil, a little more kind if we took such a moment every single day.


My companion and I met for lunch today and walking back across the piazza, I saw a silver RV, awning up, selling beverages to a long line of customers. “Is that a beer truck in the middle of the square on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?” I asked. “Yeah, it is.” My companion’s sigh was full of admiration. “God, I love it here.”

Beer truck in Perugia park


I did swim today in the new bathing suit I wrote about buying yesterday. And swimming above the Etruscan remains made it worth every painful minute. The pool is beautiful. There’s no hot tub, but it bows out on one end to make a seating area with powerful massaging jets. Two young ladies in bikinis immediately claimed the spot while I was swimming and, giggling, threw off their tops while they enjoyed the bubbling water. (Sorry guys, you’re only getting a picture of the beer truck.)

My companion says he might shop for some swimming trunks tomorrow. Stupido!

Perugia Swimming Suits

The view from our hotel

The sitting room in our suite

We’ve returned to Italy’s hill country, this time to Umbria and the town of Perugia. Our hotel was arranged by the conference where my companion is a speaker. It’s high on the topmost hill of the city, and we’ve been treated as special guests, given a huge suite with a view that looks down over the ancient city. I spent a good deal of last night, and part of this morning just staring out the window.

My sister Carol told me once she never travels without two things: a pair of jeans and a swimming suit. While I brought the jeans, this time I ditched the swimming suit, knowing that all the hotels I arranged didn’t have pools. I should have listened to Carol. Not only does our lovely Hotel Brufani Palace, have an indoor pool, it’s within a medieval vault. The glass pool floor lets you look down on excavated Etruscan ruins. I love to swim, but gliding above ancient ruins? Dear God, how many chances like that am I going to get?

Now, most women know that buying a swimming suit (especially if you’re middle-aged) is one of the most painful and humiliating of shopping endeavors. Even in your own country, where you speak the language and know where you might find “your kind of suit,” it is excruciating.

Buying one in Italy? Multiply that a hundred fold. On my way out, I stopped at the Concierge to ask where I might shop. “Caledonia,” he told me. “Just 100 meters down the block. They have everything. They will be happy to help.” Uh, yeah. The shop only had two-piece suits, of the teeny, tiny variety. When I asked if there were any appropriate to my age, the teen-age shop keepers looked confused. “Si, Signora.” She held up a blue thing with a bit of mesh connecting the bottom and top. “No, no,” I waved it off. “But Signora, such a pretty color.” Maybe, when I was 16. But at 58? Uh-uh. I struck out on my own.

I finally found a shop that had some possibilities. One of the shopkeepers spoke a bit of English, the other none at all. It was a trial for all of us.

Not only am I well into zaftig middle age, I am, apparently much taller and much more modest than most Italian ladies. My shopkeepers were boggled at the length of my shoulder to thigh span, but were not to be thwarted. They began dragging bins out of the backroom.  “Signora, is your color.” Again, a blue one was shoved in my hands. No mesh this time, but cut down so low it would come nearly to my navel. “No,” I said firmly, waving my hand in front of my chest and shaking my head. “Ah, si, si,” the older, non-English speaker seemed to follow. She dug and dug, and came up with a black number, higher-necked, but open on the sides. I shook my head, and pointed to my paunchy, stretch-marked hips, and said, “No one wants to see that.” She didn’t understand the words, but she got the point.

Finally we found a suit I thought would do. Still a bit low in the front, but not embarrassingly so, and it seemed to be cut in my long-body dimensions. I tried it on, opened the curtain and said, “Bigger,” glancing back with raised eyebrows to the rather snug derrière.

“No, Signora, no! Perfection,” the younger woman screamed. I shook my head.

“No, Signora!” What followed from the older woman I cannot say. I think it was a lecture on being too modest, but the words flew too fast for me to gather much. There was a good deal of finger shaking and an obvious reference to my being so much taller than they. It didn’t matter. I went to the bin myself and found the next size up. Like most swimming suits I’ve purchased since I put 30 behind me, I wasn’t thrilled. But it would do. My two shopkeepers clucked and frowned and shook their heads, but rang me up.

It was difficult. It was humbling in two languages. But I’ve got a suit that is decent. And tomorrow I swim with the Etruscans.

European churches are glorious, but whom do they glorify?

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, known locally as the Duomo.

Something bothers me when viewing the magnificent churches of Europe.

I have great respect for the artistic and scientific talents of the architects and builders. I admire the painstaking work of the masters who created the paintings, statues, columns, sarcophaguses, murals, mosaics, cornices, tapestries and frescoes that seem to decorate every available space. The reverence of these ancient people is touching and I respect the expressions of faith that these churches and their art represent.

But it also feels at times too much.

As my companion and I walked away from the glorious Duomo in Siena, Italy, we passed a group of English-speaking teen-agers getting their first glimpse as they rounded the corner. “How many, like, insanely beautiful churches can there be in one country?” a youth asked rhetorically of his peers.

Indeed, beautiful and plentiful. But on some level insane.

As a visitor to Italy centuries after the Renaissance artists, I am thankful for their contribution to art and beauty. That they elevated humanity is, to me, beyond question.

My father enjoyed painting. While his favorite subjects were sunsets and other landscapes that celebrated the beauty of creation, a few had religious themes. Some of his works hang (or did at one time) in the churches where he served as pastor or perhaps in some he visited. I grew up appreciating the talent and inspiration of the artist.

I’m grateful for the Medicis and other wealthy people who fostered an appreciation of art here. While I’m proud of Dad’s artwork, I recognize the difference between a hobby artist and a master. To become a master, one must work full-time for years. That requires support of wealthy people or wealthy institutions such as churches, either to buy the work or to sponsor it.

As I noted in an earlier post from this trip, I was in awe of the vision and execution that created the David. Sunday we saw the Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and marveled again at the beauty and the talent that created it.

Michelangelo’s genius did not grow from nothing. He and Leonardo da Vinci were the greatest artists of a culture that also produced masters such as Botticelli and Donatello (both of whose works we’ve seen on this trip) and lesser masters whose names I’ve already forgotten but who produced magnificent works we viewed in the museums, cathedrals and basilicas we’ve toured. Their work grew from the generosity of the Medicis and other patrons of the arts and from a culture that honored and elevated art.

It’s the cavernous cathedrals that strike me as too much. While I know they were built as tributes to God, I wonder how much they really are statements about the money and might of man. Wouldn’t the savior so often depicted in these statues and paintings have preferred that the church spend more of its wealth following his commandments, such as feeding and clothing the poor, and less building such grand palaces of worship?

I don’t wonder that in a condemning way. I know I don’t contribute enough to helping those less fortunate. And I’m certain the inspiration provided by religious art and architecture helps change lives and drives – directly or not – many of the countless acts of generosity by the faithful.

But as I admire the artistic gifts of the masters, I wonder if the popes and bishops who built these grand cathedrals weren’t glorifying themselves at least as much as the master they served.

St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican

The Colosseum: definitely a Major League stadium

My Roman nose and I visited the Colosseum today.

The Colosseum

This one counts as a Major League stadium.

I’ve spent the past half-century working my way through Major League Baseball’s parks. I made it to my 27th big-league park last year (I still have nine to go, though, because I’ve been to two home parks of the Yankees and Nationals and four parks that I’ve been to have since been replaced).

Minor league parks don’t count (though I do count them; I’ve been to four). Neither do football stadiums (four pro, four college) or basketball arenas (one pro, seven college).

Corridors and pens underneath the Colosseum floor show where performing animals and people were held.

But Rome’s Colosseum counts. Even though they never played baseball, a stadium that’s still standing nearly two millennia after it was built is Major League.

On a day that started with a visit to the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum was the highlight for me. No disrespect to Michelangelo; the chapel was marvelous, but I liked his David and Pietà better. And the chapel was crowded, nearly packed with people craning their necks, with guards noisily shushing people.

The Colosseum, less crowded thanks to a light rain, was an amazing and pleasant place to stroll through. It brought a mix of reactions. I wondered if any of the ballparks I’ve been to would still be standing in the 41st Century (I think four have already been torn down). I wondered if the symbols of American might and excess would someday be tourist attractions in a charming but insignificant country. I wondered if I’d have found the brutal sports of Roman times entertaining if I had grown up in that culture. I noted how similar the design was to many stadiums I’ve visited (though as we climbed the many stairs, I appreciated the development of circular ramps). I wondered if you could get a good dog and a beer while watching the gladiators battle.

I might have lingered longer to explore the arches (at least two were right outside the Colosseum) and other nearby Roman ruins. But pizza, bruschette and beer beckoned me from across town.


Rome has too many ancient structures and ruins to explore them all.




The Pietà

Today, I saw the Pietà again.

I was nine years old the first time I saw it, at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. When I close my eyes, I can still picture it: The room where it was housed was lit in blue except for the spotlights shining down on the sculpture. Visitors stood on slow moving walkways, allowing everyone a good, long view, while keeping the lines moving for those waiting. What I remember best, though, was how I lost my breath at first sight. Struck dumb, I stared and stared at Mary’s face, so incredibly young, the gentle, open grief so powerful it made me weak in the knees. It was the first time a piece of art evoked a physical and emotional response from me. If my mother would have allowed it, I’d have ridden over and over on that moving walkway for the entire day. If I had been asked what I most wanted to see on this trip to Italy, I would have said, “I want to see the Pietà again.”

Today, I did.

This time, it was in St. Peter’s Basilica. There were no blue lights. There was no moving walkway. Visitors could spend as long as they liked. And I looked for a long, long time.

The first time I saw the Pietà, it was through the eyes of a child. Today, I saw it through the eyes of a grandmother. And I realized I have lived a lifetime with the image in the back of my mind. Sometimes I would think of it, when I held one of my own sons in my arms. I have watched one sister-in-law lose a teenage son through cancer, and throughout his illness, the vision of the Pietà quietly came to my mind. I saw another sister-in-law lose a son in a violent act of war, and, as I watched her weep as they closed the casket for the last time, again, Mary, holding the remains of her sacrificed son, haunted me.

My companion stood quietly, hand on my shoulder today, patiently waiting as again I stared, and stared and stared. I don’t think there’s a mother alive who can look at the Pietà and not feel the weight of her child in her arms, who doesn’t feel the overwhelming, staggering loss etched so eloquently in every line of the marble.

Today I saw the Pietà again.

The Pietà

I am most fluent in helplessness

Few experiences are as humbling for me as traveling in countries where English is not the native language.

Maybe that’s part of why I like travel. We all need to be humbled now and then.

I excelled in German when I was in ninth grade. But we moved to a different school district, where they dropped German from the curriculum during World War I “to be patriotic.” And a quarter century after World War II, they still weren’t teaching it. Continue reading

Land of My Grandfather

I wonder (hope?) if this town with the pretty lilacs might be my grandfather’s village.

Early this afternoon we boarded the train from Siena to Rome. I’ve been riveted by the Tuscan hills rolling by: Orchards, pastures, fields of artichokes, and vineyard after vineyard after vineyard. My maternal grandfather was born in this area of Italy. I tried to discover the name of the town where he was born, but that information seems to be lost. All I was ever told was that it was a small town not too far from Florence.

I wonder, as we pass the red roofs of one quaint hill town after another, if this might be ground he once walked. When he found himself in the gritty city of Bayonne, New Jersey, raising a family of six above the barbershop where he cut hair, did he ever regret leaving a calmer, simpler life? Did this beautiful, fertile land haunt his dreams, the way my Iowa farm haunts mine? He died long before I was ever born. How he felt, like the name of his hometown, is something I will never know.

At a jewelry store in Florence, a young man made conversation with me as my purchase was rung up. He asked me if I had any connection with Italy, and I told him my grandfather was born somewhere in Tuscany. He asked me for his last name. “Barone,” I said. He clasped his hands and rolled his eyes. “Barone! Such a good name, such a fine name.” Having no background information, I could only smile. “Signora, you have come home,” he told me. Not really, I thought.

But maybe, somewhere, a spirit lies a little quieter, a little more satisfied, that the scenery now passing before my eyes once passed before his.

Our train heads south, drawing closer to Rome, and Tuscany is drifting away from me. Maybe it will come back to me in my dreams.

The verdant countryside of Tuscany

Magical Siena

Il Campo in Siena

Correction: My traveling companion was indulging me and posted this for me after I’d written it on the train in another program. It didn’t occur to either of us that it would then bear his byline. This is Mimi Johnson writing, no matter what WordPress says.

My companion and I reached Siena in the midafternoon, hungry, tired and perhaps a little bit cranky. He’d asked me before we left the states, “Why Siena?” I’d told him I’d just heard it was a beautiful Tuscan city, smaller, without as many tourists as Florence. I thought it was worth a brief visit, a chance to kick back a little and not push the sightseeing quite so hard.

Siena is magical at night.

Our B&B was in an ancient, rustic building, the color of, well, sienna. It was just off Il Campo, the lovely center square of the city. After a little snack of bruschetta and a little rest at a sidewalk table, we felt better, ready to wander the narrow, steep streets. We spent some time at the Duomo, lighting candles for each of our families at a side altar. And we stopped by the Basilica of St. Domenico, because I couldn’t resist the chance to see St. Catherine’s mummified head looking down from the altar.

I’d read in several places that Siena is at its best at night, and while we were still in France, an acquaintance who’d been there confirmed, “It’s magical.” I wasn’t disappointed. After dark we sat on the cobblestones of the square, looking up at the artfully lit campanile, a half-moon lurking nearby in the starry night. When I looked over at my companion I could clearly see the young man he used to be, when he wooed and won me. Romantic. Magical.

Last night, I slept in a building that was built 800 years ago. As I lay in bed, my companion sound asleep beside me, I looked up at the dark wood beams of the dim ceiling far above me, and wondered about all the couples that had shared this room before us. The idea of 800 years of living kept me awake. (Or perhaps it was the espresso I’d had after dinner.) The drunken singing from a group below drifted up from the street, a faint, merry murmur through the ancient, thick walls.

The entrance to the Palazzo Masi bed and breakfast in an 800-year-old Siena building.

Reflections on the David (but no photos)

“No photo! No photo!”

The guards around the David in the Accademia Gallery in Florence dissuade you quickly if you should raise a camera or cell phone in the presence of Michelangelo‘s marble statue.

We visited the Accademia Wednesday and the Uffizi Thursday, viewing hundreds of paintings and statues by masters from centuries ago. Beautiful as they were, each was flawed. Baby Jesus often had the face of an adolescent or at least a boy old enough to run and play. Some masters tried to cram a few too many symbols into a picture. Proportions were occasionally out of whack.

But the David was perfect. Larger than life, he commands your attention from the next gallery. The unfinished Michelangelo statues in that gallery are interesting, definitely worth a look after you’ve seen the David. But you can’t pause to look at them once Goliath’s slayer catches your eye. You just move through the hall, watching David as you move closer.

He certainly is as magnificent a piece of art as I have ever seen. How Michelangelo envisioned this massive figure from a hunk of marble, then brought him out of it, I simply cannot imagine.

My companion and I walked around him slowly, reading plaques and gazing at the flawless marble. Every vein and sinew was perfect. “Masterpiece” seems so inadequate to describe it. We browsed the rest of the gallery and found our way back. After him, everything else was just mildly interesting.

Really, they could let you snap away to your heart’s content. Photos do not — could not — do the David justice. The replica standing outside in a piazza a few blocks away doesn’t do it justice. There tourists snap photos like crazy.

But not at the real thing. Guards see to that. The David must be seen in person.