You may or may not have noticed that there have been no posts for a while. This is not because I have given up, but I have been on holiday in some rather rural locations, and thus there has been no access to internet access(*). Funny that even five years ago, getting online while you were on holiday was not a big issue, but now that I am the proud owner of a wireless laptop and an iPhone, I really feel that one of my main connections to the outside world has been severed. A little dramatic maybe, but it feels true!
All of this down time means, of course, that I have had ample time to do things aside from blogging. My first week was spent in the Italian region of Umbria, to the north of Rome (the “middle of the boot”). The capital is the hilltop city of Perugia, but this are is perhaps best know for the picture-perfect town of Assisi and her most famous son, St Francis. The area really does look as you imagine Italy to look – fields of olive trees and corn, fig and walnut trees dotted across the landscape, magnificent Renaissance churches. All the agriculture and the newer buildings are on the flat, fertile valley floor, while older towns are perched precariously on the top of hills. I kept thinking about how people actually built these places, with nothing more than horses, donkeys and carts to bring tones of stone up there. Quite amazing to see.
The weather has been hot (35 degrees hot!) with the occasional thunder storm to break the heat. Air conditioning is not something that seems to be a big part of Italian construction in older buildings, so I just took my lead from the locals – take it easy during the day, avoid too much hot sun, eat a lot of ice-cream and then wait for the evenings to sit outside and enjoy la doce vita. When in the car, it was quite funny to pass through towns that by day looked like time had forgotten them, only to see them come alive with a riot of noise once the sun had set. Whole families out enjoying the warm summer evenings.
As someone who has not really travelled much in Italy (just Venice, Milan and Rome), I was struck by just how, well, Italian these people are. You will see two old Italian farmers sqeeze into a tiny (and I mean tiny) van driving corn to the market. People really do seem to ride those little, chic, 1950s retro cars. There are gelato shops everywhere. And everyone is wearing designer shades. Teenagers, priests, grandmothers. And above all, the Italians are some of the friendliest people I have ever come across. If they speak English, they will happily speak to you for ages about the food they are selling, and if they don’t, they still appreciate you making a bit of an effort. If you’ve got the time, learning some phrases as you travel to Italy will pay off.
So what did I like? Perugia was a nice city, but Assisi was the absolute star. More or less pedestrianised and very well preserved. Stunningly beautiful, and with very friendly people. The ice-cream was, of course, good and the weather perfect. What didn’t I like? The ubiquitous mosquitoes, but they are a bit of a problem all over Europe, so not really something I can hold against Italy specifically!
After this stay in Umbria, we travelled by train up to Milan, with a one hour layover in Florence (enough time to be very efficient, dashing to the main square, looking at the cathedral, buying some cakes from a fancy pastry shop and running back to the station).
Milan in August is two things. Hot and closed. As I was only there for the night, this was not such an issue, but it was clear that most of the locals just avoid the heat altogether, just heading to the lakes by the Swiss border or down to the coast. But for one night, after being in the countryside, Milan was great. Just stroll around the small streets and the large boulevards, eat ice-cream and partake of the local early evening custom, a drink and aperitivo (a buffet of snacks). Many bars offer a selection of these nibbles at the end of the day to which you can help yourself – bruschetta, courgette with parmesan, crudités, etc. We had ours at La Bicyclette, and to accompany this little selection I took an Aperol spritz. At the moment I have no idea what Aperol is, other than this is some sort of Campari-style spirit which is mixed with prosecco and sparkling water. It is luminous orange, but delicious and very drinkable. Thereafter, the evening was spent down by the canals at a pizzeria, before heading to a hotel by the impressive Beaux-Arts Milano Centrale station to get a good night’s sleep before catching the train to Basel.
(*) As I write, I am sitting at the farm of the owner of the house we are renting in France. I am surrounded by a range of poultry in all shapes and sizes. The owner seems to think his chickens need wifi rather than his guests. Ah, la belle France!