How shall I describe the colours of Assisi? If I said they were of the earth; ochre and terracotta, then you would recognise that in your mind’s eye. But you would be thinking of Tuscany, not Umbria. Both are lush and green, but the architecture of Assisi is a softer palette, muted pastels of brown, cream and pink. Soft browns like taupe and caramel, and the pink is like champagne roses, or better still, like pink champagne.
We did not take it in that first evening of our arrival. We had landed in Milan after a six hour flight from Abu Dhabi, the gentlest landing I can ever remember, just a kiss on the tarmac and a glide to a stop. We followed that with a bus ride to Milan central railway station – we were keen to get a first look at Italy, and I can report that a line of bumper to bumper traffic looks much the same the world over, especially in drizzling rain and a grey early morning. Then a fast train ride from Milan to Florence on the Frecciarossa, the Red Arrow that reached speeds of 300klms/hour.
We switched at Florence to a regional train, a train packed with locals, a train that emptied steadily as we stopped at every station on the line to Foligno. The antics of a fare evader kept us amused for a while, a young student who made a play at pretending to be asleep, and then a great charade of searching her purse and handbag for a ticket that had never existed in the first place. She pulled out textbooks one by one and made a show of fanning them frantically as if she had used her ticket as a bookmark, and it was now stuck inside. The conductor was having none of it. She fined her on the spot. Money was handed over although I could not see how much. The student continued her protestations, appealing to other passengers about her bad luck. The conductor belted out “vai avanti!” (Go ahead) as she was moving on to the next carriage. I imagined this meant she was telling the student to get off the train, but when she stayed on after the next stop, I was left confused. Just tonight, my Italian friend suggested it was in the context of “go on – keep complaining.” Yep, the conductor would have seen it all before, and heard every excuse possible. That was probably it.
I tried to concentrate on the passing scenery, but it was raining, and it was more than thirty hours since we had left home, and I was drowsy. The regional trains squeal and screech as metal rubs against metal, and doors are thrust open and bang shut with energetic abandon. It is a lively trip, but all the same I was ready to drop into a deep sleep just as we pulled into Assisi about three hours down the line.
We had arranged a hire car through Jack Yuen and his wife Helen, an American couple who run Discovery Station, a science play centre for children, and they double up as an almost volunteer information centre. It took me about twenty minutes of confusion to find the place, only to discover it was a few doors along from the station entrance. But in true Italian style our hire car had not yet arrived from Perugia, about twenty minutes away. Jack greeted us exuberantly, and was talking ninety to the dozen when two guys with the hire car turned up, and they could talk even faster. My head was spinning, everyone talking at once and firing information at us in a mixture of English and Italian, and shaking hands, swiping the credit card, taking our licence details, all happening in a bustle. Bill thinks we met our first Italian gangsters 🙂 – but I think the excitement was all about that Avis had sent down a Fiat 500 (cinquecento). It seems Italians love that this little signature car has been brought back on the market.
The two Avis guys grabbed Bill for a crash course on the car controls. Not only is he switching back to a manual, but of course, he has to switch driving to the right hand side of the road. He has worked out that he is best reminding himself that the driver should always be in the middle of the road. If the driver finds himself admiring scenery – then that means he is driving on the left hand side of the road, and most definitely in trouble.
And so we made our way in the driving rain, away from the low-lying railway station and up towards Assisi proper, spread out in a wide panorama across one flank of Mount Subasio, and then on further still into the hills behind, our destination the B&B of our friend Francesca. We knew we had made a wrong turn when we started to go downhill, but that was quickly corrected, and we arrived to a warm reception from Francesca, her two bright-as-a-button, bi-lingual children Ruby and Freddy, and a boisterous black dog Maya, who would have grown up to be a fine Labrador, if her mother had not got mixed up with a sausage dog along the way.
Garrulous Gwendoline, events of Wed 29th May 2013
PS – Still no photos – my apologies – pretty soon I’ll ask a five year old for help.