Under the Italian Sun

Assisi will be my base of operations for seeing some of my family’s ancestral villages in Umbria and Marche. I took this photo the last time I was in the Medieval hill town that was the home of St. Francis.

I wrote a few weeks ago about my plans to visit Italy this summer. I’m attending a week-long writers’ retreat in Tuscany, near the Umbrian border. In fact, it’s quite close to the towns where my father’s ancestors came from — in Umbria on his father’s side and Marche on his mother’s. When I last wrote, I had committed to the writers’ retreat but had no other concrete plans. Now I do!

I booked plane tickets and most of my hotel and airbnb reservations. I’m still fiddling a bit with the last week of the trip, but I’m nearly there. I will be gone for almost four weeks! I suggested that my husband join me for my days in Venice — or, really, any other part of the trip he’s interested in — but he decided not to. So, except for the writing program, I am on my own.

I’ll fly into Rome and spend a few days there before being picked up with the other writing retreat participants and driven to the agriturismo where the program is being held. Afterward, I’ll get a ride to the train station in Cortona to catch a train up to Venice. I have never been to Venice and am thrilled to finally go there. I hope to visit Murano while I’m there, and maybe order a chandelier for my dining room! From Venice, I’ll rent a car and drive south to Ravenna to see the mosaics it is renowned for. I was hoping not to have to rent a car until later in the trip, but Ravenna has lousy train connections, so I have reluctantly decided driving there is my best bet.

After Ravenna, I am indulging my longtime desire to see San Marino. The last time I was in Italy, more than ten years ago, I was driving in Marche and noticed in the distance a castle perched on a steep cliff. Intrigued, I considered trying to reach it. But I had no idea what it was or how to find it. And I had to get back to Florence to turn in my rental car and fly home the next day. Years later, I was watching the Rick Steves travel show on micro-countries, and I recognized my evocative castle on the cliff. It was San Marino, a tiny, autonomous country, surrounded by Italy — much like Vatican City. I knew the name because I have a friend who has often talked about wanting to see it in person. And I told myself that the next time I was in Italy, I was going to do it. So that will be my next stop, after I leave Ravenna.

From there I will probably stop for a few hours in nearby Mondolfo, on the Adriatic coast, where one line of my ancestors has lived for 500 years. Then I’ll move on to Assisi, my base of operations for visiting various family sites in Umbria and Marche. I haven’t decided how much serious research I’ll be able to accomplish. My time is limited, I don’t know a lot about how to navigate the Italian bureaucracy to find the records, and I read very little Italian. I might consider hiring expert help to guide me through the process of searching for documents in churches or village halls. If I can’t manage that, I would at least like to search for cemeteries so I can locate my ancestors’ graves and photograph them. Some of the churches where my ancestors were married — as far back as the 1600s — are still there; I would love to visit them in person. And I might even be able to find some addresses where they lived, and see the actual houses!

I am still pinning down the last part of the trip. I had visions of spending a few days wandering a Medieval hill town, sitting in sidewalk cafes, and pretending to be a local. Siena and Lucca were two of my top candidates. I spent a few hours in each the last time I was in Italy, but really wanted more time. After hours on Airbnb this week, I settled on Lucca. I’m still working out the details on where to stay.

My return flight is out of Bologna. I’ve never been to Bologna, or even thought about going there. But it’s more convenient and had better flight options than any other city, so I’ll spend my last night in Italy at a hotel in the historic center of Bologna. Then I will head home.

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