Airline schedules set the pattern for my hopscotch journey to Italy and Greece in late summer last year -- a trip with some frustrations but one with fond memories.
My journey began on August 27 with a much-delayed flight from Detroit to Rome. Although I had intended to take the train immediately to Assisi (about 150 miles northeast of Rome), my plane's late-afternoon arrival made that impractical.
I eventually got as far as Foligno by nightfall and continued on to Assisi the following morning.
Since the train connection from Foligno is short, I arrived in town fairly early and was able to find a moderately priced hotel ($55 for a single with bathroom and breakfast) not far from several historic sites.
Assisi is on a hilltop and one must take a 10-minute bus ride from the train station at Santa Maria degli Angeli in order to go there.
The city is completely enclosed by a wall which meanders along the slopes of Mt. Subasio. Several of the old towers and fortifications provide beautiful panoramic views of the Umbrian countryside.
The earliest origins of the city are Etruscan, but a permanent settlement did not begin to develop until the Romans arrived. They named the place Asisium.
Today, Assisi is best known as the birthplace of two famous saints: St. Francis in 1182 and St. Claire in 1193. At one end of town is the monastery and Basilica di San Francesco, which is quite impressive and consists of two churches built one on top of the other.
The churches were constructed between 1228 and 1253 after the death of St. Francis in 1226. His remains are entombed in the crypt.
I walked throughout the city and was fascinated by the many narrow streets as well as by the architectural details that were created by craftsmen so long ago. It is difficult at times to realize how old everything is and how well it has endured through the centuries.
After Assisi, I went back to the Rome airport and flew to the Greek island of Corfu.
(My plane schedule worked out such that I flew first to Italy for three days, then to Greece'for 10 days, then back to Italy for five days.)
I had some trouble finding an accommodation until an elderly woman spotted me and asked if I needed a room. She spoke only Greek and German. Although I do not speak any Greek, I do know some German, so we were able to communicate.
The room was satisfactory; however, I soon found out that the water and electricity were being shut off at irregular intervals throughout the day due to an ongoing government workers' strike. The strike was nationwide and continued during my entire stay in Greece.
The old town of Corfu is quite congested with traffic and visitors and I was disappointed by all of the grime. One can see remnants of a former Venetian grandeur, but it seemed that many of the old buildings were in various states of disrepair.
The people were friendly and the town came alive every day when the shops opened, but there did not appear to be the same community pride that existed in Assisi.
My most enjoyable day on Corfu was spent at Paleokastritsa on the west side of the island. The area is noted for its scenic countryside and beautiful beaches.
The weather in Greece was warm and sunny during my trip and I went swimming almost every day. There were many British tourists on the island and I found out that Corfu is a popular sun destination for them. (Corfu was ruled by Great Britain from 1815 to 1863.)
My next stop was the island of Paxos, which is about three hours by boat south of Corfu.
As expected, some of the locals were waiting on the dock to ask passengers if they needed rooms. I accepted one of the offers and was taken to a most pleasant accommodation in the main village of Gaios near the entrance to the yacht harbor.
The place consisted of approximately 15 guest rooms which were arranged around a garden/courtyard area. Grapevines were strung overhead to provide a shady canopy.
My room (with bathroom) was only $15 per night and was clearly the best bargain of the trip.
The owner spoke English and almost immediately upon my arrival began asking me what I knew about water treatment and desalinization plants. He apparently was active in the town council and wanted to improve the town's slightly briny groundwater supply.
Bottled water was used for drinking, but he had constructed an elaborate pipe system around the courtyard to collect rainwater for washing and showers. There also were solar hot-water tanks on the roof.
As it happens, I am a civil engineer. However, treatment plants are not in my area of knowledge so I could not offer much help.
I spent the next few days exploring Paxos. The island is small and covers only seven square miles. One day I walked to the south end to a picturesque bay called Moggonissi.
On another day I took the local bus up to the little village of Lakka at the north end. The village is surrounded by a well-protected harbor.
I spent another day on the tiny nearby island of Antipaxos, which is noted for its spectacular sandy beaches. The waters all around Paxos and Antipaxos were pristine.
The interiors of both islands are hilly and rocky and are nearly all covered with olive trees. Many of these trees were planted over 200 years ago.
Island life is very casual and slow-paced. Although there are few historical sites, Paxos has more than 60 small churches -- often found in remote places. I frequently saw old, Greek Orthodox priests in the villages or along the roadside and assumed that they were the caretakers of these lonely chapels.
The chapels' exteriors generally were quite simple, but the interiors had elaborate carvings with intricately detailed icons depicting noted saints.
There was quite a large selection of restaurants (tavernas) in Gaios and I had no trouble finding good food. Prices generally were less than $15 for a full dinner with wine.
One evenin', as I was returning to my room after dinner, the landlord's mother invited me to visit with her on the patio. Although there was a bit of a language barrier, we chatted for nearly an hour -- she in Greek and I in English. Somehow, the language difference did not really seem to matter. (I must have made a good impression because later she offered me some of her homemade berry preserves.)
Back to Italy
From Paxos I returned to Corfu and then Rome. I did not spend much time in Rome because I wanted to visit friends who live near Naples.
My friend, Giulio, met me at the train station in Naples and we drove about two hours south to meet his fiancee, Magda, at the little seaside village of Pioppia.
We all spent a delightful afternoon at the beach. The parents of one of Magda's friends had us over later for a huge Italian feast that lasted well past midnight.
The next stop was Sorrento on the south side of the Gulf of Naples.
From there, I made a day trip to the island of Capri. This island is stunningly beautiful. The only drawback was that there were hordes of tourists everywhere.
Nevertheless, I got many good pictures along the spectacular coastline and at noted sights such as the Blue Grotto and the Gardens of Augustus.
My final stop was at the ruins of Pompeii. The city is only about 25 minutes away from Sorrento by train and the station is right next to the entrance to the ruins.
About two-thirds of the ancient city is open to the public. Ongoing restorations maintain everything in a perpetual state of disrepair, much as the place was left after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
It is amazing to see how well some of the features have endured, such as frescoes, stone carvings and public buildings. I could even see grooves in the cobblestone streets which were worn by wagon and chariot wheels of long ago.
In my 18 days of travel, there were only about two hours of rain.
Most of the time I stayed in small hotels and guest houses for prices that ranged from $15 to $55 per night (some including breakfast).
Virtually all of my land travel in Italy was by train, for which I had a first-class rail pass. The first-class pass was handy on the often-crowded trains since it gave me the flexibility to sit in first or second class depending on seat availability.
In Greece I used ferryboats for travel among the islands. Fares were very inexpensive -- less than $7 for a 2- to 3-hour boat ride.
My biggest frustration of the trip was the confusion with transportation connections that seemed to occur frequently in Italy. Although have traveled in Italy before and knew what to expect, I still was not fully prepared.
For example, the Italian state railways (FS) recently constructed a rail terminal at the Rome airport; however, there is no direct train from the airport to the city center.