We're sitting side by side on a bench in the parking lot where Assisi welcomes an invading army of tour buses every morning. She turns and smiles from under a widebrimmed hat. I notice the battery powered speaker and the name on the bright blue tag: María Rita. Every few minutes she turns, as if to speak, then quickly turns away. I return the smile, and offer my best buon giorno. Finally, she asks if I speak English, then continues:
-I'm waiting on a bus.
-Really? My bus is coming from Rome.
-Mmm, mine too.
I am surprised by her next question.
-Would your mother be on that bus?
And so began my brief look at how the other half lives.
I spent 4 hours racing through Assisi on a bus tour. Thirty five Rhode Islanders, among them my mother and the group's leader, the pastor of the local Catholic parish, traveled to Rome last week on a group tour. I joined them Thursday for a whirlwind walk through Assisi.
The woman in the parking lot was the local tour guide hired to show them the sites, as best she could in a little under 4 hours including a banquet lunch and mass. Seems the bus driver called ahead to report that one of his passengers was worried about her American daughter - who would likely be pacing the parking lot, anxious about the bus's late arrival. Concerned I looked neither American nor anxious, (her words :)) the guide hesitated before taking a shot that I was her girl. In the same call, the driver warned that his passengers were showing signs of saturation. He suggested she take it easy on the art terms.
When the bus arrived, Rita led the driver to a second lot above the city, giving us a downhill jog from Santa Chiara to San Francesco. With the late arrival we had only an hour to see Assisi. We were expected at a local hotel for a prearranged banquet lunch at 1230 sharp. Grasping each other's clothing to stay together in the shifting sea of pilgrims, we shuffled by Saint Clare's preserved body in her lovely pink and white basilica. Next we marched to Assisi's Piazza del Comune and heard a bit about the Roman Temple to Minerva that still dominates the ancient square. We imagined young Francis tearing off his clothes in front of Town Hall, announcing that he had only one Father and he wasn't the earthly man who'd paid for the clothing.
After a stern warning not to stop or shop, we hurried off to Piazza San Francesco. There we followed Rita through a well choreographed mini-tour, dodging herds of school children and Japanese tourists as we watched Rita silently point to the best of the Basilica's frescos.
An hour and a half after we left the bus, a breathless Rita delivered us to the hotel, where we joined a busload of retired Spaniards for a lunch of pasta, chicken and french fries. Half an hour later, we were back at San Francesco, settling into a chapel for mass.
I've learned that organized group tours take care of absolutely everything. No need for maps, guidebooks or a single word of the local language. Bring a wrist watch and you'll have everything you need. I've even identified an upside of mass tourism: tours where everything is done for you must allow older Americans who would be unlikely to travel abroad independently to do so comfortably and calmly. The more Americans travel outside our borders, the happier I am.
I thought about school excursions and all the fun we'd have on the bus after the visit. I wondered if things got silly at the end of a long pilgrim tour day.
Then I bid my fellow Rhode Islanders adieu, and blissfully climbed back up Vía Francesco toward the town center. As I passed my B&B, I could see a long line of buses pulling out of the day lots.
By the time I reached Piazza del Comune, Assisi was quiet. And ours: the locals' and those who prefer travel at a slower pace.
I chose a street cafe, ordered a glass of Chianti and settled in for a long, leisurely evening.