I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Assisi: Flames, Forks, and Franciscan Frairs

Charging through dark and quiet Assisi — stony with history — I needed to visit two more restaurants before enjoying my reward for the day’s work: returning to my favorite place reviewed that night for a good meal…hopefully before the kitchen closed.

At 10:00, the pink marble streets of Assisi shine, lonely under the lamps. It seemed the only ones out were Franciscan monks in their rough brown robes and rope belts. All over Europe, I find monks hard to approach. But there’s something about “the jugglers of God,” as peasants have called the Franciscan friars for eight centuries, that this Lutheran finds wonderfully accessible. (Franciscans modeled themselves after French troubadours — or “jongleurs” — who roved the countryside singing and telling stories and jokes.) Franciscan brothers remind me of really smart dorm kids in the University of God…and tonight, it seemed, their studies were done for the evening.

Their warm “buona seras” and “ciaos” reminded me of my experience here filming a few years ago. While I like to say things with a creative edge, this can occasionally haunt me in my work. (Like the Norwegian mountain village I called “painfully in need of charm”…and then, during my next visit, the tourist office staff saw this printed in my guidebook and ran all over the building reading it with disbelief to everyone they could find. And like my little Vatican Museum rant posted on this blog last week. It was originally entitled “Vatican: practice what you preach” and had a harsher, more angry tone, until my Roman friends read it and made it clear that burning a Vatican bridge can haunt a tour organizer for years. The respect/fear they had for the Vatican was actually astonishing.)

But back to filming in Assisi: I had a 7 a.m. appointment to take my PBS TV crew into the grand Basilica of St. Francis, one of the spiritual and artistic highlights of Western Civilization and critical to our episode. At the crack of dawn, we waited — our letter of permission in folded hands — at the basilica-big door. Finally, three unusually officious-looking Franciscans appeared. In my most reverent tone I said, “buon giorno.”

They had reviewed our script, which made clear what we planned to film. This I expected. But before they opened the door, they said, “And…we’ve read your guidebook.” I immediately reviewed in my head the quirky descriptions I had used to tell the Francis story. (Passages such as “Holy relics — like the saints’ bones — were the ruby-red slippers of the Middle Ages. They gave you power, answered your prayers, won your wars…and ultimately got you home to your eternal Kansas.”) I was feeling sunk. Then the shortest of the monks looked at me and said, “We all read your guidebook…and we like it.”

We had the basilica — so adored by centuries of pilgrims and wallpapered by Giotto — all to ourselves. And the camera rolled.

Back in the present, I made it back to my favorite restaurant. It filled a brick-vaulted old cellar, or “buca.” Many restaurants are called “Buca” (even in the USA…as in, “di Beppo”). Since a buca or cellar traditionally paid cheap rent, it served cheap food. But now, with European Union regulations creeping into just about everything, there are no more restaurant licenses for cellars — bad ventilation, no secondary escapes in case of fire, and so on. And I’m seeing bucas with licenses grandfathered in really spiffed up and, while no longer cheap, great places to savor the local cuisine.

A local guide (Giuseppe) and his wife (Anna) joined me and we let the chef shower us with his best work. The wine (Sagrantino de Montefalco, Umbria’s answer to Brunello de Montalcino) was almost like marijuana, evoking flames and dancing girls. And the food both looked and tasted delightful. Anna greeted each plate with unbridled enthusiasm.

Suddenly, Giuseppe looked at me and said, “My wife’s a good fork.” Misunderstanding him, I blushed — amazed at what I thought he said. My face said, “Come again?” And Giuseppe clarified, saying, “una buona forchetta…a good fork…that’s what we call someone who loves to eat.”

Rome: The Cook is in the Chicken

I leave Rome more enamored with the Eternal City than ever. Tourism inundates Florence and Venice. But in Rome, while there’s plenty of tourism, the city is big enough that, culturally, we hit it like a bug hits a windshield on the freeway — bouncing off with almost no impact. The cultural juggernaut of Rome continues undaunted…and on its own terms.

And when it comes to organization, it’s not your father’s Eternal City. Traffic is sane. Smart cars (the “VW Beetles” of our generation) park as if they’re motorcycles, nosing head-first up to the curb. Taxis now have a strict and enforced €40 rate to and from the airport (no extra fees).

A restaurateur told me that, while a generation ago, wine was all different grapes fermented into a punch called Chianti, today it’s much better. “Super Tuscan” wines are among the best in the world. Each region takes pride in excellent wines. I just drank an unforgettable wine called Montiano from Lazio (the district around Rome). “Osteria” once meant a cheap and rustic eatery (back in the days when they advertised half-servings to people who couldn’t afford much). With Italy’s new affluence, “osteria” now means quality…but not necessarily cheap.

But the new affluence isn’t changing everything. For instance, eateries around markets that traditionally and creatively cooked up the bits of meat no one would buy, still do — to the delight of discerning eaters who know their tripe. A fine example is Trattoria da Oio a Casa Mia, in Rome’s colorful Testaccio district, historic home of the city’s slaughterhouses. Its menu — with specialties like its unforgettable Pajata sauce, made with baby lamb intestines — is a minefield of soft meats.

Anywhere in Europe, I find that the most colorful eateries with the freshest ingredients and best prices are often at or near the thriving outdoor produce markets.

In responding to my blog, someone commented that I’m forgetting the value of finding cheap eateries. Not really, but I am reconsidering the wisdom of going into a good restaurant uptight (with a $30 limit) when you can trust the chef for $50 and have a grand evening. This assumes you’re finding a small and honest place with an ethic of serving a good value…rather than ripping off the tourist. That’s the challenge for the savvy traveler (and guidebook researcher). With $90 to spend for three meals, I’d rather have one $50 blowout and two $20 dinners than three $30 dinners. My challenge as I research is to find the personality-driven restaurant where you’ll celebrate that $50 check.

Because of my research schedule (visit lots of restaurants while they are busy with diners, from 7:30-10:00 p.m.), I’ve been eating late — after 10 p.m. While this is tough for American tourists, it is clear to me that restaurants often have a touristy ambience from 7 to 9 and a more elegant, local ambience from 9 to 11. Trying — and generally failing — to turn down the chef’s favorite dessert at 11 p.m., I realize why breakfast is such a small affair for many Europeans. Hardworking restaurateurs are thankful for tourists eating early because that lets them turn the tables once over the course of the evening when, without tourists, they’d just serve one late sitting.

And language skills have little to do with the quality of the restaurant. In fact, last night my waiter declared, “The cook is in the chicken.” Later, when I ordered a tonic water, he asked me, “You want lice?”

Praying for Longer Vatican Museum Hours…

The big talk among tourists and tour guides these days in Rome is the frustration with long lines at the Vatican Museum, and the museum’s seeming lack of sensitivity to the chaos that surrounds its front door every day. Unfortunately, in what seems like a callous (and, some could say, even un-Christian) gesture, the Vatican Museum limits entry times to about half the hours that other great galleries are open.

Why? They claim, “Not enough staff.” Guides think they shut it down for private showings and rental by big shots. This leaves pathetic crowds of tourists needlessly baking for hours in the sun. While in the cool of November, January, and February, off-season visitors simply walk right in, during the hot tourist season, lines can stretch over half a mile. Countless cultural pilgrims travel all the way to Rome to stand in line for hours…only to reach the door minutes after it closes and be turned away.

In its defense, the museum is working on a new entrance. And the building itself was simply not designed to accommodate the masses of modern tourism. In the Sistine Chapel, the situation seems almost tragic: the humid and smelly crush of the crowd, with guards shushing, scolding those setting off their flashes, and demanding “silencio.” Some even see deterioration setting in again on the newly restored frescoes.

The Vatican can treat its horde of art as its own private treasure, or as a cultural treasure we all share. During most of the year, there is simply no way to get in without enduring this grueling (and, most believe, entirely unnecessary) line. Even well-connected local guides can’t get around these lines. By merely extending opening hours, the Vatican Museum could better share its art with the masses (and make more money, to boot).

If you don’t want to bake in the long (un-shaded) line at the Vatican Museum this summer, remember that Rome has fine alternatives: The Capitoline Museums and the National Museum at the Palazzo Massimo have equally great ancient art with no lines. Renaissance masterpieces can be enjoyed at the Church of St. Peter-in-Chains (Michelangelo’s Moses) and in the Villa Farnesina (where you’re all alone with wonderful Raphael frescoes). And the most sumptuous collection of Baroque statues in all of Europe is in the Villa Borghese.

For now, I’ll pray for longer hours at the Vatican Museum (but there’s someone right here on earth who could solve the problem subito).

If Paris is a Formal Garden, Rome is a Fertile Forest

My Rome guidebook is joy to update. While Rome used to be a jungle, now it’s a forest. In fact, if Paris is a formal urban garden, Rome is a fertile forest rewarding countless cultural truffles to those who know where to sniff.

Enjoying the new and strikingly modern building housing the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace), I pondered the grand monument that kicked off the Roman Empire’s best two hundred years — the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace.” They had what they wanted. Now, on their terms, there would be peace in the land. They were so dominant, with a military so huge, that — short of pesky little acts of terrorism on the fringes of its empire — there was no way for what it considered the barbarian world (anyone beyond its borders) to even quibble with dictates from Rome.

This Altar of Peace museum is so striking because it is literally the first building in the old center of Rome built after 1938 (when Mussolini shifted focus from construction to destruction). For the rest of my visit, the architectural charm of Rome was more clear — a city with no new buildings (and no electric lines, since everything is underground), coursing with people living well.

The city is infused with money. Things are actually working now: A fleet of new topless hop-on, hop-off tour buses (#110) is capped with a layer of wide-eyed tourists enjoying taped tours as they glide through the city; Lazio wine (from the region of Rome) is served with pride — I loved the Montiano; and the Termini train station is a sleek mall with everything you might want, and only a shadow of the rough edges that once made it the scariest station in Europe.

While not wanting to be ageist, I try to avoid old-school guides in my work. Too often, old-timers were trained by rote: “Loooook. Dees is dee Victor Emmanuel Monument. We no like…but eeees here. Loooook. Now you a see de beeeeeeautiful Trevi Fountain.”

Younger guides, on the other hand, venture away from the tour company scripts to explain today’s Rome. For instance, they explain that many politicians are corrupt, enriching themselves with their power. When some Romans vote, they actually slip a slice of salami into their paper ballot, check the box, and say, “Eat this, too.”

Machismo with Good Taste in Rome

Rome epitomizes the male-dominated Mediterranean world. Going to dinner with Chiara, a Roman guide and friend of mine who’s petite, blonde, and with a thin (almost cartoony) voice, I learned a lot. Chiara explained, “Italian men just can’t take a blonde seriously — especially one with a thin voice.” In fact, she refuses to guide Italian groups now that she knows American groups take her seriously.

Our target for dinner: Restaurant Fortunato, the kind of place with photos on the walls of the owner posing with fat and happy customers like Condi Rice, Tarik Aziz, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan. Sitting down, we were immediately cased out by the businessmen and politicians who seemed to fill the place. I didn’t notice until Chiara explained. “About 20 percent of Roman women are blonde like me, but we’re still considered exotic.” When Chiara’s father takes her to dinner here, she enjoys the strange looks as other men fantasize about their relationship.

I wanted Signor Fortunato to understand that Chiara was much more than a good-looking blonde. I pointed to her head and said, “Fifty percent of my Rome guidebook came from this beautiful head.” He looked past her at me and said, “Bene, 15%.” It’s a man’s world in Rome.

Despite the lack of respect for women, the food was great. Chiara insisted on vignarola: artichoke, peas, and fava beans with bacon. It’s only available during a perfect storm of seasonality, with everything bursting with flavor. Vignarola is on the menu early this year. In fact, this year’s early spring is bringing confusion in Rome…old timers can’t remember ever seeing vignarola on the menu before Easter.

Chiara shared her thoughts on dining in the USA: “American food has to travel, look good, and be available all year. Italian food does none of that…just taste good. We Italians have never seen apples with wax. I even saw waxed lemons — shiny only in the USA. For Italians, your lemons are too uniform.”

Another Chiara observation: “An American can’t wait in a restaurant. They eat bread dipped in oil before the meal comes…as if to escape the actual meal. Talk, sip your wine, relax…the real food is coming…and worth the wait.” At Fortunato, that’s especially true.