Why Group Travel? July 2023 All Things Italy

July 2, 2023 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Our small group at the Santuario della Verna in Umbria. The site is associated with St. Francis of Assisi.
Photo Credit: Jenn Simmons

Why Group Travel? Reflections on a Recent Pilgrimage 

Dear Friends: 

I’ve been composing and recomposing this newsletter in my head for three weeks now. Time to get it out of my head and onto the screen. Last month I promised an update on a June group trip. I believe I also promised a video review. Alas! My mental compositions have focused on the former rather than the latter. A little more than a week ago I returned from three weeks on the Italian peninsula, the last part of which was devoted to co-leading a small group of travelers. By choice, I’ll call us pilgrims.  

This issue of All Things Italy dives into my choice of that word, a bit of our itinerary, and how traveling with a small group can enhance the joys of travel. So there’s the simple answer to the question posed in the newsletter’s title, “why group travel?”  

Before I go further, I want to welcome new newsletter subscribers and wish a heartfelt thanks to those readers who reached out to me after reading the May issue. Your responses keep me going! 

Were We Really Pilgrims????

Now back to the word “pilgrim” and its kin. Usually referring to a person taking a trip to a place considered holy for the purposes of religious practice, “pilgrim” might not seem appropriate to describe myself and the eight others I journeyed with. I don’t believe any of us considered the sites we visited in Rome, Siena, and Assisi as particularly holy. However, I believe it’s safe to write that we all believe in the power of spiritual growth and self-discovery that occurs when we place ourselves within new contexts. Those new contexts often unfold as we learn about history and about other cultures. Of course, we travelers must be open to the experiences these journeys offer. This recent trip provided such contexts for us. That’s a large part of what drove us to travel.

We were a diverse group. What linked us, however, was our interest in religious communities and how they change, especially as cultural powers shift. To enhance the perspective of pilgrimage, we took time as we travelled to reflect on what we were experiencing. We learned of cultural changes from readings, guides, and our observations–as we visited sites associated with Hadrian, Constantine, and even Mussolini in Rome, and with St. Catherine and St. Francis in Siena and Assisi. Unending opportunities to consider cultural changes and shifts in power as they impact religious communities!

While certainly any of us could have done this trip solo, I believe small groups prompt more insight. Invariably, people see the world in diverse ways. We bring to Rome’s Colosseum or Siena’s Campo (city common) what we already know of the world. When we eat a Roman dish of cacio e peppe or a plate of crostini with fegato (liver) in Siena, our preconceptions influence us.

When we see gold and stone mosaic depictions of Mary in the apses of early basilicas, we react with rage and resentment, with wonder and awe, or with other emotions simmering to the surface–depending upon our views of Christian history and women’s roles. When we take time to be intentional about our reactions, through conversations over colazione (breakfast) or cena (dinner), we learn more than we might by journaling–a solo endeavor–or by talking with one other person.  

Other Reasons for Group Travel

These thoughts about our pilgrimage are not meant to deny that there were other motivations for travel. Time away from work and good food and drink certainly stimulated us as well. And, among other reasons for group travel, the collective provides a safety net. Five of our group had already been in Italy and wanted this specialized visit to sites they had not seen. But four had not, and three of those had never left the US. Helping travelers like these ease into some aspects of a culture they may not try on their own is one of my goals with small groups. Many people do not want to be part of a large tour group. And there are those who would not journey alone.

My hope also is to share my love for a culture and place that itself is always changing. Along the way, I maintain a personal goal of going deeper, in order to understand better, some places I have been before. This particular itinerary was first planned for June of 2020. You can read here more of what happened then. Finally this year, the trip came to fruition.  


To prepare for this journey, I dove into rereading about early Christianity in ancient Rome—thanks to booklets prepared by Dr. John White, Emeritus Professor of Religion of Loyola University, Chicago. John encouraged me to co-lead a trip with him in 2013, when I knew almost nothing about Rome. We organized a second Italian adventure, with a new topic, for 2015. I have learned so much from John’s work that I continue to refer to it and to share with others. Additionally, I reread on the martyr tradition and early female martyrs like Agnes and Cecilia. I listened to podcasts on the much-later Francis of Assisi and read J. Thomas Luongo’s biography Catherine of Siena.  

I also flew into Rome early, in order to revisit entrances to sites and retrace public transit route. The Basilica of San Clemente, the Pantheon, the Colosseum—reservations, ticket purchases, and entrances are not what they were before Covid. The sites are the same, more or less, but Covid and technology have changed so much of the ways we travel. San Clemente, for example, now requires reservations to enter its below-ground excavations, and the basilica entrance is now through the beautiful courtyard rather than a side door.

I also tried out new eateries (always important) and two new lodgings. I met some new friends of friends and caught up with some old ones. In short, I passed through jet leg in what I consider worthy ways.  

And then, suddenly, the group arrival was upon me, and I witnessed others adjusting to jet lag. In some cases, I witnessed a first taste of Italy up close—not as it appears in books and videos. As one traveler expressed, Rome is a city with all the problems of urban life.  

The Group’s Steps

To take the deep dive into this topic, we also had to consider a broad sweep of history. To do so, we hit some of the typical highlights of Rome: the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Forum and Palatine Hill, and St. Peter’s Basilica.

Some silliness in the sun before meeting our guide for the Colosseum
Rain rather than sunshine on the day of our visit to St. Peter’s Basilica & the Vatican Museums.
Photo credit: Jenn Simmons

But we considered each of these with an emphasis on political power and how these sites changed over time, depending upon who was in charge. We extended this overview by visiting several early churches to examine their mosaics and architecture and the layers of history literally underneath the later structures (as in San Clemente, St. Peter’s, and Santa Pudenziana).  

I point out some aspects of the mosaics in the apse of the Basilica of Santa Pudenziana, one of the earliest of Rome’s churches. Photo credit: Candy Adams

As one traveler expressed after returning, it was fascinating to see the variations in Mary. She was represented diversely in the apses of these churches—sometimes front and center, sometimes co-equal with her son, sometimes off to the side, and sometimes not at all. We also noted the changing representations of Jesus.  

And, as I overheard others express—so many churches! Yes. As I have said to students about “so many books” on course reading lists, only by considering many do we begin to appreciate the differences among them. We learn from these distinctions. 

The apse mosaic of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, where Mary sits next to Jesus, both dress in imperial garb.

After three packed days (we averaged more than 20,000 steps per day) in Rome, we headed to quieter spots. The smaller cities of Orvieto, Siena and Assisi offered us beauty, solace, and one gutter-washing temporale (thunderstorm). It has rained on each of my three visits to Orvieto. I’m beginning to think that perhaps I bring the storms . . .

Braving the summer rainstorm in front of Orvieto’s Duomo
In Siena

In Siena St. Catherine’s political and spiritual life was the main focus of our stop. But contemporary culture also serendipitously took us out of the past and into the twentieth-century tradition of the Mille Miglia, Italy’s long tradition of a motor race around the peninsula. The antique and more contemporary cars parked on the city’s historic campo raised the spirits of travelers tired of churches. And the event offered gifts to purchase for those interested in other than olive oil, panforte, and almond cookies.  

Mille Miglia participant cars parked during a midday break on Siena’s Campo

From Siena we moved south to Umbria. The trip’s highlight lay there for at least one traveler, when we stopped at the Santuario della Verna, high on Mt. Penna. Umbria’s lush greenery and mountain air offers a form of spiritual cleansing, especially after Rome’s and Siena’s stones.  We took time to hike and to reflect.

Photo credit: Jenn Simmons

The sanctuary prepared us for the monumental place that Assisi has become, in the afterlife of Francis and Clare. These two young people of the 12th and 13th centuries set aside their families’ wealth to serve the poor and attempt to make the world they knew a better place.  

Sunset over the Umbrian hills and rooftops of Assisi, from the terrace of our guest house. The terrazzo was a fantastic spot for our group to end each evening. Photo Credit: Barb Harrell

Follow-Up Reflections

Now back home, I’m coming down from the high and recovering with reflections that might feed a future trip. I’ve asked myself, what went well? Who were the people and places that inspired and invigorated us, and why?

One highlight was a passionate tour guide, who obviously loved her work and did it so well. Barbara, a phenomenal expert on Roman history, with an emphasis on anthropology, was recommended by guide, author and podcaster Tiffany Parks. As a listener to the Bittersweet Life podcast, I reached out to Tiffany for help with this group trip, and she was a lifesaver in many ways. (I highly recommend both Tiffany and Barbara, should you be looking for help with a Rome guide).

Barbara prepares us for our visit to the Colosseum and (below) stops in a shady stop to explains the history of Rome’s Palatine Hill to our group

What else inspired us? New types of food and drink, new knowledge of fellow travelers. After all, isn’t that was meaningful life is about? Being open to newness, whether we’re exploring a site for the first time, or revisiting with eyes that see differently than they did before. 

Another question posed: will I do this again? Probably yes! As I’ve mentioned in prior newsletters, I’m considering a literary trip for the spring of 2024. Another possibility in the works is a writing retreat. I’ll share more about it as details gel. Group size will be limited (as usual). Please let me know if you want to be put on the list for more information about either of these experiences.  

In the next issue I hope to return to that promised topic of contemporary videos. Until then, I hope you’ll continue to enjoy All Things Italy.

Alla prossima (until the next time), 

Etta Madden