Garden trip: Bella Italia

Looking down the Italian hill
Bella Italia means beautiful Italy

You know how much I loved Italy when we went on a pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome last March. Well, now it’s your turn to take a garden trip to Italy and see the sights.

A stairway garden in Assisi.
A stairway herb garden in Assisi.
A garden trip you’ll never forget.

A few days ago, I sat down with my friend Julia Laughlin, co-host of the Garden Party on KTOK, horticulturist, and gardener extraordinaire, to chat about her garden trip to Italy in 2018. The trip is from Wednesday, May 30, 2018, to Sunday, June 10, 2018.  

Ah, late spring in Italy visiting gardens. Could life be any better?

A courtyard in Civita di Bagnoregio, the disappearing city on the hill.
A courtyard in Civita di Bagnoregio, the disappearing city on the hill.

I don’t think so.

Bill and I traveled with Julia to England–remember the Chelsea Flower Show and London, Wisley and Sissinghurst? Those wonderful locations were just part of our England itinerary. I can honestly say I would jump at the chance to go with Julia to Italy, and this is the garden trip of a lifetime. Julia’s co-leader is another great friend, Linda Horn, Director of Marketing and Community Relations for Total Environment, Inc.

Passionate about gardening? Italy is full of passion, gardening too.
The gorgeous Italian countryside in March. It will be even more beautiful in June.
The gorgeous Italian countryside in March. It will be even more beautiful in June.

These two women are expert horticulturists, who bring a real passion to gardening. There’s no more passionate place that Italy so I know you’ll be in good hands. Julia has traveled to Italy before, and she custom designed this trip to see as many gorgeous gardens as possible. The tour starts in Venice, moves on to Lake Como, Florence, Rome, Sorrento, Pompeii and finally, the Isle of Capri.

The Swiss Guard don't really like to have their picture taken so I had to be surreptitious.
At the Vatican, the Swiss Guard don’t really like to have their picture taken so I had to be surreptitious and shoot from the hip.

I don’t have any photos of the gardens you will visit, so I’m using my photos of the Italian countryside and Rome. Hope you don’t mind. Click on gallery photos to make them larger.

Here is the travel itinerary, and below is the map. The tour is through Go Ahead tours, the grown up version of EF Tours, the college tour company. Therefore, all hotels and other accommodations are upgraded for adults. Presently, the trip cost is $5399 with an Oklahoma City departure and two persons per room. If you would like to have a private room there is a $400 supplemental cost. If you wish to make your own flight arrangements the cost will be $1700 less.

From Julia’s handout: “Note that if you enroll you will be locked into the price the website quotes you, but your cost could (and will likely) go down as we enroll more travelers. Your price goes down as we reach enrollment plateaus. I just like to start at the top price and then there are only good surprises! That is to say, your fee cannot go up but will more than likely be discounted by as much as $300 or more as we fill the trip.”

Map for Julia Laughlin trip to Italy.
Map for Julia Laughlin trip to Italy.


Although this is a garden tour, it isn’t all gardens. Italy is known for its fantastic food, and you’ll have wonderful lunches and dinners throughout the northern and southern regions. This is my daughter, Claire’s, video of our visit to Italy. It shows our trip and some of the food you can enjoy. It also shows a lot of the Vatican including the museums and St. Peter’s Basilica which will be part of your trip too.

“Horticulture and the natural world, in general, are like music,” said Julia, “When you think you’ve learned everything you can about it, you can always learn more. It just goes on and on and on.”

I couldn’t have said it better. If you have questions or want clarification, you can email Julia at or

Traveling is the best way to learn more about the world and yourself. I hope you go.

One more thing, I received no compensation for this post. I just think it would be a great trip, and Julia is a good friend.

Beautiful Catholic pilgrimage: Assisi

St. Francis Basilica

I’ve been away for a couple of weeks on a beautiful Catholic pilgrimage in Assisi. It’s always been our dream to visit Rome and Assisi. Everything aligned, and Bill, Claire and I went for ten days with Fr. Cory Stanley and the good people of Prince of Peace Parish in Altus and St. Helen in Frederick, Oklahoma. Fr. Stanley lived in Rome for several years, and he was a great spiritual guide, who could also speak Italian. Fr. Joseph Schwarz was our other wonderful spiritual guide. Our main tour guide was Alessandro Pietro Gaj. He and Luciano, our fantastic, amazing bus driver, made our trip the best it could be. The tour company is 206 Tours, and they specialize in pilgrimages. I can’t say enough nice things about this company.

Bill and Bear on the plane to Assisi and Rome. We were very excited even if they don't look like it.
Bill and Claire on the plane to Assisi and Rome. We were very excited even if they don’t look like it.

Our tour was customized by Fr. Stanley. We flew to Rome and then traveled for 2.5 hours to Assisi where St. Francis and St. Clare lived, walked and prayed. I thought I’d share a few photos with you of our trip. We stayed for three days in Assisi at St. Anthony’s Guesthouse. The Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement were wonderful and so helpful during our stay. The guesthouse is centrally located near the Basilica of St. Clare and inside the oldest city walls.

We had mass at the tomb of St. Francis and St. Clare, which are in separate basilicas at the ends of the town.

Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in which the Portiuncula is located.
Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in which the Portiuncula is located.

If I’m remembering correctly, the first day we visited the Portiuncula, a small chapel within the basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, located about a mile below Assisi in the valley. Portiuncula, which means “a small portion” of land also refers to the town built around the church. This part of Italy is full of small towns built mostly on hillsides because of historic warring factions, but the Portiuncula is in a small valley.

We weren’t allowed to take a photo of the Portiuncula from inside the church, but we were allowed to take one outside. (Click on the photos in the galleries to make them larger.) The monks and sisters are very strict in the churches of Assisi which makes sense. Otherwise, as we saw in Rome, people do foolish things in holy places. On this trip, I also didn’t lug around my good cameras. I only brought my iPhone so all the photos are taken with it. I just wanted to experience everything without having my neck ache.

The amazing thing about Assisi is how it hasn’t changed. No one felt the need to come in and tear down buildings. Instead, it feels very much like it did when St. Francis and St. Clare and their contemporaries lived there in the 13th Century. It also smelled wonderful, and the only sounds I heard most days were the bells ringing from the churches along with conversation on the streets.

I stood at the window of our room and took many photos and just breathed in the peace that surrounds this ancient city.

Except for the traffic.

Tiny cars whizzing down tiny streets don’t leave much room for pilgrims on the road. Constantly, someone in our group was shouting “Car, car!” just in time for us to flatten ourselves against a 13th Century building. You think I jest, but I do not. It was frankly a bit scary. Italian drivers are completely different from American ones. Not worse, just different. Wait until I share about Rome.

Beautiful Italian countryside from the walls of Assisi.
Bella Italian countryside from the walls of Assisi.

We had a wonderful time and spent a lot of our days in Assisi in the Basilica of Saint Francis and the Basilica of Saint Clare. As I wrote above, we had mass at both of their tombs. While we were in St. Francis’ Basilica, I had the strangest feeling that my former pastor, Rev. John A. Petuskey, was with us. When Bill and I were a young married couple, he always told us stories about Assisi and said he would take us with him to travel there one day. We were young and broke and had four kids. We never thought we’d ever get the chance, but he kept telling us we would. I remember also he was heartbroken when Assisi was hit by an earthquake and parts of the churches were destroyed, but he said we still had to go. When he died, I remember thinking that he wouldn’t get to share his favorite place on Earth with us. So, imagine my surprise when I was on the upper level of the basilica gazing up at the frescoes of Giotto on the life of St. Francis, I felt Fr. Petuskey with me. It was as if he were standing right next to me. Later, I mentioned this to Bill, and he said he felt exactly the same thing at the same time. Maybe God let the veil down long enough for us to have Father with us. I like to think so. He meant so much to our young family. I think Father would be so happy we finally got to Assisi at least with our youngest daughter, Claire. She was named after St. Clare, and Father Petuskey always loved that. He gave our Claire an image of St. Clare when she was baptized along with a San Damiano cross.

We also ate amazing food every single day chased with caffè (espresso.) I forgot to take a single picture of my food, or my tiny cups of coffee while we were in Assisi. I did get a photo of this beautiful bowl I bought for my daughter, Megan, for her wedding present.

Bowl from I Due Soli - Italian Ceramics in Assisi.
Bowl from I Due Soli – Italian Ceramics in Assisi. It’s funny that Kitchen Aid is in the bottom of the photo. Couldn’t see that on my phone. It’s our dishwasher label.

I bought her bowl from I Due Soli, which was on one of the three main streets in the old town of Assisi. What a wonderful shop it was! As an aside, Italians are mad for Trip Advisor and use it all the time. It was easy to track down the shop on Trip Advisor’s website. If you go there, ask for Ricardo. He speaks beautiful English and is very helpful. I think this ceramics company is in its third generation.

I hope I haven’t bored you with my pilgrimage/travelogue so far. We loved Assisi and look forward to visiting again. When I get a moment, I’ll also share about Orvieto and Rome, among other places. As for gardening, we received two inches of rain last night. The weeds are quite happy and growing.