Wanderthirst: how a coach trip to Italy’s Umbria reignited the flames of verse
Hijabi poet Sheena Hussain found inspiration in the region’s hilltop towns and sweeping expanses of greenery.
08 Oct 2022
Nervous doesn’t quite cut it. It was my first trip abroad since the wild two years of lockdown and coronavirus. I almost felt like a caged bird who had broken free, and was still being cautious with the muzzle that I chose to wear. Being a brown single Muslim woman, I have always travelled on my own. I honestly don’t mind, but the thought of going by plane and the gridlock of desperate passengers fumbling to get away, queuing ridiculous amounts of hours was beyond my comprehension. So, I made a decision to go by coach – not quite a ‘green’ FlixBus but still a ‘cleaner’ and ‘friendlier’ way of travelling.
I made a second decision, to go on a trip that would take me to the boundaries of the unknown. Being a Muslim, I often gravitate to places that have a spiritual setting and, for me, they must have mountains and sweeping expanses of fertile greenery – the Umbrian region ticked all the boxes. I had visited Italy before, but fancied a different part; a part that would help reignite the flame of verse. Lockdown left me on the exhausted side, partly because of being a carer to my mama and having no support – this was of course before the then prime minister decided to introduce us all to the ‘bubble’.
Travelling by coach is a lot like the ‘bubble’. As soon as you hop on, you are within your ‘travelling tribe’ and will be for the duration of the trip. Being the only brown woman, you can imagine the stares. Questions come much later on in the journey. But, from a security point of view, I always felt safe with a group of people who just happened to be 20 years (and more) older than me.
“Being the only brown woman, you can imagine the stares. Questions come much later on in the journey”
Once we passed through Switzerland, the group were a bit more relaxed as the bulk of ‘transit travel’ had been accomplished. The first comment posed to me at one of the service station stops was: “You are brave for travelling on your own.” I wonder if a white woman of a similar age would have been asked the same? No, because it was a prejudiced question, directly referring to either me being a brown woman and/or a Muslim woman.
Extrovert by nature and inquisitive by profession, I’m never shy of conversations. As a former lawyer, asking questions and analysing are my forte. Conversations soon turn to the legal profession. I tell them I was an immigration lawyer, diagnosed with cancer, and now I write verse full time. My white, English companions are left bemused.
Day one: we visited Perugia, capital of Umbria. We were given a guided walking tour which is a great way of learning about the local cities and often they give away precious knowledge that no guide book can offer you.
It is here poetry unleashed itself. I tucked the words in my bedside drawer at the hotel, left them for a few days, then completed them one night after dinner. In fact, it was the same night that I made my way down the staircase, and the coach driver looked at me as I descended from the last step. “Who are you seeing?” he frisked at me. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” I smiled – I love a bit of bravado!
“Umbria is the ideal region for artists like me to flock and immerse in culture, art, and religion – I felt at home”
It’s fair to say that to most people, I was the anomaly, but how far removed from the truth they were. Umbria is the ideal region for artists like me to flock and immerse in culture, art, and religion – I felt at home. A day in Deruta and we were not short of pottery houses. As I sat with a group of different people under the coolness of an umbrella, indulging in a chocolate Magnum, I was met with another predictable question. “Are you not hot in your scarf?” I brushed it off. It’s common sense that the fewer clothes you wear the warmer you will become.
As a recovering cancer patient, it was important for me to have some relaxing time to myself. On our free day, two others and I decided to go to Lake Trasimeno. A boat ride to a secluded little island was just what I wanted – a mini writing retreat. The views were magnificent and I harvested a lot of material for future poetry workshops.
I felt I got what I wanted from this trip. I shook away the post-lockdown nerves, made new friends, said goodbye to the addled mind and thanked Umbria for giving me my poetic mojo back.
- Visiting Perugia mid-May, I found it a perfect time to visit – not too busy and the weather is pretty warm.
- Take a train to Lake Trasimeno, a few stops further you can visit neighbouring Tuscany, either as a day trip on one of your free days if travelling with a group or if you are visiting on your own. You can easily book a hotel and stay for a day or two and explore the region in more depth.
- If visiting churches, note, be mindful to cover arms and legs. That’s where, being a Muslim, my respect for the Catholic faith was appreciated.
- If travelling as part of a group, don’t be scared to turn part(s) of the itinerary down. I passed on visiting a wine museum, as alcohol is forbidden in Islam. Instead, I took a long walk and took pictures of things that inspired me which I could use as material for new poems.
- A visit to Lake Trasimeno is a must. Especially if you are a poet or writer and want to be amongst beautiful, quiet surroundings to write. Boat rides are every 25 minutes to the small islands, you just need to pick one.
- The majestic Basilica of St. Francis in the city of Assisi is breathtakingly beautiful both inside and out – Franciscan architecture at its finest. Entry is free.
- Take a cable car ride in the medieval town of Gubbio, which will transport you above the lush green countryside boasting panoramic views.
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