Morbidity and austerity are bestowed with a strange sort of glamour in the Vatican museums. The Counter-Reformation period of the 16th century, in particular, consigned countless canvases to epic illustrations of the grim, the unforgiving, the forbidding. Even Michelangelo's The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Great but grim. It serves to remind us that many of the works that make the Vatican's walls one of the great art collections of the world were commissioned by a succession of malevolent popes whose personal values were expressed in terms of corruption and decadence.
The thought takes a while to sink in - it takes me until we reach Assisi 130km down the road, where the art of Giotto, Cimabue and Lorenzetti all seems to celebrate the bliss and beatitude of those who provided true Christian inspiration. The whole of Assisi, of course, is dedicated to the memory of St Francis, venerated in most lands and many religions for his compassion and benevolence, and one of Christianity's all-round good guys.
Being dedicated to the spirit, character and legacy of one so virtuous, Assisi radiates a tolerance and enlightenment that makes it the perfect antidote for the Vatican blues. In an itinerary that embraces the glamour destinations of Rome, Venice and Florence, Assisi is the place that does it for me this time around. It has an inocence, an integrity, a lack of extravagance, a lesson, a relevance and a modest charm that the super-destinations have been robbed of. Or is it just me?
I've been recruited for a back-in-fashion tourism phenomenon - the whistlestop grand tour. In this case, it's Insight Vacations' "Best of Italy" - the highlights of a 15-day tour compressed into 10 days. So, it's Saturday night in Rome and we gather at the Crowne Plaza St Peters to meet our tour leader and fellow travellers. The tour leader is unmistakably and reassuringly Italian. She is capable-going-on-bossy, which I guess is in her job description. She emphasises her heritage with a flat-vowel "e" at the beginning and end of most words and sentences. She assumes the drill sergeant posture and assures us that touring is no holiday - it's damned hard work. Slightly abashed, we each stand and introduce ourselves. Honeymooners, spinsters and shoppers, second honeymooners, and a lone travel writer from Australia.
So let la dolce vita begin. Our "breaking the ice" event is an evening of gaiety at Ristorante Al Gladiatore. Flouncing from tour group to tour group are a couple of wannabe opera stars with their faithful accordionist, singing all those old favourites that we know from pasta sauce commercials at home. It's a Dean Martin meets Mario Lanza duel of "Come back to Sorrento", "That's Amore", a Merry Widow medley and a rousing "Funiculì Funiculà" before a brief break to sell their CD for €15.
Italy is famous for its formaggio, but for sheer cheesiness nothing tops welcome night at the Al Gladiatore. Then the slow realisation that it really worked. It blew away the barriers, the pretensions, the snobbery, the unrealistic expectations that we had signed on to the Über Bus of Intellectual Elevation.
Sunday is an intensive course in Eternal City icons. This is the full-on Rome of vespers and Vespas as bell towers and 150cc motor scooters compete for decibel dominance. But we turn up the volume of our headphones to enjoy the erudite commentary of our destination guide Marco. Marco's gait, voice and eyes betray some deep sadness within, but his limitless knowledge and sardonic wit re-energises the awe of the Sistine Chapel, St Peter's Basilica and the Colosseum. Recent restoration and cleaning has brought astonishing new vibrance to the Sistine's ceiling frescoes.
"It is like the 40-watt bulbs have been replaced with 100-watt bulbs," observes the lugubrious Marco. And we wonder if his melancholy is a result of long days in the company of penance and pathos, martyrdom and murder, bitterness and battle and writhing snakes and souvenir shops, with surprisingly few sunbursts of The Church Triumphant. There's a smile, though, in front of Apollonius's Belvedere Torso - or a Roman copy thereof - where I'm reminded of humourist Steven Wright's recollection of the time he went to the museum that has the arms and legs missing from all the other museums.
Rome, of course, turns on its old charm again. Despite its buskers, its beggars, the tourist-driven absurdity of bandy-legged men dressed as centurions wanting €5 to pose for a photo with you - between cigarettes - even the first-timers knew and hoped it would be like this. Monday morning, and we're all on board for a full day's bus travel to Assisi in the province of Perugia in the region of Umbria, linked in legend with its native son St Francis. I'd spend two days on a bus - with or without a toilet - to get to hill-top Assisi. Looking out over the Umbrian plains, it is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The historic town suffered massive damage as a result of two major earthquakes in 1997 but the restoration work is both remarkable and invisible. The major attraction - the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi - is a World Heritage Site. The upper and lower basilicas and a Franciscan monastery all date back to the early 13th century when St Francis was canonised. We visit them all, plus the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels - and, in fact, most of the cathedrals, chapels, basilicas, baptisteries and bell towers along our route. The architect of the "Best of Italy" itinerary may well have been the pope himself.
Dusk is fading as we leave the Basilica where Giotto heralded a new era in Italian art, but that only lends magic to the lantern-lit castles, caverns, cafés and cobblestones of this charming place. The charm extends, too, to the old Hotel Subasio with its glorious views over the Umbrian countryside, accommodation throughout the tour being an agreeable blend of comfort and character.
Next morning we trundle our suitcases down the zigzag lane to the bus park, buzzing at the prospect of being in Venice by late afternoon. Optional excursions will be presented on the "Best of Italy" itinerary, and with long hours on the road our tour leader spruiks their appeal. In Venice, for instance, there's the chance of taking a water taxi to Piazza San Marco for a peach and Prosecco Bellini at one of the piazza's cafés (€45). Normally live music would be playing outdoors but, alas, in November it is too cold.
We do get to ride on a gondola, however. On my first visit to Venice the gondolier sang. On a subsequent visit, the gondolier played music on a ghetto blaster. This time the ride was in silence - and no bad thing. The musicians' union has demanded that singing or broadcasting gondoliers must become union members.
There's something obscene about visiting Venice and just staying overnight, but it's an obscenity to be treasured. Longfellow called Venice "White swan of cities, slumbering in thy nest…". Truman Capote was sufficiently moved to liken it to "eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go." I woke early at the imposing Hilton Molino Stucky and opened the drapes to reveal the waterfront of the Giudecca. For a couple of hours I watched as activity returned to the canal and the gondola-shaped group of islands that lie minutes away from the Piazza San Marco.
So it's farewell to Venice, and we cross the Appenines to the Arno Valley, following it west to the coastal town of Pisa. Largely overlooked for its beauty but famed for its poor structural engineering, Pisa's famous Leaning Tower is now an artificial phenomenon having undergone geotechnical stabilisation. The visitor experience is somewhat marred by the tawdry tent city of souvenir stalls that surrounds both the tower and the marble cathedral and baptistery.
We're happy to be back on the bus and heading through the medieval castles and villages on the outskirts of Montecatini Terme, through the quiet green peacefulness of cypress and vineyard and silvery olive grove that provided so much inspiration to Byron: "Long life to the grape! And when summer is flown / The age of our nectar shall gladden our own." From behind me comes the slightly less lyrical, "I've finished my book. Anyone wanna trade?"
Montecatini Terme once attracted all of Italy with its healing thermal spa waters. It now attracts all of the world for the fact it's just 40km from Florence but offers much cheaper accommodation. (No complaints, though, about the Grand Hotel Tamerici and Principe.)
Back on the bus for the final assault on Florence and the realisation that Italy has so captivated our hearts and minds no one can remember a third verse of "The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round." I guess we're too excited by the prospect of Florence to get any further. The tour leader passes around samples of jewellery and leather goods from famous Florentine producers to whom she will personally introduce us before we head out for a couple of hours with a thoughtfully prepared menu of Florence's famous galleries. We get to pick the one we want to visit; the Uffizi is a reminder that two-thirds of the world's art treasures came out of Italy.
The bus drops me at a cab rank for my airport connection. I farewell my fellow travellers and tour leader with mixed emotions… and they me. They're still together all the way to Sorrento and the Capri islands cruise, €32, weather permitting.