view of Assisi for afar

Traveling in Italy can be a pleasure if you are prepared and have the right attitude.  It is all about understanding the rules, the norms, and going with the flow.  Italians do things differently: breakfast is a croissant and coffee, the table of contents is in the back of the book, and lunch can take well over two hours.  The tips below will help prepare you for some of these differences.  Except on the highways, life is slower in Italy, and you can benefit more form your travels if you assume an Italian frame of mind.  The Italians’ friendliness, love of good food, and appreciation of art and saints makes visiting this beautiful country a complete and satisfying experience.

Church Etiquette

When Mass is being conducted, please be respectful.  Do not walk around looking at the artwork, talking loudly or taking pictures.  Though many churches are treated more like museums, they continue to be a house of God for the local people and all due respect is appreciated.  Talking should be kept to a minimum, and whispering is preferred.

In the past, no one was allowed to approach the altar except for the priests and altar boys, but today, in the smaller churches, you are usually allowed to visit the altar and the reliquary of the saint.  If you are unsure, you can look for clues from the other pilgrims.

when you visit a convent or a church, don’t be afraid to ring the bell to the convent if you need assistance.  The bell is usually next to a doos on either side of the altar, or in a building adjacent to the church.  A priest or nun will come and ask you what you want.  If you do not speak Italian, be prepared with a script ahead of time, or show them written questions.  The hardest part is in understanding their replies.  You can just keep repeating that you do not speak Italian but that you want to visit the saint.

Because of thefts and lack of staff, many of the churches have video cameras in the churches to allow them to monitor activity from the convent.  We meditated in one church for a long time thinking we were alone, when a nun came from the cloister and asked if we wanted to see a special chapel we didn’t know about.  So, even if the church looks empty, always conduct yourself properly.

In small churches where there is minimal staff, books and mementos for sale will be kept out on a table.  You will be expected to pay the price of the book, leaving the money in a basket or in an indicated slot.  When you light a votive candle, it is expected that you make a monetary offering.

Many of the large churches do not allow taking pictures inside the sanctuary.  There are usually good postcards available for purchase that have better pictures than you could take yourself in a darkened church.  Also, please turn off your cell phone before entering a church.


Excerpt from Heater, James and Colleen. The Pilgrim’s Italy: A Travel Guide to the Saints.  (Inner Travel Books: Nevada City, California), 2008. pages 263, 265-66, 267.