Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Tau of Assisi

The first of October already, and we are about to leave our little villa on the hill in Fiesole. We've had a wonderful stay in the Tuscan countryside. This part of our trip has exceeded our expectations, and we are ready to get back on the road heading south and into the past. Our hotel has free internet access at a computer situated just outside the breakfast room, and as far as I can tell I'm the only person who has used it. It's as if the world outside does not exist, and there is no need to know what is going on elsewhere. Incoming mail tells us that Rich and Lucy "broke the hatch" arriving safely home in San Diego at a minute before midnight. Thanks for the great time together you two. We love ya.

Thursday - October 1, 2009 - Italy

It has become a tradition. At least once on each journey we forgo dinner out for a trip to the neighborhood supermarket. It's fun comparing prices and gives us a chance to sample the local produce. Last night we returned to our hotel with yogurt, biscuits, chips, juices and fresh fruit, all on the cheap. The grapes were fantastic; large, luscious, and sweet. We'd never seen anything like them at home.

After a good nights sleep we skipped breakfast, bid arrivederci to our friend at the Villa Bonelli, and headed downstairs. Our little car was right where we had left it, all alone in the big beautiful parking lot (a very uncommon sight anywhere we've been in Europe). Our stay in this little town was relaxing and leaving it for our drive to Assisi was like embarking on a road trip from home. Navigating our way out of Firenze was easy (when you are on a hill the only way to go is down), and in moments we were on the highway to Assisi.

There are a lot of pilgrimage sites in the world, and we seem drawn to them. Chartres and Le Puy in France; Fatima in Portugal, St. Catherine's home in Siena, St. Peters in Rome, Savonarola's cell in Firenze, and now we were off to see where St. Francis fed the birds in Assisi. In the time continuum (instead of space) we've joined the millions and millions of pilgrims who have made the journey to these special places and we feel part of the community.

It is a pleasant hour and one half drive through beautiful Tuscan then Umbrian countryside. We took the Sud exit for Assisi and stopped for breakfast at a small restaurant (Caffè Biagetti) across from and in the shadow of the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (and as the seventh largest Christian church in the world, it casts quite a shadow). We chatted with the very friendly workers in the cafe and explained we were on the way to the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. They suggested we spend some time next door. Nah, we were on the way to the main attraction up the hill.

We followed the signs to an underground parking garage, took our ticket and an elevator and emerged into the walled town of Assisi. Everything is uphill from everything. We climbed to a congested town square, looked at the columned Temple of Minerva, stopped at the TI for a map, and headed to the other end of the hilltop (also uphill) where the basilica is located. There was construction going on everywhere. The last major earthquake was September 26, 1997 and we wondered if they were still rebuilding. The Basilica was severely damaged during that quake and we wondered what was left to see.

The answer is: a lot. We crossed the huge parking lot (for pilgrim buses no doubt) and entered the lower basilica. It really is a beautiful space filled with frescoes and chapels. We glided around the nave with the many nuns, priests and lay people marveling at the artwork. Going with the flow, we headed to the "Cripta" stairway and descended to the tomb of St. Francis. How much can you say about a crypt? It was dark and tomb-like, sparsely lit, with lots of candles and some pews at which you could kneel or sit. When I think of St. Francis he's in the sunlight with the birds and I couldn't help thinking this was a crypt to be skipped.

Back up on the first floor the frescoes once again grabbed our attention. There is a whole story laid out in pictures detailing the major points of the saint's life. We headed into one of the transepts to find a pretty modern space where a collection of the relics are displayed. Most interesting to me was the often patched tunic that he wore for most of his life. Here was a man who was consistent with his beliefs. There was also a hair shirt made of knotted rope that looked pretty painful. As I've mentioned before, I don't get the whole self sacrifice part of the dogma back then and if it was so good why did it go out of style? Like walking uphill everywhere in this town, it remains a mystery to me.

Leaving the lower basilica through a back door, you are presented with a beautiful view of the cloisters, the gift shop (more religious than tacky - I didn't see any Tau shot glasses), and a set of steps that lead to the upper basilica. It is light and airy and you get an appreciation for how large this church is. I parked my butt on one of the wooden choir benches while Kat made her way around the nave admiring Giotto's frescoes and the stories they told. I spent the time admiring the complex carved wood paneling that covered every inch of this part of the church. It was in remarkable condition considering the number of centuries (about 7) and earthquakes it had survived. Out one of the windows at this level off in the distance I could see the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli - it must be huge.

As you leave the basilica from the upper level you pass a well maintained lawn, in the middle of which is topiary spelling the word PAX (peace) in green, and the Tau symbol (how St.Francis signed his name) in dark brown. It is fitting.

We wandered the back streets until we came to the Assisi post office (quite picturesque) where Kat mailed postcards to the family. She is so good about that and other than signing my name to the bottom I can take no credit.

Our last stop in Assisi was the church of St. Clare (built about 1260) dedicated to the founder of the order of the "Poor Clares." This Gothic church is simple, unadorned and beautiful. The main draw is the crucifix which spoke to St. Francis back around 1206 and lead him to the simple and gentle life. It is fascinating and looks to be a Byzantine icon. Not what we had expected.

We trekked to the other end of town to retrieve our car and left the pastoral setting of Umbria to embark on the next phase of our trip. A trip from the distant past (middle ages) to the way, way distant past of life around the time of Christ's birth. Pompeii blew it's top around 79 AD and that is where we were about to head. It's a pretty good distance from Assisi to the area south of Naples and we had decided to stay in the picturesque little town of Caserta, about 4 hours away. Why Caserta? Well, that goes back to a line in the first episode of the Sopranos that stuck with me. Tony ask Dr. Melfi: "What part of the boot you from hon?” She answers Caserta and thus we decided that would be our stay-over point. Near Naples but not too close.

We knew we weren't in Kansas anymore when we pulled up to our hotel (a modern Novotel) and was greeted by the desk clerk with the admonition: "Don't leave your car out front, it's too dangerous out there." He wasn't kidding. The Mercedes dealer next door was getting ready to close and the employees were in the process of moving all their cars from the display lot in front to inside their service garage. All the businesses along the street were behind attractive metal fences that were not just for show. So upon the advice of counsel we had a nice meal at the hotel restaurant. I guess we were closer to Naples than I thought.

To close the loop on the Santa Maria degli Angeli church outside Assisi that we decided not to visit: This is the site where St. Francis understood his vocation and renounced the world in order to live in poverty among the poor. The chiesetta (little church) of Porziuncola (Italian for "little portion") inside the cathedral is the most sacred place for Franciscans. It is here that St. Francis lived and here where he died. It is believed to be the place from where the Franciscan movement started. It is a major pilgrimage site. We blew that one.

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