Another Week in Umbria

Last Wednesday we went to Assisi again. It is a beautiful place and I'm glad we are able to see it in several visits. This time we focused on San Rufino church and San Damiano.

The San Rufino Church highlight was the façade. The animals, the design is really beautiful. When you stand in front of the church, then look backwards to the Rocca Maggiore on top of the hill, it's impressive. San Ruffino also has original stone walls and a crypt that remind you of what this church is built on. Also, the baptismal font where Clare and Francis were baptized? Cool.

We walked down to San Damiano and got there before it opened. I took off my sandals and walked on the cool tile in the shade of the portico. When it opened I kept my shoes off, to experience the worn smooth coolness of the stone. I'm impressed with San Damiano. This is the original church that Francis rebuilt. These are the floors, the frescoes, the walls. The choir was added in the 15th century, but the vaulted ceiling, the dormitory where Clare died, the refectory that says SILENTUM, the stairs, her small chapel for prayer, were all original. This is where it all began. Very inspiring.

It isn't so much that the miracles and legends were all true; it's that these two people inspired hundreds to follow after them in the orders, and they took the gospel seriously. They weren't posing as bishops and priests, they were living it out. That's the "repair my church" that needed to happen in the middle ages. That's the refreshing cool water the church needed.

We walked slowly back up the hill and across toward San Francesco. We stopped at the Artestampa shop and visited Gastone Vignati, the artist who uses his grandfather's offset press to print his original linoleum cuts. He's inspired by the olive trees—a ubiquitous image in Umbria--that remind him of people praying with their hands raised. I told him my greatgrandfather made a linoleum cut that is hanging in my home.

We walked through the upper and lower churches and bookstore of San Francesco one more time. Again with no shoes on, I felt the coolness of the ancient stones beneath my feet. Without reading about them, but just experiencing their affect, we walked by the Giotto paintings, past the choir in the transcept and down to the lower church. We stopped at the frescoes on the ceiling that represent chastity, poverty, obedience and triumph. I spoke to a man who was with a tour group from Italy and we talked to a couple from South Carolina who brought their 20, 23 and 25 year old children with them for three weeks in Italy. She said she reminds her children that these artists were given gifts by God which they used to glorify him through their art. Amen. We also appreciated and resonated with their philosophy of travel with their children. They all made it a priority to be with Mom and Dad, especially when Mom and Dad were paying for it.

On Thursday we both got haircuts. Amy walked into Cristina's and I walked into Enzo's. Enzo is the Umbrian champion many times over. Who would have guessed? He cut my hair all by hand, with a comb and scissors that moved like a machine and a straight blade that shaved my neck.

A 23 year old committed suicide this past week in Spello. His service was Thursday at the Santa Maria Maggiore Church in Piazza Matteotti. Danielle hung himself. He was a rugby player in Foligno, and he grew up here in Spello. Although Spello has many tourists walk its streets everday, Spello is a small town and only a few families. Everyone knows each other, everyone is like family. So everyone came to Danielle's service. 500 people crowded in church and overflowing into the piazza and next to the Enoteca Properzio.
Amy and I wanted to read and move away from the crowd so we walked up to the Gelateria Tullia at the top of the street by the San Lorenzo Church. They have an amazing coffee ice cream drink/shake served in a coffee cup with white or dark chocolate topping. Did anyone see me licking the inside of the glass?

As we sat there and read Augustine's The City of God and On Christian Doctrine, we noticed the crowd was moving up the street with the coffin. Shouts for Italia or Foligno Rugby like a "hoo-aah" came up the cobblestone streets. We looked down and saw a sea of people following the younger priest and the casket carried by the rugby team. The small Mercedes hearse was parked near us, in front of the San Lorenzo Church. As the crowd came closer, we found ourselves standing in the café and surrounded by mostly young adult mourners.

How odd that we were right there in the middle. A 23 year old young man hung himself. The whole town came out. It looked like all the young adults came out of the word work, came from college, work, home, to be there. The rugby captain slapped the casket as if to communicate with Danielle one more time how much he will be missed.

Why were we there? Our hearts broke for the town of Spello. What word of hope did the priest give them at the service? Isn't suicide a mortal sin and Danielle is now in purgatory, awaiting the prayers of his parents and friends? Or did God have mercy on a troubled boy that one person told us was "crazy." Where did those young adults turn for comfort? What faith did they have for support, to lean into that day? I don't remember seeing any of them at the Corpus Domini procession last week, not one of them was at mass on Sundays or at vespers mass during the week. I wanted to talk with the priest. How was the service? What was it like for him? This was not like the Cantine Aperte in Montefalco, or like the colorful L'Infiorata. This was real life and death life for this town.

Yesterday we went to Perugia and Gubbio. Another adventure in public transportation. We stood at the Piazza Repubblica fermata at 8:05am, just as the schedule indicated. But the asterisk told us the bus to Perugia and Assisi leaves from the Giardini, which is down at the bottom of the hill, outside the city walls and along the highway. Right… So we bought one way train tickets and waited for the train after 9am. Whew. But we got to Perugia and began to walk. Second mistake. Check the Tabacchi store and ask for the bus schedule and a bus up to the historic centro. The voice wasn't loud enough in my head so we started to walk up and up and up. Finally, (not really finally, but we thought finally) we bought a map at a giornali stand and the woman told us there was a scala mobile that would take us to the top. We took the escalator to the top (not really the top, but we thought it was the top) and we found the Santa Ana train station, part of the local Umbrian train system, different from the train system that took us to the main train station. They pointed us to the bus station, which we needed to get to Gubbio and maybe back to Spello, using the tickets we bought but didn't use in the morning. After we found out what buses we could take to Gubbio and back to Spello, we realized we had about two hours here in Perugia. But how do we get up to Perugia? Scala mobile, which was on the same piazza. We took it up and up and up, and into the Rocca Paolina, a medieval castle built into the side of the hill and a kind of tunnel or station for the scala mobile. It emptied out near the Piazza Italia. We walked out to the Vernucci park in honor of the painter known as Perugino and then up the Corso Vernucci to the Church at the Piazza IV Septembre. Everything is up. Nothing is as quaint as Spello or Bevagna or Assisi. We walked through the church, around the corner, up Via Mazzini and found Café Perugia and had the best pizza francescane and Coke Light, finished off with a Perugina chocolate and espresso.

We made our way back to the bus station. How come none of the guide books talk about how STEEP Perugia is? The only clue was the bus tickets are called UP tickets.
I slept most of the way to Gubbio. I knew I was missing the scenery, but knew I'd catch it on the way back. We arrived in Gubbio at 2pm, just in time for the heat of the day and closed churches and shops. We took their ascensiore public to the palazzo, and the catedrale, and then up again. We walked over to the funivia, but didn't have enough euros to take the gondola with two person baskets to the top of the mountain where St. Ubaldo's church is. We missed the highlight, but walked down to the bottom of the hill to find some cold bottled water, a restroom, ATM and walk through the San Francesco Church on the main piazza where we picked up the bus.

Gubbio is a beautiful town. The farm land around it, the hills, and the ride back was beautiful. Bus travel gives you the opportunity to see more country than you would see if you were going straight from point A to point B, and more people in real towns than you would skirt if you were going straight to the highway. We hit every small town from Gubbio to Perugia, and then from Perugia to Spello. Actually, it was very beautiful.

We arrived home at seven and walked up to the Santa Maggiore Church for our evening prayer. Good way to end the day. We were exhausted. We were kicked out of the church right in the middle of our confession of sin, but we finished our confession sitting on the stone bench outside on the piazza.

We cleaned up and made it to dinner about 8 at the Enoteca. We met three women taking a three week language course in Florence: one from Boston (an opera singer from the Boston Conservatory and Old North Church choir section leader), one from Calgary (a land man no longer working for an oil company, but happy to be in Florence then on to Sing to the Lord choir tour from Canada to eastern Prague) and the third from Edinburgh, Scotland (who won a scholarship to Florence).

Yesterday we went back to Assisi. We started at the Santa Maria degli Angeli, the large church next to the train station in Assisi. This church is gigantic, with a large gold Madonna on the top of the facade. The church was built around the very small church called Porziuncula where Saint Francis began the Friars Minor order, commissioned Saint Clare and worshipped together.

The small chapel inside the great cathedral is a study in contrasts. Orignal frescoes in the chapel compared to commissioned paintings in the side chapels, only room for 18-20 worshippers in single seats on the side of the chapel compared to more than 1,000 seats in the church, simple altar of stone compared to the large wooden choir and raised chancel and altar. Both beautiful, but one is understated, small and original, the other grande, glorioso, golden.  Outside we saw a parade of vintage cars and cyclists ready to take on the Assisi hills.

We took the bus to Piazza Mattioti at the top of Assisi. We had a coffee and corneto con cioccolato (power breakfast) and headed up the road to the Eremo Carceri, Francis' retreat up Mount Subasio. It was 4km, and the picture of a walking man on the map would give the impression that most people walked to the Hermitage. We saw a group of about 30 from Indiana walking down the hill, so we figured this was the way to go. It was steep, long, hot. Switchback road that climbed 800 meters in 4km. We made it, but Amy's back and legs were at their limit.

The hermitage is a quiet, sirene, beautiful monastery and church set in the mountainside with trails leading to gathering areas for worship and prayer. The building itself is almost miniature in size: small windows and doors leading from a chapel to a staircase to another little altar for prayer. While we were in the main chapel a sister was praying Ave Maria in the Madonnna chapel next door. The setting, especially along the path, reminded me of Mount Hermon along the Sequoia Trail. I wish we had taken the taxi up the hill. We would have spent more time at the Eremo walking around and resting in the places where Francis prayed. But still, we stopped along the path and read our prayer book. The Psalm was 23; "paths of righteousness," "still water," were perfect images for Francis and this place where he retreated with his friends.

No taxi for Francis no taxi for us. Well, maybe next time.

When we returned with the German tourists by taxi to Piazza San Rufino, we stopped for pizza at the Pizza al Taglio. I had a slice of potato and rosemary pizza and a slice of pepperoni pizza and a beer, and Amy had torta al testo (pizza bread sliced and filled with whatever) with prosciutto. While we were eating, we met a couple from Orlando, making their way from Milan to Assisi a la Rick Steves. He is an orchestra conductor who travels all over the states working in different cities. We talked about our boys and music and about our sabbatical.

We walked through Assisi, and decided to visit the San Stefano church, one of the oldest buildings of Assisi and a church that has never been renovated. It's more of a chapel, with a single nave, beam and tile ceiling, and a few frescoes left on the walls.

We met the Moss family at the Teatro Metastasio for Ciara di Dio, a musical based on the life of Santa Clara. The choreography and music was amazing--young adults singing and dancing their hearts out. The creator is Carlo Tedeschi, a Christian who wanted to recapture the story of Claire and Francis as an inspiration to follow Christ. Pope John Paul II recommended the rediscovery of their stories for the sake of the church and Carlo used his gifts and skill to put it into action. It brings out Clare and Francis' journey of poverty, humility and love for God. It ends with an invitation to follow their path of faith. The surprise at the end is the character who has played poverty and narrator is Jesus, who welcomes Clare into heaven. Whatever you have done to the least of these my brothers, you have done to me…

Afterwards we had snacks and drinks on the Piazza del Comune and heard Sam and Michelle's story. Two years ago they decided to spend a year in Europe with their daughter Maggie, who was in eighth grade at the time. Sam's father died suddenly in his fifties, and Sam didn't want to regret not taking the time to be with his family on an adventure. He spent two years working with a coach who would help him create a plan for his dental practice, which included bringing on a younger dentist who wanted to learn the business from Sam. 

They moved out of their home in Lafayette, Louisiana, and began their year long journey, not knowing where they would make their home in Italy. They came to Assisi almost by accident, but felt at home here. Through a few contacts and within a few hours they had an apartment to rent by the month, residency papers and a lead for Italian language classes in the school for priests. They went on a three week cruise around the Mediterranean, and returned to Assisi for the rest of their year.

There was something special about simplifying, focusing on relationships and not so much on possessions. They didn't have a car for a year, yet when they left, their going away party at Pizzeria Il Monaci included forty new italian friends. Sam studied with the Franciscan brothers and when they went to San Rufino's or San Francesco's to be prayed for or commissioned, he went with them and prayed for them. He saw faith from a new angle, a little different from his Baptist upbringing. These men and women loved God and committed their lives to serving Him. Sam says one lesson he learned was that you receive from God and from others by always being in a position of giving yourself away. Another is that God has a plan if you seek him and follow him. It has changed their lives. They moved home and struggled to re-enter life in the suburbs. Coming back, they are visiting friends and going back to their favorite restaurants, butcher and markets.

Amy and I went to their favorite pizzeria Il Monaci, right below the Teatro Metastasis on the main road to San Francesco from the Piazza Comune. We had quattro formaggi and funghi freschi pizzas with prociutto and melone as an appetizer and the house wine. This is a family restaurant that filled up as we sat waiting for our meal. There were two large parties (or one party split across the room from each other) and the one behind us was a party for someone's baby.

It was 9:30. There was a bus coming in forty-five minutes so we went to the bar on the piazza and watched the Germany/Australia FIFA match from South Africa. The bus came at 10:15 and we went back down the hill to the train station. On the way I met two young women from Singapore on holiday and on the 10:49 train we met Laura from Lithuania. She works at a four star hotel in Assisi, lives with her boyfriend in Perugia (they met on holiday in Germany), learned English in London, visited her uncle on Long Island, and last night was going back to Foligno where she and her boyfriend spend the weekends with his parents. She sat across from us; it looked like she was relieved to hear something other than Italian, and a safe couple to sit with rather than the homeless man gathering his bags on the platform in Assisi.

It was a long day. When we arrived by train in Spello we walked to the first piazza in Spello, the Piazza J.F. Kennedy and found the community celebrating the month long balcony, alley and porch flower contest with an orchestra playing pops and a rendition of La Traviata with male and female soloists.

One of the spiritual practices is giving thanks for all we see and all we meet. So I give thanks today for a week of seeing and meeting.


  1. Wow, what a journey, Mike. I love how honest you are about the ups and downs (literally) of traveling, and I especially appreciate how much you share with us about all the people you and Amy are meeting! How rich it is to get a window into the worlds of other people, and what a blessing for them to get to tell you their stories.

  2. Sounds like you are back into the swing of the pilgrimage - EXCELLENT! Thanks ofr taking us all on the trip with you.

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