ASSISI is the beloved city of God; birthplace of St. Francis and St. Clare. The location radiates an atmosphere that touches the mind, body and spirit in heavenly ways.
Kathy, Cory and I arrive at the Umbrian train station and view an oatmeal-colored medieval town, sprawled over Mount Subasio.
We take the taxi up the hill and check into our room at San Crispino Historic Mansion, divine lodging nearly hidden from the road. The Sister Moon and Stars Suite is, in fact, below street level. Our two rooms feature stone floors, a wooden table and chairs, a fresco of St. Francis, and blue vaulted ceilings adorned with a starry skies. I find the snack filled armoire–including a cappuccino machine and best of all- we walk out into our own private walled garden. As I said- heavenly.
Standing in the garden I’m in awe gazing out on the expansive valley. What a sight–we can see the faÃ§ade of the Basilica of St.Clare on our left, the apse of St. Maria Maggiore on your right, and the domes of Chiesa Nuova and San Rufino Cathedral in front.
The afternoon is fading so we step up pebble-lined stairways, along crooked paths, to the mid-town square. Italian men cluster around benches discussing world problems or is it their grandchildren? Local women carry groceries in open-weave bags.
Tourists sit in cafÃ©'s and restaurants, browse the shops and visit numerous religious buildings. There are two basilicas and countless monasteries, convents, chapels and holy shrines in this tiny town of 25,000.
Spring blossoms everywhere: bright geraniums in pots, cascading greenery drips from balconies, red poppies bloom in the grassy valley below. You sense that residents care about beauty and nature.
Wandering around we lose our way in the labyrinth of tiny alleys. No problem. Life-long resident, Grandma Pat comes to the rescue. She wears the standard outfit of older Italian womenâ€”a black dress.
The dear lady speaks nothing but Italian as she hobbles along with her cane. She escorts us back to our hotel and says, "Statci Uniti–Papi?" Yes, the Pope is visiting the US.
Dinner turns into a bountiful party — wine, antipasti, wine with pasta, and a seafood entrÃ©e. Coffee please, but we must split dessert.
Falling into bed, I gaze at the celestial ceiling reciting prayers of gratitude. I am most fortunate to be here with my daughter-in-law and her mother. Sleep comes easy, exhausted from our flight and less than 24 hour blitz through Florence.
Sunrise and birdsong awaken us and we sip coffee in our garden, munching pastries fresh from the bakery. Am I really here? A little pigeon makes his home in a hole in the wall. What sublime tranquility. I envy the lady who tells us she is staying a month.
Our guide arrives to lead a tour of the famous monuments and help us understand their history. We hear of cloistered nuns, called Poor Clares, visit the pink limestone Basilica of St Clare and gaze into the original crucifix of San Damiano- the one which inspired St. Francis to convert in 1205.
Roman ruins are found at Minerva's ancient temple, now converted to a church. I'm stunned at the altar Madonna, crowned with an electrified halo.
A funeral leaves the Church of St. Rufino, and then we enter, finding St Francis' baptismal font, over 800 years old. We learn Francis was the son of a cloth merchant and is known to have been a party boy in his early years.
Time for a stop at the cafÃ©. I find it hard to refuse tempting confections, oozing a buttery mix of nuts, sugar and cinnamon. Instead, I take a photo and then taste perfection in a frothy latte.
Together we climb steep walkways to the upper town, arriving at Via Santa Maria delle Rose. This building holds a permanent sculpture exhibit by artist Guido Dettoni della Grazi. He created the most extraordinary Virgin Mary. In fact there are 33 Marias, each made from a different wood, one for each year of Christ's life.
Viewed from different angles, the piece gently morphs into the kneeling Virgin receiving the Annunciation, a woman carrying the pitcher to the well, an expectant mother, and the Blessed Mother holding the Child (my favorite). If turned horizontally, she becomes the Dove of Peace.
We purchase a small copy, grasping it within our fist and thumb. It fits snugly, feels sleek and soothing, like a polished stone. But a sensation of security extends beyond my hand, as if I am being held.
Finally, we descend into the immense Basilica of St. Francis. The structure is really two churches constructed over the Saint's tomb. Pope Gregory IX laid the foundation stone in 1228 and consecration occurred in 1253. What a short time to build such an enormous shrine.
Highlights are the colorful frescoes by Giotto, simple, quaint and expressive. They depict the life of St. Francis in pictorial art, bringing the Middle ages to life. Many artists worked over 130 years creating the masterpieces for these hallowed halls; the most famous: Martini, Cimabue and Giotto.
I feel comfortable here and could sit in the sacred setting for hours and meditate. But we must hurry, another relaxing option waits. We get a ride downhill through the green fields of Assisi. The added bonus–a chance to photograph the town from afar.
An afternoon of pampering at San Crispino Spa includes a steam bath, Jacuzzi, and an olive oil massage. Aaah. We are rejuvenated at the idyllic retreat, and the only non-Italians on the property.
Back up the road and an evening stroll. We indulge in another fantastic repast- glad we had reservations. Meandering back, a full moon rises over St. Clare's Basilica. What could possibly top the natural phenomenon?
Mass the next morning; an intimate moving experience in a big Basilica. One just seems closer to God here. The air is pure, no Byzantine gold or Renaissance glam. A mood of simplicity, piety and peace prevails, yet the village is alive. Little boys kick big rubber balls on the church steps. Men gather at the fountain. Tour buses start to roll up the hill.
I could stay here, learn Italian, and study art. Kathy puts it this way, "This is a place to let go, let God." I like that.
But it is time to leave, take the train to Bella Roma. I hesitate, wanting to linger. Instead, I leave my heart and lug my suitcase full of heavenly memories.
If you go:
San Crispino Hotel http://www.directa.net/umbria/assisi/hotels/crispino.html
Maira Sculpture Art http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/CU0204/S00042.htm
E-mail for private guide–email@example.com