|Tuesday June 19 2007|
Buon giorno! Hello, good day! Really can't complain when a handsome Italian man in a suit and tie is holding a sign, “Merri Melde,” at the Rome airport and picking me up in a Mercedes SUV! (Actually, it's not bad either when a young Indian man in shorts is holding a hand-written card “Ms. Mary” in the Madras airport and picking me up in a beater two-door with the muffler about to fall off. It's not bad getting picked up in any foreign airport nowadays.)
Andrico from Assisi Endurance Lifestyle, one of the organizers of this weekend's 120 km Bab el Sham's Endurance Ride Cup, drove me the 2+ hours from Rome to Assisi, through the region of Umbria in central Italy, a green lush countryside, first through farmland, then rolling forested hills and valleys and canyons. We passed several towns, many clustered on hillsides as part of old fortresses, one of which was Assisi.
We drove up and into the old town built on a hill, racing through and around the narrow streets in our Mercedes, dodging tourists, up and up, and Andrico dropped me off at my hotel. The hotel owner was off at a restaurant, (I was early) and so I sat waiting on the stone staircase, drinking a delicious cold bottle of water from the little Alimentary shop across the street. The next door shop owner was concerned I was locked out of my hotel, and he went looking for Stefano, and made phone calls, but I wasn't worried, because I was SITTING ON A MEDIEVAL STAIRCASE IN ITALY!!
After a while, Stefano showed up and checked me in, carried my two heavy bags upstairs (thanks!), showed me my room, opened the windows to let the light (air) in. No air conditioning here, and it was quite warm, so I asked for a fan. “A what?” “A fan, for air,” and I made hand motions of air blowing on me. He left and returned with a hair dryer. “Oh! Thanks, but I meant a Fan, like air conditioning?” “Ah, yes!” He brought me a fan which saved me in the night because it was quite warm, and the windows had to be closed because of mosquitoes.
However, the view out my room (if you climb on the ledge, because the windows are high up), I have this fantastic view over the rooftops of this beautiful old town down into the valley.
I went outside to wander around – lovely old medieval city of stone houses, full of “hill-town charm,” peppered with ancient churches. It has the well-preserved and still-standing remains of eight fortified entrance portals – which you drive through to enter the town - and town walls. The origin of the name Assisi is unknown, though legend has it that the queen of Troy's brother, Asio built it. It dates back to pre-Roman times, first inhabited by the Umbri (6th century BC), then by the Romans. The Christian faith was brought to Assisi in the 3rd century AD. After the fall of the Roman empire, Assisi was besieged and razed several times throughout history. The Rocca Maggiore Fortress, sitting on the top of the hill guarding the town, was built for defending the city around 1174 AD, but the citizens of Assisi did the same thing to the fortress – besieged it and razed it - due to its symbolism of despotic power. In 1367 rebuilding of the fortress began, and it was enhanced throughout the centuries, and it still stands over the city, with its walls and towers extending into the distance.
Assisi is best known as the birthplace of St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order. He followed his calling in life, much to his father's chagrin, begging for the poor, asking God for enlightenment, nursing lepers, restoring ruined churches, embracing poverty, preaching, (though he chose never to be an ordained priest), and eventually founding the Franciscan Order.
Two years after his death in 1226 AD, he was pronounced a saint by the Pope, and the building of the Basilica of St Francis began. I think we can assume Francis was not only a saint but a horse (or at least donkey) lover, because legend has it that on his deathbed, his donkey wept as he thanked it for carrying him and helping him throughout his life. :)
The Basilica sits majestically at the northwest corner of Assisi hill-town, and it houses one of the biggest collections of art from the greatest painters of the 13th and 14th centuries. Saint Francis lies in a crypt under the floor of the church. You can view St Francis' simple, ragged, patched tunic made of sheep's wool (can't touch it though, it's under glass!).
I stopped at a corner restaurant and sat outside at a table with the Raven and had, after a panini sandwich, ice cream, which was festively decorated with caramel-dripped cookies and a colorful foil sparkler. Bellisimo! Great way to start my work in Italy!