Exploring Assisi – The Unintentional Pilgrimage (Part 3)

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Via Wikimedia Commons.

First off, you should know that the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is pretty large. The basilica consists of two main levels – upper and lower – plus crypts underneath the main structure, as well as the requisite bell tower and related private rooms above the upper level. I spent about three hours exploring the spaces open to tourists, and could have spent many more, if not for the repeated message on the loudspeaker: “No photos, please. No photos, please. No photos, please…” in about five different languages. As you might gather from this, I didn’t take any snapshots of the interior of the church. I doubt anyone would have kicked me out or confiscated my camera, but after the run-in with the Alabama church group, I was feeling like I should attempt to be a better person, you know?

The upper level of the basilica is awash with frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis, frequently attributed to artist and architect Giotto, who is known as the first great artist of the Italian Renaissance. I’d count him as a late medieval artist, but that’s an ongoing academic argument that will most likely see no solution in my lifetime. We have little proof that the frescoes were indeed created by Giotto, but they are striking and historically important nonetheless. In the lower level of the basilica, a fresco painted by Giotto’s teacher, Cimabue, still exists. It, too, is argued to be by another painter, due to its contradiction to commonly known elements of Giotto’s style. I’d studied all of these works in undergrad, but had conveniently managed to forget their location. As a result, when I walked into the space, my heart skipped a beat. As my dad would say, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

The only other time I’ve felt that extreme rush of familiarity and longing – a soul call, if you will – for a piece of art was when I unexpectedly stumbled across Rogier van der Weyden’s “St. Luke Drawing the Virgin” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2004. That was a moment for the ages. My heart breaks just thinking about it. Some folks get misty-eyed over lost loves; I get misty-eyed over beloved paintings. What can I say?

"St. Luke Drawing the Virgin" by Rogier van der Weyden. Currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

“St. Luke Drawing the Virgin” by Rogier van der Weyden. Currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image via Wikimedia Commons. (Also, please don’t judge this painting by the image on your screen. Go to Boston and see it in person. It’s superb.)

Anyway, so I walked into this enormous, softly lit space, my eyes landed on priceless art previously only seen in a text book, and I felt like someone had just cut off my air supply. I got a little loopy. I went from being a tourist on a day trip to being my primal self, standing in a small Italian town, searching for something I didn’t know I’d lost. I was smaller than ever, but suddenly feeling intimately connected to everything.

This feeling only intensified as I entered the small museum dedicated to St. Francis, on the lower level of the building. At first, I didn’t intend to go in. It was a tiny room, and people didn’t seem to be staying that long. What could it possibly have? Knowing the day was short and there was a lot ahead of me still, I walked in, intending to just glance around and walk back out. But there, in a simple case by the door, was a brown hair shirt, conserved under glass. I looked at it, then looked again. Not just a piece of clothing. HIS piece of clothing. Until that moment, I’d never realized one of the coolest things that sets Francis apart from other saints of the time period: he was acknowledged to be on the road to sainthood whilst still alive. People were already planning his veneration before he died, which gives credence to the fact that the items preserved are actually his, versus items from other saints that were sometimes collected decades or even hundreds of years after the saint’s passing.

Though the room was small, it held clothing that Francis wore during his lifetime, the cloths used to bandage the wounds of his stigmata later in life, and most impressive, the original document used to found the Ordo Fratro Minorum (Francis called his followers the “Little Brothers”). The beginning of the Franciscan Order, the words that can be argued to have saved the medieval Church from a ruinous path of greed and gluttony, it’s there for all to see in that little museum. For a person of little religious faith but an overwhelming desire to find some smidgen of truth, seeing Francis’ words written out in ink on vellum can make – did make – a world of difference.

After seeing his belongings/relics, I mistakenly thought I’d reached the pinnacle of my experience at the basilica. But as I started to walk back through the building, I noticed a sign for the crypt. I love crypts. Crypts and bell towers are the best parts of churches, in my opinion, and I visit as many of both as I can. So of course I decided to take the stairs and see what kinds of creepy stuff was down there. As I got closer to the bottom, I realized that whoever was buried downstairs must be important – lots of people crowded the stairs with me. We reached a small chapel where a service was being conducted. Beyond the chapel, I could see a wide stone column, surrounded by a round room with niches. The people next to me began to whisper, “Oh, this is Jacoba!” and I turned to see that I was standing next to a protected niche, containing a burial container. Inside were the remains of Jacoba dei Settesoli, a dear friend and devoted follower of St. Francis. She was the one who dressed the wounds of his stigmata, and she was present at his death, despite the impropriety of a woman being at his bedside in the friary. Suddenly, I realized why everyone was standing around. I realized who was in the crypt. I’d come here to feel close to St. Francis, this man I didn’t know or understand, but still loved, and here he was, waiting for me.

I sat in the chapel for the remainder of service, then walked around Francis’ grave, taking note that the niches around the room were the graves of his four best friends and fellow monks. I was suddenly happy for Jacoba. Though she wasn’t in the chamber, itself, she was close. I pictured them enjoying nature together, sharing a simple mindful moment. As I left the crypt, I purchased two candles, leaving them to be burned at one of the chapel’s daily services.

For the rest of my time in the basilica, I felt my spirit begin to drift higher and higher; I was feeling positively effervescent. I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin off of my face. It’s free to enter the building, but there are donation boxes dotting the corridors. I put a euro or two in every donation box that I passed. There were brochures explaining the various artwork; I took one and dropped a couple of euros in the donation box. I wanted to light a candle and pray at a small side altar; I dropped a couple of euros in the donation box. A photography exhibit shared the Franciscan Order’s works of service with the poor; I dropped a few euros in the donation box. By the time I’d walked around the building and stopped in at the gift shop to buy a few keepsakes for friends and family, I had about 15 euros left in my pocket. I’d have to find an ATM before heading back to Perugia.

After leaving the church, my next stop was another small museum. To be honest, my first intention was to find a free bathroom, but I was quickly drawn in by MUMA (Museo Missionario Indios Frati Cappuccini Dell’Umbria In Amazzonia). For a pretty tiny museum, it had some of the most impressive interactive technology of any museum I’ve ever visited, and the subject matter – the Capuchin Order (a subset of the Franciscans) and their mission in the Amazon from the 19th century to today. It’s easy to assume that the story told would be about a bunch of Christians coming in and “bettering” lives by converting native peoples, but that’s not really what the museum is about. It turns out that though the idea is to spread the gospel, the method is to go, be of service, help make changes that native peoples are comfortable with, and respect existing traditions. The museum is a celebration of cultural diversity, overcoming adversity, and protecting ecological treasures. I was pleasantly surprised, though now I understand that these are all things that Francis, himself, supported. If you have a chance, please check out MUMA’s website.

Hunger was calling, so I opted for a sandwich and some wine at a local cafe with the last of my money. Afterwards, while trying to withdraw money at an ATM, I realized that both my bank card and credit card had been shut off. I’d forgotten to tell the bank that I was traveling internationally, and they placed a hold on my accounts. No problem; I’d find a telephone, call the number on the back of the card, and have my problem solved within the hour. Just one problem – the international numbers on my cards weren’t working from the pay phone. After several failed attempts, I gave up and decided to enjoy the hour I had left before it was time to catch the bus back to Perugia. Thankfully, my return ticket had already been purchased.

The cell in which St. Francis' father imprisoned him.

The cell in which St. Francis’ father imprisoned him.

Not far from the ATM, I passed a smaller, interesting looking church and decided to go in. It turned out that I had entered Chiesa Nuova, built on the remains of St. Francis’ family home. I stood in the storeroom where the former Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone’s father had stored fine silks to be sold at market. I saw what remained of the family home’s imposing front door, and the small cell in which Giovanni’s father locked him when he declared his intention to give up the family business and become a man of God.

My last stop before heading out to wait for the bus was the simplest, but strangely also the most striking. Santa Maria Maggiore is austere in comparison to its fellow holy sites within the walls of Assisi, but after a day of passionate impressions, followed by a building sense of worry about my finances, the late afternoon light streaming through her rose window was everything I needed.


I left town, and went to stand by the bus. There were pay phones, so I tried all of the numbers I had once more. No luck. I just couldn’t manage to dial out. Deciding it was user error and recognizing that I was quickly destroying every ounce of personal peace I’d just found within Assisi, I gave up for the time being. Still, I was seething. I’d lost it. A whole day of beautiful things and suddenly all I could think about was how I was going to pay my hotel bill when it was time to leave Perugia in the morning. Standing there on that June afternoon, I was halfway between heaven and hell. I was so angry, and angry again at myself for letting something this stupid get the better of me. And even angrier that I couldn’t just hold on to this goodness I was just reveling in, not a couple of hours before. What was wrong with me? Who does this to themselves?

A friendly voice piped up from beside me, stirring me out of my slump. “It’s much warmer here than back at home.” I looked down to see a lovely little Japanese lady, impeccably dressed, and staring back at me with the kindest smile. My ruffled feathers began to smooth over instantly. Ikuko was from Japan, but lived in San Francisco with her husband much of the year. She spent a great deal of time in Italy with friends, and like me, had traveled to Assisi for the day out of curiosity about the saint. She had ridden the same bus in with me that morning, and was also heading back to Perugia on the last bus out for the day. We chatted for a bit there at the bus stop, then sat together on the way back, too.

In the year and a half since meeting Ikuko, I’ve tried to explain the feeling of that bus ride many times. The closest I’ve ever gotten is by using something that popped into my head that day, while we were talking. I seriously began to wonder if she was my angel. Sometimes I think that even if that couldn’t possibly be true, it’s the thing that makes the most sense. We talked about life in Italy, about the little things, like coffee and finding great gelato, and about big things, like finding God. She asked me why I’d gone to Assisi, and I explained sheepishly that I didn’t know, exactly. I told her that I had trouble with some parts of Christianity, but no trouble at all with the big picture items, like being good, spreading light and love, and living a life of service. We talked about doing our best each day, and hoping that it would be good enough in the end. She told me of her (literal) epiphany during a sermon in Ravenna, the moment she’d gone from agnostic to enthusiastic Catholic. She spoke of suddenly feeling an emptiness inside her fill up with light. I was so happy for her, because the light she spoke of shone out of her.

Have you ever watched a baby laugh and smile over something simple that absolutely filled them with delight? It’s like they’re overflowing with simple goodness – there’s nothing dark or troubling that could encroach on how they’re reacting to that moment. That’s what it felt like to be with Ikuko on that bus ride home. She helped me focus the passion that I’d experienced that day, and turned it on in me, like a faucet in my heart. I feel like I’ve been filling up with goodness, ever since. True, I’m a little leaky now and then, but I’m a work in progress.

She left me with a poem. It’s one of the first things I posted on this blog, actually. You can read it here. We’ve kept up through emails ever since. I wish I would have walked her home that night, but we were going to two different parts of the city. And besides, I still had the credit card issue to figure out.

It took me a few more hours to crack the case. Many, many tears and failed phone calls later, after I’d enlisted the help of an American in my global cell phone’s company call center, plus two separate concierges, the lady at my soon-to-be favorite gelateria, plus a number of concerned but utterly unhelpful tourists in the public square, I got everything figured out. In the end, no one could help me dial the numbers on the back of my credit cards (or any international numbers for Chase Bank on any of their websites) from Italy – not even the Italians. My concierge darkly blamed the trouble on it being an “American number”. I bit my tongue to avoid the unpleasant remark I felt bubbling up inside…and to think that only a few hours earlier, I might have agreed with his assessment.

Luckily, I had an iPad and Skype, and it turns out that you can dial anyone from Skype – including Chase Bank. Ten minutes later, I celebrated my newly-reinstated bank accounts with two scoops of gelato – pistachio and sweet cream is the best combination, hands down.

During the ordeal of trying to call my credit card company, I was sitting on some steps near the public square and sobbing. Luckily, extreme displays of emotion don’t make Italians run in the opposite direction, and an older gentleman came up and interrupted me mid-sob. He asked me if I was holding an iPad, and if I’d be so kind as to let him check his stocks. He asked me why I was so upset, brushed it off as an issue I’d soon solve, then asked me to wine later if I was free. I declined, much to my later disappointment when I saw the man and an extended group of friends having a lovely conversation at an open-air trattoria.

Watching the group of Italians laugh at their table, it struck me that it had all been a test – a big, messy lesson from St. Francis. I’d just had a small taste of what it was like to depend entirely on the kindness of strangers, to not know where my next meal was coming from, to have no clue how I’d be leaving town. All I had was my ability to make friends, to prove my goodness, and to have faith that something would come through. It was a tough lesson to learn, and I don’t think I did too well on the first round; I was a spoiled brat and an emotional wreck, placing too much faith on my gadgetry and not enough on human connection. Maybe that’s where I’ll step up my game on The Camino.

Overall, my trip to Assisi was a pivotal moment in my life thus far. In one way, the day was quite simple: I took a bus to see a couple of churches, and ran out of money. It’s all of the details that make the day so huge in my memory. Every time I run back through the events of the day, my mind untangles some new moment, makes a previously unnoticed connection, draws me closer in my relationship with St. Francis. The wild man who preached to birds, who believed that laughter and song were the perfect way to spread the radical concept of not being a jerk, who gladly stripped naked in the public square to renounce his father’s fat pocketbook in exchange for a life of austerity…I’m behind that. I might not be able to accept everything yet. Maybe ever. But I’ll take what I can – and I’ll pass it right back out. My best is all I’ve got, and I’m going to give it.

Shrubbery from the basilica's lawn. The Tau (in red) is the symbol of the Franciscan order. Pax = peace.

Shrubbery from the basilica’s lawn. The Tau (in red) is the symbol of the Franciscan order. Pax = peace.

Exploring Assisi – The Unintentional Pilgrimage (Part 2)

A wooden plaque of St. Francis above a residential doorway in Assisi, Italy.

A wooden plaque of St. Francis above a residential doorway in Assisi, Italy.

I first fell in love with medieval architecture in high school, on a trip to the UK. By college, I was firmly obsessed with medieval religious structures and art, with a particular interest in reliquaries (boxes, baubles, and statues created to hold holy items, like saints’ bones and so-called pieces of the true cross). I even graduated with a double major in Medieval Studies and Art History, which allowed me to spend the better part of four years studying this field. As soon as I had saved up enough money to take my first postgrad trip to Europe, I made a point to visit any saints, martyrs, and holy items I could find, just for curiosity’s sake. I didn’t realize it at the time, but aside from my lack of veneration at each holy site, I was performing the basic duties of any good medieval tourist. The macabre dressed skeletons of two martyrs at Peterskirche in Vienna, Austria; the Veil of Mary at Notre Dame de Chartres, France; the relics of St. Mark at the Basilica in Venice, Italy; the reliquaries housed at The Cloisters in New York City – any shard of bone or lock of hair encased in gold and rock crystal can hold my attention, make me crowd closer to get a better view, give me a thrill as I imagine its history and debate its authenticity.

In the summer of 2012, while planning my Italian itinerary, I had a choice – travel to San Giovanni Rotundo to see the shrine of recently canonized Padre Pio, or travel to Assisi to see the Basilica of 13th century St. Francis. I’m still not sure why I chose St. Francis in the end; I had no real knowledge of or affinity for the saint. In fact, I preferred more exciting saints, like Barbara, locked in a tower for refusing to marry a barbarian, or Sebastian, pin-cushioned with arrows for pissing off Emperor Diocletian. Up until visiting Assisi, my only intro to Francis was superficial, at best – a snippet of the Peace Prayer, recited in Band of Brothers, and a wooden statue of the animal-loving saint that my mother placed near the area of our yard that serves as a pet cemetery.

Maybe choosing St. Francis over Padre Pio was predicated by vacation timeline, but I don’t remember that, if so. I did only have five days in all to spend in Italy before returning to Croatia for a week of island-hopping with my friends. But given what happened in Assisi, and how my life has changed since, I think maybe I never even made a decision; maybe the Universe made it for me. At any rate, after two glorious days in Venice, and a beautiful evening exploring the cobbled streets and gelaterias of Perugia, I headed to the bus station to catch a ride to Assisi.

When the bus pulled up at its final destination, the combination of short journey and uninspiring view from the parking lot made me worry that I might be getting off at the wrong stop. But everyone else disembarked, so I followed suit. All worry dissipated as I entered the town gates and started wandering with the crowd towards the Basilica. St. Francis salt and pepper shakers, pencil holders, religious medals, tea towels, nesting dolls, posters, and t-shirts were in every shop window, and I smiled at the sweet-natured cheesiness embraced by locals and tourists, alike.


As I got closer to the basilica, a German tourist on a bicycle stopped and asked me to take a photo of him. At the time, it registered as odd that he’d trust me with his expensive DSLR camera, but over the course of the day, I was stopped over and over again by tourists asking me to take photos of them in this holy place. Among these was a church youth group from Alabama, on pilgrimage to a host of holy sites across Europe. I was in the town, on a street high above the basilica, looking for the perfect vantage point to get a great shot of it plus the land beyond. Since I was in a residential area, I hadn’t seen another tourist on the street for probably 10 minutes. Suddenly, I turned the corner and ran into a group of 15 kids and their chaperones, discussing how they could take a group shot and get everyone in the frame.

At first they didn’t notice me enter the courtyard area that we were in, and I tried to ignore them and will them to ignore me, too. When you’re in another country where the first language isn’t your native tongue, unless you hear another person speak, it’s easy to assume that they don’t share your language. I used this assumption against them, fully intending to take my photos and get away without ever having to talk to them.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned (or thought that I’d learned, at least) after a few trips to Europe, it’s that the majority of Americans you’ll run into when travelling are generally classless jerks in foreign countries. They laugh at local custom, disrespect the people and landscapes they come into contact with, and generally end up making us all look bad. Most introverted Americans I’ve met on vacation tend to pretend they’re Canadian. So I didn’t know where these folks were from yet, but I knew enough to know I wouldn’t like them. An American church group with southern accents? Surely they’d be bible thumping inbreeds. I couldn’t get away quickly enough.

Eventually though, guilt got the better of me. I snapped a couple more photos on my own, then introduced myself as a fellow American, and offered to take their group shot. They were overjoyed to find out they could all be in the shot together. Afterwards, they all gave me hugs, and one of the chaperones gifted me with a laminated bookmark commemorating their pilgrimage, bearing the Peace Prayer on one side. I of course felt like a total shit, and resolved to be kinder to strangers in the future. I didn’t know it then, but it was the first of MANY lessons St. Francis was about to throw my way.

It’s taking me forever to tell this story, but I promise I’ll finish up in tomorrow’s post. Stay tuned to hear about the rest of my day in Assisi…(Click through for Part 3)

Detail of St. Francis taming the Wolf of Gubbio, from one of the doors of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. In the story, Francis tames a wild, dangerous wolf that has been terrorizing a town, and the wolf, now gentled, becomes the town pet. During my visit to Assisi, I underwent the beginning of a very similar transformation. No leashes or flea bath necessary.

Detail of St. Francis taming the Wolf of Gubbio, from one of the doors of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. In the story, Francis tames a wild, dangerous wolf that has been terrorizing a town, and the wolf, now gentled, becomes the town pet. During my visit to Assisi, I underwent the beginning of a very similar transformation. No leashes or flea bath necessary.

Exploring Assisi – The Unintentional Pilgrimage (Part 1)

Me and my preggo bestie Trin, at Katie's wedding reception. It was a misty day, but we're actually on top of a mountain, overlooking the sea, in Lovran, Croatia.

Me (right) and my preggo bestie Trin, at Katie’s wedding reception. It was a misty day, thus hard to see much of the background, but we’re actually on top of a mountain overlooking the sea, in Lovran, Croatia.

In the summer of 2012, I went to Europe for a best friend’s wedding. Before I left, I quit my job of four years. I’d hated working there pretty much from the beginning, and had just been holding on until a better job came along. One never did. So it was with a mixture of trepidation and elation that I gave my notice. Jobs were scarce; what would I do for money? But the promise of an entire two weeks in Croatia and Italy, not a moment of which would be spent thinking about my gut-twisting, heart-palpitation-inducing job, filled me with a longing that I couldn’t ignore. I briefly imagined a long vacation, wasted with worrying about a pointless job back home, and realized that my limit had been reached. I called up my boss and resigned my position immediately.

From the moment my flight landed in Trieste, I was in heaven. My American girlfriend was marrying a Croatian sailboat captain, and two of his best friends drove into Italy to pick me up at the airport. On the way back to their hometown of Lovran, one friend spoke in Croatian and the other translated into passable English (much better than my Croatian): “What music is favorite of yours?” “How like you our country?” “You are best friend of Katie, yes?” The radio dial fluctuated between German pop music and Italian power ballads, interesting roadside attractions were pointed out, and one of the guys measured me up as a potential bridesmaid “score” – THAT look is universal.

In Croatia, I met up with my two best friends. One was getting married, and the other announced to me on the spot that she’d just found out she was pregnant with her first child. We celebrated that first night together with about a gallon of happy tears and another of freshly-made gelato. It was odd, because I was intensely sad to be being left behind, but also so happy to see my friends getting all that they desired. It was the kickoff of what was to be an emotional vacation; maybe it’s my nature as a Scorpio, but I can’t think of a better way to spend a couple of weeks in two of the most beautiful countries on earth than exploring the complexities of the soul.

Luckily, since I was with two of the people who know me best in the world, I was given the perfect mixture of alone time vs. together time in Lovran. I had time to explore the town on my own, sit on the beach, and drink espresso in the local internet cafe. But I also had the important honor of helping the bride Katie’s mother steam creases out of her wedding gown on her wedding day. I also felt beyond loved when Katie invited her best girlfriends to spend a few precious moments drinking champagne with her as she got dressed, put on makeup, and tried to relax before meeting her intended at the traditional pre-wedding party. At and after the ceremony, Croatian relatives who had never met any of Katie’s friends from the US knew me on sight, called me by name, and hastened to give hugs and make conversation, but no one was clingy or expected too much. When I was worn out from talking, there was a beautiful mountain-top balcony where I sat and had a glass of wine, enjoying the murmur of conversation in the background while a cool breeze from the ocean comforted me, the last of the unmarrieds, feeling a little melancholy at the end of the night.

The night after the wedding, I was back in charge of my emotions and decided to take full advantage of being relatively young and able to party. I went out with Katie’s younger twin cousins and some of their new Croatian friends, drinking beers and conducting a singalong down at the marina, then moving our party to a local late night bar. It was a raucous time, until I realized it was almost time to pack up and leave town in two hours…oops. At 6am the next morning, an extremely hungover and sleep-deprived Anna caught a ride back to Trieste, where I caught a bus to the train station, where I then caught a train to Venice. It was a good five hours of hating my life and hoping not to puke on my fellow passengers. But then: Venice. My eyes fill with tears just typing it. There’s no need to wax poetic. Let me just say that it’s one of my favorite places on earth. It never disappoints, and always draws me back. I’m always living for my next visit; the smell of salt water, the sound of music floating over the canals.

A wonderful meal on the island of Burano. House-made clam linguini, crusty fresh bread, and the restaurant's own house white, enjoyed al fresco on a drizzling day.

A wonderful meal on the island of Murano. House-made clam linguini, crusty fresh bread, and the restaurant’s own house white, enjoyed al fresco on a drizzling day.

After a too-short stay in Venezia, another train ride (this one much less hungover, thank goodness) conveyed me to unfamiliar territory: Perugia. Before visiting this Umbrian gem, the city honestly wasn’t even on my radar. In fact, I’d chosen to visit Perugia primarily because it was a short bus ride from my intended target: Assisi, home of Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, otherwise known as St. Francis. I didn’t spend enough time to have any great stories about the town, other than being awestruck by the massive Etruscan Arch (dating from the 3rd century BC), and falling in love with the tradition of a late night espresso and gelato at my local gelateria. In hindsight, I have no idea how I slept on that vacation. I think I had an espresso every time I passed a cafe, I never turned down a glass of wine (which should be a rule on any good vacation), and I know I ate gelato at least twice a day for two weeks!

The Etruscan Arch in Perugia, Italy.

The Etruscan Arch in Perugia, Italy. The photo doesn’t do justice to how imposing this 3rd century BC construction is in person. It seems indestructible.

My second morning in Perugia dawned bright and cool – perfect weather for a day trip to St. Francis’ hometown. I didn’t know what to expect. Before leaving the States, I’d decided that since I’d have a full week on my own in Italy, it would be a good idea to spend some of my time just shopping and eating (two of my top favorite pastimes), and the rest checking out architecture and religious relics. Assisi seemed like a fairly obvious choice, given my time constraints and an extremely basic knowledge of St. Francis – that he was an animal lover, displayed symptoms of what might today be concluded to be mental illness, and wasn’t too keen on fashion. Most of all, though, I was excited about visiting a town that hasn’t changed all that much through the centuries. Assisi is a walled medieval city, set against a stunning backdrop of rolling, verdant hills. I’d never seen anything like it in person, so why not? Francis would just be the icing on the cake.

Little did I know that this trip would set something in me on fire. Stay tuned for more on my awakening in Assisi, tomorrow…(Click here to read Part 2)

Basilica Papale di San Francesco, as seen from a street higher up in the town (it might have actually been someone's private courtyard, but no one told me not to stand there).

Basilica Papale di San Francesco, as seen from a street higher up in the town (it might have actually been someone’s private courtyard, but no one told me not to stand there).

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  34. Ultimatums and Triple Dog Dares! | meanderedwanderings
  35. Too late | Life is great
  36. Daily Prompt: With or Without You | Nola Roots, Texas Heart
  37. Daily Prompt: With or Without You « Mama Bear Musings
  38. The Forever Choice | snapshotsofawanderingheart
  39. i would repeat you | y
  40. Only With You | A mom’s blog
  41. My Brother, the Incorrigible Drunk | I’m a Writer, Yes I Am
  42. In Line Of Fire | Flowers and Breezes
  43. Daily Prompt: With or Without You | Chronicles of an Anglo Swiss
  44. Fighting Ultimatums | Ana Linden
  45. No More Contacts Please ! | My Life and My Career
  46. Nicki Minaj and A Free Fall. | meg lago
  47. Pointillism in Borneo | Mishe en Place
  48. Daily Prompt: With or Without You | Basically Beyond Basic
  49. yesterday’s snow lets | y
  50. You Stop This NOW! | Buzzy Beez
  51. Idyllic way of traffic or nostalgia | Le Drake Noir
  52. Ultimatums are bad. All the time. Just say no. | Curious Jac

Weekly Photo Challenge: Sea (Memories of the Adriatic)

Croatian Beach, Anna Harris

Rocks on a tiny beach – Lovran, Croatia.

Lifeboats, Photo by Anna Harris

Lifeboats in the harbor – Ancona, Italy

Fresh Catch, Photo by Anna Harris

Fish market – Split, Croatia

The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge asks that we post photos illustrating our idea of the sea. These three snapshots are from my trip to Italy and Croatia last summer, and serve as melancholy reminders that in a life divorced from the water, I can only be half of myself.

When I think of the sea, I think of love, wholeness, peace. And eels, of course 🙂

Weekly Photo Challenge: Curves

Spaghetti and Clams from Trattoria ai Frati


One of the most sumptuous and satisfying meals of my life – housemade spaghetti with clams, my own bottle of house white, crusty Italian bread, and off to the side, the remainder of a fresh octopus salad. I took this photo last June as I sat along one of the lagoons in Murano, enjoying the sound of the rain and the supreme indulgence of every single, sexy bite.

It’s meals like this that mean I will always be a woman with curves. As long as I get to keep exploring the world for new deliciousness, I’m OK with that.

Vacation Archives – Day #7: Assisi

This is an entry from the Vacation Archives, a somewhat tardy report of my adventures in Croatia and Italy. On June 6th, 2012, I took a day trip from Perugia to Assisi, home of St. Francis. He was a little bit nutty, very kind to animals and big into simplicity and genuine kindness…my kind of dude.

Lesson of the Day: an iPad is worth it’s weight in USD, especially if it comes equipped with Skype.

I woke up early with my first ever room service breakfast. It was terrible, since apparently the Italian idea of a cheese omelet is a dry frittata, and nowhere I’ve been yet has offered butter or olive oil with bread. At least my croissant had orange marmalade in the center, and there’s little one can do to destroy the basic integrity of a cup of English breakfast tea.

After breakfast, I set out for the bus station to find out when the next bus to Assisi was leaving. I was a little confused on how to get there, since the online map said to take the escalator but I couldn’t find one. Finally I just started climbing down the hill, but I happened to pass a large set of open doors that opened into a mysterious cavernous place. I thought since there were no warning signs, I’d take this odd detour. It turns out that I’d found the medieval underground city as well as the escalators in one turn! I took my time getting to the bus station, and the next bus wasn’t for an hour, so I walked around a bit more. One thing I love about Italy (and Croatia) is how obedient the dogs are. Tons of people have dogs, and many are off leash in public places. While waiting for the bus I sat in the park and watched people with their dogs for a bit.

I was a little carsick on the bus. Lots of curves, and the eggs weren’t sitting well. Once we got there all was fine though. The bus stopped right outside the city walls, and I walked inside. At first I was turned off by the amount of tourist shops. But then I got to the Basilica of St. Francis, and everything else faded to the background.

It’s huge. Huge. There’s a guy who sits in a glass cubicle just saying “silencio” and “no photo” all day long, but there are so many tourists, and they keep whispering and taking sneaky shots. The place is cavernous, though, and everything echoes. The whole place is covered with frescoes, top to bottom, all things I studied in undergrad. The best part is that the chairs or pews where the monks sit (oratorio?) are all wonderfully decorated with the most ornate marquetry, and most have portraits in wood. It’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen.

There are two church museums, one with St. Francis’ relics, and another with medieval and Renaissance art and reliquaries collected by the church over the years. I was in awe over Francis’ things. Seeing his tunic and hair shirt in person, plus a note he actually wrote, that just made me feel so close to him.

I guess that for me, with other religious historical characters there’s such a divide in time and also limited availability of fact, so it’s tough to see a real aspect to the tall tales we tell ourselves. In this case, there’s still this collection of stories, but also there are some solid facts to help compare and contrast. Though some bits are just fantastic stories, other things are true. He created a new monastic order, and with it he not only helped save the church, he also helped bring about a new way of sharing Christianity. He helped people remember the original point of honest giving and cheerful charity, and even today the Franciscans lead by example and live in harmony with other religions, taking the golden rule to heart.

More tomorrow, including Assisi sights, the lovely Japanese woman, Chase troubles, dinner and gelato.

Vacation Archives – Day #6: Perugia

This is an entry from the Vacation Archives, a somewhat tardy report of my adventures in Croatia and Italy. On June 5th, 2012, I travelled from Venice to Perugia, where I had gone out of my way to book a room at a century-old luxury hotel. Hmmm.

So much for specifically paying for a hotel with wifi. I’m in Perugia now, in a hotel room that smells inexplicably of bacon and keeps dropping the internet signal. The hotel is old and creepy. I want to say that it’s grand, and it definitely has some fancy touches, like faux-finished marcasite tables in my room, plus more furniture than I know what to do with. There’s a mini bar stocked to the gills with liquor, and I’m drinking a glass of champagne as I type. Weirdly for a mini bar, the prices are what you’d see on a menu anywhere. Overall, though, if it weren’t for the excellent location, I’d be disappointed in spending so much per night to stay here. Luckily there’s a great gelato place next door that has free wifi and good cappuccinos, so I can at least catch up on current events.

The doorway to my creepy hotel room.

I got in this afternoon around 2:45pm, and after a short confusion, found my way from the train station to the nearby mini metro station. Before my trip, I was led to believe that the mini metro was a train like any other. I thought that mini referred to the route, but instead it refers to the train (and maybe the route, too). There are only about eight stops, and the “train” is more like a pod, the length of a bus or maybe even a large van. There are eight seats and plenty of standing room, and for most of the trip up the mountain to historic town center, the car is on a cable system that runs from underneath. Later the car runs on tracks only. I’m no engineer, so probably not explaining it well, but the entire process was fascinating to me, not to mention a quick and seamless journey that would have been at least 45 minutes’ walk.

The weird thing about the train station is that there were no maps. I had no clue where I was going. Even once I found the mini metro, the only map there was topographical, and there was no explanation of what stop went where! I ended up just taking the metro to the last stop and hoping for the best, and had I turned right instead of left, I would have been three minutes from my hotel. Instead, I of course wandered around, got lost, finally found a newsstand that sold maps, couldn’t read it, got lost again, then eventually figured it out and got to where I was going. It’s difficult not knowing a place, then trying to find where you’re going based on street names when street names are seldom marked. I ended up seeing the cathedral of San Lorenzo and finding my way from there.

The Cathedral of San Lorenzo, Perugia

After dropping my bags, I walked about a bit, looked into every shop window, and visited the cathedral. It was gorgeous. I especially liked the famous Madonna painting there. I decided not to photograph her sweet face, as she seemed too important for that. She’s positioned on a column, and all around the rest of the column up to about 30 feet high, there are glassed-in shadow boxes filled with silver heart medallions, most bearing applied gold or silver initials. Some of the hearts are in their own frames, with velvet or lace decorations. The church didn’t have an explanation for this, but I plan to find out. I’m assuming that they’re like Milagros.

Milagros surrounding the beautiful Madonna della Grazie.

Other parts of the church were also lovely, including an amazing stained glass window of a white bearded prophet in one of the side chapels. Holy relics of Pope Innocent IV are interred in the cathedral, as well as a white onyx ring that supposedly was Mary’s wedding ring. I didn’t see the ring in the church, but plan to go to the church museum before leaving, and hope that it’s there.

Detail from the exterior of San Lorenzo Cathedral

The crowd at San Lorenzo

In my wandering, I also came across the Etruscan arch, though I had no idea at the time that was what I was seeing. It’s interesting that I still was in awe of the huge, obviously old structure. It is massive, and the very picture of masculine strength. I felt very small beside it, so can’t even imagine the effect it had on its contemporaries.

The Etruscan Arch

I was tired and the museums had all closed, so i ended up taking a nap from 5:30 til 9:30, then woke up and walked around. Much like New Orleans, the big Italian cities don’t seem to have a bedtime. Here the college students were out in the square, sitting on the steps of the cathedral like a humongous tour group, shouting happily in the streets. People had beers, but more had gelato or coffee, and many were talking sans drinks. I found it mystifying, having basically grown up in a town where people are plastered by midnight. Eventually I heeded the call of gelato, and enjoyed a cone with two scoops. I ordered pistachio, but received chocolate and some kind of butter cream. The lady was so nice that I didn’t bother to correct her, also thinking that maybe I was being directed by the universe to try something other than pistachio for once 🙂

Again, the shop windows were calling my name. I’m going to do some serious shopping tomorrow night. I want a pretty pair of Italian shoes, and I spied a tshirt, watch, and purse that were all amazing.

My champagne is caput, and I need to catch some sleep and get up early tomorrow for my trip to Assisi. I can’t believe I’m going to see St. Francis; I’m beyond excited. This is almost as cool as my trip to Chartres. I hope it feels as holy and relevant as that place did. I tried finding bus info tonight with no luck. At least I know where to catch the bus, so gonna go there early and see what I can find out. I also want to see the Etruscan well, the archaeology museum, the cathedral museum, the national gallery, and theres a house museum I saw a sign for that looks awesome, too. Hopefully I can get to Assisi early, then get back here by afternoon. If not, guess I’ll just have to come back next year!

Vacation Archives – Day #5: Murano

A huge glass sculpture in a Murano piazza.

This is an entry from the Vacation Archives, a somewhat tardy report of my adventures in Croatia and Italy. On June 4th, 2012, I spent the day exploring Murano and Burano, two of the islands in the Venice lagoon. Both islands are famous for artisanship, with Murano being the historic home of fine glassmaking, and Burano (once) boasting some of the finest lace in Europe. 

So my plans from last night fell prey to laziness and a poor sense of geography. Overall though, I had a lovely day.

I woke up very late this morning, and didn’t leave the hotel until 12:30. It was raining, so I took an umbrella and set out to catch the water bus to Burano. When I got to the bus station, I found that there was no direct bus line to Burano, and that I’d have to go to Murano first. I caught the bus, and loved every second of the trip to Murano.

All day long, the first thing on my mind has been that I’m incredibly lucky. At some point I realized that I’m not lucky, exactly, or at least not in the way I had thought. I’m actually just a cool person, with a vision for who I want to be, and travel is just something I do to be me. In other words, I guess I’m saying that I’ve worked at getting to be the girl who sees the world. It didn’t just fall into my lap, by any means. It feels good to realize that I’m kind of awesome.

Anyway, it rained all day as I ducked in and out of glass stores and the museum of glass. I saw some gorgeous, sparking, delicate jewels, things that I had no clue humans could make. Some of the things in the museum were from the first century AD, and were much more delicate and sweet than any modern pieces I’ve seen.

I also bought myself two handmade necklaces, one simple and modern, the other elaborate and a little ethnic. The first necklace was in a little shop owned by the artist, and lots of his pieces are a beautiful matte finish. I ended up buying a large, faceted green bead on a waxed cord. The other necklace is crazy, with one huge central pendant that was created by a local artist who immigrated from Japan and incorporates Asian techniques in her work. It’s a very detailed pendant, and then the necklace itself features more beads tied in place, and a leather piece that hangs under the pendant, with even more beads dangling from that. It’s more ornate than my typical taste, but I loved it at first sight.  In addition, I bought a necklace for The Man’s mom with Murano glass and Swarovski crystals (she loves bling) and some tiny, delicate glass pigs and swans for my own mom. Oh and a tiny owl for me. It was only 3 Euros, and so cute, though what I’ll do with another owl, no clue.

When it was raining hardest, I stopped into a restaurant called Trattoria ai Frati for a bite to eat. I sat outside along the canal, and the canopy kept me dry, though not warm. I started with a fresh octopus salad, then had spaghetti with clams. I ordered the local wine, and was surprised that 7euro bought my own 1/2 liter bottle of an unmarked white wine, very fruity with a little oak on the back end and a buttery mouthfeel. I guess i should note that really I was more surprised at how big 1/2 liters is, being be typical stupid American.

Octopus Salad

The octopus was wonderful, no seasonings to overpower the flavor of the meat. I was surprised at how succulent it was, and ate every last tentacle. As for the pasta, I don’t recall ever having so simple a dish that I enjoyed so much. The sauce was clam juice, white wine, a little olive oil, and basil. I couldn’t taste any other herbs, and there was no garlic, or if there was they did something magical to it since I didn’t get sick (I’m allergic).

Spaghetti and Clams from Trattoria ai Frati

I was so happy throughout the meal, and while I was finishing up, this tiny, very bold sparrow flew down, perched on my plate, and ate a noodle! I guess it could tell I was amused, or else it was used to getting its way, so it came back a few times to snatch more noodles and some bread crumbs. I couldn’t believe how much it was able to eat.

Bird on Table

Bird Eating Noodles

After lunch I tried to get to the ferry to Burano, where I planned to visit Trattoria di Domani, a restaurant Anthony Bourdain talked about on one of his shows. Through a series of mistakes and a side trip to the Basilica dei Santa Maria e Donato, where I saw the mummified remains of Danieli Urgispache, I ended up on the other side of the island, and it was after 6:45 by the time I got on the ferry. By the time I ended up in Burano, dinner service was closed, and only drinks were being served at pretty much every place on the island, from what I could tell. I walked around a bit, consumed with the quaint beauty of the local houses, neatly painted every perceivable shade. Many had window boxes with little flowers in bloom, and there were handsome cats everywhere. Most doorways had curtains of fabric or beads hung in front of the actual door. I’ll have to look that up when I get home.

Burano Houses

Burano’s candy-colored houses line one of their canals.

Now I’m on my way back to Venice. I believe I’ll look for a new restaurant for my dinner, maybe in a different neighborhood than where I’m staying. Then I’m going to look for a show of some sort. Maybe there’s a play or a rock show or something memorable.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be checking out early and heading back to the train station, then on to Perugia!

Vacation Archives – Day #4: Venice

This is an entry from the Vacation Archives, a somewhat tardy report of my adventures in Croatia and Italy. On June 3rd, 2012, I left Croatia with about an hour’s sleep, after a night of drinking and singing, and caught several modes of transportation toward Venice, Italy. This was written after settling in for the night at my room at Hotel Tiepolo.

I’m one insanely lucky bitch. I’m writing this from my lovely little hotel room in Venice, Italy. Today has been one of great highs and lows.

Last night after dinner, I went to a little party down on the waterfront in Lovran, just a few locals, Katie’s brother in law, and Katie’s twin cousins, Zachary and Ian. We drank, sang, Ian played guitar, it was an awesome couple of hours. When the rest of the kids decided to go off to a party at another town, Zachary and I went to a local bar to get some beers and listen to a Croatian rock band. We had so much fun making friends with some locals at a nearby table, and talking about music and dancing and life.

Zachary (right) and our new Croatian friend. He didn’t speak much English, and we didn’t speak any Croatian, but we still managed to share some laughs.

Our new friend, dancing to a popular song.

Things went a little sour after I accidentally closed my finger in the bathroom door, then was accosted by a big guy who kept asking me if, since I was American, I dated black people. He actually used the n word, though, and was extremely offensive in badgering me about this weird question, probably because he was just a jerk, but possibly also because I kept feigning that I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. It was just such a weird and pointless thing to ask, and also the language he was using was so hurtful that I just froze, mentally, and was concentrating on escape rather than setting him straight. I was close to tears by the time I managed to escape him (I was physically trapped in a corner since the bar was so full). Soon after, Zachary and I left and went back to our apartment house, where we sat up having grappa and talking on the patio until around 4:30.

Cute sign in the bar’s women’s bathroom.

I took a short nap, then caught a ride to the Trieste airport with Katie’s brother and family. From there I caught a bus to Trieste, then a train to Venice. As you might guess, I was pretty hung over and very tired, and felt like puking for much of the trip. No fun. I was proud of myself for not missing any connections, though, and I managed to catch a fitful nap on the train.

My original plan on reaching my hotel was to walk from the train station here. However, I was so tired that I caught a water bus instead. A much better option, considering that when I got to San Marco, I found that the street address didn’t match up with my map at all. I couldn’t find an Internet cafe to use my iPad, and I ended up wandering for an hour before giving up and calling the hotel. It turns out that the “street” is actually a dead end alley measuring about 30 feet in its entirety, lol. Once the clerk gave me an idea of the area to look for, I found my way with no difficulty. Lucky, actually, because I had been in a five block radius of my destination the entire time and would never have found it on my own.

But I got here, and that’s the big thing. The hotel is tiny, and much nicer than I expected. I’ve got two windows that open out to the street, where there’s a great night breeze and it smells all kinds of yummy from the restaurants out in the square in front of the hotel. The streets are still bustling, which is neat since its 10pm on a sunday. The room has a big bed, wood floors, wood beamed ceilings, a mini fridge stocked with sodas, a personal safe, and my own private bath, complete with hair dryer, bidet, and really great water pressure in the shower. In the morning there’s free breakfast, too!

After taking a short nap, I put on a cute outfit and went out to explore and find food. It felt very safe to just wander about, unencumbered by my pack. I walked in every direction I could, then back, and chose the next direction. I now know how to find my way here from San Marco and San Zaccharria, so I don’t think I’ll lose my way tomorrow. I went to San Marco to take photos and do some people (and pigeon) watching, and heard some lovely bands playing to the diners in the square. Weird but true, the first song I overheard was a great favorite of mine to sing, Besame Mucho, and then the next band I encountered was playing another of my all time favorites, All Of Me. It felt fateful, somehow.

I had dinner at a crappy little snack bar run by a sweet Chinese couple. The food was just ok, but I hadn’t eaten in 12 hours and was tired of inspecting menus, and they had photos and cheap prices. Plus, I tend to be less intimidated by Asian proprietors. Yes, I know that’s weird. At least I was still eating Italian food.

There’s a purse at a store next door that I will probably buy tomorrow. Right now I’m going to eat some chips, read a bit, then catch some shuteye. Tomorrow I want to go out to Murano and Burano. One of the restaurants in the square is playing the soundtrack from Last of the Mohicans. Beautiful, but odd to hear from my hotel room…

Update: after I stopped writing, the restaurant started playing the Godfather soundtrack!

Vacation Snapshots

Sorry for my absence. I never thought it would be so difficult to find wifi while traveling. Right now I’m on a train to Florence, so I thought I’d take some time to post some random (crappy) photos I’ve taken with my iPad thus far. Hopefully I’ll have Internet at my hotel tonight, and I’ll post more interesting bits then.


My awe inspiring view from the plane between Munich and Trieste.


The propeller was moving faster than the human eye could see, so I loved that the iPad could capture it.


A sign in Slovenia. Can you see the graffiti smiley faces?


The garden at my friend’s house in Croatia. The large plot is the vineyard, and there are cherries, peaches, figs, chestnuts, and hazelnuts (my fave) as well. Beyond the treeline is a steep slope down to the town and from there the ocean in the distance.


Evening in Burano. All of the townspeople are heading to the main street for wine and gossip.


Another view of Burano towards the ocean. All of the houses are candy colored, and so neatly kept. Most of the houses also have curtains over their front doors, as well. I loved the additional pop of color and pattern this made along the streetscape.