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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Vacation Archives – Day #7 (continued): More Assisi

Some of you might be wondering why it’s taken me so long to finish telling you guys about my amazing vacation. It’s hard to say this, but here it is – I lost a blog entry. Lost it. Zip, zero, gone, not coming back. Somehow I ended up erasing an entire day of my vacation, and since the only existing copy of my journal entry from that day was here, locked up on the backend of Compass & Quill, I will never have those exact memories from that afternoon again.

What really sucks about that (or maybe it’s a boon – you tell me) is that the writing I lost was a recap of the best day of my vacation. In all two weeks, my favorite day, the day I think back on, wish could have been much longer, the day that is sepia-toned in my mind, like some slow motion, driving-through-the-countryside scene from a heady emotional drama (you know, where sunlight glints off of waving blades of grass, and the heroine rides in passenger seat, gently fiddling with her hair or her sunglasses, and the camera goes in and out of focus in a way that both slightly irritates you and simultaneously breaks your heart?)…that was this day.

Naturally, you can see the kind of emotional turmoil I went through after finding that I’d essentially misplaced (forever) my memories. I felt like such a jerk. And I am. There’s no getting around it. But the show must go on, so here’s what I remember from the rest of the day…

The Franciscans don’t ask that you pay any fees to explore St. Francis’ birthplace and final resting place. However, there are little donation boxes everywhere, and with my heart overflowing with joy, just like Francis intended, I gave freely. I donated money for two long, slim, beeswax candles to be burned in prayer during one of the brothers’ daily services. I put change in boxes for the basilica’s upkeep, and for the brothers’ many missions for the poor across the world. I bought souvenirs – a lovely poster of St. Francis’ Peace Prayer, which contains one of my favorite quotations, a new medallion for my necklace of sacred baubles, and lots of little gifts for family. I bought The Man some anise candies that turned out to be the best gift of all – delicious!

When it came time to see where St. Francis was laid to rest, I was a little let down. It’s just a room, nothing too special. But I can’t say that I wasn’t touched. He’s buried with his four companions, the men who were his support in later life. We assume they were good friends, and I hope for his sake that they were, but this was long ago, and stories get twisted in the telling. Such is the way of the world. I’m doing it right now, whether I’d like to or not, by leaving out small details and remaining too long on things of little consequence. C’est la vie.

After exploring the basilica, I walked around the town. It’s a winding town, a quiet town, a friendly town. I met travelers all over, and took other peoples’ photos for them at every stop. It began to feel as though it was my tiny mission to make people happier by making sure they had commemorative snapshots. I didn’t ask anyone to take my picture, an oversight that still bugs me. I met a tour group of teens and their chaperones from Georgia, taking a tour of sacred European sites. After I took the group’s photo, they all gave me hugs and one woman handed me a lovely little St. Francis bookmark as a gift.

It was sometime after this that St. Francis started to make himself known for real in my life. I went to the ATM to get cash, and my card was declined. I realized that I had forgotten to tell my bank that I was heading to Europe, and since all the cards I had with me were from the same bank, I was essentially screwed. A short while later, I ran out of all the change on me. Luckily I’d already purchased a return ticket to Perugia, so getting home wasn’t a problem. I tried using a pay phone to call the out of US number on the back of my card, but the pay phone wouldn’t make the call, telling me that the number I dialed was “not allowed.” Instead, I gave up and spent the last hour in the city walking around, checking out old architecture, soaking in the atmosphere.

Finally I gave up and waited for the bus. As I waited, an older Japanese lady came to stand beside me. She had been on the bus to Assisi with me from Perugia, and I knew she spoke English, so I made some pleasantry about the weather to be polite. For some reason, something in her demeanor really made me like her immediately, and I tend to have very strong and accurate gut feelings, so I went with it. We ended up chatting for the next hour, sitting next to each other on the bus, sharing stories, life views, laughing, philosophizing. It was an amazing moment for me. At one point in our conversation I felt certain that she was a kind of angel, someone I was meant to talk to and learn from.

Her name was Ikuko, and she lived in California but was originally (and maybe still – I didn’t pry) from Japan. She spends a good deal of time travelling for pleasure and personal growth, and has quite a few friends in Italy, so she was in the middle of a three month vacation when we met. She asked if I was Catholic, and I said no, but that I felt drawn to St. Francis. I thought that she would maybe be confused, or brush me off in some way, but instead she nodded sagely and said that she believed we got what we needed from the Universe, that religion was just a piece of the puzzle, and an interchangeable one at that. Our conversation ran the gamut from religion (she had a genuine epiphany a few years ago, and went from having no religion to being a pretty devout Catholic) to coffee, and how to order an American coffee without offending your Italian waiter. Have you ever met someone that you just loved immediately? That’s how I felt during that bus ride. It was a ‘coming home’ feeling, and we’ve remained in touch. I plan to go out to California in the next year or so, and hope to visit her while I’m there.

The rest of the afternoon was nowhere near as pleasant as meeting Ikuko. My cards didn’t work, and as it turned out, no phone I tried would let me dial out to any of the credit card company’s numbers (multiple), including my hotel room phone, my cell phone, the front desk phone or any of the pay phones I tried outside. I’ve already recounted how horribly unhelpful the desk staff were at my hotel, so no need to go through that. Bottom line is that I cried buckets, but finally got through to the bank via Skype on my iPad – a free app that literally saved my life. Without Skype I would have been stranded in Perugia until someone could wire me cash, and given how irritatingly unfazed the Italians I met were when it came to my financial crisis, I’m not sure that I could have gotten money for at least a couple of days. But oh well, it’s over. I’ll know better next time.

After getting the money sorted out, I wandered the streets of Perugia, enjoying the sights and sounds one last time. I had dinner at my hotel – OK, but not my best decision ever. The only great thing about it was having very old fashioned service, complete with a rolling cart for food and beverage delivery, and waiters with gloves and little towels thrown over their arms. It was out in the courtyard of the hotel, and with the sounds from the street echoing in, and the whole place lit in a soft yellow glow, it was a little magical.

The only thing left for my evening after dinner was to write in my journal, check in with Facebook, and get some gelato and an espresso like a proper Italian. I headed back to the gelato spot that I’d found the night before, this time ordering sweet cream and hazelnut. The shop owner and the counter guy chit chatted with me a bit this time, asking where I was from and how long I planned to stay. Their service and friendliness was impeccable, something I treasured about staying in that area of the city. They even brought me out a special cone-holder so that I could type on my iPad without having to hold the gelato cone! The gelato place had all of these tiny outdoor tables, and there’s something magical about sitting outdoors at 11pm, eating gelato and drinking an espresso, listening to a town that’s still going just as strong as during the daylight hours, hearing snippets of music and laughter…I’m getting teary-eyed now.

 

 

Vacation Retrospective – Day #6: Perugia

Looking back, Perugia was my favorite leg of the journey. While Venice was romantic in a crumbling, surf-soaked way, Perugia was solid, vibrant, virtually throbbing with this ancient energy that fit in quite nicely with the more modern touches the city had to offer. I loved the hills, the passageways, the shops, the people, the architecture, everything really.

My biggest regret in Perugia was my choice of hotel. At some point during vacation planning, I decided to splurge on a more expensive hotel room, and picked La Rosetta hotel as a top contender. I wanted to stay somewhere with wifi and a more historic feel, and it was a big plus to find a place right in the heart of the old town center. Overall, my experience with this hotel was lacking. Not only could I not receive wifi in my room, my iPad couldn’t log on to their server in any room of the hotel, despite asking the clerk multiple times if I was making some mistake in using the security code they had printed on these tiny slips of paper at the front desk. When I complained, the clerks were unconcerned, shrugging it off in that exceedingly irritating way that rude hotel clerks around the world have mastered over the centuries.

The hotel itself was grandly appointed…about 80 years ago. Now the late 1980’s updates to an existing turn-of-the-century skeleton are getting a bit shabby, but I really didn’t mind about that. I was a bit disappointed in the hard bed and really scratchy linens, but that was also something I’ve found to be common in Europe, in general.

The most awful thing about the hotel actually happened on Day #7, when I desperately needed to place a call to my bank in the United States. The number wouldn’t work on my international cell phone, on any of several pay phones outside the hotel, or on my hotel phone. After expanding my efforts and trying several different numbers to reach the bank, I finally gave up and went to get the desk clerk’s help. With two guys at the front desk, only one offered to help me, trying the numbers several times with growing impatience. The other clerk told me that “it must be because it’s an American number.” (WHAT?) I was sobbing at this point, and asked if they could help me figure this out, but he just shrugged his shoulders and turned away. I finally came to my senses and went out into a nearby public square, where I used my iPad Skype app to dial the bank, which solved the problem in fifteen minutes (the computer didn’t care that it was an international call).

In hindsight, I shouldn’t be too angry with the desk clerks, but the point of being in customer service is to HELP people. I’ve worked in varying aspects of customer service for years, and would never imagine being so rude to someone who obviously needed my help. You’d think in a popular European tourist location that gets plenty of international tourists, someone at that desk would have had some clue as to how to assist me – even if it was just giving me the number for the American embassy.

Lesson learned – look for a better hotel next time I’m in Perugia…and I will definitely be going back at the nearest opportunity.

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!

A Change of Plans

So I decided to go with my gut and make some last minute changes to my itinerary today. Before, the Italian leg of my journey was going to consist of about a day and a half in Venice (from the afternoon of June 3rd to the morning of June 5th), about 3/4 of a day in Florence (afternoon of June 5th to the morning of June 6th), and a little over a day in Perugia (mid-day of June 6th to late afternoon of June 7th). It started to weigh on me that I was going to be so rushed. I’ve always wanted to see Florence, but less than a day is just no fun.

Today I started looking into either staying an extra night in Venice or adding one day on to my stay in Perugia. This would allow me to take a side trip to Assisi, one of my original destination ideals. Eventually I decided on the latter option, and while I was at it I cancelled my original budget hotel reservation and splurged on a room at a luxury hotel at town center. It has wi-fi, a sauna, and the photos of the rooms look out of this world. What the hell, if I’m only living once, I’m going to do it right!

This trip is going to be a complete departure from my last journey as a grungy, sunburned backpacker. Sure, I’ll still have the backpack, but I might even get a touch of room service – who knows? Don’t worry, I plan to keep you posted (while enjoying champagne and strawberries, lol!)