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La Basilica de San Francesco in Assisi
Back in AD 1200, Francesco of Assisi was born to an upper-class life of wealth and riches. He grew up happily in this lifestyle until adulthood, when he was visited by a divine vision in the form of a church crucifix that spoke to him. He renounced all of his material possessions and proceeded to live a simple life wearing only a brown robe with a rope belt. He founded an order of Franciscan monks that spread throughout the region. An Assisan woman, Chiara, was visited by a similar vision. After being consecrated by Francesco as "the bride of Christ," she founded an order of nuns that also spread throughout the region. The powerful Catholic Church was so unnerved by Francesco's and Chiara's followers that they had no choice but to accept their teachings. After their deaths, both Francesco and Chiara were elevated to sainthood, and in 1939 San Francesco (St. Francis) and Santa Chiara (St. Claire) were declared the patron saints of Italy. (The California cities of San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Los Angeles are named for the two saints and the church that San Francesco founded.)
Today, Assisi is considered a pilgrimage destination by many Catholics -- including David -- so we set out to visit this famous town on March 4th. Because the guidebooks estimated the drive at 2-1/2 hours, we set an early wake-up call for 8:00 AM with a goal of getting out of the villa by 8:30 AM. Fortunately, the World Trippers (not normally used to this aggressive touring schedule) were on-time and ready to go. Unfortunately, Dawn was not -- she had woken up with a pretty bad cold, possibly caught from Keegan. Despite her illness Dawn did not want to miss anything, so we departed in our two cars -- with walkie-talkies -- a little after 9:00 AM.
David led the caravan through the maze of junctions at Siena, then Gail took over the lead for the rest of the drive (the Miller/Schaefers have better maps of the Tuscany Valley, while the World Trippers have better maps of Italy overall). The walkie-talkies worked out wonderfully, especially after Russell installed some new batteries into ours so that we could hear something besides mumbled static.
After an hour of driving, we took a side-trip and stopped at 10:00 AM in the town of Cortona at the top of a mountain. David has wanted to visit Cortona ever since reading about it in Frances Males' book "Under the Tuscan Sun." Despite Cortona overall being a fairly large and modern town, the old walled city was very charming and non-touristy. The old cobblestone lanes were very steep -- difficult for both the stroller and Dawn -- but we made our way to the old basilica at the highest point on the mountain, where we had a spectacular view of the Tuscany Valley all around us. We enjoyed Cortona so much that by 1:00 PM we hadn't left yet. So we bought some fruit and some wonderful store-made sandwiches in one of the main piazzi; and we ate lunch while we continued our drive.
Dawn and David's rented minivan approaching Cortona
After passing from Toscana into Umbria, we finally arrived in Assisi -- another city on top of a mountain -- at 2:00 PM. Thanks to Rick Steves, we headed directly to the Piazza Matteotti at the very top and parked in the underground parking garage. It was sunny but chilly, so we took our jackets with us and set out. Dawn had originally scheduled a guided tour with a local woman who was recommended by Rick Steves, but decided to cancel at the last minute before leaving the US. Luckily this same woman created a self-guided walking tour in Rick Steve's Italy book, and we proceeded to follow that.
The walking tour was wonderful, historic, and thought-provoking. Hidden away only steps from the Piazza Matteotti, we saw a circular street around the old Roman arena (today the arena itself looks like someone's back yard -- it had laundry hanging in it). We saw the Chiesa de San Rufino (a church for Assisi's own patron saint), where both Francesco and Chiara were baptized (as are all Assisi children today). We saw the old Roman Temple of Minerva, where a Catholic church has been built right on top of an old Roman temple (you can still see old Roman foundations, including the ancient drain for sacrificial blood right up next to the modern altar). We saw the birthplaces of both Francesco and Chiara, as well as the crucifix that spoke to Francesco and the church bells that miraculously rang the day he died.
A pilgrimage fulfilled: David at the archway leading to the birthplace of St. Francis
It was 5:00 PM before we finally made it to the Basilica de San Francesco, which actually consists of an upper and lower basilica. The upper basilica was almost destroyed by an earthquake in 1997, and today many of the ancient frescoes inside are still damaged and irreparable (many international experts have derided the Italians for their lack of attention to and care for their priceless heritage). The tomba in the lower basilica, where San Francesco is buried, is one of the ultimate sights of pilgrimage in Assisi. Here, many visitors were reluctant to approach the tomb itself because there was a group of novice nuns kneeling reverently around it. When we approached, we were tickled to see that one of the nuns was flipping through a tour book as they looked at the holy relics -- these nuns were sightseeing just like the rest of us!
We didn't leave the Basilica until after 6:00 PM, just in time to watch the sun set. We faced a two-hour drive back to Castellina, so we grabbed a quick dinner in town before we left. We had what could only be described as "reheated fast-food pizza" from a little hole-in-the-wall establishment, and it was the worst thing any of us could recall ever having eaten (in fact, Dawn and David ended up cooking another entire dinner for themselves when they got back to the villa). Russell started off leading the caravan back to Castellina, until Dawn used the walkie-talkies to request that he stop "flying around the other cars" on the superstrada (much to Gail's relief). David took over the lead, and we made it back to our villa by 8:45 PM.
Dawn is already feeling better, and the Miller/Schaefers are planning to head out for another intensive day of sightseeing tomorrow. Meanwhile, the World Trippers plan to take an overdue "down" day in order to recover from all of this touring.
During an afternoon break, Keegan discovered the pleasures of gelato for the first time
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