(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)
Yet another super-early start to the day …
But for the first time on this trip, our tour group’s getting a bit of a reprieve in the (non-stop) excursion department.
Our driver, Pierluigi, has a lot of ground to cover if he’s going to get us to our next destination – the town of Assisi.
I take advantage of the long ride to catch up on my sleep, as the last couple of nights haven’t been entirely restful.
Our first short stop is at the Cassino war cemetery, the final resting place for many soldiers from the Commonwealth – New Zealanders, Australians, Brits, and Canadians.
As we enter the grounds, a military ceremony is underway at the far end, so we move along as quietly and respectfully as we can between the rows of gravestones, gazing at inscriptions and taking photos.
Standing on the grounds now, I can see them – rows upon rows – on the right-hand side of the cemetery.
The sheer number of tombstones – compared to the other soldiers from other countries – says volumes about their involvement and the ultimate price they paid.
Some were as young as 19 years old – as far as we know. Some could be younger, as it’s known that some young men lied about their ages to enlist. The visiting is quite sobering, but worth the visit.
Back on the bus, we travel for a couple more hours, passing Rome’s outskirts and going beyond, stopping for lunch at a rest stop near the town of Spoleto.
From there, it’s another two and a half hours before we reach Assisi – home of St. Francis.
As it happens, our group has arrived roughly a week and a half before Pope Francis is due to visit the town and give mass, on St. Francis’ Day (October 4). At the time of our visit, we’re told that Assisi is expecting somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100,000 people to descend upon the town for the festival.
Seeing the town at a distance from the bus, with the basilica appearing to be perched on the edge of the hill, the thought that we would be soon ascending up there seems a bit daunting.
But upon meeting our local guide for the afternoon, Vania, it doesn’t turn out to be as bad as originally imagined.
For starters, she leads us up two sets up escalators (no, really) towards the “new” gate, on the town’s northeastern side.
Assisi is anything but flat, but it honestly doesn’t seem so bad to navigate. It’s precisely the type of picturesque little town you’re supposed to imagine when you think of Italy, with scenic views of the landscape that don’t seem to end, and architecture that beckons you to take photos.
Every stairway, nook and cranny visible to the naked eye is image-rich. The two squares through which we’re led have views of the countryside that no picture can really properly capture.
Vania takes us inside St. Francis’ Basilica, where she talks a bit about St. Francis’ life before his decision to dedicate his life to religion, as well as the frescoes on the church walls that depict his life and work.
(Another historic tidbit/sidebar: we’ve arrived the day before the 16th anniversary of the earthquake that hit Assisi ; it damaged part of the basilica’s portals, apparently shattering it into some 200,000 pieces. A fair bit of one of them – I believe near the church entrance – has been re-assembled by experts through a painstaking method much like a jigsaw puzzle.)
From the sanctuary, we’re then taken down to the basilica’s lower level, where St. Francis’ tomb is kept. The structure is dramatically different – the lower ceilings, the design. It’s (obviously) from an older time, and so the atmosphere feels slightly more eerie, but also more sombre and reverent. Both clergy and average folks alike are there in the small, ancient chapel, praying. It feels a bit strange (even a tad disrespectful) to be shuffling about as a tour group, while this otherwise most sacred of acts is going on.
There’s not as much to look at in the southwestern section of town. I opt to take a look in a couple of nearby shops, purchasing a sticky almond pastry from one of them. (The pastry is nowhere as sweet as I think it’s going to be – just very nutty.)
Finally, we’re rounded up and taken to the hotel – a tiny, 40-room establishment. The rooms and bathrooms are just as compact.
Following a lovely dinner, it’s once again to bed, and it will be early to rise. We have a full day of driving ahead for the next stop.