Monday, May 23, 2016

Almost there

Our start for today, Chiesa di San Vittore
Robin and I reviewed our schedule in Spoleto, and decided to take a train to Rieti, spend the night and then jump the next stage by taxi so that we would arrive in Ponticelli today, which we have. From here we will get a lift part way towards Monterotundo, and walk 15-20 kms tomorrow into Monterotundo where we will spend tomorrow night. The next day we will take the train into Rome and that will be that. Our sampling of the Way of St. Francis will then come to its end. In retrospect, it has been a revealing walk. The stages we walked were not easy, but were quite rewarding with gifts of beautiful scenery, abundant peace and quiet, and of course the presence of St. Francis. This is a walk that will surely grow in popularity. One of the limiting factors for future growth will be the cost of travel along the Way. As there is no albergue system similar to what Spain has, the cost of lodging rises sharply. However, with some planning, there are various churches and monasteries where beds can be found for cash strapped pilgrims. But, travelers on this road should expect some increase in costs compared to Camino walks in Spain or even in France. The terrain is also challenging. There are many steep climbs and not all of them are short. So come prepared for a bit of exercise. The terrain also accounts for the increased time it takes to cover distances that one might be used to covering more quickly. I also will throw in that the walk to Assisi, in my opinion, is the best of what we saw. Yes, there are lots of medieval hilltop villages to visit beyond Assisi but the joy of our walk seemed to wane after leaving Assisi. From then on it was just how to we get to Rome (so we can get to Santiago) and quite honestly we felt more at peace in Assisi (even with the crowds) then we did in Rome, even (especially) at the Vatican (bigger crowds). But that is just us. So for tonight we are lodged at the B&B Casale Della Stelle in Ponticelli. Giuseppe, our host, is preparing dinner for us and the laundry has been done. So all chores are accounted for. We shall be looking forward to our arrival in Rome on Wednesday, and even more so to our departure for Santiago on Saturday. As always with any journey there have been ups and downs, but on balance it has been a remarkable experience, and is one that I would highly recommend to others to enjoy. Ciao for now.  
Burning off breakfast

Saturday, May 21, 2016

And on to Spello

In Assisi
We have reluctantly left wonderful Assisi to continue on to Rome. We only have a handful of days left before we are due to arrive in Rome, so walking all the way is out of the question. Robin and I have decided to walk to Spoleto and from there take the train to Rieti and the see what remaining stages can be walked. For the past couple of days we have walked to the beautiful medieval towns of Spello, Trevi and today Spoleto. We dealt with some moderate rain showers yesterday but other than that the weather has been fine. It was quite a treat to be sitting out on our hotel deck looking back up the valley last night and being able to see Assisi that we left two days ago. Today's walk to Spoleto was almost exclusively on paved surfaces. The weather warmed up a bit so we were making best speed under the cool domes of our umbrellas. Our arrival in Spoleto was a bit of a mish mash. The guide book just didn't seem to line up with what we were seeing. Of course we could see the city on a distant hill so in the end we just headed for the high ground and what looked like the city center. We had been on a very nice if uninspiring bike path for several kilometers before we turned left for Spoleto. Robin and I were both hot and tired and Spoleto just didn't seem to want to arrive. We ploughed along uphill for ages and once in the old city itself our confusion only got worse. Our hotel was on a very small street that the locals we spoke to couldn't identify. The general guidance was to continue going up. By now we were done with up and wanted to hear down, but that was not to be. So we swung long lazy arcs across the city hillside in hopes of picking up some hint that would lead us to our hotel. Our final bit of luck led us to a conservatory with the same name as our hotel. As were climbed up the stairs to the sounds of classical music we were met by a kind lady who clarified we were in fact not in the hotel, but would gladly sell us tickets to a recital. No thank you to the tickets, but she did point us across a square and then up a bit to find our hotel. At last we chased up a final steep and very narrow cobbled street and there it was. We stepped through the gate and into a beautiful garden. Home at last. Tomorrow we are jumping from here to Rieti by train and then will plan the final few days into Rome. Buonasera, from Spoleto.   
On the way to Spello
Arrival Spello
Departing Spello
Trevi in the distance
The last little bit to reach the road into the city
Approaching Trevi
Spello and further back Assisi from Trevi
Trevi at dusk
Leaving Trevi
Leaving Trevi
Trevi looking back
On the way to Spoleto
Our hotel in Spoleto

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A man of peace

The tomb of St. Francis
Today was a rest day for us here in Assisi. We had some errands to attend to but mostly it was just a day to relax in this very holy town. We all visit many places for one reason or another. For Robin and I our travels tend to be connected to our faith more than anything else. Everybody has a focus and that just happens to be ours. Over the years we have been fortunate to visit several places that are central to our Catholic faith. We have been to Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Lourdes, Fatima, and several others. What dawned on me today was how important Assisi is to our faith journey. This is the second time we have visited here, but the first time arriving as a pilgrims on foot. Today we attended the 6:00 pm pilgrim mass once again and felt drawn to the spirit of St. Francis all the more. This holy place has a way of calling you even when you don't seem to realize it. As Robin and I offered prayers at the tomb of St. Francis after mass we felt ever more connected to the long lineage of the faithful who have journeyed to this place seeking the peace that St. Francis graciously offered. I must admit that in our human world of words and descriptions I cannot find the the right language that speaks to this experience. Perhaps a gift, a blessing, or even a call or an awakening. It is all hard to pin down. But suffice it to say, we feel we are changed for the better for having been here. In the end that is what is important about being on pilgrimage, and that is what will guide us. God willing, and with our faith strengthened, we will find the path that has been set out for us to follow. The fine point is to accept that revealed path joyfully. Now that might require just a bit more work, but with the our hearts filled with the joyful presence of St. Francis anything seems possible. We love this place.

And now to Assisi

Stairs occasionally helped
Our hotel in Valfabbrica hosted a hoard of Assisi bound pilgrims. Germans and Italians seemed to be the majority. Breakfast was a raucous communal affair that made us wonder whether our final push to Assisi would be less tranquil than we had hoped. But we quickly decided to linger at the breakfast table long enough for the large group, that was obviously anxious to depart, to finally get going. By 8:45 the hotel was still as a church with only family members starting the ever present chores of readying the hotel for the following night's guests. Off we went up into the nearby hills, and into a day full of promise and pleasant weather. Today's route took us up one long and occasionally mud slicked climb. For an hour and a half we made slow but steady progress until we finally topped the hill. Our reward once we cleared the forest was a paved road and shortly thereafter our first glimpse of Assisi with its fortress castle and the Basilica being the most prominent landmarks. The time slipped past as we immersed ourselves in the joy of this day. The tranquility factor was indeed high as we found ourselves almost totally alone (we only saw two other pilgrims) with bird song accompanying us every step of the way (very Franciscan). We arrived in due course at the foot of the hill upon which Assisi sits. The weather had been pleasant all morning but we now felt the heat rise with us as we chugged up the last final and somewhat steep hill to the Basilica of St. Francis. Once through the city gate we made our way to the lower Basilica plaza to check in with the Pilgrim Office for our credential stamp and our Testimonium (similar to the Compostela one receives as a pilgrim arriving in Santiago). As it turns out it was closed until 2:00 pm so off we went to find our hotel and check in. True to our habits as pilgrims the washing was next on the to do list, but fortunately we found a drop off laundry service on the far side of town that would handle that chore for us (sink washing clothes only can get you so far).  Now with laundry handled, we started back across town to the Pilgrim Office to finalize our documents. On the way we stopped for a bite of lunch, pulled the lever on the cash machine, and ambled off towards where our hearts have always been focused, the church of St. Francis. What a perfect day. At the Pilgrim Office we concluded our business and discovered there would be a pilgrim mass at the Basilica at 6:00 pm. We had some time on our hands so we toured the Basilica, a stunning display of frescos to be sure. The tomb of St. Francis lies below the lowere basilica and is a powerful place of peace and prayer. You cannot visit there and walk away untouched by the miracle that was the life of this most humble of all the saints. I happened to overhear a tour guide describing a fresco near the main altar in the lower basilica as containing what is believed to be the first portrait of St. Francis. As my gaze followed the pointing finger of the guide to the indicated image I was stunned at how small and ordinary Francis was. Yet, this scrawny little guy was able to accomplish more by virtue of his deep faith and love of God than countless armies and legions ever were able to do by shear force. How can you not feel the strength of his love that he poured out, unceasingly, and abundantly, upon all of God's people and creatures. Love was his sword and shield. He changed the world by being able to reach into the hearts of multitudes both in life and in death, and allow them to see the truth that love conquers all. What a remarkable journey this has been to the tomb of possibly the world's most beloved Saint. Robin and I feel so gifted to have been able to walk here, and share this moment of prayer giving thanks for the life of this miraculous man and all that he was able to accomplish. Later at the end of the pilgrim mass the priest called the pilgrims who arrived today, by name, and invited them to come forward for a special blessing. What a perfect way to end the day. We feel blessed indeed.   
Early view of Assisi                    
Padre Pio  
City gate
Basilica of St. Francis