The next morning we woke up early for Mass and coffee. (Let’s be honest.) We had memories of the coffee at La Rocca (we had stayed there in 2005 while on retreat in Assisi, too) and so we made the conscious effort to wake up early enough to eat breakfast before heading down to San Francesco for Mass.
(We had seen on a schedule that there was a 7:30 Mass down at San Damiano, but while that sounded wonderful and spiritual and romantic the night before, we knew it wouldn’t sound the same the next day when the alarm went off. So we were practical about things and decided to go to 8:30 at San Francesco instead.)
At times, memories can be deceiving. How often have I been let-down when my memory of something was far better than the actual experience? When repeated, not only is it not as pleasurable as the original experience, the disappointment of dashed expectations makes it displeasing.
This was not the case with the coffee at breakfast. It was just as wonderful as we remembered. Outside, the early morning air was misty and looked cold:
Inside the dining room, the frothy steamed milk and the smooth dark espresso warmed our bodies as much as it warmed our spirits. Crusty bread, ham, cheese, and Nutella… we were ready to face the day.
I mentioned how much I love Assisi at night. I also love Assisi in the early morning. Yet another reason to spend the night.
I like most cities in the early morning — you’ll see in a few days that I love Rome in the early morning, too. There’s something about experiencing a place while the rest of the world is still sleeping.
After checking out of the hotel (they graciously allowed us to leave our suitcases there for the day. Thanks, La Rocca!) we wandered down to San Francesco, stopping along the way to admire the location of Clare’s home, in the piazza of San Rufino, and the small, humble church of San Stefano (whose bells, it is documented, tolled at the death of Francis).
After Mass at San Francesco (we were with a group of pilgrims traveling to Rome for the canonization that was taking place the coming Sunday, so a bishop celebrated Mass and received permission to celebrate the Mass for the feast of St. Francis, something groups get to do in the basilica) we went our separate ways and I headed to San Damiano.
It’s such a special place, I’m going to feel like I’m cheapening it to even talk about it. It’s down a steep hill from Assisi, so treking down there is itself a pilgrimage and a retreat. Romping through the Assisi countryside, past olive groves, the Umbrian countryside displayed in all its wonder in front of you, you pass through the centuries and begin to find yourself in Francis and Clare’s presence.
This is the site that greets you, as you finish your steep journey:
Pictures are not allowed in the chapel, where there’s a replica of the cross that spoke to St. Francis there, in 1205/6. Francis famously rebuilt the San Damiano chapel after hearing Christ’s words, “Go, rebuild my house, which as you see, is falling into ruin” and taking them literally. He would later give San Damiano to Clare, and it would become her home and first monastery.
You can walk through the monastery, seeing the refectory where Clare ate with her sisters, the courtyard and well, and the room where she died (and had the famous Christmas vision, which eventually led to Pius XII making her patroness of television). I had seen the places numerous times, so since a high school trip was walking through when I was there, I was content to stay in the chapel and pray– especially since, after the high schoolers left the chapel to go walk through the monastery, I was completely alone there.
I spent the time to journal a bit, too, reflecting on that constant question in my mind: why am I here?
“When I was praying last night at Santa Chiara, I again thought how crazy this seemed – to spend all this money to ‘vacation’ for no real purpose. But it’s not a vacation. I needed to see all this again. I needed to remember these places. I needed to be recharged. … The smell of the churches – I can’t get over how the streets, the crypts- everything smells the same. I want to weep with how comforting, how beautiful it all is.”
It’s true — I think smell must be a dominant sense for me, because I remember smells and smells greatly affect me. The churches smelled like I remember. The streets smelled like I remember. There’s something about it that immediately brought back memories and was intensely comforting.
(on a side note, it was actually a smell that made me first decide to return to Rome. Last spring, when I was going through a little emotional roller coaster, I was walking down the street in my apartment complex and smelled Rome. I think it was a mixture of the spring air and the creek — and who knows, probably a guy smoking a cigarette and a diesel truck driving by — but something smelled like Rome and took me back immediately to the spring semesters I spent there. And that day I told myself I was going back within the year.)
I had a wonderful thirty minutes of quiet time in San Damiano, where I felt very close to my patroness.
Then I headed back up the steep road. The way up is a lot harder than the way down. : )
The rest of the time in Assisi was spent eating lunch, wandering the streets, and visiting San Ruffino, where Megan stumbled upon a beautiful exhibit of paintings depicting John Paul II at various moments in his life.
When we went back to La Rocca to pick up our bags, they called a taxi for us, and we headed back down the hill to the train station. The train back to Rome seemed to take a very long time, as is expected of a trip like that. I was ready to be home in Rome!
I dislike Termini, the train station, and recent riots made that part of town even less savory in my mind. I was ready to get on a bus and get out of there. So I was a little on edge as we bought our weekly bus pass and waited for the 40 Express, which I figured was the easiest way to get into town.
Unfortunately, the 40 was pulling out as we were purchasing our tickets, and strangely enough, one didn’t come to take its place. Since it’s the terminus for that bus, it was suspicious in my mind that we were standing there for a good half hour with no bus. The natives were getting restless, too. As I looked around, I only saw one bus that wasn’t off or marked “deposito.” I was slowly convincing myself that we were witnessing a bus strike (not a rare occurrence). I was kicking myself that I didn’t know more Italian, although the people around me didn’t seem any more informed and probably would have just shrugged and said, “Boh” if I asked them.
Eventually, after enough natives said angry things and threw their hands up in the air, one of the metrobus employees walked over to a bus that was off, said something to the driver, then turned to us and announced, “Quaranta.” Wha-la! Everyone piled on.
Once we got off the bus at our stop, we had a short tram ride or a walk to the other side of the river, to the region known as Trastevere. Megan voted to walk. So there we were, pulling our suitcases behind us, across the Tiber, down Viale Trastevere, and through the little cobblestone alleys that were to become our neighborhood for the week. I’m glad we walked — we were able to use our nervous energy and glimpse our first glimpse of St. Peters.
I was very happy with where we stayed- the house of St. Frances of Rome. (More about her later.) I love Trastevere, and it was fun to wander through the streets. Okay, well, when we first arrived, it was not so fun to wander with our suitcases. But I only had to ask for directions once! The streets are like a maze, but after a few days we had our landmarks and pretty much had our route down pat.
The lovely Italian young man at reception was so nice and helpful. (I know, it’s his job. And I must have a soft spot in my heart for hotel desk workers. I’m pretty sure I wanted to marry the desk worker at the Sant’Anna, where I stayed with my parents and aunt and uncle. And then I wanted to marry the two young ones at St Frances in Rome. Megan commented that my journal was going to be filled with the Italian charmers that I wanted to marry. :)) He (we never found out his name, sadly) spoke English quite well, although he had a peculiar accent — we wanted to ask him whom he learned English from, because certain words sounded like he was from a particular region of the United States. There was a tiny little elevator (with our suitcases, we had to go up one at a time) up to the third floor, and our room was clean and homey and very typical Italian. (One nice perk was the heated spots in the floor! You have to get used to stone/tile floors in Italian religious houses — not a pleasant thing in the early morning. But these floors were heated! We were living the dream.)
After getting settled, we headed out to St. Peter’s. I had to convince Megan the day before that we didn’t need to take a bus over to St. Peter’s before heading up to Assisi… we were both pretty anxious to be “home” again in that square. So it was, of course, the first thing we did when we arrived!
We walked up the Tiber River as the sun was setting. The starlings were flying around like crazy things, which Megan found fascinating and I found terrifiying. I guess I’m supposed to find it beautiful (it’s called murmuration, for those of you who care. You can see it here.) but I have a serious issue with birds (let’s call it fear) and I was not finding it as fascinating as Megan. Thousands and thousands of birds flying around and roosting in the trees above our heads? Not my idea of a peaceful walk. When it begins to sound like rain? Hm, I’m going to start running. (Megan did get hit by a present that night.) The next morning as we walked that same path to St. Peter’s, we were just early enough to get out on the street before the street cleaner/power washer, and we saw and smelled the effects of the birds that night before. The sidewalks were absolutely covered and it was enough to make you gag. Megan lost all fascination with murmuration.
We were going to get dinner at my dad’s favorite restaurant, Sor’Eva, a lovely place at the foot of the Janiculum hill, but we found that the wait staff was still eating. I knew we would have to begin eating late dinners, but I thought 6:30 would be at least the beginning of dinner time. Nope. So we continued our walk to St. Peter’s Square, to see the sight we had been waiting for– one of my favorite sights in the whole world:
We stood in the Square, looked up at the Pope’s windows, admired some priests in their cassocks, filled up our water bottles, and just took in the moment. Then we headed over to Sor’Eva, where we had a delicious meal — the ravioli Sor’Eva for me (my usual when I go there) and the gnocchi for Megan. Then Megan was craving vegetables, so the waiter brought her over to a big case of their vegetables of the day and had her pick out whatever she wanted. It was quite hilarious to watch — her pointing, him telling her what it was in Italian, him suggesting things to her, etc. There was one vegetable we didn’t quite know what it was, but it looked good to Megan … and he couldn’t get a small clump to separate, so we got the whole garden of it:
If you know what that is, enlighten me. Megan ate her serving. I didn’t eat mine. I stuck with the stuffed breaded zucchini. : )
We took the scenic walk back — the river walk is scenic, but there were too many birds now roosting in the trees above our heads for me to do that walk again. So we walked through Trastevere, taking in the street cafes and the crazy people selling things (glow-in-the-dark cat ears are the newest rage, but bubble guns are still prevalent too) and eventually stopping for gelato at a place that received high marks from me during my tour-del-gelato in 2008: Fior di Luna. I got hazelnut and chocolate and Meg intended to get orange-chocolate and something… but the guy gave her chili-chocolate and something. whoops!
Returning to our home, we got the wireless code from the man at the desk (“I will get it for you immediately!” he announced). The wireless wasn’t accessible in our room, which was a hidden blessing, but it did work well in the hotel courtyard. So we were able to be in some communication with America– just enough! Then I journal-ed and we called it a day. Another day down, but five days left!