“Predicate il Vangelo, e se è proprio necessario usate anche le parole” [“Preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words”] – St Francis
As we may understand by this simple quote, Saint Francis always used to emphasize the importance of actions over words. He rejected wealth and the world’s version of success, and instead chose to love and serve the poor and needy. This authentic lifestyle has led to him being remembered by people of all religions and denominations. In other words, it would appear that Saint Francis has a unifying force that transcends centuries: the dedication he had to love and his loose attachment to the things of this world are inspiring even today. That is the reason why it is really amazing to visit his hometown of Assisi.
We start from the lovely hamlet of Spello on a misty morning to begin our cammino. Sadly we don’t have time to visit Spello itself, as we need to get to Assisi in good time. So we head off on the gray, stony path with the hills of Perugia on our left and Assisi ahead of us. We pass some Italian graffiti on the wall that is more like love poetry, as it translates to: “I love you, and I don’t mind who hears me say that. I will shout it so loudly that even the deaf will get goose bumps”.
Walking this cammino helps me better understand and place Biblical metaphors. Seeing a man pruning his olive trees reminds me of when Jesus said, “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more” (John 15:1-3). We pass sheep, hearing the clink of their bells as they eat from the olive trees, and suddenly the parable of the lost sheep occurs to me: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15: 4-5). Whereas imagining a shepherd searching for his sheep in downtown LA is incongruous, here it feels possible. Imagining a man prune his olive-tree in Studio City is slightly strenuous, but here it is possible.
A sign with ASSISI clearly written on it tells us that we have finally arrived in the area, though it is still quite a way till we arrive in the town itself. It is a relief to be here – our 10km walk has been uphill and it is tough on the calves, especially in the heat of the sun. To mark the final destination of our Cammino Francescano della Marca, we enter the gates of Assisi, singing a song that Luciano teaches us: “Longo è lo cammino, ma grande è la meta! Vade retro satan, vade retro satan!” [“The path is long, but our destination is glorious! Get behind me Satan, get behind me Satan!”]. Luciano explains that many of the pilgrims he has guided – sometimes up to 150 at a time – sing this when they arrive to Ascoli: seeing as we did the cammino the other way round, Assisi – rather than Ascoli – marks the end of our journey together with Luciano, so we bid him farewell as he goes to be with his family. We shall miss him and Maurizio.
As you all know, Saint Francis (1181-1226) was born and died here in Assisi. In 1230, he was then buried in the Basilica di San Francesco, whose first stone had been laid by Saint Damian. The church – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is an absolute beauty to behold. It is gigantic and has many parts to it. There is live streaming throughout the whole of the church, and no pictures or video footage is permitted once inside, so we try to take in as much as we possibly can. Our guides are Francesco and Katharina: Francesco – the president of Assisi Archeologia, an Association for the Promotion of Cultural Archeology – has a good sense of humor and is constantly smiling as he takes us through the basilica. Time is tight, so that it is a whistle-stop tour, but certainly worth it.
The basilica is bursting with color and is all covered in paintings by the school of Giotto (1267-1337), arguably one of Italy’s most famous painters. We go to see the crypt where the tomb of Saint Frances is, and pass into the Upper Basilica where the most famous of Giotto’s depictions of the Saint graces the walls. From floor to ceiling are vibrant frescoes, and towering mahogany chairs line the walls. It is cavernous – the ceilings seem higher than the sky itself.
We have the privilege of seeing an inside slice of Assisi’s culture and community, starting with a recitation of medieval Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi’s poem “Il pianto della Madonna” (“The Lament of the Madonna”). The actors are dressed in black and have no props with them, but their words and expressions are more than enough to bring the 13th century poem to life. Lunch is served in the Sala delle Volte, a marvelous hall just under the main square. Various associations of Assisi’s popular culture and traditions attend, including a group of charming elderly men who belong to the SanAntonio society. After lunch, a medieval theater group performs a sketch for us involving live combat: the most exciting part is when they give us some sword-fighting classes afterward. Then, just before leaving Assisi, we attend a performance that a jazz trio puts on specifically for us at the Piccolo Teatro degli Instabili. The theater is absolutely adorable: it is miniature and hidden away from the business of tourism. Lastly, we also have the time for a very quick tour of the Assisi Civic Museum and Roman Court, which sits at four meters below the central town square.
Back on the bus at 4pm, we reluctantly leave behind Assisi and the beautiful region of Umbria. Then, we have a three-hour drive to Rome awaiting us. As we finally get there and I enter my hotel room, I realize that I am absolutely exhausted from a busy day of traveling and sightseeing. I have extra respect for the people who do the full pilgrimage without a bus to help them with their distances!
All the cammini are together now at the hotel in La Storta. We have dinner at a local agriturismo with magnificent local food from Lazio region, including potato skins and savory dough balls for our antipasto. Tomorrow will be our last day of walking – 14km to the Città Eterna, the Eternal City of Rome, so I must hit the hay!