Sunday, December 26, 2010

Exquisite Europe * Assisi, Italy (December 2010)

Assisi is the home of St. Francis, patron saint of Italy.  We are quite familiar with the Prayer of St. Francis ("Lord, make me an instrument of your peace...") and also know St. Francis to be the saint of animals and that is why we bring our pets to be blessed on his feast day.

Today, I arrive in Assisi, one of the greatly maintained medieval villages in Italy in the Umbria region.  Honestly, I never related the time of St. Francis to the medieval ages.  When I think medieval, I think King Arthur.  That's what makes this place so interesting.  It is a quaint village up the hill with a medieval castle on the top.

On our way to Assisi from Rome, the views were breathtaking.  You can still catch a glimpse of the sunrise and the horizon was just heavenly. In some parts, it was also foggy as the weather turns cooler away from Rome.  Although it took us a few hours to get there, there was no time to doze off, as the route to Assisi was the most scenic.  We see several medieval villages and castles as we pass through the highway, and large fields of green grass and wheat. Occasionally, you can see little white fluffy balls which turned out to be sheep.  Olive trees also line up the road.  You can really feel that you are in medieval country, barely any modern structures along this route.  On the horizon, you can catch glimpses of snow capped mountains.

Our bus route passes by a place called Terni, which our guide pointed out as the place where St. Valentine's died.  I didn't even know that St. Valentine was from Italy.

Just at the bottom of the hill leading towards Assisi was St. Mary of Angels Church, this is famous in that the Franciscan order was founded here.  After turning, we stopped by the side of the road to get some great photos of the village from afar.  Along the side of the road, there were some red bricks with names engraved on it.  I forgot what these stand for though.

Our first stop was of course the parking lot just at the entrance to the hilltop, which we started our uphill climb on foot to the village. Because it was Christmas time, there was a small nativity exhibit in front of the Basilica of St. Francis, which is a World Heritage Site; and another life-size one at the 2nd level garden just outside of the Basilica. The Basilica was grand. When we entered, there was a small gathering of people attending mass, but we were still allowed to go into the church and look around. On one side of the church, there is a staircase leading down to the crypt, which houses St. Francis' remains. Silently, we headed down to the basement which was really dark. It was a solemn moment, where everyone was walking around silently to pay their respects.

Back outside the cathedral to the side, was the monastery, but we didn't have time to go see it.  We headed to the big garden on the 2nd level and as we were going into the garden, we find another entrance to the Basilica, which basically houses the main church.

The view from the 2nd level was simply breathtaking.  You can see the Umbria region just below and the weather was just perfect.  There were small roads leading up and down through the village, which was on top of the hill.  Small shops selling souvenirs line the roads and signs that lead to four other churches also flooded the cobblestoned streets.  At the very top was a tower, but we didn't have time to go up.

We found a small cafe to grab some lunch, basically prosciutto sandwiches which were the most typical lunch fare you get if you want a quick bite.  I didn't particular like the sandwiches as I don't like cold hard bread. My stomach is also meant for hot food, most often joked as being a Chinese stomach. So I opted for a round muffin-like bread with prosciutto and cheese.  They popped the sandwiches in the microwave which help warm my tummy as we gobbled them down.  We also got some cappucino and sat outside al fresco, even if the weather was really cold and the ice cold metal chairs didn't help.  But it would be stupid to miss the opportunity to sit outside a cafe while you're in Italy.  I also mustered to try the dolci, which looked like a sweet bread with some green paste and raisins.  It looked a little scary with the green paste, but it actually tasted good, much like Apple Strudel.  I later learned that dolci just means dessert and sweets in general.  Italy is also known for its sweet pastries too.

As we were sitting by the cafe, we could hear the church bells ring.  And then suddenly, a nun in her black habit came running out of one of the apartments beside the cafe.  She ran a few steps up the street then suddenly turned around and ran back to the apartment, seems she must have forgotten something.  It suddenly reminded me of a scene in the Sound of Music, where Maria is late for her services, hahaha.

The streets were also lined with small gourmet shops selling olive oil, truffle oil, wine, and basically anything related to Italian food.  There were also small specialty souvenir shops selling anything from rosaries to bags.  There were a couple of establishments that were closed, probably due to the holidays.  We also found a couple of bed and breakfast places.  It kinda reminded me of Santa Teresa in Rio de Janeiro, a quaint Bohemian village where we stayed in a bed and breakfast, while in Brazil.  It also made me think that if I return to Italy, I will definitely stay here for a few days in Assisi and explore more of the village.

On our way back to the bus, I saw a group of nuns in their black habits in a small white car, one was driving.  This may not seem special to the folks in Assisi, but it's cute to see a group of nuns driving around in their car around the roads of the medieval village - a scene that I would probably only see in the movies.  Too bad, they caught me by surprise and I wasn't able to pull my camera up in time to capture the shot.

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