27 September 2013 Friday – Assisi

Back before our trip, when I first told Fabio we were planning to rent a car and drive around Italy, he tried to talk me out of it. “It's much too dangerous,” he said. That was reinforced a couple weeks later when I talked with my friend Ali Wylie. She said, “There's an old saying here: drive in Naples to die.” I relayed this all to Kathy and tried to get her to rework our schedule to use the trains. After much debate, we decided on a compromise: we would still rent a car, but only after we left Rome. She said I wouldn't have to drive in the city, “much.” Well, except for the fact that we'd have to drive from inner city Rome to the freeway that takes us out of town.

I was originally planning to walk to the car rental place—about a half-mile drive—then drive to the apartment and pick up my companions and their luggage. After walking around Rome for a few days, watching the chaos and cacophony of cars, scooters, motorcycles, trains, buses, trams and taxis—and sometimes dodging them in the streets—everyone, including Kathy, was very nervous of my driving in Italy. We decided that even a half-mile was too much inner-city driving. Our revised plan was to take taxis with our luggage to the rental car company near our apartment, then I'd drive directly to the freeway and head out of town toward Assisi.

There were still some formidable problems to surmount: First, despite the fact that the freeway entrance was only a few blocks away from the rental car place, it's an enormous tangle of roads going in circles and loops. One false turn and we're all in the blender.

Second, all the traffic signs are in Italian. That's okay for basic instructions like stop and do not enter, but road signs are another matter entirely.

Third, Rome traffic itself is insane. To make matters worse, the maps were nearly useless; they showed a tangle of freeways on top of other roads, with no clues how to navigate them.

At one point, Skip asked which rental car company we were using. Kathy said, “Hertz Car Rental.” Frank joked, “Did you say 'Hearse Car Rental?'” and we all laughed.

After signing a lot of paperwork, Hertz handed over the keys to a Ford Galaxy minivan. We took lots of photos of the car—every scratch, dent and blemish—to have proof that we didn't cause it. Then we nervously hit the road.

Using 5 percent maps, 60 percent intuition and 35 percent prayer, I managed to take all the correct turns and navigate the spaghetti and we made it safely to the freeway and we were on our way!

I drove to the town of Deruta, which someone had told us is the best and cheapest place to buy ceramics. We ate lunch and then Frank and Mitzie bought a decoration for their house and had it shipped home.

I drove without incident to Assisi, which took a couple hours. As we approached the city, we could see the monastery sitting on the side of the hill; it was very picturesque.

We drove the twisty roads that led up the mountain, then parked in the parking ramp and walked up the huge hill to the monastery.

This was the monastery where Saint Frances of Assisi lived. I've always been a fan of Saint Frances. I even quoted him in my novel, The Gospel According to Mike:

Saint Francis was right. It is through giving that we receive. It is through pardoning that we are pardoned. It is through dying that we are born to eternal life. But here are some things he did not say: It is by closing our eyes that we begin to see. It is by abandoning ourselves that we find who we really are. It is by loving others that we are loved by them. It is by giving up our expectations that our expectations are met. It is by emptying out our souls that our souls are filled. It is by non-attachment that we gain the only attachment worth having.”

The monastery was very interesting. Unfortunately, once again, they didn't allow us to take photos, except for outside.

I was starting to get annoyed that I couldn't take photos. As I said before, I've been to Italy once, but it was in 1989, when we didn't have a digital camera. One of my main justifications for coming back is that I can get some digital photos of the trip. If I can't take photos, it defeats the purpose.

The best part of the monastery is that it has the tomb where St. Frances is buried, in a small chapel. That room had an incredible amount of power. You could just feel the vibrations of that place. I sat for a long time there and just meditated while repeating a mantra I made up on the spot: “Dear God, bring me to the divine light of your presence.”

Afterward, my inner voice started a short discourse, some of which I wrote down. It said:

“Are not all men and women born of the same Spirit? We are all forged by the fires of life. And in the end, we are judged by who we are inside.”

Frustrated at not being able to take photos inside, we compensated by taking photos outside.

As we walked away from to the monastery to the main streets of the town, I noticed a beggar. I wasn't sure if he was worshiping, on a genuine pilgrimage, or whether he was expecting handouts. One thing was for sure: he had dirty feet.

After seeing the monastery, we walked up and down the streets of Assisi, which was very old-world and very pretty, with narrow roads and stone houses with flower boxes and tiny doorways.

The town has a lot of tiny shops selling trinkets, postcards, t-shirts and religious artifacts to tourists. I found a t-shirt I really liked, and bought it.

One shop had a plate with a painting of Padre Pio! That's something that would never happen in the United States. The vast majority of people there don't know who Padre Pio was. He was a bilocating saint. In other words, on several occasions he was seen in multiple places at the same time, by many eyewitnesses. The Catholic church wasn't real happy about that; he was a threat to their monopoly on power. They put him in a very remote monastery and told him to be quiet. It was only after his death that they decided to make him a saint.

We saw the temple of Minerva, which had been converted into a church.

The temple still has holes in the floor from an ancient time when people were sacrificed to the Roman gods.

We also saw a church of the “Poor Clares,” which is a group of nuns that were closely linked to the Franciscans.

We turned and started back, and as we headed back down the street, I noticed there was a castle at the top of the hill nearby. It was beautiful.

The sun started to set and the lighting became perfect. So I gave Kathy the better camera and sent her running back down the streets to get a better photo of the monastery with better lighting. Unfortunately, the angle of the sun was bad, so it only managed to make the building too back-lit. It was still pretty, but it would have been better from the bottom of the mountain.

After we were done in the town, we drove in the dark to our hotel. It was quite a challenge. It was up tiny, twisty streets. At some point, we discovered that the directions Kathy had downloaded from google were missing every fifth page, which meant were were missing quite a few steps in the process. We had our GPS (which we call “Jill”--long story), but it wasn't much help because it seemed like it kept leading us astray until we stopped its guidance and just used it for its map. We also had a printed map, but it was nearly impossible to determine where we were because we couldn't read the street signs in the dark.

When we got to the hotel, everyone was relieved. They congratulated us for finding the hotel in the dark. It was quite a feat: a unique combination of luck, intuition, technology, and prayer. It was also late and by then we were very hungry. Luckily, the hotel had a restaurant that was still serving food. I ordered a pizza and it was much bigger than expected.