Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Assisi, Italy

Friends: The hilltop town of Assisi, birth and burial site of St. Francis, is not only a huge pilgrimage site for Catholics world-wide, but also a lure for cyclists in the cities of Foligno and Perugia, both about an hour's ride away, in the valley below. Its three mile climb makes for a good test of the legs.

It was nearly all cyclists early this morning on the steeper of the roads leading to Assisi. I was wondering where all the pilgrims and tour buses were as I pedaled up. Many had spent the night there in the town's multitude of hotels and others were arriving by the gentler of the roads to the town of 22,000, as there were mobs of people already wandering about the town when I arrived shortly after nine.

I was bracing myself for the runaway tackiness of Lourdes, France's premier Catholic pilgrimage site, but Assisi managed to maintain an authentic and tasteful charm. As I overheard an American woman comment, "This is a cute town. I'm glad be came." Not that many Americans come though, as there wasn't a "Herald Tribune" to be seen among the couple of dozen newspapers at the several stores carrying papers.

There are most certainly an abundance of souvenir stores selling gaudy white Assisi t-shirts and all manner of crosses and icons, but the shops are small and inhabit small, centuries old buildings that line the narrow streets. The heart of the city is largely car-free.

There are a handful of significant cathedrals scattered about the town, topped by the grand basilica whose crypt contains the remains of St. Francis. Construction of the church began in 1228, two years after his death at the age of 45. He was a significant enough figure in his time to be granted beatification two years after his death. Pope Gregory IX laid the cornerstone of the church.

One of the other cathedrals, Chesa Nuova, was built in the 1600s by the king of Spain on the spot reputed to be the home of St. Francis' family. St. Francis's father was a wealthy merchant. His wife was French and his affection for her and her country inspired him to name his son Francesco. Early into his adulthood he rebelled against his wealthy upbringing. At church one day he heard the voice of Jesus on the cross urging him to "repair my church." He was happy to have a cause to devote himself to. When he sold some of his father's merchandise to pay for the repairs his father was so fed up with his wayward path he took him to court. His father won the case. Francis stripped off his clothes, walked out naked and fully renounced his father and his former life.

He committed himself to absolute poverty as the path to spirituality. Others were impressed and followed his example. He ranged as far as Egypt preaching his interpretation of the word of Jesus. He was said to be a man of eloquence and good cheer and kindliness. His prime tenants were poverty, chastity and obedience. He relished pain and suffering. He would have made a good cyclist. There are times when climbs go on longer than a cyclist would like or become insufferable in the heat of the day, that make cycling seem like true penance. As a cyclist he would have ample opportunity to question why he was subjecting himself to such painful efforts when he could so easily travel otherwise. As a Christian he could keep himself going by saying it was an opportunity to prove himself worthy of his god.

The huge basilica and the town of Assisi are so distinctive, much of it constructed with a white stone that positively glows, that it qualifies as a World Heritage site. The town of Urbino, less than 50 miles to the north, is another. I'll be there first thing tomorrow morning.

The World Heritage sites have been coming in clusters. I saw three in one day around Naples and another three in one day around Rome. The Naples set was Pompeii, Naples' city center and the Palazzo Real. Rome's were the Colosseum, a Benedictine Monastery at the hilltop village of Tivoli twenty miles outside of Rome and Villa Adriana, the ruins of Emperor Hadrian's summer residence just below Tivovli. I was only able to skirt the perimeter of of Villa Adriana as I arrived after closing time. A street in front of it was named Youncear, for the woman who wrote an exemplary novel on Hadrian. I'm not sure, though, why a street in Agropoli, back down the coast a couple of hundred miles, was named for Frank Zappa.

With it warming up an increasing amount of my calories have been coming from peach and pear nectar. They taste great and seem to be a high-octane and very cost-effective fuel that my body very easily assimilates and has come to crave. I've been downing several one liter bottles a day. One super-market chain carries a peach/mango combination that tastes so good I could guzzle a gallon at a time. The mango additive makes for fewer calories, only 500, compared to 580 for the straight nectar. I don't recall seeing such juices in France. I'll have to look closer.

Later, George

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