It is often said pilgrims fall to their knees upon arrival at sacred destinations. An overwhelming feeling of spiritual humility coupled with the physical exhaustion of the traditionally long and arduous journey are certainly cause for collapse. While I am no religious pilgrim and have never completed any such journey, I did experience a rather diluted version of what many refer to as a religious pilgrimage in the numinous hilltop village of Assisi in Umbria, Italia. What began as a simple day trip evolved into a mystical weekend adventure; an ideal story for this magical time of the year.
Assisi is located in the heart of Umbria, roughly one hundred miles southeast from Firenze. This region is far removed from tourist centric Toscana, and is accessible only by il treno regionale. Many people complain about the regional trains in Italia, claiming they are slow and clunky. I, however, find them to be nostalgic and charming, offering a heightened sensory ride through the countryside evoking the bygone days of European travel. In direct opposition to the instantaneity and practicality of seemingly everything contemporary, from the rapidity of downloadable apps to the ubiquitous Segway, il treno regionale forces the traveler to slow down. The metal cars screech to a halt at every small town as the wind howls through the carozza. Far from the realm of WiFi, the traveler to Assisi is invited to read a book, write in a diary and admire the unfolding scenery. And this is precisely how the countryside reveals itself: Unfolding at a methodic pace, as if by a magic lantern. The placid Lago Tasimeno is slowly circumvented and the medieval town of Cortona, Frances Mayes' romanticized locale for her palatable Under the Tuscan Sun, graces the sky.
Unlike the standard blue and white signs found at every train station in Italia, the signs for Assisi are black and white and appear in an Old English Font. Before even stepping onto the platform, I was reminded that this was a special place, much like the signs at the entrances to churches reading Silence and Respect. The train station is removed from the town by a distance of roughly two miles, separated by patches of farmland. Stepping onto the road, I could have easily hailed a taxi, but I decided to walk. Much like a spongy, salmon colored track invites the eager sprinter, the narrow road cutting through the farms welcomes the traveler to Assisi.
Patches of farmland stretched for miles on either side of the road. Elderly farmers tended to their crops. A vecchio three wheel Piaggio Ape glided past. At the foot of the hill, a myriad of inlaid bricks imprinted with names and hometowns lined the ascending pathway. I recognized surprisingly familiar towns, including my hometown in America! I discovered later from a local taxi driver that the bricks were laid after a devastating earthquake struck Assisi in 1997. Individuals who sent money to aid the relief were honored with an inscribed brick.
The taxi driver told me Assisi comes from the Etruscan word to ascend -- and ascend I certainly did. I hiked along the steep road leading to the Basilica of San Francesco. Upon reaching the portal to the Lower Basilica, I, in the spirit of many pilgrims, virtually fell to my knees. After catching my breath, I walked under the beautiful rose window and into the darkened Basilica. What an enchanting sight! The Lower Basilica, with its shallow groin vaults covered in wondrous frescoes by master artists Giotto and Cimabue, is a medieval planetarium, a glittering realm of ethereal angels flickering in candlelight. A chorus of worshipers echoed throughout the Basilica. I strolled along the nave beneath the glorious frescoes. I was overwhelmed by feelings of wonderment. Reaching the crypt of Saint Francis, the venerated namesake of the church, I felt compelled to speak to him. While I have never been a particularly religious person, I was spellbound by the magic of the space, and could not leave with anything less than a gracious grazie.
I walked outside and into the evening sunlight. While I only planned to stay for the day, I noticed the setting sun and decided to spend the night in the quaint hamlet. I discovered an inviting hotel and a friendly young woman at the desk. I asked for a recommendation for dinner and she suggested several trattorie. I walked past the prominent bell tower and ancient Temple of Minerva, a beautifully preserved relic of the town's Roman past, in the main square, Piazza del Comune. I decided upon a charming family owned restaurant just off the piazza. A gracious waiter brought me a glass of vino bianco della casa, sumptuous formaggio con pane and homemade pasta in a lemon cream sauce. Una cena deliziosa!
I strolled through Assisi in the darkness of the November night. Lamp light shadows danced upon the ancient streets. Square ceramic tiles inscribed with the Latin Pax et Bonum (Peace and Good -- the motto of Saint Francis) adorned many doorways. On one cobblestone road perched high above the Umbrian countryside, a cat dozed in a pool of orange light. A clowder of cats coalesced. I gasped upon my realization that Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals. Alone on the road, I froze. A cat, black as pitch, scampered towards me. "Sheba?" I involuntarily uttered. This cat did not merely resemble my beloved Sheba -- my cat who attempted to jump into my bassinet as an infant; my cat who purred to the marvelous aria Un bel dì from Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly; my cat who sat beside me while I watched hours of Nickelodeon; my cat my father buried in the backyard alongside the pretty Rose of Sharon shrubs -- this cat was Sheba. I knelt down and she jumped into my lap. Purring and licking my hands, the cat seemingly knew me. I have known many cats in my life, and none have ever acted so affectionately. I sat in the medieval road with the cat in my lap that brisk night for nearly twenty minutes. A car's headlights peered over a dip in the road and the cat darted into the darkness.
I cannot help but believe the cat was a gift from Saint Francis, a magical reunion with my beloved Sheba sent from the patron saint of animals himself. Perhaps it was recognition for making the pilgrim's journey up the hill and praying at his altar. Or perhaps it was a coincidence, a chance encounter with a friendly feline. While I am not one to preach superstition or religious gospel, I cannot dispute the ethereal qualities of Assisi. It is a special place, a Shangri La found deep within the enchanting countryside of central Italia, a place where a loving reunion between a boy and his pet is not merely believable, but assumed.