europe day 15: assisi porziuncola, bosco di san francesco

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For a change we were out relatively early, caught the 10.10am bus to Santa Maria degli Angeli near the train station. This was the site of Porziuncola, a church that was already standing in St Francis’ and St Clare’s time. This was the second church rebuilt by St Francis. The original church was still standing, a tiny sacred stone building with a simple altar and single pews. Over the small church in the 1500s they built the basilica which had many small chapels and ornate decorations. We went into a chapel for prayer, and, as per our experience so far this trip, the chapel filled with people and all of a sudden organ music rang out and we found ourselves participating in a mass. It was quite nice, even though we couldn’t understand any of the Italian.

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There was a lot to see at the rest of the cathedral. The various chapels, a rose garden, sculptures of St Francis and a statue of St Clare dedicated by mm’s mum’s school. It was quite moving to see the name of the school so prominently displayed amongst an exhibit showing St Clare’s life. There was also a small cinema and we caught a 10min film about the church and its significance in St Francis’ life. The Porziuncula attracts many pilgrims because St Francis obtained the Indulgence of Pardon, or total forgiveness for all temporal sins, from Jesus here.

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Lunch at at nearby café of pizza, pasta and salad. Caught a bus back to near St Francis Basilica so we could visit the Bosco di San Francesco, or St Francis’ Woodlands. This was where he went to pray and experience nature. There was a 1.5km trail to a small church Santa Croce, then another 2.5km roundtrip to Terzo Paradiso (three paradise), an art installation of 3 circles made from an olive grove. The hike was pleasant if quite long. Since the path from the basilica entrance to Santa Croce closed at 4pm we had to return to town via a tarmac road. On the map it looked less than the 1.5km trail but the map didn’t show that it was all uphill. We got back into Assisi proper past 6pm.

Refuelled with water and gelato. Bought tomatoes and peppers from a small greengrocer’s and wandered into a gourmet shop wanting porchetta panini. We got our porchetta sandwiches, the friendly shopkeeper gave us parma ham to try and we ended up buying a few slices which she packed in vacuum. Perfect to bring back for the family. Dinner was late, almost 8pm, in our room. Laundry was dry, suitcases packed for the next leg of our trip. Rome and the Vatican over Easter. I’m excited for the occasion but very wary of the potential crowds. We met a young Father from Michigan here at the retreat house and he says he will be at Easter Sunday mass too and they anticipate 50,000 or more people. Yikes.

europe trip day 14: assisi basilica san francesco, rocca maggiore

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We finally found the wifi password at the retreat house and spent the morning catching up, uploading and posting. Also took time to do laundry so it wasn’t until around noon that we set off. The first destination today was Basilica di San Francesco, the largest basilica and the primary attraction of Assisi. The basilica consisted of the lower basilica built in 1230 and the upper basilica built in 1239, together with other buildings dedicated to St Francis, St Clare, St Anthony and many other saints. We waited till after the weekend, hoping for thinner crowds. There were plenty of visitors still, although the complex was big enough for there to be space between groups.

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The iconic entrance to the lower basilica through a sloped pavement was like steps taken by pilgrims. The façade of the upper basilica overlooked a lawn with a statue of St Francis on horseback. Both basilicas were extensively painted with frescos and paintings depicting the life of St Francis. The lower basilica led to the tomb of St Francis, a sacred place. There was also an exhibition of Franciscian manuscripts.

While we were at the upper basilica, a group of teenagers and their teacher stood respectfully in front of the altar and broke out into song. Afterwards, we found out that they were a choir group from Minnesota on pilgrimage. The acoustics of the basilica was such that the song seemed to echo and reverberate around all of us who were there at the right place at the right time. Some of the kids were so overcome with emotions that they were in (happy) tears at the end of the spontaneous recital. As a bonus, photography wasn’t allowed inside the basilica, but with the choir singing, everybody took the opportunity to take pictures or videos without being scolded by the staff.

All in all, an interesting and meaningful visit. Almost all of Assisi was full of St Francis or St Clare, it was like we couldn’t turn around and there was another place where they were born / prayed / baptised / lived. Everywhere were stories. Every wall had a dedication. I could see why pilgrims flock here. Am I overwhelmed? Not necessarily by the spirituality, but by the sheer preponderance of everything associated with the saints. It’s like being immersed in saintliness.

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Quick late lunch of average pizza at the most unfriendly place this trip—the silver lining was free loo and free wifi. Hiked uphill to rocca maggiore, the highest point of Assisi and a fort located on the remains of defensive walls. We debated whether to shell out the €5.50 entrance fee and since we made all the effort to trek there, seemed a waste just to turn back. What appeared to be old walls made up of piles of rocks turned out to be really interesting. A dark, hidden doorway led via a spiral staircase up one of the towers. The walls were too high for us to see much.

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A secret passageway from the first tower ran underneath the walls and came out at to another tower, this one with breathtaking 360º views of Assisi, from the rocca minore furthest east, to San Ruffino Cathedral, Basilica Santa Chiara, almost the entire town and the Basilica San Francesco. It was quite scary as the fence was open, so eventually my fear of heights kicked in.

Like last night, we bought porchetta sandwiches to enjoy in our room while we relax in peace and quiet. Last day tomorrow, still have a lot planned.

europe day 13: assisi palm sunday, san damiano

The clocks changed overnight, and we thought we would pre-empt by manually setting our iphones but somehow they updated themselves so we woke up way too early at 6.30am. Sat in chapel for a bit then back to our room to wait for 7.30am breakfast. Similar continental food as Florence retreat house. We noticed all (seriously, 100%) of the other guests were American, and the sort who: a) talk loudly even at 7.30am; b) talk loudly about themselves, about their faith, about how even they were the only member of their family who was Catholic, about how coming to Assisi for pilgrimage utterly change their lives; c) were quite demanding to the sisters and staff. Some stereotypes are true.

One of the sisters told us about the events today, Palm Sunday. We headed to the main square at just before 9.30am where a crowd had gathered around baskets of olive branches. We picked out a nice bunch each and waited for the fathers to appear and bless the branches. Mostly olive branches although there were a few palm fronds. After the blessing, there was a procession towards the Cathedral San Ruffino. The choir leader sang us up the hill and into the cathedral. The mass was in Italian and I was able to follow at least the procedures, if not the words. We could follow the Gospel because mm had it on her iphone. Mostly the mass was similar in structure to what we were used to. Afterwards a few nice gentlemen in official looking grey overcoats took pictures with us. We stayed behind after the mass to take pictures of the cathedral.

Early lunch at a sandwich shop next to the cathedral of torta with rocket & ricotta and pancetta & mozzarella. Back to the retreat house to deposit our olive branches and take a rest. The next stop was the long walk (1.5km) to San Damiano, the sanctuary where St Francis heard the voice of Christ and where St Clare established a convent. A crisp cold morning had turned into a glorious blue sky day. The sanctuary was locked when we got there, and we were afraid it was closed. But people kept appearing and sitting patiently outside on benches. It was 1.55pm so we figured it might open at 2pm. Yay, we were right!

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It was free to enter and we walked through the chapel, dormitory and cloisters. Supposed to be silence and no photography but people were taking pictures at will and this woman was talking on her phone (thought she got shushed).

A longer walk uphill back to town. Really tired so found a café and ordered a large bottle of water plus snacks of pizza and pasta. Further visits to S. Maria Maggiore and San Pietro churches. The churches were beginning to blend into each other. And it seemed everywhere we turned, it was someplace St Francis stayed at or did something. I guess it’s par for the course.

Souvenir shopping led us to St Francis Basilica. It was getting late and our plan was to visit it tomorrow. Not a huge amount of choices for dinner so we bought porchetta sandwiches and headed back to our room to relax and have an early night.

europe day 10: florence

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Leisurely breakfast. Laundry after breakfast too, the sisters charged us a nominal €1 to use their laundry facilities, there was plenty of room in the garden to hang our clothes to dry.

Walked to the Basilica di Santa Croce, the biggest franciscian church in Florence. The entrance fee was €6 and it was worth it, there was a lot to see. Aside from the main area, there were rooms and corridors full of art and artefacts, including many that were ruined by the 1966 flood and carefully restored. The church is also the final resting place for MIchaelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and other prominent people.

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I enjoyed visiting the church, but got a bit impatient. We would go to a particular spot, an altar, a painting or something interesting. It’d take me a couple of minutes to look at the object and take a picture. Then I’d have to stand there for another 10mins waiting for mm, who seemed to read, look, appreciate and photograph every.single.thing with excruitiating slowness. We definitely have to compromise going forward. Sigh.

It was past 2pm by the time we came out of the basilica. I had plans to go to Piazza Michaelangelo across the river, but obviously the plan disappeared. We still had to find lunch. The first place, near palazzo vecchio, was way too touristy for our liking. We found a trattoria slightly off the main squares. It was still touristy, with some locals inside. Their lunch menu was until 3pm, so we took advantage of it. I had chicken liver crostini and mm had grilled vegetables. For mains we had veal scalloppine. Everything was good, the scalloppine was underseasoned, as if the chef forgot salt. Their bread was the best we’ve tasted in all of Italy. They made their own pizza and we noticed they made their own bread too. For dessert we shared a cheesecake with strawberries and cream.

More walking. Had a small gelato (mint and yogurt for me, mint and lemon for mm) and got a few things at the supermarket. Back at the retreat house at around 6pm. Still full from lunch, no need for dinner.

europe day 07: florence

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Woke up at 7am, mm wanted to go to early morning mass with the nuns. I didn’t go, but I got up anyway. We had breakfast at the dining room of the retreat house—bread roll, cereal, yogurt. We then explored around the house, gardens and chapel, everything was immaculate with a sense of peace. The furniture admittedly were older, made the place even more charming.

The distinctive Duomo was around 15mins away. There were queues for both the dome and the cathedral so we walked on towards San Lorenzo and the Mercato Centrale. Just the right time for an early lunch. The second floor of the market had about 10-12 artisan food stalls, we opted for a plate of mixed cold cuts & cheese from one and spaghetti pomodoro from another. I had a glass of rosé as it was the same price as coke.

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From the market we walked past the train station, Santa Maria Novella church towards Piazza Republica. Checked out the hard rock café and the market nearby. Lots of leather goods and souvenirs, also quite sticky salespeople. Followed the crowd to reach Palazzo Vecchio and the copy of David at the entrance.

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Where the crowd was thickest was at Ponte Vecchio. Around the bridge and on the bridge. Not inside the jewellry shops on the bridge though. Across the river we ambled towards Palazzo Pitti and Biboli gardens. Didn’t go inside, we weren’t that interested in the art in the palace and €10 for just the gardens didn’t seem value for money. We were pretty tired so had tea at a small coffee shop opposite the palace. One street over and we were at Santo Spirito church. Free entrance, so we went inside. It was quite nice, the main attraction was Michaelangelo’s wooden crucifix. We walked around the interior that had lots of art (didn’t know how to appreciate though) and sat for a little while.

From south of the river, we walked slowly back towards our retreat house. On the way we stopped at a religious store near Duomo. We were looking at the figures at the window when the sister inside waved us in. The store was run by nuns from a religious order. We were drawn to wood carvings of Mary and baby Jesus that was handmade by one of the sisters at their order. Quite expensive, but after some thought, we decided that they were worth it. Very beautiful pieces. The sisters at the shop were so friendly, we even took pictures together. We won’t forget Sr Stefanie, who spoke English and have travelled around the world, for a long time.

Dinner was at a taverna near the retreat house—caprese salad, grilled vegetables, pici cacio e pepe. It’s the first time we tried cacio e pepe pasta, and even though it’s a Roman speciality, the one here in Tuscany was very good. I had 250ml carafe red wine that was only €3, which was cheaper than coke. I think I’ll end up drinking a fair amount of house wine in Italy.

Walked a lot today, probably 3-4hrs. Helped burn off all the good food and wine.

christmas concert at the cathedral

I went to the Christmas concert at Westminster Cathedral earlier this evening. There are 2 concerts, tonight and tomorrow night. I just got the £10 tickets, and ended up sitting at the last row. Doesn’t matter, I could still hear the choir and the readers.

It wasn’t a mass, just the cathedral choir and a few readings. No communion although there was a Blessing and the Archbishop of Westminster said a few words. Finally I’m beginning to feel a little Christmas-y. Most of what the choir sang I didn’t know, although I liked them (except the Bach one in German that went on and on and on). There was audience participation with a few traditional carols like Once in Royal David’s City and O Come All Ye Faithful. One of the best readings was Peter Bowles reading the poem Christmas by John Betjeman.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

santa lucia day

Santa Lucia (or St Lucy’s) Day is celebrated in Sweden and other Scandanavian countries on 13 December. Thursday I went with J&R to the harcourt arms, opposite the swedish church for a short Santa Lucia Day recital. The main attraction was the choir singing the santa lucia song. The girl at the top of the procession wears candles on her head representing the fire that refused to take her life when she was sentenced to be burned.

big trip day 10

Washington DC: National Shrine, Air & Space Museum, American Indian Museum, International Spy Museum

We planned the day well, were off by 7.30am. The main destination in the morning was the National Shrine, full name the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. We took a metro to Brookland CUA station and walked through the Catholic University of America to reach the shrine.

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The Basilica is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and there were smaller shrines inside for many incarnations of Mary. We were early and pretty much had the place to ourselves. So many photo opps, the main church was beautiful, and the crypt also.

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At the back of the basilica was the peaceful and pretty Mary’s garden.

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From the Basilica we took the Metro and stopped off at the Spy Museum to buy tickets for later in the day. Admission was $16 and organised by time. We got the 5pm tour so we had plenty of time to explore.

It was still mid-morning, and it was off to the National Air & Space Museum, the most visited of all the Smithsonian museums. It was not hard to see why, from the moment I entered into the huge bright lobby I was overwhelmed by life-sized planes and rockets. We were conscious of the time so I whizzed through the galleries as efficiently as I could. All the historically important crafts were there, from the Kitty Hawk to the Spirit of St Louis to Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega to Apollo 13 to models of the shuttle to a simulation of the bridge of an aircraft carrier.

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Remember the American History Museum was closed? They took a small (150 exhibit) selection and placed them in one of the Air & Space’s galleries. There was a little bit of a queue to get in, but it was worth it to see, among others, Dorothy’s shoes and Abraham Lincoln’s hat.

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We finished a little later than our intended schedule, at 1.30pm. Next stop was the American Indian Museum next doors. Now here’s a comment about “next doors” — on the map the museums along the Mall look like they’re close together, but given the size of those buildings walking between them could be 10 minutes.

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The American Indian Museum is the newest museum, with a beautifully curved exterior design that strangely reminded me of Easter Island. The interior design was based on a curved central atrium and there was hardly a sharp angle or straight line in place.

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Well put together exhibits showed history, culture and costumes.

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And so it was almost 5pm. We got to the International Spy Museum with enough time to sit at the spy city café to have a drink and snack. Photography wasn’t allowed in the spy museum, which actually was great, because I could play around with the exhibits. It was an interactive museum, with gadgets to play with, ciphers to decipher and even a mock duct for us to crawl through. Educationally it traced the history of spying from early times to the Cold War and current issues with terrorists. There was even a section dedicated to spies in TV and movies. Lots of videos, interesting exhibits and wonderful theme. Before we came to DC, this was my “gotta see” museum and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m hoping I get to visit again and next time I’d like to participate in the Operation Spy game.

It was still light out when we got back to the hotel. Didn’t really feel like dinner so we snacked on nachos and chocolate while packing. Good trip.