My Favourite Place
It emerges in the distance like a mirage, far off on a hill in the heart of Italy, in the magical region of Umbria. A mediaeval city first Christianized in 238 CE, Assisi is an unexpected oasis.
I first heard about Assisi in the early 70s through the glorious film called Brother Sun Sister Moon, written and directed by Franco Zeffirelli. The film is a living, moving tapestry or painting. It tells the story of the life of Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone who was canonized in 1228. He became better known as St. Francis of Assisi. The words to the title song of the film were among many written by gentle Francis. Donavan composed and recorded some of the songs, including the haunting one used in the film.
Francis was the son of a cloth merchant. He went off to war in 1204 and was imprisoned. While there he had a vision, which brought him back to Assisi. There, he felt compelled to give up his wealthy worldly life. In 1208 he founded the Order of Friars Minor, or the Franciscan Monks. I will never forget an overwhelming scene in the film: six tattered brown-robed, bare footed, young hermits walk through the pomp and gilded glory of St. Peter’s in Rome seeking audience with the Pope. The film continues to resonate with me, exploring the unfathomable desire to transcend the mundane and discover enlightenment.
Husband and I first journeyed to Assisi in the mid 80s. It is impossible to explain the feeling of utter wonderment as one walks through the up-hill climbing, narrow, meandering, ancient cobbled streets lined with enchanting stone homes and gardens, and finally reach the piazza at the top which houses, among others the Basilica di San Francesco. The panoramic view of the valley below is breath taking.
I traveled again to Italy and Assisi in 2009, my first adventure alone as a widow. On that tour I was seated with a woman whose life circumstance was similar to mine. She had just lost her husband the year before. I asked how she could come alone, so soon. Ann’s swift response in her delightful Long Island accent was simply: “unfinished business.”
We were staying in a charming hotel, near the top portion of Assisi. It allowed us to be near the sites. At 5:00 pm the church bells sound and the pageantry of men in all kinds of costumes do a walk about. We wandered the streets full of shops and other attractions, including a peculiar sight. It was a robed figure, standing at a stone-wall-opening with a strange smirk upon his face. I asked if I could take his photo ‒ he was Jesus after all. Ann and I ran down the street laughing uncontrollably. Didn’t he know he was in Assisi and should have been St. Francis?
The following afternoon, we were going to visit the inside of the Basilica. There was a guide who, as some guides go, had a tremendous need to describe every single fresco on that floor, including the complete history of the depicted events, and every colour used and every stroke taken and every bit of restoration over the years. It was nearly 5:00 pm. In near panic, Ann admitted that the “unfinished business” she needed to take care of was to visit the crypt of St. Francis. Her husband’s name had been Francis; on the very day we were there, would have been his birthday. The crypt was to close at 5:00 pm -sharp. We hurled ourselves down many uneven, stone steps and finally reached the crypt. Ann prayed. I marveled. The essence of Francis permeated a warm glow within the gloomy, cold marble surroundings. I’ll never forget the experience or Assisi.
From Echoes of Footsteps