Wow. I have some catching up to do. And I’m on a European-configured keyboard, too, which should make things interesting since it’s also 2am and I have a few ciders in me. So let’s get started….
First, I’m happy to report that my training program for my marathon began today, and I showed up. Christa and I did a 3-mile together…sort of…turns out I’m not as slow as I say I am and SHE IS. =) But she took me on a wonderful route through a beautiful park, and I’m PRETTY sure I can find my way back to it in the days to come. I kept up an okay pace throughout. So…it has begun. Tomorrow or Wednesday…whichever it becomes…will be a 4-miler (farther than I’ve ever done yet)…another 3 on Thursday, and then FIVE on Saturday. Wish me luck.
Back to the trip. My day in Assisi was great. It was a drag sometimes to be alone…I have NO pictures of myself in Assisi in front of ANYTHING…never did ask anyone to take a picture of me. But I got some great ones of things I saw. I got up early and hit the town with a map…started checking off churches as I saw them. After a while, though, they began to blur.
The first thing I did that morning was find a place to eat breakfast…found a little coffee shop that had tables outside and wound up having a café latte and a god-knows-what with ham and cheese on a tortilla for breakfast…in front of the Basilica of St. Francis. As I said last time, probably my favorite church ever, and that includes the Vatican. It’s just so aesthetically pleasing, including the grounds and the bell tower and the façade and the lawn out front…they have hedges that spell PAX and a red hedge in the shape of a Tau cross…and a beautiful statue of a rider on a horse, both looking exhausted, heads lowered…it was so Camino-like to me that I just fell in love with it.
The inside was spectacular…amazing wood carvings and inlaid-wood work in the choir stalls…vaulted ceilings with whole sections of turquoise-mottled starry sky sections…frescoes all along the walls of scenes from St. Francis’s life…just gorgeous. The lower basilica was beautiful too…lots of side altars and one in particular that had very artistic small metal sculptures in a row, kind of bas relief (?) scenes from the Bible…I really liked that one. I don’t usually like “new” art in cathedrals, but these, and a wooden crucifixion scene up above in the upper basilica, really struck my fancy. I went down to the tomb of St. Francis, too, and it was also neat. The best part was that I was there early…got to take my time, and it was very quiet…the hordes were arriving as I was leaving.
While I was in there, it started to rain…and though it was largely over by the time I left, I bought an umbrella anyway, since I had no way to check the weather, and it was worth 8 Euros to me not to have to worry about the rain anymore. In the next shop, I found my perfect rosary!!! And in the NEXT shop, I found my EVEN PERFECTER rosary!!! This one was EXACTLY what I was looking for…made just for me…the whole reason behind the trip to Assisi…big wooden beads, beautiful carved Tau cross at the bottom…cord-strung instead of chain…and it’s LONG. I LOVE it. So now I have two, ha ha…and I’m not even remotely Catholic. =)
Other churches I saw were St. Chiara (Clare) and San Rufino and a few others…nothing that stood out terribly well, except for the cross that spoke to St. Francis and inspired him to dedicate his life to “repairing” the church…and around noon I headed for San Damiano, about a kilometer and a half outside of town down a STEEP pathway. But I ran into a sign that said it was closed from 12 to 2. So I had two hours and decided to use them to go back to the bus line and head down to the train station, to try to figure out my travel situation for the next day.
On the bus, I met four American seminarians who were in Assisi to learn Italian before beginning a 5-year course of study in Rome (you couldn’t MAKE me leave Assisi for Rome). At the train station, I ran into another American family who were there with their daughter, who was a nun in the Sisters of Light convent in NYC. She was a wonderful girl…and got roped into helping a succession of us at the ticket window, translating between whatever and English and Italian. She was wonderfully helpful…very very kind. Guess that comes with the calling. I managed to book the 11:13 train out of Assisi for the next day…connecting to Venice through Florence. Back to Florence. Sigh. The only train the lady was showing to Vienna, though, was one that left the station at 1:30am and got in at 8:30. I knew there was a slow one that left at 9:30pm and arrived the same time…and was sure I could find it online that night, so I didn’t book that one. Headed back up the hill, satisfied at being able to leave Assisi with some time to spare in the morning. Maybe hit the Basilica for mass or something.
Went back to San Damiano, which was VERY enjoyable…little monastery with a beautiful cloister walk lined with flowers and surrounding an old water well in the middle. On the wall they had a really cool sundial that only looked to have about 4 or 5 markings on it for the time…it was like a giant nail in the side of the wall, and long diagonal lines under it to mark the hours. Inside, they had the spot marked where St. Clare died (St. Francis’s female counterpart, I guess you could say). Again, since I came right as it reopened for the afternoon, I had the place to myself, even for a couple of turns in the cloister walk. And again, by the time I was leaving, the crowds were arriving. (Another stroke of luck…as I descended the hill, a swarm of about fifty French (?) high school students were LEAVING. Heck yeah.)
By the time I got back up the hill, I was shot. I hadn’t eaten and I figure I had walked a good ten miles, all at steep inclines up or down, and kinda just decided to call it a day. It was about 5 by then…went “home” to drop off some stuff I bought, and went back down the hill to hit a pub for some dinner and decided to read for a while on my Kindle…because it WAS my vacation, after all, and what’s better than reading an amazing book in front of some amazingly beautiful cathedral? (Julie and Michelle – I read the entire second half of Catching Fire by the time the day ended, and I cannot WAIT for the third book.) As I said before, I took lots of pictures of passing families and couples, all of whom were very grateful and which made me feel pretty great.
At 8:00pm, the bells started pealing. THAT was an experience. They rang for about five minutes straight…a riot of deep, pure tones, both from the Basilica in front of me and the other churches in town…six or so bells in the Basilica bell tower. I just watched them, fascinated, as they swung crazily up there…the sound was beautiful…and when they finally stopped ringing in earnest, the stray tones as they wound down to rest were beautiful, too…with the bells and the clappers swinging haphazardly, sometimes chiming out a cluster and sometimes just one deep tone…I was enraptured. By then, it was getting too dark to keep reading, so I headed to the pub to write my blog and get to the bottom of the train situation.
AND THE PUB’S COMPUTER WAS OUT. Tragedy. Not about the blog, either…I didn’t have Christa’s contact information. Another stroke of genius from the stupid American backpacker. So, after several unsuccessful attempts to connect to its WiFi with the help of the boy from the pub, I went begging at hotels. Finally, one man allowed me to use his hotel’s computer…free, it turned out (another angel)…and you got the story. … On the way home, it occurred to me how much it was going to suck to have to wait around in Venice till the middle of the night to catch a train that I probably wouldn’t be able to sleep on and that would travel through the Alps overnight when I wouldn’t have a chance to see them.
And suddenly, the light came on. Why not take an earlier train out of Assisi, get to Venice way earlier than planned, and try to do the whole trip in one go?
So the next morning, I packed, not really thinking I’d do it, since I had no idea when an earlier train would come (I thought they were spaced two hours apart, but wasn’t sure). By the time I left the guesthouse (never saw Signiora Maria Alluna Bocchini again, but left her a thank you), it was almost 9am. And I decided the earlier train was probably at 9:13…two hours before mine.
And decided to go for it.
So it was a solo replay of the Camino race to Portomarin, when Christa and I were taking steep downhill roads at a gallop, holding our packs tight…I blew through the streets of Assisi, all the way down the hill, probably a mile, rather steep in places, and burst into St. Peter’s Square, where I gasped at a taxi driver, “How much to the station?” and when he said ten Euros, I flung my bag into the trunk and told him to floor it. AND HE DID. We careened down the hill, screeched to a halt in front of the station a few miles later, and I snatched up my pack and my day bag and my umbrella and gave him twelve and dashed into the station with what I thought was a SINGLE MINUTE to spare…and found that I had half an hour to spare.
Breathe. Coffee at the café. A donut. And then the train.
And that’s what it was for the next 14 HOURS. Train to Florence. Chatting with a Bolivian-Italian in my bad Spanish. Panicking over my inability to ask anyone whether there was a train change along the way to Florence, as there had been on my initial trip to Assisi. No. Awful pizza at the station in Florence. Waiting, dancing from foot to foot, in the mile-long ticket line in Florence, trying to book an evening train to Vienna. Got my Venice train changed to one leaving NOW. Booked a bus-then-train to Vienna, to arrive at 11:30pm. Tried to figure out how to contact Christa to tell her I was arriving 9 hours early. Got on the train to Venice. Met an Austrian named Evelyn who knitted a baby blanket the whole way, chatted with me, and let me use her cell to leave Christa a message. Got to Venice, forced Evelyn to let me buy her a glass of wine in the hour we had before the bus left. Boarded the bus, found we had assigned seats apart from each other, and fell into conversation with two Australian boys across the aisle, Matt and Latham, a history teacher and a nurse. Evelyn and I parted ways when the bus ride ended in Villach, just over the Austrian border. The boys continued with me for two hours on the four-hour train to Vienna, our six-hour nonstop conversation pausing only to stare in wonder at the gorgeous Alps rising around us, straight up out of flat ground into snowy, craggy peaks high above us. Watched the houses change from red-tiled Italian villas to colorful, steep-A-framed roofs nestled into forested hills cut through by sparkling rivers. The boys let me use their cell to text her…she answered (hooray!)…we exchanged Facebook information and they left for St. Michael (got a text from them later that there were apparently several St. Michaels, and the one they went to was NOT the one where they had hotel reservations, but they were already half drunk in a bar that had accommodations, and therefore would be fine, and would possibly see me in Vienna in a few days). Went on another two and a half hours, tried to sleep, failed, finally arrived in Vienna, and tackled Christa on the train platform.
We were up till nearly 3am catching up on what felt like NO time at all instead of two years…we bought Turkish pizza at the station and slowly meandered our way home on the bus and ended up on her balcony, which is DRIPPING with lush petunias of white and pink and purple and red…talking till we couldn’t keep our eyes open another second. I can’t tell you how good it is to see her again.
And even though I haven’t gotten to today yet, I’m going to close now and do another double in tomorrow’s blog…this is getting way long and it’s 3am now. I’ll tell you the rest tomorrow. It’s way past time for bed. Good night….