We were not sure what to expect from Assisi, as all we knew was that it was the home of St Francis of Assisi (the clue is in the name). St Francis is the patron saint of animals, the environment and Italy. I do admire the saints for handling such a high workload, though St Francis does job-share the patron saint of Italy role with St Catherine of Siena.
As there were Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians on the tour, we stopped at the hauntingly beautiful Commonwealth War Cemetery at Cassino. Soldiers from just five months of World War II were buried here, an astounding number of graves for such a short period of time. We walked quietly along the rows of head stones, so many men, so young and so far from home. The Abbey of Monte Casino overlooks the cemetery from high on a hill, we caught fleeting glimpses of it through a shifting shroud of fog. The monastery was completely destroyed in World War II, then rebuilt exactly as it was prior to the bombardment, using the precise records kept by the Benedictine monks. No one keeps precise records quite like the monks.
Montenaro Senior joined me as I gazed at one of the headstones.
“Just twenty years old,” I murmured.
“We lost a lot of good young men in World War II,” Montenaro Senior said gravely. “You’re lucky you’re too young to remember.”
I nodded in assent and he continued.
“The Thorn Birds is set in World War II, have you seen the Thorn Birds?”
“No” I replied, wishing I had said yes the first time I was asked this question.
“You haven’t seen the Thorn Birds? You gotta see the Thorn Birds.” Montenaro Senior strolled off shaking his head in disbelief.
We drove on through Umbria, regularly being overtaken by red Ferraris. We passed fields of sunflowers and tobacco and brick farmhouses with red tiled roofs. Finally we arrived in Assisi, a medieval city built in pink limestone with steep cobbled streets. Vespas rested against brick walls by wooden doors in arched doorways, flowers overflowed from window boxes on balconies and the sound of bells ringing echoed through the narrow streets. It was just a few days before the feast day of St Francis, (you can drop the ‘of Assisi’ while you’re there), and the city was buzzing with priests, nuns and monks.
Silence is required in the Basilica of St Francis, so we crowded around the local guide outside the Basilica to hear what she had to say. She concluded by telling us that the Basilica was badly damaged by an earthquake in September 1997 during which part of the vault collapsed, destroying a fresco by Cimabue and killing four people inside the church.
“Ok, in we go” she said, leading the way.
I looked at Nato nervously.
“Come on,” he said, “don’t be Assisi.”
The Basilica was magnificent, decorated with colourful Giotto frescoes, intricately patterned mosaics and an elaborately carved rose window. Some of the tourists couldn’t resist the urge to talk and every few minutes one of the monks lifted his head and used the acoustics of the Basilica to boom out “silenzio, shhhhh!” We descended into the cold, dark and eerie crypt and filed past the tomb of St Francis in silence. St Francis was buried here secretly by his brother to prevent his remains being scattered around Europe as religious relics. The next day I was to discover first hand why he did this. In the Basilica of St Anthony in Padua I unexpectedly came face to …er… face with the teeth and tongue of St Anthony on display in an ancient glass case, eek!
We had the afternoon to stroll around Assisi and we managed to get lost. Walking around Assisi is like being in an Escher painting, there are stairs everywhere, the streets all look the same all seem to curve away from you. As we struggled to find our way back, we collected several other couples from our tour group who were in the same predicament. The light was fading but together we eventually made it back to the hotel and celebrated with a drink on the hotel terrace. Contentedly we gazed at the Umbrian countryside spread out before us like a patchwork quilt, tinted gold by the rays of the setting sun.