Friday, December 20, 2013

Winter comes to Assisi

A dejected soon-to-be Saint Francis in the snow, returning from war

As some of you know, I've recently returned from a trip to Assisi, where I had the privilege of spending three weeks in November doing research and drinking in all the beauties of that wonderful medieval city.

My husband and I often travel late in the fall, as the crowds are thinner then, prices lower, and the weather wherever we're going is probably going to be better than it is at home (Wisconsin).  This time, though, for the first time I had the pleasure of watching the season change dramatically during the time we were there.

The day we were scheduled to arrive (which is not the day we did arrive, pace United Airlines; if you want to read more about this debacle, see the starred paragraphs at the end), it was supposed to be 70 degrees in Assisi.  By the time we left, things had changed radically, and we were feeling more like this poor fellow:

Statue of friar at Eremo dei Carceri

We were fortunate to have an apartment with a view across the valley, so we could see the weather moving in.  This was ideal for my research purposes, because I was learning about the life of a remarkable woman named Giacoma, and she might well have been a guest in a 13th century palazzo right where our apartment building was, near the cathedral and situated in the neighborhood where the upper crust lived (and a couple of doors down from Saint Clare's childhood home).  So, when I looked out the window and realized I could see Santa Maria degli Angeli down below (that being the vast baroque church that has engulfed the tiny hut that served as the first home for Francis with his early followers), I knew that Giacoma, too, could have looked out her window and would have seen that hut, and could have watched the friars walking slowly up the hill toward her. 

Everything was summery, green, and lovely.  The Basilica of Saint Francis looked like this:

The old amphitheatre area looked like this:

The Rocca, high on its peak, looked like this:

But all that was about to change.  Fortunately, the day we decided to hike up Mount Subasio to the Eremo dei Carceri, another Francis-related place of great interest, we still had decent weather, though it was a long, hard slog anyway (imagine climbing stairs for four and a half kilometers - that's how steep it was).  We could look down on the valley and see the clouds collecting.

 At home, too, things were starting to look a bit more ominous.

And at the Basilica, too:

Then the snow came.  We watched, cozy in our apartment, as it blanketed the area, whiting out our view of the valley.

This was a great opportunity for me.  I could watch how the twisting, winding streets below sheltered some areas and left others exposed.  I could observe people making their way along the street, and from that I could tell how the wind was blowing.  I could watch the storm progress across the valley - at least until the snow filled the air and obscured the view.

This was the first time I ever took notes on a snowstorm!  When we finally ventured out, we found it slushy and a little slippery.  I realized this was a problem Giacoma would not have had, since there would have been much less paving in her day - her main difficulty would have been mud, I suspect.  It was quite nippy, and when I thought of Francis and his brothers in their thin, patched tunics, making their way up and down the mountain barefoot, I began for the first time to realize, just a little, how great were the hardships they chose to endure. 

And now beautiful Assisi looked like this:

Tau cross and the word "PAX" outside the Basilica

Mount Subasio

It was winter.  And we got to see it arrive.  But now we had our view of the valley back, as the sky cleared:

And I had a much better idea of what life in Assisi would have been like for my characters, thanks to our fortunate timing.

I'll leave you with a couple of seasonal images also from Assisi.  Note that the jolly red-clad gentleman is engaging in a most appropriate seasonal activity, namely, reading.

And here's that part about our travel misadventures.  (Warning - rant ahead.)

*The reason we spent the first night of our trip in Newark, New Jersey instead of in Assisi is that United Airlines screwed everything up.  Delays which should have been inconsequential snowballed into bigger delays that were badly handled, misinformation proliferated, and all in all, it was a mess.  As if that wasn't enough, they then proceeded to send our luggage to Munich (Munich?!), where it remained, probably hanging out in a beerhall, for a week.  That left us shopping for socks and underwear in Assisi's street market.  (Thanks, Samuele - my husband loves the Albanian underwear!)

But that wasn't enough.  Oh, no.  Next, they bumped us from our seats on Phase 2 of the return trip (Chicago to Madison), reseating us twenty rows apart.  But before we had even read the email that told us of that, they bumped us from the flight entirely, and told us the flight had been cancelled.  That flight was not cancelled.  They were prepared to just dump us in Chicago, making no further arrangements, presumably because someone had waved money at them for our seats.  When we called from Vienna  they scheduled us on a late plane, leaving about seven hours after our original flight was scheduled to go.  Considering the time we started moving in Vienna, and the time change, that would have meant a travel day of twenty-three and a half hours door to door.  We came home from Chicago on the bus, arriving two hours before we would have left on that late plane.

In this season of peace and goodwill toward mankind, one should not speak ill of an airline company, even one staffed by people who somehow manage to give you misinformation at every turn.  I'm sure that next time it would be much better.  (Of course, the next time we fly United will be when Hell freezes over, so I think we could realistically expect weather-related delays.)

I would just like to point out, however, that "Fly the friendly skies of United" can be anagrammed to read:  "So tired:  nuke filthy fly fiends."  True, you have to add the punctuation and there's an "e" left over, but still. 

Images in this post are all photos taken by Timothy Heath, who holds copyright.

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