Montreal-Munich-Roma-Assisi (Sept 2)
Greetings from Termini station in Roma. I’ve got some time on my hands before the train for Assisi, so I thought I would write this message and send it when I next have access to the internet.
The flight from Montreal to Munich was quite good! Lufthansa was excellent. The service was very gracious. Business class is certainly the way all travel should be. I sat next to a woman from Montreal who was also going to Rome, on the same flight as me, and also on an Aeroplan award ticket, and probably equally excited as I was of being there. We spent the first 15 minutes figuring out all the “goodies” that Business has to offer… the special seat which at the press of a button can put you in every conceivable position…. Except flat! I’ll explain later. The video, the amenity kit, etc. We started off with some Champagne and then the menu. I had a smoked salmon entrée, followed by paella of shrimp, scallops and lobster. The rice was rather overcooked… more like risotto, but the seafood was better than I have had in a lot of restaurants!!! Some German wine and then a glass of Port with the cheese course, of course!
I started watching a movie when I realized that this being only a 7-hour flight I had better get some sleep before we have to land. So I pressed the “sleep” button on my seat. The mechanism begins to move and shake and the whole seat basically, like a transformer toy, makes itself into a bed. It lowers the whole seat, flattens out, and lowers down and down and down, until I thought I was going to be next to my luggage down below. Once it is totally flat the seat angles itself at the feet so that you your feet are low enough for the person at the window seat to be able to crawl over you. Thus some people hate this seat because they tend to slide down due to the angle. I found it quite comfortable. Big blanket and big pillow, eyes shades and good night!
Breakfast came too soon. Ham, cheese, eggs, etc. And before you know it we were in Munich.
The flight to Rome was on a small Avro jet. Again, my eyes closed for a moment and we were landing in Rome.
At Fiumicino I took the Leonardo Express. The self-service tickets were great! The train was a bit dirty… but who cares. Upon arriving at Termini I felt rather lost. I did not recognize it. There were no stores, no cafes etc. Then when I followed the path to my binario… which meant walking half way to the Vatican and back I found the part of Termini that I knew and made my way upstairs to the local AutoGrill for a cool Chino (or Brio, as we know it in Canada).
So, it’s 10:30 am and the train leaves at 12:12. I’m hot, now I have to go to the bathroom and I’ve got more luggage than Imelda Marcos. Now what do I do?
Thank you St. Anthony. On the upper floor of the Termini Station I found a nice clean bathroom. There was a charge of .70Euros, but it was worth it. I then made my way to the main part of the station and discovered an air-conditioned waiting room for passengers. Hey, that’s me! So I was able to wait the rest of the time feeling “cool”. The train ride to Assisi was uneventful except that the train was not particularly clean, despite being in 1st Class and the bathroom was particularly dirty. Gross! The good thing about the train was that the rocking back and forth assured me of a nice nap.
Assisi (Sept 2)
I can’t recall ever being quite as happy as I was when I arrived in Assisi. I really enjoy bringing pilgrims to discover the Spirit of Assisi. But, there is something amazing about being here without a group, with nothing to do, no agenda but only the freedom to roam around at leisure, pray, meet some friends and breathe in the spirit of this place. It is very special.
In Assisi I really enjoy the winding streets, steep at times, ok, often, which take you to unexpected little sanctuaries, piazzas or scenic views. One of my favourites spots is the piazza of the Chiesa Nova which has a statue in honour of St. Francis’s parents. The parents fought about allowing Francis to follow his calling and Francis had a falling-out with this father. The statue depicts a couple re-united in their pride for the favoured son of Assisi.
I had dinner with some friends from Toronto who are town and have rented a floor of a house near the Cathedral of San Rufino. It is called Palazzo Minciotti. The flat comes with access to an amazing garden, and small pool. Incredible in Assisi. It is perfect for a family. We shopped at local shops for meat, vegetables and pasta. It was great. Dinner was followed by some gelato at the Piazza and some grappa! Wow, what a meal. Italians live to eat, and so did we!
Assisi (Sept 3)
Today, I showed my friends the Basilica of St. Francis. I have given a few tours of the Basilica and so was able to highlight a few things they should note. The Basilica now has a system where you can get an “audio guide” for a small offering and it helps you discover the church. We were lucky and found that the “treasury” was open. This contains important Franciscan “relics” such as the habit of St. Francis, the Rule of the Order, the Blessing of St. Francis, written in his own hand, the horn given by the Sultan to ensure Francis safe passage during the crusades and more. On the way back to the Piazza del Commune (main square) we stopped at a local art gallery and bought an amazing work of art for our church in Toronto. It’s a painting on glass depicting Francis praising God with the Umbrian valley in the background and many doves flying around. It will be part of our tribute to the many people who have made the Spirit of Assisi possible in our parish.
My favourite spot is of course the tomb of St. Francis. It’s a really quiet and simple place fitting for the saint. It’s good to spend time there early in the morning for quiet prayer and meditation, especially before most of the people arrive. Actually Assisi is made for prayer, meditation and silence. There’s also lots of noise and fun. One of my friends in town mentioned that when he was much younger and came to Assisi on his own it was a “transformative” experience. There’s something about the place that affects you and changes… if you let it. A key for this to happen is that you have to stay there overnight. A quick visit to the Basilica is not enough. You need to experience the festive nights, the still mornings and the various hues of the Assisi stones.
Now I am meeting friends for dinner and we are going some place where I have longed to dine for a while now: La Stalla. It’s a restaurant which is a former barn. The setting and food are very rustic. I had been there during a youth gathering, but never had a chance to eat there. I had better get ready. There are clouds overhead this evening. Last time I say clouds like this in Assisi I got drenched (back in 2006). I had better be prepared. Ok, who’s the patron saint of good weather?
We took a couple of cars up the forest where this restaurant was. My friends didn’t know what to expect from a “barn”. It’s actually a covered terrace where there are a couple of cooking stations which prepare the various courses, First (appetizers), Second (pasta) and Third (meat). The prices were really good. It’s kind of self service. You set your own table, order the food from the various stations and pick it up when it’s ready. There’s a huge wood fire where they grill the meats. It’s quite impressive and unique. As we were setting up the heavens let loose and it rained. Thank God we were covered! We kind of messed things up a little because we ordered everything at once and so the food came out as it was ready. We had pasta first, the appetizers came, then the main courses and more appetizers. We were really hungry so it didn’t really matter… people were just happy to eat and the food was really good.
Assisi-Padova (Sept 4)
Today it was time to say goodbye to Assisi. After a lovely breakfast I checked out, or at least tried to. The hotel was gracious in offering the bill, but had a difficulty getting the safe open which held my passport and wallet. The owner had forgotten the key at home. I started to panic until I realized that “home” was next door. So I made it to the train in time and met some of my friends who were going to Florence for a day trip. We parted at Florence as I waited for the next train to Padova.
The Eurostar Italia train arrived in all it’s sleek majesty. What a cool looking train. It’s a 2 hour journey to Padova. I’m sitting in a rather tight “compartment” with two children, their mom… and their dog! Thank God it wasn’t yappy dog. It was actually quite well behaved.
Padova (Sept 4)
The journey to Padova was quite pleasant except for the fact that my companions didn’t like the AC too much and were trying to figure out how to turn on the HEAT. Can you imagine! We had to have a bit of a conversation about that. I arrived in Padova to be greeted by the famous Friar Mario Conte of the Messenger of St. Anthony. We dropped off my luggage at the friary and was welcomed by the friars and staff at the Messenger offices across the street. And then of course we went to the basilica to visit St. Anthony. This church is quite ornate and full of surprised and unexpected discoveries. The tomb of St. Anthony has been moved to the other side of the basilica while restoration work is being done on the chapel that contains his relics.
After a little rest Mario and another friend, Alberto, took me for visit to a local monastery and then for a leisurely visit to the Abano area of Padova known for its thermal waters and spas. There’s a very classy pedestrian walk where we had a drink before dinner. We then walked to a local restaurant of San Lorenzo which is specialized in grilled meat. It was kind of interesting to see how Mario was welcomed in this place. It felt like being on the set of “Cheers” where everybody knows your name. Mario has been going to this restaurant maybe once a month or so for many years. He has watched as the children of the owners have grown up and now do most of the work. There’s something about that kind of continuity and permanence that is quite appealing. The other thing I’ve noticed is that although we go for dinner around 7:30 or 8:00 pm there is usually no one there. The restaurants don’t even begin to get busy until 9:00 pm.
We didn’t order from the menu as Mario just chatted with the owner and ordered some Bigoli (a kind of pasta that looks like very thick spaghetti) with a tomato sauce and then we had some grilled meats. Incredible. The local local wine, Robello (sp?) is a light, full bodied wine with a little bit of fizz and served cool. Alberto assured me it was necessary to have this wine. Who am I to object?
I had been having trouble sleep the last few nights from the jetlag. Mario suggested one of his famous tablets. He’s a world traveller and so I took his advice, took the tablet and went straight to bed at 10:30 pm.
Padova (Sept 5)
Wow did I sleep well. I slept right through the night and got up at 8:00 totally refreshed! After a typical Italian breakfast ( a shot of espresso and a cookie) we went over to the Messenger office to meet some people and do some work for Mario. We then went to the new store the Messenger has opened in the Industrial part of Padova. It’s a distribution point for the Messenger’s books and also various liturgical furnishings. I was able to find a couple of things for our church and some dark grey clerical shirts that I like and can’t find in North America.
Lunch ( or Pranzo) was at the friary where the Guardian and Director General of the Messenger (Friar Danilo Salezze) welcomed me officially. I have been with the community before and it was a little bit like coming home. After a obligatory “riposo” (afternoon nap!) I met with some of the people from the Messenger and then had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Angelo Fantasia, who manages the Messenger’s office in Australia. What a delightful person.
That evening Friars Danilo, Mario, Luciano (editor of the International Italian edition), Mr. Massimo Maggio (editor of the Madre magazine and a good friend of mine), Mr. Fantasia, his wife Nina and their daughter Rebecca went out for a lovely dinner where we were joined by Massimo’s wife Sylvia. It was the young Rebecca’s 19th birthday and also the 2nd anniversary of the day Friar Danilo started as Director General of the Messenger.
Padova (Sept 6)
The day began with Morning Prayer and the Conventual Mass. Although we prayed in Italian I managed to understand quite a bit and was able to enter into the moment. After the liturgy, the whole bunch that was at dinner the night before (except for Friar Luciano and Sylvia) made our way to Venice for a ride on Massimo’s boat. This was a most generous gift from Massimo to show us the lagoons of Venice and the islands of Torcello and Burano. At lunch, while Danilo gave the Australians a tour of Torcello, Massimo, Mario and I prepared pranzo. We made spaghetti and served it with either an intense tomato or mushroom sauce made by Massimo’s mother. The mushrooms were picked by Massimo’s son, Andrea, at the grandparents’ house. You’ve got to trust they know what they are doing! The second course was salami and cheese and some bread. Of course it was crowned with some prosecco wine. All this was done on a boat! It was an amazing lunch.
At Burano we visited the colourful streets of this Venetian Island. This is where Massimo’s wife, Sylvia, has her family. They also specialize in lace and all sorts of handmade products. It’s quite special. Late in the afternoon we made our way back to port where Syliva met us. There we were able to have a shower and get dressed for dinner. We went to a nearby simple restaurant, Il Monaco, for some seafood. It was certainly casual and relaxed. The food was simply amazing. Sylvia and Massimo ordered for us in the Venetian dialect and I had no idea what they were saying. The antipasto was a couple of bowls of the smallest clams cooked in garlic and olive oil. The first course was one of flash-fried little calamari and vegetables on top of a serving of polenta (cornmeal). The second course arrived on two round wood plates of 2.5 feet in diameter with a 1.5 foot stack of various clams, mussels, crawfish, prawns and other seafood I could not identify but did not mind eating. These plates are each meant to serve two people! There was so much food that we had to cancel the further order of calamari. What a feast. The Maggio’s were quite gracious hosts.
Padova (Sept 7)
Today we slept in and joined the friars at the Basilica of St. Anthony for the 11:00 am liturgy which was quite solemn and well done. The church was packed! I met some friars from Romania, Poland, Paraguay, India and various parts of Italy. After a lunch at the friary we had another afternoon riposo.
In the afternoon Mario took me over to the friary attached to the Basilica. Padova actually has several friaries. The friary I stay out exclusively for the friars attached to the Messenger of St. Anthony. The main friary is the one attached to the Basilica and has parts that date back to the 13th century. I had never been there so Mario gave me a tour. The friar is so rich in history. One of the rooms on the ground floor is the Inquisition Room where the friars conducted the local inquisition. The Franciscans were happily not as eager for this process as some others. There were actually known to try to help people escape this persecution. Mario’s perspective is that many used this “inquisition” to promote their own agendas and to get even with enemies.
The friary usually has about 60-70 friars and a dining room that fits them all. It’s shaped like a football field with the friars sitting around the perimeter facing into the centre. It’s quite an unusual set up for us, but quite common in traditional conventual life. We also visited the novitiate which is on one of the floors and then the top floor where the friars live. The main corridor is probably some 30 feet wide and covered by a dark wood ceiling. It’s very impressive.
We visited some more of the basilica and the museum attached to it which contains some beautiful paintings by Titian (sp?).