Sunday, March 18, 2012

Christmas in Italy: Assisi


If I could choose to live in any foreign town in the world, I'd choose Assisi.  This quiet little Italian town nestled on a mountain is the hometown of the famous Saints, Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi.  It is said that the peace of Christ that reigned in these Saints' hearts still rests in this city.  It's true, the entire little charming town feels like a peaceful monastery. 

(Above photo captions:  (left) The mountain that Assisi rests you see little Assisi nestled on the mountainside?  (middle) The charming, narrow cobblestone streets of Assisi, many of which are pedestrian traffic only  (right) The spirit of Saint Francis is still in the city, found in paintings on the sides of buildings and houses. 

After checking in to our hotel, we set off on foot to explore Assisi.  As we walked through the little streets, I asked Dan to guess when the last time any crime occured in this city.  It seemed so safe, so quiet and peaceful, that it was hard to imagine anything bad ever happening. 

Our first stop was the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Inside, we prayed at his tomb.  We asked this great Saint to pray for us and our loved ones.  Inside of the basilica was also displayed several relics, including a letter written by Saint Francis and one of his tattered robes.  Incredible.  Seeing these relics brought this legendary Saint to life. 

In front of the Basilica of Saint Francis was a life-sized Nativity Scene.  Saint Francis was the "inventor" of the Nativity Scene! 

The "Way of Saint Francis"

After visiting the Basilica of Saint Francis, we walked to the city center (near our hotel) and visited the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (St. Mary over Minerva). This church used to be a temple to the Roman goddess Minerva (in Greece, "Athena"), the goddess of Wisdom and Warfare. However, it was turned into a church dedicated to Mary. The facade and columns are from the original temple.

Christianity Victorious!
Next, we walked to the Basilica of St. Clare, the founder of the Franciscan Order of "Poor Clares." St. Clare was a contemporary of St. Francis who lived in Assisi.  Saint Clare was a beautiful example of holiness and love in the heart of the Church. 

Inside of her Basilica, is the miraculous crucifix that spoke to St. Francis in the Church of San Damiano. Jesus on the crucifix said to him, "Francis, Francis, repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins."  This was Saint Francis' calling to give his life to serve the Church.  What an unbelievable experience to pray before that same crucifix!

In the crypt of the Basilica of Saint Clare was the chapel of relics, including tattered and torn tunics and shoes worn by Saints Francis and Clare and other objects used by the Saints.  As I mentioned earlier, seeing these relics brought these Saints to life for me and inspired my heart to greater conversion and service of the Lord following their examples. 

Our visit to this inspirational chapel of relics was unforgettable in another way too.  It had been a long day of traveling, and our patient Peter had run out of patience.  He began making every loud, distracting sound he could muster to express his unhappiness.  As we stood in the suddenly not-so-silent Basilica in the "City of Peace", I felt my peace start to run low as my blood pressure climbed.  Peter!  This is supposed to be a peaceful experience and you're ruining it!  I suddenly realized how ridiculous I was, expecting my two year old to be as quiet as a mouse when he was tired and hungry.  My vocation is to be a mother, which means my service to God doesn't currently mean hours of reflection in beautiful basilicas.  Rather, right now I can serve God best by offering up the most heartfelt 5 seconds of prayer I can muster, and then quickly exiting the church with my distracting toddler. 

I stopped for several seconds by the tomb of Saint Clare and smiled at my sister in Christ.  Our vocations are very different- she was called to a life of silence and prayer- while my prayer is often quick and distracted, in between diaper changes and playtime.  But we are both called to the same mission, to serve Christ in our daily circumstances, trials, and joys.  I felt she understood, and asked lots of prayers for my tired, frusterated soul.  I felt a little of my peace returning as I knew she was listening and interceding for us to God. 

We left the Basilica of Saint Clare and stopped to soak in the breathtaking view as the sun set on the town of Assisi.  We had one more stop for the evening, the Basilica of Saint Rufinus.  To reach this basilica, we climbed up narrow mazes of stairs and cobblestone roads.

We reached St. Rufinus' Basilica as the sun set.  Saint Rufinus is honored as the man who brought Christianity to Assisi.  His tomb is located in this beautiful basilica.  The remains of St. Rufinus are in a marble container under the altar.

Remains of many martyrs are kept under altars...this is to symbolize their sacrifice. In Old Testament times when animals were slaughtered on altars to appease God, the blood flowed under the altar. In New Testament times, the remains of martyrs who offered themselves to God (as Christ did) are found under altars as well.

Since Peter had already expressed his desire to wrap up the day, our visit to Saint Rufinus' Basilica was very quick.  As we left the basilica, we saw a group of religious sisters.  Assisi is filled with young priests and religious sisters on pilgrimage.  It was so encouraging and inspiring to see "God's Special Forces" (as Dan calls them) everywhere we turned! 

Our last mission of the day: finding dinner!  As I mentioned in previous blogs, this can be challenging in Italy as most of their restaurants do not open for dinner until 7 pm.  It was not yet 7 pm, but we were starving and had a tired two-year-old on our hands.  We desperately peeked into several restaurants, all of which the waiters said, "Not open yet"!  We finally found a little bar that served panini.  After dinner, we found an amazing little bakery on our way back to the hotel.  We were drawn inside by the tempting smells of chocolate and pasteries. 

Mmmmm....cannoli!  It tastes like a fried, frosting-filled taco.  : )

Goodies galore! 

Saint Francis of Assisi Bread...and even chocolate salami!

What a perfect way to finish up the day! 

The next morning, I awoke to the heavenly smell of freshly baked croissants.  Am I in Heaven?  Close, Assisi.  Soon, these delicious croissants were delivered to our room with an assortment of other goodies.  Oh, I loved that hotel! : ) 

When we arrived at our hotel the day before, we made the most amazing and exciting discovery.
Our hotel was literally right across the street from St. Francis's paternal home (where he grew up)!  The white stone corner on the right is Assisi's "New Church" built over the remains of St. Francis's old house. Our hotel is above the small pizzeria.

Amazing to think that our son ran around and played in the same place little St. Francis did!

The sign for our hotel (on the left) and the church built over Saint Fracis' boyhood home (on the right). It was so fun to think that we were staying right next to St Francis' house! : )

The church built over St. Francis' childhood home
Inside the church was a tiny cell. This was the cell that St. Francis's angry father threw him in after Francis told him he wanted to be a friar.

Taking a side door out of the main chapel, we found the remains of St. Francis's paternal home. This was his original front door!

 This chapel is in the basement/store room of the house!

 Saint Francis' childhood home was an incredible experience!  After this visit, we walked through the lovely Italian countryside on the outskirts of town down to the Church of St. Damian (San Damiano), the parish church of St. Francis and where St. Clare and her nuns lived.

Inside of the Church of San Damiano, we visited the spot where Jesus spoke to St. Francis in a vision and gave him his mission in life, to "rebuild My Church".   The Church of Saint Damian is also the location where St. Clare of Assisi died on August 11, 1253.

The Church of Saint Damian

Soon, it was time to wrap up our wonderful stay in Assisi and head to the train station.  We grabbed a quick lunch at the station (more panini!) and soaked up the sunshine in this beautiful, tranquil town.  Soon, we would trade the quiet, small town of Assisi for exciting, unforgettable experiences in the last city of our trip: ROME!  Roma, here we come!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Christmas in Italy: Pisa

When planning out our Italian adventure, we could not find frequent trains traveling from Florence to Pisa, so we had to rent a car for this leg of the trip.  After picking up our car, we soon realized that it did not have a cigarette lighter to plug in our GPS!  Yikes!  Challenge #1 of the day:  finding our way the good old fashioned way, without technology. 

With a little help from the car rental employee, we found Pisa fairly easily.  The famous Leaning Tower was a different story.  I expected to drive into town and bump right into it.  How hard could it be to find a legendary tower in a little Italian city?  Well, Pisa was bigger than I remembered, and we drove in circles trying to find the leaning tower.  Finally, Dan just parked, thinking we might have better luck on foot. 

Soon, Dan approached an Italian man outside of a cafe and asked for directions.  The man did not speak a word of English, but eagerly gestured that he was willing to help.  He smiled and motioned "Let's walk, follow me" with his hands.  Usually, at this point, we've learned from our Turkey travels to say "no thanks" rather than follow a stranger  through a maze of uncharted territory.  But for some reason, this time we followed.  At first I felt (mostly) confident.  Dan seemed to trust him and I trusted Dan.  We walked quickly and silently, as our companion glanced back occasionally to smile and motion "Keep going".  But after 15...25...30 minutes of walking, I began to get nervous.  Where is he leading us? 

Finally, he smiled and motioned "Just around the corner".  I took a deep breath, praying he was right.  Suddenly, the leaning tower peeked out from behind a building as we all heaved a sigh of relief!  Dan offered our guide a tip, he smiled, refused, and disappeared quickly.  It was incredible.  This man walked with us for over 30 minutes, and accepted nothing in return.  God showed His providencial care for us through the kindness and generosity of this stranger. 

We made it!
The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Upon arriving, we happily snapped the "classic Leaning Tower photo pose" with the other tourists...

(Peter was snoozing in the stroller during this time, which enabled us to focus our attention on the perfect Leaning Tower pose.) : )

...and then explored the gorgeous cathedral and baptistry.

Pisa's Cathedral

The Baptistry

The interior of the Cathedral:  incredible!

The Cathedral's Ceiling

Next to the Pisa Cathedral is a cemetary called the "Camposanto" or "Holy Field".  The field is filled with soil from Golgotha (the mount where Christ was crucified). After the First Crusade in 1099, an Archbishop (probably of Pisa) brought back boatloads of soil from Golgotha to Pisa. Where the soil was deposited became a cemetary for the upper class of Pisa. A cloister was built around the field.


We finished our tour of Pisa at dusk.  The setting sun warmed the Leaning Tower with its vibrant pink and orange rays.  Peter was groggily just waking up from a nap.  We bought a miniature Leaning Tower (of course!) and started the trek back to our car.  Fortunately, our walk back to the car was much more relaxing.  We walked through a charming shopping district; full of shoppers, music, and sparkley lights.  We stopped for some tasty pasta and then finished our walk to the car. 

We drove to a nearby U.S. Army base (found it successfully...without a GPS...hooray!) and checked-in to our hotel.  Though I love Italy and its B&B's it's always rejuvenating to stay on a military base. It's refreshing to read signs in English and shop for American snacks at the Shopette.  It's just a little taste of home. 

The next destination on our tour of Italy: of my favorite cities in the world!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Christmas in Italy: Florence

After yet another delicious breakfast and a lovely stroll through the streets of Venice, we took a water-bus back to the train station (maybe the word "stroll" is a little too was a lovely morning, but we were lugging all of our luggage and a toddler-toting-stroller over cobblestone which made it a little more labor intensive).  As we took one last look of the charming city of Venice, Dan and I promised each other that we'd return someday.   

At the station, we purchased our tickets.  We'd discovered that buying train tickets at the counter from a person, rather than the kiosk, was the way to go.  Yes, that meant more waiting in line, but it also guaranteed that we'd make the correct purchase and be directed to the right platform.  We were starting to feel confident in our train traveling skills. 

We loved riding on the trains.  It was a chance for Dan to study maps, for us to soak in the beautiful countryside from our window, and for our family to relax and be together...all with easy access to a bathroom! 

After arriving in Florence, we walked from the train station to our bed and breakfast.  We walked about 15 minutes through the streets of Florence before we caught sight of Florence's famous cathedral, The Duomo, peeking out from behind the other buildings.  Dan and I simultaneously gasped.  The Duomo has one of the largest domes in the world.  It is impossible to capture its magnitude on camera or to describe its grandeur in writing.  It is a thrilling sight to see and we hurried to catch a closer look. 

The exterior of The Duomo is made completely of different colors of marble.  It was incredible! 

After catching some photos of The Duomo, we walked a few blocks to our bed and breakfast, which was located in an Italian couple's apartment.  They buzzed us up to their apartment and welcomed us with open arms.  This was one of my favorite b&b's.  The owners treated us like family, welcoming us with traditional Italian Christmas bread and sugary sweet crimson-red juice that stained our lips for hours.  We sat, munched, and chatted.  After refueling, we began exploring Florence. 

Below is Florence's city square, which has has been the headquarters of Florentine political life for centuries.  In the square stands a replica of the David.  The original sculpture previously stood there before being moved to the Florence Art Museum.

We continued on to the River Arno and caught a view of the Ponte Vecchio.

We then hiked and climbed up, up, up (while singing Must Be Santa to keep Peter entertained) to an overlook called the Ponte di Michaelangelo.  The steep climb was worth the view.  At the overlook, we bought Peter a little Pinnochio puppet...and later found out that the author of Pinnochio was buried on that very mountain!

We climbed higher and higher, but just had to stop for a photo op of beautiful Florence!

The mountain kept on going, but finally we saw the top!  At the top, rested the magnificent Basilica of St. Minias!

St. Minias was from the East and came to Italy for a pilgrimage to Rome. He ended up settling on the mountain south of Florence and establishing a hermitage here. He was eventually captured by the Romans and beheaded on the banks of the Arno River. Legend has it that St. Minias picked up his head and took it up the mountain to his home where he died.

The Basilica of St. Minias now stands over the site of his old home and his tomb.  Inside of the church was quiet and peaceful, away from the noise of the city.

We climbed back down the mountain as the sun was setting.  We had one more stop before dinner, the Basilica di Santa Croce (Holy Cross).  Inside, we found the tombs of Michaelangelo, Galileo Gallilee, and Nicolo Machiavelli!

Our next stop: dinner!  At first, our quest for food was a bit challenging.  Many restaurants in Italy don't open for dinner until 7 pm (not easy when traveling with a toddler)!  But we finally found a perfect little restaurant facing The Duomo.  We feasted on Florentine steaks!

The next morning, our wonderful b&b owners delivered a homemade Italian breakfast to our room, including cappaccinos and scambled eggs!  After breakfast, we walked to the Florence Academy Art Museum, home of the famous sculpture, The David!  After a trip through the museum (it was quick and efficient, as are all museum trips with a two-year-old), we returned to The Duomo to soak in the sights of Florence. 

The most beautiful aspect of our trip was the spiritual significance.  It was incredible to spend the days before Christmas visiting breathtaking basilicas and unforgettable pilgrimage sites.  Instead of shopping malls and presents, we were able to focus as a family on the birth of Christ.  In Italy, there are manger scenes everywhere.  Peter loved studying them.  Often, the crib would be empty, anticipating the birth of Christ.  Peter gazed excitedly at the empty crib as we told him "Baby Jesus is almost here!"  He couldn't wait!  It was so beautiful to see the simple faith of a child!

(As Peter studied each manger scene, he'd point out the figures: "Mary, Joseph, angel, shepherd, cow, sheep..." and then inevitably ask "Horse?  Where'd the horse go?" since most manger scenes did not have a horse. 
I responded "Hmmm....maybe the horse is out eating some hay." 
He seemed content with that answer and at future manger scenes would say "Horse?  Where'd the horse go?  Oh...Hay.")

The doors of The Duomo's Baptistery were incredible!  Here's Peter and Dan finding a carving of Saint Mark, who's tomb we had seen in Venice. 

I love the carving below.  It is the Holy Family's flight to Egypt. 

We wrapped up our quick stay in Florence and grabbed a rental car!  Pisa, here we come!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Christmas in Italy: Venice

After exploring Padua, we took a quick train ride to Venice.  We stepped out of the train station and the city of Venice immediately charmed us.  It seemed as if we stepped into another world.  The bright sun sparkled on the water as little boats chugged along.  The buildings, so quaint and beautiful, sat afloat on the canal streets. 

We took a "water bus" from the train station to our hotel.  The boat ride was about 45 minutes, but time passed quickly as we soaked up every drop of the charm of Venice.  Our boat stopped near Saint Mark's Square and we toted our luggage to our hotel.   After getting settled, we set out to explore Venice. 

It seemed as if we just couldn't soak up enough of Venice's sights.  We were constantly wide-eyed, trying not to blink, so we would not miss a single thing.  We strolled through narrow, quiet streets lined with little restaurants and designer shops.  We watched gondolas glide through the quiet water-filled canals. 

We approached Saint Mark's Square.  It was bustling with people and pigeons.  Peter generously dozed off to sleep in the stroller as we approached Saint Mark's Basilica.  Ah, a quiet church visit without "shoooshing" Peter (he loves hearing his voice echo in big European Basilicas).  : )  Saint Mark's tomb is located in this gorgeous Basilica!   We soaked up the intricate beauty of the interior of the basilica and prayed before the tomb of Saint Mark, the Gospel writer.  Incredible.

After visiting Saint Mark's Basilica, we took a gondola ride!  Ah, what an incredible experience!  Our gondalier loaned Peter his hat and we glided off into the quiet, narrow canals of Venice.  Even with a toddler on board, it was a wonderfully relaxing experience.  The sound of the water trickling from the gondalier's paddle and the gondala quietly cutting through the water serenaded us. We soaked up the beautiful scenery as the sun started to sink low in the afternoon sky.  Peter enjoyed riding in a boat, but the highlight of his cruise was looking into the waters in search of pieces of floating trash and other objects.  (Fortunately, there was not much trash.  Venice was very clean.) 
As we cruised, Dan and I kept exchanging excited glances and smiles.  I can't believe we are here, in Venice, on a gondola cruise!  It just seemed too dreamlike to be real! 

After our gondola ride, we returned to Saint Mark's Square to relax a bit before dinner.  Peter laughed and laughed as he chased pigeons through the square.  We smiled and smiled as we watched our little boy play innocently and joyfully in the square.  

After playing in Saint Mark's Square, we strolled through the charming side streets of Venice adorned with twinkling lights.  We ate dinner at a little restaurant called Vino Vino.  It was the most perfectly delicious dinner.  My favorite meal of the trip.  We feasted on an incredibly wonderful Caprese salad, perfect red wine, yummy pasta, and mouth-watering tiramisu.  Stupendo!  (Below, a shot of our Caprese salad.  I can't even begin to describe how absolutely perfect it was.  You'll just have to go to Venice and try it yourself.)

After dinner, we happily walked back to our hotel.  We stayed at a wonderful little hotel in between two adorable boutiques and directly across the street from a gorgeous church.  The setting was picture perfect.  We settled into our room, enjoyed a restful night's sleep, and awoke to freshly baked croissants and steaming cappuccinos.  Ah, Italy.  We love you.