Friday, June 4, 2010

This morning, I’ve made a mess of things. I’m having breakfast at the Hotel Continentale, in a lovely dining room decorated in vibrant shades of blue and gold. There is a fine selection of pastries, breads, cereals, and fruit laid out on long buffet tables, and for coffee there is an imposing automated machine. Ideally, I would like a cappuccino, but I am not sure how best to achieve this. I press a button and I am comforted by a whirring sound that spits espresso into my cup, but when the steamed milk is dispensed, it comes from an entirely different spout, far to the left. By the time I realize this and shift my position, much of the milk has drained away, and the rest has slopped over the side into the saucer below. Feeling embarrassed, I decide to make the best of it and carry it back to my table.

The waitress minding the buffet has noticed my plight and she takes pity on me. She’s a cheerful, middle aged woman and she says something comforting in Italian before trotting off. A moment later she emerges from the bar holding an absolutely perfect cup of cappuccino. As she watches me, I take long sip, allowing the aroma of the coffee to fill my nostrils. When at last I pronounce it “molto bene,” and with great enthusiasm, she seems genuinely pleased. The people in Arezzo are nice. There is no other way of saying it, although it hardly seems sufficient. They are nice, and I like it here. I like it very much.

From my hotel facing Piazza Guido Monaco, it’s just a short walk to the railway station, and after a brief detour to the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre in town, I catch the 9:14 AM train to Assisi. It’s a milk run train that makes countless stops along the way, but the scenery out the window is distractingly beautiful, and for a moment I catch a glimpse of a castle high on the hill, which I later learn is Montecchio Vesponi, near Castiglion Fiorentino. The hour and a half goes by in the blink of an eye.

At the station in Assisi, I buy a ticket for a bus that will take me to the old town at the top of the hill and ride it all the way up to Piazza Matteotti. From there it’s a pleasant walk through ancient streets and along sweeping vistas, past the cathedral of San Rufino to Piazza del Comune, under the soaring tower of the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, all the way down to the papal basilica of St. Francis.

The day is young and the town has a sleepy quality, with shopkeepers relaxing by open doorways crammed with religious souvenirs—laminated prayer cards, rosary beads, crucifixes, and rows upon rows of St. Francis statuettes dressed in identical brown tunics, cinched at the waist. Some are portly, others tall, but nearly all depict the saint’s famed attachment to animals—occasionally dogs, but more often than not birds, a menagerie of birds.

I approach the basilica from the east, along Via San Francesco, where it sits at the end of a long green lawn on which hedges form the letters PAX, the Latin word for peace. Outside the entrance to the upper church, I rent an audio guide and then walk into a bright space that is, through the conscientious efforts of the guards, surprisingly quiet, despite a steady stream of pilgrims. I can see an apse and transcept at the far end, but I am struck most by the frescoes that line the nave, long attributed to Giotto. The paintings reconstruct major events in the life of St. Francis (1181-1226)— a crucifix in the church of San Damiano speaks to Francis and summons him to God’s work, the future saint renounces his wordly goods, he preaches to the birds, and later on Mount La Verna he receives the stigmata. It is painful to recall how close all of this was to destruction after an earthquake struck in 1997, killing four people and sending chunks of the vaulted ceiling to the floor.

After circling the nave thoroughly, I make my way down to the cavernous lower church and to the tomb where St. Francis is buried. In “A Chain of Italian Cities,” Henry James wrote that “it would be hard to breathe anywhere an air more heavy with holiness,” for the basilica pushes the visitor “into the very heart of Catholicism.” As usual, I find his powers of observation to be uncanny.

After a quick sandwich at a nearby café, I spend the rest of the afternoon testing my stamina on the narrow and undulating streets of Assisi. I shop for ceramics, stop by an ancient Roman temple long ago converted to the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and visit Santa Chiara, a basilica devoted to St. Clare (1194-1253), who like Francis, founded her own monastic religious order.

At 4:00 PM, I catch the bus in Piazza Matteotti and from the train station below walk across the tracks for one last stop at the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which inside houses the tiny Porziuncola, the 9th century chapel that Francis believed he was commanded to repair. It is crowded with tourists, most snapping flash photos despite the admonition posted outside, and I have to breathe deep to remember Francis’ words: PAX ET BONUM. Peace and goodwill. It strikes me as a sentiment that is easier to maintain when preaching to the birds.

On the train on the way back to Arezzo, a friendly Australian named Serena takes the seat next to mine. She is a lawyer on a fourteen month break who has chosen to travel the world and we chat amiably until we reach her stop at Passignano. By now, I’ve grown used to travelling solo, but I look forward to such passing acquaintances.

Back in town, on a side street near Piazza Grande, I decide to grab dinner at Trattoria Il Portale where the owner, a balding man with a surly disposition, seems not to understand my request for a table. “Un tavolo per una, per favore,” I say, and then repeat the phrase. Exasperated, he turns and loudly calls “Ma-a-a-a-r-r-r-r-r-ia!”

Maria is a sweet young girl, and she recommends the bruschetta and a tubular pasta with cheese and fresh cracked pepper called Cacio e Pepe, both worthy of Arezzo’s growing reputation for culinary excellence, at least in my eyes. I sit for a while and read from a book on Giotto I bought in Assisi. Afterwards, I revisit Cremi for a cup of nutella mousse and yogurt gelato and savor it—and the day—all the way back to the hotel in the dark.

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