St. Francis and I are kindred spirits. I was traveling through Europe with my dog Maya, her kennel, and an old-fashioned trunk. Visiting Assisi was a must.
It was a chilly November evening. A lone traveler, I got off the train in a hurry and dropped my trunk two feet to the ground. I was on the third platform and could only get to the road through an underground walkway, accessible after going down and then up two flights of stairs.
Since there didn't seem to be anyone to aid me in carrying my ridiculous load, the only practical option to get to where I needed to be was to dismantle the cart, trunk and kennel and take them individually to the main platform. Maya waited patiently, eyeing me with calm indifference. She didn't understand my request for her to turn into a sled dog.
Out of options, I walked each piece over and reassembled my contraption, complete with a bungee cord that kept everything somewhat in place. It took 15 minutes. I went to the main street and waved down a taxi.
The taxi drove down a dirt road lined with trees, frost sparkling in the moonlight. It was eerie and secluded. In a hurry, the driver deposited my luggage on the steps of the hotel.
I rang the bell and the door opened. No one was there. I held my breath, listening to every sound.
A tall, heavyset man came out. He didn’t speak much English. He asked for my passport, gave me my room key, said something in Italian and pointed upstairs. There didn't appear to be anyone else in the hotel. It seemed a perfect setting for a scary movie, and my imagination began to play tricks on me. The hallways were dark and smelled of cold, stale air.
Through two sets of hospital-style doors, I found my room. It was small, but surprisingly warm and comfortably decorated with French doors leading to a large balcony. I peered outside. Silence.
The phone rang. I jumped; my heart pounded.
It was a man inquiring if I was hungry. I requested gnocchi, and he told me to be down in the basement for dinner in 15 minutes.
Maya had been needing to play. It seemed forever since she'd acted like the carefree pup she's known to be. I let her loose and chased her around the balcony. My voice was the only thing that broke the stillness of the evening.
There was a knock. Reluctantly, I opened the door. A teenage girl had come to remind me dinner was ready. I followed her downstairs. The basement was a large room and had several round white-tableclothed tables accessorized with fake flowers. The family was eating dinner in a corner.
The mother came and served me pasta, bread, salad and wine. The family didn't talk, just sat around a large TV watching the news.
With a content tummy, I curled up in my soft, warm bed and slept until 10 a.m.
In the morning, I realized how adorable the place was. I had overreacted the previous evening. Maya and I went walking to find the town.
As I approached from the hotel, the basilica seemed to be a lighthouse perched above the surrounding valley. Continuing up, I walked through cobblestone streets and found the church, tied Maya to a pole and went inside.
The Upper Basilica was beautiful – your typical Catholic church in Italy, but with a modern feel along with the usual religious art and stained glass windows.
Its antithesis, the Lower Basilica, transported me back to the Renaissance. Each room appeared to be built into the ground. The air smelled heavy with millions of prayers cast in the framework.
The simple act of lighting a candle seemed to channel the wisdom of the ages, so delicate that it almost seemed a sin to breathe. I was captivated by my surroundings and sat in a pew reflecting for a few moments at the beauty around me. With naïve admiration, tears came to my eyes.
Throughout Europe there are huge cathedrals, standing tall against the horizon to testify what God meant to their architects. But this meek place of worship provided a sanctuary for those who sought to be alone with their God, sans accoutrements.
Reluctantly, I tore myself away from that magical place.
The sun greeted me from the depths of the church below, as did Maya with her happy-go-lucky tail wiggles. We proceeded on our journey.
Connected to the church is Assisi Gardens, a few kilometers of land set aside to recreate what it may have looked like ages ago. The morning frost left the leaves slippery. Maya found the mud enjoyable. We hiked to the original church. No one was around; it was peaceful. The only sound was water escaping from a natural spring directed into an old stone basin.
Back in civilization, we wandered around a few more tiny streets, surrounded by ancient houses staggered on and in between hills.
With Maya lying at my feet, I had espresso at a café and watched the monks in their red robes and brown sandals walking in silent clusters from one church to another. The bells chimed in the towers above, echoing throughout the valley.