Day 6 (Sat, Sep 22): Free Morning (Hermitage, San Damiano, Santa Maria degli Angeli)

Got very little real sleep last night. Wisdom purchased at great price: No more cappuccinos close to bedtime!

Tour of Franciscan Sites near Assisi: the Hermitage

Twenty-five of us used our free morning to visit places associated with Saint Francis. Marco arranged for three vans to take us. First, we went further up the oak- and ilex-covered slopes of Monte Subasio to visit "the hermitage", Eremo delle Carceri (hermitage of the prison cells), 4 km (2.5 mi) east of Assisi. The Benedictines had established the place six centuries before Francis began staying there. Magnificent views along the way. Unfortunately, I wasn't near a window to take any pix.

The site is today occupied by a small group of monks dependent on alms and donations. The grounds, views, etc. were open, calm and expansive. However, it was very small, dark and cramped inside the buildings. If you click to enlarge the map (which I photographed on the grounds) you can see that from the entry you pass through the door, which Karen is standing in front of, directly into the refectory (refettorio, dining hall) which is very tiny.

Coming back out, then going in the other door (the extreme right of the photo just following the map) takes you into a very tiny chapel, Chiesa de S. Bernardino. I have photos of the altar and of Karen standing in front of the very limited seating - five friars total. Moving on into the next tiny chapel (the Lady chapel) gets you to the top of the stairs (where Karen is standing) leading down to St. Francis' "grotto" -- si scende alla grotto di S. Francesco on the map -- where the slightly built, five-feet-tall Francis curled up in a stone hole to sleep. I started down those stairs but (1) I'm very claustrophobic, (2) the stairs were very steep, deep and slippery, and (3) the so-called banister didn't seem very solid. So I climbed my way back out. Frank Mooney did go down those stairs. He's a big, tall man, and he said some of the doorways were a very tight squeeze. Only after we left did I learn that there is an easier way down, around the back of the whole complex.

On the left of the map is a green drawing of a tree. The text beneath says albero della benedizione ogli uccelli -- tree of the benediction of the birds. At least one webpage has a picture of that tree; hard (impossible) to believe, but that would make the splinted and crutched tree, of which there is a photograph, some eight centuries old.

Tour of Franciscan Sites near Assisi: San Damiano

Next stop was the Church of San Damiano (images), where the cross which is supposed to have spoken to Francis was (it's now housed at St. Clare's basilica). This is where Saint Clare and her nuns lived. It's a beautiful place -- far less cramped than the hermitage, surrounded by olive trees and gardens.

In 1205, a young and restless Francesco was in this dilapidated old church praying before a 12th-century painted crucifix. Suddenly, the Christ on the crucifix came to life and spoke to Francis saying, "Rebuild my church." Taking the command literally, Francis reconstructed the little church stone by stone.

The church later became a favorite retreat for Francis and his followers. Here, in the "small hut of linens in a corner of the house" San Francesco wrote the first draft of the Canticle of the Creatures. St. Clare founded her order of the Poor Clares here, lived out her life as its abbess, and passed away within these walls. Her body was transferred a few years later to the newly-built Basilica of St. Clare.

Tour of Franciscan Sites near Assisi: Santa Maria degli Angeli

On again to Santa Maria degli Angeli, in the valley just below Assisi, a Baroque church that encloses the Porziuncola, a small, simple (originally) chapel where Francis and his followers practiced, and the Cappella del Transito where Francis died (set against the wall to the right, just behind the Porziuncola). It's hard, amid all the Baroque grandeur, to even imagine Francis in such a context. But we did enjoy the place, especially the cloister garden, the enormous book and souvenir shop and the beautiful, tree-lined piazza out front (with benches! much needed after walking around through three sites).

Afternoon Exploring, a Lecture and Arrivederci Assisi

After lunch we went with Frank Mooney to take pictures of us standing near the restaurant we went to last night. Then Karen and I went church-hunting, down past Chiesa Nuova in search of the Church of San Antonio. Along the way we linked up with Frank and Mary Lostumbo, who were church-hunting, too. We never found San Antonio. Turns out (via Marco) it had been deconsecrated 45 years ago and turned into a primary school. All that remains of it externally is the tower in the first picture below.


So we continued to Santa Maria Maggiore. Great place with an animated mechanical creche (which Francis invented, by the way) which won the 2006 prize in the local creche competitition. Unfortunately, it was so dark that my photo didn't turn out. I've included one from Frank Lostumbo, a detail from a very large display. All those people and animals move mechanically. Best of all at Maggiore are the excavations below the altar end of the church. The site was originally occupied by the Roman Temple of Apollo. The church interior is simple and airy. What frescoes remain are faded and beautiful. Founded in the 10th century, the church was the cathedral of Assisi before 1036, when the church of San Rufino took over the position. The building we see today dates back to the 12th century. Although S. M. Maggiore had lost its status of cathedral, the nearby bishop's palace where St Francis renounced his earthly wealth continues to be used as such.

We attended another of Marco's lectures, this one on the Renaissance. During the break Karen went to the Gran Caffé for an espresso hit. She took Bob Hamer along so that he could get "a decent cup of coffee".

We got our bags packed and ready to go for our departure tomorrow. Took a nap after that and nearly slept through dinner. Fortunately, I woke up in time. Had a celebratory last dinner, with chocolate eclairs and sparkling wine to finish it off. I wish it had occurred to me to take pictures of the dinner and the staff, but it didn't. Attended a charming concert of Umbrian music sung by two men and two women.