Monday, February 02, 2009

Italia Day 7: Biking Side Trip to Assisi

This is one of a series of entries from my travel diary of our Italy trip last fall. This entry is from Day 7, September 21, 2009, our first day of cycling:

9/21/08 Perugia to Assisi and back: 30 miles

Today we decided to ride the bikes to Assisi without pulling the trailers, just to shake everything down before we head out tomorrow towing everything along. We didn't really have a route picked out since we didn't plan on biking this part, but between the maps I brought along and the GPS we muddled through, only hitting a couple of snags along the way near the big freeway because there's only a few places that you can cross it.

After we descended down the enormous hill that Perugia sits on (knowing we'd have to come back up - gulp!) we could easily see Assisi on the hill across the valley. There was a headwind most of the way and only one short but steep hill in between. Between towns along the way were olive groves and fields of sunflowers that were already drying now in late Sepgember. You could imagine how beautiful they'd be in full bloom. We decided not to try to bike up the steep road to Assisi but parked our bikes at a parking lot at the bottom where they leave the tour busses and we walked up.

Assisi was a beautiful little town, lots of small picturesque streets and lovely views in every side out over the Umbrian country below. We went to the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, which is a fascinating place. I wish I could've taken photos inside but it is a very holy place and no photography allowed. The basilica is built on a hill on two levels: an upper basilica and a lower basilica, right over the top of each other. It was begun in 1228, immediately after St. Francis was canonized and only a couple of years after he died. Pope Gregory IX himself laid the cornerstone. St. Francis' tomb is here beneath the church and is the aim of a steady stream of pilgrims.

To me, this is the one Catholic saint that I was very interested in visiting. Patron saint of nature and of animals, Italy's first poet, and founder of the Franciscan order, he went against the overbearing opulence of his day and lived in poverty working with lepers and preaching to common folk. He wrote in his own Umbrian dialect, not in Latin, so that common people could understand his words. The kids and I read several books about St. Francis including Brother Sun, Sister Moon: The Life and Stories of St. Francis and his own hymn set to pictures, Cancticle of the Sun. The basilicas are frescoed with scenes of his life and death, including one of him receiving the stigmata which looked like laser beams were shooting him from heaven - that required a fair bit of explaining to the kids, who were not familiar with the idea of stigmata and were wondering why God would want to shoot poor St. Francis. On the lawn outside the basilica, the word PAX is spelled out in clipped hedges and inside is a big wooden sign painted with the word Peace in many different languages.

After visiting the basilicas, we stopped for pizza in a small place on an empty street, watched nuns go in and out of a convent up the road, and watched the local dogs, cats, and pigeons roaming the city. The kids have taken more photos of pigeons than anything else in Italy. Their photo albums will look like "The pigeons of Rome. The pigeons of Perugia. The pigeons of Assisi. The pigeons of Firenze"

After wandering the lovely and mostly empty streets of Assisi, in the afternoon we biked back to Perugia. We knew it would be quite a climb back up to the town and we ended up pushing the bikes up the steepest parts, but it was fine. It took us about four hours total to go the 30 miles round trip including all of our stops and detours.

Tonight we ate dinner at a little place down the street from our hotel. Eating "early" (7:30) here has the advantage of a nearly empty restaurant. We ended up next to a couple from Calgary who were very nice and we chatted with them for quite awhile. And now with plenty of food, I'm feeling tired and ready to turn in. 30 miles on the tandems feels more like 40 or 50 by myself (especially with pushing up those hills).

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