Chapter 32 – Pilgrimage: Our Second Trip to Italy
September 2010. One week in Rome, 10 days Umbria and Tuscany, and 5 days in Rome again. By the generosity of Dominic we now could see Italy free from tourist party connections. We stayed right on the Lateran Piazza. Across the road, to our delight, we discovered the Sacred Steps and the Sancta Sanctorum. As pilgrims we slowly ascended on our knees up the Sacred Steps to the Sancta Sanctorum, the Holy of Holies, the ancient icon of Christ, the icon of last hope of the city of Rome.
The week here in Rome brought many religious discoveries: the catacombs, of churches with relics of our family’s both individual and patron saints, including St Cecilia, St Peter, and St Paul, and St Catherine of Siena. We roamed the streets of the central city with freedom and with increasing love. A whole life could be spent here.
Time to hire a car and drive north to Umbria. Yes, I was told clearly that the Ford Focus was a diesel, to be sure to fill it with diesel. Fearful of driving on the wrong side of the road I practised driving in circles round the parking building for a few minutes. Then down past the train station, rounded the corner, and over-compensating on the right, ripped off a parked motorcycle’s rear light, smashing my right wing mirror. It was a nerve-wracking two hours driving north of Rome on the crowded motorways with Aubynne constanly reminding me to steer closer to the middle of the lane.
At Foligno I found that Google maps were only just a rough guide. Took hours negotiating the myriad of connecting roads under and over railway and motorways. The hotel was magnificent and off-season cheap. Discovered St Maroun’s relics in Foligno. A great bit of news for our Lebanese friends back home in Sydney.
Then off to Assisi. Oh, that’s right, fuel stop. Diesel not petrol. The service station absolutely refused to put diesel in the car, pointing to the label on the fuel cap. Here we were. Stranded. Luckily I was able to phone the rental agency. After much insistent pressure from me, it was established that the official car records were incorrect. It was a petrol car, after all. But could this information now be trusted. Filled the car with petrol and drove the next few miles expecting an engine seizure.
At Assisi I had a request from Father Wong to get a third-class relic of St Clare. St Clare’s church, Santa Chiara, was one of our family pilgrim stops. Inside, we met a laywoman supervisor of sorts. No, we have no relics here. I explained that we were on a mission from our priest. We were told that we could inquire of a sister sitting at a desk deep in the church. Surreptiously, she reached into a drawer in the desk, placed a finger on her lips and drew out a little sachet of the dust from St Clare’s tomb. Mission accomplished. After another day trip to Assisi, we discovered little delight of a town, Spello. In one church was a painting of the first blonde Madonna.
Little clues of the long Lombard domination of Italy started to meld together. All these walled little city states which rose from 600AD to 1100AD out of the ruins of the barbaric invasions in the Dark Ages were ruled by the blonde Germanic Lombards, the little townspeople being the remnant native survivors of the invasions. This was graphically illustrated in the Bartolo di Fredi frescoes in the Duomo in San Gimignano. Here on the left the figures are blonde-haired, but the later frescoes on the right wall are dark-haired, now the dominant people.
Further north we found our little paradise at the Hotel Del Largo in Cavriglia, near San Giovanni Valdarno. Here we were situated half way between Arezzo, Florence and Sienna. Here we were isolated, surrounded by forested lake, authentic Italian food and hospitality. Here we could have stayed forever. None spoke English, but with good will and sign language we managed to live well. And the restaurant around the lake provided us fresh open-cooked country food. Driving around the hills on New Zealand-like country roads eased my fears of driving.
At San Giovanni Valdarno for Mass, we discovered an untouched Medieval church, where the mainly elderly attended, while in the same piazza, the Franciscans provided guitar Masses for the younger people in another church. On Sunday mornings the piazza itself provided a scene from Don Camillo’s books: outside the churches stood the faithful in quiet family group conversations; while beside the statue of Garibaldi stood the Socialists in similar quiet conversation, but flying their red flags.
We revisited Florence and this time found the tourist-centred environment tiresome. And in Arezzo we preferred the scene from the hill overlooking the sweep of the Arno, the blue-grey sky, rain clouds and gentle green fields and olive groves. We looked forward to San Gimignano with its towers, but, again, we were disappointed. It was a barren little town. We preferred its countryside.
Sienna was new to us. Difficult to approach by car and caused us much trouble to climb the hill up to the main sites. But, this city meant much. Firstly, the Duomo itself and its lady chapel with thankful motorcycle helmets lining the walls, its famous pulpit, and the tessellated black and white tiles on the floor illustrating biblical stories. Secondly, we traced St Catherine of Siena: her old home, her relics, and her valley where she would hide away. And lastly, we sat in the famous piazza and had a pizza and coffee and were given the restaurant tablemats as a souvenir.
Back in Rome we met Lesley and John who came from Canada just to be with us in Rome. What a lovely gesture. Aubynne and Lesley inspected Roman ruins while John and I exchanged years of catching up. At the end of the day at the Populo we needed to get a taxi back to the hotel. Central Rome was crowded wall to wall across street after street with Sunday families. How long would a taxi take through that crowd? The driver assured us that it would not take long! He sped up and slowed, accelerated and braked, edging men and women gently out of the way of the car’s front bumper. He muscled his way between the police car and the carbonniere car. He niftily rounded corner after corner, with baby-strollers pulled nonchalantly aside as if by invisible force. And there we were back – a cheap timely trip home. We all clapped his virtuosity. No wonder Italian racing drivers are so good. The rules are only guidelines for good driving, unlike us rule-conscious Anglos.
Our last visit overseas left us with longing regrets that we should have visited Italy much sooner in our life.