St Anthony's Guest House
Quiet convent guest room
Assisi is so surprising!
To start in Siena, the hotel called a taxi, and as the driver thought he knew more than I did, he took me to the wrong bus station. But, I had been well prepared by the guide Michele and insisted to the driver that the SENA bus to Assisi left from the train station. Thus the ride cost more (12.50 Euros) than the bus ticket to Assisi (11 Euros).
Standing in the right place, I overheard a couple discussing in English if this was the right place, and I confidently assured them it was - the schedule was attached to the post. They were from Australia, visiting parts of Europe they hadn’t been to yet. We conversed until the bus came.
The route was as before to Perugia and then through more verdant countryside – mostly valley floor between hill-like mountains, in fact the Apennines. Some light industry was dotted along the way. From a good distance I could see Assisi perched on top of and flowing down a hill at the foot of a mountain. The Basilica dominated.
The bus drove through Santa Maria degli Angeli, a small town, great church, and location of the train station. Then we started up, along a new, floral-lined road that switch-backed up and up through trees and houses and pseudo-medieval streets. Everything looked new – or at best restored to a new condition. Only later did I learn that this was all rebuilt following the 1997 earthquake
. The roads and most of the paths have just been restored. Later, while walking around I did see what looked like shoddy building sites that have still not been recovered.
The bus stopped at its terminus. The Australian couple and I confessed our mutual confusion. They didn’t have a hotel reservation, so I asked if they wanted to share a taxi to St. Anthony’s Guest House
to ask if there was room for them. They readily agreed. An energetic taxi driver pounced on us and stowed our bags in the back of her European-sized mini van. She drove us along what seemed like a lot of streets but by the meter was not running. Then she demanded five Euros for the five bags on top of the 9.60 Euros (say 10) on the meter. I had a bit of an argument with her, but it was too late by then.
I buzzed us through the ornamental iron gate and door to meet the plump, pleasant Sister Sue, who is a Canadian from Edmonton. She apologized regretfully for having no free rooms but promised and did take Joy and Brian to Degli Orti, a B & B with a restaurant (down the road and down some stairs). Mine was a very pleasant room with two single beds and a side view of the back garden (rock surface with flowers and shrubs). The common rooms were a nice sitting room, with a view of the western valley (where I am sitting now watching the sun set), a small library and reading room (with a common TV), and a parlour near the reception desk. There’s also a chapel near the desk, although I didn’t see that. The atmosphere is friendly and peaceful.
After ablutions, I went down to Degli Orti
for lunch, as I was very hungry and expected to see Joy and Brian there. So we had a simple lunch together – the “Tourist Menu” for twelve Euros. My choices: minestrone soup, omelette, mixed salad and a pear. All delicious. Afterwards they went on to do their things, and I went walking, cameras in the knapsack. Oh! During lunch a friar (in plain clothes) came to our table, an American who had helped Joy and Brian over a language gap. He brought a map to show them the information office, and he was able to help me with a travel agency that sells train tickets. Very useful, as I was able to buy the train ticket later and a ticket for the local bus that stops about 300 yards from the hotel. When checking the location of the bus stop, I fortunately also found a supermarket for bottled water. I paid 36 centesimi for 3 litres! In Siena 1.5 litres costs one Euro.
The main road led quickly to the main square and to Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
. Its history as a Roman temple to Minerva was obvious because the over-sized period pillars are still standing, although very chipped. Inside, the church was hugely ornate, with large frescoes about St Francis
and also St. Clare
(St Francis’s love who formed the Poor Clares)
. The fabulous flourishes in plaster and gilding seemed out of place for the themes.
A bit more walking back the way I came helped me find the travel agency, which was very near Basilica di Santa Chiara
. This was a huge, 13 century building that also looked spare and modern – presumably the effect of modern restoration. Inside, the earthquake damage, although repaired, was obvious because most of the walls and all the vaulted ceilings are bare plaster. In only a few places and in one chapel were there fragments of frescoes.
Below the church was the incredibly elaborate huge marble crypt for St. Clare. Her life was depicted in prints of medieval frescoes. (Now I need a guide, to confirm if they once covered the walls). The interior was hugely dominated by a multi-hued marble tent, but her body is to one side. I heard some other people discussing that she is in the marble casket below the wax effigy.
On the way back to the Guest House, my reverie was suddenly disturbed by the roaring passage of a 1920s era vehicle being driven at speed, escorted by police. As I walked along the main street, more and more of these vintage cars swept noisily by, with a fair number of police. When I later asked, Sister Sue said it was a car rally
through Italy that happens every May. And so I returned to the Guest House - only to be invited to a concert - a serendipitous opportunity!
I had gone down to reception to make a phone call on the public phone. Afterwards, Sister Sue asked if Canada Direct phone service worked, and I said, “Perfectly”. She wasn’t familiar with the service, so I explained and gave her the Italian contact number. She thanked me and asked if I was going to the concert. What concert? Her brother in Vancouver had emailed her last night to let her know that a Vancouver choir was going to be singing in Assisi. She was leaving in five minutes, did I want to come? Of course!
When we arrived, the choir, a group of about thirty people of all ages, was arranged on the steps of the nave of Santa Maria Maggiore
, the former cathedral of Assisi. It is almost bare inside, as are most of the churches, because of earthquake damage in 1997. The music started almost immediately. The singing was heavenly, magnified by the wonderful acoustics of the broad arches of Italian architecture. (An older church is below the current one, so I will have to return for site seeing.) The choir sang a brief repertoire of liturgical music, traditional and modern, in Latin and English, and from several different countries. After the performance, they came to talk to the all-too-small audience (little publicity due to a mix-up in the arrangements). Some of the choristers were visibly moved, and one said their music had never sounded so good. They were very surprised that Sister Sue and I were both Canadians and that I was on holiday. They came from Rome yesterday and were going to Florence this same evening – a very rushed schedule.
As we walked back, I asked Sister Sue about the Guest House. It is 75 years old, was closed during the war except as a (presumably secret) refuge for Jews, and was closed again for three years after the earthquake. It is specifically, but not exclusively for English-speaking pilgrims, who in the early days stayed for long periods of time. The Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement
is an American order, and they also have a house in Edmonton
for women and children in need.
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