Friday, May 30, 2014

Getting To Assisi

It seems that a visit to Italy is incomplete without a train strike.

On the way to our train in Siena, we ran across 3 confused looking American college students who were trying to figure out the train ticket/validation system, which can be confusing.  They were very sweet, and grateful, and we felt like we had paid something forward, since folks had earlier helped us.  We left Siena, headed for Assisi, changed trains in Chiusi-Chianciano.  We were supposed to change trains in Terontola, but......the door wouldn't open, so we had to ride to the next stop and get off there (my sister and I had a similar experience in England 12 years ago----hilarious!).  So, there we were at the stop in Camucia-Cortona--where there is .......nothing.  Nada.  By this, of course, I mean NO BATHROOMS!!!

And we looked up at the video screen and saw the list of trains that were coming our, trying to figure out which one to take.....problem was that they all had "SOP" next to them.  Then we found out what SOP means------there was a train strike.  And we were stuck at Camucia-Cortona----with no bathrooms.  No food, no big deal.  No bathrooms.......oh dear.  I went into the station to see if we could find out any info, and there was no one in the ticket booth----but there were two confused American college students trying to buy tickets, which were not coming out of the machine.  I suggested that perhaps the tickets were not being sold because there was a train strike going on.  College student #1 looked at me like I was crazy, and said, in the snottiest of tones ever .."are you SURE?"  The tone was something along the lines of "well, you are the most incompetent and stupid adult ever..."  I told her that my train had been canceled and hers likely had been as well.  She ignored me and kept banging at the machine.  Her friend said nothing, and just stared at me like I was crazy.  Well, I am, so there.  Deal.

We amused ourselves by trying to come up with creative acronyms for SOP that didn't involve profanity.  Shut Out of Passage.  I have no idea what SOP means in Italian, and I don't think that I want to.....take some guesses in the comment section, and be polite.

At any rate, my new "friends" went to the other platform to wait for their train to Florence, which had no hope of arriving, so that they could catch their 4PM plane (this happened around noon---a little tight, no?).  It took two announcements for them to understand that the train really, really, really wasn't coming.  They even announce these things in English and Italian!  Our young friends soon walked away and we never saw them again.  

Meanwhile........we kept watching the monitor and praying for a train that would get us back to Terontola and a BATHROOM, because really, what else matters at that point?  And, within an hour, 1 train showed up that did not have SOP next to it on the schedule!  So, we went back to Terentola, thanked God for the guardian angel that got us there, found a non-sketchy bathroom, and waited for a train that might take us to Assisi.  Long story short----all the trains that went to Florence were canceled, as well as most of the trains to Rome.  The only other train that didn't have SOP next to it was the one to Assisi.  Saintly intervention?  I think so.

So, thanking God again for guardian angels, we jumped on the train to Assisi and arrived with only a 2 hour delay----and a great story to tell.


Platform in Chiusi-Chianciano

Florence to Siena

We left Florence, its art, and its mosquitos behind.  We left with many, many souvenirs of the mosquitos.........I know, TMI.

One stop at Santa Maria Novella --- beautiful church right across from the train station.  Santa Maria Novella has Giotto's "Crucifixion" in the center of the space, and it is exquisite to pray and meditate in the presence of this beautiful crucifix.

Next stop---Siena.  

As we sat down on the train, 3 American women got on---with too much luggage.  There are lots of polite Italian boys who will help you onto the train and load your luggage into the racks for you----but these kids expect to be tipped.  Personally, I don't let anyone I don't know touch my luggage, but other people can do what they want.  The women seemed irritated that the young men wanted some money.  They finally gave them something and then spent most of the ride from Florence to Siena complaining loudly so that anyone in the car who could understand English could hear ...."well, can't people see that we are 3 women traveling together and need some help?  SOMEONE could have helped us.  This is just terrible that people expect something from you...." and on and on and on.......seriously.  Everyone on the train who could understand them just rolled their eyes.  These women were so rude and entitled-----and I felt embarrassed that this is how many of us behave when we travel.  I saw it all over the place.  My fellow bring too much luggage.  Do not bring what you can't carry.  And stop acting like you are better than everyone else and expecting the rest of the world to show up to help you with your overwhelming amount of stuff, just because you are an American with entitlement issues.  The rest of the world does not exist to serve us, and it is high time that Americans who travel understand this.

 I have never come back from any trip wishing that I had taken more stuff.  Ok, rant over.  


We stopped at the beautiful Duomo--likely one of the most decorated and complex cathedrals you could ever imagine.  And then we went to San Domenico to visit Catherine of Siena's relics.  Well, some of them.  Let me explain....

First I have to go back to Rome and tell you about Santa Maria Sopra Minerva---built over the Temple of Minerva.  This is a lovely, quiet church near the Pantheon in Rome.  It houses the tomb of Fra Angelico, the great Dominican artist responsible for some of the most beautiful frescos in church history---the ones at San Marco in Florence, for starts.

It also houses the tomb of St. Catherine of Siena.  Well, most of her, anyways.  Catherine died in the rooms behind the sacristy in this church.  According to legend,  the Romans wanted to keep her body in Rome.  The people of Siena didn't particularly care for this idea.  When Catherine was exhumed in Rome, as part of her canonization process, her body was mostly incorrupt---but her head was disconnected from the rest of her body.  So......the people from Siena spirited her head out of Rome----they were stopped outside of the city, and when the bag containing her head was opened, her head was miraculously replaced by flowers.  By time they got to Siena, it had regained its earlier form, and that is where it remains, in a reliquary at a side altar in San Domenico.  They have her thumb, too.  Europeans do death differently than we do in America.  

So, we visited San Domenico and then moved on to visit the house where St. Catherine lived---just down the street (and yes, I mean DOWN).  Siena is one of the hill towns---and one of the most beautiful cities in Italy----especially after the tour buses leave and take the day tripping tourists with them.  Walking up and down in Siena was good practice for Assisi and for life.  


1.  Giotto's "Crucifixion"---Santa Maria Novella
2.  Cloisters--Santa Maria Novells
3.  Masaccio's "Trinity" fresco----3D if you stand in the right place!!
4, 5---Duomo in Siena
6.  Chapel in St. Catherine's house
7.  Exterior of St. Catherine's house
8.  Reliquary with St. Catherine's head---too much light, which is probably just as well...
9.  St. Catherine's tomb, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


We arrived in Florence to a beautiful, sunny and much cooler day.  We are at a hotel that could have been in the movie "A Room With a View" (the view part--not the room!)--we walk out the door and the Baptistry (covered in scaffolding for restoration work) is RIGHT THERE!

We validated our Firenze cards (great value!) and started walking.....

Santa Croce is one of the churches that I have most wanted to see----it houses the tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, and Michiavelli-----THAT Machiavelli.

The most beautiful part of the church is on the walls----so many frescos by Giotto, Gaddi......and one of the most famous and beautiful frescos is "The Death of St. Francis"----on a side wall, in the Francis chapel to the right of the main altar.  Santa Croce doesn't get as much traffic as some of the other churches----but it should.

Of course, we went around to all of the really big museums--the Accademia, San Marco, the Bargello, the Uffizi.  My favorite is San Marco----the monastery where Fra Angelico lived and fresco-ed everything in the house.  The monk's cells each had a fresco.  The biggest cell/s had belonged to Savonarola--the Dominican preacher who was condemned as a heretic and executed---but the monks at San Marco consider him as a martyr.

The most beautiful fresco at San Marco is Fra Angelico's "Annunciation"---breathtaking.

I feel like I have completely gorged on world famous art......and I can't show much of it to you because they don't allow photos at most of the places we went.....


1.  Ponte Vecchio
2.  Fun in the Uffizi bookshop
3.  Facade--Florence Duomo
4.  David
5.  Fra Angelico "Annunciation"
6.  Fra Angelico  "Sermon on the Mount"
7. Plaque that commemorates Savonarola's execution
8.  Santa Croce facade
9.  Michelangelo's tomb
10.  Giotto  "The Death of St. Francis"

Vatican Museums

The museums, like everything else in Rome, are loaded....

The Vatican Museums house the most vast collection of art one could imagine.  We spent and entire afternoon, and still didn't see everything, but there is a point when one goes on overload, and you have to get away from the crush of people.  The Sistine Chapel is the highlight for everyone----I would love to go there when hardly anyone is there, but I have no clue as to when that might be.  

It was a great blessing, to be in the same chapel where the papal conclaves are held---and it was also jarring and, at times, hilarious.  One is supposed to be silent in the Sistine chapel.  But no one is.  

There is a microphone at each end of the chapel, and one is for the guy who yells at you in every possible language to be silent.  It works for about 30 seconds.  Then the noise builds and builds and builds until he yells at everyone to be silent again.  And on and on and on.  I think that I would hate this particular job.  

And there is more.... immediately after the guy yells at everyone to be silent, the guy on the other microphone yells at everyone to not take photos.  Of course, no one obeys him either (see below).  It's rather like Vespers---where one side of the church reads their part of the psalm, and then the other side reads theirs.  I think they should just give up----it would be less jarring.

But, it's good to imagine the cardinals all sitting there, talking about whatever they talk about, casting their ballots, and electing the pope.  If walls could speak.....


1.  Ceiling of Constantine chapel
2.  "Crucifixion"--Salvador Dali
3.  Sistine Chapel ceiling

Friday, May 23, 2014

Churches and more Churches--+ the Capuchin Zombie Apocalypse

It has been the week to visit churches, for sure.  Pilgrims and tourists mix together--and so the more popular churches tend to be crowded and chaotic, but there are places to hide out if you want to, oh, actually pray...

It is a gift to be here to not only see these houses of worship and to pray in them, but to sense the spirits of all those who are entombed, celebrated, or present in other ways.  

Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri is beautiful----and has an unassuming facade.  You do not know what is there until you go inside. It is the last church that Michelangelo designed.  It has a wondrous meridian line----the church is built over the ruins of the baths of Diocletian.  Read about it here:

One of the most beautiful churches to visit is the minor basilica of Santa Prassede --one of the oldest churches in Rome, with some of the most beautiful, ancient and amazing mosaics:

To see the chains that bound St Paul at St Paul Outside the Walls, and to pray before his tomb was powerful.  To see the chains that bound St. Peter at San Pietro in Vincoli was powerful as well.  

We just missed the Pope at Santa Maria Maggiore----we saw that there was a small crowd, with their cameras out, on the side of the church, and when we went inside, a cardinal came in with a policeman----we left and only found out two days later that the Pope had come to pray there prior to leaving for the Holy Land.  We haven't been following the news, so there you are.  Oh well.

One of my favorite churches is Santa Maria della Vittoria---the small church that houses Bernini's statue called "The Ecstasy of St. Teresa."  Fans of Dan Brown's "Angels and Demons" will recognize this church from that book---although he moved it from where it really is to someplace that it isn't so that it would work better for the book.  Literary license, I suppose.  Don't use his book as a map!

No visit to Rome is complete without a visit to the Capuchin Crypt----not as creepy as I expected it to be but strange just the same.  You can see and read about it here:

They don't allow photos, so that is the best I can do!  They now have a new museum that precedes the crypt--with a lot of historical information, and relics of Padre Pio, among others.  They have a very attentive hall monitor who makes sure that you don't even THINK about taking a photo---along with surveillance video to be extra sure.  As we were viewing the last of the "chambers" I jokingly asked Terri if she thought they had a gift shop----it turns out that they do!  No, I did not buy any of the skull earrings or other memorabilia--it seems a little goth to me, but our little experience of the Capuchin Zombie Apocalypse was interesting, and bizarre.

PS  Please be sure to click on the photos to see them in their entirety----the ones that are in landscape mode don't show properly unless you do!


1.  Santa Maria degli Angeli e Martiri (meridian line)
2.  The Ecstasy of St. Teresa at Santa Maria della Vittoria
3.  Michelangelo's vault in Santa Maria degli Angeli e Martiri 
4.  Mosaics in the St. Zeno chapel in Santa Prassede
5. The chains that bound St. Peter at San Pietro in Vincoli
6.  The altar before the tomb of St. Paul---the illuminated area above holds the chains that bound him
7.  A homeless man finding sanctuary in Santa Maria Maggiore
8.  St. Paul's Outside the Walls facade

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Wed. May 21

The day started early---4:55 AM.  Left the Villa at 6:30 to head for Vatican City.  Looked up to the right as we walked out the door and realized that we can see the statues on top of the Lateran Basilica.  We got in the line for security at 7:10---and marveled at the number of people from other countries/cultures who think that it's ok to cut the line....that's all I'm gonna say......had Idina Menzel playing in my head...."let it go, let it go.."

They opened security a bit early, and we found seats up front by 8:10AM-----and settled in for a morning of people watching while we waited.  Turns out that we didn't have to wait long, because they start the audience early when it's hot outside.  It was, and they did.

It started with a bishop arriving on stage to announce many of the groups in attendance----lots of screaming and yelling and cheering.  And then....

They have huge video screens in the square, so that you can see and hear everything....and at 9:48, the screen showed Pope Francis standing up in the Popemobile, waving excitedly at everyone who was waiting for him to drive out.  He was sort of "backstage"--on the left side of the Basilica---but the people who were behind the security lines could see him and they started waving wildly at him, and he waved back.  It seemed like he was thinking that they couldn't get him out there soon enough----he seemed just as excited to see everyone as we were to see him.  Then they drove him out into the square, and the place went wild. Absolutely wild. We were within maybe 20 yards of the barricade, so I watched him drive by the front of the crowd, zoomed in and waited---and there he was!

They stopped the car in front of us so that he could greet people, and then he was off again.  They kept the cameras on throughout his entire journey around the square----probably 25 min or so.  He kissed babies, greeted a developmentally disabled young man who burst into tears when Pope Francis jumped off to hug him.  And that's how it went.  We had great seats for the Pope's Wed. morning party, and it was a good one.

His whole demeanor was amazing---he was like a little boy on Christmas morning---so excited to see people.  It was not at all like "hey, look at me, I'm the Pope!'----it was "Hey, look....the square is full of people who love Jesus, and I get to go meet them---isn't that just the BEST?"  His energy rippled across the square like a flood---and there were people as far as you could see.  He is full of love and loaded with joy, and it is beyond contagious.  He drives his security detail crazy, and it isn't hard to see why.

He finally got back to the stage and things settled down for the formal part of the audience.  The pope spoke----very low key----but he gets very animated when he goes off-script, which he does a lot---he received greetings from groups, several bishops spoke......they talked longer than he did.  

My dose of reality:  I was sitting in the midst of a group of teens from a parish in Italy-----and right next to two young women who spent the entire audience texting and and talking on their  iphones, but mostly texting.  Seriously.  It's a good thing I don't speak Italian.  That is all.  

We prayed The Lord's Prayer in Latin, he blessed us (and all our families, friends and stuff), and it was over.  He stayed to greet a number of people, dignitaries, newly married couples, all kinds of folks. 

And I noticed that his demeanor changed when the audience ended.  He had seemed tired and subdued (except when he went off-script) during the audience---but the minute it was over and he could greet people again, he was exuberant.

I think he would be happiest if the audience allowed more time for driving through the crowds in the square, and less time with speeches.

That said---an inspiring moment, to be sure.  We are so blessed to have him as our Pope.

1. Statues on top of the Lateran Basilica at sunrise--somehow that seemed significant
2. In front of St Peter's Basilica---the view from our seats (the Pope speaks from under the canopy up on the stairs, and you can also see the huge video screen to the right)
3, 4, 5  Working the crowd
6. Going off-script
7. Blessing

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Rome is, well, Rome.  Even with jet lag, I know that I'm in a place like no other.  Rome is beautiful and ancient, new and graffiti-covered, rude and welcoming--all sorts of paradox material.  I love it.  I have never been here before, and there is much to learn.

Romans are welcoming and rude---they give you a great deal on dinner, and overcharge you for cappucino.  They will speak English if you try to speak Italian, or if you ask first, instead of just walking up to people and starting to babble at them in English and expect them to understand.  I have found people to be very kind, helpful, and loud.  In that order.

I'm in "pinch me" mode.  Ohh, we are driving by the Colosseo---pinch me.  We are driving by the Forum. Pinch me. The first glimpse of Michelangelo's dome over St Peter's Basilica.  Pinch me.  Walking into St Peter's for the first time and feeling very, very small.  Pinch me.  I can't believe I am here.  Pinch me.

And so on.  I am bruised from all the pinching.

It will get worse from here.


1.  Lateran Basilica---the offical cathedral for the Rome diocese. And this is the 'seat'--the pope's cathedra when he is there.
2.  Lateran Basilica--way up at the top are statues that are said to hold the relics of the heads of St Peter and Paul.  Cant't verify...
3.  Swiss Guard at the Bronze doors
4.  Statue of St. Peter in the Basilica---everyone rubs his feet, whch are nearly worn down completely.
5.  Holy Spirit window--St Peter's
6.  Looking up into the dome...
7. Tickets for the papal audience!

Please note--I didn't have my real camera with me--these were all taken with my phone...