Like most medieval cities in the Tuscany/Umbria areas of central Italy, Assisi is built on a mountainside. As our car approached the foot of the mountain, following a road that wound its way upward, I was struck by the impression that Assisi seemed to cling to the side of the mountain, rather than sit on solid ground. The illusion was reinforced by the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, a mamouth, two-story structure that seemed to soar away from the mountain and out and over the Tiber Valley below. The Basilica was built in honor of St. Francis, a Catholic saint who founded the Franciscan religious order in the town of Assisi in 1208, an order whose members still live on that site. Sections of the Basilica were destroyed in an earthquake in the 1990s, some artifacts lost forever, but it is rebuilt now.
We found out that morning that Pope Francis was visiting Assisi that day and the thought of seeing him added to the anticipation. After parking we walked down a long, narrow stone street, private apartments on either side, each identified by beautiful tall and wide wood doors that looked centuries old. There were no sidewalks, and steps rather than porches led to the doorways that were only a foot or two off the road.
The street emptied into a bright courtyard with a large water fountain in the center. Curious about when the Pope would arrive, I approached a town police officer to ask if he knew the arrival time. Unfortunately, he did not speak much English, but we did manage to communicate enough for him to tell me the Pope's estimated time of arrival. We continued to wander down narrow stone streets that led to the center of town. At one point, we noticed three black high-end cars in a row barreling down the street at us, we barely had time to step into the safety of a stone archway before they sped by. Later we heard it wasn't just the Pope who was in town, but leaders of most of the world's major religions were in Assisi to attend an ecumenical conference. Each with their own ontourage of security guards.
As we wandered through the town, more high-end cars sped by us, always a middle car protected by the other two, always at speeds inappropriate for the location. We tried to get near the Basilica, even thought we had found a route tucked under stone steps, but the police, this time what appeared to be the Polizia di Stato, or state police, dressed in a much more military style than the Municipal Police Officer I had spoken to earlier, stopped us and asked for our "ticket." It seemed tickets were required even to stand on the street where the Pope would pass.
Since we didn't have tickets, I wandered farther up the hilly streets and came upon a small square bordered by a spectacular panoramic view of the Tiber Valley and the Basilica Di Santa Chiara, or Bisilica of St. Claire, another catholic saint born in Assisi who began the order of Poor Claires. It was lovely to sit against the stone wall in the afternoon sun and look out over the Tiber Valley that went on and on, ending at the horizon. Clusters of small rooftops outlined towns sprinkled across the valley, the rest was muiltiple shades of green under a bright blue sky.
For the first time I tried a gilato, ordering it from a friendly older man standing behind a small counter in a sweet smelling bakery. He did not speak English very well but in cases like that pointing at what I wanted worked just fine. After deciding I like ice cream better than gilato, I tossed what was left of the treat into a trash bin and began wandering back down the hill to meet my travel companions.
As I strolled leisurely down the hill, I was rushed to the side of the stone roadway by a local police officer who saved me from being run over by yet another small grouping of speeding cars. This time the cars stopped 20 feet in front of me, backed into a space in front of an ancient columned building on my right, and parked. Curious, I leaned against a nearby car to see who or what would step out of the well protected middle vehicle. As I stood there doors opened on the two end cars and four men, two in each car, stepped out. They were characters out of a James Bond movie. Young, athletic, good looking, dressed in expensive suits, the expected white twisting cord running from their ears to some undisclosed location in their suits where their radio transmitters hid. They walked slowly up and down the street, checking everyone out, talking into their hands.
As I leaned against the car, not 20 feet from the center car that held the person they were so carefully protecting, I realized the body guards were systematically moving everyone, having them step back, step away, then I realized they were not moving me. I guess 70 year old women are not seen as a threat in Italy, it was like I wasn't even there.
I waited. Finally, a muscular, bald-headed man, maybe 45-50ish, in an expensive suit stepped out of the center car, looked around carefully, spoke into his hand and the four younger men who had wandered up the street returned to the area. If the four younger men were supporting characters in Bond movies, this new man reminded me of a Bond movie villain. Still I stood there, feeling like I stuck out like a sore thumb, still unnoticed. A few minutes later another man stepped out of the center car, obviously the man they were protecting. He looked like no one I had seen before, 50-60ish, slim, another expensive suit, a cellphone held against his ear. Unimpressed and somewhat disappointed, I continued back to meet my travel companions.
After a leisurely lunch at a small cafe, we wandered back to our cars and returned to the villa. Assisi is a beautiful town and I spent a lovely day there, but in my mind, whenever I hear Assisi mentioned, it will always remind me of "The Day I Did Not See The Pope."