A Month in Assisi - Immersion in so much more than just Italian!

I've now gone for 2 runs in Assisi.  The first one a couple of weeks ago, right after I got here, the second one this morning [now about a week ago], when I couldn't find the bus and found myself charging across Assisi, watching the minutes slip by and taking the least efficient route across Assisi to the other bus stop.  It probably wasn't all that far off, but I didn't really know the best way there, and the backpack slapping against my back and the books and assorted stuff that I was carrying (because they didn't fit) didn't help the process much either.  I panted up a flight of stairs (did I mention that I wasn't taking the best route...) and was charging down this back alley when I ran past a small car (not surprising), which then stopped and the passengers - my teachers at the Italian school - gestured that I should hop in.  I didn't hesitate to take them up on the offer for a ride, but my slightly stilted attempts to thank them for the favor and explain my predicament in Italian, along with the awkward moment when I squeezed out of their back seat (did I mention it was a tiny car, and there were 4 people smashed into it, along with a car seat), and sheepishly trotted up to the bus - and all the other guys - gave me a good chance to work on humility (thank You Lord). So now I'm a bit sweaty, and a bit humbled, but otherwise very grateful that the bus didn't leave without me, and very thankful for a wonderful couple weeks in Assisi.

A view of Assisi from the Rocca Maggiore above the city
I guess the obvious place to start this post is the purpose of my being in Assisi for the past 4 weeks - learning Italian.  We started classes the day after we arrived, and I quickly realized that Italian immersion wasn't going to be the magic - automatically-learn-a-language-with-no-effort-on-my-part - process that I sort of thought it would be.  The difficulty of keeping myself constantly awake, and concentrating, for 6 hours of class when everything was explained in Italian was exhausting, and the continuous struggle to figure out what the teacher was trying to communicate was both difficult and frustrating.  I don't want to complain about the classes - they were great - but they certainly weren't easy.  The first week, when everything was completely unknown, and the last week, when we were trying to use everything we had learned over the last 100+ hours of class at the same time, were especially hard.  There were days when things clicked - when I knew what I wanted to say, and how to say it - and there were days when nothing seemed to work - when I forgot the most basic vocabulary and couldn't conjugate correctly for the life of me.  In all, I learned an enormous amount of structure and grammar, the framework of the language, I suppose.  Now, I need to concentrate on building vocabulary (which I didn't spend nearly enough time on because I spent the afternoons and evenings exploring Assisi and hanging out with the other guys) and just using the language to become more comfortable with it.  I feel like I'm right on the "crest" - so to speak - and just a little bit more practice will do wonders.  We'll see!  I didn't learn quite as much as I would have liked, but I also was able to have many great experiences in and around Assisi that I wouldn't have had if I had spent more time on the language itself...  Ah, balancing one's time - always fun!

A typical primo for pranzo - pasta!
During the first week I settled into a schedule that - more or less - I stuck with for the next couple of weeks.  I woke up each day around 6, and shortly thereafter walked down to Santo Stephano, a tiny little 13th century church (somewhere around that era), where we had Mass most mornings in English.  Fr. Gaffney, one of the priests from the NAC said Mass for us the first week, and after he went off to spend time with the other guys (in Siena and Verbania), Fr. Kevin, a priest who was taking Italian classes with us, continued to celebrate the Mass for us for the rest of the time.  I did go to Mass a couple of times at the different churches in Assisi as well as in the other cities that I took trips to on the weekends, but most of the time I just went to S. Stephano primarily because I like to start my day with the Mass (and some of the other churches didn't have Mass at optimal times to fit it in before breakfast), and both priests gave excellent homilies, in English, that I could understand and meditate on.  Unfortunately, even after a couple of weeks of Italian studies, I still only catch about a quarter of the words in a homily - especially if the priest is speaking quickly - and knowing the topic which he is speaking on really isn't the same as knowing the connections he is making between the different topics...  Anyway, after Mass, I'd spend a bit of time in prayer (including the office of readings, morning prayer, scriptures, the rosary, other spiritual reading, etc.) and then hike up to the hotel, where they had breakfast - which was always composed of an assortment of ham, cheese, cereal, rolls, cornettos (croissants), and sometimes another kind of pastry - it never varied, and was always pretty good, just not the bacon and eggs I kept hoping for (Italians haven't been convinced yet that breakfast is the most important meal of the day - usually they just do coffee and a cornetto - so I might be waiting a while).  Classes started at 9 and for the next 4 hours, with one fifteen minute break, we worked mainly on grammar and exercises in large groups - listening to conversations and trying to figure out what was said, learning new words and how to use them, attempting to answer questions thrown at us by the teacher, going around and completing exercises from the book, asking each-other questions while trying to utilize the different conjugations...  It was a long 4 hours, packed with new material to learn and old material to try and remember, but slowly it did pack the stuff in my head.  And then, at long last, we had pranzo!  Back down to the hotel we went (I lived in a separate house, with about 10 guys, up the hill from the hotel - actually one of the highest buildings in Assisi - so the school was located midway between that house - the casa Santa Rosa - and the hotel, where we ate meals).  Both pranzo [lunch] and cena [dinner] were much larger meals, composed of primo [first course - pasta or rice], secundo [second course - usually meat and a vegetable], and dolce [dessert - usually some kind of cake, a gelato or custard, or fruit].  The meals were always simple - just a pasta with sauce or rice with zucchini (for instance), just a thin slice of meat with cooked spinach or some sausage with roasted vegetables - but never failed to be pretty tasty.  I was consistently surprised at how delicious they were able to make the food with so few ingredients!  One of the other guys explained that this is precisely how Italians make their food - only a couple of different things in each dish, but meticulously balanced to turn into something wonderful.  The only thing that I didn't really like was the cooked spinach, but even that I grew to like over the last couple weeks (we probably had it 6 or 8 times), and I guess everybody was always hoping for a cake or gelato for dessert (indicated by the presence of a spoon or fork above the plate), and was always bummed when we had fork and knife (always an indication that we'd have fruit or cocomero [watermelon]).  I quickly learned to ask for "un po'" [a little] of the pasta because they always loaded you up with a lot of it and otherwise I'd be eating so many carbohydrates that even marching up and down the hills of Assisi wouldn't burn it off.  Most of the time my afternoon session began at 2:30 - really perfect timing because it meant I had a short break after lunch to relax and then several hours before dinner to explore the city - and lasted until 4:30.  It was a smaller group - usually 4 of us (rather than 12 or so) - and was a bit more conversational.  Often we asked each-other questions or tried to relate to the class more lengthy stories about ourselves (recently attempting to use multiple kinds of past-tense along with pronouns and other such complexities).  I always like the afternoon classes better than the morning ones - not only was it a less daunting amount of time, but it just was more realistic to how I'd actually be using the language and more fun because I was hearing about the other guys' lives.

The Basilica of St. Francis
- the inside ornately decorated with frescoes of his life,
as well as scenes from the Old and New Testament -
Most afternoons, from 4:30 until 7:30, I spent my time checking out different areas of the city and praying in the different churches around Assisi.  Each one was beautiful in its own way, and I tried to spend significant amounts of time in all of them.  The Basilica di San Francesco, built shortly after the death of that holy man and containing his tomb, is magnificently positioned at one end of Assisi, prominently jutting out from the side of the city (which is built on the side of a hill/mountain).  It is beautifully decorated with frescoes depicting the life of Francis in the upper church, and the lower church is also completely covered in art, showing the life of Christ and other saints, but where I spent the most time in prayer was in the crypt, a simple stone, chapel where the body of Francis is entombed, and where the Blessed Sacrament is kept.  It was usually a better place to pray - especially when they had Holy Hours on Friday and Saturday evenings - and it was a reminder of the simplicity and poverty which St. Francis so loved and message that I most needed to learn from the great saint.  The Basilica di Santa Chiara was also magnificent.  It is sort of on the other side of Assisi, though not as far towards an end of the city, and is also a magnificent edifice, though not quite as imposing as St. Francis's.  Inside it is more plain - most of the frescoes having been lost to time - and it is also difficult to pray there because of all the tourists/pilgrims who are constantly passing through.  The crypt, where St. Clare is now buried, is almost constantly swarmed by people, but again, it was wonderful to be able to pray down there very much reminded by the devotion and love for Christ that St. Clare constantly showed.  About two weeks ago, for the feast of St. Clare, some of us woke up a bit earlier than usual and went to Mass down in the crypt at 6:30 AM.  It was packed, as I expected, but it was a beautiful moment to be down there celebrating the Sacrament of Christ's love, recalling how St. Clare is such an example of abandonment to that love.  Of course, many young ladies continue to follow in her footsteps, entering the cloister as Poor Clares, and - one of my favorite things to do each evening before cena - was to go to the side-chapel in the Basilica of St. Clare and attend vespers, chanted by the Poor Clares that live there.  It was in Italian, so I was usually flipping between the book they had and my breviary (in order to have a better grasp of what I was praying), but it was absolutely beautiful as the sisters' chanted the different psalms and canticles.  It was delicate, beautiful, almost-heavenly, and ethereal - yep, pretty awesome!  Increasing the grandeur of those evening was the fact that in that same chapel is the cross of San Damiano, which was originally down in the church of San Damiano, and through which Christ spoke to St. Francis so many centuries ago, saying "rebuild my church, which has fallen into disrepair".  We too, are called to the same task - rebuilding, defending, and continuing to love the Body of Christ, His Church.  I only made it down to San Damiano, a much smaller chapel, and the original convent where St. Clare originally started her order, which is a 10 or 15 minute walk down from Assisi, twice.  But again, there was a certain prayerfulness there that was just wonderful!  Yep, the people were distracting, but kneeling there, trying not to think about the gouges that the wooden kneelers were digging into my shins (I don't know how wooden kneelers are more painful than even marble ones, but they are), and gazing up at Christ on the cross, thinking about the poverty of St. Clare and her complete commitment to God (despite her prosperous, and very unsupportive family).  Meditating in places like that, so close to the lives of such wonderful saints, and watching so many people similarly bowed in prayer, was the experience of a lifetime.  

The beautiful Blessed Sacrament Chapel in San. Rufino!
San' Rufino, the Cathedral of Assisi (St. Rufino was a bishop and martyr from well before the times of Francis and Clare) was another great church to pray in.  The different murals on the wall, mainly depicting scenes from the life of Christ and Our Lady, were beautifully done, and great images to spend time thinking about, especially while praying the rosary.  The Blessed Sacrament chapel there was absolutely stunning.  The walls and ceiling were covered in images from the lives of different saints and Our Lord, and everything else was encrusted with that gold trim that you see in so many medieval/renaissance churches.  It was also usually very peaceful, with most of the tourists staying in the main area of the church, and it was only a couple minutes away from the house!  Almost done with Assisi!  I was only in Santa Maria sopra Minerva - an ancient temple, now converted into a church dedicated to Our Lady - twice.  The first time during that first week when I tried to check out as many things as I could and the second time maybe a week ago when I went there after Santa Chiara closed (around 7) and was doing a bit more praying before dinner.  It was a smaller church, with a couple of frescoes on the sides, and a very small and simple chapel to the Blessed Sacrament off to one side.  I didn't spend too much time there, but it was another nice church.  S. Pietro, a large but simpler church down in the direction of San' Francesco, has a year-round nativity set displayed (recalling St. Francis, who started that tradition), and is also the church of a group of Benedictines, with whom I chanted compline a couple of times.  Again, it was in Italian, but they went slowly so it was possible to pick out what they were saying and I could follow along pretty well.  In Assisi there is also tiny church dedicated to Santa Margherita.  I was only in there once - I think it is closed most of the time - but it was my first night in Assisi and they were having a procession (it was her feast day) which myself and a couple of other guys were able to participate in.  It was so cool to walk down the streets of Assisi, all the people singing, a band playing, interspersed by recitations from her life and the Gospels.  I would participate in similar processions for the feast of Saint Rufino and the feast of the Porziuncola, but to be in the middle of one that first night was pretty awesome!

From the roof of our villa overlooking Assisi!
I really don't know where to begin to talk about all the different things that I was able to do beyond the daily Italian classes, meals, afternoon walks around Assisi, and evenings spent hanging out with guys - chatting, enjoying some gelato or cheese/salami, playing "Resistance" - and knocking out duolingo sessions - gotta learn that Italian!  I don't want this post to be too long, so I guess I'll just really summarize and hope you get the gist of it...  (Sorry, I only have so much time to write these things, unfortunately).

The Duomo in Perugia!
After our first week of classes I went with several guys and Fr. Gaffney to Perugia.  The capital of the area that we were in (though not all that much bigger than Assisi).  It was a short train-ride from Assisi, so very easy to get there, and we spent a good several hours wandering through the city and checking out many churches and getting some pizza for lunch (my first Italian pizza - which was very good) and some chocolate to take home (Perugia is known for their chocolate).  Some of the churches that especially struck me were the duomo - dedicated to St. Lawrence, filled with different beautiful pieces of art done by semi-famous, though very talented, artists from the 1500s or so, and marked by a beautiful decorated ceiling and a beautiful main altar.  The other church - San Domenico - wasn't quite as beautiful, as a building (it was simpler on the outside and the ceiling wasn't decorated), but it was large (apparently the largest church in Umbria), had some fantastic stained glass behind the main altar (some of the largest such windows in Italy), and had many side chapels with just gorgeous pieces of artwork depicting different (mainly Dominican) saints.  It especially resonated with me because I am named after St. Dominic, so all the artwork depicting him is always really cool, and my sister is in a Dominican convent, so again, the artwork depicting different saints, really resonates.  We saw plenty of other places - the ancient tunnels beneath the city, other churches, the frescoed sacristy in the basilica, a market in one of the piazzas, etc.  But, to keep moving along, I'll just say that it was a wonderful first trip, and a great way to spend some time on the weekend with new friends.

On our way up!  Such an amazing view (even if it was raining)
On Sunday, after Mass, myself and one other guy hiked up to Mt. Subasio, just above Assisi.  Several of the other guys had done it the day before and said it was really cool, so off we went!  The first mile or so was absolutely brutal - just constant, relentless, uphill climbing.  The trail wasn't bad - except that there was a deep ditch in the middle of it, some places were covered in rocks, and it just kept getting steeper - but we were glad when we got to the top of that first uphill bit (like 35 minutes of torture) and made it to the hermatage/carceri.  This is a mini-monastery of sorts, made out of rock with tiny little cells and chapels squeezed in throughout, where St. Francis spent much time in prayer way back in the day (originally, there were many of these little spiritual "get-aways" scattered throughout the hills, though this one has continued to be frequented because of St. Francis's love for it).  It had some short trails behind it, each leading to a specific spot where different friars (some of the early followers of St. Francis) particularly liked to pray - all reminding me of the important fact that while grand basilicas can certainly lead us to prayer, they certainly can't replace prayer, and sometimes a bare little stone room or a spot out in the middle of the forest is a much better place to encounter God.  Anyway, we spent maybe an hour or two there, exploring, praying, talking about these sorts of things, and then we continued our assent up the mountain.  It was an easier trail from there on out - still a bit steep at times, but nothing like before - and we made it most of the way up (there's this lookout point marked with a cross there) after another 30-40 minutes of hiking.  We stopped at this cross, not only to soak in the view of the Umbrian valley and Assisi perched on its hill down below, but also to pray Mid-Afternoon Prayer and the Divine Mercy Chaplet (it was 3-something).  The clouds were cool to look at, sliding over the mountains behind us and then - now torn - floating off over the valley, but the cold rain that we ended up hiking in as we made our way up to the very top (can't stop when your that close right?) wasn't quite as pleasurable.  We did survive though, made it to the very top, saw some donkeys, saw a road that allowed people to drive like right to the top (and we thought it was this arduous, only-the-few-make-it-up kind of thing), and then headed back down, talking as we went about our past experiences in seminary and thereby getting a bit lost for a couple of minutes.  We made it back down to the carceri in time to catch most of a Holy Hour there, and then speed-walked the rest of the way down the mountain to make it back in time for cena at the hotel.  Another great day!

The procession - with candles - in front of Santa Maria degli Angeli!
The next weekend was the feast of Santa Maria degli Angeli (celebrating Mary's place in heaven with the angels), which is the feast chosen by Pope Honorius III on which the faithful would be granted a plenary indulgence if they visited the chapel (at the request of St. Francis).  The indulgence has since been extended to any Franciscan church, but they still celebrate it especially there at the Portziuncola.  The Basilica is magnificent - with many, many side chapels, all with beautiful artwork (sorry, I still don't have my computer, so please scroll though my Flikr feed if you want to see a couple of pictures of it).  The liturgical events that happened there on Friday (the vigil of the feast) and Saturday were amazing!  They had Solemn Vespers - led by the bishop of Assisi - on Friday evening (so grand!  They had trumpeters, many different groups carrying in banners, a choir of Franciscans who did the chanting - it was great!  Then, later that night, they had a short procession out from the Basilica (with candles and music), followed by a beautiful prayer service praising and thanking the Blessed Virgin for her intercession and being such a model of virtue.  It was a long, and sweaty, walk back up the hill to Assisi that night (a walk that I made probably 6 times while in Assisi, which, if you walked fast, could be done in 40 minutes, but it was all uphill on the way back).  The next day we walked back down really early to make it in time for a 6:30 Mass (which was great because there were far fewer people than there would be later).  We got to spend some serious time in prayer afterwards in the Porziuncula (which is the original chapel given to St. Francis where St. Clare first became a nun and St. Francis went on to his heavenly reward, now heavily decorated and located directly in the middle of this massive basilica), and then spent some time checking out this extension of Assisi down in the valley (not too much else to see...)  We made our way eventually back to the Basilica, checked out the museum located behind it, went to Confession (which is a huge part of this entire weekend - thousands of people must have gone to Confession, it was amazing!), and then walked back up that afternoon.  Then, being the guy who doesn't want to miss anything, I made the walk back down later that evening with other guys, got some cheap pizza, and then enjoyed another procession - again with much praying, singing, and plenty of candles (so cool!).  Yep, another long, but worthwhile day!

On a trail above Spoleto!
Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the Spoleto Duomo!
On Sunday, I went on a day-trip to Spoleto.  Again, a couple of other guys had been there the day before and said it was really cool, so off I went (with a couple of other guys).  We went to Mass at the duomo (dedicated to the Assumption, with a imposing fresco depicting Mary's life behind the main altar, and a jaw-droppingly gorgeous chapel for the Blessed Sacrament - tons of little frescoes in the coffered ceiling as well as large ones on the wall, all depicting important figures from the Old and New Testaments, all pointing towards Christ, there present in the Tabernacle - oh, and it had the second extant letter from St. Francis, so that was neat!  We saw many other things that day: an ancient Roman aqueduct that bridges the valley behind the city (again built on a hill, thankfully able to be reached by several connected escalators), many other churches (most more simple, many with beautiful artwork though, and several with the remains of saints and blesseds - all of whom I asked their intercession, there was another one dedicated to St. Dominic!), and we also got lunch at this local restaurant which was quite good!  It was another long day, again quite worth it, and full of wonderful things to see and plenty of time spent in prayer (which isn't exciting to relate in a blog post, but made up much of the time we spent in these towns - just taking a couple minutes speaking with God and His saints in all these little churches).

The Piazza in front of the Benedictine Monastery in Norcia
The next Saturday - August 9th - was the day we went to Norcia, a tiny, little medieval town located South East of Assisi and reached by a 30 minute train ride to Spoleto (if I remember correctly) and then about an hour bus ride.  We arrived to the town in mid-morning and after stopping at a beautiful little church - St. Philip Neri, which had a very nice high altar enshrining an icon of Our Lady - we went straight to the Benedictine monastery located there in Norcia, San. Benedetto.  It is built on the location of St. Benedict's and Scholastica's (his twin sister) birth and is now manned/lived-in by a group of American Benedictines who moved there several years ago so that the monastery wouldn't be empty.  We were privileged to spend a lot of time in their chapel (with the usual assortment of very beautiful and inspiring frescoes on the walls and ceiling) praying silently on our own as well as in common with them (they chant everything in the Extraordinary form, including both Mass and the Divine Office, which was truly stunning).  And we were also able, during lunch at a local restaraunt, to try some of the beer that the monks brew to earn a living (I haven't acquired a taste for beer yet, but it was very good anyway).  Of course, we spent the usual couple hours wandering the streets, just popping our head into churches, finding most of them to be quite beautiful, and then spending several minutes in prayer, as well as checking out some of the butcher/meat shops all over Norcia (it's famous for it's proscciuto and salsiccia).  It really was a tiny little town (you could cross it in 5 minutes) surrounded by fields and then mountains on all sides (I'd like to go back and do some hiking there eventually), but the good thing about it being so small was that we truly got to spend a good bit of time at the monastery in prayer.  It was not quite a mini-retreat, but it still was very nice to just be able to sit there and absorb the beauty and let your mind be pulled up towards God.  And!  To top all of that, we caught our bus back, and after a bit of waiting, also caught our train to Assisi! 

The procession passing Santa Maria sopra Minerva
The next day, Sunday, was the most relaxing day I had in Assisi.  I had no plans (other than morning Mass) until that evening and I took advantage of the day to just relax in the albergo [hotel], reading, studying a bit, praying...  It was very nice to have a day without a trip or class - even for me, who usually likes going somewhere or doing something all the time.  That evening was the vigil of the feast of St. Clare, so many of us went over to her basilica to celebrate with the usual procession (with the band playing and readings from her life/writings).  The next morning I woke up earlier than normal to squeeze myself down in the crypt (where her tomb is) to go to Mass.  It was tightly packed, but was certainly worth the loss of comfort and sleep to be able to be down there on her feast begging her intercession.  That evening was even more spectacular because the next day (Tuesday) was the feast of St. Rufino, who they also celebrated, this time with a concert of sacred music in his basilica and then fireworks, which we watched arch up over the rocca (a fortress built above the city) from our balcony!  It was a great show - gosh, I wish people celebrated feast days like this back home! 

The compo, during a practice race...
Alright, almost done!  The last weekend at Assisi (with only 2 days of classes awaiting us when we got back) was a long weekend (Friday-Sunday) because we got school off for the feast of the Assumption.  It's called the "fero de augusto" and it's a national feast here in Italy, so pretty much everybody gets off work and pretty much everybody goes on a short vacation someplace (usually moving north, where it's cooler).  Anyway, because it was a long weekend, a lot of guys decided to go to another city for the weekend, many of them going to Florence which is a couple hours from Assisi by train.  Myself and 2 other guys though, decided to try and go to Sienna.  Not only were most of our other classmates there (studying Italian), but it was also the weekend of the Palio, a famous horse race that takes place in that city after the feast of the Assumption.  One of the three of us already had booked a room in advance, and myself and the remaining guy quickly found that this would have been the smart way to do it.  The entire city of Sienna was completely booked, like 95% of the hotels were filled and the remaining ones were going for like 500 euros per night (NOT going to happen!)  Thankfully, after a bit of searching around, we got in contact with a second year man who was also studying in Siena and who knew that the monastery he was staying at had a couple of open beds.  We jumped on the offer and about 2 days before the Palio found ourselves with a room in Siena!  Early that Friday morning we caught the train from below Assisi (the bus would have been much more direct, but we weren't able to get tickets), and several hours later, after switching a couple of times and attending Mass at a simple church during one of our "layovers", we arrived at the train station in Siena and began our high-speed march up to the duomo.  We were planning on meeting some of the guys who were studying in Siena there, after we arrived and they finished serving for the big Mass celebrating the Assumption, but we didn't know it was a 30 minute hike from the train station…  Anyway, we worked our way up into the city, following signs when we could find them and weaving in and out of the mobs of people who were perusing/wandering the city.  We popped out of the streets onto the piazza of the duomo around 1 and found ourselves amazed at the grandeur of the basilica.  There were tons of people around - taking pictures, selling Palio memorabilia, and exiting the church after Mass - but apparently we looked like seminarians (whatever that looks like…) because the 2nd year man - who we had never met - quickly picked us out of the crowd and welcomed us to Siena.  He then walked us down from the duomo, across the main piazza del compo (where the Palio would take place the next day), and down to a restaurant, where we met up with about 10 of the Siena guys and had a wonderful lunch, enjoying some typical Tuscan dishes and catching up on what they had been up to over the past month.  

Siena is beautiful!  (especially after a delicious pizza!)
The procession before the Palio
After pranzo we got some gelato, a reminder of just how much better (and more) gelato you can get in a larger city than Assisi, and after a bit more hanging out, we walked to the monastery with the 2nd year guy, Josh, who was courteous enough to lead us over there - a hour walk down from Siena and then up onto a neighboring hill.  Though the walk would get a bit old over the next few days, the monastery itself was wonderful!  Our rooms actually had frescoes on the ceilings, the chapel was gorgeous, and the sisters who ran the place were very nice (they actually were housing a group of refugees there, which was inspiring considering they could have made a killing especially on the weekend of the Palio if they had opened it up to tourists). We walked back into the city that evening to see one of the practice runs of the Palio (more info on that in a bit) after which we went out for pizza with one of the guys there.  This meal was particularly memorable because I got a pizza and calzone, in one!  One third of this concoction - on the pizza end - had sausage and spicy salami (like an American pepperoni, but the word "pepperoni" here is actually a kind of pepper, so a pepperoni pizza isn't quite the same…), the middle section - getting thicker as the pizza morphed into a calzone - was a spiced procciutto, and the final third - fully calzone at this point - was filled with cheese and mushrooms.  Let's just say it was phenomenal!  We made the walk back to the monastery in the dark, watching the stars appear as we left the city, and made it back in time for the sisters to open the gate for us!

The race begins!
The next morning, Saturday, was the day of the Palio!  We woke up early, hiked into town, and went to Mass in the campo, celebrated by the bishop.  Then, after finding a cornetto for breakfast (I still haven't started drinking coffee, so I just had the pastry and a peach I had brought with me), a couple of the Siena guys began to take us on a whirlwind tour of the city.  I was so glad they were willing to show us around - we saw the cathedral of St. Dominic as well as the one dedicated to St. Francis, along with many other smaller churches, as well as the house of St. Catherine.  The Palio, I also found, is INCREDIBLY important to the city.  The city is divided into constrade (sections), which - like 800 years ago - decided to do a horse race instead of constantly fighting each other.  To this day, one's constrada is a huge part of the life of a Sianese.  After a baby is baptized into the church they are "baptized" into the constrada, and during the run up to the Palios (they have two races - one in July on the feast of Our Lady of Providence and the other in August for the feast of the Assumption) and between them, any good citizen is expected to have their constrada's flag hanging out their window (and often around one's neck), and they party - with music and food - pretty much every night in the several weeks surrounding the two races.  If you don't have a constrada's baptismal certificate (I said they are intense about it!), you may not be allowed to walk through the constrada, and it's not uncommon for fights to break out if groups from different constrada encounter each other…  The race itself though, is even more crazy.  On the Wednesday before the Palio (just 4 days prior), 10 of the 17 constrade that will be running in that particular Palio (they can only fit 10 horses on the track around the campo), have a horse randomly assigned to them.  Everybody knows which horses are good (have won in the past), and if your constrada ends up with a good horse not only do you party even harder that week, but you also spend a fortune to hire a good jockey (a good jockey will get hundreds of thousands of euro, and maybe a house or car thrown in for good measure).  If you don't get a good horse, you hire a cheap jockey and spend the rest of your constrada's money on bribing other jockeys to throw the race or just defect from whichever constrada hired them (literally, that is an expected part of the Palio).  These people are so intense!  After we got a panino for lunch (bread + cheese + salami = pretty tasty), we went to one of the constrade churches (each constrada has a particular church/chapel which is in their constrada and many are opened only for the Palio), where they had a whole ceremony of bringing the horse into the church - with a whole procession of the people of that constrada, led by a drummer, banner bearers (who had whole synchronized, intricate routines of twirling and tossing their huge banners), men in suits of armor, and a whole group of very serious members of the constrada.  The priest (of that constrada, of course) blessed the horse, touched it with a relic of that constrada's patron saint, and charged it (the horse!) to "run and bring back victory" (my poor translation of the phrase that he yelled in Italian).  And then, with drums and banners and swords, off the procession went to the duomo.  There, with the bishop watching the proceedings, each constrada marched in with their whole entourage and each pair of banner tossers (probably there's a technical term for those individuals?) performed their act for the bishop, and then the next constrada marched in.  After about an hour of watching each group make their way in, do their act, and then march back out/around, we decided to make our way over to the piazza and try to find a spot to watch the Palio from.  It was now around 4 or 5 and though the Palio didn't start until 7-something, we had been warned that if we wanted to get into the piazza, we'd need to get there before they started shutting it off around 5.  As it turned out, we got extremely lucky and were some of the last people that got in one of the entrances before they closed it off, so we were literally only a row or two of people away from the edge of the track.  On top of that, we were on the higher end of the piazza, so we had a great view (if you could crane your neck above the people in front of you) of the far side of the track and the one particular corner where crashes usually occurred (because it's such a tight corner).  As the minutes passed, it gradually got more and more crowded (some of the other entrances were still open), and maybe 90 minutes before the Palio itself was supposed to start, the constrade started to march in and then process around the track (beating drums, swinging flags, marching in unison…)  There were other important groups - some for constrade that were now "extinct", having been incorporated into a different constrada at some point, others were for certain groups or tradesmen of the city - all of which came in, fully decked out in period regalia, and marched around.  It was incredibly impressive, and near the end, the Palio itself - the banner of Our Lady that the winning constrada receives - was brought in on the top of a carriage/wagon pulled by 4 giant, massive, humungous, white oxen.  The crowd got pretty wild when that finally came in - not only was the race getting closer, but this was the prize that everybody wanted to win! 

Rounding the hairpin corner!
Finally, after much waiting, the riders and horses entered the circuit - to much applause and cheering - and slowly got themselves lined up for the race.  It took a few tries, and even a false start, before they were all correctly oriented and ready to go, and then, without much warning, the cannon went off, the rope (which held the horses in line) dropped, and the cavalli started their dash around the track.  It was absolutely crazy!  Horses and riders galloped along the top straight away and turned down towards the "corner of doom" [my term for it, not the local word], they didn't slow down much going into that corner (each jockey was hoping to make it through unscathed and come out in the lead), and after a bit of crashing into the wall, a couple jockeys were thrown off (they ride bareback - it really all revolves around the horses!) - thankfully they were unhurt - and then they roared up the next straight away and whipped past the place that I was standing.  It went by so fast!  Everybody was going absolutely nuts whipping their head around and trying to catch a glimpse of their horse.  They roared around the track a second time - this time with less carnage in the 2nd turn - and it had just barely started to spread out a bit when they careened around the track a third time and charged past my vantage point and finished.  It was magnificent, crazy, exciting, fast, intense - just an amazing experience!  Also, since the constrada that won was not at all expected to win (they didn't have one of the seasoned, expected-to-win horses) the party they threw was even more crazy than it might have been otherwise!  They charged towards the finish line, just crushing up against the horse, and within minutes had all the drums and banners going again - this time led by horse and the Palio that they had just won - and were marching up the city streets, rubbing in, in a good way, their magnificent victory over the other constrade.  Meanwhile, our little group made our way out of the piazza, I paid to use a bathroom (for the first time ever - but I hadn't used one since like 7 that morning, so it was pretty necessary), and then we found a small restaurant and got some cena (mainly different pasta dishes I think - all delicious!)  It was an amazing, crazy, super-fun day!  Actually, myself and Louis ended up staying down in the city pretty late that evening because we caught up with the 2nd year guys who were staying at the same monastery as we were (because they had a key, so we wouldn't have to keep the sisters up), and they wanted to stay out and chat with some of the friends they had made in their time in Siena.  It wasn't bad, just freezing cold (it had to be below 60, and it was windy, and I had shorts and a short-sleeve shirt on), and a bit later than I expected to stay up…  Anyway, we enjoyed it regardless and made it back to the monastery eventually.  And, the next morning, after going to Mass at a beautiful chapel near the duomo and then exploring and praying-in both the duomo and its stunningly gorgeous baptistery, we had a bite to eat with some of the guys there in Siena, got lost trying to find the train-station, and made it down just in time to catch our train back to Assisi. It was a fun, exciting, and culturally eye-opening weekend!  So glad I could see all of that!

The Duomo in Siena!

Assisi was pretty wonderful!
The last two days in Assisi were uneventful.  We had class as usual - but it wasn't bad because you were that close to the end - and I tried to swing back through most of the churches in the afternoons, spending time in prayer, buying some postcards to remember them by - pretty typical!  And then, before you knew it, it was our last day in Assisi and there I was getting lost on my way to the bus!

Actually, I am now back in Assisi after having spent a week of orientation back at the NAC.  We are having what is called a "fraternity weekend" - with all the guys from my class as well as most of the orientation team (both the 2nd year men and the faculty priests) - which basically is the same thing as an open weekend (which are chances we have about once a month during the school year to leave the NAC and go visit different places), but it is planned and paid for by the college and is a time to spend with all the men who will be progressing through seminary with you.  It has been wonderful so far to see all the churches again, this time acting as a guide of sorts for the men who hadn't been here, and - actually - Assisi is just now celebrating its own Palio (much smaller than Siena's) and so there are groups of banner-tossers, drumming squads, city-wide cena's - the whole 9 yards!  Gosh, yeah, it's really cool!

And with that, my apologies again for such a lengthy, and tardy, post!  Thanks for reading!  God Bless!


  1. Thank you for sharing your wonderful experiences here and on Facebook. It is greatly enjoyed and apprrciated.

    1. Thanks for reading! I love to do it (when I get a chance)!

  2. Hi Dominic! I go to Benedictine College. A girl in my dorm, Lizzie Shoots, has a brother Mike who goes to the PNAC. He's in Theology III I believe.
    Michaela Vahling

    1. I will certainly keep my eyes open for him. All the 3rd and 4th year men just got back this weekend so I haven't met (anywhere near) all of them yet, but I'll make sure to find him at some point. Thanks for the heads up!

      Benedictine is a great college! Good choice!

    2. Note to self: Schuetz, not Shoots. :) And yes, I'm very grateful God was so kind to me as to lead me here.