Thoughts from La Rocca

In Assisi, there is really nowhere to look but up. The buildings aren’t tall, but they loom as if reading over your shoulder, and when you feel their breath on your neck you must look.

When you do, you’ll see nothing but texture. In the architecture, yes – rough-hewn rock is mixed with more recent, geometrical stones and modern-day bricks in the walls. The streets, too, are mostly cobbled. Wood and metal doors to homes and yards are set in the walls like gates to secret gardens. And there are gardens in plenty. The greens are intoxicating. Pines and palm trees live side by side. People raise cactuses next to wild poppies. The flora hides dozens of different kinds of birds, from city street pigeons to happy darting finches, that chirrup and tweet in disregard of the many tourists.

In short, the place itself is a paradox. Sacred shares ground with secular. Modern infringes on ancient. The rustic lingers in the urban. There is an old wooden cart in an alley off the piazza and a red crane repairs a tower held up by Roman columns.

Yet much of the texture comes from the juxtaposition of the people. Assisi is a pilgrimage town, which makes it more of a melting pot than even our home in the States. I’ve heard Italian, Spanish, German, and Swedish. Once in a while I even catch a snatch of English.

Visitors of all ages and races gather in the piazza. A class on tour takes pictures by the fountain. A group of Swedish tweens plays some version of sharks and minnows. Families dine under umbrellas at an open-air restaurant. A man wearing a beret sits on a stone bench and scribbles in a notepad. There are parents, grandparents and children, schools, couples, seekers and pilgrims, all bundled together in one jostling, joyful square. Countless camera eyes are poised to remember what the photographers fear they will not.

So, I have described the people in any tourist town. What makes Assisi unique is that all of these gather in the shadow of churches and basilicas that played major roles in Christian history. The streets bear the names of saints. Shop windows showcase religious souvenirs. To this day, friars and nuns walk the narrow streets, heads covered, alongside bare-shouldered visitors, Vespas, cars and buses.

And it’s relaxed. American tourist towns are so rushed in comparison, urging guests to squeeze in as much activity as possible. Assisi seems to call us simply to be. Enjoy. Take a leisurely meal. Nothing remotely like fast food exists here – the thought must be as appalling as requesting to check books out of the library (which is not allowed; most of the libraries are not even public).

Even groups on tours aren’t frazzled. The only ones in a hurry are the little children, who can’t wait to see the next new thing. As for the rest, they have nowhere to rush to, nothing to cause them stress. Assisi is a sanctuary from such things. Thus, the wine bar bubbles with company throughout the day. A man sits by himself, drinking and watching the traffic. A kid gets water all over his face at the bubbler and simply laughs. Most of the shopkeepers are gracious and patient while we try to communicate with them and everyone seems eager to help, like the friar who brought us around the library and even to the rooms and secret passages below. It seems Assisi extends as far down as it does up.

And everywhere you go, there is always something to look up at. But with the direction of up comes a compulsion to climb, and thus I find myself at La Rocca, a mountaintop castle that kept its eye on the rival city of Perugia once upon a time. From here the city is only patterns – unfolded origami rooftops, quilted farmland laced with wild poppies. You could play tic tac toe with the property lines. Patches of green pepper the rooftops where people have planted gardens. The city spills down the hillside into a valley of a thousand greens.

There are no people or cars from up here, no storefronts or pizzerias or wine bars. It’s hard to call Assisi a city from the mountaintop. With a castle behind me and the quilt below, I’d sooner say I got caught in a time warp. Tradition still holds sway in the stone labyrinths below me; it’s in the very mortar. One might say it is the mortar. Something has held this city together for over a thousand years, and I’m guessing it’s more than rocks.

Still sorting through pictures from Rome, but I'll post them in the next couple of days provided I have time. Which I may not since I have to go back to Rome to replace my freaking passport. I dunno what happened to it. I didn't have it leaving for Rome on Friday, but I had it coming through customs at the airport. I remember the guy was all impatient because it took me a second to open up to the page with my photo and he just waved me through without even taking it. But beyond that things get a little fuzzy. I had been traveling for 12 hours at that point. Anything is possible. I could've gotten pick-pocketed by aliens and never known it.

Anyway, the fact now stands that I have to get the damn thing replaced before I can leave the country. I actually would not be opposed to spending a few extra days here, but you know... I might've rationed my Euros better if I'd known that would be the case, as opposed to indulging in so many of those yummy sprize things at the local bar...


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